Editor’s note: A barrage of dozens of Russian missiles targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure plunged the country into darkness and cold over the weekend. It was just the latest such attack in what Ukrainians fear is a stepped up Russian offensive that is grinding into action. As of today, (Monday) millions of Ukrainian civilians were still without electricity. In the capital of Kyiv nearly two-thirds of residents had no heat and no water as part of Russia’s campaign to weaponize the winter and freeze the population into submission.
But if that is Vladamir Putin’s intent, it’s important to note that there is no sign of that happening any time soon. Not from what I saw on the ground there on a trip earlier this month to support our Report for the World host newsroom and reporting corps member. The breaking news of the most recent missile strikes comes just after I returned from Ukraine where I saw first hand the resiliency and the courage of Ukrainians under fire, and particularly the grit of Ukraine’s leading newsroom, Ukrainska Pravda. The reporters and editors there are true heroes and here is a glimpse of one day in the life of the newsroom from Monday, December 5th.
KYIV, Ukraine – From the bitter cold, inside an office building, up five flights of stairs and down a dimly-lit warren of locked doors is the newsroom of Ukrainska Pravda, or UP, as it is known.
On a recent Monday, a team of UP journalists huddled around a conference table bathed in bleak midday light from plate glass windows. Many of them have already lost loved ones and colleagues as the war trudges on. All of them suffer the anxiety, uncertainty and collective trauma that comes with a conflict of this scale and are doing their best to endure the harsh winter amid energy blackouts caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attacks on the energy infrastructure, leaving swaths of Ukraine in the dark and cold. Russia has literally weaponized the winter.
Despite these difficult conditions, UP staff are gathered for the daily news meeting to plan the coverage of another day in their country as it endures the biggest and most fateful war of this century. There are about 20 members of the team present, most of them linked in via Zoom. Together, they make up a highly regarded, fiercely independent and award-winning news organization with a total staff of 50, including the business side, that has been at the center of the national effort to forge a democracy here since they launched 22 years ago.
Perhaps their greatest contribution has been investigations into the corruption of oligarchs and elements of the Russian-backed leaders who have sided with Putin in his attempt to occupy Crimea, which began with the invasion and occupation in 2014 and then later with the control it has sought over the contested Donetsk region, where fierce fighting is unfolding amid trench lines that look to be from another century. Two UP journalists, including their founding publisher, have been killed for their work uncovering corruption even before this most recent chapter of the long struggle to establish a Ukrainian democracy against the forces of Russian aggression and authoritarianism.
Just after 1:30 p.m., the news meeting is interrupted by a chorus of urgent alarms on the cell phones of editors and reporters. The alarms are followed by a flurry of text messages warning of a barrage of missiles launched by Russia that have crossed into Ukrainian airspace, heading straight for Kyiv. They are tracking at approximately 30 minutes away, as the Ministry of Defense warns them in a Tweet.
The phone alerts are silenced and the members of the news team stare with great intensity at their phones, reading the text warnings and firing messages to colleagues, family members and military sources, while following the latest government bulletins. They are checking on loved ones and colleagues at the same moment they are trying to cover the daily story. This is what the modern equivalent of air-raid sirens feels like. And each member of the team knows precisely what to do at this moment. They pack up their laptops and head for an interior room without any windows and supported by thick concrete walls where they will continue the meeting. They pray the power stays on so they can keep the newsroom functioning since their aging generator is not always enough to pull them through the night shift.
“Just another day at the office,” quips Ivan Zhezhera, the editor of the English language edition of UP.
The comment elicits a few knowing smiles across a team that has shown its resilience during ten months of war by not allowing Russia to put a dent in its sense of humor and its love for irony. And then UP’s fearless Editor-in-Chief Sevgil Musaieva takes a moment to shift to a more somber tone, as she sighs intensely: “We live in a new reality, the reality of full-scale war. We are faced with the incredible challenges of keeping our people safe, keeping them alive. And now the new challenge of the blackouts caused by the attack on the energy infrastructure which these missile attacks right now are all about … So we know what we are up against. We know what to do.”
“We stay focused on our work,” she adds. “That is our service in this war.”
More text messages keep coming in as they settle into the interior room. Soon it is clear that in all 60 missiles were launched by Russia. The news today is that a newly knitted together air defense system appears to be working. Fifty of the sixty missiles are shot down. Kyiv has once again defended itself against Russian aggression. The port city of Odessa was not so lucky on this day and other missiles struck in unknown locations.
As the all clear sounded, Musaieva makes the rounds in the newsroom, reviewing footage just in from one of her reporters who had just returned from the frontlines, video of a subway station where thousands of people took shelter during the air-raid warnings. She meets with the environment reporter, Dmitry Simonov, who GroundTruth is supporting through Report for the World. They discuss the focus of his work assessing the impact the war is having on the environment, a ravaging of rivers and land which he calls “ecocide.” The goal of his reporting is to investigate the intentional attacks on the environment as a form of war crime.
It was truly an honor to be here in Kyiv with Musaieva and her team and to see their courage under fire and their commitment to telling the truth and fighting for their democracy. The practical side of my mission here was to come with the equipment Simonov will need in the field, including a kevlar vest, a military-grade helmet, a first aid kit, and also water and air quality testing kits and a Geiger counter to monitor the possible release of nuclear radiation in the event of damage to one of the nuclear plants or the possibility of Putin’s threat to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon. All of this equipment was donated in kind and it is critical, but perhaps the most impactful gift we were able to bring to the newsroom was a military-grade generator with solar panels which will allow the newsroom to keep functioning through the blackouts.
Through it all, Musaieva insists they will endure, they will survive the winter and they will prevail because the future of their country depends on it. “To be strong during this winter is how we win this war.”
Musaieva was recognized for her courage on the frontlines by the Committee to Protect Journalists and this fall was awarded the International Press Freedom Award. As she often says, “Even in my darkest moments, I never would have imagined the barbarity of this war. It is something you cannot be prepared for.”
But at the end of the day, she said, This is a war between truth and lies. And thanks to journalists the world knows the real truth of Bucha … and the war crimes that have been committed … We will keep fighting in that struggle for the truth to be uncovered and the truth to be published. The truth will win.”