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CBS News correspondent Holly Williams on "The Takeout"

Correspondent Holly Williams on "The Takeout"
CBS News foreign correspondent Holly Williams on "The Takeout" — 1/28/2022 44:58

As Russian forces threaten the Ukrainian border, life in the capital city of Kyiv is remarkably normal, says CBS News senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams, who has covered Ukraine for years and spent last week reporting from the former Soviet nation.  

"What's always interesting to me is explaining the kind of places that I go, which include not just Ukraine, but Syria, and Iraq, and Yemen, is how normal life is, even when there's an active war going on," Williams told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett in this week's episode of "The Takeout" podcast. "It feels very normal, but when you talk to people, they're definitely worried. They're definitely concerned that there's going to be an invasion. People have different threat perceptions. Some people think it's more likely than others, but you don't feel it walking down the street."

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Williams said Ukrainians are accustomed to living with the threat of Russian hostilities after the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine.

"People here have been living with Russian aggression for so long, and there's that sense that, you know, we've dealt with, and we know how this works," Williams said. She added that many Soviet-era bomb shelters she has toured with locals have been updated in recent years. In the course of her reporting, Williams has also met civilians willing to take up arms to defend their homeland.

Russia has already engaged in cyberattacks in Ukraine, damaging parts of the country's power grid. Military drills along Ukraine's borders have continued, and recently Russian fighter jets were relocated just across Ukraine's border in Belarus.

Williams said that Ukraine's history as a part of the Soviet Union plays a role in Russia's recent aggressions, as does Moscow's antipathy toward a country on its border that aligns itself with NATO.

"Russia says that despite the fact that it's moved hundred thousand troops to the border, that it's the real victim, that it's threatened by U.S. and NATO's aggression and that it needs security guarantees," Williams said, adding that pro-Russian propaganda in the region shares the same messaging. "What is Russia's bottom line here? I think a lot of people think what's really going on here is that Vladimir Putin, the people who work with him, think that Ukraine should come back into Russia's orbit. They don't want a Ukraine that's kind of partnered with the West."

Williams said that Putin's interest in Ukraine could be tied to his desire to revive aspects of the Soviet Union, his disagreements with NATO, and the strategic benefits to having Ukraine under Russian influence with the numerous natural gas pipelines that run through Ukraine.

The sense of nostalgia in attempting to recreate Russian global dominance stems directly from Putin's upbringing, Williams said.

"This is the guy who grew up in the Soviet Union. This is a guy who was a KGB agent, and he seems to want to recreate that, recreate some kind of Soviet empire or Russian empire," she added.

Williams and Garrett also discussed what the U.S. is doing to support Kyiv, which includes additional military supplies but not ground troops.

"The U.S. is giving Ukraine extraordinary amount of military support. The U.S. is saying we'll hit Russia with sanctions, more sanctions if you invade. But the U.S. has also ruled out for now, at least sending combat troops to Ukraine," Williams said, adding that this looming threat from Russia is why Ukraine wants to join NATO and its mutual defense pact.

"[Ukraine] wants that threat to be directed at Russia. If you touch us, all of these other countries are going to hit you," Williams said, adding a range of outcomes are possible  - from full-scale invasion to cyberattacks to Putin keeping troops at the border indefinitely.

"Putin could just keep those troops on the border, right?," Williams said. "Maybe add some more troops, maybe add some more hardware, and kind of keep on ratcheting up the pressure in this seemingly Cold-War style kind of game of brinkmanship,"

Executive producer: Arden Farhi

Producers: Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson

CBSN Production: Eric Soussanin 
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