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CBS News' Holly Williams on reporting from Ukraine's front line - "Intelligence Matters"

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with award-winning CBS News senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams about her on-the-ground reporting in Ukraine since the days of the 2014 Maidan revolution. Williams and Morell discuss the scenes at the front lines of the conflict today, including the brutality of Russia's tactics, the morale of Ukraine's forces, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy's unlikely rise to the presidency. Williams also offers insights into the kinds of preparations that are made for conflict zone reporting and reflects on the sacrifices journalists have made while covering Russia's war. 

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Brutality of Russian forces' tactics:  "I think it's shocking that a military that a lot of us assumed – however you feel about the morality of the invasion – I think many of us assumed that the Russian military would behave in the manner of a professional military. And when you look at some of the things that occurred around Kyiv, the execution-style killings, obviously we have widespread accusations of sexual violence, of rape, I think that's very shocking."

Putin's aims in Ukraine: "[E]verything that Vladimir Putin seems to have done in Ukraine has, as far as we can tell, had the opposite effect to what he really wanted, which is, if what he really wants is to bring Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit or even to kind of make it once again part of a sort of Russian empire, everything he's done since 2014 has had a completely opposite effect.  Because what we've seen since 2014 is, seemingly, is Ukrainians become more certain that they don't want that, more certain that they are Ukrainian, more certain that their future lies in Europe and allied to the West. So I think the first point is that, I mean, if that's genuinely what he wants, he's not going about it the right way."  

Spending time with President Zelenskyy: "I went to wash my hands in the tiny little bathroom with the president of Ukraine and then was shown into the kitchen where I met his parents, who were very sort of jolly people. And we sat down and had breakfast with President Zelensky and his mom and dad and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. And truly, one of the most exceptional experiences I've ever had as a journalist."

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MICHAEL MORELL: Holly, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It's great to talk with you. It's great to have you on the show.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I'm honored and flattered to be to be asked.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Holly, we want to spend most of our time on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but we always start an episode of Intelligence Matters by having our guests talk a bit about their backgrounds and their careers.

We hear from many students and young professionals among our listeners that they like to hear about our guests' careers and how they got to where they are today as it helps them think about their possible career paths.

So, with that in mind, it really seems to me that you brought two things together here, right? You brought together an interest in foreign affairs and an interest in journalism. And I'd just love to know which came first and how you ended up as a journalist.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Well, I grew up in Australia - initially in Tasmania, which is the island down the bottom. And then I spent my high school years on the mainland, as we call it, in Victoria. And it felt like a very - in many ways was an idyllic upbringing. But Australia felt very isolated from the rest of the world. And yet I was really interested in what was going on in the rest of the world. I was really interested in the news.

I didn't really have very many opportunities to travel growing up. In fact, I really just had sort of one opportunity for overseas travel and that was that I went on exchange to China in 1992 when I was 15 years old. I'd been learning Chinese at high school. I was very lucky to have this forward-looking high school principal who had decided to bring in a Mandarin Chinese program.

And China was a very different place in 1992 - in many ways, still kind of closed off from the outside world. It was just three years after the Tiananmen Tiananmen massacre, which I'd watched at home with curiosity and then horror. And I was just captivated by China from the moment that we landed on the plane. I think I can still remember the smell - great smell, the different smell of China -when we landed.

And so I didn't know what it was going to look like, but I knew sort of at that point that I wanted to pursue some kind of a future that centred on China and East Asia.

MICHAEL MORELL: What do you think captivated you about China?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: It was so different at that point. You know, I was 15 years old. I'd grown up in country Australia. And then I was in I was in Beijing - this massive city at that point - I mean, just so different at that point, it was sort of still this kind of sleeping giant awakening.

I remember there wasn't very much traffic on the roads. I mean, there were a lot of bikes at that point. You know, I remember those kinds of classic scenes of bikes just pouring down these kind of six-lane highways. There were still a lot of horses and donkeys on the road.

And I was living partly in a boarding school, and it was a very elite school in Beijing for sort of academically gifted children. So I didn't fit in at all. And then I would spend the weekends with this Chinese host family that was wonderful. And their story was fascinating.

They were a very privileged family in many ways. But until just before I'd arrived, they'd all been living with two children, a mother and a father - they'd been living in one room. And they had just moved into their first real apartment that had two bedrooms and a living room and a real kitchen and a bathroom. That was a huge step up for them.

And I remember riding my bike with my Chinese 'gege,' my older brother, who had already started work, and riding down the 3rd Ring Road, which I think at that point was still being worked upon.

If anyone knows Beijing, it's now very center of the city - still being built. And I remember they'd built the first tower of the World Trade Center, which is now, you know, very much in the heart of downtown Beijing.

And I was 15. I didn't know what was going on, but I thought, 'This is fascinating. Something is happening here. There's a transformation happening here.' And just wanting to witness it - not at all at that point thinking that I might be a journalist, just thinking, 'I kind of want to be a part of this.'

MICHAEL MORELL: So how did you get to the journalism piece, then?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: So I think at some point, maybe in my late high school years or at university, I thought journalism would be really interesting. But I certainly didn't know anybody who was a journalist. I didn't have any of those kinds of connections. But then I studied in China as part of my degree for a year, and then I was able, after finishing university - I was very lucky - I was able to secure an internship and then I got offered a very junior position for, it was just for a year, at CNN.

But then I got offered a job as China producer for the BBC. I was completely unqualified for that position, but I was there and I spoke Chinese and so I became the BBC's China producer, I think when I was 23, maybe 24 years old.

As a result of that, I was able to travel to Afghanistan after September 11th, which was a fascinating experience. And then I started doing on-air work when I went to Sky News, which is also a British news channel, and then also - actually kind of by accident - ended up working for CBS News.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you were in China for 12 years. And I'm wondering how you saw the country change and I'm wondering, when you hear people today talk about China as the big strategic threat that the West faces, how you think about that, given your 12 years there?

HOLLY WILLIAMS; So in terms of the change, I was there sort of on and off between 1997 and 2012. And then I was there sort of fairly briefly in 1992, 1993, as an exchange student.

And it's difficult to put into words the kind of transformation that I saw in China, going from this kind of sleeping dragon to a dragon that is very much awake and and hungry. And just thinking about that, what that means in people's lives. People who could only dream of, you know, buying a motorbike that, you know, they now drive cars, they own apartments.

Before the pandemic, they went on overseas holidays - this is not everybody. The people who you see going on holidays, Chinese people on holidays that you see in the West, are very much part of a small elite in China.
But even ordinary people's lives have changed. People who were tied to the countryside, kind of hand-to-mouth farmers. They've been part of this mass movement of people to factories - which, for them, this is a really sort of aspirational job. They're getting off the farm, they're earning an income. They're able to change their lives with that money that they earn.

So it's hard to put into words how much it's changed. The streetscapes have changed, the way that cities like Beijing and Shanghai look - when I first went to China in 1992, they looked poor. I mean, they, you know, they looked backward - they don't anymore. They are the opposite of that. They look like the future in many ways.
And I feel I was really privileged to be there in the late 1980s and early noughties, because also there was a kind of a youthquake happening in those years. Young people were seizing not just on new economic freedoms, but new social freedoms. They were going out. They were interested in music. They were getting together in ways that they hadn't been able to in previous years. And it felt like there was a lot less government interference in their lives.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then how about the the the strategic competitor piece of where we are today?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I think that part of it is inevitable. When you have a country like China, population, you know - we don't really know, do we? But, you know, around one and a half billion people. And it's wide awake. And it's people want they want what we have. I mean, that is the essence of it. Chinese people want the same kind of lifestyle we have, which I think is completely understandable.

But the resources to do that, the resources to build a car for every Chinese family that wants them - you know, I used to report on illegal logging in places like Africa and Southeast Asia that was being sent to China. Why was it being sent to China? Because Chinese people want the nice wooden floorboards that we have. They just want what we have.

But the resources to give Chinese people what people in wealthy countries have are inevitably going to cause disruption. So I think the idea that China is disruptive, China's emergence is disruptive, is just inevitable in many ways.

I think there's a separate issue, which is, I guess the kind of Chinese triumphalism which we've seen in recent years - is the sense coming from the government and many Chinese people themselves, this sort of rising nationalism.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HOLLY WILLLIAMS: That China - that a kind of renaissance has happened in China, a kind of rebirth. It's gone from being a sleeping giant to being, you know, an emerging superpower or just a superpower, full stop.
I think that's something separate and it's something that the Chinese - that kind of nationalism is something that the Chinese government encouraged, certainly after 1989, certainly after the Chinese government could no longer really claim to be a socialist regime. Nationalism was something that they used to to sort of maintain a sort of sense of consensus within the Chinese nation.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I want to get to Ukraine, but just one more question. So you go to Afghanistan after 9/11 and you end up reporting in war zones in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. Let me ask you one question about that.

You covered the battle for Raqqa when the fighting was at its peak in 2017. And you've called that experience, 'scarring.' And I'm just wondering if you can walk us through why.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was scarring. We were actually in Raqqa. We'd been there before. We'd actually walked into Raqqa during the fighting for Raqqa, when the SDF - the Syrian forces that were being backed by the U.S. to go and fight ISIS - when they had started chipping away at ISIS' control of Raqqa, which was the so-called ISIS capital in Syria.

We'd actually walked into Raqqa with the SDF when they had started sort of clawing back territory from ISIS. But then we were there for the last two or three weeks of the battle, and we were there on the day when the SDF claimed victory.

And just to give you a sense of what it was like: the entire city was just smashed to pieces. I don't think that there was a single building that I saw that wasn't battle scarred. The roads were just strewn with rubbish. When we went into - the thing that really struck me is that we would go, in the days before it fell, we would go into SDF fighting positions and they would be inside people's homes. I mean, this was urban warfare. This was street-to-street fighting. And we would go into it.

I remember one time we went into this SDF fighting position, and it was clearly a kind of upper middle class family's dining room. The dining table - there was a beautiful dining table, and dining chairs and glass cabinets were still there - with these fighters positioned on their balcony looking for ISIS operatives that were still in the city.

So it was the sense that this kind of normal city, this functioning city, had been completely smashed to pieces, firstly by ISIS occupation and then by this war to reclaim it.

The other thing that was really scarring is that we, on various occasions, saw the remains of ISIS fighters that had blown themselves up. And the SDF fighters - there were a lot of them. This is very upsetting. I don't know if you want to put this in the podcast or not, but there were a lot of stray cats in the city, and the SDF fighters were leaving the bodies of ISIS fighters on the street as a kind of sign of disrespect. They didn't want to bury them, and they said to us, 'Stay away from the cats, because the cats are eating the dead bodies.'
So I felt when I went to Raqqa, that I looked into a very dark place that kind of shook my faith in my fellow humans. And I think when you've seen that kind of thing, you can't unsee it.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Holly, let's talk about Ukraine. You've been going to and reporting on Ukraine since Russia's invasion in 2014. A lot of people don't know that there was actually an invasion in 2014, right. Russia took Crimea - first land-grab in Europe since World War II. They started an insurgency in the east. They've been providing support to separatist rebels. They're fighting the Ukrainian government. So in a sense, right, the war between Russia and Ukraine started eight years ago and you've been covering it.

So a couple of questions about that period. Take us to the front lines of the insurgency in the east. What was that war like?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: So I actually started covering Ukraine during the Maidan protests, which were in the capital. I went there when those protests had just started. It was the middle of winter. It was freezing cold. We were kind of dashing in and out of buildings to cover it. And miraculously, the hardy Ukrainians were out there for hours at a time in the freezing weather.

And I think that that was a very shocking story for me to cover. I hadn't been to Ukraine before. The protests were against a government that was a Ukrainian government, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, that was regarded as pro-Moscow, pro-Russian. And people went to the Maidan, the square, the kind of symbolic heart of Kyiv, to protest against him.

And the people there were saying, you know, 'We don't want to be within Moscow's orbit. We don't want to be part of that world. We want to be - first of all, we want to be independent in a real sense. But also, we want our orientation to be towards the west, towards Europe.'

And Yanukovych was - I mean, those protests ended up being met with violence. There were dead bodies, sniper fire. There were dead bodies on the Maidan, which is a pretty shocking thing to see in a European capital. And then ultimately, Yanukovych was toppled.

And I remember the day - it might have been the actual morning after he fled the country, we ended up at his house, his mansion in the suburbs of Kyiv, where we had this kind of - I remember driving around in a golf cart and seeing what seemed to be a kind of private zoo or at least a private menagerie featuring quite a lot of ostriches. That was certainly a bizarre story.

And then, as you say, after that, Russia annexed, invaded Crimea. That's why the U.S. always uses this language that before this invasion that it was warning Russia not to re-invade Ukraine because it wanted to make the point that Russia had already invaded Ukraine.

MICHAEL MORELL: Right, right.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: And then after that, I spent a lot of time in eastern Ukraine in 2014 when there was this sort of separatist uprising, I guess, in eastern Ukraine - armed separatists going around and seizing control of government buildings in the far east of Ukraine. And these people were Russian-speaking, sometimes identified as ethnically Russian. They were very unhappy that Yanukovich had been toppled. And many of them said that they were in some way oppressed or they felt sort of like second-class citizens in Ukraine as Russian speakers.
And that ended up becoming a war, which was then fought for several years. And it's still being fought with these sort of breakaway parts of Ukraine in the country's far east. And I've spent a lot of time on that front line, which is sort of trench warfare. It looks like something out of World War I.

MICHAEL MORELL: I'm also wondering to what extent during that entire time - and perhaps leading up to the most recent invasion - the extent to which you interacted with reporters from Russia.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I think not at all.

MICHAEL MORELL: Not at all? Interesting.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: A lot of interactions with Ukrainian journalists. But I don't think - I can't think of any with Russian journalists. I'm sure there were Russian journalists there covering what was happening in eastern Ukraine in 2014. But I don't remember interacting with them at all.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then how did covering Ukraine change during that period from 2014 to to 2022?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Well, I think interestingly, you know, the country was fighting a war, a war that Ukraine says has claimed, I think, between 13,000 or 14,000 lives at this point. So, we would spend time out east in these trenches that look like something out of out of World War I. There were people all over Ukraine who would say that they had family members who were fighting out there. People were were upset about it, anxious about it.
But on the other hand, most of Ukraine was was peaceful. And interestingly, that whole experience in 2014, the Maidan protests, Russia annexing Crimea, Russia backing separatists in the Far East, this war that was going on, I think, had the effect of actually crystallizing for many Ukrainians what they wanted for their country, which was for many of them definitively not being a part of Moscow's orbit, becoming members of the EU, for many people, joining NATO - wanting that security of of joining NATO.

And in many ways Ukraine felt like a very go-ahead place. There were really interesting things happening in Ukraine. Young people were opening interesting businesses. They were doing interesting things to kind of tackle Russian disinformation. It felt like a country with a very clear vision for what it wanted to be.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Holly, then the most recent Russian invasion happens. Where were you at that moment and what was it like?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Actually in the days just prior to the invasion I'd been out east on the front line with the Russian-backed separatists because there had been a kind of escalation in violence there that the Ukrainians - and I think the U.S. - were also saying this was a sort of deliberate attempt by Russia to provoke the Ukrainians, perhaps as an excuse for an invasion.

So we'd been up there, we'd been filming with people who had had a role, even though they lived in close proximity to the front line, had had a fairly peaceful time in recent years, there hadn't been shelling in their villages, and suddenly there was shelling. And they were terrified that their houses had been damaged. So we'd been out covering that.

And I think the the night before the invasion, when we were hearing through our sources that an invasion was increasingly likely, perhaps inevitable, we decided to pull back from that front line for security reasons to the city of Kharkiv, which is also in eastern Ukraine and very close to the Russian border. But it felt like a safer place to be.

So we pulled back to Kharkiv. We spent the day there. And then we were there at 5 a.m. the next morning when the Russian bombing started, reporting from a rooftop in Kharkiv.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you've reported from sites of some of the most brutal fighting. I'm just wondering if you could give us a sense of the degree of brutality we're talking about here.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Well, when you look at some of the things that occurred in the areas around Kyiv, I think they're very shocking. I think it's shocking that a military that a lot of us assumed - however you feel about the morality of the invasion - I think many of us assumed that the Russian military would behave in the manner of a professional military. And when you look at some of the things that occurred around Kyiv, the execution-style killings, obviously we have widespread accusations of sexual violence, of rape, I think that's very shocking.
I think it's less shocking when you see a terrorist group do it. But when you say, as I say, a military that I think we expected to behave in a fairly professional manner, when you see them doing that and and doing that a lot, I think is surprising.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you have a sense of whether that brutality comes from the character of Russian soldiers or from orders from Moscow?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I think we don't know the answer to that. Or at least I don't know. I think that acts of brutality, illegal acts of brutality by soldiers, sexual violence, I think it's a part of nearly every conflict. But if you're a professional military, I suppose what you hope to do is hold perpetrators to account, to send the message that their behavior is unacceptable. What I would say is I haven't seen any indication on the Russian side that that that that message has been sent.

MICHAEL MORELL: Holly, have you had the opportunity to interview any captured Russian soldiers?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: No. And I avoided doing so because I felt that, in the context of this conflict, I had some questions about whether it was right for the Ukrainians to be putting Russian captured Russian soldiers forward to the media. I think it's different when you're dealing with a terrorist group. But these were members of a military of a neighboring nation who'd been captured. So there were opportunities for us to interview them that I didn't make use of.

MICHAEL MORELL: You've you've seen some of Ukraine's fighters up close. How would you describe their mindset, having spent so much time in the country and so much time in the east? Were you surprised at all at how hard they fought there?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I would say they're just highly motivated. I don't think I've ever seen such a motivated group of people. I mean, having spent that time in the trenches out east before the invasion, a lot of people were saying to us, both in the trenches, both within the military and civilians, were saying, 'I'm going to fight. We will fight - we will have a sniper out every window in our city. We are not letting the Russians take our country.'

But you can't know how serious people are about that until the invasion actually happens. I think it's pretty extraordinary, the extent to which Ukrainians have come together to defend their country.

One of the most amazing things for me was that in the hours and days after the invasion, we were driving - we then decided to drive from Kharkiv back to the capital, Kyiv, where we had another team. We wanted to get together with them and make some decisions about how we were going to cover the invasion that was happening.

And immediately in the hours after the invasion, these checkpoints just sprung up, manned mostly by volunteers across the country. I mean, just local men, for the most part, with their own guns, just sort of pooled together, seemingly out of out of thin air. I thought that was that was absolutely extraordinary.
And then since then, we've spent time with with volunteers. So men and women from all walks of life who've just kind of dropped everything to fight the Russians.

MICHAEL MORELL: So do you believe that the Ukrainians can ultimately win this?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I think it depends what you mean by 'win.'

MICHAEL MORELL: I guess either militarily force the Russians out of Ukraine or inflict so much pain on them that Putin makes a decision to withdraw. I guess that's what I mean by 'win.'

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Yeah. So I think there are so many different scenarios that could play out here. Vladimir Putin seems bent on continuing this assault on Russia's neighbor, despite the fact that I think Russia has been embarrassed militarily, that its military looks kind of incompetent, despite the fact that Russia is facing kind of an economic catastrophe. He seems determined to push on with it.

What are his goals? What would satisfy him? It seems highly unlikely that - impossible - that Russia at this point could seize control of Ukraine in its entirety. There's a lot of speculation that what he wants is to sort of consolidate his hold on parts of eastern Ukraine and join that up with Crimea in the south.

If he can do that, if he can sort of move what was already a front line with the Ukrainians forward a bit and join those two areas up, would that be enough for Vladimir Putin? You know, would he stop pushing for more territory then? In which case then there is no diplomatic solution. That's just the new reality.

MICHAEL MORELL: But then he still loses Ukraine to the west. So his fundamental objective is still not achieved, which is why some people think he will fight on.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: So I think there is sort of two interesting points to make there. One is that everything that Vladimir Putin seems to have done in Ukraine has, as far as we can tell, had the opposite effect to what he really wanted, which is, if what he really wants is to bring Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit or even to kind of make it once again part of a sort of Russian empire, everything he's done since 2014 has had a completely opposite effect.

Because what we've seen since 2014 is, seemingly, is Ukrainians become more certain that they don't want that, more certain that they are Ukrainian, more certain that their future lies in Europe and allied to the West. So I think the first point is that, I mean, if that's genuinely what he wants, he's not going about it the right way.
I think the second point is, the possibility at least that Ukraine becomes Vladimir Putin's Afghanistan, that this invasion and its and its economic impacts - mainly by sanctions - ultimately, and this could be looking into the, you know, into the sort of long term future become something that ultimately is very damaging to Vladimir Putin and perhaps perhaps even brings about his downfall.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. He wants to - you know as well as anyone - that he wants to go down in history as one of the great Russian leaders, one of the leaders that made Russia great again. And it's actually going to be just the opposite. He's going to go down in history as a leader that significantly weakened the country.
Holly, I want to ask you about President Zelensky. Before the most recent invasion, you spent some time with him. Indeed, you took a trip with him to the front lines in the east. And I wonder at that time, what was your sense of him as a leader and then, fast forwarding to where we are today, were you surprised that he has turned out to be the Churchill like figure that he's become?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: So I think even before we spent time with Volodymyr Zelensky - and we spent time with him last summer, I think it was June of last year. I mean, you don't meet him without thinking, 'This is going to be an interesting character.'

The man was a comedian. I mean, that's his background. You know, he starred - as I think we all know now - he starred in a TV series about a kind of everyman who became the unlikely president of Ukraine. And then off the back of that, he in real life became the unlikely president of Ukraine.

MICHAEL MORELL: You can't make this up.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: You can't make that stuff up. So we knew we were going to meet a sort of interesting character.

And the plan was for us to fly to Eastern Ukraine, and then from - I think we flew into Dnipro in eastern Ukraine and then from there took a chopper close to the frontline, which we did with the Ukrainian military.
And then we, first of all, we spent a day with him on the frontline in the trenches and did an interview with him. And the main topic of conversation was that he very much wanted to join NATO, which you can imagine at that point might have been the top of his his agenda.

And it was interesting that he clearly spent a lot of time on the frontline, and he really enjoyed interacting with the troops. And he felt that it was important for him to see what was going on, that it was kind of a boost for their morale.

But the most interesting thing about that trip was something completely unexpected, which is that, before we even went to the frontline, we went to the city of Kryvyi Rih, which is Volodymyr Zelensky's hometown. It's a kind of very Soviet-looking industrial town in southern or southeastern Ukraine.
I've spent a lot of time there recently, actually, since the invasion, because it's in close proximity to the frontline, sort of south, close to the city of Kherson.

So we drove there. I'd never been to Kryvyi Rih before and we were told that the President had gone to have breakfast with his parents, with his mum and dad. So we were kind of waiting with the rest of the cars and the officials and the security downstairs. And suddenly this official came down and kind of scooped up me and my cameraman and said, you know, 'The president wants you to come for breakfast.' This is not the sort of thing that -
MICHAEL MORELL: Doesn't happen.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Just happens around the world. That's not normal.
So we go into this sort of old, crumbling, Soviet -style apartment block, the kind of Soviet cell block you see everywhere, from Kabul to Pyongyang to Beijing to to Ukraine. We go up in this kind of creaky old elevator and we get out and it's him and it's his mom and dad.

And I went to wash my hands in the tiny little bathroom with the president of Ukraine and then was shown into the kitchen where I met his parents, who were very sort of jolly people. And we sat down and had breakfast with President Zelensky and his mom and dad and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. And truly, one of the most exceptional experiences I've ever had as a journalist.

MICHAEL MORELL: What did you have to eat?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: They were drinking - it was great food, including homemade cookies, chocolates. And then it was about 10:00 in the morning, maybe even earlier, they broke out the Georgian brandy, I think, in my honor.
And it was just a very - I think he doesn't get to see his parents as much as he, even at that point, as much as he likes. And as I said, they were very jolly people and I was sort of interrogating them a little bit about who they were.

And his father's a professor of something very clever and technical - I forget - at the university of Kryvyi Rih and I said, you know, 'How did you feel about him becoming a comedian?'

And they they said that they had not been very happy about that at first. It was not really their first choice for their son.

But then I said, 'What do you prefer: comedy or politics as a career?' And they said that they - from memory, the father said that he had actually, in retrospect, preferred comedy because it was, he thought it was safer.

MICHAEL MORELL: Did you see something in him at that time that told you that this guy was would, in a tough situation, stand up or or not? Was it the opposite?

No, it wasn't the opposite. I thought he was interesting and charismatic and very generous, the time that he spent with us. I thought it was quite clever for him to invite us in to have breakfast. He wanted that to be on American television. He wanted Americans to sort of see who he was and where he'd come from. I thought that was a very sort of canny thing for him to do.

But - and I had no idea that he was that. I mean, he was spending time on the frontline. But that point, that frontline wasn't very active. So no, I had no indication that, as you say, he was going to become this kind of Churchillian figure.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Holly, I want to ask in the last couple of minutes we have left here about being a war correspondent. And I want to talk about your safety, which is obviously a priority for you and your team and for CBS. And I'm just wondering what kind of planning goes into keeping everyone as safe as possible?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I think the short answer is a lot of planning, and planning in a kind of generic sense for wars that we don't know about, making sure we've got the right equipment, the right training, the right people who are experienced and hopefully make good, smart decisions.

And then planning for - in the lead up to the invasion, we were doing a lot of planning and there were some things I can't tell you about for security reasons, but just making sure that we had the things that we needed, the people that we needed, that we've thought of different scenarios. That said, of course, there are always situations where things take you by surprise.

MICHAEL MORELL: In fact, your your team was on its way to Makariv, traveling in a convoy with Ukrainian soldiers when you were suddenly stopped. What happened?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: So we had been told by the Ukrainians that they had taken back control of Kyiv. But as we've seen both in Ukraine and other conflict zones, often taking back control doesn't mean completely taking back control. I had a very similar situation in Iraq.

So we got to the edge of the town and suddenly at a sort of checkpoint, they said there's a drone up ahead. That they later said actually there were several Russian drones up ahead and we were turned back.
I think we stopped initially. They told us to get out of our cars - because they want you to spread out so that there's not one single target. And then they decided that we should go at high speed back to a forested area where we, again, spread out in the forest and there was shelling pretty, pretty, pretty close by.

So that was one of those - exactly one of those situations where we had a plan. But you can't plan for everything.

MICHAEL MORELL: And in those moments, is the adrenaline pumping?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: For sure, yeah, definitely so.

MICHAEL MORELL: So a number of reporters have lost their lives while reporting in Ukraine. When you hear about one of those, what goes through your mind?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: I think it's incredibly painful because those people are doing what we're doing. They're trying to bring this story into people's living rooms and tell people why it's important. And then they lose their lives in the process; because as a fellow journalist, it's incredibly painful to hear about that.

 MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Holly, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. It's been incredibly insightful and thank you for what you do.

You know, so many people thank me for my service. Journalists and intelligence officers are kind of similar, right, they're trying to find the truth and tell it to different people, and trying to protect sources. So thank you for what you do to bring these stories to us.

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Oh, Michael, it's a team sport, and I work with the most extraordinary group of people. But thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure. 

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