The initial focus of coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine so far has been on the military action: The sounds of blasts and images of missile strikes.
But ABC News’ chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, stationed in Lviv, and senior foreign correspondent Ian Pannell, based in Kyiv, each with decades of experience covering foreign affairs, said that one of the greater challenges is to capture the human side of what is happening.
“One of the things that has always been important to me in covering war is the cost of war, and I don’t mean in dollars,” Raddatz told Deadline via Zoom. “I mean in human treasure. I mean life-altering changes.”
She pointed to a local journalist in Lviv who has been helping the network out with coverage who told her of having to comfort his 7-year-old daughter on Thursday morning after she woke up to the sound of air-raid sirens.
“There are parents out there who are terrified for their children right now, and whether their lives will change,” she said. “Those are real people who are going to go through a horrible experience. The line of refugees right now, I’m told is 25 to 30 hours. That’s now. Imagine what it will be in a week. Frankly, I tell all the young people I work with, ‘Don’t ever forget the cost of war. Don’t get caught up in the bombs and the explosions and talking about equipment and military this and that.’ There are people involved in this, and I think we always have to remember that.”
Pannell told Deadline that “getting people to care I think is the hardest thing. Seeing stories of conflict through the eyes of people who are affected always resonates much more with people.”
The U.S. and its allies have imposed sanctions on Russia, but President Joe Biden has said that U.S. troops will not be drawn into the war. That has made it all the more pressing for journalists to explain why the Ukraine conflict is still so important and relevant to Americans.
“Ukrainians are very much like us,” Pannell said. “They expect tomorrow is going to look like today. And Ukrainians have had the same guarantee, and they have just suddenly had the rug pulled from beneath their feet, and it is trying to show that shock on people’s faces as they realize what is going on.”
Raddatz said that an unusual aspect of covering Ukraine is that U.S. forces are not involved. “So that’s a real change for me for sure, because I’ve embedded for 20 years. So that you don’t have that upfront, gritty sort of thing. You are an observer as well.”
Raddatz has been in Ukraine for the past week, anchoring This Week from Lviv. Hours before the strikes began, she received a text message from a U.S. official that read, ‘You are likely in the last few hours of peace on the European continent for a long time to come. Be careful.”
“That sort of said it all to me,” she said. “It brought home how significant this war is. ‘Peace on the European continent.’ It was one of those moments where, I had been running around all night, I’ve been on the air, I’ve been doing this. This says it all.”
Raddatz said that there is no sense of panic where she is, but people are lining up at banks, pharmacies and for water.
“I think it this is going to be long and drawn out,” she said. “This is not over. I think the Russians have a plan to encircle Kyiv and to try to take the entire country…They want to decapitate the government. They want to put their own government in, then they may fight an insurgency. … Someone I talked to today, a young man, said he would take up arms. That’s just a nightmare thinking about that. Citizens taking up arms — that usually doesn’t work out so well.”
Pannell said that “a lot of Ukrainians are feeling alone and afraid, hoping for the best, praying for the best, and fearing that the worst is coming.”
He went to bed on Kyiv about 2:45 AM local time on Thursday, and got a phone call at 4:15 AM informing him that Putin was about to address the nation.
“I knew at that point, because it was still only about 5:15 in Moscow, that this must be it,” Pannell said. “No president addresses the nation at that time in the morning, unless he is going to proclaim war.”
He dashed out to a live position, five floors about his hotel room, to a rather chaotic scene, with journalists in corridors putting on flak jackets “everyone bleary eyed, trying to get in rooms, turn lights on, get the camera running.”
James Gillings, the ABC News photographer, had the camera “just with a shot out the window, and then we heard that first boom, and everyone just stopped and looked at each other. You have that collective moment where you almost feel each other’s hearts beating and realized, this was it.”
Then, he said, “We looked out the balcony. The night sky was quiet and I suddenly saw a flash, followed by another explosion.”
On air, Pannell said that even though he looks calm in such situations, “I am really not.”
“I don’t trust people that don’t get nervous in this job,” he said. “You should always have that chip inside you that gets scared. And it’s those moments when stories become very real. You talk about then in theory for weeks, and then suddenly when you hear the sound of an explosion, you realize this is war, and it’s kind of coming your way. So it is that moment of trying to focus, trying to stay controlled, don’t let your emotions get away with you, and keep it as calm as you possibly can.”
During the day on Thursday, the first since the Russian attack started, the city of Kviv was “eerily quiet,” Pannell said, with some lines at ATMs, and metro transit stations “turned into ad hoc bomb shelters.” Many stores were closed, and at the few that were opened, people were stocking up on supplies.
“I think the biggest shock for [Kyiv citizens] is that America is standing with Ukraine, as is Europe, but not militarily,” he said. “And when the troops come to your door, you are on your own. That’s kind of what’s going on at the moment.”
Pannell said that the original plan was that the ABC News crew would have a “backdoor route” out of the country, driving up to the Ukrainian border with Moldova or Romania or Poland.
But with the massive traffic jam out of the city, “those doors for now are closed.”
“So the game plan right now is just to hunker down, and hope for the best,” he said. “There isn’t really a Plan B, and being in Afghanistan and Kabul was pretty much the same. The airport closed, and the Taliban came into town, and we just hunkered down in the hotel, and carried on doing our jobs, and you kind of hope that reason and sense will prevail, and you don’t get caught up in it. That is a risk. You don’t take it lightly. You take it because we are watching history unfolding here.”
His fear is that the situation will get much worse, especially if Russians enter the center of Kyiv to oust the government against stiff resistance.
“I’m not so sure you can do that without significant loss of life,” Pannell said. “And we could be looking at a catastrophic loss of life and a catastrophic number of refugees. This, of all the stories I have witnessed in 30 years of journalism, could turn out to be the worst of them all.”