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CNN Special Reports

The Will to Win: Ukraine at War. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 26, 2023 - 20:00   ET



CAMERON: She's going through the production.

WALLACE: Do you want to tell us what the last line in the last movie is?

CAMERON: See if I can remember it. No, of course not.

WALLACE: There is so much of our conversations with both Tyler Perry and James Cameron, as well as our sit-downs with Bryan Cranston and Pink. You can catch the full interviews any time you want on HBO Max. And join us next Sunday night here on CNN when my guests are Hall of Fame college basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski and legendary composer John Williams.

Thank you for watching. And good night.

ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: How would you react? Where would you go if you woke up one morning to war on your doorstep?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is Kharkiv now, completely in ruins.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't believe this is happening really.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): When will these monsters leave?

WARD: For more than a year now, no matter where you turn, Putin's terror can find you. Yet despite all of the suffering --

(On-camera): This is where they make the Molotov cocktails?

(Voice-over): The people of Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will provide bedding and blankets.

WARD: Are still standing, still fighting, and some say even winning.

(On-camera): The Ukrainians took this entire area back in September.

(Voice-over): This is Ukraine today. PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: Freedom matters. Peace matters.

Ukraine matters.

WARD: These are the people who have defied the odds against them.


WARD: How are they doing it? And at what cost?

(On-camera): Take your time if you want to take a break.

OLEKSANDR KAMYSHIN, CEO, UKRZALIZNYTSIA: We have to get ready for everything. Anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): You can't give up.

WARD: Kyiv Central Station, the nerve center of Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukraine's 16,000 miles sprawling rail system. Nearly one year ago this ordinary transit hub was anything but.

As Russian forces advance towards the city, scenes of chaos and heartbreak flooded the station's platforms and many others like it across the country.

Families were wrenched apart as fathers sent their wives and children to safety.

(On-camera): There's definitely an intensification, an urgency as people are trying to get out of the country, out of the city.

(Voice-over): In all, nearly four million people raced to the railroad to escape the war unfolding around them, making this already vital service the essential lifeline for Ukrainians.

Today things look very different. It is Orthodox Christmas in Ukraine and Kyiv is no longer under immediate threat. Many Ukrainians have now returned to their homes.

But this is still a country at war. Ukrzaliznytsia is still very much the backbone of Ukraine's war effort.

At just 38 years old, the railway's proud CEO, Oleksandr Kamyshin, has one main goal, the trains must always keep running.


KAMYSHIN: This war is changing all the time. Now we have to think in advance and get ready for everything, anything.

WARD: When Russia began its ruthless winter campaign, targeting Ukraine's critical infrastructure, Oleksandr and his team were ready with nearly 10,000 wood-burning stoves.

(On-camera): You literally have iron stoves in here to keep people warm? KAMYSHIN: Yes. Yes.

WARD (voice-over): As soon as territory is liberated, train service is restored. When a shell hits the tracks, maintenance workers are out within hours to start repairs.

(On-camera): How hard do you push yourself on that front and push the people who work for you?

KAMYSHIN: 120 percent. You can call it obsession.

WARD: Your employees or the employees of the railway have been called iron people. Obviously that is something that predates the war. But when you look at the response of your employees, do you think that's sort of an apt characterization of them?


WARD: They are people who spent months living basically on the trains, in the stations. A lot of people gave a lot in order to meet the moment.

KAMYSHIN: I have been meeting my people across the whole country, thousands of times during this war. I have been shaking their hands and saying thanks for what you do. I am telling that genuinely from my heart. You know what they say? Come on, we're just doing our job, nothing special.

WARD (voice-over): On the platform, my team and I board a train heading east to Kharkiv, a city just miles from the Russian border, and one of Putin's earliest targets. Today the train to Kharkiv is filled with travelers heading home for the holidays, soldiers returning to the frontlines, and a young mother, 25-year-old Leana (PH), going back to Kharkiv to reunite with her family after fleeing with her infant son last March.

(On-camera): Did you ever worry that you might not see your family again, that you might not be able to go back home to Kharkiv again?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Maybe not. I think no. I knew that I would return, that I would definitely be with my family, and I don't know, probably since June, I had been planning my return.

WARD: Were you missing your mom a lot?


(Through text translation): Now when I was in Germany and saw that families are together that's difficult.

WARD: And now you're together and you're going home. You must be very happy.


(Through text translation): The war is not over yet. But it's OK, we believe everything will be fine. The way my mother and other Kharkiv residents continue to live is why I also want to return and plan to live in Ukraine.

WARD: What's the first thing you want to do when you get home?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): I want to hug my husband.

WARD: I think I hear your little boy is awake now, maybe?


WARD (voice-over): That night, once we arrived in Kharkiv, Leana finally gets that long-awaited hug. And we head out into the dark city ready for some reunions of our own.

(On-camera): Oh, my god.

(Voice-over): When we come back, Kharkiv one year later.



WARD: Welcome to Kharkiv. For decades Ukraine's second largest city has been known as a university town, a vibrant center for Ukrainian culture, arts and sciences. Kharkiv has also traditionally been a Russian-speaking city, and despite long-standing conflict with Russia, most Kharkivites have held deep yet complicated ties to their northern neighbor less than 30 miles away.

(On-camera): We have been hearing a steady stream of loud strikes.

(Voice-over): But as they learned on February 24th, good neighbors do not treat you like this. Indiscriminate and nearly constant shelling by the Russians has left a trail of death and destruction throughout this region. The once bustling residential suburb of Saltivka now a grim memorial to the carnage.

(On-camera): The last time we were here in Saltivka, it was just getting smashed by Russian artillery every day. 300,000 people roughly used to live in the area. But since the beginning of the war, it really became the frontline. Even now, coming back here you're just starting to see little hints of life reemerging.

(Voice-over): One resident told me this was her first time back to Saltivka since the bombings. Months later she is still haunted by the violence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Honestly, it makes me want to cry. Anyone who hasn't lived through it won't understand the fear. And the images can't reflect this. It's very scary. Terrible. I'm speechless, honestly.


WARD: Back in April, our team witnessed some of the terror of Kharkiv firsthand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on, Maria. Maria, come on. Come on, Maria. Go. Go.

WARD (on-camera): OK. So we were just in an apartment building. They were looking for an injured man, a bunch of rounds came in and hit the next door building, so now we are getting out as fast as we can.

(Voice-over): The incoming fire continued, but paramedics Vladimir Ventsel and Alexandra Rudkovskaya kept searching for the injured man, and soon they found him just in time to save his life.

On our return to Kharkiv eight months later, I knew that our first stop had to be here.

(On-camera): My god. How are you? Alive. Healthy. We're alive, exactly.

(Voice-over): Thankfully, miraculously, the pair is alive and well, and though the skies are much quieter, they are still saving lives.

(On-camera): I heard that you are now doctors?


WARD: A resident?

VENTSEL: Yes, in America it's called a resident.

WARD: That's amazing. I don't know anyone who in the middle of a war also manages to finish medical school. This is like not normal.

VENTSEL: It's Ukraine. You know?



VENTSEL: It's Kharkiv, you know.

WARD (voice-over): The following night I head out to meet the paramedics for dinner. On the way there I'm struck by the city's eerie darkness. Russia's continued attacks on the power grid have made electricity a precious resource, another sign that life here is still far from normal.

But inside, I am greeted with typical Ukrainian warmth, food and laughter. As we chat alongside Alexandra's husband and mother, it quickly becomes clear that one year later while the war has changed, these brave Ukrainians have not.

RUDKOVSKAYA (through text translation): I carry a tourniquet in my purse, just in case. You never know.

WARD (on-camera): So I guess the question becomes the situation is obviously a lot quieter in Kharkiv than it was before, but the war is not over. How do you keep up hope when there's still kind of a long road ahead?

VENTSEL (through text translation): We believe in victory. We believe in the Ukrainian army.

WARD: Did you ever doubt that, that Ukraine would ultimately win?


WARD: Never?

VENTSEL: No, never. No.

RUDKOVSKAYA (through text translation): Ukraine is our everything.

WARD (voice-over): And everything is exactly what these young Ukrainians have given to the fight, while his own wife and young child headed west to a safer part of the country, Vladimir stayed put.

(On-camera): Has it been hard to be separated from your family?

VENTSEL: Yes, it's hard, but I know that they are safe.

WARD: It's a big part of Ukraine's success, I think, is that almost every Ukrainian seems to feel called to service in this moment. I often think about this, would it be the same in America? Would it be the same in England?

RUDKOVSKAYA (through text translation): I have never once had the desire to leave, not just the country, but even my own city. We are on our land, so the truth is ours.

WARD: Shall we have another toast?


WARD: To Ukraine.

VENTSEL: Ukraine.

WARD: Cheers. Cheers. Thank you so much.

(Voice-over): The next morning, just a short drive outside the city, we visit a small village nearly flattened by the war. Today over 100 empty coffins have arrived. Volunteers unload them on to a playground next to a bombed out school. In a few weeks when the ground defrosts, the villagers will exhume an untold number of dead bodies they suspect are strewn throughout the town.


Finally the dead will be identified and laid to rest with proper burials. It is here in Ruski Tyshky village that we meet volunteer Olga Shpak, a Kharkiv native who had lived and worked in Moscow since the '90s. In her previous life, Olga was a renowned whale scientist, but since February 24th, she has dedicated 24/7 to helping the people of Ukraine to survive and to defeat the Russians. OLGA SHPAK, HUMANITARIAN VOLUNTEER: I arrived in the morning of the

23rd, and I just said, mom, I'm coming.

Just take a look what they did to us. I will be going slowly. I want you to have time to see, to see how my town looks now.

WARD: Did you have any conversations in the early days of the war with any of your Russian friends?

SHPAK: Plenty.

WARD: What were they saying?

SHPAK: They were scared. They were desperate. One of them said that the tears of blood running down his face, and neither of them, neither of their grandchildren would be able to wash out this dirt and this blood from their faces.

They tell me, maybe you take your mom and move to Moscow, it's safer now. I just told them, do you think your grandmother would go to Berlin during the Second World War? Do you? Moscow is the fascist Berlin to us now.

WARD: Tell me about the beginning of the war. Were you afraid?

SHPAK: Not for a second. Not for a second. Starting the morning of February 25, I was on the square volunteering. We were so busy. We were so tired by the end of the day, I didn't think about anything. I didn't have emotions. I didn't have thoughts. I was just working, working, working as a machine.

WARD (voice-over): Nearly one year later, Olga is still working. Today that means helping ordinary people, a local humanitarian group that distributes aid to villagers still without power, blankets, beds, and a heater. Anything to help survive a winter amidst the rubble.

But at this stage of the war, Olga says most of her days are spent sourcing badly-needed supplies for Ukraine soldiers.

(On-camera): Kharkiv was part of this incredible counter offensive push the Russians out, but there has been a lot of talk now about could there be another offensive that the Russians are planning? Are you fearful at all?

SHPAK: We all understand that as volunteers, and especially as volunteers that help the military, we would be targeted. So to say that I'm not afraid would be kind of silly. I don't want, like, a slow death, like being tortured, but otherwise we're all used to think that we have to live today, and then tomorrow they'll show us what our future is.

WARD: One day at a time.

SHPAK: Yes. Yes.

WARD (voice-over): When we return -- (On-camera): Did you understand the danger of what you were doing if

you were caught?

(Voice-over): The secret network of spies living under Russian occupation.



WARD (voice-over): The village of Staryi Saltiv sits along the Siverskyi Donetsk River in the far northeast corner of Ukraine's Kharkiv's region. It used to be a place where people came in the summer to relax and enjoy the water. Now the area is almost unrecognizable. Less than 15 miles from the Russian border, it was easily overtaken by Russian forces in the early hours of the war, but the Ukrainians never stopped fighting.

(On-camera): So the Ukrainians took this entire area back in September, but it's still incredibly difficult to live here, because as you can see, the bridge has been destroyed. It actually was the Ukrainians who destroyed it back in the spring. They did it to stop Russian forces from moving into this area, but now it's a huge challenge for people living on the other side, and you really see the grit and the resilience of the Ukrainian people living here.

They are walking across the ice, carrying cans to fill with diesel to power their generators, going back and forth to try and get food and supplies so they can continue to live in their homes.

(Voice-over): This is what victory looks like in much of Ukraine. It's grim and it is fragile.

The frontlines around this region are still active, which is why we find Yvan (PH), a 32-year-old volunteer soldier, heading towards the action. He asked we don't give his last name for his security.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a good feeling, I'm back to my brothers who were waiting for me on the first line. It's our deal, our duty.

WARD: Yvan arrives at the house where his unit is based. It's a few miles from the trenches, but well within the range of Russian artillery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): It was very scary at first. When you get directly to the place where you can be killed, it's a very great stress and shock to the psyche.

WARD: Like many fighting in Ukraine, Yvan (PH) never imagined he would become a soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): The future was very interesting for me. And I had a lot of planned for myself. But unfortunately on February 24th, Russia for some reason decided to change everything. Since then, my life has changed a lot, leading me to become a military man.

WARD: When the war began, Yvan (PH) was a civilian living in Kherson. As he witnessed Russian forces occupy his hometown, he decided he needed to fight back. At the time, he says, that meant joining a secret network of underground partisans who would send information about Russian troop movements, what weapons they had, anything that might give the Ukrainians the upper hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): This is the Ukrainian language interface.

WARD: He says he began covertly supplying information to Ukraine security services using a Ukrainian app on his phone called DIA.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): If I noticed any equipment or location where Russian troops were positioned, I would drop a pin of the coordinates and text that I found the location of a Russian military unit there.

WARD (on-camera): Did you understand the risks of what you were doing, the danger of what you were doing if you were caught?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Of course, I understand all the risks. I understand the danger to myself. But what can you do? If we won't do it, who will?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was standing in the very center of the city, and there were two cruise missiles that hit the building.

WARD (voice-over): It was March 1st, less than one week into the war. Days earlier, Kharkiv native Vsevolod Kozhemyako had been skiing in the Austrian mountains. Now his city was on fire.

KOZHEMYAKO: I was in a hurry to get back. People were prepared to fight back, to defend their land and to defend their city.

WARD: Vsevolod is not your typical soldier. He's a Ukrainian agriculture mogul who felt compelled to build a volunteer unit of soldiers, funded with his personal fortune.

KOZHEMYAKO: So this is one of our base.

WARD (on-camera): Yes.

(Voice-over): We joined Vsevolod in a secret bunker in the city, the night before his return to the frontlines.

(On-camera): So this is some of the explosives that you have amassed. Wow.

KOZHEMYAKO: The guys are doing these things, they are using to --

WARD: Oh, to drop them from drones?

(Voice-over): Informally known as the Billionaire's Battalion, the unit helped push Russian forces out of Kharkiv. What they lack in traditional training, they make up for in equipment.

(On-camera): What have your skills as a businessman enabled you to start your own unit?


KOZHEMYAKO: I am an entrepreneur. And this is actually the enterprise. This is a new company, but it's created not for getting profit, it's created to kill the enemy.

WARD: How has Ukraine been so successful in fighting off the world's second largest military?

KOZHEMYAKO: We're right. We're fighting for our freedom, for our way of life. We didn't want this war and they started it so we have to fight.

WARD: How many members of your unit have you lost?

KOZHEMYAKO: A few people. The last loss was a very bright 28-year-old woman.

WARD: Does her death in some way motivate you to, you know --

KOZHEMYAKO: To revenge?

WARD: To revenge, to --

KOZHEMYAKO: Of course. No, of course, which is why we continue fighting. And we remember all these people who were with us, and when victory comes, we will always remember them.

WARD: Are you thinking that in the future this will be a war that's predominantly fought with drones?

(Voice-over): When we come back, meet the maverick minister who has helped to change the face of this war.



WARD (on-camera): People are obviously incredibly affected by this situation. They're frightened. They're exhausted.

(Voice-over): It's March 5th, just one week into the invasion. The people of Irpin, a suburb at the doorstep of the capital, have already withstood days of Russian strikes. For many this bombed out bridge is their only opportunity to escape.

Weeks later, Putin's plan takeover of Kyiv had failed. Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Irpin and the north entirely. It was the first of many hard-fought Ukrainian victories. Won not only with bullets and bravery, but with creativity. And cutting edge technology.

At 32 years old, Mykhailo Fedorov is Ukraine's youngest minister in charge of digital transformation. A piece of the war puzzle that many argue has been the single biggest game changer on the battlefield, known as algorithmic warfare.

(On-camera): What's so striking about this war is that when you're on the frontlines, you see people fighting in conditions and trenches with artillery and tanks in scenes that are reminiscent of the First and Second World War, and yet at the same time this is the most technologically sophisticated war that has ever been fought. At what stage did you understand the power that technology could bring?

MYKHAILO FEDOROV, MINISTER OF DIGITAL INFORMATION (through text translation): We really have a great background in Ukraine. We have 300,000 IT specialists in Ukraine and technologies developed at a fairly high level.

WARD (voice-over): After the invasion, Fedorov was quick to adapt. He took an app called DIA, originally developed to allow Ukrainians to access records and pay bills online, and transformed it, giving citizens in Russian-occupied areas like Yvan (PH) a way to provide information to security services. Videos like this showing Russian weaponry and troop movements could now be easily and secretly uploaded.

FEDOROV (through text translation): We've received 440,000 messages about how they move their military tanks, where they have their birthday parties, their bases, where they train.

WARD: To be sure Ukraine has not transformed the digital battlefield alone. In the run-up to the invasion, support poured in from Silicon Valley's top tech companies to help the country prepare.

FEDOROV (through text translation): Our mail just started to be flooded with messages. Dozens of companies responded quickly.

WARD (on-camera): And what has that support meant to you?

FEDOROV (through text translation):It is critical to our activities because if we had not moved our information resources to the cloud before the invasion, in a few weeks, the state would not have been able to function as it does now. If Starlink and SpaceX had not started to deliver Starlinks quickly, I do not know how things would have happened because communication is critical during war and on the battlefield.

WARD (voice-over): Among the many companies offering assistance was Palantir, a secretive American software company that got its start working with U.S. intelligence services. Alex Karp was the first CEO to meet with President Zelenskyy after Russia's invasion.

ALEX KARP, PALANTIR CEO: Here you have a culture that is able to perform at a level of any of the world players we have ever dealt with.


WARD: According to Karp, most of Ukraine's military targeting is now done using advanced Palantir software, and Ukraine has now developed its own situational awareness system similar to Palantir's called Delta. Yet another innovation Fedorov says has transformed the way wars are fought, and he hopes how they are won.

(On-camera): Are you thinking that in the future this will be a war that's predominantly fought with drones?

FEDOROV (through text translation): The pattern of war will change. We believe that the role of unmanned vehicles will grow and this war will end up as a war, we can say so, of robots. UAVs against UAVs.

WARD: And you don't rule out the possibility that Russia could catch up?

FEDOROV (through text translation): I would not underestimate the Russian army.

WARD: So it's not the time to get come complacent?

FEDOROV (through text translation): Absolutely not. We need to predict the next challenges and work with these challenges. There will be many more ahead.

WARD (voice-over): Coming up, the true costs of Putin's war.

(On-camera): How do you try to understand why Russia would do something like this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't understand.



WARD (voice-over): For much of the war, the central city of Dnipro has been considered a largely safe part of Ukraine. But one of the many cruelties of this war is that the longer you survive it, the more it can feel normal, even ordinary. Until one day reality comes crashing down.

On January 14th, the 325th day of Putin's war, Dnipro was hell on earth. In all, 46 people were killed including six children after a 2,000-pound Russian missile as long as a city bus slammed into this apartment building.

(On-camera): So the blue wall, that was your -- that's your bathroom.

(Voice-over): 24-year-old Nastya Shvets was at home in bed sleeping.

(On-camera): When you look at it now, what do you feel?

NASTYA SHVETS, UKRAINIAN CITIZEN (through text translation): Emptiness.

WARD (voice-over): The missile sliced Nastya's one-bedroom apartment in half, killing both of her parents in the kitchen while just inches away Nastya clung on to life.

(On-camera): I think for a lot of people it's hard to understand why Russia would use this huge missile that's intended to take out an aircraft carrier in a residential area. How do you try to understand why Russia would do something like this?

SHVETS: I don't understand.

WARD: Can you tell me a little bit about your mom and dad, what they were like as people?

SHVETS (through text translation): They were very cheerful people. They were always ready to lend a helping hand. And all their lives they were next to each other. And they left behind a person like me. I'm very grateful to them for putting the best in me.

WARD: Do you ever wonder why you were saved? It's this extraordinary image that we see of you surviving the un-survivable.

SHVETS (through text translation): I've been thinking about this a lot. Because, well, it's unrealistic. My mother's last words were, Nastya, go get some rest. You have to go to work. And the time was late, almost half past 4:00. And I had to leave for work at 7:00.

WARD: Take your time if you want to take a break.

(Voice-over): This is not the first grieve Nastya has experienced in this war. In September her boyfriend was Vladislav was killed while fighting on the frontlines in Kharkiv.

(On-camera): Did you think yes, that this might be the man that you would marry, that you would start a family with?

SHVETS (Through text translation): Yes, I was sure of that. He was a real man who could do anything, and was ready to get you a star from the sky to make you smile.

WARD: You have experienced so much sadness and so much loss. In some ways your story is the story of Ukraine, of people who have given so much but who continue to survive.


SHVETS (Through text translation): In some ways I feel that way because I can get depressed, but that won't help me. I have to pull myself together now and continue to go through life with my head held high.

WARD (voice-over): That courage and grit have come to define Ukraine and the price has been painfully high.

Tens of thousands of lives have been destroyed. Estimates suggest it will require close to a trillion dollars to rebuild the country when this is all over. But today the end is still nowhere in sight.

Back in Saltivka in Kharkiv, where the damage seems irreparable and the present remains dark, after 365 days of war, the people of Ukraine still have hope.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We saw you from the window. You're the only one here rebuilding. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (Through text translation): There's hope that it will get better, that maybe we'll come back after all. If we do nothing, it will get worse. You can't give up.