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Are Russians able to get any real news about what's going in Ukraine?


We have two visions of the war in Ukraine. There's the reality of Russia's invasion and the image cast on Russian TV. Our former NPR colleague Lawrence Sheets has a vision of both. He is in Ukraine now, and he is a Russian speaker who has been watching a Russian state TV broadcast that gives some insights into what may be happening in the Kremlin. Lawrence, welcome back.

LAWRENCE SHEETS: Hello, Steve. Nice to speak again.

INSKEEP: Where are you, and what's it like there?

SHEETS: I'm near the center of Odesa, Ukraine, which is Ukraine's main port. Seventy percent of the trade for Ukraine comes through this port. It's closed currently. I'm sitting next to a bomb shelter, which is sandbagged, not too far from the port area. This morning, there have been a lot of elderly people showing up asking about provisions in the bomb shelter. First time I've seen that, although I've been here for six days - probably as a result of a major bombing. We heard a bomb go off this morning, air raid sirens. The Ukraine Defense Ministry reporting that they shot down four Russian drones over the area, over the center of the city, over the district.

INSKEEP: So that's the reality there in Odesa, a port city where people have feared a Russian waterborne invasion. That hasn't happened, but there's a degree of violence. At the same time that you're there, Lawrence, you've been watching a Russian TV program that doesn't maybe tell you anything reliable about Ukraine, but you say that it gives you clues about Vladimir Putin. What is the program?

SHEETS: The program is called "Vremya," which in Russian means time. It's been on since 1956. It comes on religiously at 2100, 9 p.m. local. It's been obligatory - during the Soviet period, it's obligatory watching for all good Soviet citizens. And it's become more and more absurdist as the days go on. But it's some of the things which are being said, especially last night - I watched it, and the lead story was about Hunter Biden. And the allegation was that Hunter Biden, of course, had sat on a Ukrainian gas company board. And the allegation was that Hunter Biden - and I will quote this - "apart from spending his time snorting cocaine, was running, actually, a biological weapons program in Ukraine for the U.S. government under the cover of the Pentagon, with the participation of people like George Soros."

INSKEEP: Wow. This is tying all of the conspiracy theories together into one unified conspiracy theory.

SHEETS: Yeah, it gets wild as you go along.

INSKEEP: OK, so this is clearly not reliable information about what's going on in Ukraine. In fact, you've noted, when they talk about people fleeing Mariupol, they suggest that the Ukrainians themselves have been destroying their own city. But does the evolution of the program tell you anything about Kremlin thinking and especially Vladimir Putin's thinking? For example, have his goals in Ukraine changed over time?

SHEETS: It tells you a lot because the goals have shifted. If the goals before were de-Nazification, which is still used during the program, now it's repeatedly the liberation of what they call the Donetsk, which is a region of Ukraine, People's Republic as Russia refers to it, the Lugansk People's Republic as Russia refers to it, and Crimea. And this seems to be the Russian - at face value, the demand that Ukraine recognize these regions - Crimea as part of Russia, which was annexed in 2014, the other two as independent entities. So the goal posts have shifted. There's no question about that. And it's notable for what it doesn't show. It doesn't show the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who I know personally, and he has not been shown for - we're going on Day 13 now. Now, day - two weeks, he hasn't been seen, where I used to see him daily.

INSKEEP: Now, I know that there was one - there was at least one image where he did show up on TV the other day, after his general absence was noted. But I'm interested in what you're telling me there, Lawrence, about Crimea and about the Donbas. Is this what you're saying? In the early days of the war, this channel that reflects Putin's view talked about Russia quickly taking over the entire country, clearly on its way to taking over Kyiv, but now they've retreated to the idea that they want Ukraine to recognize the parts of Ukraine that they'd already stolen. Is that right?

SHEETS: Absolutely. And in fact, this is being stated officially by Kremlin officials, including the chief Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who had - has stated this demand very forcefully. So this seems to be not just a random talking point; it seems to be what the Russians are putting on the table. You speak to people here in, for instance, Odesa, and they say that's off the table because too many people have died, and too much blood has been shed. You referred to Mariupol, the Ukrainians bombing themselves and all these things - I mean, this is something that the Russians said in Chechnya and other places, that the Chechens were bombing themselves, even though they didn't have any planes.

INSKEEP: Lawrence, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

SHEETS: Appreciate it, Steve.

INSKEEP: Lawrence Sheets is a longtime Kremlin watcher and former NPR correspondent. He heads the consulting group Eurasian International Analytics, and he's currently in Odesa, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.