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Ukraine hit with onslaught of air strikes while Russian troops retreat on the ground

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Russia conducted an onslaught of airstrikes from Lviv to Kharkiv this past week, even as its troops are in retreat on the battlefield. The attacks have caused widespread casualties and crippled Ukraine's power system as the country heads into the first full winter of the war. Masha Gessen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and joins us now from New York. Masha, thanks so much for being back with us.

MASHA GESSEN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: When Russia suffers a defeat, do they begin to increase bombardment of civilian targets?

GESSEN: It certainly appears that way. And, you know, this isn't the first war in which Russia has behaved this way. In fact, this is exactly the sort of approach we saw in Chechnya and in Syria after that. It's a war of total destruction. That's how Russia fights wars.

SIMON: Investigators on the ground say they have uncovered what appear to be interrogation rooms, perhaps even torture chambers in Kherson, now that Ukrainians are back in their city. Can we follow the orders back to the Kremlin on those places?

GESSEN: I don't know that we can follow the orders to torture people back to the Kremlin, but I don't really think that that's the question. At this point, we have seen so much evidence of Russian troops, Russian authorities committing war crimes in every territory that has been liberated by Ukraine, beginning with the liberation of the western suburbs of Kyiv in April. So at this point, if we even imagined that Russian authorities were not aware of the atrocities that troops were committing in the occupied territories, the Kremlin has had six, seven months to make war crimes punishable within its own ranks. That doesn't help. So whether it's the Kremlin ordering its troops to commit war crimes or explicitly tolerating systematic war crimes - right? - we're talking about systematic atrocities. We're talking about seeing basically the same picture everywhere that - in every territory that Ukrainians liberate from Russians, we see civilian casualties, mass graves, torture chambers. And I'm not even mentioning, you know, the systematic destruction of civilian infrastructure, which is also a war crime.

SIMON: Earlier this month, you said in The New Yorker that the West ought to take the Russian threats of nuclear attack seriously. How seriously?

GESSEN: Well, very, very seriously. I mean, my argument is that when Vladimir Putin talks about possibly using nuclear weapons, he means it. He means that he sees this as an option. It's not a rhetorical device. It's not something that he wouldn't do. And the problem with some of the analysis that we have seen of Putin's nuclear saber-rattling is that it applies a Western rational framework and basically argues that it would not be in Putin's strategic interest to use nuclear weapons. What my argument is, is that in this universe in which Putin is waging this war and threatening to use nuclear weapons, there is a rational way of thinking his way to using nuclear weapons.

SIMON: But how does the West contend with that?

GESSEN: Well, the West has to, first of all, face the fact that some strategies that the West is quite attached to, such as threatening Putin with economic sanctions, don't work. They, in fact, sort of cause him to double down. And they do not, importantly, produce the kind of mass resentment and unrest that somehow a lot of Western analysts believe will magically appear if enough economic pressure is applied. So what can Putin possibly be afraid of? It is possible that the threat - the credible threat of an extreme conventional military response to the use of any kind of nuclear weapon in Ukraine would work.

SIMON: Masha, I must ask, is it conceivable to you that one day Vladimir Putin wakes up and says, OK, that's enough? I'm going to get our forces out of Ukraine. It hasn't worked out.

GESSEN: It is not conceivable to me that Putin would decide to pull out of Ukraine. He has staked his entire presidency on this war. So for him, anything but total domination of Ukraine is not an option. And what that means for Ukrainians, unfortunately, is that anything but total devastation of Ukraine is not an option. Since obviously he is not succeeding in occupying Ukraine, he is going to try to succeed in devastating Ukraine, which is why we're seeing all these strikes on civilian infrastructure. And so Ukrainians are looking at a long, cold winter with devastated infrastructure. So that means no electricity, no heat, no running water in a lot of places. It's - he's going to make life hell for Ukrainians, I think, all over the country.

SIMON: Masha Gessen of The New Yorker, thanks so much for being with us.

GESSEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.