Report from Ukraine: Tension rises as Russian war crimes revealed — what’s Putin’s next move?

LVIV, Ukraine — The war in Ukraine enters its second month with the besieged city of Mariupol still unconquered, though leveled. That means Russian President Vladimir Putin still has not managed to link up his troops in the south and east.

Up north, the capital of Kyiv remains free, and the Ukrainian army has even reconquered some key neighborhoods and forced Russian troops further away from that beleaguered city.

These Russian setbacks, cheered by a majority of the world, have led to a deliberate change of tactics as Putin becomes increasingly frustrated and as International pressure against him continues to build.

RELATED: Report from Ukraine: Life goes on and spirits remain high — Putin wasn’t counting on that

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally declared that members of the Russian armed forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. That was “based on information currently available,” Blinken said in a statement, much of it drawn from first-hand interviews with war victims and refugees, many of those assembled by reporters in the field.

Putin is deliberately targeting the civilian population, humanitarian workers, journalists and other noncombatants to strike fear and terror into the populace. Add to the psychological warfare the daily air raids and the question of whether Belarus — effectively a Russian vassal state — will join the conflict and you have a psychotropic soup of dysfunction, stirred up by an autocratic leader who may be days away from being toppled and replaced, or days away from using weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical warfare or worse. None of it bodes well for the world.

That’s the Russian strategy writ large. On a small scale, for a group of reporters getting lunch at a restaurant outside Lviv this week, it boiled down to two mysterious hipsters: A pair of skinny guys, one with dark curly hair and a beard, the other resembling a thinner Ed Sheeran.

They looked like they were out on the town having fun. They wore press passes that looked homemade, and when I spoke with them they claimed to work in a town I know well — I once worked and lived there. They couldn’t say where they lived in that town, and the media company they claimed to work for doesn’t exist.

They claimed to be Americans, but they didn’t act like it — or like reporters either. They acted more like they wanted people to think they were reporters. Their “Georgia” accents weren’t Southern drawls.

I brushed it off. The State Department and various intelligence sources have warned reporters for more than a week that Ukraine has been infiltrated by Russians or Chechens posing as Americans. As recently as last week, I asked a question in the White House briefing room about Russian hit squads targeting journalists.

RELATED: Why I’m going to Ukraine: We deserve the truth — and that’s my job

Associated Press photographer Mstyslav Chernov recounted his first-hand experience in Mariupol. “The Russians were hunting us down,” he said. “They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in. We were reporting inside the hospital when gunmen began stalking the corridors. Surgeons gave us white scrubs to wear as camouflage. Suddenly, at dawn, a dozen soldiers burst in: ‘Where are the journalists, for fuck’s sake?'”

Chilling, yes. But that was at the front. Not in Lviv, hundreds of miles away

We saw the same pair of guys again when we went to the train station to interview refugees. They weren’t conducting themselves as reporters that time: They were watching us. My fixer checked out their credentials. The press passes were fake. The business they worked at was fake. This was real “fake news.”

Earlier in the week we were told not to wear our press passes in public when we weren’t on duty — we might be targeted. It was obvious we were. In fact, our interpreters were supposedly on a target list. We were able to get them to a safe house in Poland early Thursday morning, along with their Jack Russell terrier and their cat.

Others have had it far worse. Trey Yingst, a good friend and a solid reporter, lost a cameraman and a fixer. His Fox News colleague Benjamin Hall sustained life-threatening injuries after a mortar struck their car at a checkpoint outside Kyiv. We met up with Trey in Lviv. By the grace of God, he was not in the car that day.

Trey was shaken, but not stirred. Although he was rotated out of the hot zone for some much needed rest and relaxation, he didn’t really want to go. No matter the danger, few of us do.

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On Monday we shot video at Rynok Square in Lviv, including a standup or two. After an air raid sounded we grabbed lunch nearby and then walked across the square to the Pravda Beer Theater. Outside hung a sign that said “Media Center.” It was advertised as a place where reporters could go and “hang out.” The big black-and-white sign with a red circle at its center only heightened the feeling of being a target.

Perhaps that’s why some reporters were doing live shots or standups wearing body armor in Lviv, although none is needed and you look silly doing it. You’re not under direct fire here. It is stupid and pretentious to wear armor for the sake of a television audience. I find it in poor taste, considering some of our colleagues have died, been kidnapped or been targeted as they travel to the front trying to catalogue Putin’s continuing terror campaign and war crimes.

Still, being a reporter in a conflict zone is complicated. You have to be aware of the television audience and the environment you’re in. You have to be vigilant and careful about how you conduct yourself. You want people to know you’re a noncombatant. You don’t carry a gun. You aren’t directly threatening anyone’s life. And you’re risking your life trying to get information out to the world.

When combatants, like the Russians, don’t want you to catalogue their war crimes, then carrying a camera, or a pen and a notepad, becomes existentially and exponentially more dangerous. Being a reporter anywhere in such a conflict zone therefore becomes far riskier because you are potentially more dangerous to those troops than an enemy bullet — and especially dangerous to those ordering the war crimes. Putin and his upper-level commanders have nothing to fear from the bullets on the front line since they are nowhere near them. The greatest threat those at the top of the war-crime food chain face is having their actions broadcast across the globe. Without reporters recording what’s happening, Putin can order his soldiers to kill, maim, torture and destroy with impunity. Who’s to say what is going on if no one is there to document it?

That’s the point. If Putin is really taking measures to hunt and kill journalists, as suggested by American intelligence sources, that’s why.  

On Monday in Rynok Square, I saw a guy standing outside the Pravda Beer Theater taking pictures. He stood there quietly, pretending to photograph the square, but every time someone wearing press credentials walked out of the media center, he photographed them. I approached him and as he turned toward me, I flipped him off.

I smiled, then turned away and left with my crew before he could photograph their faces. Soon we were being followed by two guys straight out of central casting — slim, muscular, Russian-looking low-level hoods in jeans and tight t-shirts. They followed us for three blocks and through two stores. We finally lost them when we got into our car and our paid driver drove us away. Our tails kept walking through the crowded streets, looking for us in vain.

Were we about to be kidnapped? Murdered? Or invited to a mixer? Who knows? I didn’t want to stick around to find out.

Reporters in Ukraine have also taken precautionary measures to hide their IP addresses and reduce their online presence by using Faraday bags — shielded containers that block electromagnetic fields. Russian hackers were apparently able to track British contractors at a base outside Lviv about a week ago, leading to loss of life and millions of dollars of destruction.

All these precautions cannot reduce the risks to a level that makes covering a war “safe.” Body armor, helmets, Faraday bags, gas masks and even hazmat suits improve your chances of survival, They do not guarantee it.

The only way to guarantee anyone’s long term survival in Ukraine is by ending this conflict. But so far, Putin seems to have little thought of ending anything. That makes everyone wonder what the endgame is, because there’s no way any of this ends well for Russia. The world is on notice. Russia has seen its international currency, both literally and metaphorically, dwindle to nothing because of Putin’s chosen war. Ukraine and Europe will come out of this stronger, and Russia will face long-term suffering.

RELATED: Putin’s endgame: Will it be stalemate, nuclear war — or regime change in Moscow?

But how can that country pay for Putin’s attacks on civilians, or the destruction of apartment buildings, schools and hospitals? We spoke with a family in Mariupol who lived across from the theater that was marked with the Russian word for “children” in letters visible from satellite photos. Putin had that building bombed. We have a first-hand account of that. How do you pay for that?

When the bill comes due, will Putin act like the cornered rat that he is? How will he lash out? As President Biden left for Brussels and Warsaw on Wednesday, he said from the South Lawn that the threat of chemical weapons from Putin is real.

Putin’s actions thus far demonstrate a man out of control, a man with no ethics, a man who has risked everything and gained nothing. He will not go gently into that good night. His actions continue to show how real the threat of nightfall is for all of us.

Those who still don’t understand the severity of this situation may be doomed to bring on the fate that Putin’s actions portend.

Read more from Brian Karem on the Biden White House:


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