CNN’s Erin Burnett on the Challenges of Reporting from the Frontlines of the Ukraine War Amid Turmoil in Russia and Her Own Network

CNN anchor Erin Burnett reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine.

Photo provided by CNN.

CNN anchor Erin Burnett spoke with Mediaite contributing editor Sarah Rumpf by telephone while reporting live from Dnipro, Ukraine on the latest developments on the counteroffensive, the recent Wagner Group mutiny in Russia, how her team didn’t let the recent turmoil at CNN affect their reporting, and why it was so important for American media to cover these stories in person.

The Erin Burnett OutFront anchor has provided live reports during multiple CNN programs over the past week, originally arriving in Kyiv and then traveling southeast to Dnipro for Thursday’s reports, and then back to Kyiv by Friday. This was her third trip to Ukraine, having spent about a month in the country since Russia first invaded in February 2022.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

Who is there with you in Ukraine from CNN?

It’s amazing because, CNN, we all work together as a team, but we come from all different places. So in Kyiv we have people from Turkey and London and New York, from everywhere. There’s a bureau [in Ukraine] that operates there and people who are regularly cycling in and out. We have a small team here on the ground, including security and the producers and photojournalists needed to get a live show out, as well as local people. So that’s how we operate.

There has been a lot of news coverage over the past couple months about turmoil at CNN [including the ouster of CEO Chris Licht], but throughout all of it, the network has continued to put personnel and resources on the ground for these stories that have national and international significance, like the war in Ukraine. Can you talk about about your thoughts as a journalist and what you think your mission, your role, is in that situation?

Yes, there has been turmoil at CNN. I would say, for our show, and our show’s specific commitment to Ukraine, even during the past 15 months — we were obviously here as the war began — we were not impacted by that in our coverage. And our coverage just continued, we didn’t change anything we did, and we just continued to do what we did.

So I am obviously acknowledging that there was that there was turmoil. But it did not impact us in our editorial coverage of this story, which was hugely significant for us and something we were grateful for every day because we were able to continue unimpeded doing what we do. And obviously, to us, this story is crucial for the entire world and we believe very much in its importance. So we are very committed to doing it. And that’s why we’re back here now to see the counteroffensive.

You happened to be in that part of the world during a very momentous weekend. Can you talk about what the mood was on the ground there during all of this upheaval in Russia over the past weekend?

It’s amazing because I was talking to one soldier whom I’ve been talking to throughout the war. I actually met him early on, right after he was part of liberating some villages in the Chernihiv region, I spoke to him multiple times, over the past 16 months. And he is still fighting now, near Bakhmut.

He told me, this weekend, on Saturday, there was “observable panic” on the Russian side — observable — but it went away, it sort of went back to normal. It’s interesting because we don’t know how much the Russian troops on the ground actually knew about what was happening or didn’t know what was happening. But he gave me that observation.

And then I was speaking to the foreign minister [Dmytro Kuleba] here, and he said that he thought that if it had had 48 more hours of the attempted rebellion, there would have been a very notable change in morale on the front lines. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

But it sort of gave me the feeling that there was sort of a moment — the foreign minister described it as a force majeure moment — it’s something that he said their intelligence did not know about and that they were obviously not expecting. But then it happened. The Ukrainians now are describing it as sort of a return to normal, in terms of the state of the war and the issues that they’re dealing with, they’re dealing with deeply entrenched Russian forces, and heavily mined areas as they’re trying to take territory.

Obviously, their biggest concern still remains Russian air superiority. And they’re really pushing for those F-16s, which Kuleba told me they are training some pilots and they do believe that they’ll be getting those early next year. But that’s still their main push — that, and the longer range missiles.

Can you share more about the mines left behind by retreating Russian troops, and how that is slowing down the Ukrainians’ progress as they move forward?

It’s sort of rolling territory. It’s not flat in the south, it’s not hills, but it’s rolling and it’s farmland. So there’s this massive kind of mini-forest and then there’s massive fields and then there’s another mini-forest. And so the Russians, if they retreat, they mine it.

And a lot of the mines aren’t even hidden, they’re just there. So sometimes, as the Ukrainian soldiers describe it, they can pick their way around them. But obviously it’s hugely slowed them down. It’s hard to send big equipment and tanks over that, they’d get heavily damaged. Then you’re actually stuck sending infantry — you know, human beings — out, which obviously carries that risk of injury and loss of life. It’s incredibly slow.

So that’s what they’re dealing with. You drive by those forests and you’ll see, if you look on the Ukrainian side, deeply entrenched and embedded forces — big vehicles, lots of soldiers, in areas that aren’t at that moment fighting. It’s a very long front line. Some days are very hot, some aren’t, depending on where you are. And, that’s where they’re spending their time as this war is unfolding.

There’s so much misinformation out there. What’s your advice to people who want accurate information about the situation in Ukraine? How should they judge what they’re seeing on their social media? How would you advise people to look at this war so that they’re getting the right information and the facts and the fair telling of the story?

Well, that’s a great question, and obviously it’s very hard because, specifically in the counteroffensive, you have claims one way or the other, and there are various websites that do a very good job of sort of tracking day-by-day territory changing. At the training camp we were at [Wednesday], you’re hearing the MLRS [multiple launch rocket systems] and artillery and everything not far away, and you can judge the progress based on how far away you are from the actual point of contact.

You’re talking about, in most cases, very small movements, and each side arguing about it. And, you know, some of the Ukrainians will admit that they are outnumbered, they’ve admitted that all the way along, they’ll talk about what they perceive to be Russian ammunition shortages, and the Russians will have their point of view on what’s happening. So in some sense, it’s hard to tell.

But one thing we try to do with our reporters, who have done such incredible work here month in and month out, they go there and they report what they see, and also when we have video, which we use a lot of, we make sure to geolocate it and make sure to be clear about what we know to be true or what is claimed. Our job is to be transparent as possible with what we have, and what we know it to be.

So if you can confirm that a video was indeed shot in “X” town, you confirm that; if you can confirm it is definitely eastern Ukraine, but you can’t confirm the village, then you be very clear about that.

What we try to do is, is take all of that information on social media — which is sometimes true, sometimes not true, but often hugely valuable — and try to put that lens on it, of as much verification as we possibly can, to put that lens on it, to give people the most transparent, accurate information as possible.

What would you say is a misconception that you’ve seen in the coverage of the war, that frustrates you, or an aspect that you wish people would understand better over here?

I wouldn’t so much say that it frustrates me as that it’s important that we all try to understand. Obviously, you have this layer on top of all this right now of what’s happening in Moscow and the uncertainty around that. And that’s obviously a significant unknown. But in terms of the known, I think there was a widely held expectation, right, that there was going to be sort of a shock-and-awe, flash-bang counteroffensive. And that’s not what we’ve seen to this point. It’s been different than that. It’s important for all of us to understand that. I thought it was interesting, the Ukrainian foreign minister put it this way, he said, you know, we are looking for like a Netflix moment, “Flash-bang! Here we go!”

That’s Hollywood.

That’s not what life is and that’s not what this is. And when you when you see it, you do get this palpable sense of, wow, in some sense you feel like you’re looking back in time. You’re looking at trenches. You’re looking at people going through a forest and literally laying trip wires to put grenades in.

It’s very World War I.

Yes, yes. And then, of course, then you layer on all the technology and the drones and that both sides are able to triangulate and see where fire is coming from and fire back at it.

But I do think just a sense that everyone’s looking for a very clear, definitive, “here’s the moment this happened and then here’s a winner and here’s your loser,” and it is it is more complicated than that. And it is going to take more time than I think everybody had — not everybody — but it’s going to take more time than a lot of people had expected. This being said, I will say, the mayor of Kyiv [Vitali Klitschko] was still saying to me earlier this week that he thinks that the war will be won this year. I mean, that’s one person. But we’ll see.

As far as what’s next with all this Russian turmoil, I guess the latest reporting is that the KGB got a bit of a heads up about what the Wagner group had was planning. But has Yevgevny Prigozhin resurfaced yet? They said he was in Belarus, but I don’t have they confirmed that he’s still alive and hasn’t been perilously close to a story window?

Well, this could change between when I tell you and when you print it, but what we know is that two planes linked to Prigozhin landed at an airfield near Minsk. We couldn’t confirm that he was on them, but the belief is that he probably is in Belarus. We haven’t seen him since, so it’s not clear exactly, where he is. But we know about the plane. So it sort of leads you in that direction logically. But I don’t know; no one’s had eyes on him.

You said this all ended so soon and the Ukrainians weren’t sure that the Russian soldiers on the front line ever got wind of it, but what was the effect on the Ukrainian morale? I know obviously it didn’t end with any major Russian leaders getting toppled, but to have someone calling out publicly Putin for mismanaging the war within Russia and getting cheered in the streets. From the Ukrainian soldiers to whom you’ve spoken, what were their thoughts on all of those scenes, the criticism of Putin within Russia by somebody who is an influential figure?

Prigozhin has obviously been unbelievably nasty in his criticisms and personal in his vitriol against Russian military management of the war, whether it was [Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces] Valery Gerasimov or [Minister of Defense] Sergei Shoigu. And there’s always been this distinction that he was doing that, but he wasn’t actually criticizing the rationale for the war itself and that in doing this, marching on Moscow like this, somehow crossed that line here.

I mentioned to you that they call it sort of a force majeure moment, but the Ukrainian foreign minister really believes that this this is a sign of Putin’s weakening power. And obviously you’re hearing that from a lot of people, but we’re certainly hearing that here. And it isn’t just frivolous, wishful thinking. It is what they believe. The foreign minister and others believe that there will be more, more people that will challenge, although he wasn’t specific for whom that might be. But then they’re also very specific, to them, Prigozhin and Putin are both criminals. Like Klitschko says, they’re both criminals, it’s not as if one of these is good.

Their goal very much is to not have anyone in the international community take their eye off the ball, which is that they were invaded and their sovereignty is being threatened. And they want to make sure that the focus remains on that, because they think that’s a that’s a long and serious battle that doesn’t just, snap your fingers, go away, whatever, however dramatic the changes in Moscow may end up being.

As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said all along, Ukraine is an independent, sovereign nation that is not just a pet for Russia that gets it get taken back into the house when they want it.

Right, right, right.

Out of your coverage there in Ukraine — and you can incorporate this trip and previous trips — what’s something that you’ve learned that wasn’t possible to learn remotely, something that you’ve only learned and were able to report on and really comprehend and understand because you were there on the ground?

I would say a couple things. I think firstly, on a human level, and I felt this every time I’m here in in various ways, that you kind of seem like there’s a sort of jarring juxtaposition of normalcy and war side-by-side.

For example, here in Dnipro and as you go further south, it’s increasingly militarized, but even in villages near the border, you’ll see some that are not fully damaged. And there will be a house and swingset and a kid and a sheep, and there will be people and they’ll be a tiny bodega. And then right in the forest, on the edge of town, and hanging around in town are soldiers. Right? So it’s a completely militarized thing, but also people living their lives, even on the frontline itself.

And you certainly see that in cities like Dnipro. People are dressed and going to work and you see people living their lives. Last night, the air raid sirens went off a couple of times, there were drones going overhead. And at night it is dark, they turn off the streetlights, it is as dark as you can possibly imagine, and it’s a million people city. But then they get up in the morning and then we go in the grocery store and there’s people buying fresh fruit. I think that juxtaposition is something that no matter how much you know it to be true, when you see it and experience it, it’s quite emotional.

The other thing on that front — when I was in Kyiv in the spring, there was a targeted missile strike on an apartment building in Kyiv on Saturday night. And I went there on Monday. I was talking to this guy and he’s a dental hygienist, and his wife lived on a lower floor and the strike was on the 15th floor, and five people were killed. You could see it, that you could have easily been where the shrapnel was, depending on the physics of it. Some apartments are completely busted and blown up, others are untouched.

So he told me he had lived there for months, and we did not think this could ever happen to our building. And it’s amazing because I think sometimes when you’re far away, you’re thinking, okay, in Ukraine now everyone knows something could happen to them. But to them, it’s like I live in this big city Kyiv, these missile attacks happen and they’re not going to happen to my building and then they do.

It was quite striking to me, his emotion on that and it hits home, the simultaneous random nature of some of these strikes and yet a terrible precision, because they take out lives and they ruin people’s lives. And just looking up at an apartment building and seeing that.

It’s not the same, at least for me, when I see an image or I read about it as when I actually am standing on the ground looking at the same brands of cars that would be in my garage or your parking lot. And there they are, completely busted up with like giant chunks of cement, the whole block.

I would also say that on the frontlines itself, understanding the terrain and the amount of waiting that goes into war and then the sudden movement that they have to make, actually being able to see that firsthand, is quite significant.

You can watch Erin Burnett OutFront weeknights at 7PM at CNN.

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Sarah Rumpf joined Mediaite in 2020 and is a Contributing Editor focusing on politics, law, and the media. A native Floridian, Sarah attended the University of Florida, graduating with a double major in Political Science and German, and earned her Juris Doctor, cum laude, from the UF College of Law. Sarah's writing has been featured at National Review, The Daily Beast, Reason, Law & Crime, Independent Journal Review, Texas Monthly, The Capitolist, Breitbart Texas, Townhall, RedState, The Orlando Sentinel, and the Austin-American Statesman, and her political commentary has led to appearances on the BBC, MSNBC, NewsNation, Fox 35 Orlando, Fox 7 Austin, The Young Turks, The Dean Obeidallah Show, and other television, radio, and podcast programs across the globe.