One Year into Ukraine War, NBC's Richard Engel Shares Insights from the Ground: 'Still in the Early Phases'

Storied war correspondent Richard Engel has watched Russia's invasion of Ukraine unfold up close. On its one-year anniversary, he fills PEOPLE in on what's happening overseas — and explains what's next

Richard Engel in Mala Rohan, Ukraine (March 2022)
Photo: NBC News

Career war journalist Richard Engel has witnessed plenty of international conflict, covering wars and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa for more than two decades before the recent invasion took his focus.

But there's something different about what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine, he tells PEOPLE. It's a war of conquest with a proper frontline and uniformed soldiers. It's a militarized conflict unseen since World War II, one that threatens democracies around the world.

Now one year into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Engel isn't surprised that the fighting rages on — as NBC News' chief foreign correspondent, he knew to be prepared for a long-haul conflict. What he hadn't anticipated is how hard Putin would struggle to overthrow the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, a testament of Ukrainians' commitment to preserving its freedom and identity.

Engel — who first arrived in Ukraine two months before Russia invaded and spent a large portion of the past year there — has gathered a wealth of heartbreaking and inspiring stories on the ground since Feb. 24, 2022.

He'll tell some of those stories in an hour-long special of On Assignment with Richard Engel, airing Friday at 10 p.m. ET on MSNBC and available for streaming on Peacock. The special will focus on three ordinary Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied territory who joined an underground resistance to liberate their city.

Ahead of Engels' new broadcast, PEOPLE caught up with the war correspondent to ask about the toll of the past year, and what the world can expect to see next in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Below, our conversation.

TODAY -- Pictured: Richard Engel on Friday, March 15, 2019 -- (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty

Did you expect Russia's invasion of Ukraine to last this long?

I thought this could be a long war, but I didn't know what kind of war it would be. It turned out to be very different than anticipated.

I thought the Russians were going to invade, topple Kyiv and that the story would be the Ukrainian government trying to fight back and claw its way back into power. Instead, the Russians came, they invaded and within a matter of months, it was clear that Vladimir Putin had miscalculated.

Very quickly on, the Ukrainians were driving the Russians out of the country and pushing them back. And that is still what the Ukrainians are trying to do, trying to push the Russians out of the country entirely.

I didn't know how it was going to play out, but I was quite convinced that, in one form or another, this was going to be a long commitment.

Has either side shown signs of conceding this battle, or is there no end in sight?

I think it's going to drag on. We're still in the early phases.

We're seeing Ukrainians fighting for principle. They're fighting for their land. They're fighting for their homes. Ukrainians' existence is at stake. They don't feel that they're in a position to compromise. If someone is trying to take your home and your forces are doing well to defend your house, why would you start negotiating and say to the invading forces, 'Okay, well, you can take one bedroom, or you can take the living room, just don't take the whole thing'?

Ukrainians feel that they have international support, at least from the United States and Western Europe, and their soldiers have been fighting bravely and with dedication on the frontlines, so they're not in a position to give up anything at this stage.

And for Putin, he's framing this as a war for Russia's survival. Framing this as a war against NATO. He's mobilized the entire Russian population to try and fight this war. So he's also digging in on a matter of principle, even though this isn't an existential fight for Russia. If Russia pulls out now, it's embarrassing for Putin. If Ukraine loses this war, Ukraine is gone — it doesn't exist anymore.

So at this stage, neither side is showing any signs of flexibility because for Ukraine, it's a matter of survival and they're doing well. For Russia, for Putin, which is the only voice that counts inside Russia at this stage anyway, it's a matter of principle.

Richard Engel in Kyiv (March 2022)
Richard Engel reporting in Kyiv, March 2022. NBC News

Over the past year people have read reports about Russian soldiers battling fatigue on the ground. Have you seen Ukrainians start to tire, too, as this seemingly David vs. Goliath battle drags on?

Not at all. I was just talking to Ukrainian troops and I was not sensing any kind of fatigue. Of course, they're tired physically, they're tired emotionally, but they're fighting to defend their homes, their identity, their language, their right to existence as a people. They can't afford to get tired because everything is at stake for them.

They're rallying around their military, they're rallying around the government, they're rallying around Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a way that is inspiring. This entire country is mobilized. Everyone is helping, everyone is volunteering. Even people who aren't at the front are helping by working in soup kitchens, sewing clothing, or sewing camouflage cargo nets that you throw on top of armored vehicles.

We did a story a few months ago about a bar where everyone in there was raising money for the troops, collecting money for the families. The entire country is engaged in this battle for survival. Not just the troops who are firing rifles and artillery.

What is the significance of the war in Ukraine?

There's several layers to this.

The most immediate, what's at stake for the people of Ukraine, roughly 40 million people, is their survival as a nation. Russia says that they don't exist, that they're Nazis. In cities that Russian troops occupied, there have been tremendous human rights abuses and mass graves have been found. Ukrainians know what Russia has in store for them should Russia take over this country because there's widespread evidence of atrocities in the areas that Russia has taken over. And Russia said that Ukraine shouldn't exist, that it's a historic anomaly and that it's a part of Russia that should be brought back into the fold and reincorporated in the motherland.

What's at stake for peace and security is, this is the first real test of the modern era since World War II. After World War II, you have a new global order that was the establishment of the Geneva Conventions, establishment of the United Nations. And that post World War II civility has seen wars, but not wars of conquest like this, where a nation mobilizes its armed forces, mobilizes its population with the intention of taking over, subduing, conquering and annexing its neighbor.

We haven't seen that since World War II, when both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany broke out of their borders with the intention of gobbling up their neighbors and reforming an empire. The United States went to Iraq, no doubt, and toppled a sovereign government, but the intention was never to make it a 51st seat and colonize it and to make it English-speaking. We're seeing the post-World War II world order being challenged, where a sovereign state, which is democratic, is being threatened.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty

It's important to remember, there was a democratic revolution in Ukraine in 2014. Suddenly, Ukraine broke away from Putin's leadership, started looking to the West, started looking to Europe, started looking to the United States. That's what triggered this invasion. At first, it was the takeover of Crimea, and then the takeover of Eastern Ukraine, and now finally, the war that we're in right now.

This is an attempt by Putin to take over this nation which was starting to look to the West. It's a challenge of the post–World War II order, and it's a challenge to NATO. It's about national sovereignty, it's about the survival of democracies.

What sets the invasion of Ukraine apart from other conflicts we're seeing around the world?

What makes this war unique is that it's so clear. A lot of the wars in the Middle East, which I've spent the past two decades covering, are far more murky. They're religious wars, they're ethnic wars, they're tribal wars.

Here, you have Putin who decided to take over a country by sending about 190,000 troops over the border to topple a democratic government and take it over. So it's different than the conflicts I've seen before. Here you have the two sides fighting each other in uniform. It's a militarized conflict. In conflicts in the Middle East, participants didn't wear uniforms, they were civilians, they were hiding, guerrilla war, assassination, kidnappings.

Here, you have a population mobilized behind its army to defend its territory, much more like World War II than the last wars of the Global War on Terrorism era that began with 9/11.

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Richard Engel in a village on the outskirts of Kharkiv (March 2022)
Richard Engel in a village on the outskirts of Kharkiv, March 2022. NBC News

In your time reporting on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, you've met countless people whose lives will forever be affected by the events of the past year and the eventual outcome of this invasion. Do any stories from the last 12 months stand out?

Everyone is impacted by this war all the time. About half the population has been displaced, internally or externally. But there is one story that fascinated me because there's another dynamic to this.

Russia has occupied certain Ukrainian cities since the start of this war. And I was fascinated to know what it's like to live under Russian occupation. This war is not just to topple the government, it wants to occupy and take over Ukraine, because it says that Ukraine is a Nazi state, it's Russian and it has to be returned to Russia, as well as speak the Russian language instead of the Ukrainian language and use the Russian currency.

And there was a city, Kherson, in Southern Ukraine, that for eight months was occupied by Russian forces. They imposed an occupation government, they made the schools teach only in Russian language, they imposed Russian culture, and they ripped down all the signs of the Ukrainian government. You couldn't fly the Ukrainian flag and couldn't sing the Ukrainian national anthem. These things were all made into crimes.

But in this city, an underground resistance formed. Civilians who were still in the city were working actively to undermine the Russian occupation authority, spying on the Russian soldiers, killing the Russian soldiers. And we followed a group of them, and we heard their stories of what it was like to resist the Russians inside an occupied Russian city while hiding what you're doing, knowing that the consequences for being caught are severe, very severe. And we have an hour on their story airing in my On Assignment special on Friday.

Richard Engel in Eastern Ukraine (Feb. 2023)
Richard Engel in Eastern Ukraine, February 2023. NBC News

In the early days of the war you were holed up in a hotel with other journalists like Fox News' Benjamin Hall, who narrowly survived a Russian blast, and his beloved colleague Pierre Zakrzewski, who didn't. What effect did that tragic event have on your view of war reporting?

It was terrible. A tragedy.

There is a risk that journalists face while covering war zones. I was in Ukraine. I saw Pierre at breakfast. Maybe not that morning, but the morning before and the morning before that. We were in Kyiv, and the Russians were advancing. These were the early days in the war when it looked like the Russians were going to enter the city, but they were being held off at a bridge. One side of the bridge, where we were staying, was government-controlled, and then beyond the bridge was where the most active fighting was, where the Russians were advancing to try and close in on the city.

It was very risky to cross that bridge. It was very risky to be inside Kyiv because the Russians weren't there yet and there was a chance we may get hit by an airstrike or something like that, but once you cross that bridge, which was a bottleneck, you were in a battle zone and there were risks. We went into that area. It was very risky and made it out. I'm very glad we did. His team didn't and it's a terrible, terrible tragedy.

I've lost friends in many conflicts over the years and every time I do, I think about them and remember why they're doing it. They're doing it because they believe it's important to tell the story and it's important to understand what's going on.

Why do you feel that it's important to still have reporters on the ground in Ukraine right now?

It's fundamental to be on the ground. You don't know what's happening unless you're there, especially now in this age of rumors and active disinformation. I think it's probably never been more important to get firsthand information. And in a war zone, that's more complicated, and it's more risky than other situations.

On Assignment with Richard Engel: Ukraine's Secret Resistance airs this Friday at 10 p.m. ET on MSNBC and will be available for streaming on Peacock.

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