For many TV viewers, the war in Ukraine became real when Matthew Chance donned his flak jacket.
In coming weeks, viewers would see Chance in several stunning conflict-zone scenes, from interviewing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a secret bunker to kneeling next to a hand grenade. But the veteran war correspondent has left the battlefield, at least temporarily, returning to his home in the United Kingdom to catch his breath and recover after a few tense months and perilous weeks in Ukraine.
“I’m a bit concerned that I’ve left [Kyiv] before the real push on the city has happened,” he told The Washington Post. “But, at the same time, I’m so tired that I can barely hold my thoughts together. It’s been exhausting.”
As a conflict that seemed abstract just a month ago metastasizes into its fourth week of full-fledged war with no end in sight, news organizations are assessing how to deploy staff for the round-the-clock demands of covering it.
Safety is a paramount concern: An American documentary filmmaker, Brent Renaud, was killed Sunday during heavy fighting in the town of Irpin, and Fox News correspondent Benjamin Hall was hospitalized after suffering injuries while reporting from the outskirts of Kyiv on Monday. But media bosses are also concerned about the toll that exhaustion could take on their Ukraine-based staffs.
“You start making mistakes when you get tired,” Chance said. “So, we have a responsibility as a company to try to rotate people out … You can’t just constantly keep doing that forever. The problem is that your judgment could fail.”
Chance joined CNN in October 2001, at the start of the war in Afghanistan; he was one of the first Western reporters to arrive — by foot — in the capital city of Kabul. In the two decades since, Chance has reported from conflict zones around the world, including coverage of Putin’s previous territorial incursion in Georgia in 2008. In 2011, he was taken hostage by forces loyal to Libya’s ruler, Moammar Gaddafi, in a Tripoli hotel. But it was his coverage of Ukraine this winter that made him a household name in the United States for the first time.
A day after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, Chance was “right in the middle of the fighting” outside Kyiv, at Hostomel Airport, anchor Jim Sciutto told CNN viewers. Chance broadcast while kneeling on the ground, with Russian troops visible in the background. “I’ve spoken to the commander on the ground there, within the past few minutes, and he said they are now in control of this airport,” Chance told viewers. “Frankly, we didn’t even know that the Russian forces were going to be here.” He then calmly kicked it back to Sciutto after saying the situation was “deteriorating,” as jets roared overhead.
On Feb. 28, Chance was reporting from outside Kyiv when he discovered, mid-broadcast, that he was crouched next to a grenade he hadn’t noticed before. “Let’s move away from that,” he said simply before continuing with his report.
A few days later, on March 1, Chance scored a rare and coveted interview with Zelensky, conducted in an underground bunker at a secret location. Chance, who had previously interviewed the Ukrainian president in April 2021, pressed the leader on why he had downplayed the threat of a Russian invasion: “Do you think the fact that you didn’t act earlier has left the people of Ukraine unprepared?”
Chance posted a photo of himself with Zelensky when announcing his departure on Monday, a message that was met with rounds of praise for his coverage of the conflict from both CNN colleagues and viewers. “Incredible work, it truly made a difference,” CNN’s Omar Jimenez wrote.
CNN’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, has also received plaudits for her on-the-ground coverage, part of a larger team of veteran reporters who have distinguished the network’s coverage from the competition.
Chance, who spoke with The Post shortly after arriving back in London, said the process of leaving Ukraine on Sunday night was long and arduous — 14 hours from Kyiv to the border with Poland, and then onto Kraków. He traveled in a convoy that included other CNN staffers leaving the country, he said.
“As soon as you cross the border, I feel this immense sense of relief,” said Chance, who coincidentally turned 52 years old on Monday. “You kind of visibly change in appearance. Your shoulders drop down. I slept like a baby last night.”
But Chance, who arrived in Ukraine in mid-January, said it was a very difficult decision — particularly since Russia could still launch the full assault on Kyiv that journalists in the city have been anticipating for weeks. While Chance said he’s looking forward to spending time with his family, he’s expecting to deploy back to Ukraine at some point, particularly since Putin has shown no signs of backing down.
Normally based in Russia, with an apartment in Moscow, Chance is staying away from the country for now. CNN, like many other news organizations, has pulled back from reporting in the country due to a draconian new anti-press law that criminalizes independent reporting. “I’m not going back to Moscow until we’ve established that there’s no threat to us from the Kremlin,” Chance said.
“This war, I don’t know when it’s going to end,” he added. “I don’t think it’ll ever end.”