Read here for JG’s fascinating account of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Find enclosed a side of the story so often lost in the mainstream media, from accounts of friends getting arrested to reactions to conscription. Read a truly remarkable account of the war from citizen level.
Interviewer: What was the initial response when the invasion started, from both a Russian and Ukrainian perspective?
JG: So, I think the first thing that I should say before I get onto answering that is it’s very easy to see Russia as one homogenous block, and I think that’s also true of Ukraine, and there’s far more nuance that one could give this question than I’ll be able to give in an interview of this scale, but we also mustn’t forget that this conflict really started in 2014. The Ukrainian population had felt this was coming and that’s unlike the Russian population. So in many ways the Ukrainian population was psychologically far better prepared for this than the Russian population was. Throughout Putin’s time in power in Russia, his core popularity has rested on the stability of the regime, and so the initial Russian political response relied first on reassuring the public that this was simply a special military operation, and the distinction there is really important because a war in most Russians’ minds makes them think of the Second World War, they think the Great Patriotic War, they think about the war in Chechnya. And importantly, when you think about war in the Russian context, people think about things that happen to them at home. They think of food shortages and domestic terrorism in the case of Chechnya. So it certainly wasn’t a war because that might disrupt the stability that Putin has been widely praised for. There was a groundswell of public support among a chunk of the Russian population but equally, others were nervous. Of course, the visible elements of the initial response from the Russian side were from those who supported the war, because anybody who attempted to protest against it was shut down extremely quickly. Two of my friends were arrested for protesting. The Ukrainians have been remarkably courageous and determined. When the conflict started, people were scared. Who wouldn’t be, given the size and the previously assumed capabilities of the Russian Army? Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been the figurehead that any state needs in wartime. The Russians were tremendously naive in the first few days when they attempted to spread disinformation, suggesting that Zelenskyy and his people had been killed. Zelenskyy’s experience in the television world also means that he knows how to put on a good show. His appearances in famous Kiev landmarks, insisting that he wouldn’t give up and that he would not leave, gave Ukrainians something to rally behind. He’s now achieved something that has always proven quite difficult for Ukrainian leaders: a common national cause to unite behind.
Interviewer: How did the relationships with Russians living in Ukraine at the time of the start of the war change?
JG: I think the best response to this that I’ve seen came from the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK just a few days ago. That’s Vadym Prystaiko, and he said Russians can be the good guys if they want to be, if they get rid of Putin. That’s basically it. I think the Ukrainians have always made it very clear that their real issue is with the Russian regime and ordinary Russian citizens are just being taken for a ride. Russia and Ukraine are so close in so many ways. But one cannot look at what’s happened in Ukraine without understanding that Ukrainians, ordinary Ukrainians, will feel truly betrayed by huge swathes of the Russian population, these people who they are supposed to be very close with. But it is also important to remember that Russians live in Ukraine. They live in the Baltic States. They live in Moldova. There are Russian speaking groups in all of those places, and I think quite often they’re quite keen to make clear they do identify around the fact that they’re Russian speakers, but that’s not the same as identifying with the Russian government. Ukrainians know all too well what it’s like to live in a society where the flow of information is controlled and where political apathy rather than active political support is key to maintaining the status quo. One way in which Putin has been successful is that he’s managed to convince the Russian population that this doesn’t really affect them too much. Having said that, we know that there have been reports of abuse directed towards Russians, even in London: Russians have been spat at on the tube. And ironically enough, Ukrainians have also had some abuse because people have heard them speaking Ukrainian or perhaps even Russian and they’ve been perceived as Russian.
Interviewer: How has the war changed the perception of President Putin within Russia?
JG: Now, that’s a really interesting one, because Putin has attempted to insulate himself from a lot of the criticism throughout his time in office. The conflict has damaged his reputation in some quarters, as one might expect. The longer this goes on, the more humiliating the defeats, the more that will be the case. It remains the case, though, that the ones who have carried the can for the failures in Ukraine have been his generals: those surrounding Putin, including very high-profile people like Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister. What is new is the nature of some of the criticism. The new sorts of criticism that we’ve seen in recent months are from what you might call orthodox fundamentalists, national democrats, and this interesting group of military bloggers – one of the best known of which is a guy called Igor Girkin, otherwise known as Strelkov, which means ‘shooter’. And the criticism from these corners of Russian discourse suggests that the Russian Army is doing badly, not because the invasion itself was a fundamentally bad idea – which I think is what most people in the West would suggest it is – but because they simply haven’t gone in hard enough, which is why you’re seeing these people being allowed to criticise, because it plays into the Kremlin narrative that the core goal is about restoring Russian greatness, saving it from the West’s decadent, tolerant values, and defending the ‘русский мир’ (russkii mir) meaning Russian world. And the issue here is that the discourse in the media has been grotesquely extreme in a lot of cases in Russia. It really has become silly recently. And a lot of the stuff that you hear these people saying in the media is increasingly preposterous. But criticism of Vladimir Putin directly is limited.
Interviewer: Do those who oppose Putin in Russia feel he can be removed?
JG: I think there’s a belief that Putin will be removed. I said right at the beginning of this conflict that this is the beginning of the end of Putin and the end of Putin’s Russia. I still believe that that’s definitely the case. However, there’s a concern among many, and it’s a concern I share, about who will replace him. And the idea that Putin will be removed, and Russia will suddenly become a functioning democracy that undergoes a period of great reconciliation with the West, which atones for his sins in Ukraine is not only not guaranteed, but also, in my view, is not particuarly likely. We may find that whoever replaces Putin, we don’t like very much at all. And there are all kinds of names in the ring about who might replace him: quite well-known ones like Dmitry Medvedev. The former president has become relatively well-known over the last few months for being almost an ‘attack dog’ in the media and on Twitter, belittling Western governments and criticising Western politicians. And there are people like Sergei Kiriyenko, who’s the first deputy chief of staff, and Vyacheslav Volodin, the Speaker of the State Duma, who is another quite hawkish figure. On the other hand, at this point, the Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, and Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, have remained relatively quiet about the special military operation. But before the war, they were seen as contenders to replace Putin. So, I think there is a belief not only that he can be removed, but that he will be removed. But I think it’s a question of when, it’s a question of timing, and it’s also a case of who replaces him, because I think that we won’t necessarily like who replaces him.
Interviewer: What has the reaction to conscription been like from both Russian and Ukrainian perspectives?
JG: Well, Ukraine and Russia were constituent parts of the same Soviet Union, and so some degree of military conscription for men has been a common feature in both societies for decades. Men are expected to do military service, subject to certain conditions. Of course, doing your military service in peacetime is very different to doing your military service when there’s a massive war going on. In Ukraine, a travel ban for men was introduced immediately after the invasion started. And there are certainly plenty of men in Ukraine who have felt trapped and worried that they would be called up to fight. Decisions on additional mobilisation are now to be taken by the General Staff, and the threat of compulsory conscription for military service seems to have subsided a little bit in Ukraine because I think a decision has been taken. There’s a general impression that it’s far better to have willing volunteers than unwilling conscripts. I think that’s a lesson that the Russians have not learned, because there were lots of Russian soldiers at the start of the conflict who had no idea that they were being sent to fight in Ukraine. In leadership terms, the idea that one can successfully lead a group of people without telling them about the overall mission, why they are doing what they are doing, is nonsensical. Nevertheless, that’s essentially what the Russian Army has attempted to do. Initially, people weren’t too concerned about it because the Russian political approach was to convince people that everything was normal. The Russian phrase that you always hear is ‘Всё идёт по плану’ (vse idet po planu) meaning ‘everything is going according to plan’, don’t worry yourself, don’t think about this too much. If you think about it too much, you might start questioning whether it’s worth it. There was a big shock when partial mobilisation was announced in Russia and there was a flurry of activity about people trying to protest against that. But as we’ve seen, you can’t protest effectively in Russia. People were not comfortable about it because apathy was something that was harder to maintain. All of a sudden, a recruitment officer could well be knocking on your son’s or your husband’s door saying it’s time to go and join the war in Ukraine. That was not generally well-received in Russia.
Interviewer: How long do the Russian and Ukrainian public expect the conflict to continue?
JG: Well, again, Ukrainians are psychologically better prepared for a longer conflict, I feel. I think that the idea that they’re just going to roll over and give up now is unlikely. There’s certainly no hint of that from their leader. My sense is that the Russians are uneasy about how long this is dragging out. Russians still insist that ‘fsyo eedyot poplanoo’, everything’s going according to plan. If it is, then it isn’t a very good plan. But the Russian government is still adamant that this is going according to plan. I think everyone knows that realistically they expected this to be over a lot quicker than it was. But it’s not just that it’s dragging on, it’s dragging on badly as well. So how long do they expect it to continue? I think there’s a resignation within Russia that it’s likely to grind on for quite a while. There are those (Mikhail Khodorkovsky would be one of them) who believe that this is likely to come to a head at some point in the spring. I’m not a betting man, though, so I certainly wouldn’t be quite so willing to nail my colours to the mast like that. There are too many variables at play here. The Ukrainians are absolutely dependent on Western support, so the political situation in the United States has a bearing on this. The economic reality of what is happening in Europe is also a factor. So, the long and short of it is I think it’s going to go on for quite a while.
Interviewer: Is membership of NATO seen as the answer by Ukraine?
JG: I think quite a few Ukrainians believe that it would be the answer. I think you’d find quite a lot of Ukrainians also starting to wonder: Well, it’s probably a bit late in the day for NATO membership because they’re already being attacked. I mean, from NATO’s perspective, the idea that Ukraine is going to become part of NATO while this is going on, is for the birds, because I don’t think anyone’s going to risk that. I think Ukraine has found itself questioning some historical decisions that it’s made. We mustn’t forget that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine did have a stockpile of nuclear weapons, quite a big stockpile. And Ukraine agreed to destroy that stockpile in 1994, and there certainly has been some discussion in the Ukrainian media which has reflected on that. Would Russia really have done what it did had Ukraine been a nuclear power? I think for some in Ukraine, understandably, it is a troubling question. On the issue of NATO, while some in Ukraine see that as the ultimate guarantee of protection, I’m not sure many in the West are quite so keen for obvious reasons.
Interviewer: Do you believe that the Western European states should be doing more to help?
JG: I think Western European states probably ought to have been doing more to help for over a decade to head this off in the past. It’s always surprised me how much Russia has been able to get away with, going right back to really fundamental issues like journalists being targeted within Russia: people like Anna Politkovskaya, whose murder has still never been solved, and people like Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned in central London with a radioactive substance. These things keep happening or have been happening. The Skripals are another case in Salisbury. There’s no doubt about it, the Russian authorities have been emboldened by their success. The idea that the two people accused of committing the Salisbury poisonings appeared on Russian television trying to claim that they were visiting Salisbury Cathedral is an example of the Russian state perhaps becoming emboldened and believing that they really can get away with anything. One can easily see moments where Putin’s regime has been emboldened to take increasingly belligerent steps. I think that it is unsurprising that the Russian authorities appear to have underestimated the West’s likely reaction to the conflict, because for so long the consequences for overstepping international norms have not been there. We are now at a point where we must not back down and we must see this through. I do think that we have made a massive strategic miscalculation in how we have handled Putin’s Russia over the last couple of decades.
Interviewer: How do you see this conflict being resolved?
JG: ‘I don’t know’ is the honest answer to that, I really don’t know. I cannot see it being resolved with Vladimir Putin in power. Something that I’ve heard from a lot of boys who are learning Russian is ‘Can he not just be assassinated?’, and there are so many problems with that of course. First of all, it plays into the Russian narrative that Russia is somehow under siege and is being attacked from the West. That’s no good. Secondly, it relies on that sort of false premise that Russia without Putin will be all of a sudden very cuddly and very friendly with the West. This is not necessarily going to happen so you might resolve one problem but create another. Having said that, I don’t think it’s going to be resolved while Putin is in power, and I don’t think he’s going to give up. You only have to hear about stories of him as a street fighting urchin back in Leningrad to know that this is not a man who gives up, but he’s dug himself in quite deep here and it is quite difficult to see a way he’s going to be able to extricate himself.
Interviewer: After the war, how do you see relationships between the two countries developing?
JG: There are examples of countries which have been at war and really quite horrific wars being able to reintegrate themselves and have normal relationships with their neighbours. I mean, the best examples of that would be Germany in Europe, and the question of national guilt and the desire to atone for what happened in the past manifests itself in all kinds of ways in German politics. That, though, has not happened by chance. It’s happened through very, very careful management of the situation post-war by the key stakeholders, and it’s not just going to happen by chance. I think Russia and Ukraine are extremely close. A normalized relationship between the two countries is not only possible, but it’s also hugely desirable. However, how that comes about is a question for later on. But lots of things have to happen in order for some kind of reconciliation between the two countries to take place, because so many awful things have happened that it’s going to be quite a difficult relationship to normalize.