Maeve Higgins: The way to stop this steamroller is with a bigger steamroller

Maeve Higgins: The way to stop this steamroller is with a bigger steamroller

Workers clear debris at a shopping centre that was damaged in a Russian rocket attack in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, Wednesday. Picture: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Simon Ostrovsky is a PBS NewsHour special correspondent and an award-winning freelance news and documentary producer. He has covered the former Soviet Union region for the past 20 years, including the crisis in Crimea, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine.

Since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine four months ago, Ostrovsky has reported on war crimes, the disinformation plague and most recently, Russia’s “filtration camps”. We met in Brooklyn to discuss his work, his insights into Vladimir Putin, and his thoughts on Ireland’s response to the war.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. I began by asking him about his early days reporting from The South Caucuses, beginning in 2004.

“It was a very big change to working in Russia because when you live in Russia,” Simon Ostrovsky says, “even as an English-speaking journalist, you have a very Moscow-centric view of the region. All of the information you’re getting is channeled through this Russian prism.

Then, you go to Azerbaijan or Georgia, and suddenly you realise these aren’t just former Russian provinces.

“These are completely independent cultures with their own language and cuisine and outlook on the world. It broadened my perspective a lot; I started seeing things from the point of view of the formerly colonised, rather than the coloniser’s.”

Did you ever feel censored back then?

At that time, no. For a long time, the newspapers were left untouched, as something that the Kremlin itself could use to understand what was happening in the country. They certainly couldn’t use their own television channels to get a real picture of what was going on, because they were the ones giving them instructions. But when Putin came back for his second presidential term, he started tightening the screws. I think that’s when the megalomania really started.

I wonder how it felt at that time in Russia. Was it obvious what was happening?

Well, there was a mass protest movement in 2011 as a response to the parliamentary elections, and there was a huge crackdown and lots of people were put in jail for a very long time. The first, I guess, realisation of who Putin really was by Russians, and people around the world, was when he cracked down so hard on his own people and the opposition. Back then, it was Russia’s problem. Now? It’s everyone’s problem.

I was thinking about that, obviously there are Ukrainians all over the world, but why would you say everybody else should care about this war?

Like you say, there’s Ukrainian refugees everywhere so it’s not something that feels so distant. People in Europe are encountering this every day when they meet Ukrainians who’ve have to flee their homes. But the real reason that we should care about what’s happening is because it’s a very clear moral issue, which is that Ukraine is an independent, peaceful country which was aggressively attacked by a much larger power that is using military might in order to conquer territory.

Right, but I’m not sure that telling people it’s a moral issue will actually make them care, you know?

Well, there’s another thing which is really important; this isn’t a war between languages or ethnic groups or cultures. It’s a war between world views. The people who are fighting in Ukraine want to be a part of the European community and do things in a democratic way. The people who support Russia want an authoritarian style of government. And as that authoritarian world view advances through Ukraine, it gets closer to Europe. There’s potential for authoritarianism to spread beyond Ukraine; that’s the other really big reason to care.

You were one of the first journalists to reach Bucha following the Russian army’s withdrawal. There, you documented the bodies of unarmed civilians. With so much citizen journalism and social media today, how do you see the role of foreign correspondent?

My mission when I arrived in Bucha was to corroborate whether the photos and social media I had seen were true, since it seemed unbelievable. Eventually, we found this office building that had eight bodies dumped behind it. Most of the men had their hands tied behind their backs and bullet holes in the head or the chest, or both.

As we got there, the local Ukrainian volunteers who had been collecting bodies were putting them into body bags. I asked them, as they were putting one man into a bag, if they could turn him over so that we could see whether his hands were tied. I think they thought this was pretty voyeuristic behaviour, but it was important for us to be able to say, without a doubt, these were the victims of a war crime perpetrated by Russia. That’s why you can’t do everything from a distance, and you can’t just make judgements based on what you see on social media.

Your reporting for The New York Times about Russian misinformation in Transnistria showed people who believe completely false stories about the war, is there a way past that?

I mean, a lot of people have broken their brains trying to figure out a way to fight disinformation. People have a lot of different ideas but frankly, I don’t think any of them really work. I also don’t think that we’re going to be able to stop Russia with messaging.

We’re not going to be able to convince the Russian public, but, more importantly, Vladimir Putin, that he needs to stop this war. There needs to be a realisation that the only way to stop a steamroller like the Russian military is with a bigger steamroller.

I don’t think that’s something that people want to hear. People want to think that there is a negotiated solution that we could come to with Russia, where they get a chunk of territory in Ukraine and they’re happy with that; but that’s forgetting history.

Who doesn’t want to hear that?

I mean, the international community doesn’t want to hear that. If Putin is appeased, it’s just a question of time before he chews off another chunk of Ukraine, or maybe goes further. People want gas prices to go down; they don’t want to have to be involved in an existential fight against an authoritarian regime that seems willing to win at any cost.

I wonder is there anything else that you wish people, especially in Ireland, knew about this war?

I think Ireland has been solid in terms of their response to the war. Irish people have been really supportive of Ukrainian refugees — they know who is to blame. But as everyone feels the economic pain from the instability that’s been caused by the war and Covid and everything else, they should really think about how yes — it sucks — but it’s temporary. You’re going to get through it, and it’s something that you have to do, because Ukrainians are actually suffering much worse privations than a high gas bill.

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