Transcript of EP 243 – Yaroslav Trofimov on Ukraine’s War of Independence

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Yaroslav Trofimov. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Yaroslav Trofimov. Yaroslav is the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent of the Wall Street Journal. He has covered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and has been working out of Ukraine since January 2022. He joined the Wall Street Journal in 1999 and previously served as Rome, Middle East, and Singapore based Asia correspondent and as Bureau Chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan and as Dubai based columnist for the Greater Middle East. He’s the author of two previous books: Faith at War and Siege of Mecca. We’re going to talk about his new book today. You can also learn more about him at Twitter at @yarotrof, Y-A-R-O-T-R-O-F. As usual, all the links that we talk about here will be on the episode page at So welcome to the Jim Rutt Show.

Yaroslav: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jim: Yeah. This is a very interesting book. As regular readers know, I’m a bit of a military historian and suck up books on military history and military campaigns. This is the first thing I’ve read in-depth and in detail about the Ukraine-Russia war and really enjoyed it. It’s very amazing amount of detail and including… I thought I had a pretty good knowledge but there were definitely some things I did not know that I picked up here and it was compellingly written. So this was a very enjoyable read. So those of you who enjoy reading military details and a whole lot more including cultural things, pick it up, Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence. Also worth noting, Yaroslav has another book coming out soon in July, at least on Kindle, called No Country for Love. That sounds like an intriguing title.

Yaroslav: Yeah. Well, it’s about the same country, unfortunately, that has had more than one war. So the novel is set in between 1930 and 1950. And it’s based on my family’s story in the middle of World War II. So let’s go back to the current one, as this war is still raging.

Jim: All right.

Yaroslav: Our Enemies Will Vanish is also very autobiographical because I was in Ukraine from the first day of the war and of the full scale invasion in 2022. And really traveled to all the hotspots that I could and I crossed through the frontlines. Spent a lot of time with various units and really tried to write a history of this war. I mean, the bloodiest war Europe has seen since World War II, both on the ground level as experienced by grunts in the trenches, by civilians that have to leave their homes, but also the policy level. So combining this with interviews with movers and shakers all the way up to Washington, London, and obviously, Kiev.

Jim: Yeah. You talked to Zelenskyy, himself, right? So it was-

Yaroslav: Yeah. Zelenskyy and Boris Johnson, President Macron, and top people in Washington. So a lot of research and reporting went to this book.

Jim: Cool. Before we hop into it, regular listeners know I usually don’t do a lot of biography with my guests but your biography’s probably a bit more relevant here than usual. Maybe give a very short version of your life story up until now.

Yaroslav: Well, I was born in Kiev. I’m born and bred in Ukraine. But then when I was a child, my parents moved to Madagascar. It’s an island of the eastern coast of Africa, a former a French colony. So I spent a large chunk of my childhood there. My dad was teaching at the university. And then after that, we came back and when the Soviet Union was collapsing, we moved to New York.

From New York, bounced all over the world. As you said, joining The Journal in 1999 and it’s been now a quarter of a century of covering pretty much every major conflict on the face of the planet since then. Which was a very different proposition from covering a conflict in my own country, the country where I was born and were… For me, personally, the stakes were very different and the risks I would be taking also were higher just because knowing the language and knowing the country, knowing its history, I felt like I had more of a mission to explain and to report on what was happening because I probably had more access than most people to a lot of the areas.

Jim: You did it. You got down to it. I mean, as we’ll get into all kind… You are right near the edge of many of these interesting and dangerous events that occurred. But before we get into that, again, for our audience’s sake, maybe you could give us a quick history of Ukraine and at least a little bit about its relationships with Russia and the Soviet Union. Maybe we’ll start off with the Kiev Rus which started the whole thing rolling. Not in a great detail but just hit the high points.

Yaroslav: I think to understand the roots of this war, you have to understand the basic proposition. In Russian historical tradition, Ukraine does not exist. If you listen to Putin, he would tell you, as he told Tucker Carlson, that Ukraine is a made up, invented country. The Ukrainian language was made up by the Austro-Hungarian staff.

The reason for that is that in Russian historical tradition, the Russian state traces its roots as a direct descendant of the Kiev Rus which is a state that was established in Kiev more than 1,000 years ago by the Vikings actually. That was a state that covered much of today’s Ukraine, Belarus in Russia, for centuries and centuries before Moscow even existed. Moscow was a forest.

Yaroslav, after whom I’m named, was Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the Prince of Kiev who built the Saint Sophia Cathedral in the 10th century. Both Zelenskyy and President Putin are named after Yaroslav’s father, Prince Volodiměr, Vladimir in Russia, who brought Christianity into Kiev. So the acknowledgement of the existence of Ukraine as a separate nation really undermines the founding myth of Russia.

Because if you accept that Ukraine is a separate country, then all that history that Russia says its own, suddenly the history of a foreign country. And then, Russia really starts in the 17th century. So that’s unacceptable to the Russians who see themselves as the inheritors of the Roman Empire. The Russian official histographer says, “We are the third Rome.” The first was Rome, the second was Constantinople in Byzantine, and we are the third. Therefore, you had centuries and centuries of Russian efforts, state efforts, to eliminate Ukrainian identity. The Ukranian language was banned in the 19th century and Ukrainian culture. This war today is the latest in the centuries long attempts to wipe out Ukraine as some kind of separate culture and separate people.

Jim: There’s some other interesting details about all that history which as I was doing my research the last couple of days brought back to mind. Which is while Ukraine and Russia were together for a long time at Kiev, the Golden Horde came through and basically conquered much of what is currently Ukraine as I understand it. And then, Poland and Lithuania came and drove them out and conquered Ukraine starting in the 16th century. I had forgotten, the last part of the Golden Horde wasn’t finally driven out until 1783. The Khanate of Crimea was driven out by the Russians or at least argued to be the Russians. Extraordinarily complicated history.

Yaroslav: That was really the pivot. Because basically, what happened is that when the Golden Horde came and overwhelmed much of Eastern Europe, it then retreated from Ukraine and Belarus. And Moscow, the little principality of Moscow, became the principal tax collector for the Mongols and Tatars and that’s the source of Moscow’s rise. They were the agent of the Golden Horde. And a lot of the modern Russian state structure from its postal system to even the names for the words like currency and customs, actually are Mongol words. They inherited the structure of the Tatar-Mongol state that they overcame.

A lot of Russian nationalists today will tell you that we are the real heirs of Gengis Khan, of the great Mongol empire. Whereas, Ukraine got absorbed through Poland into a very different legal and civilizational system. Ukrainian cities were living in the Magdeburg law which is a illegal code that came out of Germany and where the concept of citizens’ rights was enshrined. There were no citizens’ rights in a Mongol empire or in the early Russian Empire. They were complete autocracies.

Jim: It makes a lot of sense. And then, briefly, at the end of World War I when Russia had its revolution, Ukraine had a brief period of independence then.

Yaroslav: Right. Ukraine was never fully controlled by Russia. The reason why Ukraine managed to maintain its culture despite the bans and despite the persecution is because a big chunk of Ukraine was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ukrainians were among the most loyal citizens of the Habsburg Empire because they had rights there. They could send their lawmakers to parliament. There was a university in Lviv that allowed the Ukrainian culture to be preserved and flourish.

And so, the two parts of Ukraine, the Austrian Ukraine and the Russian-controlled Ukraine united briefly in 1917, 1919. And an independent Ukrainian state indeed existed until the communist Russia quashed it in 1920. But it quashed at a price because the Bolsheviks realized that the only way they could control Ukraine is by making significant concessions to the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. And so in the 1920s, Ukrainian became a state language in Ukraine and the Ukrainian education was mandatory. There was a period of so-called Ukrainization until about 1930 when Stalin reversed it and executed a large part of the Ukrainian cultural elite. And then, organized an artificial famine to kill millions of Ukrainians.

Jim: And then later, interestingly, two of the leaders of the Soviet Union were Ukrainians: Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Yaroslav: Well, I mean, we can argue to what extent Khrushchev was Ukrainian. I mean, he certainly had some Ukrainian blood. He came from Russia but from the Kursk region which is pretty close to the Ukraine border. Brezhnev was from the Ukraine, from the City of Dnipro, Dniprodzerzhynsk, though he was from an ethnically Russian family but he certainly was a native of Ukraine. We can argue that Gorbachev too came from the Northern Caucasus which was heavily Ukrainian. Certainly, his accent was to a Ukrainian ear very Ukrainian when he spoke Russian. So Ukrainians did play a significant role in the Soviet leadership. At the same time, Ukraine also had a very bloody and messy insurgency campaign against the Soviets from 1944 to about 1954 after Stalin’s death.

Jim: So again, just to highlight, very complicated relationship between Ukraine and Russia. And lots of Ukrainian people lived in Russia, Russians lived in Ukraine, Ukrainians speak Russian, some of them. So the story is quite complex, right?

Yaroslav: I mean, what is complex is the idea of what is a Ukrainian. That’s something that truly changed in the last 30 years and it’s hard for a lot of people, especially in Russia, to understand. Ukrainian used to mean ethnicity. People who speak Ukrainian, come from Ukrainian roots. The Ukrainian nationalism in the 1930s, like most nationalisms in Europe, was a pretty toxic, sometimes antisemitic. Certainly, very ethnic-based and led to some horrible, horrible violence against Jews, against Pols, against other minorities.

Like many other such movements in Europe between the two World wars, Ukrainian nationalism, as it was re-imagined in the 1970s, 1980s was a completely different kind. It was in part a product of Ukrainian dissidents sharing the same prison camps as Jewish refuseniks, as other Soviet freedom fighters from the other Soviet republics. The idea was that for Ukraine to be viable, it has to be inclusive.

And so, at independence, a decision was made that anybody who lives in Ukraine, no matter the religion, the bloodline, the physical appearance, the language they speak is an Ukrainian if they work towards the benefit of Ukraine. And so, somebody like President Zelenskyy whose parents are Russian speaking, Jewish Ukrainians, would not be considered the Ukrainian under the Soviet rules. His ID document would say Jewish not Ukrainian.

But now in the modern Ukraine, nobody even speaks about that fact or the fact that Ukraine’s current defense minister is a Muslim. The head of the army, Armed Forces General Syrsky is actually an ethnic Russian originally from Russia. But they all work for the benefit of Ukraine and nothing else really matters. So it is a really very American concept of citizenship. Not something usual for European countries where the idea of who’s German is, until now, for example, based on German origin and his blood and soil and bloodline.

Jim: So that’s an attempt to build, as you say, a much more American style. You’re a Ukrainian because you say you’re Ukrainian and you adhered to the Ukrainian nation.

Yaroslav: Right. It’s not just an attempt because it truly worked. I think that there’s no way Ukraine could have survived this war and fought so ferociously against the Russian invasion if it had discriminated against its minorities or its… Because people would’ve flipped sides. But there was no fifth column, there was very, very little collaboration with the Russians, and there still is very little collaboration with the Russians.

As I described in the book interviewing the mayor of Kharkiv, the biggest Russian-speaking city in Ukraine, he was telling me in this interview in a subway, underground shelter… The only safe place to be at the time because of constant artillery barrages in Kharkiv. That the Russian-speaking Ukrainians are actually the most patriotic Ukrainians now and the ones who are most fiercely alienated from Russia because they are the ones for whom war has a real meaning. For them, war was loss of their homes, loss of their relative or their friends. Whereas, people in Western Ukraine that originally were thought of as more nationalistic, fortunately for them, mostly saw war in television.

Jim: Okay. So then, let’s speed it up a little bit here. USSR broke up 1991, approximately. Ukraine went through various elections and regimes. Unlike many of the post-Soviet independent countries, seemed not to elect leaders for life. There was quite a bit of rotation in office and controversy, etc. And then in 2004, there was the Orange Revolution. Tell us about that.

Yaroslav: The Orange Revolution was really the expression of this Ukrainian spirit of not accepting authoritarian rule. As you said very correctly, Zelenskyy is the Ukraine’s sixth president and the only one of the six presidents since independence was re-elected. Everyone else was a one term president. That goes back to the traditions of the Cossacks and the fact that serfdom, [inaudible 00:16:21], and generally, Ukrainians are not willing to accept subjugation.

In Term 4, when the prime minister in charge tried to steal an election for president, people rebelled. Came out on the streets and very peacefully without a single person killed, without a single window front broken, achieved change. The Supreme Court had to intervene. Another round was called and an honest election was held. That was a really very inspiring lesson for Ukrainians but it’s also something that really scared President Putin who dubbed this a color revolution. And so, that this could be a threat to his own rule because the Russians could possibly do the same.

Jim: In fact, he still references color revolutions as do the Chinese from time to time as the thing to be feared which is the people saying, “Enough!”

Yaroslav: Absolutely. But obviously, what happened in Ukraine after that is that the pro-Western campaigners who won the election then fell out among themselves. And the government that they had was corrupt and inefficient and the loser of the Orange Revolution, former prime minister Yanukovych, won the next election cleanly, legitimately. And then, attempted to steer Ukraine towards Russia.

He won the election. Like every other Ukrainian president on promises of bringing the country closer to the European Union. But then, he flipped. He just did this massive about turn, signed the deal with Russia, and then hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets in 2013 for what is known as the Maidan Revolution. That really spelled the end of his rule at the end. Once he decided to use force and open fire on the protestors, that also triggered the war with Russia. Because let’s not forget, this is not a two-year war. The military conflict with Russia is more than ten years old now.

Jim: Now, in the United States, there was lots of propaganda floating around that the Maidan Revolution was actually a bunch of fascists. But I looked into it and that does not appear to be true, but there apparently were some that were involved. What was the actual story there?

Yaroslav: Well, the revolution itself was sparked by a Facebook post that was made by a journalist of Afghan origin. His name is Mustafa Nayyem. He was born in Kabul and his father brought him to Ukraine as a child. He’s not a fascist. He’s obviously not a white supremacist. He’s an Afghan. He put it on Facebook saying, “Come and protest. Who’s with me?” And then, thousands of people showed up.

This was a popular movement that had really broad support. Were the fascists in Ukraine? Yeah. There were some fascists in Ukraine. In every country in Europe, there are fascists. In America, there are fascists. When these fascist parties ran for elections, they could barely get elected to parliament. I don’t think they crossed more than a 1% threshold. Certainly, less than in any other European country. So obviously, Russia made a giant effort to frame the legitimate Ukrainian protest as some kind of fascist. Because in the Russian Parliament, everybody was opposed to Russian rules and Nazi. They called Zelenskyy a Nazi who’s a Jewish.

Jim: And then, Donetsk and Luhansk had very high percentage of Russian-speaking people. What was the nature of their revolt then, at that time, against the Ukrainian central government?

Yaroslav: The fact that people speak Russian doesn’t necessarily mean that they identify with Russia. Kiev, 30 years ago, was also about 80% Russian-speaking. It changed over time with education. A lot of people who speak Russian speak Russian but their parents, their grandparents, used to speak Ukrainian. They speak Russian because of the Russian colonial policies in education, in other areas.

The former president, Yanukovych was from Donetsk. He really controlled Donetsk before becoming president and Donetsk was a major industrial area. It just had a giant new airport built. It hosted the European soccer championship. And then, when Yanukovych was ousted and a new government came to power in Kiev, the local elites in Donetsk decided to play politics. They decided to use the threat of Russia to bargain for power with Kiev. They supported protests which then, quickly, were taken over by the Russian intelligence, Russian military.

Local elites, local oligarchs lost control of this protest movement, especially when actual trained personnel crossed the border. Like former FSB, the Russian Intelligence Service Colonel Girkin Strelkov, who took over the City of Slovyansk with a bunch of Russian veterans and the shooting war began. Once the shooting war began in Donbass, the local oligarchs lost everything. Their properties were appropriated. They basically started playing with fire which burned down their own house.

Once the Russians took cover those areas, they had no use for the locals. Properties were taken at gunpoint. A really bloody conflict erupted. People didn’t pay attention to it but 14,000 people died in Donbass between 2014 and early 2015. 14,000 is a lot of people. Nobody helped Ukraine. President Obama refused weapons. He famously said, at the time, that there’s nothing the US can do to prevent the Russian domination of Ukraine, full stop.

His priority was different, to work together with Russia on the Iran nuclear deal. And the Russian narrative of the Ukrainian nationalism as some illegitimate, possibly with fascist coloring, movement was strong. As was the Russian insistence that the apprising in Donbass and Donetsk and Luhansk is some kind of local farmers and miners and tractor drivers as opposed to actual Russian personnel across the border without insignia and it’s only a year later that the truth came out.

And so, Ukraine had to sign a humiliating deal in Minsk in the Belarusian capital in February 2015 under which it accepted de facto Russian control of much of Donetsk and Luhansk. One third of the territory but the majority of the population. This 8-year period of Russian rule there began. And in a way, this was beneficial to the Ukrainian cause because every sympathizer with Russia inside Ukraine saw what it means to be living in the Russian world that Putin promotes.

If people were imagining in 2014 that Russian world meant higher salaries, better jobs, prosperity, they saw that Donetsk and Luhansk became economic wastelands. Jobs disappeared, services disappeared, there was violence in the streets, and people started leaving. By 2022, the majority of the population in Donetsk and Luhansk under Russian occupation had fled to Ukraine, to Russia, to Europe. Mostly to Western Europe.

I remember driving around in Kharkiv just before the war and people were telling me like, “Okay. Well, we used to think Russia is okay. But now, we have 100,000 refugees from Donbass living among us,” and they’re telling us how horrible it was. So we certainly don’t want it in our own city. Because there, it’s war. Here, it’s peace. I think this was, in a way, some sort of inoculation for a lot of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Jim: It also produced a lot of, as I recall from your book, a lot of, as you said, sorting that the pro-Russian people, even in the parts of Ukraine not occupied by Russia, either left and went to Russia or moved to the occupied regions.

Yaroslav: A lot of many. So I think the number of people who moved to Russia or the occupied regions was pretty small. It was… A lot of the activists and a lot of the FSB agents and who were involved in violence or with the previous government like the riot police of Yanukovych, so they didn’t move. But we’re talking about hundreds, maybe thousands, certainly not large movements of people. Whereas, millions of people fled Russian [inaudible 00:24:49] in Donbass.

Jim: So then between 2015 and 2022, there was a low level frozen conflict with the sultry artillery shots back and forth but not a lot of people killed.

Yaroslav: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, if you look at what was happening under President Zelenskyy who was elected 2019, I think the total number of civilians who were killed in Donbass in a year was usually counted in a dozen or even less. So it was certainly a very low intensity conflict. However, the potential always remained to become high intensity because the Ukrainians had dug in and had fortifications and the Russians were quietly building up the military structure there. Regular Russian commanders were in charge of the units made up of local recruits. Both sides were aware of the fact that sooner or later, a full scale war could break out.

Jim: And so, why did it happen? American intelligence was reporting buildups late in 2021. What, if anything, changed to motivate the Russians to say, “Now is the time to attack.”?

Yaroslav: Well, it’s hard to say exactly what was in Putin’s mind because Russia is a much more autocratic society now than the Soviet Union ever was. When the Soviet Union decided to invade Afghanistan, the Berlin Bureau of the Communist Party had long debates. The transcripts of which emerged later, weighing the pros and cons. Okay. They made the wrong decision and they still invaded but at least there was a discussion.

In this case, hardly anyone, not even the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov, knew that Putin had decided to invade Ukraine, take over Kiev. So it was one man’s decision made based on very wrong information. I think Putin really… He spent in a several months during the COVID pandemic writing this big manuscript called, On the Historical Unity of the Ukrainian and Russian Peoples, in which he argues that Russians and Ukrainians are the same and no such thing as Ukrainians exist really as separate from Russia.

I think he really drank his own Kool-Aid and he believed that the Russian soldiers would be greeted with flowers by Ukrainians. And that only a tiny pro-Western elite is opposed to unification with Russia and would just flee if there were shots fired and nobody will resist. Certainly, he had reasons to believe that nobody in the West would resist seriously. He watched the debacle with the American exit from Afghanistan and I was also in Kabul when the Taliban walked into my hotel. In August 2021, he watched how the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled without putting up a fight for the capital.

I think he decided that, on one hand, it will never get better as far as the international environment. On the other hand, that time was working against him. Because with every year, the new generation of Ukrainians was growing more and more distant from Russia. Since 2014, Russia stopped being kind of the natural place where the Ukrainians would go to work on holidays because it was much easier to go to Paris or Brussels or Vienna because there were no visas anymore for Ukrainians to go to the European Union. There were cheap budget flights. You could spend $29.99 and fly for a weekend in Paris from Kiev. This [inaudible 00:28:29] those two factors combined. And if you look at the war plan, look at how small was the force that Putin sent in invade Ukraine, about 200,000 troops. It didn’t make any sense if you expected actual resistance. It was clearly insufficient for what is the largest country in Europe after Russia by landmass.

Jim: Yeah. In fact, I looked it up. It was in your book. I looked to check some other sources as well and the Russian invasion force was perhaps only 150,000 people versus the Ukrainian active duty military which was 200,000 so-

Yaroslav: Exactly. Yeah.

Jim: Those of us who’ve studied military history know, the attacker needs ratio of two to one at least and better three to one if it’s going to attack. They attacked on many fronts simultaneously. So clearly, somebody was thinking there would not be any serious response. Also, Ukraine had a quite large reserve force that it could call up and it did. By July 2022, Ukraine had 700,000 people under arms to some degree. So again, the general staff of Russia must have known this. They’re not fools, right? Yet somehow, they decided to go forward with this very modest attack on many, many fronts simultaneously so they didn’t have any overwhelming force anywhere. So it’s very curious, actually, from a military strategy perspective.

Yaroslav: Well, I mean, you need a larger attacking force if you are fighting a peer or near peer opponent. I mean, you don’t necessarily need it if you have massive military superiority. I mean, when the US invaded Iraq, the Iraqi army, it was much larger than what the US had to-

Jim: The second time. The first time, the guys, we actually built up a force almost as big as the Iraqi army. And of course, much, much better in sophistication.

Yaroslav: But in 2003, the US force was much smaller but it had overwhelming superiority in firepower in the Air Force, etc., etc. So it didn’t need to be bigger. The Russians never achieved air superiority over Ukraine because Ukraine turned out to have a strong air defense that was dispersed at the last moment and survived the initial Russian onslaught. The quality of the Russian military turned out to be not as great as the Russian generals were reporting to Putin. They had a small modernized force that was in display in Syria but the rest of the military was still the old Soviet corrupt military. The Ukrainians had about 400 people who had fought the Russians in the previous eight years, who had known how to fight the Russians, and they were not afraid of doing that.

Jim: It was quite interesting. I did four podcasts, I think, in the first 10 or 12 days after the war started. And I had two real military strategy experts and two independent thinkers. The military experts all said, “Oh, Ukraine’s done. It’ll last two weeks, four weeks, six weeks. The only question is, will Russia occupy the whole country or will it leave a small rump in the West?” While the independent thinkers, including one who was a area expert on Eastern Europe, said, “Not so fast. The coherence of the Ukrainian people is higher than Putin thinks and they will resist-”

Yaroslav: For sure.

Jim: “This is going to be a much harder fight.” So it was quite interesting that the experts overestimated the quality of the Russian military, while the people who knew more about the cultural side of things looked at the likelihood of serious resistance.

Yaroslav: Well, I think everybody underestimated Ukraine, the Russians, the Americans too. If you look at the US government, at the time, the American Embassy was shut down in Kiev. All the personnel withdrawn. Ukrainian was giving a few dozen Javelin [inaudible 00:32:20] missiles and told, “Have a nice insurgency. Goodbye and good luck.” The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told me that he was in Washington a couple of days before the invasion began and he went to the White House to see President Biden and other senior administration officials.

He told me, he felt like he was being given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Everybody was shaking hands and smiling but these were the final farewells for him and for Ukraine. So the fact that Ukraine survived was a shock to Putin and to most people in the West. And it did so initially, not thanks to the Western weapons because there were very few of those, but thanks to the Ukraine’s own Soviet-produced or Ukrainian-produced armaments and [inaudible 00:33:07] armed forces. Let’s remember that the flow of Western weapons that really changed the situation in the battlefield began much later in the summer of 2022.

Jim: So now, we’re right up to the edge of the war. It’s February 24th, 2022, right? Zelenskyy was saying right up to the end that war was not going to happen despite the US having provided him with intelligence that seems pretty compelling. What was up with that?

Yaroslav: Well, I mean, he was acknowledging the war may happen towards the very end. I remember listening to his speech the night before the invasion and he said that, “I have tried to call Putin several times. He never picked up the phone. But let him know that if he invades, he will be facing our faces, not our backs.” In a way, the Ukraine leadership, again, was looking at the same numbers and saying, they were telling me at the time, “How is it possible that they will invade the whole country with 150,000, 200,000 troops? It just doesn’t make any sense.” It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t work out and it was a failure for Russia. I think they thought… Well, I know they thought that the most likely venue of attack would be Russian Pincer Movement to surround the bulk of the Ukrainian military. That was, at the time, in Donbass from the north and from the south.

In fact, had Russia attempted that course of action, it would’ve been successful. It would have been very successful most likely and they wouldn’t have provoked the kind of international outrage than an attempt to seize Kiev did provoke. So that was another major mistake by Putin. I think Ukrainians remember those unnecessary, perhaps, reassurances by Zelenskyy at the time. Let’s not forget though, that at the same time as he was telling the world and the Ukrainians that Russia may not attack, is unlikely to attack, the Ukrainian military was making some preparations. The Ukrainian air defenses were rescued. Many of the units were decentralized. And so, Ukraine was not caught by surprise when it began. But that is a question that will be debated after the war. I think there will be an inquiry and the responsibility will be allotted.

Jim: That’d be interesting to hear what we find out when it goes to the papers. So that now, the war actually starts. The first main thrust was down from Belarus towards Kiev on both sides of the Dnieper River. But at the same time, and a lot of Americans didn’t notice this, but as a guy who had read a lot of military history, I noticed that there was also the breakout from Crimea and your book covers that quite a bit. In fact, actually, there were some new things for me actually, how far the Russians came up from the South as well. Presumably, there must have been a strategic decision made. We have to forget about the south, let the south take care of itself, and throw everything we’ve got to defend Kiev.

Yaroslav: Yes and no. I mean, yes… I mean, there was definitely the idea that if Kiev falls, nothing else matters, which is correct. The resources that were available in northern Ukraine were reallocated to Kiev. But the Russians had a vast network of agents and sleepers in the Ukrainian state, in the security system, in the intelligence system. They were hoping to activate them on D-Day and have entire regions flip and military units flip.

It didn’t work except in the south. In the south, in the Kherson region, the head of the local intelligence office responsible for Crimea, and most many other security officials, did work with the Russians according to the Ukrainian prosecutors. They’re arrested and awaiting trial now. The governor and much of the other state structure just fled and didn’t offer any resistance. And possibly, were also working with the Russians.

And so, the gates were open in the south and the Russians took advantage of that and moved very, very fast to establish this land bridge to Crimea, mostly in the Kherson region. Again, it goes to show how much power local people and local administrators had, mayors with bulldozers. Because once the Russians crossed the boundary of the Kherson region to the other one, next one, the Dnieper region or the Mykolaiv region to the north, which had different administrators, different mayors, all of a sudden local officials started resisting. They put up barricades. The mayor of Kryvyi Rih put construction equipment to block the roads. The moment they found resistance, they stopped.

There was a tale everywhere across Ukraine where local communities just took the war to their own hands and stalled the Russian offense long enough for the regular military to arrive a day or two or three later. The battles in the city like Lysychansk or the defense of Kryvyi Rih itself which was an important city and where no army units were deployed by the time the Russians arrived there.

Jim: That was one of the things I did not know how far north to Kryvyi Rih? How do you pronounce that?

Yaroslav: Yes, Kryvyi Rih. Yes, which is Zelenskyy’s hometown.

Jim: Yeah. I had no idea that the Russian initial thrust had gone that far. If it had fallen, that could have been a really bad thing for Ukraine.

Yaroslav: Right. And the other thrust was towards Voznesensk where the first major defeat of the Russians occurred, thanks to the local volunteers and a Ukrainian army unit that arrived a bit later. Because that was at the gate of another nuclear station, the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant. Also, it was the back door to Odesa. So the Russians who were [inaudible 00:38:58] there had to retreat many dozens of miles. But the Russians were expecting the same everywhere in the country, the same kind of collaboration and collapse has happened in Kherson and that didn’t happen in the rest of the country.

Jim: [inaudible 00:39:10] now shift back to the north where Americans have heard a little bit more about what happened. Tell us what happened over the first couple of weeks there in the north.

Yaroslav: Well, I think the most important thing happened in the first couple of hours. Basically when the war began, the Russian plan was to seize the Hostomel Airfields on the edge of Kiev to put paratroopers there, to secure the airfield. And then, to land dozens and dozens of planes with personnel carriers, fighting vehicles, and then a couple of brigades of the most elite Russian troops. And so, that airfield was protected by just the battalion of Ukrainian National Guard conscripts.

They had the warning of the war so they left the barracks and put up obstacles in the airfield. Just an hour later, the Russian missiles struck their base and the barracks. If they hadn’t dispersed, they would’ve been all killed. And then another couple of hours later on the first day of the war, dozens and dozens of Russian helicopters arrived. Subway shut down, others were not, and the Russians managed to take over the terminal and then much of the airfield.

But the battle was long enough for the Ukrainian reinforcements to arrive, Ukraine actually to arrive, and the Russian planes that were already airborne never managed to land there. It was too hot for them. There was too much damage to the airfield and they turned around. And so, had they landed, the gates of Kiev were opened. There were hardly any military in Kiev at the time. Had this gambit been successful, it’s quite likely that the Russian tanks would have been in central Kiev by the end of the day. That battle really saved Ukraine and it was touch and go. It was pretty close.

Jim: That was a key part of the strategy, presumably, on the Russian side.

Yaroslav: Right. And so, once they failed to decapitate the Ukranian government in the first day of the war, once the Ukrainians had time to mobilize their reserves, to bring troops from elsewhere in the country, to start getting weapon shipments, then the Russians realized that they just moved too fast too far and they couldn’t protect the supply lines. Because the Ukrainians were operating in their ear, they’re blowing up the columns, they were denying them fuel and water and food and ammunition.

At the end of the day, after three weeks of fierce fighting around Kiev in which the cream of the Russian military was destroyed, the best units, the so-called [foreign language 00:41:50], Russian Airborne Troops. They lost thousands of people there. The Russians had to retreat and they left the Kiev region at the very end of March, so barely a month and a couple of days into the war, and never came back. What the Ukrainians found in the wake of this occupation was the horrors of Bucha where more than 400 civilians were executed in this four weeks… Actually, three weeks of Russian occupation there and really revealed the nature of the war that the Russians were waging, the total disregard for civilian lives. That didn’t really change perceptions in Kiev about the possibility, among Ukrainians in general, but the possibility of any negotiated deal with the Russians because it was clear just how murderous the Russian rule was.

Jim: Has any sense of what happened in Bucha… It happened other places too but why in that particular town?

Yaroslav: Well, so there was a Russian column that initially came into Bucha, I think on Day 3 of the war. It got ambushed and destroyed. It was a large column and I think it was about… Dozens of armored personnel carriers and tanks burned on the main street. And then, the Russian pushed back and then they came back again. They came back again about, I think, ten days later.

Even though they occupied Bucha, the next town across the river, Irpin, was still a combat area, actually, for the rest of the campaign. And so, they were the in the fire. A lot of Ukrainian civilians were helping the Ukrainian military in guiding the fire unto Russian positions. The Russian military troops there, A, were taking casualties, and B, they saw every Ukrainian civilian as an enemy, as a possible collaborator.

And so, they had a free fire policy. They were shooting anyone that’s seen in the streets, anyone seen using their phone or suspected of somehow helping the Ukrainian military. So they had mass executions there and they clearly didn’t have any orders against that. Because once the truth about Bucha came out, Putin still gave out awards and promoted leadership of that particular unit that was there.

Jim: Also, came out with crazy stories like the Ukrainians killed the people or-

Yaroslav: Yeah. Well, I mean, the Russian propaganda has always been to deny the atrocities. It goes back to the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers and soldiers in 1939 which, for decades, the Russians claim had been carried out by the Germans.

Jim: All right. So we got to March, at end of March, there was the negotiations in Istanbul that were organized by the president of Turkey. It was there that the Russians claimed that they were going to be good guys and pull back from Kiev. And yet, that was really just a cover for their own failures.

Yaroslav: Right. I think some of the Russian analysts acknowledged that at the time, they lost the City of Irpin the day before, they were routed in another front, in the Sumy region where the Ukrainians broke the Russian siege of the regional capital City of Sumy two or three days earlier. So it’s clear that the Russian lines were collapsing across the north and they had to withdraw. But it’s also true that there was this negotiation going on which started pretty early in the war at the time when the Ukraine was desperate for any way of slowing down the Russian advance.

They had come up… The two delegations had come up with a set of understandings. Not an agreement, there was still very major differences among them, including about the size of the future Ukrainian army which the Russians wanted to be minuscule and unable to repel any invasion in the future and the Ukrainians [inaudible 00:45:45] would be roughly as large as the Ukrainian army before the war. But I think as we know now, because all these documents have come out, part of the security guarantees for Ukraine would be that in case a crisis erupts with Russia, the US and other guarantors of this deal would intervene.

The last minute, the Russians insisted on inserting a clause that saying that this intervention had to be by unanimous consent. Meaning that the Russians would’ve to approve the intervention of Ukraine’s ally to help Ukraine against Russia. So the Russians kept talking about Ukrainian neutrality but the neutrality to the Russians meant Ukraine’s disarmament because it meant a ban on getting weapons and any other supplies from other countries which meant that ban on basically having a military. Because Ukraine, obviously, could not produce all that by itself. The conviction was pretty clear, born out by reality that the Russians saw this as a way of just paving the way for the next stage of the war once they regrouped and of, eventually taking all of Ukraine, which remains their plan until now.

Jim: Gotcha. Of course, if I were the Ukrainians, I’d be highly skeptical of security guarantees. Because I think back, there was the Bucharest Memorandum when… Because Ukraine had a bunch of nuclear weapons at the breakup of the USSR, right? And in 19… What was it? 1996 maybe? There was an agreement that the Ukrainians would give up their nuclear weapons and return for security guarantees by the US, UK, and Russia initially. I think France and Germany eventually added to that. And yet, nobody honored those security guarantees when Russia attacked.

Yaroslav: Well, it was the Budapest Memorandum. It was not guarantees. So language was very vague deliberately because, obviously, the US didn’t have any intention of providing guarantees. It was security assurances. So the language that was being negotiating in Istanbul would have been much more binding. But again, the Russians threw this poison pill saying that these guarantees could only be invoked if Russia agreed to which made them pointless because they gave Russia veto power over any move to defend Ukraine by anybody else.

Jim: Okay. So let’s turn back now to the southern front, Mariupol, the siege there. Tell us a little bit about that and why that was important.

Yaroslav: Mariupol is the only place I didn’t go to while reporting for this book because it was besieged on Day 4 of the war and there was no way of getting there anymore. There was only one crew of foreign journalists. Foreign, I mean, Ukrainian journalists, but working for Associated Press, that was stuck there. They’re good friends of mine and they did a great job. They also showed this documentary that won the Oscar. Nobody knows how horrible the final outcome of Mariupol was.

It was a city of about half a million people, thriving port. It was the second-largest city in Donbass but under Ukrainian control. It was the only place in Ukraine where there were no air defenses. So the only place in Ukraine where Russia had total air superiority because it was surrounded and whatever air defenses in the city were quickly eliminated and where Russia had free hand in using aerial bombardment to level the city.

It did. According to the Ukrainian officials, maybe 70,000 people died in Mariupol, maybe 50. The AP counted upwards of 10,000 fresh graves from satellite pictures but lots of people were just buried in the rubble and then bulldozed. So it was decided that, by far, the worst atrocities in this world. But also, they have a very determined resistance by Ukrainian soldiers who, in full isolation, held out for nearly three months. They were surround in May and fought in indescribable conditions. No medical help. The wounded were dying in medieval conditions.

There was no water, no food, and they still held out until ordered by President Zelenskyy to finally lay down their arms. The leadership of the defendants of Mariupol was eventually traded in prison exchanges and came back to Ukraine. And so, I could write the book based on interviews with these soldiers who have returned after torture and after horrible passages in the Russian concentration camps. And also, by talking to civilians who had managed to flee in the city. But the defense of Mariupol is really one of the grimmest chapters and the most heroic chapters in the history of this war.

Jim: One of the things I took out of the book again and again and again is the unbelievable bravery and heroism of so many Ukrainian peoples. I try to think about if the US were in a similar situation, would our people be that tough? I hope they would but I’m afraid they wouldn’t. What is your insight into the Ukrainian character that allows them to be so goddamn tough and put up with amazingly horrible conditions and stoically do their duty? I was extremely impressed again and again and again by that aspect of the Ukrainian defenders and Mariupol above all else, right? Because that was a hopeless position. They knew that they would lose but they did not give up.

Yaroslav: Yeah. Well, there’s a saying that I remember reading as a child in some book about the Spanish Civil War and I could not find the source when I grew up. But the saying went that, “In war, people’s character opens up like a tin can and you find out what’s inside,” and I don’t think Ukrainians knew what it would be like. I don’t think Ukrainians knew that they’re as tough it is. Because until you are in these set of circumstances, until you are facing such adversity and such challenges, you don’t know how you’re going to react. Nobody knows how they’re going to react when the going gets tough. People can be saying, “We are brave. We will not crumble.” But then, sometimes they panic and sometimes the people who are not thought of being heroes actually perform acts of amazing heroism when confronted with the reality.

So Ukrainians, I think, were very surprised as the rest of the world by how tough they were. I think part of the reason is that just the moral case for resistance was so clear. I’ve covered lots of wars in my life and there were all in the shades of gray in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who were the good guys? I mean, they were bad guys and there were maybe better guys but they were very complicated conflicts. The Taliban and Afghanistan, despite all the atrocities they committed, were still a part of the fabric of the Afghan society and had a significant degree of support within the Afghan people.

But the Russians had no support in Ukraine, the Russians invaded for no reason and I think the moral clarity of this conflict is unseen since World War II. That sense of outrage, “How dare they come and destroy our country?”, I think powered a lot of resistance. And then, I think also was the experience of successfully fighting the Russians in Donbass in the previous eight years. They were demysticized. They were not as scary because there was a record of beating them. And so, Ukrainians were not as afraid of the Russians as many other people in Europe were.

Jim: What do you think the role of Zelenskyy was in helping to produce this creation of intense resistance in the Ukrainian people, a forging of the Ukrainian character? Because as you said, you don’t know what’s going to happen and Zelenskyy a guy who’d been a comedian on TV, maybe a serious guy but not all that serious perhaps, for the outside world. And yet, he rose to what seems to be amazing heights in this event.

Yaroslav: We wouldn’t go as far as saying that Zelenskyy forged the Ukranian spirit. The Ukranian spirit was there already. But clearly, the fact that he rejected the advice of people like Boris Johnson and the West leaders who told him on Day 1 of the war, “You should think about yourself. You should leave. Create a government and exile in London somewhere else.” He didn’t do an Ashraf Ghani. My fear when I was in Kiev at the time, I kept thinking to what happened in Kabul just half a year earlier and how the entire Afghan state collapsed the moment the President got on this helicopter and flew to Abu Dhabi.

So if Zelenskyy had done that, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened. But certainly, the cohesion of Ukrainian state would’ve suffered greatly. The fact that he rejected this pressure knowing that the Russians want to kill him, knowing that if the Russians take Kiev, he should expect no mercy. And then, after two days of chaos on the second evening of the war, he came out with his top aids outside his palace, his headquarters in Kiev, and recorded this selfie video saying, “We are all here. We’re going to stay here and you all should go stay and do your job and defend the country.” I think it had a massive psychological effect.

I remember driving through Kiev the next morning and seeing thousands of people coming out of high rises and just going through the stadium to pick up weapons and go to the front and defend the city. That’s when I remember thinking that, “Okay. If… It looks like the Russians will not win and if Kiev resists for a week, it’ll not fall.” Because by then, there’ll be enough momentum in international support and just general mobilization to keep it safe. So that, yes.

I think he played an even more important role in rallying international support. He didn’t have to rally Ukrainians, Ukrainians were already fighting. But the world had given up on Ukraine, and by making the moral case for Ukrainian resistance, by using his talents as an actor to speak to the audiences, to normal people, to crowds, to music festivals, to university commencements, to film festivals, to anyone who would listen, to parliaments around the world, he went over the heads of politicians in the US, in Europe who didn’t really want to get that involved and who were fearful of Russia and who were ready to offer the bare minimum. By creating this wave of public sympathy Ukraine, he forced their hand and the US and other countries got engaged a lot faster and with a lot more than they initially planned to do.

Jim: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense because I know I was watching those daily videos that he would do. I go, “Who is this guy? Holy shit. Is this Winston Churchill come back to life again?” Maybe, as you say, it’s his skill as an actor. But oh my god, did he project an implacable, highly moral, highly strong sense of self that was really amazing to those of us who didn’t really know that much about him.

Yaroslav: Yeah. Yeah. That really played a role. I mean, I’m putting the book and the Foreign Minister, Kuleba, was saying that it’s very rare in the history of diplomacy or history of international relations that moral arguments actually sway governments. Because usually, they act out of self-interest. But in this case, because they are democracies and because the popular opinion was at the time, so in the adversity with Ukraine, they had to act. I mean, obviously, this has changed, especially in the US. Not so much in Europe. But obviously in the US, now Ukraine has become a political issue and a divisive issue. That’s not the case in Europe thankfully.

Jim: Yep. Maybe you could give me just a little of that timeline about how that changed. Well, as you said, initially, it was people just shaking the hands of the Ukrainians saying, “Well, best of luck. Maybe you can run an insurgency.” How did that change? What was the timeline there where the West started to decide slowly, at least, in the beginning to, “All right. We will invest. We will provide some weapons.”? How did that unroll?

Yaroslav: Well, I think the turning point was the Russian drought, the defeat around Kiev when the initial Russian offense have collapsed and the Russians had to withdraw from northern Ukraine. It was this “Oh my god” moment in many Western capitals. “The Russians were actually defeated in battle by the Ukrainians. Who would’ve thought?” But then, the next phase of the war began for Donbass and Ukraine was out of ammo and started to lose ground.

That’s when first the artillery shipments, then the HIMAR shipments started. That’s also when a historical opportunity was lost. Because unfortunately, it took a long time for the US administration and others to cross their own self-imposed red lines and to approve new types of weapon systems. That was a time when Ukraine actually had a large superiority of the Russians in the battlefield when it came to manpower.

Ukraine had mobilized, Ukraine had close to a million soldiers in the summer of 2022. And President Putin, because for him, it was still a “special military operation” not a war, was refusing calls by his generals to mobilize because doing so would have accepted the notion that this special military operation was not going to plan. And so, Ukraine was calling for Western tanks, fighter jets, personnel carriers, more air defenses, and all these was falling deaf ears back in 2022. “It’s too provocative. No Abrams, no [inaudible 00:59:40] parts, no F16’s. It’s a pipe dream.”

And so, when Ukraine launched its offensive in September 2022 which was amazingly successful and allowed the Ukrainians to retake Kherson and parts of the Kharkiv region that are occupied by Russia. It just ran out of steam because Ukraine didn’t have enough gear and it took another year until the summer of 2023 for all that gear to arrive. But by then, Russia had mobilized and built the fortifications and hundreds of thousands of fresh Russian troops were manning them and the Ukrainian offense had failed. Very little ground was seized in that campaign which set the ground for the Russian offenses that are going on until now.

Jim: Yeah. Of course, realistically, the nature of military logistics would’ve been very difficult to… Even if the decisions were made in a little earlier in April instead of June to bring HIMARS and artillery and stuff, it just takes a while to get that stuff there. Certainly the more advanced systems, there’s training requirements, etc. It’s hard to see how they could have added much more weight to the August and September counter offenses under any scenario,

Yaroslav: I don’t know. I disagree with you. The HIMARS appeared in July and they were very effective. So if you take trained Ukrainian soldiers and retrain them for HIMARS, it only took a few weeks and they were very effective but there was only a few of the HIMARS in the beginning. If decisions had been made in March and not in October, September, the timeline would’ve been different. Again, the training on the F16 pilots only started a year ago. If it started… There’s [inaudible 01:01:28] in the battlefield. Right, and that’s why the Russians are now using glide bombs to a great effect.

Jim: All right. Let’s now switch back and dig in a little bit into the counter offensives of August and September 2022. You could see the Ukrainians doing some very good chess moves around Kherson that it appeared they were trying to maneuver the Russians out without having to fight a big battle. Let’s start that story. But then, let’s… When you get… Before the fall of Kherson, let’s switch to the northern front and the great surprise, an amazing route that occurred. In your book, in particular, you go into a lot of excellent and sometimes pretty horrifying detail on that part. So let’s start in the south and then pivot to the north.

Yaroslav: Yeah. Well, Ukraine has started this campaign to liberate Kherson in the summer of 2022 and HIMARS, which at the time was very effective, was being used to sever the Russian lines of communication over the Dnieper River and there were basically two of them. The dam, [inaudible 01:02:29] Reservoir, and the town of [inaudible 01:02:31] in Kherson City itself. They didn’t quite work to completely stop the flow of food and ammunition and fuel but it disrupted it certainly psychologically. Russia had some of its best units on that front.

Again, the air assault troops and the actual Ukrainian attempts to the ground offensive were very difficult, very painful, and caused quite a lot of losses. And then, Russia started pulling troops to that area and really exposed parts of the frontline in Kharkiv. The Ukrainians, after finding a weak spot in the Russian defenses, made this rapid thrust through the forest behind the Russian lines. Cutting off, surprised Russian, units and sorting some of them, taking Cardinal as prisoner. And really swept through that part of Kharkiv region and then kept going into Donbass in October 2022.

It was an amazing victory with relatively low casualties and the Ukrainians, in addition to getting territory, also captured vast stocks of Russian tanks, ammunition, artillery. You name it. It was a route by any calculation. What happened after that is that the Russian troops in Kherson panicked. They panicked and the fear was that the same could happen there. And so, they just withdrew on their own. The decision was made that there was a risk that the Ukrainians would cut them off as the commander of Russian troops explained at the time and they decided to leave. They wouldn’t have done that if Russia hadn’t suffered this route in Kharkiv but the psychological blow was so hard that her Kherson fell without much of a battle at the time.

Jim: That really was pretty close to the last big change on the battlefield, right?

Yaroslav: Well, there was the last major change in the battlefield if you look at the current frontlines that vaguely unchanged except for parts of Donbass and it certainly… Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital that was [inaudible 01:04:40] by Russia since the full scale invasion began so they lost it. But then, Russia started recruiting to its military, started using the prisoners, and the long and drawn out battle for Bakhmut began which cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides and resulted in the Russian takeover of Bakhmut in May 2023.

And then, the Ukrainian counter offensive which didn’t work out. And then since then, the Russian offensives and the Russians made great use of the pause in US weapons supplies. Let’s not forget that Republicans stalling in Congress deprived Ukraine of American military aid for nearly six month. As the Ukrainians were outgunned, the Russians took the City of Avdiivka and keep pressing in that area. Still getting new ground.

Jim: That was an incredibly stupid move by the Americans to help the Russians by… Even though… My blood boiled every time I saw that happening. What the hell were these people thinking? We knew what the right answer was and there was a majority of Republicans that supported it. There was a small rump of Republicans that were stalling this thing and it just struck me as one of the-

Yaroslav: I would say… At the end of the day, the majority of Republican members of the House voted against it. The Republican conference was divided almost evenly. But still, with a small majority against continuing aid for Ukraine which again goes to the fact that… I think it was really interesting for me to observe the divergence between Europe and the US. Because Europe also used to have parties, especially on the far right but also on the far left, that were sympathetic to Russia, sympathetic to Putin before the war.

In most countries, that stopped being the case because Ukraine is a real life issue for people in Europe. There are millions and millions of Ukrainian refugees. Everybody knows some Ukrainians, everybody has helped, or in some way, or knows someone who has helped Ukrainians. And it’s really hard to be pro-Putin when you’re living day-to-day with the victims of his war. Whereas, there are very few Ukrainian refugees in America and it’s still an academic issue for many political football that is abstract, not part of the lived reality.

Jim: Yeah. It’s just amazingly stupid and ignorant. Because as I try to explain to people who argue the other side of it, the US support of Ukraine is one of the great return on investments ever if only in the very cynical view of wearing down Russian military capacity. For 5% of the US defense budget basically, we’re destroying the Russian capacity for war and the brave Ukrainians are doing all the bleeding. I mean, why would you not take that deal?

Yaroslav: That’s certainly the argument that supporters of the aid Ukraine are making. I would add more to that, that allowing Russia to win after all this time would make Russia much stronger. Because the Russian military is also combat-experienced in modern ways of warfare now in the ways that Western militaries are not. And so, an undefeated Russia will be a much more dangerous Russia than the Russia before the war.

Jim: They have built up their arms industries and they have already hardened their economy to sanctions. So yes, indeed. If the Russians should win, they will be considerably more dangerous than they were before the war.

Yaroslav: The nature of war has changed. There are only two countries that have a vast experience in modern drone warfare, it’s Russia and Ukraine. It’s nothing of the kind that the US military and the other military has done. The US military has not fought a war against a near peer adversary since the 1950s.

Jim: Yep. In fact, it’s an interesting mention, I’m doing a podcast later this week with a leading military strategist on what are the lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war and we’re going to focus on electronic warfare, countermeasures, the drone war, the change in focus from the offense to the defense. But the Russians have learned and this… This is something they always do… They start bad just like World War II. They got their ass kicked for the first three or four months. And then, they gradually learn and get better at fighting whatever war it is that they’re in. So that does appear to be happening to some degree.

Yaroslav: Yeah. Except in World War II, they won thanks to the American lend-lease which is now on the other side.

Jim: That is true too. So we just got a few minutes here before we wrap up. What’s your prognosis for the future? You’ve been on the ground, you know the people, you’ve got a sense of the issues. Where do you see this thing the rest of this year and into the next year?

Yaroslav: Well, now that the weapons are flowing and now that the Ukrainians are no longer outgunned the way they used to be, they’re holding the line more or less. The Russian attempt to seize Kharkiv is flailing. The Russians were stopped and now they’re being pushed back again. The Ukrainians should be able to hold the line more or less through this year and not to sustain any major loss of territory.

In the meantime, the European military industry is building up its capacity. So while the US military assistance, especially ammunition was critical this year, it will be less critical next year. Because by next year, the Europeans could pick up much of the slack. So I think the biggest challenge is, I think for both countries really, is internal stability. Because both societies, both economies, both political systems are feeling the strain of this war and it’s like World War I. The one that cracks first from within will be the one that loses the war.

Jim: Interesting. What do you think the relative states of Ukraine and Russia are with regard to being able to stay the course?

Yaroslav: Well, Ukraine is a democracy so the strains within are more visible. There is criticism of President Zelenskyy now more than there used to be. He was certainly blamed for the failures in Kharkiv a couple of months ago and he had a very public disagreement with the Commander of the Armed Forces, General Zaluzhnyi, whom he fired early this year. But that doesn’t mean that the strains in Russia that are not visible are not deeper or stronger. The uprising by the Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin last year was not something they must have predicted. And yet, it shook the system to the core. As people in the intelligence community like to say, “Countries like Russia are hard but brittle.” And so, the possibility for a massive upheaval is always there.

Jim: Putin has been firing a bunch of people in his defense ministry lately also which is probably not a good sign.

Yaroslav: Well, again, because there’s been a lot of pressure from rank and file about the poor performance of the Russian military.

Jim: Now, how does this thing end? What do you see as possible endgames?

Yaroslav: I think there are many ways how this could end. I think the most likely way it ends for now is that the conflict gets frozen. Along something resembling current lines, just because everyone is exhausted. It’s hard for me to imagine a long-term solution because Putin still hasn’t given up on his goal of conquering all of Ukraine. Let me keep saying about that. And so, I don’t think it ends as long as Putin’s in power.

Jim: So it may simmer down to a frozen conflict, like post-2014, perhaps worse. And then, we just don’t know.

Yaroslav: Exactly. I think, fundamentally, Putin and people around him haven’t given up on the idea of taking Kiev.

Jim: All right. Well, I want to thank Yaroslav Trofimov and his very interesting book, very well written by the way. This thing is fast-paced and very enjoyable, Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence. I want to thank you for a very interesting conversation.

Yaroslav: Thank you for having me.

Jim: Yeah. This was great.