Petra Procházková is a Czech war reporter known for her coverage of conflicts in former countries of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan and currently is a correspondent of Lidové Noviny, one of the most established Czech newspapers. Her insight into conflicts taking place in this region is valuable for her unique personal experience of initially a Moscow correspondent and later a war correspondent from conflicts like the one in Chechnya. I tried to approach Petra with a few questions the answers to which would ideally break some illusions and confront any opinions based on insufficient research that I have heard repeatedly last year. A good friend of mine with whom I discussed these questions raised an objection that they have already been asked and answered elsewhere. Before the following lines provoke a similar reaction, allow me to clarify the purpose of this exercise. The reason I kindly asked Petra to answer these questions was because I felt like not enough attention is being paid by IR undergraduates to a conflict of such an international importance. I wanted the basic truths to be voiced in a short and compact interview consisting of nine questions. I believe that one of the reasons why this topic is so neglected by otherwise passionate young academics is because the diversity and dispersion of often contradicting pieces of information are confusing. After all, the conflict in Ukraine is a conflict in which information warfare strategies are being fully employed. Finally, I am convinced that whatever the answers to similar questions that were posed in the past, Petra’s viewpoint is quite unique and interesting. I would like to thank my dear friend Matyáš Viktora, who reads Territorial Studies at the Charles University in Prague for consulting the questions with me.
You collect the news and observations in Ukraine. Does it seem to you that the Ukrainians see the rebels as an extended arm of Russia similarly to how it’s presented in the West? And how useful a source of information for a foreign journalist are the Ukrainian media in particular?
The rebels aren’t a homogenous mass that you could somehow label and characterise in a few words. There are people amongst them who suffer from nostalgia for the Soviet Union and more than to become a part of Russia they would prefer to return to the good old communist times. Their feelings are taken advantage of by calculating rebel leaders, who together with the propaganda spread by Russian media try to make these people believe that a horde of western Ukrainian fascist is racing on them, that Europe is ruled by a homosexual jewish lobby, and that the USA wants to use the crisis to destroy Russia. Then there a few people, who are waiting how this will and end do not care who will rule. There are also many Russian agents and officers, whose task is to make sure the conflict continues. They are joined by Russian volunteers, confused yet convinced about their truth. These are mercenaries who really believe they are fighting for social justice against the rotting Western world and against the European decadence. And some of them are keen to go kill for a salary. So, it’s a fair mix, which is skillfully manipulated by Moscow and used to serve its intentions.
The Ukrainian media is a motley of titles. The key to understanding the media area is to be well informed. It is the same as in the Czech Republic in that sense. The journalists enjoy maximum freedom, yet there are some downsides to it. It is necessary to know who owns each newspaper, TV channel or a radio station, which oligarch is paying the medium, and who are the friends of a given broadcaster. Then, it isn’t enough to read one title only. One needs to compare the information and search the internet for independent [news] projects, which for example arise now within individual Ukrainian cities. A group of people establishes a civic organisation and they begin publishing news on the internet or start a TV. When you are looking for news from their region, you have to confront the national media with the local, less wealthy but independent, sources. All in all, finding the truth, or that which resembles the truth as much as possible, is a hard and time consuming work. Who is lazy, reads one newspaper, and then thinks he knows everything, yet knows nothing.
Is it an accurate hypothesis that the intention of the Russians was to destabilise the situation in Ukraine in a way that would lead the country to development of a special status for the Eastern regions and thereby make it impossible for Ukraine to join supranational political structures such as the EU or NATO in the future?
Yes, that is very accurate. But curiously enough, there were other less global and say more human aspects that played a role in the annexation of Crimea and the instigation of the conflict in Donbas. For example, for Vladimir Putin the retake of Crimea is one of the greatest triumphs he has achieved during his reign. I do not refer to the long-term consequences of this insane action. I refer to the fact that Putin is currently enjoying his five minutes (or perhaps five years) of fame. Russia is an imperial power and as such it puts the values such as expansion, size of a country and the fear it creates in other countries above the values like freedom, prosperity and dignity of an individual. Putin faced ever greater economic problems in domestic politics. The Russian economy stagnated. Oil is for the Russian economy what a drug is for a drug addict – it suffers without it, writhes in spasms and in the end will die. There was nothing Putin did about this. Russians experienced a relative temporary prosperity thanks to the development on international markets that has now ended. This could have been foreseen. There is nothing easier than to convince one’s subjects that their troubles are not the fault of their ruler, but the result of the wrongdoing of their enemy – the Western Imperialism, which wants to destroy Russia, starve it to death and isolate, an enemy that does not understand the Russian soul and had already been planning to build military bases in Ukraine… The external enemy distracts from the domestic mess. Finally, there will be the elections in 2018. I think that Crimea can win them for Putin.
Can we refer to the debate about the revision of the Ukrainian constitution towards greater decentralization and say that the Russians have succeeded or are at least on the way to success?
They have been successful so far, but not because of the constitutional changes, rather because of the desperate state of the Ukrainian economy, devastated industry, thousands of casualties and the solidarity of the Western allies of Ukraine which wasn’t very clear-cut. It turns out that the West is not able to face an aggression if it’s as impudent as the Russian aggression. In any case, the integration of Ukraine into the European political structures and NATO would be very complicated now. Kiev really needs it but NATO doesn’t accept states that are currently at war, all the more so at war with Russia. From that point of view, Russia has halted the enlargement of NATO and the EU.
Can you imagine the secession of other parts of Ukraine as the result of the crisis?
I can. But the persistence of a latent conflict is the most probable result, in the same manner as in Abkhazia. Even more fitting is the comparison with Transnistria. Neither war nor peace. The country with such a region is being exhausted by the permanent state of affairs. Smuggling and other kinds of criminality thrive at the borders that haven’t been recognised by anyone. It’s a political and economic black hole and it is very hard for poor states like Moldova to live with her.
Some news suggest that a serious conflict between the Right Sector and the Ukrainian state forces is looming. What would be the impact of this extra dimension on the dynamics of the conflict? Could it weaken that propaganda which claims that Ukraine is ruled by fascists?
I think that the Right sector is portrayed as a larger threat than it really is. Yes, you will find fascists in Ukraine in the same way you find them in the Czech Republic or Germany, there are nationalists, fascists, radicals from both the left and right of the political spectrum. And these are trying to attract a lot of attention. However, at the same time I have met members of the local organisation of the Right Sector in Mariupol, who were friends with their jewish neighbours and fellow citizens, and racism was completely out of question. Then I went to see the volunteer Azov battalion, the members of which have the reputation of Nazis, and what I found were simply people that I wouldn’t vote for in a democratic election, but the likes of which can be found plenty in both the Czech and the European Parliament. They oppose gay marriage, they don’t like the gypsies and all the people of dark skin, but on the other hand fight against Russia together with people from the Caucasus. It is a matter of ignorance, lack of experience, lack of political culture and extreme views, yet only in exceptional cases do you find genuine racism and extreme nationalism.
Does the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have some kind of a role in the conflict?
If anything, it has a supportive role. It isn’t a leading force but it is supporting its citizens who are willing to defend the country, the faith, the traditions… I remember how the batyushki (Orthodox priests) sang prayers for nights, helped the injured and consoled the relatives of those that were killed during the Maidan. Yes, there the church told the people that she is with them. It says it now too and is definitely a bonding element in the Ukrainian society at times.
What role does the Ukrainian crisis play in the relationship of the Russian foreign and domestic policies? Is it possible, for example, to claim that a process of hardening of the regime and developing of totalitarianism in Russia is happening simultaneously with the crisis? How, if at all, can this be related?
What happened in Ukraine, the whole of the Maidan movement and the proeuropean upheaval of the collective Ukrainian thinking is a really terrifying spectacle for president Putin. He sees exactly what could happen in Russia if he loosens his grip. That’s why he rather tightens it. He can’t allow the opposition to follow the Ukrainian Maidan and bid him a similar farewell as the Ukrainians bade to Viktor Janukovych. And so Putin decided to prevent a Colour revolution in Russia through repressions, restriction of the freedom of speech and press, and a general oppression.
What can we expect from the Maidan leaders, who weren’t so successful in the parliamentary elections? And what about Vitaly Klitschko? What are they doing now?
Klitschko, for example, is the mayor of Kiev and I think he is content with it. Several activists from Maidan have moved to the eastern front. But some of them are slowly and quite unobtrusively getting places in the Civil Service, which is a positive development. These are usually people who are not burdened by the past regime and are backed by very active groups of citizens and thereby subjected to a functional civic check. An example is George Tuka, a leader of the Narodnyi Tyl civic initiative I did an interview with a few months back. George has sent his son to fight at the eastern front. He himself tried to supply the soldiers with anything he could get his hands on. Ranging from weapons, about which he didn’t like to talk much, to clothing, food and medicine. He has done an incredible amount of work. He risked his life and the lives of his closest friends and family. This man was recently appointed as the governor of the Luhansk Oblast which is partly occupied by the pro-Russian rebels but still formally subordinate to Kiev. Tuka is supposed to administer this troubled territory and try to get it back under control of the central government. The number of people from Maidan who are getting into positions from which they can realistically change something is increasing.
The conflict has weakened Ukraine economically and has already cost many lives. What has Ukraine gained from it though?
A revolution took place in the minds of Ukrainians in the last year. They gained great self confidence and further, they are no longer viewed in the world as some kind of slightly dumber Russians. They also understood they have to help themselves and that they have to manage their local business in their cities rather than wait for a command from Kiev. A civic society was born in Ukraine and now it’s all up to her. Ukraine has outrun Russia in this aspect by a 100 years.