Anton Troianovski and Marci Shore on a Possible Russian Invasion of Ukraine

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Anton and Marci

New York Times Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski and Yale historian Marci Shore join hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Troianovski discusses his reporting on the recent talks between the U.S. and Russia, contextualizes Russia’s unusual demands, and considers the odds of a diplomatic solution. Shore lays out the Ukrainian political history that helped set the stage for current tensions, explains how Trump learned from Putin’s efforts to subvert Ukrainian elections, and recommends favorite Ukrainian writers. The episode also features Reginald Dwayne Betts reading Serhiy Zhadan’s poem “Headphones,” which he selected for inclusion in The New York Times Magazine.

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Check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This podcast is produced by Anne Kniggendorf.


Excerpt from a conversation with Anton Troianovski

Whitney Terrell: It’s Saturday evening, January 22. In Moscow, where you are. The show comes out next Thursday, in the morning. Ukraine, which is one of Europe’s largest and most populous countries, has long been contested territory. But we’re in a particularly difficult moment there with the military presence from Russia growing near the border. Russia already annexed Crimea in 2014. There’s a lot of speculation that they’re going to invade Ukraine now.  Yesterday, you and Michael Crowley filed a story about the talks that the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, had in Geneva about Ukraine, which led to an agreement for more talks. The headline, which I know you don’t write, is, “U.S. and Russia Take More Measured Stance in Ukraine Talks,” and the piece talks about both sides trying to give diplomacy some time. Is there some chance that an invasion can be averted here?

Anton Troianovski: We don’t know what’s going to happen. And I would tend to agree with the assessment that you hear a lot out of Washington these days that Putin himself hasn’t decided what to do. Certainly all these military movements, these troop deployments to Belarus that we’re seeing right now, look very ominous, but it feels like Russia has certain political goals it wants to achieve in this situation, and it remains to be seen whether or not they can achieve some of them peacefully.

WS: What do you think they’re trying to get?

AT: The Ukraine is definitely at the core of this crisis. It’s not all about Ukraine, but that really feels like the most important factor. So they’ve put on the table a very far reaching set of demands. This is a sort of Russian approach to diplomacy that we haven’t really seen before in this intensity, where they published these two draft agreements with the U.S. and NATO in December and said: This is what we need. We need it very soon, or else there will be some kind of unspecified, what they called a “military technical response.” So those demands essentially would mean a rollback of the NATO presence in Eastern Europe, a legally binding guarantee that Ukraine never enter NATO, that other Eastern European countries that aren’t in the alliance right now never enter NATO, that the West withdraw its troops from countries like Poland and the Baltic states that are already in NATO that joined after 1997.

Anyway, it’s a very long list. But you know, if you look at it as the start of a negotiation, then perhaps there is some compromise to be had. Certainly, that’s what Antony Blinken and also Joe Biden have said. They think there is a way to find a diplomatic solution here. Question is, is there something there that Putin would be willing to accept?

V.V. Ganeshananthan: I think a lot of Americans know that Ukraine vaguely is important but are probably having a hard time following the kind of entangled history here. And but we’re putting an enormous amount of money into this. So we’ve already spent $450 million in aid to Ukraine this fiscal year. And then you noted that it’s going to be another $250 million on top of that, what does that pay for?

AT: Well, that’s mainly military assistance that we’re talking about. I mean, the West is, since the pro-western revolution in Ukraine in 2014, the EU and the U.S. and Canada have tried to help Ukraine become a more modern state. So, doing kind of governance projects, anti-corruption projects, but a lot of it is indeed military assistance. In recent years, that’s included Javelin anti-tank missiles. Just yesterday, on Friday came the news that the Baltic states would be supplying Stinger anti-aircraft missiles similar to what the U.S. supplied to the Mujahideen in the Afghan war. So yeah, it’s military aid. But it’s obviously not anywhere close to what Ukraine would need to actually change the balance on the ground between Ukraine and Russia.

WS: It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s also only slightly more than the Chiefs are paying their quarterback over the next 10 years. So I can understand why it’s not enough to stop the Russian army.

AT: Yeah, I think that’s right.

WS: In your story, you write that the U.S. has said it will provide a written response to Russian demands, which include NATO withdrawing troops and territories, you were just talking about. They were formally aligned with the Soviet Union, like Poland. I don’t understand why Russia thinks it gets to make demands. Do they have an objectively genuine grievance?

AT: Core to the liberal world order that the U.S built after the end of the Cold War is that every country gets to decide its own alliances. And that would certainly include Ukraine. I think that this idea that NATO needs to withdraw from, again, as you say, countries like Poland that have already joined NATO, that’s kind of one of the most out-there seeming elements of these demands. It’s certainly almost impossible to imagine NATO agreeing to that. We can talk about how true this is or whether Putin really even means it, but certainly what Putin says is that he sees a NATO presence in Ukraine as a major threat to Russia that he has to somehow address.

Excerpt from a Conversation with Marci Shore

V.V. Ganeshananthan: We wanted to start with some very basic recent history. For our listeners, what was the Maidan, and when and why did it happen?

Marci Shore: The Maidan is a place. It is the large city square in the center of Kiev. It has now become a name for a revolution, which is also called the Revolution of Dignity. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, somewhat by default, gets its independence in 1991. There’s a long period of post-Soviet transition and struggles for democracy. In 2004, there’s an election between two guys named Viktor. Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. The short version of that story is that Yanukovych, who is very much the post-Soviet gangster type, tries to poison Yuschenko with dioxin, which to a certain extent succeeds, and cheats in the election and thereby declares himself victorious.

At that point, Ukrainians go out onto the streets, onto the Maidan, for three weeks. They protest; it’s peaceful. And, somewhat miraculously, it works. The election is done over. The votes are counted, Yushchenko is declared the winner, everybody is happy, they go home. It seems like maybe the moment when everyone lives happily ever after. And Yuschenko is going to lead us to European integration and liberal democracy, which back in 2004, people were still thinking might represent the end of history.

The even shorter version of that story is that Yuschenko turns out to be a disappointment, and there’s infighting on his team and it all falls apart. And in 2010, Yanukovych wildly and improbably decides he’s going to return, which it really seems like couldn’t possibly happen. But, he hires a really slick PR agent from a little boutique industry in Washington, which is basically PR for, you know, gangster types who would like to become president and this guy even though he doesn’t know Russian or Ukrainian goes over and gives Yanukovych a makeover and a new haircut and some new clothes and helps him with his speeches, and Yanukovych comes back in 2010 to, this time, legitimately win the election. And he is who he always was.

But, at the same time he nominally seems to be leading Ukraine toward a potential course of eventual European Union integration, which is what a lot of people in the opposition to him really care about. In 2013, he was all set to sign this association agreement with the European Union, which was not an extraordinarily great agreement. It would have involved Ukraine undertaking costly reforms, it likely would have provoked retaliation from Russia, it promised at the end of the day, not necessarily European Union membership, but it was a foot in the door. It was a promise to the young generation that Europe be open to them, if not today or tomorrow, then someday. The ceremony was prepared, and then at the 11th hour on November 21, 2013, Yanukovych, under pressure from Putin, says, “No, I’m not gonna sign.”

At that point, there’s this sense of despair, above all, on the part of a young intelligentsia, on the part of students, and still nothing might have happened, but this 32-year-old Afghan-Ukrainian journalist posted a note on Facebook that day, and said, “Hey, you guys, you know, if you’re really upset come out, you know, let’s be serious, come out to the Maidan by midnight tonight.” And then he said, “Likes do not count.” Later, that line struck me because I thought, “likes do not count.” It’s a rare moment when it translates perfectly, you know, literally—“likes do not count.” That’s a sentence that would have made no sense before Facebook, literally, you know, and it now becomes a revolutionary slogan.

People come out that night, largely young people come out that night. And it’s not just because the students are always more active, they also have the most to lose. They’re not interested in language politics, they’re not interested in ethnic politics. Their slogan is “Ukraine is Europe.” That’s it. They just want Europe, and the whole thing might have fizzled out, had Yanukovych not decided some nine or 10 days later, to send in his goons at four in the morning to brutally beat up the students in an act of violence that hadn’t been seen in public on that kind of scale against non-violent protesters, really in the time of Ukrainian independence. It was a violation of the social contract. Not that I’ve any privileged epistemological access to what was going on in Yanukovych’s head, but he seemed to be thinking like, “Okay, you’re going to do something shocking, and the parents are going to freak out, they’re going to pull their kids off the streets.” That was where he miscalculated, because instead of pulling their kids off the streets, the parents joined them there.

A day later, you’ve got close to a million people on the streets of Kiev. No one has ever seen that many people on the streets of Kiev. And now it’s no longer just Ukraine is Europe now. “We will not let you beat our children.” That was how Maidan got started.

Whitney Terrell: I was actually thinking it reminded me so much of this—and we’ll get to this later in our talk—it reminds me of things that President Trump has done. It reminds me of when he cleared that square out near the White House to go hold the Bible up. It seems very similar.

Selected readings:

Anton Troianovski

“U.S. and Russia Take More Measured Stance in Ukraine Talks” in The New York Times  • Articles by Anton Troianovski in The New York Times

Marci Shore

“Ukrainian Corruption Is Trump’s Native Language” in Foreign Policy“The Bard of Eastern Ukraine, Where Things Are Falling Apart” in The New Yorker “The Poet Laureate of Hybrid War” in Foreign Policy


Poem: Headphones – The New York Times • Seven dillweeds | Eurozine • Mondegreen — Volodymyr Rafeyenko | Harvard University Press • Words for War Greetings from Novorossiya – University of Pittsburgh Press • Love Ukraine as You Would the Sun: 10 Ukrainian Books Worth Reading in English ‹ Literary Hub • We’re All Russian, Now,” featuring Sana Krasikov and Charles Baxter (Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 1, Episode 4) • Frank Foer • Immanuel Kant • The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan • Reginald Dwayne Betts


Transcribed by Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf. Photo of Marci Shore by Rostyslav Kostenko.