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We're now four weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And while we've seen millions of Ukrainians flee the country and have heard their stories about damaged cities and destroyed lives, we haven't heard much from the Russian side. What do Russians think about the war?
In this premium edition of Mo News, we spoke to Chilcote about the mood on the ground in Moscow and what he learned from speaking to 100s of Russians over the last couple weeks. We asked him what Russians know and think about the war (for the most part, what Vladimir Putin tells them), how long they can withstand sanctions (a long, long time with little chance of major protests), the state of the opposition movement (weak) and what reporting was like from Moscow (many people are no longer comfortable speaking out).
But first, a few headlines this AM before our interview...
The talks come after Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn't rule out the possibility that Russia could use nuclear weapons in the conflict. He told CNN: "If it is an existential threat for our country, then it can be."
On the ground: Ukrainian forces are now fighting to take back territory seized by the Russians, and have appeared to regain control of Makariv, a town west of Kyiv. Meanwhile, Russia continues its brutal attack on Mariupol. A US official said Russia is firing from ships in the Sea of Azov. ~ CNN
That comes as the Ukrainian Air Force has also been holding its own against a much larger Russian Air Force.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who was slated to travel with Biden to Europe, has tested positive for COVID-19. She said she had two "socially-distanced meetings" with Biden, and that he has tested negative. (Psaki also tested positive last fall ahead of Biden's trip to the G-20 summit in Rome.) ~ NPR
One day down. One more to go. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson faces a second day of questioning from senators. On Tuesday, Democrats praised her and Republicans tried to portray her as soft on crime. So far, it appears she continues to have the votes to be the next Justice on the nation's highest court.~ NY Times
Here are some of the highlights:
On the role of a judge: “I am acutely aware that as a judge in our system, I have limited power, and I am trying in every case to stay in my lane." - Ketanji Brown Jackson
Jackson said she believes Roe v. Wade is "settled law" and "relied upon."
Asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) about her thoughts on Critical Race Theory: "It's not something I studied, it has not come up in my work."
Responding to Sen. Josh Hawley's (R-MO) accusations that she's soft on child porn cases: "As a mother and a judge who has to deal with these cases, I was thinking that nothing could be further from the truth."
She also refused to define the word "woman" under questioning from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) in a discussion of gender, claiming she is "not a biologist."
MacKenzie Scott has donated $436 million to Habitat for Humanity International, which said the gift is designed to help alleviate the global housing shortage and promote “equitable access to affordable housing."
Hillary Clinton announced that she has tested positive for Covid-19 and is experiencing mild symptoms. She says Bill Clinton tested negative and is feeling fine. ~ CNN
And now, a bit about Chilcote. He is an American journalist who first visited Russia in high school in the early 1990s--as a foreign exchange student to the Soviet Union. He went on to become foreign correspondent and covered Russia for more than three decades for CNN, Bloomberg (where we worked together) and most recently as a special correspondent for PBS Newshour. In 2017 Chilcote landed an exclusive interview with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for a series we worked on together for CBS News. Navalny told him he knew he was risking jail or death. Not long after that interview, Navalny survived a poisoning attempt. And of course, this week the opposition leader was sentenced to nearly another decade in a Russian prison.
A big thank you to Chilcote for his incredible reporting, and for taking the time to talk to us.
[We spoke to Chilcote on Tuesday afternoon just after he left Russia from his reporting trip there. This interview has been edited for time and clarity. The full conversation if available via video below.]
Mosheh Oinounou: Ryan, you've spent a couple of weeks in Russia. You are now out of the country. I'd love to hear your perspective, having covered Russia for the past three decades. What was this most recent experience like?
Ryan Chilcote: It was a little bit like going back to the old days, back to the 1990s, when I first arrived in Russia. Some of the financial chaos that's been created by the sanctions, has brought the exchange point back, for example, so I couldn't use my MasterCard or my Visa while I was there. So I had to bring in cash. And I had to physically change my dollars into rubles at exchange points. And that's something that really had disappeared in Russia after 2000, 2002. So that was kind of a throwback to the old days. And then I think, Mosh, the other thing I would point out is that it feels a little bit like, in a way, we're going back to the old days. There aren't that many foreign correspondents there. When you speak with Russians, they're a little surprised that they're speaking with you, that you have appeared in front of them. They're like, 'you're American, what are you doing here? Are you sure that's a good idea?' And, that's of course the Russia that I discovered while it was still the Soviet Union in 1990.
MO: I was watching your story from Friday on how the Western sanctions have impacted the average Russian. And one of the scenes in it, you are at a McDonald's as people are getting their last meal [before it closes for good]. Talk to me about how those sanctions have impacted the average Russians, and the Russians that were actually willing to speak to you maybe off camera. How are they reacting to all of this?
RC: The reaction is mixed when it comes to what the Kremlin insists journalists based in Moscow call "a special military operation." There are some Russians who have protested. And you will have seen video of that, those demonstrations tend to happen on Sundays at 2pm. Right across the country and more than 15,000 Russians have been arrested over the last month since Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine. And on some of those days, it was record numbers of arrests. So that tells you that there were an awful lot of people protesting and of course, an awful lot of them were put in jail. And so against what's going on, that they are prepared to actually demonstrate. That's a minority. Then you've got a much larger group, I would imagine, of Russians that maybe aren't so happy about it, but they're not going to go to a demonstration because that's illegal unless it's been approved by the government. So those people exist.
But I think the real surprise for a lot of people-- when I talk to people outside of Russia-- is that there's a significant group that actually supports what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. And there are a number of reasons for that. Some of them kind of support this idea of de-Nazifying, as the Kremlin puts it, Ukraine... and that Russia needs to deal with that. They also believe that NATO was building military infrastructure that threatened Russia, in Ukraine. And then I would say a very small portion of them are a real kind of nationalists and subscribe to this idea of a greater Russia. But that's not a very huge group. Then there's a group of people that kind of think that Vladimir Putin knows best, right, he's privy to things that we aren't privy to. And so we're going to rally around the flag, and we're going to support our president in this special military operation, and what's going on in Ukraine.
MO: Polling is an art more than a science -- especially in Russia. The groups you describe, the people who are protesting, the people who are opposed and scared to protest, the loyal nationalists, and then the people who buy the Kremlin line. If you could put rough numbers on that -- what is the state of opinion?
RC: I don't put a whole lot of stock in the polls either but I did just read some polls, and they sort of jived with what I was hearing and seeing. And I spoke with a lot of people, I was there for three weeks and I probably talked to a couple 100 people. And I also asked them what the people they're talking to were saying. So I think I got a pretty good cross section of people, and not just in Moscow. And the polls show that about 70% of Russians condone what is happening in Ukraine.
MO: When you talk about that 70 percent, how many of them are getting information from non-state media sources?
RC: Not very many. There aren't very many non-state media, independent media in Russia anymore. There's really only one. And it's called Novaya Gazeta. It's a small newspaper read by a small group of liberals in Moscow, run by an editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, who just got the Nobel Prize. The last independent radio station was closed down while I was there. In fact, I was there for the closing day. The last independent TV station was closed down. And those media outlets, they had pretty niche audiences. In any case, in general, independent media, in a big sense, is sort of been a thing of the past for let's say 15, 17 years in Russia. Now, the funny thing is you can still access-- even though the Russians and the Kremlin have been cutting off access to Instagram and Facebook, Meta...they're closing off Twitter, they're closing off these sources of news. But you can use a VPN and access that media. You can basically hop from a Russian server where it's banned to a US server or Swedish server anywhere else in the world. And by the way, it's not illegal to use a VPN in Russia to do that, to access these sites, unlike in some surreal, more draconian, countries. But it's that extra step. And I find a lot of people just they don't take it.
MO: It sounds like from what you're saying, that the vast majority of people there aren't taking that extra step to seek out those outside media. They are fine with state media as their main outlet for information?
RC: I think that's correct. And they're also, compared to many of the people, perhaps in our audience, rather apolitical. You know, it's not the right comparison right now. I'm not talking about the so-called oligarchs, but the middle class. It's kind of like yuppies, in the 1980s, they're focused on much more material things in their daily lives. Obviously if they're sort of more blue collar, it might be about making ends meet. But if they have some more disposable income, it's a little bit about having fun and looking after yourself.
I'll give you an example. This past weekend was the was the first warm weekend in Russia. The sun was out. And there were thousands of people out on the streets, and just everywhere. Because Moscow is a great street for walking around now. It's beautiful. And they were out in the... tens of thousands. And they were dining, and they were chatting, and they were going to concerts. And I did I think to myself, Jesus, it's a little bit like a parallel universe when you think about what's going on in Ukraine.
MO: Obviously there's a lot of connections-- culturally, language, historically-- between Russia and Ukraine. And so I think some people will be surprised that about 70% of Russians support this endeavor. What is it that's convincing them?
RC: It doesn't take much to support, right? This isn't a great comparison. But-- if you want to look at things from a US perspective for a moment-- think about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can't tell you how many friends I have in the military who are always like, you know, because we have a professional army, Americans are kind of disconnected from the sacrifices made by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan...To a certain extent it's the same way in Russia...So I think it's probably fair to say that, by and large, the troops that are there are professional troops. So it kind of disconnects what's happening in Ukraine with the rest of the country... I've had people tell me, look, I'm gonna support this because I'm Russian. And we're supposed to be patriotic, and that's what people do.
MO: As far as sanctions are concerned. You were out in the streets, you were at the McDonald's, you're watching people stand in line to go get cash. How long can Russians go?
CR: Yeah. Long time without McDonald's, presumably. But go on.
MO: Well, they've had it for three decades!
CR: And they love it!
MO: But I guess the better question is, they're starting to see a whole bunch of Western companies pull out. They see less destinations they can fly to -- especially when it comes to the upper middle class all the way up to the oligarchs. What did people tell you about the impact of the sanctions on them?
CR: Russians can go an awful long time. This is like a sort of stereotype that's pretty fair and accurate about Russians. That they are prepared to deal with pain and give up on things for a long time. I interviewed an academic, political analyst named Dmitri Trenin from the Carnegie Foundation, who pointed out that the flip side of that is that eventually, on occasion, their patience does expire and they blow up like we had in 1917, like we had in 1990 -- the end of the Soviet Union. And you get this sort of cataclysmic revolution.
MO: Which, presumably, Putin is aware of?
CR: He's very pragmatic. Well, at least he HAS been very pragmatic, always. And very aware of what Russians want and dislike. He's always been very in touch, I think with-- up until perhaps recently-- very in touch with what Russians will accept and won't accept it. There's this kind of social contract. The government does its thing in the political space and people are assured certain things in exchange for that. And what they get is stability--which was absent from about 1983 till Putin showed up in 2000-- and a certain quality of life...but in the smaller towns, if it gets tough to get just basic stuff, then they'll get upset.
MO: That's the threshold, it's not about not having a Louis Vuitton store or not being able to fly to London anymore, or not being able to...
RC: I'm sure that's annoying, right. But those people, actually contrary to popular belief, have no political power. So the wealthy in Russia, the so-called oligarchy, the billionaires are unable to, in my view, and you'll hear this from many clued-in political analysts, they actually are not capable of influencing Vladimir Putin on much of anything, and definitely not on Ukraine. He won't give them his ear, and they wouldn't even bother to try and tell him what they think...
So it's either mismanagement of this special military operation, as the Kremlin insists, everyone in Russia refers to it as. It's either mismanagement of that. That would be bad news. Or it's failing to provide basic goods to a lot of people. So the answer is... they can survive with these sanctions that are in front of them for a very long time. Now, you know, things are going to get more expensive. Inflation is definitely going to be above 10%. This year, food's probably up around 15% already since the sanctions.
MO: Yeah, we saw the the sugar shortage last week...
RC: Yeah, you're getting these random kind of shortages. I say random because they haven't occurred since the early 90s and 80s. And there are some economists out there that actually think that is how you're going to get what they call 'Soviet style inflation' in Russia, where you actually get disappearance of goods, as opposed to runaway prices...
But Boeing and Airbus' decision to not work in Russia, has huge consequences. Kind of like an Iran scenario: if you don't repair the planes in time, they eventually become unsafe and they have to be grounded. And there's no spare parts or ways to repair these planes anymore. So Russia's got like 800 planes and in two, three months time, some are gonna have to start coming off line. And in two, three years time, the vast majority. So you know, that'll be if the sanctions were to continue, that would that would be a real problem.
MO: The goal of Western sanctions is: upset the oligarchs, so they call out Vladimir Putin. And also, upset the people, so they protest against Vladimir Putin. And your answer to that?
RC: I mean, look, all we can do is take Russians at their word when it comes to that, and I probably asked that question of maybe a hundred Russians. Explaining that the whole goal of the sanctions is to effectively punish you so that you then go influence your government. They're like, that's not how it works in Russia. We will not be able to influence our government. We're annoyed with the West for doing this to us and punishing us. We were not responsible for this. Even protesters that I spoke with didn't think that the sanctions were fair.
MO: You also said that some Russians were more reluctant to speak out this time. Especially as somebody who's reported from there for the past few decades, what was different this time? Are people feeling like fearful now about opining?
RC: I think that's fair to say. There's just very little upside. If we got a camera out, we're standing on a street corner, and a guy like me comes up to you and asks you what you think-- what's in it for you? I think that's the issue... it's gotten much more challenging about this specific issue. And about Ukraine. And also, I would say, especially on camera. But you know, off camera, people are happy to share... that kind of thing.
MO: Has the Russian government had to make the case to the people that this suffering is worth it? What is the case they make to the average Russian?
RC: Yeah, Vladimir Putin has been very out there...and speaking about why it's worth this punishment, if you will. Day in and day out, he's making lengthy speeches talking to Russians explaining why he's doing what he's doing in Ukraine. And why he believes it's worth it. [Putin] believes, or at least he says, that the United States and the West is out to get Russia, that this is an existential conflict, and that the only thing that would ever satisfy the United States or the West is the demise of Russia. That spiritually, and as a society, Russia will benefit in the long term from this conflict. And, from finding its own way.
MO: Take us inside the Kremlin for a second. What are the people who know Putin, who've been watching Putin, tell you about his decision to enter into this war, how he's been reacting to what's been unfolding on the ground there and what his potential endgame is here?
RC: I think the reality is that not that many people know what the potential endgame is. And when we were talking about talking to Russians on the street, I can tell you, it's also difficult to talk to government officials. And I've been talking to these people for 20 years. And one of the reasons I suspect it's difficult is, well, first of all, there's just so much going on, they have so much to do, a zillion fires, because the sanctions and the conflict. But also no one knows exactly how this ends, right? Actually, no one even really knows if IT ends. Is it going to be over in a couple of weeks? A couple months? A couple years? A couple generations? I don't think we really know the answer to that. And, and what is the end look like?
Some of the things that the Kremlin has told us and Vladimir Putin has told us, they're a bit vague. Denazification-- What's that mean, exactly? Concretely, how do they define that demilitarization of Ukraine? And there's a certain contingent of people that I think would like to think that perhaps why those vague terms have been used is because it gives Vladimir Putin a little bit of latitude to to say, 'Okay, well, we're done. And we achieved our objectives.' But we just don't know. And so no one knows that and the answer to your question Mosh other than perhaps, Vladimir Putin himself.
MO: You've talked to government officials for years. First, I'd like to know kind of how is Putin's philosophy evolved? What's your best sense, based on the sources you speak to, about how he makes his decisions?
RC: I think most of the decisions he's personally making. And that shouldn't come as a particular surprise. He's very self assured. He has been the leader of one of the world's most powerful countries for 22 years. And he's done loads of listening. And particularly in the early years, he did do a lot of listening. [Henry] Kissinger would come into town as government officials, journalists, he was listening, he was in listening mode. But I think now, I focus my mind on what he's saying, and how he's behaving, probably every couple of months.
I definitely think that going back to, October of last year, you could see that Ukraine was gnawing at him....He was asked to what about Ukraine... 'NATO's there, and it's slipping away from us.' And that was this question from this historian in the audience. It was a meeting between Vladimir Putin and a bunch of academics, including Western academics. And he answered, 'Well, I I don't know what to do.' And you could just tell that he was a guy who was thinking things through and making up his mind about them.
When it comes to Ukraine, I think he's calling the shots. I'm not saying that there wouldn't be a couple of confidants around him that might share some ideas. But he's had a couple of years to think about things during the pandemic. And I think it's no secret, he's been rather isolated because of the pandemic...I think right now he feels like he's in charge, and he's in execution mode, for lack of a better way of putting it.
MO: I want to talk about Alexei Navalny, for a second. He was an opposition leader for many years. [He was sentenced to another decade in prison Tuesday.] You spent some time with him. How real was the opposition movement in Putin's Russia? And what do you make of the evolution that we've seen over the past five years?
RC: So the opposition movement in Russia was real. That doesn't mean that it was a mainstream. It wasn't massive, but it was large enough to command the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin's attention. When we did that story back 2017, Alexei Navalny was actually kind of trying to run for president.
Of course he wasn't actually, according to the Constitution, allowed to run, but he was he was out there campaigning like in a very kind of American sense of sort of literally meeting with small groups of people around the country. [So just this week...] Alexei Navalny was sentenced to nine years in prison for two crimes...He's already in prison. He's been in prison for more than a year now. And his wife Yulia Navalny, gave an interview where she said that the whole reason he ended up in prison the first time, which was a year and a half ago, was because Putin....wanted to punish Navalny...for political activity for trying to run against him. [The Kremlin denies that.]
It's not as if he's entirely a thing of the past. Because, for example, these demonstrations that I was talking about that happened at 2pm on Sundays... it's Alexei Navalny's team that are calling on people to protest at these weekly protests. And he's still able through his team and social media to talk to his followers. So he's still a force. It's just he's now a force that could spend another nine years-- and maybe more if there was another trial-- in jail.....
When you go to these protests. I mean, there's already an extraordinary police presence before the protest begins. And the protestors, as they arrive at the protest, they're often arrested. So it's not like you get like a huge mass of people. And you know, the guys come in and arrest them. No, no, they protests never actually transpires... at least the last couple I've seen.
MO: So for Westerners who are accustomed to protest with rallies and signs and speakers...it never even gets to that stage right now in Russia?
RC: The Sunday before last, there was a protester who said, 'Oh, what if I put up a sign that just says literally two words, what will happen to me... put up the sign that says in Russian, two words, and option was taken away? So no, there's, there's there's no marches down the thoroughfare.
MO: What is the state of the opposition movement from where it was 10 years ago, five years ago, and and today, given the state of the law state of the country, and the fact that, one of the major leaders is in jail?
RC: I mean, it's so small that it's not really worth speaking of. They're outside of the country.
MO: Is it something that Putin tolerated for a bit, but no longer? I mean, what, what's the sense of why they were able to, you know, do what they're...
RC: So to be fair, and the Kremlin would argue that there is an opposition, they call it the constructive opposition. This is like the communists, there are parties in the Duma, but those parties don't ever vote against the Kremlin... So basically, they're outside of the country now. There are a handful of individuals that are popping around still still doing stuff. But it's just a handful.
MO: So what you're describing is Russia is -- more than ever -- a one-man show right now?
RC: That's correct.
MO: What more could the West be doing, from your perspective, having been there for the last three weeks? And what has been the most impactful, painful sanction so far?
RC: I think the most damaging sanctions that we've seen probably so far are these ones that kind of get at...Russia's industrial base. So banning the import of technologies that are necessary, for example, and spare parts for the aviation sector. If the spare parts don't come in, and the Russians can't make them themselves, then the planes can't fly, that's a problem. It's the world's largest country, you don't have planes flying around, that's gonna slow things down....
And the second thing is that, at the moment, as Russia sells oil, it gets dollars for its oil. And so it's the country's source of hard currency, which allows it to buy things and support the economy. And so if that was to be threatened... that would be hugely dangerous to the Russian economy and the Russian state.
MO: So the the most devastating sanctions that have not been imposed, would be Europe, it all related to the energy sector, especially Europe, cutting off Russia?
RC: Yes, because, of course, a lot was made of the United States, cutting off economic ties with Russia, and banning oil imports. But the United States economic relationship with Russia and ability to impact Russia is commensurate with its distance from Russia. In other words, it's a long ways away, and it doesn't really matter. It matters more as like a spiritual kind of leader of a movement against Russia. But in terms of the bulk of the trade, it's with the Europeans, Europeans do six, seven times more trade with Russia than the United States does. And they buy that much more energy from Russia as well. And so, if the Europeans follow through on trade embargoes or banning oil imports, then that's a lot of oil and gas that now has to find a new home, and it's not so easy to do that. So, you know, presumably some of that oil and gas would go away, and that would leave Russia with less money.
MO: I want you to be able to advise folks on how to observe Russia like an expert in the coming weeks and months.
RC: I would keep my eye on Mariupol and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia recognized those regions as independent states, within their nominal borders. So when this conflict began on February the 24th those separatists were not in control of the entire regions that they were laying claim to, hence, the this fight in Mariupol. They want that territory. If we take what Vladimir Putin has said, on the face of it, Russia's there to assist those separatists in protecting themselves. And they've already said that they recognize that territory as those belonging to the separatists. So I would think it would be very difficult from an analytic perspective for Vladimir Putin to depart from that. So I'd be watching that.
MO: What are the things to watch for inside Russia?
RC: The most important thing to watch is Vladimir Putin. The most important person to watch is Vladimir Putin. Do we see him in the next couple of weeks sit down with President Zelensky? Does he have any more phone calls with Biden? I think that's it, really.
MO: So it's not what's happening on the street. Ultimately, the thing that matters most right now, or the thing to be watching most right now, are the words coming from Vladimir Putin.
RC: It's a slow burner, nothing's gonna happen tomorrow on the streets in Moscow that is going to change the calculus. You know, public sentiment is important. It's more volatile than perhaps meets the eye. The Kremlin would be aware of that, they'll be watching it, there'll be concerned about it, there'll be managing it. But at the moment 70%-- you know, when you have polls like that of Russians, effectively condoning the conflict-- this is not this is not a kind of situation where the street is going to change anything.
[A big thank you once again to Ryan Chilcote for his insights. Our full conversation is available via the Youtube link above.]
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