UNIAN’s own correspondent in Moscow, Roman Tsymbaliuk, became a “foreign agent” in Russia before it became mainstream.
He asks the Russians frank questions about the war and directly calls invaders by their name. Furthermore, he honestly warns the Russian public that, if the Kremlin attacks Ukraine now, Ukrainian mothers will not be crying alone – your children also may return home in coffins.
In an exclusive interview with the Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security, we have asked Roman Tsymbaliuk, how it is to work on the aggressor’s territory, whether his questions can be seen as provocation to the Russians, whether he’s afraid for his own safety, and what two options does Putin have as regards Ukraine.
- What do you think of the démarche by the daughter of Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, who wrote in social networks that the notorious Russian “foreign agents” law is bad, and that it needs to be revised?
- This law will definitely remain in place. The goals that they have set are achieved. In fact, Lisa Peskova allows herself to do many things that don’t seem to be mainstream in the Russian political agenda. They say that a daughter takes no responsibility for her father's actions, that the Russian Federation is a democratic state, that a member of the Presidential Administration of Russia has the same problems: his child is disobedient, that she doesn’t preach Putin. However, believe me, it won't change anything. Whoever needs to be kicked out of the Russian information space will be kicked out. This was also done to mark “nation’s traitors.” And they were all marked. Anyone can be charged for breaking this law. And here, it is essential to understand that the law doesn’t deprive a person of the right to work. The most important thing is that any advertiser will think twice of whether to reach out to a “foreign agent” or not. That is, they are trying to win this battle through a “wallet.” In the sense that “if you sold yourself to the bad Americans, let them feed you now!”
The niche of Ukrainian pro-Russian politicians will eventually be totally marginalized
- Are you a stranger to your Russian colleagues there in Russia? Are they not afraid of contacting you, the actual foreign agent?
- They haven't been afraid lately. A lot has changed since 2014. I remember a moment when, especially after my questions to their “emperor” (at Putin's Annual Big Press Conference), I noticed that people were trying to cross onto the other side of the street when spotting me. But I really don't care. I am not a citizen of the Russian Federation, I’m a citizen of Ukraine. Therefore, I don’t suffer from not being in contact with my Russian colleagues. After all, neither they nor I need it. I don't think in such terms on principle. I work in Moscow. It doesn't matter what the Russians think of me. The main thing is I wish they don’t bother me.
- And what is about Western colleagues?
- I’m on friendly terms with them. A few years ago, I began to take as fait accompli that Ukraine is part of the West. Yes, sometimes we get sad here, saying that everything’s bad, but, in fact, Ukraine is part of the West. We have the same problems here as in the West. Well, except for the war, of course. In fact, Ukraine doesn’t have a Russian agenda.
- The only small thing left is to finally tackle corruption and shift Ukrainian mentality toward the Western one…
- It is shifting, little by little. If we’re talking about our future, we recognize the fact that Ukraine was, is, and will be out there. It is now clear to everyone, even Putin, who has recently said that the situation is at an impasse and began to persuade (Ukrainian President Volodymyr - ed.) Zelensky that the latter was doing things wrong. In fact, Putin should blame himself. Because it was he who woke up the Ukrainian beast, and there would be no mercy for them. And when the Russian president says that the situation with Ukraine is at a stalemate, he admits that he has only two options.
Option 1 is to leave it as it is. But a little more time will pass, and the niche of Ukrainian pro-Russian politicians will eventually be totally marginalized and reduced to people who congratulate Putin on his birthday. Meanwhile, Ukraine will keep developing. And it will be fine. And he'll have to put up with it.
Option 2 is to attack with all the consequences implied – for them first of all. That is, they are going to bomb Kharkiv (as they suggest on TV), saying that NATO missiles are deployed there – although there are no missiles there. And they know it. However, it is quite possible that Ukrainian missiles will be deployed there soon, and they will eventually become NATO missiles. That is precisely what they're saying on TV right now.
Recently, Ukraine has employed Bayraktar TB2 attack drones, so they’re having a new wave of hate. That is, they lead Putin to think: “Perhaps it's time to attack now?”
At the same time, they simply don’t understand what they will be confronted with here in Ukraine. I'm not saying everyone will take up arms here. But millions will! And what will the Russians do?
I was once asked on the Govorit Moskva Radio Station (when Sergey Dorenko was still with us): “Why do you run air defense drills near Crimea?” I said something along the lines of “it’s just for Russian pilots so that they all know that their warplanes would be shot down, and that their wives would only be handed their helmets, as a keepsake.”
Yes, they didn't like it when I put it this way. However, someone must open their eyes to the truth of how it will be like.
Donbas has already shown them that no one in Ukraine will just concede. By the way, they don't need to be given either the Russian language or history.
Moscow wants to moderate the Russian language in Ukraine so that we channel their narratives
- By the way, is it a conscious decision of yours, when you speak to Russian media, to balance between being a journalist and, let's say, provocateur?
- Where’s provocation in that? I’m a committed pacifist and I don’t want to be mobilized into the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But if Moscow goes this way, it will affect me and those liable for military service. And there are millions of us. And everyone will be called up.
I repeat that I don't want this, but Kyiv will simply have no other choice in such a situation. So, this is not a provocation at all. I'm just trying to deliver a straightforward message: yes, we understand that “you have seized Crimea and part of Donbas, and there will be no changes in the near future. This is a dead-end. And you can only change it by military force. But at the same time, you must clearly understand what this can lead to.” This is not a provocation but a warning.
When they deployed their troops along our border this summer, I told them that Russian soldiers would be liquidated. “Do you think we are not afraid to see you show 20 helicopters on TV? We are. But what other options do we have? After all, Russian soldiers are also mortals. And they have moms, too. So the question will arise: whose mother will cry? All mothers will, but we are in our own country, and we do not seize anything from anyone. Or do you really think you will keep killing Ukrainian citizens with impunity? This won't happen. It’s over. That time has passed…” How is it a provocation?
I even know the timeframe of when exactly this happened. That’s when they started firing their artillery at Ukraine’s Saur-Mohyla from Russia’s Rostov Oblast. It was the last lesson. And the Ukrainians have learned it well: “If you see someone on the other side wielding a rifle, you should no longer think: "but he’s a brother, he’s a human being…" Because in that case, you'll be the one who’s going to be killed. And it will be your mother who will weep…”
- And it doesn’t matter that we all may be listening to, say, (Soviet star artist Sergey - ed.) Vysotsky's songs at that moment…
- Of course. We are currently speaking with you in Russian, while we’re here in Kyiv at the Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security. And there's no ‘language patrol’ at the door. As before 2014, the Russian language was used here, now people use it, too. The problem is that Moscow wants us not just to speak its language; they want to moderate our Russian language, so that we channel THEIR narratives.
- Are you afraid to face the same fate as Roman Sushchenko or Ivan Golunov with the only difference (as in the latter’s case) that Alexey Venediktov, Dmitry Muratov, and Margarita Simonyan (all – Russian prominent media figures - ed.) won’t stand up for you?
- Of course, I’m afraid. I’m basically not the bravest man in the world, and I believe that there’s no shame in being afraid. After all, fear increases your chances of survival. People would be afraid of a car rushing at them at 100 km per hour, aren't they? They're trying to hide behind a tree. So I'm also looking to find the nearest tree.
- But when you’re in Russia, do you take any security measures, albeit subconsciously?
- No. When it all started, the threat didn't come from the Russian security agencies. You wouldn’t be able to get away from them anyway. The threat came from those who were watching television there, especially in 2014–2015. After all, in their worldview, if you’re from Ukraine, it means you’re a Nazi, and you must be destroyed. I remember this hate very well.
And then there was a period when they were just mad at us. See, they’ve been constantly, for seven years, told that we would find ourselves in a terrible situation, told about the Ukrainian Nazis, that this winter we would freeze to death… But none of this is happening. So they are gradually abandoning the topic.
Concerning my fears, I am a citizen of Ukraine. My country will fight for me to the last. I know that for sure. But it will be better, of course, if this never happens.
- There is an opinion that Russian journalists (cynical in their nature) are guided in their propaganda mainly by the so-called “mortgage” considerations. Are there any real ideological supporters of the regime among them? Or are they just “mercenaries,” some more talented and some less so?
- The “mortgage” issue is no longer relevant for them. Especially for the category of top propagandists who make loads of money. The word “mercenary” is really on spot though. They work on live TV for hours. Every day. And thus, they have already achieved a self–programming level. They began to believe in this all even more. And they hate Ukraine sincerely, not by order from the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin doesn’t skimp on propaganda at all. And if we’re talking about ordinary journalists, they, in fact, simply have nowhere to work except for the federal media. After all, the Echo of Moscow, Dozhd, or Novaya Gazeta don’t have room for everyone.
- By the way, was the Nobel Peace Prize for the editor-in-chief of the latter, Dmitry Muratov, a slap in the face of the Russian public’s “journalistic taste” (both official and liberal)? After all, the liberals have also mixed opinions on this issue (“The award should have been given to Alexey Navalny,” many believe).
- The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muratov doesn’t concern Ukrainians at all. This is not our agenda at all. Why don't we, for example, discuss the prize to the founder of the Philippine online media outlet Rappler, Maria Ressa? She also fights the regime. In my opinion, Ukrainians should distance themselves from all this.
As for the fact that the liberal-minded Russians say the award should have been presented to Navalny… They say that this should have increased his chances to survive in prison – but this is their thing. I think that nothing is supposed to happen to Navalny in theory anyway. But in practice… In any case, I wish Alexei to be released and, at least, understand that you can’t just fight corruption in Russia while turning a blind eye to everything else. No one should be surprised that they came for him because he said nothing when they came for Ukraine.
And if we talk about real Russian journalism, Novaya Gazeta certainly does most of it. On the one hand, we may blame them for writing little about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although in 2014–2015, Novaya Gazeta was widely covering the topic. They wrote about a Buryat soldier (in Donbas - ed.), were recording facts to prove the Russian military invasion, and ran an investigation into the MH17 downing.
But let's be honest: Ukrainian journalists have become much less likely to think about Russia, just as Russian journalists – about us. But propagandists don't think; they just keep on working. Just like machine guns.
Moscow is creating anti-Ukrainian media “products” not only for local consumers
- Should we pay less attention to such hosts as Skabeyeva (one of Russia’s top propagandist TV hosts - ed.)?
- Partly, yes, but you should not ignore them at all. They're all trained there. The entire federal press group works synchronously: they make the same statements that are suggested to them. And they can only do this from one place. Therefore, you should not ignore them at all. After all, what they are doing now is a “call to wage an aggressive war.” They're calling to kill us. Publicly. Directly. To bomb! So, Dmitry Peskov will comment later that this is an opinion of someone like Zhirinovsky. But in reality, this is not the case.
And as a Ukrainian correspondent in Russia, I am engaged in recording this. If there is a group of people nearby (in this case, a country) saying "we want to destroy you," then this should be taken seriously and not ignored.
- Can this “trash talk” by such figures as Skabeyeva (aimed primarily at Russians) eventually lead to an emergency meeting of the Federation Council on the topic: “Putin, you need to send troops to Ukraine to protect Russian speakers”?
- Russian troops are already in Ukraine, although they don’t wear any insignia. But so far, they don't use missiles or aircraft. Once there was such a discussion on what wins – a refrigerator or a TV. I think that now things are going in a different context. Relatively speaking, the Kremlin and its propaganda are constantly exchanging vibes. And there are risks here. However, people who publicly talk all this rubbish (mercenaries, soldiers of information war) have one crucial flaw, which is very important for us, Ukrainians: they’re no decision makers.
Yes, they have created an information machine with no place for Russian events. This is a Soviet “International panorama” mixed not with “60 minutes” socially political talk show, but with months and years of hatred for Ukraine. There is no news about what is really happening in Russia. Unless there is some emergency: someone shot someone at school, a plane crashed. Yes, they show this one day, discuss it, and here it comes to Ukraine again. There is no agenda on Russian issues. Their news is like: “All is well, beautiful marquise, Putin is leading us to a bright future!” Yes, there is a feeling that this “anti-Ukrainian product” is prepared only for local consumption. But at the same time, it affects not only Russian citizens but also people around the world who understand Russian!
- The Gleiwitz incident, which actually was taken as a pretext to unleash World War 2, was largely possible because German public opinion had been prepared to attack Poland…
- As for me, there is a difference. It’s that for the most part, Russians would like to get Kyiv back, create a certain Ukrainian federal district, but they don’t want to send their children to die for this.
- Do you really think that the cynical historical narrative “Don’t count soldiers, our women will bring us more kids” is no longer relevant in Russia?
- By the way, they openly say that they need to occupy Ukraine, including to solve their demographic problems. In the Russian Federation, they really tell that “We don't want Uzbeks and Tajiks. After all, they are not Slavs, but Ukrainians are most important!” Their demographic issues are the same as in Ukraine. But it is quite clear in our case: there’s war, a bit of a mess; but what is it about in Russia?! They have oil, gas, and Putin! And a million people are gone, within a year! Where to? But I think that the thesis “our women will bring us more kids” won’t work out anymore. So we need to remind them of this. Otherwise, you're right: no one will really be asking Russian mothers. And neither will there be a ‘small victorious war’ with Ukraine.
- Are you in contact with Ukrainian “dissident” journalists? Are they in demand there?
- Everyone lives their own life. Someone married the daughter of an SVR (foreign intelligence service - ed.) general and became more of a Russian than Russians themselves. The vast majority of these people now work for the RIA Novosti or something like that. They miss Kyiv.
Some aren’t bored, while inciting hate toward Ukraine.
Some die of alcoholism. They live off of their memories of some reserved table in Kyiv, where they would gather and, having their check covered with Russian money, think of how to get Ukraine back to the “Russian World.”
You know, it seems to me that in Russia, the time of journalists who are professional Ukraine haters is passing. I think they’re all nostalgic because the quality of life for journalists in Ukraine is entirely different. We all have quirks and our roads may be broken, but Ukraine is really a unique country. And in Moscow, asphalt may be better, but they just march those roads. As they do in the army.
You shouldn’t say “Russian World.” It’s “Russia’s World”
- Now a question from the conventional “Skabeyeva.” Ready?
- Let's try it. Although, I think that the real Olga Skabeyeva wouldn’t want to ask me anything.
- How do Russia’s lists of “foreign agents,” undesirable organizations and individuals differ from that drawn by Ukraine’s Peacemaker NGO?
- The majority of those included in the Peacemaker’s list fired at Ukrainians, killed our soldiers and ordinary citizens.
- But what about the artists?
- On the main list drawn by Peacemaker are murderers. Indeed, there are artists who have been included for illegally crossing into and performing in the occupied Crimea and Donbas. Meanwhile, the Russian list of “foreign agents” has people and organizations on it who don’t like Vladimir Putin. In Ukraine, there’s no list of those who don’t like Volodymyr Zelensky. We have never had a list of people who would not like Petro Poroshenko. Therefore, the Ukrainian Peacemaker and the Russian list of “foreign agents” are conceptually different. They also introduced it because Ukraine has fought back to a certain extent. Russian society can’t be kept on its toes by the Ukraine issue alone. Some internal enemies are also required. And when there are none, they should be made up. So, that’s what they’ve done.
Also, in Russia they claim there’s censorship in Ukraine! So much for the censorship, really, when an entire media group, run by (Putin’s main political operative in Ukraine Viktor - ed.) Medvedchuk functioned due to selling Russian hydrocarbons. Volodymyr Zelensky has fixed it. Good job. This is his main achievement. Or perhaps one of the main ones... Therefore, this comparison would be inappropriate.
- How does the Ukrainian situation with the actual watering down of the inquiries into the murders of journalists Georgiy Gongadze and Pavlo Sheremet differ from the Russians stalling the investigation into the killings of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov?
- Propagandists from Russia simply don’t allow such stories to be part of the media agenda. They don't mention Politkovskaya and Nemtsov at all. If any question arises, they say: “We’ve found the perpetrators of the assassinations.” And why do you think that this topic has been put on brakes in Ukraine? They simply didn't manage to find Sheremet's killers. It's sad, but it happens. The perpetrator of Gongadze's murder is in prison. As for those who ordered the hit, well, we can assume that highly likely the words (albeit misunderstood) that became the trigger for the murder were uttered by the ex-president of Ukraine. Yes, life in Ukraine isn’t perfect. Everyone is aware of that. So, I think this comparison is a bit engineered. In Russia, on principle, it’s impossible to imagine someone asking such a question on state media getting an answer.
- How does the Russian idea of “hanging Ukrainians without trial” differ from the Ukrainian one “If you aren’t jumping, you are ‘Mockal’ [a slur for a ‘Russian’]” or “we won’t calm down till we drive Abrams tanks down Tverskaya Street”?
- It was only (Russian journalist who moved to Ukraine - ed.) Arkady Babchenko was going to drive an Abrams, and, let me remind you, he is Russian. And besides, there are no Abrams tanks in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Therefore, we definitely won’t be driving them. This is the first thing.
And secondly, I’d say: “You are going to hang us, that is, take our lives. Meanwhile, we’re just jumping. This is fun to us. No Russian national, not a single God’s creature has ever been hurt by the chant “If you aren’t jumping, you’re Moskal” theme that stems back to the Maidan days.
- So, you suggest it didn't sound as if it was “whoever is not with us is against us”?
- At least I didn't see it this way. In Moscow, they tried and are trying to spin the narrative of the Maidan uprising being some kind of anti-Russian event, thereby trying to justify their military invasion. Recall the nonsense that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was spinning, claiming some right-wing nationalists would come in on “friendship trains” to expel all Russians.
Many years have passed, and I still don't know if there were any “friendship trains.” Maybe you know anything about them? Is there at least one person with a ticket for that train? Where is that person?
So ten years on, Lavrov still repeats this “mantra” at every press conference for the Western media in the context of “Why do you accuse us of seizing Crimea? Well, we could so we did it. After all, the ‘Banderites’ wanted to force all Russians out of it.” Therefore, this is an inappropriate comparison.
- How does the term “Russian language,” which is almost officially recognized in Ukraine, help Russian speakers in the country protect it from the Russians?
- In my opinion, we need to correct the terminology. You can't say “Russian World.” It’s “Russia’s World.” After all, they want to make all Russians (by ethnicity - ed.) responsible for what they do. That’s including those in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, people speak the language they want. So the “language issue” is purely artificial. It seems that everyone in Ukraine has already come to this conclusion. Ukrainian is the only, state language. Full stop. If you seek to be a public servant, please, learn the language. That's it.
On the other hand, if someone who’s lived in Ukraine for 30 years hasn’t mastered the language, then, as per the already mentioned Russian minister of foreign affairs, they are “morons,” so they shouldn’t become public servants. Also, they shouldn’t join universities if they can’t study in Ukrainian. That simple. Therefore, the comparison is also inappropriate here.
- What can Ukraine boast of regarding the fight against corruption at a time when Russia reports almost weekly of the arrest of another top official on charges of bribery and extortion?
- That’s because in Russia, much (if not all) depends on Putin's decisions. He decides on such cases, most of which are political. In Ukraine, the fight against corruption, of course, is far from perfect. But we must admit that we are creating institutions that will eventually work, step by step. If Zelensky implements judicial reform, then as far as I understand (although I’m no great expert here), the entire anti-graft system will actually start functioning. At least, that's what I want to believe. Indeed, so far, everything is going very slowly.
We must admit that the so-called Ukrainian shadow state simply resists the fight against corruption in all possible ways. When our western partners, roughly speaking, offer something like “Let's help you select people who will put you in prison if you steal something,” this shadow state hollers: “No, this is external influence!” And when we need their help in our war with Russia, for some reason, we don't mention any external influence (by the way, it’s a Russian narrative, too). All sane people in Ukraine see and understand this. Meanwhile, in Russia, there is no justice. There are politics and decisions made by a single person. I hope there will be institutions in Ukraine. This would be much more stable.
- If Russia occupied Crimea and parts of Donbas, where is the liberation struggle on the part of the locals? Where are those underground cells and guerilla units?
- First, if the Russian TV doesn’t show that the occupation authorities are running punitive operations, this doesn’t mean that's true. For instance, raids on Crimean Tatars are a common thing.
It was also different in the Nazi-occupied territories. Some fought, while some chose to just survive. So, then the Soviet government was engaged in conducting sabotage from the non-occupied territory, creating underground cells, guerilla units, etc. In Kyiv, it is evident that the decision was made not to act in this way. That is, we don’t opt for blowing up the “Crimea Bridge,” we don’t derail trains, we don’t burn down houses as Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya did (in Soviet times - ed.). Although in the context of World War 2, this would be a normal thing. But now, the value of life has changed. In addition, we need to compare the Ukrainian and Russian potentials. What will this lead to? To the bombing of Kyiv? What I say, of course, in no way justifies Russian invaders. Many years have passed since the occupation of Crimea, but for some reason, the “Scythian Gold” is returning to Ukraine, not to the occupied Crimea. Why? The thing is that, as time passes, the Russians still remain invaders in eyes of the whole world.
- Finish Leonid Kuchma's phrase “Ukraine is not Russia” because…
- I’m putting a full stop here. And then I add my phrase: “Ukraine existed, exists, and will exist. Ukraine is an independent, free country, and we'll be just great.” I don't want to look at Ukraine through a Russian lens at all. Ukraine no longer needs to prove anything to Russia. I sincerely wish its citizens to live in peace and harmony with themselves and to feel all right – but only within internationally recognized borders.
Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security