The Ukrainian journalist Denis Trubetskoy was able to travel to Poland and Berlin for two weeks just before Christmas. Denis has been reporting from Kyiv for several German-language media, for ntv.de since 2019. In Berlin we spoke to him about the war, the mood in Kyiv, Ukraine's war goals, the "Russian glasses" of the German media and the surprising optimism the Ukrainian, whom Denis shares only to a limited extent.
ntv.de: For the past three months, Russia has been terrorizing Ukraine with attacks on power plants and power grids. How much do the people in Kyiv suffer from this, what is the mood like there?
Denis Trubetskoy: In the summer you had the feeling that normal life had returned - not completely, but to some extent. In some cases, three million people were in Kyiv again. Except for the nightly curfew, except for the occasional rocket fire, it was pretty much the same as before. That changed when the attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure began. You can't sugarcoat it, the situation is difficult. Most people also realize that it will remain difficult, especially in the winter months. People try to deal with the situation. A lot is improvised. For example, you get generators and candles. But it is definitely a great psychological burden that people can also see. The mood is somehow still okay. You are ready to persevere.
What is the goal of this perseverance?
The Ukrainian government has stated that it aims to liberate all of the territory occupied by Russia. The president of an attacked country cannot announce anything else, especially since this was the stated goal of Ukrainian politics even before the start of the great war, albeit through diplomatic channels, of course. During the negotiations in Turkey, Ukraine also suggested excluding the status of Crimea. That changed after Bucha and Irpin, after the massive Russian war crimes became known. Now it's simply: Of course we also want to bring Crimea back.
However, it must be said that the situation in Crimea before the war was assessed differently from that in Donbass. That is no longer the case - Russia has also declared the Donbass and two southern regions of Ukraine, Cherson and Zaporizhia, to be annexed. In addition, the Crimea is an important deployment area for the Russians. From my point of view, however, this does not necessarily mean that there is a serious plan for an offensive to recapture Crimea.
You called the war that started on February 24th the "great war". Is that also the term that ordinary people in Ukraine use when they talk about the invasion?
Yes, because the real war started in 2014. But of course a completely new situation arose on February 24th. It is a completely different date for people, the beginning of a new era. Despite this, Ukrainians attach great importance to the fact that this war began at the end of February 2014 with the start of the Russian occupation of Crimea. I think this perspective is correct. Later, when we read history books about the Russo-Ukrainian war, the starting point will be 2014, not 2022. That is why we speak of the great war or the full-scale Russian invasion.
What is the attitude of Ukrainian society to possible compromises with Russia in order to bring the fighting to a quick end?
Polls show that the proportion of Ukrainians calling for Crimea to be retaken has risen by 10 percentage points since March. Around 75 percent said so in March, now it's around 85 percent. Whether people mean it literally is another question, though, because of course there's a certain psychological tendency to answering in a certain way with such questions - to send a message or even to correspond to what you meant for the general mood holds. Overall, however, people are serious: unlike in February 2015 on the Donbass issue, the Ukrainians understand that it makes no sense to artificially put off this dispute for a few more years. The Russia problem must now be permanently solved as far as possible. But my feeling is that people see that Crimea is a slightly different matter.
Because the attitude of the local population towards Ukraine is complicated. I think the minimum war goal for the vast majority of Ukrainians is to liberate all territories occupied after February 24th. Everything else would be the icing on the cake, so to speak. Ultimately, however, we will have to see what public opinion will be like next summer. Talking about compromises today is completely pointless anyway. Russia is planning another major offensive in 2023. Russia is currently not interested in an end to the war.
What are the Russian war aims anyway?
Putin has never clearly stated what the goals are. There were always abstract formulations, such as talk of alleged denazification and demilitarization, but he never publicly committed himself to specific goals. The rhetorical war aims seem to have changed a lot over the months. At first it was about all of Ukraine, except perhaps for the westernmost districts, then about the east and the south. And once it was the land bridge to the Crimea. Ultimately, Putin wants to make Ukraine a Russian vassal state. I would therefore not rule out that the Russians will make another attempt to move towards Kyiv, also from Belarus. It's not that far at the moment, but you have to plan seriously with this perspective. In general, I think it's a dangerous illusion to believe that Putin will stop where he is today. He won't - he won't stop voluntarily.
Do you think the Russians will go along with that?
Under Putin, Russian society became heavily depoliticized. Most Russians don't care whether Russia negotiates peace or conquers Kyiv. The main thing is that it will be over at some point and you can go back to normal life. But: In the past, Putin has nevertheless always used it to present himself as a great winner. The annexation of Crimea, for example, gave it a big boost. He hadn't experienced any real defeats before this war. This alleged special operation has not gone quite as he had imagined. No matter what Putin says, this great war has been going on for more than ten months now. Every Russian has to understand that it couldn't have been planned that way. This will certainly not destroy Putin's image in Russia, but it will call it into question. From this perspective, too, it is important for Putin to still somehow implement the goals with which he justified the war at the beginning.
Polls show that despite such scenarios, Ukrainians are relatively optimistic about the future. Currently, two-thirds of Ukrainians expect that 2023 will be better than 2022. Almost 90 percent are optimistic about the coming year, only 6 percent are pessimistic. How can that be?
I don't think 2023 will be any better myself. I expect everyday life to become even more complicated as attacks on our energy infrastructure continue. January and February in particular will probably be very difficult months. It is perfectly clear to me that the Russians will do everything they can to move forward. That doesn't mean that I don't think Ukrainians will succeed. But for the average Ukrainian, next year will be even more difficult than 2022.
At the same time, I can understand why the majority of Ukrainians are optimistic about the future. It was an incredibly difficult year and as a result, of course, people want hope. There shouldn't be a single person in Ukraine who isn't at least a little bit traumatized. And yet we have seen, firstly, that the Ukrainian army can hold out against such a strong opponent, even push him back. This has also surprised many within the country. Second, that Ukrainian society sticks together, as it did in 2014 - everyone feels the need to contribute to victory through donations or voluntary actions. Thirdly, it has been seen that state structures, such as the Ukrainian Post and the Ukrainian Railways, which were often criticized in pre-war life, do an excellent job under the most difficult circumstances. And fourth, the creativity with which citizens and companies defy the attacks on the energy infrastructure. Of course, that gives hope for the future. And then there is a bit of the feeling that we as a country in Europe will play a slightly different role after the war. Ukrainians have never felt that their country is or should be particularly important to the rest of Europe. That has changed.
I know it annoys you to talk about corruption because Ukraine has different problems at the moment. But for many Germans this seems to be an important issue. Therefore: Ukraine was ranked 122 in the 2021 corruption index. In the USA, a Republican MP has claimed that weapons intended for Ukraine could have ended up in Syria or Russia. Are there any signs of this?
no Of course, it cannot be ruled out that any smaller weapons did not get where they were sent. But the idea of a multiple rocket launcher ending up somewhere in Syria without us noticing is completely absurd to me. There are or have been serious problems with corruption in Ukraine. But it is very difficult for me to imagine that anyone would enrich themselves with aid from abroad under the current circumstances. Right now it's all about survival. The Ukrainian oligarchs have also lost an incredible amount. Instead of enriching themselves, they were forced to become major donors to the Ukrainian army - hundreds of millions of euros at stake.
Have you been expropriated?
No, this is not necessary at all. The more the Russians advance, the more the big businessmen lose. They are fighting for Ukraine's survival because it is vital to its survival. None of these oligarchs is Zelenskyy's fan, and there is no real cooperation either. This even applies to former allies: Ihor Kolomojskyj, who helped Zelenskyj win the 2019 elections with his media empire, was probably expatriated by the president during the war - this has not been confirmed for data protection reasons, but everything points to it. But if we take the example of the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov: he owned the destroyed steel plant in Mariupol, that's gone now. A huge source of income. Other oligarchs have suffered similar losses from attacks on their companies. They have a very personal interest in Ukraine winning this war. In addition: If it became known now that someone was getting rich from the war, whether an oligarch or a small commander - that would be socially finished for all time.
How do you perceive the way German politics dealt with the war?
Germany is a very important partner for Ukraine. Anti-aircraft gun tanks "Gepard", for example, helped Ukraine a lot. Financial aid is also extremely important, without which Ukraine could hardly survive. Germany supplies generators and supports a great deal in the energy sector. And of course taking in the refugees from Ukraine is a huge help. This is all very, very important.
Many Ukrainians have an exaggerated image of Germany, thinking the country works as well as a BMW. I realize that's not true. But I still find it a bit incomprehensible why Germany, the strongest country in Europe, so seldom shows initiative. One senses that many Germans, especially many German politicians, have not yet understood what the turning point means. A part of German politics and the public still lives in a world of comfort, like in a universe of its own. I can also understand how difficult it is to grasp the new present - it was very similar for me in 2014. For a long time I too did not want to admit the direction in which Russia is developing. In this respect, I can understand that it is difficult to say goodbye to illusions. And I can also understand that the federal government is having difficulties with this war. To be honest, from a Ukrainian perspective, it could have been worse.
Before Christmas, at an event at the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), you said that Germany sees the war too much through Russian glasses. As an example, you pointed out that the German media had always spoken of the "pro-Russian separatists".
Even after the occupation by Russia, there was still talk of "pro-Russian administrations", although of course they were occupation administrations. The talk of the "pro-Russian separatists" is misleading because it is often simply about Russian citizens, not Ukrainians who are committed to joining Russia.
That with the Russian glasses is a typical media problem. Articles with "Putin" in the headline get more clicks than those that provide background information on Ukraine. Looking back, I think a lot would have been clearer if things had been called more clearly. But the background to such a conflict is complicated. Then you leave out details and try to explain a construct like the Minsk Agreement in a few sentences. As a result, no one understands what is actually going on. In the worst case, this resulted in simplified representations in which Ukraine was split into a "pro-Western" and a "pro-Russian" part. This idea has survived to this day, even among German journalists, although it has been nonsense since 2014 at the latest.
There are probably still Germans who believe that Ukraine is somehow part of the "Russian world" and has no right to look west. what do you tell them
First, Ukrainians should be able to decide for themselves with whom they want to form alliances or not. That should be an absolute matter of course. And secondly, I don't like such discussions at all. Even this term, "Russian world". All I can think of is that parts of present-day Ukraine contributed more to the development of the Russian language and classical Russian literature than many regions of present-day Russia. Kyiv is older than Moscow, the Russian language is not the sole property of Russia. Yes, Ukraine is partly Russian-speaking, but that doesn't make it a part of Russia - politically, historically, or culturally. This is all nonsense.
The war has also caused Ukraine to sever its political ties with Russia - and I mean the 2014 war, not the full-scale invasion. This was felt even in cities like Kharkiv, which are close to the Russian border and also close to the "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk. That had a lot to do with the refugees who came from there to the free part of Ukraine at the time. They showed first-hand what it means to be taken over by the "Russian world". Of course, there were still conflicts within Ukraine. Not everyone was satisfied with the history policy and language policy made in Kyiv. But the old affinity with Russia in the east of the country has declined massively since 2014. I think that says a lot about the strategic wisdom of Russian politics. Just a few years ago, Russian pop played as a matter of course at the majority of Ukrainian parties. Ukrainian YouTube was dominated by Russian broadcasts. If the Russian leadership had been strategically smarter, they would have used cultural diplomacy and soft power. But that's all yesterday's news. For the foreseeable future, Russia is nothing but the enemy for Ukraine.
We are speaking here in an office in the middle of Berlin, you were able to leave the Ukraine for two weeks. How does that make you feel?
It's a weird feeling. Apart from Kyiv, Berlin is my favorite city. In the past, before Corona and before the war, I was here several times a year. But not much has changed - there is still a construction site on every corner. It's nice to be here. At the same time it is strange. Of course, I am privileged to be able to leave the country, at least for a short time. But you're nervous about what's happening in Kyiv. Last Monday, for example, my district was shelled. Once you're there, you get a better sense of what's going on - it's difficult from a distance. At home you know at what distance an explosion took place, whether it was a hit or the work of anti-aircraft defense. Here I am dependent on second-hand information. And that doesn't always work: I couldn't reach my neighbors at first because they didn't have internet.
Do you still go to the air raid shelter when attacks are imminent?
Hardly. You should actually do it. But then it is almost impossible to work normally. And you have learned to assess the air raid alarm. One reads innumerable telegram channels reporting on which Russian planes are taking off where and the like. For example, when the MiG-31 take off from Belarus, you know that nothing will happen for several hours. And when you read that ten bombers are in the air over the Caspian Sea, you know that there will probably be a major attack with at least 50 missiles. You behave differently there. And in general, you try to at least follow the two-wall rule: If possible, there should be at least two walls between you and all windows. So you sit in the corridor and wait.
When are you back in Kyiv?
I got a special permit from the Ministry of Culture to take part in some events in Poland and in Berlin. I have to be back in Ukraine on December 29th.
Hubertus Volmer spoke to Denis Trubetskoy