War and Ukraine through the eyes of Tim Judah

Czech analyst Adam Sybera talks to the famous British journalist Tim Judah about journalism, wars, Ukraine and Russian aggression. The conversation takes place on November 29, 2022 in an unspecified location of Kharkiv region, Ukraine, 5 miles away from Russian border.

At that time, Tim Judah was in Ukraine on a reporting mission for the New York Review of Books. Here you can read the report he wrote as the result of the mission: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2023/01/19/ukraines-volunteers-tim-judah/

More about Tim Judah: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Judah

Adam and Tim were on the special humanitarian mission organized by Maidan Monitoring Information Center, Team 4 Ukraine and Piatykhatkу-BAM.

AS (Adam Sybera): So good evening from an unspecified place in Ukraine. I have the honor to be here today with Timothy Judah. If you could maybe briefly introduce yourself?

TJ (Tim Judah): Thanks very much. I’m a British journalist. I’ve been covering Ukraine for quite a long time, on and off. And I’m here in a reporting mission right now for the New York Review of Books.

AS: So just to get you in the picture of what’s happening, we’ve been deployed on a humanitarian mission, and Tim joined us on it. And on the way there, we’ve been… we’ve hit a series of unfortunate events, to put it mildly, a few. Our car broke down several times, but that we still overcame. Unfortunately, about four kilometers before our final destination we’ve ran into this local tradition in this time of the year in Ukraine, called ‘rasputitsa’, which is essentially extreme mud. And one of our cars just got stuck there. We managed to pull it out several times with our other car. However, at one point the right rear wheel broke off. Everything was going wrong, and it was getting dark. So we didn’t manage to hit our final destination.
So we turned around for a bit, and found shelter in this abandoned house, which is likely to have been abandoned due to war. We don’t know who lived here. Obviously, there’s some people who we’d like to thank later, because if it wasn’t this house, we’d be in serious trouble.
But to go on with the interview, I would… with the talk, let’s say.
What are you covering right now?

TJ: Well, I’ve been here for almost a month, and because The New York Review does these sort of long reportage pieces, I’ve got to write a very long reportage piece at the end of this month. So I had envisaged this coming to the border with you, and going to a place which would be otherwise inaccessible, as some part of my piece. And it will still be part of my piece, whether we get there or not tomorrow, because…

AS: Hopefully, yes.

TJ: But that’s what I’m doing. I’ve been in Lviv and in Odessa. I went to Kherson, Mykolaiv, and… And now here.

AS: So what are your first impressions of today? What are your general impressions of today?

TJ: Well, you know, as a journalist, you never learn nothing. So, you’re constantly learning stuff. That’s the first thing. Of course, it’s frustrating that we didn’t get to our target, but, you know, hopefully we’ll be able to get there tomorrow. But, you know, as I say, you’re always learning something. And just by looking out of the window, you’re seeing stuff, you know. Fields which have been plowed and fields where there’s stuff rotting, which hasn’t been harvested. And the sunflowers we saw today… You know, it all tells you something.
And even when we were stuck in that field, suddenly, it was completely dark. Along comes a big armored vehicle, an infantry fighting vehicle.
I mean, it was fascinating just to be there and think… The question was like people might be watching: “What were you doing driving across this field?”

AS: Right.

TJ: The answer is apparently, because the normal routes to the place where we’re trying to go to along the Russian border are visible from the Russian side of the border. Ukrainians and Russians are kind of lobbing artillery across the border at each other, and apparently it’s dangerous because you could be a target along that road visible from Russia. And that’s why we were taking no risks and going along these well-worn, as you said, very muddy tracks, straight through the fields. And that’s why we got stuck.

AS: And, how would I say… For me personally, when the armored vehicle approached, I felt like a child all of a sudden. To see it – it wasn’t a tank, it was armored vehicle. But it’s massive, the cannon and everything. And even the respect you get from the soldiers or, how would I say, you suddenly realized really quickly that even… We were actually asking the soldiers if there’s any other way to go around. And the soldiers were so, you know, sort of poking fun at us, they’re like: “Well, no, this is the only supplying road route. Obviously, we’re in war.” So it really hit me there. You know, that you’re on a road and there’s this armored vehicle launching at you.
Did you feel anxious or anything like that?

TJ: No, I felt disappointed because I was hoping they were going to tow the broken car up to the village. That’s what I was hoping. They would just turn around and help us. But apparently they had other things to do. So they gave some advice. They told us, this is the only way to go. But I thought I felt disappointed, to tell you the truth. I was really hoping they were going to help us out and tell us.

AS: And how long are you intending to stay in Ukraine for?

TJ: Well, I’ve been here for almost three and a half weeks. My plan was to stay here for a month. So I’ll stay here for more or less a month. I’m finishing this reportage trip. And this was going to be the sort of last… sort of big kind of, out in the fields bit. I’ve got one or two formal interviews to do in Kyiv, and then that’s it. Actually, I’ve got so much stuff. I only want to do two interviews when I get to Kyiv and then that’s it.
But I need to sort of cover, to sort of… bring it home to people, to explain to readers what it looks like, feels like, smells like… And because I’m writing this long reportage piece, I… You know, it’s not just the sort of the daily news, I’m not doing that. It has to be different and more in-depth. And as you can see, there are no other journalists here, and so I’m doing stuff the other people are not doing. I mean that is in this pit.
When I had the opportunity to go here, so… Obviously, there were lots of journalists. But here’s the opportunity to go to see and do things, and report on something which some other people are not doing.
It hit me, the reason why we’re going to this village, it really hit me when we were in the field taking this whole van full of bread and other things… When we got stuck there, whereas… Well, you know that’s why they’re really in trouble in this village, because they can’t get it otherwise. They think, well, why can’t they get the stuff themselves or why can’t… There’s just like no other way to get there, and that’s why they’re really isolated up there on the Russian border. As I said, the road is dangerous. The only way to get there is through the field. And they’re obviously running out of supplies. I don’t think they can stop it from those kind of little villages in Ukraine. Most people have got sort of stores of food and other stuff, but still, there are lots of… sort of things that you’re saying. You’re saying even just some basic things like bread. That’s what some in the back of the van. I hope it won’t be too long before we get there. Otherwise, all the bread will be stale.

AS: Just to specify there’s no signal or internet connection. We were very lucky to find a house. There’s actually electricity, and so we managed to put on some heating.

TJ: You say that, but luckily when we arrived, as far as I understood, it was like there was no electricity until a few hours ago and it has been off for days. Yeah, so we’re really lucky because I think in this house we’ve got a plug in an electric motor which was here, otherwise we’d be freezing.

AS: And a blackout can obviously happen any time, they’ve been happening, even in huge cities constantly. It’s become an unfortunate routine in Ukraine lately because that’s one of the strategy of the occupying forces to wear down the willingness to resist, and basically torture the local communities with winter, with cold and isolation, as you say.
What are some of the findings you’ve had in the last three weeks?

TJ: As I said, I’ve been coming quite, quite regularly. And I think that what’s really interesting is that I was here in 2014-2015 and then I came… Well, actually I came at the beginning of the year, I came in January. And then, I say, from January to April. So, the invasion began on February the 24th. So, you have these in my mind as three kind of periods to describe.
So there’s that period of the time of the revolution, 2014-2015, and the beginning of the invasion, when the Russians took Crimea and they took the first chunks of Luhansk and Donetsk [regions]. In which period, you know, Ukraine and Ukrainians were so chaotic, disorganized, it was coming out of a revolution. And the army especially was in a very bad shape, which is why a kind of the volunteer brigades were formed and helped stop the Russians in 2015. But still, Ukraine was very weak.
And what struck me when I came in January and in the weeks before, leading up to the invasion, was… I hadn’t realized, – but I don’t think anybody outside of Ukraine had realized, and above all, I don’t think Putin and the Russians have realized, – how incredibly Ukraine had changed between 2014-2015 and 2008 [obviously, 2022]. It was kind of organized, much more united, and prepared.
I must say that on the eve of the invasion, very few people believed it was going to happen. I mean…

AS: Were you here, actually?

TJ: I was here. Yes, I was here. I came on January. I came in at the end of January, and then I was… I did a big piece, literally, which I found just before the invasion started, sort of like hours before. And, you know, wherever I went, – including Kharkiv, where we started today, – it was complete denial. I mean, people said, could is not really an invasion, right? What a rubbish!
I mean, I remember there was an aggressive woman in Kharkiv market, and she said, she shouted at me, going: “Have you got a brother?” And I said “Well, yes.” – “Would your brother attack you?” I said: “Well, no. No! So of course he wouldn’t.” “So of course Russia’s not going to attack us!” – [she said]. I think that was very, very common. And that attack was in the sort of an ordinary market. Then there’s a sort of more fancy upmarket, covered market with sort of fancy food shops, and… called the Sumska market. I went in there and I had help with… I was with a translator and we started going from place to place asking people: “What do you think, is there an invasion about to come?” This was February up… This was about February 18th, 19th, so it was like less than a week before the invasion. And everyone goes: “No!” Of course, I was going on, and then I just said to my translator: “Let’s give up!” Because everyone was saying exactly the same thing. So there was this denial, but still, behind it all, there was… I mean, Ukraine had really changed a lot.
And then, on February 24th, I was in Kyiv, and then I covered all that period, the beginning of the invasion. And then I was covering Bucha, and Irpin, and all of that period. And what was interesting, was… that there was this kind of… The morale was extremely high, but there was a kind of euphoria.
And now I think: “What’s changed?” I think what’s interesting is that… what’s changed from that period is… the morale is still very high. And so it should be, like, 50% of the territory which had been taken off, in the first weeks the war has been taken back, and the West has been incredibly and surprisingly united. So morale is still very high. But what a lot of people have said to me is how… The one thing that has changed behind this high morale is… They say: “It’s… now it’s personal.” Meaning that so many people have lost somebody that they know. They’ve lost colleagues, or if they are soldiers, they’ve lost others, they’ve lost comrades in arms. But so now it’s not just the sort of defending Ukraine and doing the right thing. It’s that, plus the personal thing of, I would say, revenge. And that’s not the right word. But it’s just that, what they put in was, well, themselves. It’s personal.

AS: Yes. Yes. So you talked about the mental resiliency of the nation. And actually me and my colleagues from Team4Ukraine and Maidan Monitoring Information Center, we are here to monitor war crimes.

TJ: Yes.

AS: What are your… all right, how to state it? not opinions or feelings… Or, actually, yes, opinions and feelings about the atrocities and the horrible behavior of the Russian army, of the occupying forces that are here?

TJ: I’ve covered other wars before, and…

AS: Is it comparable?

TJ: In general terms there are superficial comparisons, and then you sort of dig deep. I mean, no. You know, I covered all the Balkan wars, so in Bosnia, and in Croatia, a lot of war crimes were prominent. But a lot of what’s happened, it always strikes me. A lot of what’s happened here strikes me as… It is self-defeating anyway. It’s completely self-defeating because all it’s done is… It’s got of united kind of Ukrainian resolve. I’ve been talking to your colleague, Petr Pojman, but he has his theory of the sort of…

AS: Deviant?

TJ: Well, what I want to say, was the absorption into the sort of military and state mainstream of literally criminal elements. You know, the commander-in-chief who spent time in the army, you’ve got the head of that Wagner Group who is also a kind of former criminal. And bringing in, and recruiting many criminals to fight, who have little moral scruple, but also a little military training, either. So I think there is that element as well, which does explain the sort of it, irrational and… to us, kind of irrational and uncontrolled kind of violence. And what’s interesting, it is not everywhere because you get to some places, and there not much happened, but then you had in places like in Bucha, especially, this kind of irrational…

AS: Incomprehensible aggression.

TJ: Exactly. Exactly. It’s not because it’s like… how shall I put it… I think some of it grew out of a kind of paranoia. I think a lot of it is grew out, especially in those early days, grew out of the Russians were also very paranoid because of people using the phones, reporting positions. But fine, but you don’t have to then go and murder people because of that. But I think that’s probably what they were doing, was that they were seizing people, and grabbing their phones, and merging them as a sort of way of discouraging others from reporting positions. But that’s a war crime is a war crime is a war crime. But in the end, a lot of war crimes are irrational, and… how shall I put it, they don’t serve. They serve to only bolster the enemy. And that’s what they’ve done in Ukraine. Sort of to bolster resolve, I think.

AS: So essentially, if I understand it correctly, it’s a both combination of the momentary paranoia or frustration, and the reflection of the nature of kleptocratic or criminal regime that the Kremlin runs.

TJ: Oh, yes, and an army, which hasn’t been trained for this. I mean, a lot of these people, mobilized people, of military training, and how some of the Russian army has poor military training. But in principle, soldiers supposed to be educated about what is a war crime, sort of war crime, et cetera. And war crimes happened in all wars. A lot of what we’ve seen is just kind of rational and kind of widespread.

AS: Since you’ve covered more wars, out of your experience, at what point of the war do we find ourselves now or what can we expect in the future?

TJ: That’s a crystal ball question, one thing about this war has been… So many predictions have been just completely wrong. So I’m just don’t want to say this is going to last for two months, well, this is going to last for a year or five years… I have no idea.
Look, you know, on February 24th, people did predict to work correctly, and the intelligence told us it was going to be a war. It’s like this is the people, a lot of people didn’t believe it. But the people said, a lot of experts were saying: “This is going to last three days, Ukraine is going to collapse.” And, of course, it didn’t.
A lot of experts keep making predictions and analysis, which proved to be wrong. There was the chief of the general staff, U.S. General staff, Mark Milley, he was saying in the days before Kherson fell: “Oh, this could take weeks, even if the Russians are going to leave, it could take them weeks to withdraw.” [This prediction appeared wrong.] If the US chief of General Staff doesn’t know, then, like, I don’t know. And there’s so many unpredictable elements as well.

AS: But at the same time we do see the Russian regime going into isolation, being constantly sanctioned by the rest of the world. And basically…

TJ: It’s not something about the whole world. Yeah, but that’s the real because you’re looking at it from a European perspective, you’re looking… If you’re sitting in China, or if we’re sitting in India, or if you’re sitting in in Africa, or other large parts of the world, it doesn’t look like that. And that’s what the Russians keep saying: “Well, there’s not the whole world is against us.” I mean, the Chinese and the Indians might be a bit uncomfortable, but they haven’t put sanctions. They could do a lot, but they haven’t done it, have they?

AS: That’s true. So…

TJ: So it’s not… Yeah. So it’s not the isolation, complete isolation. It’s isolation from an important economic… importance.

AS: But is there a way back for Russia at all, into a state pre-war?

TJ: Well, not with Vladimir Putin as president, for sure. Not with Vladimir Putin. And not occupying large parts of Ukraine, for sure, no. But who knows? We don’t know what’s going to happen. A lot of Ukrainians, interestingly, people don’t talk about this so much as in Britain or America, as far as I know. But a lot of Ukrainians think actually the end of the war is going to be decided here, as much as in Russia itself.
In a sense, people here have a historical vision and thinking, well, you had the First World War which provoke the revolution in Russia. And that’s what changed things here. And then, what led to independent Ukraine was collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also something external to what was happening here. That’s wrong. Though it’s not quite what I want to say. It’s like there are the people, many of them…. They think that the final end is going to be like a third unexpected thing. Like the Russian Revolution, like the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would be something provoked by this war, but unpredicted, and which will lead to change in Moscow. I don’t know, but that’s what many people have said to me already.

AS: Maybe last question to conclude the interview. As a British journalist, could you maybe give us some input how you feel the general British public views this conflict, and Russian aggression?

TJ: Pretty, pretty solidly pro-Ukrainian. Very much so. The one thing that I think needs to be said, from a journalistic point of view, from another point of view, is some people ask me: “What’s different from all of the wars you’ve covered?”
And there is one thing which is different in this war, it is that we as Western journalists, we can’t cover the other side, which is a problem. There’s nothing to do with supporting one side, or the other. It’s just that normally in a conflict, it’s important to cover both sides, so we know what people are thinking, we know what’s happening inside. And we don’t know what’s happening because we’re not allowed to get there, as Russians not going to be… You need proper accreditation, or so. That’s why there’s no coverage from the other side. So, everything is from this side. There’s nothing wrong with reporting from this side. But it would be useful journalistically, and otherwise, to do a report from the other side. But that’s physically not possible. No. And that’s the big difference between this war and other wars. For example, during the Bosnian war, you could be covered one side in the morning and you could come the other side in the afternoon. You could have a story saying, literally covering the same place on both sides and make a kind of complete picture. But you can’t do that here.

AS: But what does that say actually about the Russian regime? Because it doesn’t allow it. It has this control of narrative. And it stems out of the hybrid warfare and information control they’ve been doing prior to the… in the buildup, to… until…

TJ: I think that part of it is either… I suppose that one says they don’t care, maybe… perhaps that’s part of it. But some of it is… Look, a lot of this stuff, what they’re doing is not logical, and you can’t logically explain it because you’ve got to be in their heads to understand it. But I think that… When I say that a lot of it is not logical, we could assume that life is not great from either side, and that people are being killed and presumably some civilians being killed on the other side as well. I don’t know but will be good to report that.
That’s what they keep saying. If you read their media or their… All of the people that .. . how should I put it… the sort of activists who purport… the few activists, Western activists who purport to be journalists, but are not really journalists on either side. They keep saying Ukraine said all these terrible things, et cetera. Well, that may or may not be true, but we don’t know because we can’t report it. But it would be logical if it was true that they would let us report it. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe that’s not my view on that. Everybody’s got one. But I don’t know because I can’t go. We can’t go to them.

AS: Thank you, Tim, for the interview and for the…
TJ: Nice for having you to bring me in this trip, very fascinating.
AS: It’s been an incredible honor and pleasure both to meet you and have the interview with you.
TJ: Thank you very much. Thanks for bring me.
AS: Thank you. Okay.

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