Welcome to TIME subscriber Q&A, with foreign correspondent Simon Shuster.
We will start posting questions and responses at 1 p.m. EST and stay online for about 30 minutes. We have been gathering reader questions all week but will also take questions in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #askTIME.
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PaulDirks asks, When the news first broke of the civilian airliner being shot down, I imagined that Putin would regard this as his clients screwing up massively and that he would distance himself from them. Instead he has doubled down on his Dr. Evil routine. Am I crazy to think that he actually might care what the rest of the civilized world thinks of him?
At this point, yes, I think he has all but abandoned his ambition of being a well-liked member of the club of Western nations. He tried, or at least he believes he tried, to gain the West’s acceptance earlier in his tenure as President. But he feels he was rejected, and that left a chip on his shoulder that has grown over the time. With Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis this year, we have really seen Putin cross a point of no return in terms of international acceptance. And that was a conscious leap driven by many of his experiences as President, but pretty high on the list is his failure to win the West’s respect as an ally and a friend. So he has committed to getting another form of respect, the kind afforded to a formidable enemy.
deconstructiva asks, Your capture emphasizes the need for reporter safety in dangerous areas. We know you and your peers undergo training and take precautions (Richard Engel mentions this a lot, and Jay Newton-Small did training years back in London – she wrote about it), so I wish you, Jay, and other teammates to stay safe in these areas. Is the east Ukraine area the most dangerous area you’ve reported from, or have other areas been worse? Is Crimea actually (and ironically?) safer now that Russia owns it outright? While safety measure need to stay private, how are utilities and basic services for YOU – like phone / internet service, food / lodging, etc. – in the Ukraine war zones now, and if they’re disrupted, how do they affect your work and getting the stories back to TIME?
First of all, thank you for your concern and good wishes. They’re always hugely appreciated. On your first question, Ukraine is definitely the most dangerous place I’ve ever worked, by a long shot. The closest runner-up would be Kyrgyzstan in 2010, when there was a revolution in that country followed by wave of ethnic pogroms. That was frightening and tragic for many reasons, but you never had to worry about a mortar falling on your head or a random drunk guy at a checkpoint shooting you on a whim or even just by accident. Both of those things are fairly constant concerns in eastern Ukraine.
That was not the case in Crimea. Crimea was invaded by a professional and disciplined military force, namely the Russian marines. Even though they wore no identifying markers on their uniforms, the Russian soldiers in Crimea were accountable to their commanding officers and the Russian government. The rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine are not accountable to anyone, which gives the areas they control a pretty awful sense of lawlessness. They can do just about anything and get away with it.
As for the basic comforts in these places, they’re not great but not terrible. It’s generally possible to get online, to find cell phone coverage, to eat at a local cafe and sleep in a clean bed. It’s not the Ritz, but it’s nothing to complain about.
DonQuixotic asks, Simon, what do you think the reaction from Russian citizens is on average regarding Ukraine? It is quite difficult to separate honest journalism from the political propaganda that we see spilling out of state run newspapers and television networks. Given that, I’m sure, many Russians have family in Ukraine, do you think that there will ever reach a point where Russian citizens begin to more vocally voice their discontent with the whole crisis?
Your question really gets at one of the saddest things about the conflict in Ukraine, which is a fratricidal one in every sense. Many of the Ukrainian soldiers and officers I met in Crimea and later in the eastern region of Donetsk have tons of family and friends in Russia. Some of them have gotten physical threats from Russian family members. Others have just stopped talking to their loved ones on the other side of the border. There are of course exceptions: Once I was standing next to a Ukrainian officer when a friend of his in the Russian military called to congratulate him on a military victory. But generally the rift between the two countries has torn all the way down into people’s homes, families, relationships.
It does have a lot to do with the effectiveness of Russian propaganda, but that propaganda seems to have tapped into some cultural, religious and psychological forces that had been dormant for a while: Russian imperialism, chauvinism, nationalism, manifest destiny. Call it what you will. But Putin and his television networks did not invent these sentiments. They have simply learned to harness them in building a national consensus behind Putin’s actions in Ukraine. That consensus is very strong, close to unanimous, and I haven’t seen many dissenting voices pipe up in any concerted way. At this point I doubt they will.
deconstructiva asks, Granted, it looks like Putin’s trying REALLY hard to get rid of his opponents at home, but if everything goes wrong from Russia’s end – like current and harsher future sanctions destroy the Russian economy, or they / rebels stumble into an open armed battle with Ukrainian forces and lose or get stuck in a stalemate – who would be the first ones to turn on him? The military? Big biz leaders who have most of the cash? Would there be a sudden mass revolt from the peasants? Or perhaps certain regions of the country might revolt and throw everything in chaos (like Chechnya has been doing for a long time)?
I think the most likely source of dissent in Russia is, and always was, the middle class. We saw them revolt in a powerful way in 2011-2012, when Putin announced that he would take another term as president. Mass protests broke out in Moscow and other cities that winter and lasted into the spring. Most of the people who played an active role in those demonstrations were small businessmen and -women, entrepreneurs, people who can afford to travel around outside of Russia, whose cultural and political frames of reference (and, importantly, business interests) reach far beyond Russia’s borders.
But expecting them to oppose Putin’s policies in any active way would be a bit naive. The far more typical reaction for the young middle class (or as Putin’s adviser once called them, “annoyed cityfolk”) is to emigrate. Many of them moved abroad after the protests of 2011-2012 failed to bring about any change. And many others are moving away amid the crisis in Ukraine. Putin learned from the Soviet Union that it is not a good idea to close the borders and forbid people to travel or emigrate. It’s much easier for him to let his opponents pack their bags and leave. At the same time, it’s awful for Russia, because it means another brain drain, another exodus of the best educated, the most innovative segment of the population.
DonQuixotic asks, Simon, do you think that American legitimacy to criticize Russia’s actions in Ukraine are hindered by our foreign policy “efforts” in the Middle East over the past 15 years?
In a sense, yes. America’s moral authority in the world has taken a lot of punches in the last decade. The Iraq war comes to mind. So do the recent revelations of illegal, dragnet surveillance. The list is long, and Russians never tire of pointing that out. But I don’t think that does anything to absolve Russia or shield it from criticism. The United States is by no means the model of rectitude and justice in world affairs. But it is one of the countries that speaks up against injustice in the part of the world that I cover as a journalist, and I generally appreciate that. Russians do not. They immediately try to change to subject to Iraq or to Edward Snowden. And I think that’s just a cop out.
DonQuixotic asks, Simon, what do you think the chances are of the Crimea ever going BACK to Ukraine? Either willingly or unwillingly?
The chances are pretty slim, and parsing those chances would get into some hypothetical weeds that military strategists love, but journalists generally avoid. What’s clear is that Putin’s electorate sees the annexation of Crimea as one of the greatest, if not the greatest achievement of his rule. It is one of the pillars of his legacy as President. So parting with Crimea would risk collapsing the whole ideological edifice he stands on, and I cannot think of any Western sanctions or depths of isolation that would make him give Crimea back.