Keith Gessen: What are you seeing in Kyiv?
Leonid Shvets: They tried at first to come in the easy way—they thought it wasn’t going to take very long. One indicator of that is they sent a lot of Rosgvardia personnel [Putin’s newly created internal police force, which includes riot troops —KG]—which is strange. Instead of actual troops they sent, basically, pigs, people who are used to whacking protesters on the ankles with their clubs. They were clearly counting on coming in, everything falling apart—they take over and the Rossgvardia starts imposing order. Well, we smashed that first wave. So now it looks like the next wave is going to be playing by army rules—like what they’re doing in Kharkiv right now. First they soften it up with airpower, artillery, and rockets, and only after that they try to come and take it.
In Kharkiv, they hit the regional administration—that’s the one on Freedom Square. They hit the military academy. They tried to hit the police and secret service headquarters, which is right in the center of the city, across from the opera house, but instead they hit the building next door, which is the economics and sociology faculty of the university.
KG: Are you thinking of leaving?
LS: First of all, once they declared the state of emergency, men between the ages of 18 and 60 couldn’t leave the country. But also I don’t want to. I’ve written too much about how Putin is a khuylo [dickhead], about how he’s going to break his teeth on Ukraine, for me to run away. I would find it hard to write after that. Here I feel terrific. I’m where I need to be.
KG: The last time we did a big interview was in 2014. What has changed in Ukrainian politics since then?
LS: We last talked right after Maidan, when the speaker of the Rada, Oleksandr Turchynov, was the acting president. Then we held an election. Petro Poroshenko was elected with the message that he was going to bring peace. He was a diplomat; he had been foreign minister. But he pretty quickly became a big patriot—when he ran in 2019, his slogan was “Army. Language. Faith.” He was more nationalist than the nationalists.
KG: What happened?
LS: The war. Under conditions of war, to fail to take a pro-Ukraine position was impossible. And 2014 to 2015, that was a real war. Russia was sending actual troops. They didn’t send that many, but it was enough to hand us two very serious defeats, in Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. And that allowed Russia to force Poroshenko to sign the Minsk agreements, which were very difficult for us. They obliged us to accept the occupied territories back into the country with their leadership, which was functionally being appointed by Moscow. That would have allowed them to dictate the shape of Ukrainian politics—it would have destroyed our sovereignty. Ever since then we were trying to kind of avoid implementing them, which turned out not to be that hard, to be honest, because the first condition of the Minsk agreements was that peace be achieved, and only after that would you move on to the political parts. But peace was never achieved. The high-intensity conflict became a low-intensity conflict, the number of victims was lower, the line of contact was stabilized, but there were still attacks and snipers and people dying. And that’s how it remained until the election of 2019, when Ukraine once again chose a president who campaigned on a platform of peace. That was Zelensky.
And once again we’ve seen a president who campaigned on peace turn into a war president. A real war president.
KG: Where did Zelensky come from?
LS: Zelensky was initially a spoiler candidate, an attempt by Igor Kolomoisky to take votes away from Poroshenko and elect Yulia Timoshenko. Unexpectedly for everyone, he took off. It was unexpected for Kolomoisky. Timoshenko had been polling ahead of everyone. If it hadn’t been for Zelensky, Timoshenko would have been elected. But Ukraine had changed, and Timoshenko and Poroshenko were politicians from the old school, and they hadn’t changed.
Zelensky was a crazy risk. And a total unknown. No one knew what he thought, I don’t think he knew what he thought. He’d never been involved in politics at all, at any level, not the regional level, not the local level. No one knew anything about him. That is, his success was based on everyone knowing who he was, from his TV shows, but no one knew what he thought. But people preferred that to the old order, which they were sick to death of. He got 73 percent of the vote even though he didn’t even really spend that much money. In that sense, he is the people’s president.
But imagine it: A person starts his political career at the top of Mount Olympus. He made a lot of mistakes. He didn’t have a good team in place. His ratings started to fall. But at the same time, he seemed like a pretty earnest person, like he’d gotten himself into this situation, and he was going to do his best.
Meanwhile, Putin expected to chew him up and spit him out. Putin at this point is one of the most experienced leaders in the world. He’s been ruling an enormous country for twenty years, he’s seen all sorts of presidents and prime ministers come and go. He’s got lots of tricks up his sleeve.
But he didn’t manage to chew up Zelensky. And once he realized that, he started trying to break him.
KG: When you say Zelensky wanted to make peace, how much of a factor were Poroshenko and the nationalists in preventing him from doing that?
LS: Putin was the factor. I mean, yes, the opposition here didn’t help him. But I think he believed he could sit down with Putin and say, “Do you need this war? No? Well we definitely don’t need it. So let’s end it.” Something like that.
Zelensky met with Putin, not one on one, but with Merkel and Hollande, in December 2019, in the Normandy format as it’s called. And after that it was clear that he hadn’t agreed to anything with Putin; and also clear that Putin hadn’t gotten anything, either.
And since then it’s been clear [to Putin] that he was going to have to break Ukraine over his knee. He saw that he couldn’t wait any longer. He saw that Ukraine was growing stronger. He became very upset over the summer when we got the Bayraktar drones from Turkey. They had destroyed the Armenian army during the Forty-Four-Day War [with Azerbaijan in 2020]. I know they were very upset about that in Moscow.
We had serious contracts for building bases with the UK. I think that played a role.
And Zelensky started cleaning up the fifth column back home.
So there were a number of factors that I think accelerated—didn’t create, I think the decision happened long ago—but accelerated the decision [to invade Ukraine].
And then there were other factors. Uncle Joe is old—I think that’s what Putin thinks. Also that Zelensky is a child, a clown, doesn’t know what he’s doing, can’t take a punch. And the conviction that if the mighty Russian army comes in, the Ukrainian army will fall apart.
They still believe that Ukraine is fractured—that it’s divided between a pro-European West and a pro-Russian east. I think that’s the biggest mistake they’ve made.
KG: But in 2014, that was true, to an extent. In Odessa, in Kharkiv, it could have gone either way.
KG: What changed?
LS: I’ll tell you what changed.
What happened in Donbass wouldn’t have happened if Crimea hadn’t happened. Crimea, which went practically without a shot. People just flipped a switch and went from Ukrainian to Russian and immediately improved their financial situation. Russia’s pensions are higher, government salaries are higher. Great! Nothing changes but all of a sudden, you’re richer.
In the Donbass, a significant part of the population—we don’t know how large a part, but a significant part—started to want the same thing. But there it wasn’t as overwhelming a proportion as in Crimea, and some people immediately began to resist—from the very beginning, a lot of the people fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Donbass were from Donetsk and Luhansk. And the people who wanted to become Russian, it turned out they had to fight for it. The Russians sent weapons and they had to fight and kill for it.
Then they formed their awful so-called people’s republics, and in the eight years they’ve been around it’s become clear that that is such a terrible existence that even people in Kharkiv who maybe really wanted a Kharkiv People’s Republic changed their minds. And in Odessa too. There were plenty of people like that, but I think they saw what it meant to come under the Russian umbrella in reality, and it didn’t look very appetizing. The number of people waiting for Putin to come in decreased substantially—even as a lot of those people, for various reasons, still had plenty of problems with the government in Kyiv. For its nationalism, for all sorts of things. But to go under Putin? To get hit in the head by the Rosgvardia—no thanks. In that sense, we’re all Ukrainians. We’re used to freedom. You can call Zelensky a zeleno-shmarkay—a green booger. That’s fine. That’s normal. Try calling Putin something.
This feeling that freedom is something worth fighting for—that’s what changed.
KG: Can you talk about what happened after Biden was elected?
LS: First of all, in the situation we were in, one on one with Russia, under Trump we felt that it was suicide. It was clear he couldn’t give a shit about Ukraine. Ukraine was only interesting as a supplier of kompromat on Biden. Whereas Biden, it was clear, knew Ukraine. He was Obama’s point person on Ukraine, he came here a fair amount when he was vice president. Obama hadn’t been able to react with enough decisiveness to 2014, but Biden clearly felt he had this obligation to Ukraine. And Putin knew it too. After they met in June, I think Putin could tell that Biden was going to take Ukraine seriously.
As vice president, Biden had helped us out with some of our politicians. There was even a kind of feeling—“The American Embassy will tell them.” It was like an organ of government power in Ukraine. And on the higher levels it had been Biden. There’s the famous story of Biden coming here and saying, we won’t help you if you don’t remove that general prosecutor [Lutsenko]. That was a general prosecutor that needed to be removed. And by the way, we were talking earlier about the law—it’s pretty strange that a foreign politician would come and say “You have to remove the general prosecutor,” and we do it, right? But the situation was such that it was the right thing for us, and we were ready to accept it.
A lot of Ukrainian politicians receive some of their legitimacy from the level of support they get from the West. They need the people’s support, but that’s not enough. And here the US plays the leading role, for sure. Not Germany, not France.
Once Biden came in, there was a lot of hope that he’d become involved in the peace process. That he’d really put some pressure on the Kremlin to make progress. By this point, Germany and France weren’t really seen as our partners anymore. Merkel was seen as a Putin understander. I don’t know if that’s fair, but that was the perception.
But now the US was back, it was going to fight for democracy again, and—well, here we are. We’re literally fighting for democracy. And here was a person in Biden who knew a lot about the country. We had a lot of hopes for that. That he would move the peace process along, that he would help move some of our reforms along.
But now . . . I listened to the State of the Union yesterday, and Biden said again that the US was not going to fight in Ukraine. It just drives me nuts. We’re fighting. Look at Kharkiv. I mean, thank you for the Javelins, they’re great, but our boys are the ones who have to take them to the front lines. And this America, which is so jacked up and powerful, and has so much technology, is sitting and watching as Ukraine bleeds. How does that feel? Are you comfortable? You’re supposed to be people who battle for values, for freedom. And what are we fighting for? For freedom. You’re the one who have a Statue of Liberty. You’re sitting on your asses. We’re told, “Oh no, there’s going to be a nuclear war, it’s so scary.” But what, you think if you don’t intervene, the nuclear threat will recede? No! It’ll be stronger! Because he’ll swallow us up, and then he’ll be one-on-one with you. So maybe you should stop that danger here? They didn’t stop it in 2008—when he rode his tanks to Tbilisi and back. Nothing happened. Nothing. Do you remember any sanctions from 2008? There weren’t any. They swallowed it. If he’d been hit on the nose for that, 2014 wouldn’t have happened. But then he didn’t really suffer for 2014, either. There were sanctions but the Russians saw that it wasn’t too bad.
You ask why he invaded. It wasn’t because his friend was arrested—he doesn’t give a shit about Medvedchuk. Putin is provoked by the weakness of the West. He thinks the West is pissing its pants. And he has reason to think that. And Ukraine now thinks so, too.
KG: Have you been surprised by Zelensky’s transformation?
LS: Yes. There was a feeling, last year, that he had gotten stuck. That he didn’t have the internal resources, somehow, to turn the country around. That he was becoming the same cog in the system as everyone before him; that he’d faced off against it and it had ground him up. They’d managed to buy some of his people off, and to quiet others, and it was just him, and no one cared anymore. It was the same story. There was this sense that we were again becoming a backwater that no one cared about.
Back in January, I think, once all this war stuff was in the air, Zelensky had a meeting with some international journalists. I wrote a piece about it. He met with them for ninety minutes or two hours, and it was clear he didn’t have anything to say to them, that he was just shooting the shit. And I wrote in my article that this was a Churchillian moment, the greatest challenge to someone in the highest position of the government, and you can’t just shoot the shit while it’s happening. I was very unhappy with him.
But what’s happening now: his speech in Munich, everything he’s been saying, his speech to the European Parliament this week. It’s explosive. It’s a new way of being for a government leader.
And I don’t even know where it’s coming from. Maybe it’s his actor’s training—when an actor gets a feel for his script, for the audience. It’s like in Pasternak—“I walked out onto the stage.” The wind of history parts my hair. It’s like he feels this role.
I’m certain that he did not intend to be a war president. It’s a terrible burden. He would never have agreed to do this. But now that it’s happened, he’s going for it. Something has come out of him. And part of it comes from his training as an actor, a sense of the moment. It’s sincere.
He has a lot of support right now, including from people who used to hate him. From Poroshenko supporters, who thought he was a clown, a traitor. Many of them now say, Molodets.