Correspondent of UNIAN in Moscow, Roman Tsymbaliuk, became a “foreign agent” in Russia when it was not yet mainstream. He asks the Russians frank questions about the war, directly calls invaders what they are. Furthermore, he honestly warns Russian society: if the Kremlin attacks Ukraine now, then Ukrainian mothers will not cry alone – Russians can also go back inboxes.
In an exclusive interview for the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, we have asked Roman Tsymbaliuk how he works on the territory of the aggressor state, whether his questions can be considered a provocation to the Russians, he is afraid for his safety, what two options concerning Ukraine Putin has.
What do you think of the démarche of the daughter of the Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, who wrote on social networks that the scandalous Russian “foreign agents” law is bad, and it needs to be revised?
This law will definitely remain. The goals that they have adopted are achieved. In principle, Lisa Peskova allows herself to do many things that do not seem to be mainstream in the Russian political agenda. They say that the daughter does not take 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 does not obey, does not pray for Putin. However, believe me, it won’t affect anything. Who needs to be kicked out of the Russian information space will be kicked out. This was also done to notice the “national traitors.” So, they were noticed. Anyone can be charged for breaking this law. And here, it is essential to understand that the law does not provide that a person is deprived of the right to work. The most important thing is that any advertiser will think twice about whether to ask a “foreign agent” or not. That is, they are trying to win by a “wallet.” In the sense that “if you sold yourself to the bad Americans, then let them feed you!”
Are you a stranger to your Russian colleagues 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 that moment when, especially after questions to their “emperor” (Putin’s Annual Big Press Conference), I noticed that people were trying to cross the street after seeing me. But I really don’t care. I am not a citizen of the Russian Federation but a citizen of Ukraine. Therefore, I do not suffer without communicating with my Russian colleagues. After all, neither they nor I need it. I don’t think in such categories in principle. I’m working in Moscow. It doesn’t matter what the Russians think of me. The main thing is not to bother me.
And what is about Western colleagues?
I am friendly with them. A few years ago, I began to take that Ukraine is the West for granted. Yes, sometimes we suffer here saying that everything is bad, but, in fact, Ukraine is the West. We have the same problems here as in the West. Except for the war, of course. In principle, Ukraine does not have a Russian agenda.
It’s a small matter: it remains to defeat corruption and change the Ukrainian mentality to the Western one…
So, it changes little by little. If we are talking about our future, we recognize the fact that Ukraine was, is, and will be. It is now clear to everyone, even Putin, who has recently said that the situation is at an impasse and began to persuade Zelensky that he was doing something 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.
First, leave it as it is. But a little more time will pass, and the niche of Ukrainian pro-Russian politicians will finally be marginalized and reduced to people who congratulate Putin on his birthday. Meanwhile, Ukraine will develop. And it will be fine. And he’ll have to put up with it.
The second option is to attack with all the consequences. First, for them. That is, they are going to bomb Kharkiv (as they suggest on TV), saying that NATO missiles are located there. Although there are no missiles. And they know it. However, it is quite possible that Ukrainian missiles will be placed there soon, and they will eventually become NATO missiles. That is precisely what they’re saying on TV right now.
Recently, Ukraine has used Bayraktar-TB2 attack drones, and they have a new wave of hatred. That is, they lead Putin to think: “Maybe it’s time to attack?”
At the same time, they simply do not understand what they will face in Ukraine. I’m not saying that everyone will take up arms here. But millions will do it! And what will the Russians do? I was once asked on the radio station Moscow Says (before Sergey Dorenko passed away): “Why do you conduct air defence drills near the Crimea?” I said that it was just for Russian pilots so that each of them knew that his warplane would be shot down, and his wife would only be sent a helmet. As a keepsake.
Yes, they didn’t like that wording. However, someone must open their eyes to the truth of how it will be.
Donbas has already shown them that no one in Ukraine will just cede anything to them. By the way, they don’t need either the Russian language or history.
Moscow wants to moderate the Russian language in Ukraine so that we can pronounce their meanings.
By the way, on the Russian air, when you are balancing between being a journalist and, let’s say, a provocateur, is this decision conscious?
Where is the provocation in that? I am a committed pacifist and do not 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 the Donbas, and there will be no changes in the near future. This is a dead-end. And you can only change it by military means. 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 the Russian soldiers would be destroyed. “Do you think that we are not afraid if you show 20 helicopters on TV? We are. But what other options do we have? After all, the Russian military is also mortal. And they have moms. And the question will arise: whose mother will cry? All mothers will cry, but we are in our own country, and we do not seize anything from anyone. Or do you really think you will continue killing Ukrainian citizens with impunity? It won’t happen. It is over. That time has passed.…” Well, what kind of provocation is it?
I even know when exactly it happened. When they started firing artillery at Saur-Mogila from the Rostov Oblast. It was the last lesson. And the Ukrainians have learned it well: “If you see a person on the other side with a machine gun, you no longer need to think: “maybe he is a brother, maybe a human being…” Because in that case, you’ll be killed first. And your mother will cry…”
And there is no difference that both of us, for example, are listening to Vysotsky’s songs at this moment…
Of course. We are currently communicating with you in Russian and are in Kyiv at the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security. And there’s no language patrol at the door. As before 2014, the Russian language was spoken here, and now they speak it. The problem is that Moscow wants us not just to speak its language; they want to moderate our Russian language. So that we can pronounce THEIR meanings.
Are you not afraid to meet the same fate Roman Sushchenko or Ivan Golunov with the only difference (as in the case of the latter) – that Alexey Venediktov, Dmitry Muratov, Margarita Simonyan will not stand up for you?
Of course, I am afraid of it. I am basically not the bravest person in the world, and I believe that it is not a shame to be scared. After all, fear increases your chances of survival. People are afraid of cars rushing at 62.14 mph (100 km/h)., aren’t they? They’re trying to hide behind a tree. I’m also looking for the nearest tree.
But when you are in Russia, do you take, albeit subconsciously, some security measures?
No. The danger didn’t come from the Russian security agencies when it all started. You can’t get away from them anyway. The threat came from those who watched their TV. Especially in 2014–2015. After all, in their world-view, if you are from Ukraine, then you are a fascist, and you are subject to destruction. I remember this hatred very well.
And then they, so to say, “get mad.” That is, they have been endlessly told for 7 years that everything will be terrible for us, about the Ukrainian Nazis, that this winter we will freeze… But none of this is happening. And they “give up” the topic.
And 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 is better, of course, that this does not happen.
There is an opinion that Russian journalists (cynical in their nature) in their propaganda are guided mainly by the so–called “mortgage.” Are there really ideological supporters of the regime among them? Or are they just “mercenaries:” some of them are more talented, some are less?
The issue of “mortgage” is no longer relevant for them. Especially for the category of top propagandists who are very well-off people. And the word “mercenary” is very clearly chosen. They work live for hours. Every day. And thus, they have already achieved self–programming. They began to believe in it more. And hate Ukraine sincerely, and not by order from the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin does not skimp on propaganda at all. And if we are talking about ordinary journalists, then they, in fact, simply have nowhere to work except for the federal media. After all, the Echo of Moscow, Dozhd, or Novaya Gazeta do not have room for everyone.
By the way, was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the editor-in-chief of the latter, Dmitry Muratov, a slap in the face to the Russian public “journalistic taste” (both official and liberal)? After all, the liberals have also disagreed on this issue (“if they have already presented the award, it would be better to Alexey Navalny”).
Anti-Ukrainian “product” in Moscow is prepared not only for local consumption
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muratov does not concern Ukrainians at all. This is not our agenda at all. Why don’t we, for example, discuss the awarding of this prize to the founder of the Philippine online media Rappler Maria Ressa? She also really struggles with the regime. In my opinion, Ukrainians should distance themselves from all this.
And the fact that the liberal-minded Russians say that the award should have been presented to Navalny… They say that this should have increased his chances of survival in prison, this is their problem. I think that nothing should happen to Navalny in theory anyway. But in practice… In any case, I wish Alexei to walk free and, at least, understand that you can’t just fight corruption in Russia without noticing everything else. No one should be surprised when they came for him because he did not say anything when they came for Ukraine.
And if we talk about real Russian journalism, then Novaya Gazeta certainly has the most of it. On the one hand, we can blame them for writing little about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although in 2014–2015, Novaya Gazeta had many materials on this topic. They wrote about a Buryat, recorded the fact of the Russian military invasion, conducted an investigation about MH17.
But let’s be honest: Ukrainian journalists have become much less likely to think about Russia, just as Russian journalists think about us. And propagandists don’t think; they just keep working. Like machine guns.
Do we need to pay less attention to those like Skabeyeva?
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 of this. If there is a group of people nearby (in this case, a country) who say that we want to destroy you, then this should be taken seriously and not ignored.
Can the “rubbish” created by those like 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 the Russian-speaking population”?
Russian troops are already in Ukraine. Although without stripes. But so far, they don’t use missiles or aircraft. Once there was such a discussion “about the refrigerator and a TV.” I think that now it is 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 the information war) have one crucial drawback for us, Ukrainians: they do not make decisions.
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 begin World War II, was largely possible because German public opinion was prepared to attack Poland…
As for me, there is a difference. It is that for the most part, Russians would like to return Kyiv, create a certain Ukrainian federal district, but they do not want to send their children to die for this.
Do you really think that the cynical historical narrative “No mercy for the soldiers, our women will still give birth” has already disappeared 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 “They don’t want Uzbeks and Tajiks. After all, they are not Slavs, but Ukrainians are the most important thing!” Their demographic problems are the same as in Ukraine. But it is quite clear with us: war, a bit of a mess, but in Russia, what is it?! They have oil, gas, and Putin! And a million people disappear somewhere in a year! Where to? But I think that the thesis “our women will still give birth” will not go away. And we need to remind them of this. Otherwise, you’re right: no one will really ask Russian mothers. Just as there will be no small victorious war with Ukraine.
Do you communicate with Ukrainian “dissident” journalists? Are they in demand there?
Everyone has their own life. Someone married the daughter of a FISU general and became more like a Russian than the Russians themselves. The vast majority of these people now work for the RIA Novosti or something like that. They miss Kyiv.
Some people are not bored but provoke hatred for Ukraine. Someone dies of alcoholism. They live on memories of a reserved table in Kyiv, where they gathered and, for Russian money, thought about how to return Ukraine to the “Russkiy mir.”
You know, it seems to me that in Russia, the time of journalists who are professional haters of Ukraine is passing. I think they are all nostalgic because the quality of journalistic life in Ukraine is entirely different. We all have quirks and potholes, but Ukraine is really a distinctive country. And in Moscow, asphalt may be better, but they march there. Like in the army.
You can’t say “Russkiy mir.” This is the “Russian world.”
You have a question from the notional “Skabeyeva.” Ready?
Let’s try it. Although, I think that the real Olga Skabeyeva would not want to ask it.
How do conceptually Russian lists of “foreign agents,” undesirable organizations or individuals differ from the Ukrainian list, “Peacemaker”?
The majority of people included in the “Peacemaker” list shot at Ukrainians, killed our soldiers and ordinary citizens.
What about the artists?
The main list of “Peacemaker” consists of murderers. Yes, artists are included for illegal entering and performing in the occupied Crimea and Donbas. And the Russian list of “foreign agents” consists of people and organizations that dislike Vladimir Putin. In Ukraine, there is no list of people who dislike Volodymyr Zelensky. We have never had a list of people who would not love 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 cannot be kept on its toes by Ukraine alone. Internal enemies are also needed. And when they don’t exist, they should be created. So, they were created.
Or when Russia talks about censorship in Ukraine! Well, this is censorship: the whole media group of Medvedchuk functioned by selling Russian coal. Volodymyr Zelensky fixed it. Well done. This is his main achievement. Or one of the main ones. Therefore, this is an inappropriate comparison.
How does the Ukrainian situation with the actual putting the brakes on the murders of Georgiy Gongadze and Pavlo Sheremet differ from the Russian putting the brakes on the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov?
Propagandists from the Russian Federation simply do not allow such stories to be on the information agenda. They don’t mention Politkovskaya and Nemtsov at all. If the question arises, they answer: “We found the perpetrators of the assassinations.” And why do you think that this topic has been put on the brakes in Ukraine? They just didn’t manage to find Sheremet’s killers. It’s sad, but it happens. The perpetrator of Gongadze’s murder is in prison. Those who ordered it. Well, with a high probability, we can assume that the words (albeit misunderstood) that became the trigger for the murder were said by the ex-president of Ukraine. Yes, life in Ukraine is not perfect. Everyone understands this. So, I think this comparison is a bit artificial. In Russia, in principle, it is impossible to imagine that someone in the state media will ask such a question and get an answer to it.
How does the Russian thesis “hang Ukrainians without trial” differ from the Ukrainian one “If you are not jumping, you are ‘Mockal’ [slur for Russian]” or “we will not calm down until we drive the Abrams down Tverskaya Street”?
Only Arkady Babchenko was going to ride an Abrams, and, let me remind you, he is a Russian. And besides, there are no Abrams tanks in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Therefore, we will definitely drive them. This is the first.
And secondly, I would say: “You are going to hang us, that is, take our lives. And we just jump. This is for our amusement. From the Maidan theme “If you are not jumping, you are Moskal” not only no Russian has suffered from this, but also any other creation of God.”
So, it didn’t sound like “whoever is not with us is against us”?
At least I didn’t feel it. In Moscow, they tried and are trying to develop the topic that the Maidan was some kind of anti-Russian event, thereby trying to justify their military invasion. Recall the nonsense that Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russian Foreign Sergey Lavrov said that right-wing nationalists would come with “trains of friendship” to expel all Russians.
So many years have passed, and I still don’t know if there were any “trains of friendship.” Maybe you know? Is there at least one person with a ticket for this train? Where is he?
And the years go by. And Lavrov still repeats this “mantra” at every press conference with Western media in the context of “Why do you accuse us of seizing Crimea? Well, they could and did it. ‘Banderivtsi’ wanted to expel the Russians from it.” Therefore, this is an inappropriate comparison.
How does the term “the Russian language,” which is almost officially recognized in Ukraine, help Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine protect it from Russians?
I’m taking a timeout here. Give me the phone number of the Ukrainian Institute of linguistics… For some reason, “Russkiy” and “Russian” are translated into Ukrainian in one word. But a Russian is a Russian citizen, and “Russkiy” is an ethnicity. In the Ukrainian language, there is simply no difference.
In my opinion, we need to correct the terminology. You can’t say “Russkiy mir.” This is “Russian World.” After all, they want to make all “Russkiy” responsible for what they do. Including in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, people speak the language they want. And the “language issue” is exclusively artificial. It seems that everyone in Ukraine has already come to this conclusion. Ukrainian is the only and state language. The end. If you want to be a public officer, learn the language. That’s all.
On the other hand, if a person who has lived in Ukraine for 30 years does not know its language, then, according to the already mentioned Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, he is a “moron,” and he cannot be a public officer. Also, he cannot attend university if he cannot study in Ukrainian. It’s simple. Therefore, the comparison is also inappropriate here.
What can Ukraine boast of regarding the fight against corruption at a time when Russia reports about the arrest of another top official on charges of bribery and racketeering almost every week?
Because in Russian, 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 carries out judicial reform, then as far as I understand (although I am not a great expert), the entire anti-corruption system will actually start functioning in this way. At least, that’s what I want to believe. Yes, 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 in the West, roughly speaking, they offer “Let’s help you choose people who will put you in prison if you steal something,” then this shadow state shouts: “No, this is external involvement!” And when we need their help in the war with Russia, for some reason, we don’t mention external involvement (by the way, it is a Russian narrative). All sane people in Ukraine see this and understand. And there is no justice in Russia. There are politics and decisions of one person. I hope there will be institutions in Ukraine. It’s much more stable.
If Russia occupied Crimea, part of the Donbas, then where is the liberation struggle of the local people? Where are the underground, the partisan units?
First, if the Russian TV does not say that the occupation authorities are conducting punitive operations, this does not mean that that’s true. Raids on the same Crimean Tatars are carried out constantly.
It was also different in the Nazi-occupied territories. Someone fought, and someone just survived. So, then the Soviet government was engaged in conducting sabotage from the unoccupied territory, creating underground, partisan units, etc. In Kyiv, it is evident that the decision was made not to act in this way. That is, we do not blow up the “Crimean Bridge,” do not derail the trains, do not burn down houses as Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya did. Although in the context of the Second World War, this would be normal. 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 the Russian invaders. Many years have passed since the occupation of Crimea, but for some reason, the “Scythian Gold” is returning to Ukraine and not to the occupied Crimea. Why? The thing is that time passed, and the Russians were invaders in the whole world’s eyes and still remain them.
Finish Leonid Kuchma’s phrase “Ukraine is not Russia” because…
Now that’s the end. And write my phrase: “Ukraine existed, exists, and will exist. Ukraine is an independent, free country, and we’ll be 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 so that they are all right. But only within internationally recognized borders.