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On a recent reporting trip to cover Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Time reporter Simon Shuster visited an air base on the Polish side of the Ukrainian-Polish border. Watching as U.S. planes brought in loads of weapons for Ukraine, Shuster felt like he was standing on the brink of something massive.
“What you see is basically a constant cycle of these enormous C-17 military cargo planes landing, unloading their cargo, taking off again, day and night,” he says. “Standing there, there is a bit of a feeling in the pit of your stomach that we are on the edge of a really era-defining war. We’re already in it.”
Born in Moscow, Shuster immigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1989. He reported on the EU and the former Soviet Union for Time from 2013 to 2020 (he’s now based in New York for Time) and has interviewed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy three times. Shuster describes Zelenskyy’s wartime leadership as a “lesson in courage.”
“Some people may act brave when things are peaceful and then run away from the fight when the fighting breaks out,” Shuster says. “Other people you might underestimate, but then when the time comes and the hour is upon them, they step up. And Zelenskyy certainly has.”
Shuster says the Ukrainians he spoke to are just trying to survive the invasion. When he asked what their plans are for after the war, many vowed to rebuild.
“I really can’t overstate how high morale is among Ukrainian people, among Ukrainian leadership, people around Zelenskyy,” Shuster says. “They believe in themselves. They believe in the cause of this war. And they do think that they’ll come out stronger if they can just survive.”
On Zelenskyy going from being thin-skinned about online criticism to becoming a courageous wartime leader
I got to know him throughout his tenure as president. There wasn’t a lot to suggest that he would step up in the way he has, that he would step into the shoes of a Winston Churchill, or something like that he’s often been compared to in the past month. He did struggle with criticism. For all of his career, he was a beloved comedian. He was used to applause. Everyone liked him. Everywhere he went, people wanted his autograph. And then suddenly in the presidency, after the initial sheen of that enormous victory wore off a little bit and he was faced with the task of governing and trying to seek peace with Russia on terms that would not be humiliating to Ukraine, the honeymoon period was not long and people began to very harshly criticize him. His approval ratings dropped from upwards of 70% to down to 20% in some polls. …
I did have my doubts as to how he would behave. But, man, he surprised me. He surprised a lot of people. I think he’s been an absolute inspiration for Ukrainians and, honestly, for many of the Western leaders who might have even preferred to sit this one out or stay on the fence and not antagonize Russia. But because of his moral leadership, his wartime leadership, the power of his oratory and speechmaking in venues like the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress, it has made it politically and morally very difficult for Western leaders to not support him, to not really back Ukraine in this conflict. I give a lot of the credit to Zelenskyy for that.
On Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived a military-grade poisoning and was recently given an additional sentence of nine years in a maximum-security penal colony in Russia
Clearly, the gloves are off, and they have been for a long time in terms of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s attacks on the opposition. One thing I’d say, looking back at what Putin did to Navalny, at the time it seemed really extreme to me. Yes, Navalny was a political threat, but not an immediate one. And the idea of poisoning him and banning his organization, forcing all of his allies into exile, these kinds of really extreme steps that the Russian government took seemed really a bit crazy. It seemed unnecessary. But now with the hindsight we have of this war, it has seemed to me like the attack against the opposition, the attack against Navalny, was a premeditation for the war.
Clearly, Russia was planning this war for a long time. Putin had this in mind, at least as a possibility for a long time. And what he did in imprisoning Navalny and banning his political organization was he essentially destroyed the main group, the main political leader who could mount an anti-war movement in Russia. He did that well before he launched this invasion. And we can’t say for sure whether the two events were connected, but with hindsight, it does look like Putin was preparing the political field in Russia to prevent any kind of organized anti-war movement from arising once the invasion was underway.
On Zelenskyy shutting down Russian propaganda TV channels in Ukraine that were run by media oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk
Very soon after President Biden took office in the U.S., President Zelenskyy in Kyiv took a very hard line against Medvedchuk, these Russian politicians who act as proxies for the Kremlin in Ukraine, as mouthpieces for Russia. He banned their television channels. He seized some assets, including a major oil pipeline that was linked to Medvedchuk and his family. That oil pipeline helped bankroll essentially the pro-Russian or Russian political operation in Ukraine. … So Russia was trying to gain control of Ukrainian politics by fielding its own politicians, and Zelenskyy went after them. He saw them as a fifth column, as essentially traitors, undermining Ukrainian sovereignty. And in the spring of last year, Medvedchuk was actually charged with treason and placed under house arrest.
On Putin’s reaction to Zelenskyy charging Medvedchuk with treason
If you look back at the chronology of the history of Russian forces building up on the border with Ukraine that began in the spring of last year, the first kind of massing of troops. … I went back and I looked at the chronology of what was going on at the moment when that troop buildup began, and it began less than two days after Medvedchuk’s assets were seized by the Ukrainian government. So that doesn’t prove causation, but there was clearly a correlation timewise. … As … Ukraine was going after Putin’s allies and proxies, Russia was sending troops to the border at the same time.
Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.