Leonid Ragozin: How I got Russia wrong
The Russian journalist tells Freddie Sayers why he no longer recognises his homeland
As well as reporting for the BBC for 14 years, Leonid Ragozin wrote the Lonely Planet guides to Ukraine and Moscow. In the past few weeks, he has watched places he knows well be destroyed — and has had to challenge his underlying assumptions about his own country.
Ragozin was reporting in Siberia when Putin began marching troops to the Ukrainian border at Belarus. Despite the menacing signs, he was vocal about his scepticism on Russia’s intentions to invade. And he was not alone. Political analysts across the world were unconvinced by Biden’s military intelligence, citing America’s media hysteria and history of hawkishness. Many pointed to the Iraq War and Russiagate as examples of other crises concocted by Western powers. But when tanks rolled into Ukraine over a week ago, the intelligence didn’t seem so far-fetched. Ragozin was left, like many, wondering: why had he got it so wrong?
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First, he felt the two countries were too intertwined for an invasion to be conceivable:
This war is, first and foremost, fratricidal. […] Putin stated that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. By his own logic, he is now murdering his own people. And it registers with Russians. Everywhere around Russia, you have people born in Kharkiv or born in Odessa, people who have grandparents, sisters, brothers in all those places.
Russia has never seemed so far from the West. And yet Ragozin still suspects that, had the opportunity been seized, it could have gone another way:
If Russia were properly invited into the European Union and NATO in the late 1990s, and the early 2000s, Putin would have made a perfect Eurocrat. It’s just that in this fork, he chose to go that way, the West chose not to press on Russia being integrated. It decided that it would be better to get the neighbours of Russia on board, which led to Russia’s alienation and isolation.
He describes Russia as a Frankenstein’s monster of NATO’s creation — and now Western powers may be prodding Putin into a corner:
It gradually was becoming clear that there is this hawkish community in the US and Britain, which I don’t want to be aligned with. There is a lobbyist party in the West which lives in symbiosis with Putin’s regime. They feed on each other’s anger and hatred, and they essentially promote conflict, promote escalation.
Instead, Ragozin says, they should be providing an off-ramp for the Kremlin. At the same time, he supports Ukraine’s right to fight back:
I’m seeing that it’s not just the Ukrainian leadership, it’s the entire Ukrainian society that basically thinks that it should fight the Russians. I basically show solidarity with Ukrainian society. If they want it, then as victims of aggression, I think they are right. If they keep fighting, the West is right to supply those lethal weapons to them.
Much has been made of Putin’s psychological state since the start of the invasion. He might be irrational, but according to Ragozin, Putin has proven himself to have a good poker face:
I don’t really believe in Putin being a KGB guy as the fundamental pattern and fundamental feature of his psychology. He is more of a 1990s gangster type from St. Petersburg. The main thing was to be as unhinged as possible in how you escalate. You have to go to the very limit, and you always have to outdo your rivals in this game of escalation. The Russian term for it is ‘atmoroza’: someone who is frozen out, someone who is devoid of any feelings.
In the best case scenario, Russia’s military efforts stall and a public backlash can force Putin to deescalate:
Ukrainians are hoping that the Russians would exhaust their resources, their military resources, their economic resources, that within Russia, thanks to the Western sanctions, the economy will collapse, and people will go into the street and protest this war.
At worst, Ragozin hesitates to even speak the words:
I’m mortally horrified by this whole thing. The very cities and towns that I was covering, like Kharkiv or smaller places, like Vasylkiv in northern Ukraine, they are either being destroyed by Russia aviation, or they are being occupied by the Russian troops. There are Russian flags there. So for me, it’s a brave new world.
Not sure how you can marry the support of an offer to the Kremlin of an off-ramp (like committing to non-NATO involvement in Ukraine) whilst at the same time being in full support of NATO assistance in Ukraine by providing weapons and other military support.
I’m sorry but these two approaches are completely mutually exclusive. Just because the US missed the chance to solve this prior to the invasion by their own doing doesn’t mean you have to automatically default to the position that NATO must now fully support Ukraine. Crucially what message does that send to Putin: that he was right all along.
Great interview. Thanks, Unherd.
The aspect of this interview that resonated with me was Mr. Ragozin’s willingness to say he really didn’t know what would happen next in the Ukraine war, or even what was likely to happen next. We seem to be at that point. There are too many variables. I do have the sense, though, that, however tempting it might be, it’s a bad idea to back Putin into a corner. I don’t think surrender is his style.
Good interview…thanks Unherd….
Re the comments…well , I think Mr Ragozin’s desire for ” an off-ramp ” for the Kremlin as well as NATO assistance to Ukraine , as per earlier comments , is certainly wishful thinking on his part…I think whenever we deeply believe in some ideal or person, and that belief is betrayed , there will be a mixture of shock and disbelief, and perhaps embarrassment …certainly Mr Ragozin displays this…perhaps you could throw sadness into the mix !
My reading & research ( as a layman ) suggests the following:
Vladimir Putin will never allow NATO involvement in Ukraine , and as for an off-ramp for the Kremlin , despite this campaign still being in it’s early stages, I’m pretty sure we’re beyond that…
Dictators can never retreat…to do so will bring about total loss of face and all that follows on from that development;
By deciding to invade Ukraine VPutin has very definitely brought to a close the post WW2 European settlement , in particular Germany’s geo-strategic policies…low defence expenditure, reliance on the US military umbrella, and playing both sides- EU one side & Russia the other to ensure economic dominance.
You could also add key EU economic policies such as the establishment of the Euro.
While German energy policy has been shot through with these contradictions for a very long time , it is the more recent energy policy of the Merkel Government that pretty clearly indicated they had unmoored themselves from geo-strategic reality.
Just as an aside…the speed with which Chancellor Olaf Sholtz junked long standing German policy in relation to defence & energy is truly breathtaking…I’m still coming to terms with it , and I’m in the Antipodes…god only knows what German’s , let alone European’s are making of it all !
You really have to wonder what if anything, these people believe in…
And here I make my final point…
The curtain has been drawn aside to reveal pure power , naked and unadorned…a philosophical & ideological position can be advanced to dress up any action , decision or policy , but ultimately if a political leader has to advance their position , status , whatever , via war then that leader has ultimately lost the argument…they cannot hide.
The reality is laid bare , a frightening reality , and this is what Mr Ragozin is experiencing !
Further…I recommend the NPR Frontline program interview with Russian journalist and author Masha Gessen on Vladimir Putin…( as well her book on the same subject )..while it was conducted some 4years ago , it is relevant and prescient…available on YouTube.
I’m a little surprised that this excellent interview and source has been largely ignored by the Unherd comentariat… no conspiracies to dig into? Doesn’t fit a pre-set agenda? Too ambigious? I hope that unherd doesn’t weigh value by below the line comments because often they are just echo-chambers with one bird flying hopelessly into relentlessly stubborn resistance.
Thank you for a great and illuminating interview. I also think we had an opportunity to align the West and Russia in the 1990s. I taught in Russia in 1996. There was quite a remarkable openness towards a more Western democratic worldview. However, the Russian people are very proud and struggled with what they experienced as especially American arrogance. Perhaps that is where we missed the opportunity.
Putin has grievances towards NATO expansion and that would have played a role in the invasion of Ukraine. You can therefore argue that the inclusion of the Eastern European countries was a mistake. But they were afraid of a Russian invasion based on their experience. Just think about Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They needed the protection of NATO and requested to be included in NATO. NATO did not expand closer to Russia to threaten Russia militarily. NATO expanded because of the fear of the Eastern European countries have for Russia. If they did not feel threatened by Russia, I am sure that they would not have sought the protection of NATO.
The parallels with Hitler and Nazi Germany are also strikingly. Hitler had even more grievances after the Versailles Treaty in 1919 than what Putin has after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His anger grew increasingly and he became more erratic until Germany was totally destroyed. The difference with Putin is that he has nuclear weapons where Hitler did not have any. This makes the situation so serious. NATO will therefore be extremely careful not to get involved in the war. I wonder whether NATO might have already got involved in the protection of Ukraine if Putin did not have nuclear weapons.
Just an additional thought – Russia was never forced to face the atrocities of the Stalinist era, also the holodomor in Ukraine. Even today there is a denial and cover-up of what happened. If Russians would have been more exposed to these atrocities and acknowledge what actually happened, then I wonder whether they would be as supportive of Putin as what they are now.
Just as Belorussia and Chechnya had done, the West must – since refusing to implement an aggressive no-fly zone – now put boots on the ground to help Ukraine. Either integrate troops with Ukraine’s military or to setup up an arterial network of humanitarian corridors with the explicit threat to Putin: you attack our NATO troops defensively protecting civilians and that is and act of war. Back off.
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