Leonid Ragozin: How I got Russia wrong

March 8, 2022
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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?

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.


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