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Special Report: This Week in Ukraine with Zack Baddorf
Brandon Neilan, based on an interview with freelance journalist/cinematographer Zack Baddorf
Zack Baddorf recently went to the Ukraine to cover the bloody conflict for War Is Boring that has cost over 6,000 lives and devastation to the eastern portion of the country. Whole towns and cities are ravaged, Shyrokyne is in shambles, Donetsk Airport is gone, and most inhabitants have fled.
He’s a veteran of the U.S. Navy, has over 10 years of journalism experience, and has contributed and reported for the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, NPR, BBC, Seattle Times, Vice, & War Is Boring — among other top tier global news agencies.
Zack’s topical correspondence has spanned over 30 countries, including: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine — from cinematographic work with U.S. Special Operations Forces on ATV’s, to frontline reporting on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, to reporting on the chemical attacks used by Assad’s regime against its citizens in Syria — and the aftermath that coincided by the inaction of the Obama administration, to the plague of ISIS in Kurdistan.
Zack is also the Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer of Expeditionary Communicators, a disabled veteran owned & operated small business that builds communication experiences for non-profits, government agencies, and other entities. He also teaches communications at New York University as an adjunct professor and is currently working on his third master’s degree.
Brooklyn — Brandon Neilan: Zack, you were recently in the Ukraine covering the conflict that is ongoing in the eastern portion of the broken and afflicted country, that has now brought on Pope Francis asking for peace from Putin in the war torn region. What are your thoughts on Putin’s sincerity on meeting with the Pope?
Zack Baddorf: From my perspective everything that Putin does is well calculated, whether it’s meeting with the Pope or talking with the Ukrainians, or with Europe about some sort of peace in Ukraine — we shouldn't take too much value on what he says.
He has his vision, the way he sees the world, and what he wants to do with a new Russia. Putin’s overall goal is to create this divide and instability in these periphery states which, in many cases, were part of the Soviet Union. But for him, it’s creating more of a barrier, a separation.
But in essence, when you think about it, Putin is really putting his own economy at risk and he’s making his own people suffer as a result of this — and as what he sees as his main national security interest, in the same way the U.S. spends billions of dollars, excessively for its defense and national security and infrastructure — Russia does — BUT we have the economy to support that and are able to sustain that, at least for now.
Brandon: In the video you shot, you really gathered, rather an anomaly of sorts showing how life has barely changed in the western portion of the country, while thousands have died in the eastern portion — citing the transit, supplies, and food shortage differences. How is this affecting the western side?
Zack: That was something that I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out myself. As someone that’s served in the military and has been to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and has come back — these places are very far away.
In Kiev, for instance, things are functioning pretty normal and even closer than that, some of the cities that are on the periphery of the border of these rebel held areas are continuing normally— many of the areas are continuing about their daily lives — people go to their jobs, the grocery store, they're walking in parks, going out for beer.
It was interesting for me to find out how life was affected by this conflict. What I basically found — was that on the frontlines, life is very different, the ceasefire is broken, the conflict continues, people are still dying. And yet, if you step away from that — if you go to Kiev, if you go to Donetsk, people are surely aware and it affects their family members and their friends, it’s in the back of their mind, but it’s never something that alters or changes their daily lives.
Brandon: The differences between the population of the west and east are that of the many annexations that have happened over the centuries, with the spoken tongue of the west being Ukraine, and the east Russian. Did you notice this and to what aspect?
Zack: The Russian economy is faltering in part due to the stress that comes with the funding of eastern Ukraine. The pro-Russian’s are really suffering, the Russian Federation is now required to prop up and support a lot of people in the east — which weren’t previously supported — which has infrastructure issues and is costing millions and millions of dollars a year to support the pensioners — which are the people in eastern Ukraine that previously received money from the government in Kiev — that since, funding has stopped and somehow the pensions are being received from some say the Russian government or a very rich Russian benefactor who wants to support the rebels.
We really don't know, all we know is that these people are still receiving their pensions and income.
It’s a huge drain on the Russian economy to support all these people, who cannot afford to escape the east. So, as far as I can tell there are the die-hard people who will never leave the east and there are those who cannot afford to leave — most of the elderly and the working class.
It doesn't leave much for the future of the eastern part of Ukraine, all the people that can afford to, have left — they've gone as quickly as they can to a more safer area in the west…and why wouldn't they. So… you have a really difficult situation and an economy that’s pretty much entirely reliant on Russia now.
It puts Russia in a bind and the longer that Ukraine holds this situation, the tougher it’s going to be for Russia, for its economy and domestically in this little breakaway in Ukraine.
And it also brings upon a good point with the perception of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and how they see themselves and their future — more aligned with the west or more aligned with the east, meaning Russia.
And that depends, in Crimea where I was maybe a month before the Russian’s started moving in and then I came back for the referendum and saw ‘The Little Green Men’ starting to take over the Crimean Peninsula — Crimea is very different than Kiev and the perception of Russia’s role in their lives is different and varies from person to person, but the vast majority of people want to be part of Russia. In Crimea they feel like they're being disenfranchised by the Kiev government and they voted accordingly.
Was there freedom in this vote? No, absolutely not, but the vote did represent the vast majority of Crimea. If you go up to Donetsk, the sentiment is much more divided and you find a different situation. However, the pro-Russians that want to secede to the east, believe that the government in Kiev are Fascists, homophobic, anti-Semitic and run by a bunch of money crazy dictators.
And on the other side if you look at people in the west that are looking at the rebels in the east, they believe that the people there are Ukrainian and that they are being influenced by Russian propaganda — and in their view do not have the right to take over this land, which is Ukrainian land. And if they're not happy in the east, then the people should leave and go to Russia.
Brandon: In your time near Donetsk and the region of Shyrokyne you were side by side with OSCE research teams, did this affect your reporting? (Did the Russian and Ukrainian commanders give you more grace)?
Zack: I didn’t interact with the Russian or Ukrainian Generals that were with that monitoring mission on that day. The two commanders tagged along with the SMM (Special Monitoring Mission) to have potential talks, which they did, to voice their perspective as they were walking along and surveying. From my perspective as a reporter covering this — where we had Russian and Ukrainian Generals and OSCE observers — it was not a challenge — it gave me access which I otherwise wouldn't have had, especially on the rebel held side. So… it was a unique opportunity to do that.
To stay on the course of reporting, Zack went back and forth between rebel strongholds and pro-Ukrainian military battalions 0ver a weeks time — getting their views on the ongoing struggle and conflict that has divided the country. Here’s their story:
Brandon: You talk with a man named “Kirt”, from the pro-Ukrainian Azov Battalion. In your conversation he states that, “ The Azov Battalion isn’t breaking the Minsk ceasefire conditions.” Did you personally see the pro-Ukrainian military break these conditions, as OSCE has reported on?
Zack: No…so the ceasefire allows for small arms fire, even certain shells up to a certain caliber.
When I was there, I did not see any violation of the ceasefire. What I did see was small arms fire, which was permissible. And from what I was told, in the evenings are when the attacks with the larger caliber weapons in these incidents, which violate the ceasefire, were used.
Also, OSCE does a fantastic job reporting this information, but they don't have the mandate or authority to draw conclusions.
So, let’s say for instance they see a man with a Russian Federation flag on his camouflage uniform, this could be a propaganda tool used by politicians — their job is to report and not to draw a conclusion on whether or not it’s an actual Russian Federation soldier.
Brandon: You also talk with the other side to conduct true non-objective reporting from both angles. In talking with a 51 year pro-Russian separatist named Slavian — he states “Ukraine is ill with fascism and Nazism. They are all nationalists and fascists. It’s impossible for [ethnic] Russians to live here with them as part of Ukraine.” Ukraine is an identified Constitutional Republic, in which its citizens represent the elected officials. What are your thoughts on his statement, if any?
Zack: You know…there are right-wings, extremists, nationalists, anti-Semites that are pro-Ukraine. But we have the same thing in the United States who are anti-Semitic, homophobic, and who are extreme. There are a number of people who are on the periphery of our political system in the U.S., just as there are in Ukraine.
I believe it’s unfair to say that these people are representative of the Ukrainian political system as a whole. I believe any representative can go to Kiev and give their thoughts and views in a democratic fashion. However, the people in the east do not believe this. And hence we have this insurrection.
And I'd like to bring something up, people in the West, columnists in DC, professors in New York, they like to espouse the same views as the people in the east and like to spread this propaganda that there are extremists dominating the Ukrainian government and this is not helpful to the situation.
Brandon: You have Putin that had 20 + years in the KGB, and in my opinion were and still are the best at propaganda.
Zack: I would say they still are winning the information war in eastern Ukraine and it is a huge, incredibly huge point to factor into how they are winning the hearts and minds of the people through television and the state controlled media that is being broadcasted into eastern Ukraine.
Brandon: While you were there, could you identify any actual Russian Federation military soldiers? There have been pictures and interviews of two Russian Special Forces soldiers captured in this same area, on which we reported last month.
Zack: I certainly did not; I interviewed a Russian volunteer, something like that would require a lot more time and the establishing of relationships.
Brandon: Lastly, Russia has mounted some very heavy firepower only about 30 miles from Ukraine — in which it looks as if they are building an FOB (Forward Operating Base). Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has stated that Putin and the Russian Federation military are gearing up for a full-blown invasion. How realistic do you think this is?
Zack: So…when I was in Mariupol, the southeastern part of Ukraine — there was talk that the Russian’s (Russian Federation military) would invade. That didn't happen, but it has been a difficult conflict to predict as to when it’s going to happen. But you have Donetsk and I didn't think the rebels would be so successful. It’s a game for Russia and the United States, Russia is very heavily invested, Russia is of course going to set-up troops on the border to support its national interest.
I would say that strategically, if there were any place for Putin to go next, it would be southeastern Ukraine, so that they can access the port and Crimea for land transport. But it would be a battle fought in bloody frenzy with high casualties. So it would be a heavy cost, however if Russia wanted to do it…they could. It’s all up to Putin and if and when he decides to do it.