Ukraine Special Episode – Jeremy Bowen speaks to Andy Coulson from Kyiv
April 1, 2022. Series 5. Episode 41
My guest for this special episode – talking to me from the world’s crisis capital Kyiv – is BBC broadcaster Jeremy Bowen.
Jeremy’s dramatic dispatches, with his trademark focus on the moving, at times frankly horrific, human stories of loss and despair, have revealed the appalling impact of Russia’s invasion.
This is a truly frontline crisis conversation with a man who felt compelled to put himself in danger once more to tell what he describes as the most important story of his 38year career in news.
A love for, and perhaps even an addiction to, the story is what led him to join the BBC team in Ukraine. As Jeremy played down the risks of his assignment, our pod was interrupted by a tannoy message from the hotel suggesting to guests that they should use the bomb shelter below to stay safe through the night. Jeremy, of course, was having none of it.
In this conversation he gives us his brilliant analysis of how we got here and where this war might take us. But Jeremy also is able to give us a powerful, first-person account of how the people of Ukraine have dealt with an existential crisis for them, their families and for their country. “They are surviving because they are stoic,” says Jeremy.
So, this is a unique episode packed with real-time crisis insight. I hope you enjoy it and we’ll be back with a new series of Crisis What Crisis? soon.
Jeremy and I would ask that that if you find this episode useful please donate to:
00:00:18.21 Andy Coulson:
I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last seven years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far, far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:00:49.14 Andy Coulson:
So, on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. But you’ll also hear from renowned crisis managers, mental health experts and advisors who were in the room when major crises have hit. All of them offering useful, practical coping techniques and tips and all with the straightforward aim of guiding you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you.
00:01:17.02 Andy Coulson:
Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify and you’ll find some great playlists. And if you enjoy what you hear please subscribe and give us a rating and review. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodact.
00:01:44.12 Andy Coulson:
My guest for this special episode, I’m delighted to say for the second time, is BBC broadcaster Jeremy Bowen. Jeremy was or first guest on Crisis What Crisis? when we started the pod in the midst of the pandemic. We talked then about his life on the frontline of crisis as a war reporter and also the personal crisis he successfully faced down after a cancer diagnosis. Jeremy joins us today though from the epicentre really, of a crisis we’ve all been witnessing on our TVs and phones for over a month now: the invasion of Ukraine. Jeremy is in Kiev from where he’s been sending his dramatic dispatches with his trademark focus on the, often moving, human stories that sit behind this story of war.
00:02:31.04 Andy Coulson:
This is truly a frontline crisis conversation, if you like, with a man who felt compelled to put himself in danger once more to tell what he says is the most important story of his 38 year career as a correspondent. What struck me, however, just as it did the first time we spoke, was Jeremy’s down to earth approach to the job in hand. It was a love for, and perhaps an addiction to, the story that led him to join the BBC team in Ukraine. And while Jeremy played down the risks he was taking to bring us the news our podcast was interrupted by a tannoy message from the hotel management. A message suggesting to guests that they should perhaps use the bomb shelter below the hotel to stay safe through the night. Jeremy, of course, was having none of it.
00:03:23.12 Andy Coulson:
In our conversation he gives us a brilliant analysis, I think, of how we got here and where this war might take us. His years of experience, I think, provide a perspective really worth listening to. But Jeremy is also able to give us a first person account of how the people of Ukraine have dealt with an existential crisis. A crisis for them, for their families and of course for their country. They are surviving, Jeremy says, because they are stoic. So this is a unique episode packed with crisis insight, I hope you enjoy it, and we’ll be back with a new series of Crisis What Crisis? very soon.
00:04:02.19 Andy Coulson:
Jeremy Bowen, it’s great to talk to you. You were our first guest, of course, when we started this podcast in the midst of a pandemic and to have you with us again now talking to us from the heart really of another albeit very, very different crisis is a privilege, so thank you so much for joining me today. Jeremy, tell us where you are please, right now, and give us a flavour of your working day if I can put it that way.
00:04:33.03 Jeremy Bowen:
Right, well I am sitting in a hotel, really right in the centre of the city of Kyiv as they call it in Ukraine or Kiev as we called it for many years in the UK and the Russian’s call it, it’s the Russian way of saying it. It’s a strange hotel because apparently before the invasion it was a very fancy five star so you know, big name hotel, but we’re eating down in the car park. The only thing five star about it is the main lifts which we can’t use because we use the service lifts. So there are other hotels here apparently which are a lot more functional. Ours is functional and they have started cleaning the rooms recently and doing laundry but before that the last thing I did every night was wash up my smalls in the basin.
00:05:25.10 Andy Coulson:
Well you told us, of course, in the previous podcast that that’s often the way you relax when you’re working from the frontline, so to speak.
00:05:32.14 Jeremy Bowen:
Well I like the laundry…
00:05:33.23 Andy Coulson:
It’s those everyday things, Jeremy.
00:05:36.00 Jeremy Bowen:
I like domestic routine and yeah, it’s good, I don’t mind doing my own laundry. I mean, jeans are a bit of an issue but you know socks, underwear it’s fine. Yeah, so my working day, it generally starts pretty early. We’re two hours ahead of London here and while the BBC is a worldwide organisation, basically we react to what’s going on the clock in London, so if I do The Today Programme, I’ve been doing it the last couple of weeks, quite often at ten past seven, that’s ten past nine here. So I would get up, I’ve got a coffee maker I’ve brought with me in my room, I make myself some coffee I go through what’s happened over the night. I’ve got the window open; I have a listen to see what’s happening. We’ve got lots of WhatsApp groups here feeding in information coming from official, semi-official and unofficial sources. I look at the international media, I see what CNN are doing and what they’re reporting and BBC World for the top of their news. I look at British newspapers so I’m briefed. I spend about an hour trying to brief myself. Maybe I then do the Today Programme, grab a bit of breakfast and then we’ve got to work out what we’re going to do in terms of fresh on the ground reporting.
00:06:57.00 Jeremy Bowen:
And in a situation like this sometimes your mind’s made up for you because something’s happened. You know, say if a missile has hit a block of flats which hasn’t happened a great deal but it has happened here. It happened a lot elsewhere in the country. Otherwise it’s been a bit strange because while this story has been at quite a pitch it’s been quite hard to get to it because in terms of the war fighting part, as far as here in the capital’s concerned, it’s happening about… well the closest part is probably about twenty kilometres away, fifteen, twenty kilometres, you can hear it but it hasn’t… it’s not like they’re shelling the middle of the city, the old part of the city. So yeah so then…
00:07:42.20 Andy Coulson:
You’ve taken a decision though to get closer, haven’t you? I mean you went to Irpin’ twice, I think.
00:07:52.03 Jeremy Bowen:
More than twice, actually and you don’t always see on the TV what we try to do. Because sometimes it doesn’t come off or we get to a place, we get stopped at a checkpoint and things like that. So yes, I do think that if you are covering a war as a journalist you have to go and take a look at it. Now, you don’t just do frontline type reporting with soldiers and you know bombs going off and things because apart from anything else it’s dangerous and I don’t like doing that every day, in fact I like to it to the minimum but I do think it’s necessary because you’ve got to use your own eyes and ears. It’s only part of the story.
00:08:34.10 Jeremy Bowen:
The story is also civilians who are trapped in all of this or in this case have actually elected to stay because the city’s not besieged, they could leave. Well, women and children can leave, men have got military obligations here by law. And so there’s you can get a lot out of that. So that’s a lot of what we do as well. So it’s not all bombs and shells every day if you cover a war, by any means. Unless of course you find yourself somewhere like the besieged southern town of Mariupol’ at the movement. You know, if you were there that would be your story. And I’ve been in places like that in the past which are being hammered and you can be, you know, I’ve found things like that in the wars in Yugoslavia and so on. But Kyiv is not like that because the centre of the town is not touched. I mean, it’s a beautiful city, I hadn’t been here before, it’s a stunning city but it’s not been touched.
00:09:35.05 Andy Coulson:
The invasion started on February 24th; you made a decision to get into Ukraine pretty quickly. Tell us about that decision, Jeremy? Was it a difficult one for you this time?
00:09:48.02 Jeremy Bowen:
No, the BBC asked me, before Christmas, if I was interested in getting involved in the coverage of this because as you know my real day job is being Middle East editor and this isn’t the Middle East. And so I said yes, because I thought, well it’s going to be a big story. To be honest with you I wasn’t sure it would happen. I thought it probably wouldn’t happen. I thought Putin might get some gain out of the threat but I couldn’t see the upside for him in an invasion. You know, as things have turned out, I don’t think there is one. But he decided to go ahead with it.
00:10:25.01 Jeremy Bowen:
And I had been on standby with a BBC team for a while and actually we’d been saying to our management, ‘come on we should get a move on, we should get out there because the airspace is going to close’ but you know, it all happened a bit suddenly so we had to come by road. And it took to get to Kyiv, it took six days because I went to Luton Airport flew Wizz Air to Krakow in Poland. I had to spend a day there waiting for the other members of the team to catch up. Then we had some problems getting over the boarder trying to get to Lviv in Western Ukraine because the border was absolutely rammed with refugees at that point. We finally got over and then it took two days to drive from Lviv to Kyiv and that was because of curfews, delays because of checkpoints and things like that. So you can do it and people are now doing it in a day. They’re driving out to Krakow in a day but it took us well, four of five in total and six from London.
00:11:35.19 Andy Coulson:
I mean, you’ve talked it down, it in your usual style, in terms of this is not necessarily the most dangerous place that you’ve been at this moment but A, you didn’t know that when you left.
00:11:51.04 Jeremy Bowen:
I didn’t no.
00:11:52.09 Andy Coulson:
What would happen, but also we talked a little last time about the sort of addictive nature of what you do. Was your willingness to get out there on this occasion a demonstration of that?
00:12:08.09 Jeremy Bowen:
Well addictive, feeling in need of the stimulus of a story probably, a big one. You know, I haven’t, when I was last on your podcast Andy, we talked about the fact that I’d had cancer. So essentially I had, from 2018 to the end of 2019 I was off with cancer, chemo. I thought right then, 2020 I relaunch my career and so I worked really hard and we had some good stories me and my team, January and February and into March. Then I had to come back to London for something and while I was there the Prime Minister made his celebrated evening speech telling us we’re all going to have to stay at home.
00:12:55.06 Jeremy Bowen:
And I basically didn’t travel, like everybody, I didn’t. I mean, my employers didn’t have great deal of interest in my particular skill-set because you know the health guys, Fergus and Hugh Pym and the rest were doing a brilliant job anyway. So I kept myself busy but I didn’t travel. And so one year turned into the second year, as we all know. So I had people coming up to me on the bus in London and staying, ‘Well you know you’ve had a great career Jeremy but how much are you enjoying retirement?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m not retired, I’m not retired.’ So I did have a bit of an appetite to get back to work on a demanding story to prove that yeah, I’m still here. But it wasn’t because it was dangerous.
00:13:46.18 Jeremy Bowen:
And I have to say that when we were driving across Ukraine to get here it was tense. You know every checkpoint there were really tense men with Kalashnikovs and shotguns. A lot of them are farmers, they were there with their shotguns and they were really worked up. They thought the Russians were going to come any second. And then driving in to the city and the whole, it’s not besieged, you can drive in and you can drive out. And there were big queues at that point of people going in as well as coming out because I think people maybe had taken wives and families out to the boarder or to safer places in the west and were heading back in.
00:14:30.11 Jeremy Bowen:
But at the time, there were all these reports about a forty or fifty mile or kilometre Russian armoured convoy heading for the capital so I’ve got to say I was a bit nervous. I was thinking oh my god, what if, what if they do start hammering the place. And my brother was saying to me, was sending me messages saying, ‘Are you nuts? Have you seen…?’ He was sending me reports of the forty mile convoy from the newspapers. And he said, ‘You realise there’s this great big convoy and you’re driving towards it, are you out of your mind?’ And I just started thinking…
00:15:10.03 Andy Coulson:
Which was a fair point.
00:15:12.04 Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, well so I started thinking, well maybe he’s right but I’m here now, I’ve taken my decision so I’m going to do it. And my experience of these things is they are never as bad as they seem when you’re at home contemplating doing it. And that, in my case has been, up to now, touch wood, things can change, it’s been tolerable. It’s been stimulating, really important story and as a foreign correspondent coming to stories like this, you know, it’s not like being Ukrainian. This is not my country, it’s not my war, I’m here to report it and I can leave. It’s a very different thing from people for whom these are matters of life and death.
00:16:01.17 Andy Coulson:
Yes, you’ve said that in the 38 years that you’ve worked as a journalist this might be the most important thing you’ve reported on. That’s because of the scale of crisis now but also presumably because of the implications for our near future.
00:16:17.21 Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, I think it’s way up there with anything I’ve ever done. You know, if I look back over, it’s been quite a lot of years now, but I did a little bit of those eastern European revolutions at the end of Communism in 1989 but most of that time I was based in the United States. And that was clearly a really important sea change. But I was late twenties and even then I recognised that things like the Berlin Wall I was in Washington when that happened and I watched it with my jaw dropping on TV with the Berlin Wall going down and people dancing up and down on it, hitting it with hammers, I could not believe what I was seeing. So that was a huge period.
00:17:05.13 Jeremy Bowen:
And the gulf war that followed was pretty big and there’d been some big moments along the way but I really do think that this is, this is shaping the way the world’s going to be in the next generation, potentially. And that’s why I feel it is a really important story to report. I think for an organisation like the BBC, which I’ve worked for for the entirety of my career, if we are not jumping straight in and doing a lot and using our full resources on a story like this, then we might as well pack up and go home, there is no point. And fortunately we are doing that, we are working very hard and a lot of people are putting a lot of hours in and a lot of budgets are being burned and used wisely but burning up because of the importance of this story, not just for Britain and not just for Europe but for the whole wide world.
00:18:11.24 Andy Coulson:
There’s been some amazing, amazing journalism across the board but there’s been some amazing BBC journalism through this. In explaining the context for this war you’ve talked about how the West misunderstood the security architecture, I think is how you put it, of Europe post-Cold War. In short that our leaders and others in the West sort of got it horribly wrong in the1990s. Is there misjudgement about Putin’s real aims, and a missing of the clues? Or perhaps even the willingness to just kind of push those concerns to one side. Is that at the heart of it?
00:18:54.19 Jeremy Bowen:
Well at the outset let me say that just because I’m trying to understand why Putin might do something doesn’t mean to say that I support what he does. You know because unfortunately sometimes if you make the mistake of trying to put some of these thoughts on social media you get a deluge of people saying…
00:19:13.22 Andy Coulson:
I’ve seen the nonsense.
00:19:15.21 Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, so much nonsense. You know people deliberately grabbing the wrong end of the stick and waving it around. So clearly, using force like this in gross violation of international law is something that is absolutely unacceptable and it’s something, as well, that is not paying off for President Putin. But I think it’s been a combination of circumstances. I do think that mistakes were made in the 1990s there was a real feeling after the end of the Cold War. And everybody who was alive and kicking and watching it at that time will remember it – a sense of real relief that especially if you were…Someone of my age, I grew up in the Cold War and we were all quite aware that if things went badly wrong there could be a nuclear holocaust. So I certainly felt and I studied a lot of this at university as well, so maybe I was more aware of it than some, but I really felt a sense of relief after the end of the Cold War. I think I thought well life’s going to be a lot safer, a lot better.
00:20:34.03 Jeremy Bowen:
But I think there was as sense in which the ‘we’, the west kicked Russia when it was down. You know, they were no longer a threat so we said, ‘This is what we’re going to do you can go along with it if you want, if you don’t want to, well bad luck’ and assurances were made to them. There’s an argument now about the degree to which those assurances were just for the time or for the future but James Baker famously said to the Soviets after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we don’t intend to advance NATO into Eastern Europe but we ended up doing that.
00:21:10.15 Jeremy Bowen:
And I’ve written a bit about this on the BBC and for other things as well. There was a guy who I studied at university called George Kennan, George Kennon was one of the great thinkers, American thinkers, of the Cold War. And he was the person who at the very beginning of the Cold War came up with the idea of containment, that you contain the Soviet Union and stop it spreading its, what he saw as its bad system and instability it could spread around the world. But in the ’90s and by then he was a very old man but he was still perfectly sentient, he said, and he wrote it in The New York Times, he said, roughly speaking ‘…extending NATO to the frontiers, practically, well to the frontiers of the foremost Soviet Union is an irresponsible act that it will play to the worst aspects of militarism and nationalism in the Russian character…’.
00:22:09.19 Jeremy Bowen:
And he’d been studying Soviet Union and Russia his entire life and was a noted authority and also someone who was against the Arms Race in the Cold War. And he felt, and many other people felt at the time in the ‘90s that it was a mistake to extend NATO out to the east. And I know why they did it, they did it because they were reassuring new democracies like Poland that they could be in the Western fold and they would be protected. You understand that, that’s understandable but the counter to that, the other side of the coin if you flip it is that it did pander to people with the Putin mindset. And then he became president.
00:22:53.04 Jeremy Bowen:
So it was confluence of factors that he particularly has this toxic view of the outside world and particularly of the West. And so it all came together and I think that… you know the argument is that back in the ‘90s there was the chance of a different approach, I don’t know quite what that might have been. Some sort of different security architecture is the phrase that is used and that wasn’t, opportunities weren’t taken. So we’re seeing the consequences of that in terms of that insecurity on the Russian side which Putin has got an extreme case of perhaps. And so anyway we are where we are but I think it is important to realise that these crises don’t come out of nowhere, they’ve got pretty deep roots.
00:23:48.24 Andy Coulson:
That’s exactly the point that I wanted to ask you really. Is that this goes to that idea that our leaders and other leaders were sort of, blind perhaps is too hard a phrase or too hard a word, but they were unable to see the potential for crisis. Was it unable or was it just not willing? Because of course there’s the economic elements to this as well. And there was an awful lot of money to be made by following an alternative route through the ‘90s and since. Never mind the specifics of it, but what’s fascinating here from a crisis perspective is the failure to see it coming.
00:24:40.09 Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah. Well they were warned, people like George Kennan, he wasn’t the only one. And these were people who were absolutely at the heart of what was called the foreign policy establishment in the United States. These were people who had the ear of presidents and they were warning that we could be doing better, the West could be doing better. But politicians operate, they don’t operate with a twenty year, twenty-five year perspective. They may claim that they do but they don’t. Especially in western democratic politics, there’s an electoral cycle and they have to respect that.
00:25:24.11 Jeremy Bowen:
And I think there was also a feeing back in the ‘90s, you know if you remember Yeltsin was after Gorbachev went, Yeltsin was the leader of the new Russia that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union and he was seen as pretty harmless, wasn’t he? He drank too much and he’d start conducting, famously conducting military bands at photo opportunities. And he wasn’t seen as any kind of a threat, not like the cold eyed ex-KGB man whose in the Kremlin right now. And so Russia wasn’t seen as a great deal of a problem.
00:26:10.13 Jeremy Bowen:
And so therefore other things were greater priorities and at the time incorporating those states that really wanted to be part of the western world in the Western world like Poland was really, really prioritised. Because of course Putin, he may do something in Ukraine or he may do something in Georgia or in the future he might do something in Moldova but I bet he doesn’t attack anything in Poland or in the Baltic states because they’re members of NATO and they’ve got these Article Five assurances that if you attack Latvia you attack America. So perhaps taking in the big, big picture, it was the right thing to do. That Russia was always going to get restive again in the future so putting up some kind of stockade against that was important and the line had to be drawn somewhere. Perhaps the real mistake was in 2008 when for some reason at a NATO summit NATO said that both Ukraine and Georgia, both former parts of the Soviet Union, could join NATO. And the promise was made but the reality of it was never delivered. So in a sense it was the worst of both worlds because Putin’s feelings that the West was out to get him were exacerbated and these companies…
00:27:53.03 Interruption from tannoy
…please do not forget to close the curtains since they show the lights…
00:28:00.24 Jeremy Bowen:
…in case of necessity or please proceed to our shuttle on level two.
00:28:13.09 Jeremy Bowen:
Get this every night.
…in your room over the night, all responsibly on your safety remains on yourself. I wish you a good night, take care and we’ll see you tomorrow morning.
00:28:25.20 Jeremy Bowen:
They say it in Ukrainian now.
00:28:28.10 Andy Coulson:
That’s not a regular message from a hotel manager is it Jeremy?
00:28:34.11 Jeremy Bowen:
No, he’s actually the security manager at the hotel. But the hotel manager, who I think was not Ukrainian, has gone away. So he’s in charge. He’s a nice man, he’s called Vlad, he’s here with his family. You see him down in the car park where we eat, we all eat tougher down there. Very nice guy. His family are… I think he’s on the same floor as me. I don’t know if he sleeps in the shelter but I certainly don’t. It’s too uncomfortable, I’ve slept there once.
00:28:59.13 Andy Coulson:
Is that what he was asking you to do?
00:29:02.07 Jeremy Bowen:
Well to start with a lot of people were staying in the shelter at night but less and less because it’s clear that the centre of Kyiv, so far, has not been hit. And if the place was shaking from shelling I’d go down in the shelter. But otherwise I’d rather stay in my room thank you very much because unlike other wars that I’ve been in, many wars I’ve been in, the power’s on, the hot water’s on, the internet’s on. So the telly’s on you can watch it. The other day I unexpectedly had a spare couple of hours and I had a hot bath and watched Peaky Blinders actually on BBC iPlayer.
00:29:56.05 Andy Coulson:
You could have found something a little more cheerful. I like Peaky Blinders.
00:30:02.17 Jeremy Bowen:
It is good but you know I’m joking about things but of course I’m very aware that there are people whose lives, millions of people in this country, whose lives have been absolutely destroyed and thrown up in the air by what’s going on. And so the thing is I’m sure they’re also finding a certain black humour at times about the situation because human beings always do. One thing that being in a lot of places has, you know, I don’t know the precise count but as a journalist I’ve been in more than twenty wars. Human beings always start exhibiting signs even at the worst possible times because it’s a survival mechanism in a crisis.
00:30:48.07 Andy Coulson:
It’s a coping mechanism, exactly. I want to talk to you about exactly that in terms of the mentality of the Ukrainian people that you’ve been witness to. But let’s start with President Zelenskyy shall we? You’ve seen a lot of leaders up close in crisis. Some of them who were wholly responsible for the crisis that you were reporting. But what’s your view of President Zelenskyy? An utterly remarkable leadership from a man, frankly, with a professional background that you wouldn’t have thought would lend itself. And yet what a remarkable job he is doing.
00:31:34.12 Jeremy Bowen:
He’s got guts, he’s got guts, you know. There was that famous line at the beginning when he Americans said, we can get you out if you want. And he said, what was the phrase? ‘I need ammunition not a ride’ or something. It’s strange because of course, you know, he was an actor who played in a comedy show about a man who unexpectedly becomes president. And I think the show was called Servant of the People and his party is called Servant of the People. And he says I’m the servant of the people and I’m your president and I think actually his acting skills probably have helped. That it’s the ultimate in method acting, you know he is going through the reality of it but he’s projecting himself brilliantly. And he is a target, no question about it, certainly at the beginning, I think he would be right to consider himself a target, so he’s gutsy. You know, he’s not just playing a part here.
00:32:37.06 Jeremy Bowen:
And he has found a way of, I don’t know if it’s him or he’s got really good speech writers, he’s found a way of hitting some very strong notes. And if you notice he went through a phase a couple of weeks ago of doing a lot of big screen speeches to parliaments, including parliament in the UK. And he tailored his message in each one. When he did a Ukrainian version of ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ when he spoke to the British parliament. It was ‘I have a dream’ when he spoke to the Americans. When he spoke to the Italians he paid tribute to the antiquity of Rome etc. etc. so he tailors his message. They are winning the information war hands down and the information war is a big part of modern warfare, without a shadow.
00:33:36.21 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, he seems to have from a crisis perspective, he seems to have worked out what he had control of and what he didn’t very, very quickly. Which, as we discussed I think last time we spoke, is the heart of dealing with a crisis. And he recognised that the media and the message is something that he had control of. And he just grabbed it with such brilliance really. Both in terms of the message but also the optics, all the stuff that shouldn’t really matter but does, unfortunately.
00:34:11.07 Jeremy Bowen:
It all matters, it all matters, yeah. In modern war actually it’s a serious business the mastering the message. During the Kosovo invasion by NATO in 1999 the commander then was an American General Wes Clark. And he apparently, and I think he says in his memoirs, in his office he had the satellite TV, CNN on the whole time because getting the right messages out there was an absolutely crucial part of it because you have to win hearts and minds. And Zelenskyy has shown that he can do that.
00:34:54.22 Jeremy Bowen:
Now in contrast Putin’s appearances at that extraordinarily long, ridiculously long table that he sits at one end of, they’re bizarre in the extreme. Whereas Zelenskyy is warm, he’s brave and he wasn’t that popular when this started. He was going through a bad period in the ratings, you know something that happens to politicians but people have really rallied behind him.
00:35:21.12 Andy Coulson:
In some ways the technology piece obviously has been huge, as you say, but in some ways this war is sort of curiously old school as well. In that you’ve got pictures of civilians preparing Molotov cocktails. In many ways the sort of conventional war that we thought we might not ever see again. What does that tell us?
00:35:44.21 Jeremy Bowen:
Well you know I really felt the resonances of European history at the beginning of all this. When I got here we went to the station, there were fifty thousand people leaving a day out of the main railway station here and it was… you know if you had to think of a picture of Eastern Europe in the winter, my god, it was that. You know, the snow swirling around, absolutely brutally cold, the wind howling off the steps and these huddled people on the platforms, crowded on the platforms fighting to get onto these trains. They were putting on, the railways here seem to be incredibly efficient. They were putting on twenty, thirty services a day to go into the West.
00:36:38.01 Jeremy Bowen:
And there were these heart breaking scenes of fathers saying goodbye to their families. Because of course at that point everyone expected that the Russians were going to start hammering the place and try and invade. It was only a few days into the war. So refugees, Eastern Europe, railways, snow, I mean, what does this remind you of? It reminds you of European history of the twentieth century. Tanks not very far off. It really was something that I thought that we wouldn’t see that belonged to the awful history of Europe. And I think one thing that most adults these days have never had to experience is these awful European crises. Let’s not forget Europe was the most blood-soaked part of the world until things changed greatly after the Second World War. And the awful thing about this is this terrible feeling that maybe we might be going back to our old ways.
00:37:41.11 Andy Coulson:
Yes, tell us about, from your position there, Jeremy, tell us about that impact that the Ukrainian reaction, the average man, woman on the street, has had to this astonishing situation. Because from this distance it’s been so unbelievably moving to see the way that the Ukrainian people have reacted. Men, women, rich, poor all willing to take up arms. It’s been astonishing to witness. Tell us from your perspective.
00:38:23.00 Jeremy Bowen:
I think they’ve got guts and I think that they truly, deeply, on a very deep existential level believe that the hare fighting for their freedom and for their futures. This place was part of the Soviet Union from the early twenties right through until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And it was still run by allies of Moscow until less than ten years ago. So this idea that it can be a different kind of country is relatively new. And it’s something they like and they don’t want to be part of the, you know, back under the fist of Moscow anymore.
00:39:17.16 Jeremy Bowen:
So I think that the people genuinely feel that this is the moment that they have to fight for their freedom and for their families and for their futures. I interviewed a woman, there was a changeover of troops going on in a place where I’ve been visiting quite regularly to film this sort of thing, and the vast majority are men, of all sorts of ages, generally younger but there’re older guys too. I mean people my age, in their sixties. And there are a few women, not that many, but one of them was there, a woman in uniform, well she had camouflage trousers and she was wearing a fleece and cuddling a baby, eighteen month old boy and it turned out that she was a sniper.
00:40:05.07 Jeremy Bowen:
And she had been in the army working in the east where of course there’d been a war with Russian separatists since 2014, separatists directed by Moscow of course. And she had eighteen months ago had a baby and had left the army and now she was back in it, her husband was looking after the kid and she had just had a brief chance for a meeting as they were just changing locations as they were coming through the city. And so I interviewed her and she said, ‘Yeah, I’m a sniper and I have decided that to protect my son’s future I’m prepared to kill.’ You know that’s a hell of a thing for anybody to say. And she had rationalised it in her head and I think a lot of people, in their own different ways, think like that in this country and it’s something to see. you know these are people fighting for their survival as they see it.
00:41:02.04 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, it’s the transformation of a sort of middle class citizen who not that long ago, maybe, was a teacher in a classroom who is now standing Irpin’ with a gun in their hand. It’s been, the imagery has been incredibly dramatic.
00:41:30.04 Jeremy Bowen:
I took a picture of some young recruits and I’ve stayed in touch with them, well volunteers, at the beginning of all this. These were groups of young lads, university students, you know one of them was eighteen, same age as my son, who had volunteered. And they are now on the frontline in Irpin’. They hadn’t had any military experience, they’ve been training them, they actually had to go up to the front line after three or four days but just to get back, it turned out for them, but very still very, very close and carrying weapons and learning raw. So after a month of that they are now absolutely in the thick of it. I saw one of them the other day and I mean, that really did, I think people have seen that. And I mean, I tweeted a photo of it which was seen 20 million times which for me that’s quite extraordinary. Because people I think suddenly they can see these kids and they thought, ‘well I don’t know, well he looks like my son’.
00:42:37.18 Andy Coulson:
Exactly. I think the connection between people in Britain and elsewhere with this war has been pretty visceral really.
00:42:48.23 Jeremy Bowen:
I mean that is because of course it’s in Europe. And I’ve had a lot of people grumbling a bit towards me, people I might report on normally in the Middle East where they’ve had really, really terrible wars. I mean in terms of casualties way, way worse, hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq and in Syria and places like that, saying ‘You guys in Europe, you don’t care about us in the same way that you care about the people in Ukraine, look at the response to refugees’ and things like that. And you know in a sense they may well have a point. I think people do find it easier to empathise with people who they feel, I mean, I’m not being racist in saying this, it think it’s just a reality, people empathise greatly with people who they feel some association with. You know the reception that refugees got in Lebanon, while it’s been difficult, they absorbed something like a quarter of their population equivalent in refugees. It’s like Britain taking in fifteen, twenty million people, were taken into Lebanon and of course with the war Syria which of course is still going on in different sorts of ways.
00:44:08.03 Andy Coulson:
But the irony of any of that sort of criticism from a journalistic point of view being aimed at you, when of course I suspect, and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, I suspect that there have been moments where you have been saying to your bosses, ‘guys why aren’t we doing more on this?’ From a Middle Eastern perspective in the past.
00:44:27.20 Jeremy Bowen:
Well you know what? it’s not just about the people involved in the war or about where it’s happening, which is in Europe, it’s because the big powers are involved in a way that they weren’t in those Middle Eastern wars. And that’s what makes this one very significant. Because it’s taken us back to the brink of super-power confrontation in a way that we have not seen since the end of the Cold War. Putin put his nuclear forces on heightened alert.
00:45:01.16 Jeremy Bowen:
Now experts in these things say well that wasn’t necessarily the most significant thing but the fact that we’re even talking about under what circumstances this could expand to include nuclear weapons is just horrendous. And that I think is what is a big part of the significance of it. Because it’s not simply about one nation being invaded by another that’s bigger than it, it’s about the consequences for the world in terms of one small, a modern 21st century equivalent of the iron curtain may well be coming down. And where does China fit in to all this? And what about Taiwan? And all these other questions which are fresh again in a more urgent way.
00:45:50.14 Andy Coulson:
Yes. If, which is possible, this war turns into a long slow grind are you concerned that our capacity, even for this crisis, will wane? And that Putin understands the western media, he’s very media savvy in that sense, that we’ll just get bored and we’ll move on?
00:46:17.07 Jeremy Bowen:
Oh undoubtedly I think that will happen, yeah, it’ll happen, it’ll become routine. And you know, it’s not the only war there’s been in Europe. You know I spent three years of my life in the ‘90s in Bosnia. And longer than that in the entire wars of former Yugoslavia in which tens of thousands of people were killed. You know the siege of Sarajevo I think it’s about twelve and a half thousand people killed and you know I was there a lot. And you go to the morgue at the hospital, you’d go up there sometimes count the bodies after a bad shelling. And there might be twenty or thirty bodies and you know you’re talking about a city way, way smaller than the one I’m in now. And so with that though, yeah, it became a struggle to get it on the air because oh, it’s always the same, more… and so it became the atrocities had to get on, to make headlines.
00:47:22.22 Jeremy Bowen:
And that’s, in a sense, the nature of the news business because when something becomes familiar it becomes less pressing and people already detect that there’s still a massive commitment towards covering the story at the BBC but I feel that there was a shock factor to begin with. Not just among journalists and people here but in general my god, what the hell is going on? And now I think people, you know, we adapt. In the same way that the citizens of this city have adapted to having the Russians fighting their armed forces ten miles away, people will adapt to having this going on in Europe, it’s just the way things are.
00:48:05.00 Jeremy Bowen:
So it’s part of the challenge of the job for people like myself to find ways of telling the story and explaining it and explaining it’s really important, context is really important, in a way that continues to seize people’s imagination. And you know, I’m hoping that things don’t get much worse and then of course if things are getting worse it’s not the same. There’s another dynamic creeping in which is a massive crisis and how do we deal with that? And what we must also realise is that just because sometimes these crises unfold not at the speed that the news agenda would like, which is generally having something fresh every day. Particularly in the 24/7 connected world and actually they can maybe go into a slow burn phase. And you might even think about other things.
00:49:00.22 Andy Coulson:
Is that your fear?
00:49:03.04 Jeremy Bowen:
Well it’s not my fear, I just think it’s the way that these things work. I think that at the moment, I mean, as I speak to you there’s been some diplomatic hope going on between the two sides but they are a very, very long way apart on loads of issues. And so I still think that the most likely option is an attritional struggle going on for some time perhaps, certainly into the months and who knows, another year?
00:49:29.06 Jeremy Bowen:
I was speaking to a young soldier the other day, in fact one of these young guys who we’d been following, who joined up as volunteers and left university to do it, and he said he’d seen Joe Biden’s speech in Poland where he said that this is… you know Biden framed his speech as this is a generational struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And he said, well as soon as I heard that I thought, right, this is going to be going on for years, ‘…it’s going to be two or three years before I get back to University…’ is what he said to me.
00:50:00.11 Andy Coulson:
00:50:01.21 Jeremy Bowen:
So you know, this isn’t going to go away I think and even if it suddenly stopped the consequences of Russia’s position, sanctions, what we do about it, that’s still there. And so there are big changes coming from this and we’ve only seen a few of them.
00:50:20.05 Andy Coulson:
Just from a crisis point of view, Jeremy, from the conversations that you’re having, from the people that you’re dealing with day to day, you know the hotel employee who we’ve just listened to on the announcement there, what can we learn from them, do you think, about crisis? I mean, there’s been that instinctive kind of we are going to stay, we are going to protect our way of life, what else have you seen in this particular conflict that’s struck you?
00:50:53.12 Jeremy Bowen:
I think that these people here are stoic. I think that they’re calm, they are extraordinarily law abiding. I mean, the other day there was a siren going and people are more relaxed about sirens now because in the central part of the city they’re not usually followed by a raid. But the siren went and there was this lady waiting to cross the road, an elderly lady with a shopping trolley on wheels and she waited for the green man to turn green before she stepped out, there was no traffic.
00:51:30.15 Jeremy Bowen:
And we’ve got this sticker on the car saying we’re the press and please let us through, and on the big road blocks on the edge of town, Kyiv is bisected by this enormous river, rivers in Eastern Europe are big, and this one is big, it makes the Thames look like a stream. And when you come back from the other side of the city you have to go through checkpoints and the queues are massive sometimes but there was either lane open down the side where cars with the right stickers can go zooming down that and jump the queue thank god, otherwise we’d be in the queue for four hours and wouldn’t get back in time to go on the news. And the point is that they respect that lane and no one toots at you and yells at you for jumping the queue. People are very law abiding here, they’re organised it’s impressive. I was actually, I have to say, I was very impressed in Poland passing through, not a country I know that well, but their response was tremendously well organised as well.
00:52:40.07 Andy Coulson:
And swift, right? The reactions.
00:52:41.22 Jeremy Bowen:
Swift, calm you know in the station where refugees were coming in from Ukraine and we spent a day there trying to get a train the other way across the border, trying and failing because they weren’t taking passengers they were taking relief supplies. But thousands of people coming through the station, they kept it clean there were cleaners working in the loos the whole day long, they were immaculate, pretty much, with thousands of people coming through. People putting their rubbish in the bins. I hate to say it but I don’t think it might be quite like that in the UK.
00:53:22.10 Andy Coulson:
The importance of maintaining as much normality as you can.
00:53:28.11 Jeremy Bowen:
Amazing, maybe in a crisis we would be different. And you know, the one thing that my job has taught me over the years is that in the UK we’re immensely fortunate. You know we have very safe lives int eh main. Of course some people have awful individual experiences but in the main we have a level of security and safety in our lives that many, many, many people around the world can only dream about.
00:53:55.11 Andy Coulson:
Yes. Jeremy, thank you so much for joining us again. Amazing insight as ever, but this time delivered from the heart of a crisis. I really am so grateful for you joining us and please stay safe.
00:54:13.09 Jeremy Bowen:
Well thanks Andy, it’s been a pleasure as ever and yeah, I’ll be here for a little while longer and no doubt we’ll come back before the whole crisis is over and you know, it’s for a journalist, these are, for everybody, these are interesting times but these are demanding story. You know, at this stage in my life, having done this for a long time, a demanding significant story is the kind of thing which is very much worth doing. Which is why personally in this place, you know I decided to accept the risks of coming because I think it’s important to, I wanted to be part of it. It may seem a bit odd but that’s what would go through my head and still does actually.
00:55:03.15 Andy Coulson:
Well we’re grateful that you do because your reports are incredibly important. Jeremy, thanks so much.
00:55:11.14 Jeremy Bowen:
00:55:35.09 End of transcription