The War in Ukraine: A Journalist’s Analysis of the Conflict and Recent History


Wilson Center

Lucian Kim was National Public Radio’s (NPR) Moscow Bureau Chief from 2016 through 2021.

Anthony Grasso, Staff Writer

As the tragedy of the war in Ukraine continues to unfold, the University has worked to keep the community informed. On Tuesday, March 29, the Russian Area Studies Program hosted the event “Russia in the Headlines,” which featured Lucian Kim, National Public Radio (NPR) Moscow Bureau Chief from 2016 through 2021 and current resident fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. The moderator of the discussion was Mark L. Schrad, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science at Villanova. Kim has extensive experience studying and reporting on Russia and former Soviet republics, including Georgia and Ukraine. During this event, Kim detailed his experience reporting from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine during the Russian annexation in 2014 before transitioning to explain the implications of the events of 2014 on what is currently taking place in Ukraine. 

One of the most significant impacts of the events of 2014, specifically the Maidan Revolution, is that they led Ukrainians to forge a collective “civic identity.” While the Russian identity is principally an “ethnic identity,” the Ukrainian identity has grown to supersede ethnic and religious boundaries. For instance, there are ethnic Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Koreans and Syrians who now call themselves “Ukrainians.” Kim believes that this social cohesiveness is providing Ukraine with immense strength during the current conflict.

In total, Kim took seven trips to Ukraine during the year 2014, with his first being during the Maidan Revolution and his last during the bloody protests that led to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17. One of the most intriguing observations from Eastern Ukraine in 2014 that Kim shared was that many of the pro-Russian demonstrators were very unsure of what they desired. He explained how one protester told him that he had seen what American democracy did to Libya and the former Yugoslavia, but he then told him that the pro-Russian population of Ukraine wanted to be able to enjoy life in a democratic society. Kim shared that he had never experienced the level of hostility in his entire career as a journalist that he did while covering pro-Russian protests in Eastern Ukraine, let alone from a group allegedly being oppressed. One of the justifications being employed by Vladimir Putin for waging war in Ukraine is that Russian-speakers in Ukraine are being attacked in a genocide perpetrated by Ukrainian Nazis with the backing of the West. The hostility with which pro-Russian Ukrainians treated Kim was further evidence to him of the complete falsity of this supposed “genocide.”

This idea of Putin protecting Russian-speakers is a myth that continues to exist during the current war in Ukraine. However, this is immediately disproved by noticing that arguably the two-most destroyed population centers so far, Mariupol and Kharkiv, are both predominantly Russian-speaking. Kim asserted that the war in Ukraine “is a fight about the Putin regime’s survival.” He explained that Putin’s actions are reflective of a statement from Zbigniew Brzeziński’s, former National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter, that Russia could never be an empire without controlling Ukraine. 

One of the questions directed at Kim from the audience was whether he predicted that Russia would carry out this full-scale invasion. His answer was that he was “shocked but maybe not completely surprised,” for two reasons. The first was the list of ridiculous demands that Putin shared in December 2021 in which he wanted the borders of NATO territory to return to their 1997 positions. The second reason was that countries do not engage in such a major movement of troops and military equipment, as did Russia at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, just to show strength.  

As many in the West have been questioning whether the Russian society and military will turn against Putin after the losses suffered by Russia in the war, Kim warned that it is not appropriate to compare how Americans would react to how Russians will react. He said that his friend in Russia told him that the “best weapon Putin has is his propaganda.” The information reaching the Russian population, especially older Russians, is so extremely limited and censored that superimposing on the Russian population how we would react to young soldiers coming home in body bags is simply not possible. Another characteristic of Russia is that the military has never been an independent institution and has always been subordinate to the Russian government, dating back to the czarist era. However, this is not to say by any means that Putin finds himself in a favorable position right now.

Kim outlined some massive flaws that Putin has committed, with perhaps the worst being his belief that Russia would be welcomed into Ukraine and that all of Ukraine would fall as easily as Crimea did in 2014, which stems from his failure to see the changes that have occurred in Ukrainian society over the last 30 years. Historically, many famous Russian authors were geographically from Ukraine, as was Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. However, in the last three decades, Ukraine has developed an identity for itself that does not center on it being a brother country to Russia. 

Hesitant to make any predictions, Kim concluded the discussion expressing his view that this conflict has no real end in sight, largely in part since Putin’s objectives are so unclear: What does it mean to “demilitarize” Ukraine? To “de-Nazify” Ukraine? Nonetheless, Kim does not see only darkness in the future of Russia and Ukraine. He affirmed that “we need to be aware of what country we are dealing with,” implying that there are millions of Russians risking imprisonment and even death every day to try to create a democratic Russia that respects the dignity and rights of every human being. For now, we must continue to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people as they exemplify the true meanings of bravery and heroism.