David Remnick: Volodymyr Zelensky was once a sitcom star, but now as president of Ukraine, he's emerged as a digital age Churchill, a potent and savvy communicator throughout the Russian invasion of his country.
Volodymyr Zelensky: [Ukrainian language]
Group: [Ukrainian language]
David Remnick: His emotional appeal to a recent EU meeting, which was video conferenced from the battlefield, has been credited with spurring European leaders to tougher sanctions, like kicking Russia out of the SWIFT banking system. In some ways, at least for now, Ukraine seems to be winning the information war. Igor Novikov is a former advisor to President Zelensky and he's an internet researcher and entrepreneur. I spoke with Novikov from Kyiv last week. Igor, how are you?
Igor Novikov: I'm fine. I'm fine. Hi.
David Remnick: [Ukrainian language].
Igor Novikov: Well, exactly, that would be the way I [crosstalk]
David Remnick: Exactly.
Igor Novikov: We just got some warring news. Basically, there was a memo issued by the Indian ministry of internal affairs telling Indian citizens to get out of Kharkiv before 6:00 PM, including on foot, if necessary. I have no idea what they're planning on doing tonight in Kharkiv, but it will be horrific.
David Remnick: Igor, to be realistic if not even blunt, for a week now this invasion has been going on and the resistance to it has been more than, let's just say, Vladimir Putin might've expected and his military commanders might've expected, but in the end is it your thinking that he will unleash firepower at an enormous level like we used to see in Grozny and Chechnya?
Igor Novikov: To be honest, what we're seeing now from Russia is irrational violence and pretty much borderline intentional genocide, intended and premeditated. I would say that obviously the intensity of the attacks will increase because Russia is in a bad position militarily at the moment. Unless Putin decides to take a step back and figure out a diplomatic solution and figure out a way to save his face, most likely we're going to see some atrocities.
David Remnick: You use the word genocide. What do you mean and how do you see this as a genocide?
Igor Novikov: Well, you have to understand the way Putin views Ukraine. For him, we are one people with the Russians, right? He claims that historically, Ukrainians and Russians are one people separated by political and geopolitical circumstances. That is not exactly the case. Ukrainian people are different in their mindset, in their history, in everything pretty much. He went in on an assumption that his troops will be at least partially welcomed with flowers and that didn't happen. Now the whole of Ukraine is a constant reminder for him they are liberty and freedom-loving people right next to his totalitarian enclave.
Basically, I think for him it's personal and if he can't force us to love him, he'll do his best to eliminate as many Ukrainians as he can, including the elites and the political leadership to break the spine of the Ukrainian nation. In order to do that he would have to resort to measures not seen in Europe since the 1940s. We're already witnessing that. In Kharkiv we're witnessing that. In Volnovakha we're witnessing that. In Mariupol. Do notice that he's actually bombing Russian-speaking cities in the Eastern Ukraine way more than he is pro-Western Ukrainian cities.
David Remnick: Why would he do that? Do you think he wants to hive off Western Ukraine and let it be a separate, as he would think of it, more purely Ukrainian enclave and then seize greater control in the east and install a puppet government in Kyiv? Is that the scenario you see?
Igor Novikov: Well, I think they had, say, a number of different scenarios. Definitely from what we've seen, their first and main objective was to change the government of Ukraine and make Ukraine pro-Russian that way, they failed miserably. Now I think they've resorted to plan B I.E. they are trying to create what they used to call Novorussia.
David Remnick: Novorossiya.
Igor Novikov: Novorossiya, yes. Basically they are trying to take as much territory from the Eastern Ukraine as possible, create that land bridge to Crimea and try and consolidate all the territories with the Russian-speaking population, but once again, even that plan is doomed to failure because look, even pro-Russians in Ukraine are now turning against Russia. You don't win hearts and minds with bombs and genocide. It's a very simple rule but it's very effective.
David Remnick: Now, you were an advisor to presidency Zelensky for a year, his first year in office. Have you had any contact with him or people in his circle in recent days?
Igor Novikov: I'm in contact with the president's office, yes. Unfortunately, I'm sorry that's as much as I can say due to security concerns as well.
David Remnick: What can you say about Zelensky's thinking? He's doing something extremely 21st century, which is that he's winning a 21st-century information war through social media, through his own force of personality. Where does that come from?
Igor Novikov: Well, I would highlight probably two main elements to that. First of all, obviously, it's the creative side of him. It's the showbiz background. It's the screenwriting, the movie-making because when you come from that background you're familiar with how to write in the characters, how to develop them, how to develop story arcs, how to make people laugh and cry, how to make people pay attention to what you're doing. That's the first element. The second element, and that's where my background comes in, is to do with the theory of information, the theory of the so-called attention economy.
The first time I met the president I was doing a one-day academic program for him on how technology affects society and what the future might hold because of that technological change. One of the things we actually talked about was-- Well, two things. First of all it was behavioral economics and behavioral psychology, so how people behave differently in this day and age.
The second thing that we've actually discussed is this, I don't even know how to describe it, this flood of information, and how to survive and navigate those turbulent waters. I gave them the academic sides of it. Then little did we know that literally less than a year later he's going to be president, I'm going to be his advisor, and we were faced with the biggest story in the world, the Trump impeachment. That was the first time where we actually had to practice what we preach. We took everything that we were discussing and using and build a new system to contain the information from scratch. That was the first time.
The second time we're seeing now. Look, Ukraine will only survive if people pay attention and that's really important. I can give you one example from history. If I had to ask you to name at least one astronaut from Apollo 11, the first mission to the moon, can you name one?
David Remnick: Sure. Neil Armstrong.
Igor Novikov: Yes, exactly. Apollo 12 flew a few months later, can you name at least one?
David Remnick: I see. I take your point. I take your point.
Volodymyr Zelensky: You see my point, right? We need to make sure that there's no Apollo 12 effect in our war against Russia. That's issue number one, we have to keep the attention. Secondly, look, it's all about hearts and minds. People unfortunately are irrational at the moment more than usual. We need to make sure that people understand who the perpetrator and who the victim is in this situation, especially given the fact that we've been attacked by a country well-known for its propaganda and probably one of the best disinformation centers in the world. The country that's weaponized information. Lucky for us we have a showbiz president who is interested in that kind of stuff, and who's not afraid to use the newest advances that we have, and it seems to be working great.
David Remnick: Now, that's the arc of the story, but it's the arc of the story now, and I hate to be like this, but what happens if the arc turns into something quite different, which is to say that the bombardment coming from the Russian army increases to the point of real agony? Which is I think even quite likely, but one doesn't want to predict. How does the information war continue then? Or does it become then a guerrilla war?
Igor Novikov: Well, it always has been since the very beginning on February 24th and it still is a guerrilla war. We don't have the resources at our disposal that we can utilize as easily as Putin. If things take a turn for the worst, well, first of all, let's talk about the people. We need to make sure that the humanitarian situation remains bearable. Women and children are leaving and they should be leaving at a greater pace and scale if the fighting intensifies. Even those women and children, for example, my wife and my daughter because I have been warned about this a long time ago. Obviously it was difficult to believe in at first, but I sat my wife down and she's from Poltava in Eastern Ukraine.
Sat her down and said, "Look, I think we should leave or at least you should leave. Okay? Take the kids out." Because I knew if I said, "You should leave, I should stay in," it was a no-go area for that conversation. I said, "Look, we should leave," and she goes, "No, no, no, we're staying." I was like, "You have to understand. You're putting yourself in grave danger." She goes like, "Look, we're sensible, grown-up human beings, intelligent. We're not stupid enough to run around like playing soccer or walking the kids if the rockets are landing. We know where the bomb shelter is, we know how to behave, we know how to fight. We know how to survive. We're staying because this is our home."
She actually told me a very important thing that's become probably my most valued lesson of this whole situation. She told me, "Look, in the world where there are people like Putin who openly wish you death, you can't keep running away because sooner or later you'll have to make a stand and there's no place better for fighting than you're on home."
David Remnick: You undoubtedly heard the news of Joe Biden's State of the Union Address and his message that Putin will pay a price. How do you evaluate his behavior so far? He's ruled out American troops and airpower for reasons you well know. Do you worry that more support or intervention from the West could trigger a wider war or do you want more?
Igor Novikov: I support what President Biden does because some people criticize him for a lackluster kind of reaction to the threats. Look, I have to remind people that we're dealing with a person who might be mentally unstable, the president of Russia. In a world where he has that red button at his disposal, we need to fight back but fight back sensibly. That's the issue number one.
Issue number two, in terms of American boots on the ground. We love our country and we're ready to defend our country. We would appreciate American boots on the ground, obviously, the more the merrier. We're not in desperate need of other people dying for a country against their will just because their government decided. What we really need is weapons.
I appreciate that the West is really concerned that the first Russian plane shot down by a NATO member country could lead to a third world war and potentially to a nuclear war. We need to, at the same time, figure out a way to give Ukraine a chance in the air as well, because most of the damage that's happening now is happening because Russia controls a large percentage of Ukrainian airspace. We do have some fighter jets. We do have some anti-aircraft systems. Obviously, Russia is far superior in terms of its hardware. The very fact that we're actually shooting down the planes and helicopters and cruise missiles is a miracle.
David Remnick: Tell me at what point your family does leave Ukraine, or are you there till the bitter end or until there is a moment where the chokehold is released?
Igor Novikov: I would put it this way. First of all, I'd separate myself from my family in that particular sense. My family would leave when there is an imminent threat to their security. Although we're in a hotspot at the moment, I have the situation under control. If you don't mind, I won't go into the details. If I deem the situation too dangerous, they will leave against their will. That's issue number one. Issue number two, I am not leaving. Look, even if Putin razes every inch of our country to the ground, we'll take this fight elsewhere. Whatever happens, the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian nation will survive this.
David Remnick: Igor Novikov, thank you so much and best to your family.
Igor Novikov: Thanks very much.
David Remnick: Igor Novikov, a former advisor to president Zelensky and we spoke on Wednesday.
[00:15:31] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.