David Remnick: Welcome to The New Yorker Radio Hour, I'm David Remnick. Our contributor Joshua Yaffa is on the ground reporting in Ukraine where the news has been absolutely stunning. A counterattack in Ukraine that has Russian forces in retreat. Vladimir Putin reacting by calling up recruits and threatening nuclear war, and distinct signs of political rebellion and despair in Russia itself as thousands of people have fled the country, and many more are taking to the streets in protest. Joshua Yaffa was based for years in Moscow, and since the war began, he's reported for us consistently from Ukraine. I reached him there last week. Hey, Josh, how are you?
Joshua Yaffa: Nice to talk to you.
David Remnick: I'm reaching you in Kyiv.
Joshua Yaffa: That's right. Yes, I arrived a few days ago.
David Remnick: Now, the news that's coming out of Moscow, the news is coming out of Ukraine is astonishing, and it's hard to know where to start. Putin's mobilization efforts seems to be a disaster in so many ways, it's sparked protests at home, people leaving the country, how is it being received in Ukraine? Is there weirdly some sense of celebration about how badly it's gone?
Joshua Yaffa: I would actually say that the latest news out of Moscow has been treated in Ukraine with a kind of indifference almost, in other words, Ukraine has been in a fight for its survival, since the end of February, full aware that Russia is ready to throw any at all resources at the attempted subjugation of the Ukrainian state. After things like the massacre in Bucha, and other areas outside of Kyiv from earlier this spring, there's not much that can surprise or shock, or scare the Ukrainian public about what Russia is ready to do.
David Remnick: Now you've lived for years in Moscow, and recently you've been living elsewhere in Europe and been in and out of Ukraine a great deal. I'm sure you're in touch with people in Moscow. Has the so-called bargain ended, the bargain in which Putin basically says I will let you live your private lives if you stay out of politics? Are we suddenly seeing signs of politics on the streets of Moscow in a way that we haven't before?
Joshua Yaffa: I'm not sure, I would say we're yet seeing politics on the streets, but I think we are seeing politics emerge, at least in the consciousness of people's minds. There's a saying I've heard both among Russian acquaintances, also here in Ukraine, that on September 21st, the day when Putin announced this mobilization, that's when Russians really understood what had happened on February 24th. In other words, the Russian people, many of whom were able to live with this illusion, or at least with the ability to not pay much attention to what was going on in Ukraine.
There was polling done from places like the Levada Center, institution I know. You know well really the last independent sociological research organization of its type left in Russia, that was showing, by the summer, half of all Russians were paying little to no attention to what was happening in Ukraine. That really is what Russian support as it were, for the war, boiled down to. It was support through not paying attention.
Putin, as you mentioned, has imposed or forced the Russian people to see themselves now as part of this war through mobilization. He simply didn't have the forces anymore in Ukraine to continue the fight. He was really left with no choice, but to go for this mobilization if he wanted to continue the war, but of course, in so doing, he has greatly upended the social and political contracts that you described.
David Remnick: You're in Kyiv, you're talking to political leaders, you're talking to military leaders. How do they assess Ukraine's prospects in the coming months?
Joshua Yaffa: People here are, of course, optimistic. Certainly, the success in the Kharkiv region really emboldened a lot of people, both in society and in the military that, in fact, Russia could be defeated. That was an important proof of concept for a lot of people here. I think that Ukraine now believes that it has a path to victory that it's certainly going to continue to pursue.
David Remnick: Is Ukraine overconfident in that sense?
Joshua Yaffa: We'll see. I do think that the military balance of power fairly and objectively favors Ukraine. The question is will that actually translate into battlefield victory? It's one thing to keep Russian forces from [unintelligible 00:04:39] in Kyiv as Ukrainian military managed to do in the spring. It's another to dislodge them from positions in the south and the east that Russians have dug into now for months or in the Donbass in some cases for years.
David Remnick: Statistics are hard to come by reliable statistics. I'm just reading a piece that David [unintelligible 00:04:59], our colleague will have coming out in the magazine in a couple of days, in which he says that Mariupol, the city of Mariupol was completely destroyed, and Russian forces had killed 21,000 residents and had bombed out 90% of the buildings in that city. Is there any sense of casualties on both sides?
Joshua Yaffa: Not really, I think is the most fair answer. We have these estimates for military casualties. Ukraine has its own numbers saying upwards of 50,000, I think at this point, much higher than Russian soldiers killed, several thousands of its own killed. Russia has essentially the mirror image numbers about losses, Western intelligence services, and governments have weighed in also suggesting the losses certainly for Russia are extraordinarily high.
As to the civilian toll, I'm afraid we know maybe even less about that. I think that there are thousands of uncounted losses in Ukraine especially we take a place like Mariupol now under Russian occupation. There was just a really ghoulish story today I read just in the hours before we were having our conversation that the children's ombudswoman in Russia, a government official whose job is ostensibly to protect the rights of children was talking about how Ukrainian children evacuated, you might say, taken, stolen out of Mariupol, after it was seized and taken by Russian forces now have arrived in Russia.
They have undergone as she put it, a positive trajectory from being critical of Putin and singing the Ukrainian anthem to now loving Russia and understanding the virtue of Russia's activities in Ukraine. I think that gets to the really dark nature of this war with real echoes of the Second World War. We only see in really grim tragic, scattershot ways like that story, the overall human toll, which I think remains impossible to estimate.
David Remnick: Putin has made nuclear threats in the past and is still doing so. How is that being received in Ukraine?
Joshua Yaffa: Here, I think it's interesting to talk about a real dichotomy or difference of reaction in Ukraine and in the West. In Ukraine, that's another element of Putin's recent policies, recent escalation that Ukrainians don't pay that much attention to. For Ukrainians, this war has been existential since the very beginning. I think Putin knows that either threatening to use a nuclear weapon or even deploying a small tactical one, small, relatively speaking right, still horribly destructive with incredible human toll wouldn't really scare off or deter Ukraine.
I think the real audience for this kind of saber-rattling is the West. The idea is to scare the West off from continuing to support, encourage, and arm Ukraine for these continuing counter offenses. Putin's bet is that the West will be so freaked out by the very prospect of nuclear use that it will do anything it can to essentially pressure Kyiv to cut a deal. I'm not so sure that's going to work. If you hear the statements of people in the Biden administration, they don't seem to be at this stage buying into or all that scared by Putin's ratcheting up of the nuclear rhetoric.
You could imagine a scenario in which the triangle Moscow, Kyiv, Washington becomes more difficult, more fraught if these threats continue and a different calculus around escalation and avoiding certainly nuclear escalation clicks into focus. You could potentially see some policy disagreements or friction between Washington and Kyiv. Again, Kyiv unable to be deterred, and Washington, perhaps if not can be deterred certainly has a different calculus in thinking about the nuclear issue.
David Remnick: Judge Kremlinology is always a mug's Game Ever since people tried to figure out where people were standing on Lenin's tomb during a May Day parade and figuring out the leadership intrigues from it.
Joshua Yaffa: Your one-time job.
David Remnick: I found it unbelievably intriguing that Putin would schedule a speech for a particular date as he did last week, and then cancel at the last minute after keeping people waiting, having one of his officials tweet, "Go to bed, we'll see you tomorrow." Then he gives his speech. It did not speak of great stability in the Kremlin. Is there any way to know what's going on? When you read these reports on telegram from so-called Kremlin insiders talking about great instability, do you believe them, and do you think that Putin is in political trouble to the extent where he may be overthrown?
Joshua Yaffa: I know very little and would put very little faith in anyone who claims to talk about actual palace intrigue inside the halls of the Kremlin, but there's enough evidence publicly available to certainly speak about some turbulence inside the ruling system writ large. You're seeing rifts emerge on state television, different camps emerge even within the ruling system. Those kinds of dynamics are, by definition, destabilizing to the Putin system, which really had this vertical of power in which all members of the ruling system from top to bottom were on the same page. Now, they're not on the same page, and I think that that can't be good for Putin in his continued rule.
David Remnick: Finally, Josh, it seems to me, tell me if I'm wrong, that the minimum Putin would accept or signaling that he would accept to come to real negotiations is that he gets to keep Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, that he freezes into place a larger version of what he had before he came in. On the other hand, on the Ukrainian side, it seems to me unanimous, as a position, that Ukraine will not accept Russian presence in any part of Ukraine at all, including Crimea.
Joshua Yaffa: That's certainly the mood right now. Again, it's hard to overestimate at least as where we are, or late September, early October, the importance of the success of this Kharkiv counter-offensive because that really proved to the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military, political leadership, that it's possible to kick out Russian forces from areas of Ukraine they occupy and right now that is absolutely the intent and the mood, and as long as that continues to seem possible and realistic, I don't think neither the Ukrainian people nor the Ukrainian political leadership will agree to anything less than that. That's where we are now.
If this Kharkiv counter-offensive in some months turns out to have been a one-off success, and there isn't much more Ukrainian success in the south toward kherson, in the east toward Donbas, and pushing back Russian forces and recapturing occupied territory, then perhaps that mood could shift toward some willingness to reconsider a negotiated settlement.
That's a difficult conversation to try and raise in Kyiv these days, you immediately get told that that's not on the table, but of course, wars are fluid, unpredictable processes, and if it gets to be winter, it's cold in Ukraine, there's difficulty with energy supplies, inflation is going up, it's more expensive. The economy continues to take a hit, the real medium and long-term costs of the war become more and more apparent, and Ukraine hasn't managed to take back much more territory. You could imagine a different conversation, but for now, that's really speculative.
David Remnick: Joshua Yaffa, thanks so much. Stay safe, my friend.
Joshua Yaffa: Thank you.
David Remnick: Joshua Yaffa, we spoke on Wednesday. You can read Josh on Ukraine as well as reporting on the war from Masha Gessen, Luke Mogelson, and more at newyorker.com.
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.