The War Is Not Here to Entertain You

The war in Ukraine is reaching a crucial moment. Will it recapture the world’s flagging attention?

Two members of the Ukrainian 28th Mechanized Brigade ride in an armored vehicle towards hostile Russian forces. The one on the left is smoking a cigarette, the one on the right is scowling, and to their side is a blue and yellow flag.
Members of the Ukrainian 28th Mechanized Brigade ride in a BMP armored vehicle during a mission to fire a SPG-9 recoilless gun at a Russian target in the direction of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, May 8, 2023. (Tyler Hicks / The New York Times / Redux)

There might be some Americans who, a year-plus into the Ukraine war, might be growing numb to it. Some of those Americans might include me, the new host of Radio Atlantic. In my first episode, I confess this to Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg and staff writer Anne Applebaum, who have just returned from a trip to Ukraine. We talk about their interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, why continued American support is necessary, and why my flagging attention doesn’t matter.

Applebaum, who has covered the war from start, clarifies the confusing but potentially crucial recent developments. Anti-Putin forces conducted a raid inside Russia. And after months of a bloody battle, Bakhmut, Ukraine, is for the moment under Russian control, while Ukrainian forces push at the flanks of the city. We analyze whether this is the start of the much-discussed spring offensive, and where the war might be headed.

Subscribe here: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | Pocket Casts

The following is a transcript of the episode:
Hanna Rosin:
I’m Hanna Rosin, and this is Radio Atlantic. My colleagues, Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum and editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, just got back from Ukraine. They returned with a sense that something big was going to happen, and now it seems to be starting. This week, it looks like Russia has taken Bakhmut, a city where the fighting has been vicious and sustained, although the Ukrainians haven't surrendered yet. At the same time, there’s been a raid inside Russia by anti-Putin forces. Now, I have to admit: I’ve become a little numb to this war. I’m just not following it as closely as I used to. So, I got Anne in the studio to bring this moment into focus.

Rosin: All right, I think maybe let’s start with the attacks behind the Russian border. What do we know about what happened?

Anne Applebaum: We know that a small group of people describing themselves as “Free Russian” forces crossed the border from Ukraine into Russia near a city called Belgorod and occupied several villages. They seemed to have frightened people enough to cause a major evacuation.

They stayed for some period of time, so it wasn’t just that they crossed over for an hour and came back. And they described themselves as wanting to use this as a way to provoke Putin or unseat Putin.

Rosin: It’s really hard for me to tell how big a deal this is in the context of the war, because partly you’re describing it as almost like a political stunt.

Applebaum: It’s a political move. My guess—and I’m just guessing; I can’t prove it—is that part of the point is to show that Putin is weaker than people think he is. It’s also clearly designed to show ordinary Russians that they aren’t as safe as they think they are, and that the war isn’t going as well as the Kremlin says it is going. Maybe it also has greater military significance, but that we can’t know right now.

Rosin: It feels like a piece with the generally unconventional nature of tactics that the Ukrainians have been trying.

Applebaum: It’s part of a series of events and random explosions and actions that are designed to unnerve the Russians, unsettle Putin, unsettle the Russian elite, and convince ordinary Russians eventually that the war isn’t worth it, that they aren’t safe, and that the war is coming toward them.

Rosin: Got it. So the point is not necessarily “We are invading Russia.” The point is “This war is not worth your time.”

Applebaum: Yes.

Rosin: Like, it’s a psychological move.

Applebaum: Yes, remember, the Ukrainians do not have to occupy Moscow. They do not have to occupy any Russian territory. They don’t have to conquer anything.

All they have to do in order to win is get the Russians to go home.

Rosin: So this was happening at the same time that Bakhmut seems to be falling under Russian control.

Applebaum: But the Ukrainians haven’t surrendered Bakhmut. So it’s not the end of that piece of the conflict.

Rosin: These two things happened this week. Is this the beginning of what they’ve been talking about—the spring offensive?

Applebaum: It’s not gonna be like, there’s a moment when, you know, someone puts up a big banner and says, right, “Spring offensive has now begun.”

It just isn’t gonna look like that. Somebody quite senior in the U.S. military said to me a few days ago that what you’re likely to see over the next few weeks is lots of small things.

Rosin: This could be like a successful, isolated incident, or it could be the beginning—

Applebaum: Or it could be the beginning of a different phase of the war. Yes.

So that's an update on where we are in this war. Now, I want to bring you a conversation I had with Jeffrey Goldberg and Anne Applebaum when they were fresh from visiting Ukraine because they had a real point of view on how we should think about this war..and I didn't. And it really helped me see what they see.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I wanted to see if Ukraine could win without the more concentrated help of the United States. That answer is abundantly clear. The United States in this conflict is the indispensable nation. Ukraine can’t lose because of their own moxie and spirit and fighting ingenuity, and the help that they’ve been getting from NATO and the United States so far. But Ukraine can’t win without a much more concerted U.S. and NATO effort to provide the Ukrainians with weapons on the highest level of complexity and effectiveness and scale.

Rosin: Okay. So your question is: How necessary is American help?

Goldberg: Yeah. And the cloud hovering over all of this is the possibility that Donald Trump could become president once again. We know he will take the United States from the Ukrainian side over to the Russian side. So I want to understand what the Biden administration has to do in the next year and a half in order to guarantee a Ukrainian victory, because I’m extremely worried about what happens if Donald Trump becomes president again. And, by the way, I’m not saying that I believe that Donald Trump is going to win right now. But Donald Trump has a very good chance of being the Republican Party nominee. And anyone who says that Donald Trump can’t win the presidency obviously doesn’t remember what happened in November 2016.

Rosin: Okay. The clock is ticking. We have to figure this out now. And this might actually be a critical year. You know what question just popped into my head?

Goldberg: No.

Rosin: Why do you care?

Goldberg: Me?

Rosin: Yeah. Like, I’m asking that sincerely. Like, you’re an American guy sitting over here in this lovely office. Why do you care? There’s a lot of atrocities, and a lot of people living outside freedom. So yeah.

Goldberg: If [Russia’s] allowed to win, it’s a signal victory for the forces of cruelty, barbarism, and authoritarianism. Authoritarians are on the march. It’s a little bit on the nose that Russia is buying drones from Iran. Russia is at the center of a global authoritarian movement that murders, tortures, uses poison gas, rapes, commits genocide. And the United States, at its best, is the country that leads the forces of progressivism and liberalism and humanism against those darker forces.

Rosin: Anne? What do you think?

Applebaum: I would add something to that: namely that it’s pretty clear that Russia launched the war not only to conquer Ukraine, but also as a kind of “screw you” to the international system. We don’t care about your stupid borders; we don’t care about human rights. We’re not bothered about your rules, about the treatment of children. We’re fine kidnapping and deporting children. We’re not interested in the Geneva Convention and the laws on war. And we’re going to prove it to you and show it to you every single day.

Rosin: So was there any reason you guys decided to go now? Like, is this a critical moment when you thought, Okay, we’ve got to be there now?

Applebaum: Yes. This is a critical moment. Neither side is advancing very far. If the Ukrainians are going to win the war, that needs to change. And so the question is: What are the Ukrainians doing to change the way they fight in the next phase of the war? So, we’re actually at a real turning point.

Rosin: What did you think you’d see when you got there? Did you drive around? Was it easy to get around?

Applebaum: We went together with a colonel: a former colonel from the Ukrainian Special Services, who took us to see a group of drone operators.

Goldberg: Wait, explain to me something. So we’re—this is just an abandoned house.

Translator: [Ukrainian speech.]

Goldberg: A civilian house. And you move from house to house for safety?

Speaker 4: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes we change our position.

Translator: Yeah. So people allowed them to be here.

Goldberg: You ask permission?

Translator: Yes. They ask permission. Yes, that’s the thing.

Rosin: And this was the drone workshop?

Applebaum: We actually saw two drone workshops. And what they’re doing is reconfiguring commercial drones. I mean, you can buy them on the Internet. The defense minister described them as wedding-ceremony drones, because in Ukraine, lots of people have them at their weddings.

Goldberg: What do you call them?

Oleksii Reznikov: Wedding-ceremony drones.

Goldberg: Why?

Reznikov: Because you use small drones to making footage of your wedding. Or, your daughter or son. So for wedding ceremony, you will use that camera? Yeah.

Applebaum: You know, you also have to imagine in Ukraine, it’s as if all the clever engineers from Silicon Valley have come to work at the Pentagon to save the country. And that’s something like what’s happening in these drone workshops—of which I should say there are probably dozens.

Goldberg: Dozens, if not hundreds. A drone workshop ... three people in a village can decide that they’re going to invent a better drone and then go do it.

Applebaum: You know, you think of [the] “defense industry” as being billion-dollar companies, and, you know, you think of the military having this kind of strict chain of command. In fact, in Ukraine, what you have is these almost volunteer units, so people of their own volition decide they’re going to create a drone workshop. It’s actually this kind of grassroots, networked, half–civil society, half-military effort that is fighting in different ways.

Rosin: All right. Let’s move on to the Zelensky interview.

Rosin: Was there a moment in the room with Zelensky when you felt something, or were genuinely moved? I mean, like an unexpected moment where you really felt the urgency that he feels.

Applebaum: When Zelensky talks about the civilizational differences between Ukraine and Russia—and by “civilization,” he means Ukraine is a modern democracy. It’s a networked, grassroots society. It’s fighting a brutal autocracy. And when he talks about that, he becomes unusually animated.

Goldberg: So the goal is to teach Russia to behave just like everybody else. Not better or worse, just like everybody.

Volodymyr Zelensky: To show everybody else, including Russia, that to respect sovereignty, human rights, territorial integrity. To respect people, not to kill people, not to rape women, not to kill animals, not to take which is not yours.

Applebaum: And, you know, even when we asked him some questions about technology, he also clearly really liked talking about the tech university that he hopes to build one day. The achievements of Ukraine’s digital ministry, which has created this amazing app that every Ukrainian has: all their documents in their phone. Which has been, you know, hugely important for refugees and for people moving around the country. He becomes kind of expansive and enthusiastic.

And I think the reason for that is that those are the things that will make Ukraine this, you know, networked democracy that he wants it to be. So he has a very clear vision of what kind of country it is, and where it’s going. In order to achieve those things, he has to win the war. So it’s not so much that, you know, he becomes excited saying, I need this kind of weapon and that kind of weapon. He becomes excited when he’s talking about what he wants to build: you know, his dreams for the Ukraine of the future.

Rosin: And why does that matter to you?

Applebaum: Because it echoes with what so many other people I know in so many other parts of the world want also. Right before I went to Ukraine, I had a conversation with an Iranian friend of mine.

And he said to me, “We in Iran are waiting for the results of this war, because it will be so inspiring to us if a society like Ukraine can defeat a society like Russia. Because that’s what the Iranian human-rights movement, the Iranian democracy movement wants to do, too.”

And the conversations I’ve had with Venezuelans, with Belarusians, even with Poles—all of them find this war unbelievably inspiring. And it’s because it’s a war for a civilization that they also aspire to. So, there is a universal aspect of it.

Rosin: It’s really very basic. It’s: What kind of world are we gonna live in?

Applebaum: Yes. Are we going to live in a world, you know, where we talk about tech universities and new ways of making people’s lives better?

Or are we going to live in the kind of world that Russia wants to create, where the powerful can rape and murder and kidnap the weak? And those really are two choices in front of us.

Goldberg: [Zelensky] has this domino theory that goes like this: If the West allows Ukraine to fall, or to come under even partial permanent control of Russia, Russia does not stop. Russia goes into Moldova.

Zelensky: If they will occupy us, they will be on the borders of Moldova, and they will occupy Moldova. When they will occupy Moldova through Belarus, they will occupy Baltic countries, which are members of NATO. Of course they are brave people and they will fight—but they are small. And they don’t have nuclear weapon. And when they will occupy NATO countries, the question is, will you send all your soldiers with weapons, all your pilots, all your ships? Will you send tanks and armored vehicles with your young people? Will you do? Because if you will not do it, you will have no NATO.

Rosin: Like, do we think Russia is going to invade Estonia?

Applebaum: Yes. I think Russia would invade Estonia. Putin, the interesting thing about him is, he always says what he’s going to do. He and others around him have made comments about Poland, you know, and the Baltic states as well. So I’m not as much in doubt of that. Remember, we just got through an American presidency during which, you know, Trump made it very clear several times on the record and multiple times off the record that he doesn’t like NATO. And the Russians heard that. And so I think this was the beginning of a kind of test. You know, if everybody caves on Ukraine, if they’re not going to defend Ukraine, why would they defend Poland?

Rosin: So the fact that it lands in my head like “foreign-policy chess game” is just because [of] a failure of imagination?

Applebaum: It’s a failure of imagination. And also, you’re not listening to Putin. I mean, he’s telling us all the time what he’s going to do. He’s telling us how he thinks.

Goldberg: That’s a failure of moral imagination. Because if somebody were being rounded up on the next street over to you and shot behind their houses and buried in a grave 100 feet from your house, you would be appalled, and you would rise up and fight them, even to your death. So there’s no difference between that and what’s happening in eastern Ukraine, except distance. Just keeps it just out of sight, out of mind. And that, by the way, I am being very, very careful and explicit to say that neither Anne or I or really anyone we know [is] advocating for the use of American troops in any combat situation. I mean, I think if there’s something that we’ve learned from previous American adventures—from Vietnam to Iraq and so on—is that if the people who are seeking liberation can’t do the physical fighting themselves, it’s not worth getting involved in that conflict. But here, you have a conflict that’s tailor-made for the U.S.’s strength. I don't think that Americans are anti-war. Americans are anti–“wars that you don’t win quickly.”

Rosin: I guess it’s that we have been, in the past, romanced by overseas narratives of freedom and democracy: gotten involved, spent a lot of money. And for what? Now you’re saying this is not one of those cases.

Applebaum: Well, we’re also not sending American soldiers there. You know, on the contrary, by investing in Ukrainians, you know, we might be saving American soldiers down the line. Again: The occupation of Ukraine, the presence of Russia on the borders of Poland or the Baltic states, these would then begin to be direct threats to people whom our treaties say we need to defend, ourselves. It would be very nice never to have to face that problem.

Rosin: I just want to end this episode sort of speaking to people who, you know, have stopped reading, basically. Like I’m a stand-in for those people.

Goldberg: You know what? We’ve been in Korea since 1950. The thing that allows us to stay in Korea that did not allow us to stay in Iraq or Afghanistan is that American soldiers aren’t dying. If the bullied, if the oppressed, if the invaded can defend themselves—if we provide them with some guns—isn’t that a better formula? And, by the way, it’s also a formula that Americans can live with, because Americans themselves are not in harm’s way.

Rosin: This is actually the perfect and correct kind of engagement for an age of limited attention span. Who cares if people don’t care? Who cares if people aren’t reading? Like, my question is not that relevant a question , because we’ve actually designed a form of engagement that’s effective, necessary…

Applebaum: But, you know, the point of this war isn’t to entertain Americans. The point of the war is to win. I actually have a Ukrainian friend who’s often outside the country, and she appears often on panels in conferences. And she says the most irritating question to her as a Ukrainian is, you know, “What will happen if everyone gets bored of the war?” And she’s like, well, “You know, I can’t afford to get bored of the war.”

The war is not there to entertain you. The point isn’t to be exciting.This is the moment when we’re making a principled stand in favor of Ukraine, but also in favor of a kind of world order and a set of rules that we believe in. Right now, there is political consensus.

Rosin: Mm hmm. That’s the T-shirt. Our war is not here to entertain you.

Goldberg: That actually is sort of an amazing statement.