This interview with Bridget Kendall took place on 9th March, less than two weeks after the start of the war. Since then, the capital Kyiv is no longer directly threatened by Russian tanks and the fighting has moved to the east.
More than 100 secondary classes across the UK came together to ask Russia analyst Bridget Kendall questions about the start of the war in Ukraine. Bridget has a lifelong interest in Russia and served as the BBC’s Moscow correspondent during the final years of the Soviet Union and the first years of post-Soviet Russia. In 2000 and 2005, she broadcast extended interviews with Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin. Today she is the first female Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge’s oldest college. This week, we are publishing transcripts edited for length and clarity.
St. Joseph’s High School, Newry, Armagh – What is the issue with Ukraine and Russia?
I’m going to start with a little bit of a history lesson because I think to understand this, you have to go back to the end of 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. And while lots of people at this time were quite happy to see the end of Communist rule over this whole region and quite happy to see 15 independent countries, there were some people in Russia who felt this was the wrong thing to have happened and all this should have been one country controlled from Moscow and that they had been somehow depleted. And one of those people was Vladimir Putin. He went on record as saying later when he became President that it was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.
After [Mr Putin] came to power, 20 years ago, it gradually became clear as his thinking evolved that he thought Ukraine really ought to be linked to Russia…. he even got to the point of saying he didn’t think Ukraine was a proper country. It should never have been a country and it didn’t really exist. Now, of course, the Ukrainians had a very different view. They thought they were living in an independent country with their own Parliament and government and their own language, Ukrainian as well as Russian.
What it comes down to is that Mr Putin thinks that for historical reasons and for Russia’s safety, Ukraine ought to be in his orbit, whereas the west thinks that Ukraine is an independent, sovereign country and it should choose its own future.
And if it wants to be closer to the European Union or indeed to NATO, although they’ve been quite careful about saying they’re not inviting it in at the moment, then that’s up to Ukraine to choose. That’s a difference of principle.
There’s one other thing here that’s perhaps worth bearing in mind, which is Mr Putin says this is all about Russia’s defence and security – keeping it safe.
Quite a lot of people in Ukraine who are critical of Mr Putin’s Russia, and actually those people in Russia who are also critical of their own government, say the other thing that he’s really worried about is that if Ukraine next door becomes a successful country and moves closer to the west and enjoys all the freedoms and prosperities that countries in, say, Western Europe have, then people in Russia will look at that and say, we want that too.
Magherafeld High School, Londonderry, Northern Ireland – Is Russia specifically targeting Ukrainian citizens?
What the Kremlin says is that they call this a special operation. Certainly the Western world thinks it’s not a special operation, it’s a fullblown invasion.
And there are lines and lines of Russian tanks who have been making their way towards Kyiv. There have been all sorts of missiles which have been raining down on Ukrainian towns and some have been encircled and one or two have been taken over. It feels like Ukrainian civilians are not being spared.
Although Russia says it’s not targeting civilians, that doesn’t really square with what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing from people there on the ground.
South Chingford Foundation school, Chingford, London – Are other countries around Ukraine at risk of being invaded?
They’re all quite worried about it. It would be a massive step if [Putin] were to invade another country that was in NATO, because he would actually be taking on the whole of NATO.
Burgate School, Fordingbridge – Why hasn’t a no fly zone been put in force?
This is the same argument. If you put a no fly zone in force, if NATO were to say no Russian planes can fly over Ukraine, you can’t just announce that, you have to enforce it. And if you enforce it, you have to put up your own planes and say, if you fly over this area, we will shoot you down. So immediately this becomes a war against Russia and NATO.
Bay House School, Gosport – Is this the beginning of the end for Putin?
That’s a question lots of people are asking. I think every other Russian expert I know and lots of Russians I know inside Russia too, never thought that [Putin] would do this because it seems so foolhardy. How could you just go in and invade a neighbouring country? You look such a bully. However big an army he has, he’s up against a very strong, spirited Ukrainian nation.
A lot of people are thinking that he may – this time – have gone too far.
Highgate Wood School, North London – Why are other countries just imposing economic sanctions and not physically getting involved?
This comes back to the NATO question. The worry is that if other countries got involved, it would just make it worse, it wouldn’t make it better. But it’s a fine argument, because how long can you go on just sitting there and allowing Ukraine to be pummelled?
We get a little bit of a hint that some of these Russian soldiers didn’t even know they were going to war. They thought they were going on an exercise. They may be quite horrified by what they’re being asked to do by the Kremlin.
If that feeling grows, it will make the Russian Army maybe not physically weaker but spiritually weaker. If more Russian soldiers really don’t want to fight this war, it’s going to be very difficult to make it successful.
Moat Community College, Leicester – What were your impressions of Mr. Putin when you met him?
That’s a very interesting question. I first met him when he’d only just come to power in the year 2000. He’d only been President for less than a year. My feeling on that occasion was he was still not quite confident about being President. Actually, he’d never run for elected office. He had always been in the background being an administrator. He didn’t have much presence.
It felt to me like there were two Mr. Putins. There was the Mr. Putin who trained as a KGB officer, who was very confident and quite aggressive in answering security questions. But there was the person, Mr. Putin, who wasn’t yet confident with being an international politician, didn’t quite know what to say.
I interviewed him again in 2006. And one of the really interesting things in that interview was the personal not quite confident Mr. Putin had completely disappeared and all that was left was a very confident, slightly aggressive President. You couldn’t budge him. He was prepared to argue with you, but only to try and put you down and tell you he was right.
The way he’s been in the last ten years, to me, feels as though he’s changed again. I think he’s become much more hostile to the west, much less open, much more fixed to his ideas. It feels to me as though he’s a lot more isolated.
This often happens to leaders in power for a very long time. They become surrounded by people who just tell them what they want to hear. They’re more distant from the ordinary population. They’re fearful of being deposed, so they want to keep people away.