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.
This is part two of our Big Questions transcripts, edited for length and clarity.
Featuring ‘big questions’ from more than 100 secondary classes across the UK, with answers from Russia analyst Bridget Kendall.
Manchester Enterprise Academy, Wythenshawe – Why do you think so few refugees have been allowed into Britain?
That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I’m not alone in feeling frustrated and even quite ashamed that we haven’t done more yet to allow more people in. One reason maybe they’re just probably not very well organised. The second reason, possibly this is a political reason, is that the question of immigration has been quite a political hot potato in Britain in recent years and it’s played into elections and campaigning.
Bedford Free School, Bedfordshire – What do you see in the future for Ukraine’s land and the population if Russia succeeds in occupying it?
Whatever happens, it’s going to be terrible for Ukraine because even if tomorrow the Russians were going to say, okay, alright, we’re going to withdraw, there are all these towns and villages that have had all these buildings destroyed. People have lost their homes. It’s all going to need to be rebuilt.
It’s already a terrible situation.
I think all sorts of unexpected things could happen in the next few days and weeks, and it’s really quite hard to look ahead and see where this might end up.
Ark John Keats Academy, Enfield, London – Are the Russians going to use nuclear weapons and is the conflict going to spread to the UK?
I tend not to talk about the Russians; I tend to talk about President Putin because my view and I think the view of lots of people is this is his war. Lots and lots of Russians didn’t want this war.
[Russia] is a country which suffered terribly in the Second World War. It’s thought it lost 20 million people. They have always, in my experience, been people who have put a very high premium on peace because they know what the cost is. Mr. Putin must know that: he himself had grandparents who died in the Second World War in Leningrad.
If he were to feel he was so boxed into a corner – the war wasn’t going well, the boycott from the Western countries was crippling the Russian economy, it was so drastic that the only thing he could do would be to bring nuclear weapons into the equation, there will be a lot of people around him in the Kremlin who would say he’s gone mad, we’ve got to stop him. I don’t think that they would want him to do this.
So, I think it’s very unlikely that Russia would use nuclear weapons.
As for the conflict spreading to the UK, we are quite a long way from Ukraine in comparison to the rest of Europe. I don’t think that in terms of troops on the ground, we have anything to worry about.
The other way that this conflict could spread and probably is spreading a bit is in other ways that make our lives a bit more uncomfortable. And this is in the new realm of warfare that people have become more aware of in the last ten to fifteen years, and that’s things like cyber attacks or disruption of various sorts, power cuts, things like that.
But think about what’s going on in Ukraine and you have to think, well, surely we can put up with that.
Connaught School for Girls, Leytonstone, London – Why has the Ukraine conflict received more of a response from governments like the UK and the US in comparison to Syria and Yemen who have been suffering for years?
It’s not just governments, is it? Actually, I think we felt that here in this country, ordinary people, I certainly find all the time people are talking about this conflict all the time. one of the reasons for that is it happens so suddenly, in a way, unexpectedly, and it’s so shocking and new. if this war carries on for another year, will we still be talking about Ukraine twice as much in a year’s time? The other thing is that Ukraine is a bit closer to us. I know I said it’s the other side of Europe, but it is a bit closer than Yemen or Syria.
I think you have to think about the way this has begun, which is suddenly the Russian President said, I’m going to invade Ukraine, and he starts doing it and begins to attack these people. It just feels so shocking that it’s very hard, I think, for it not to grab the headlines at the moment. But that’s not to say that there are lots of people in places like Yemen and Syria who have had all their cities destroyed and they’re living terrible lives.
And let’s face it, the city of Aleppo in Syria was partly demolished through Russian bombs. This is one reason why some people say, well, we should have seen this coming.
Banbridge Academy, Banbridge – What are the prospects of Putin being overthrown by an internal threat?
High Tunstall School, Hartlepool – What will the Russian people be seeing and hearing about Ukraine?
Over the last ten years, Russia has changed quite a lot, especially if you were opposed to Mr. Putin. In 2011, there were massive protests that came out hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of some big cities in Russia who thought there’d been election fraud. And then they were saying they thought Mr. Putin should even step down. He kind of sat out those protests.
The following year, they had elections. They were quite controlled by the government, and he won them. And then he started to crack down. And ever since then, he’s been methodically cracking down on street protests and arresting opposition leaders and bringing in stricter and stricter laws about foreign funding.
You’re not allowed to criticise the government, even in a joke on Twitter. Or you could end up in jail and closing down publications that were critical. And that’s gone into hyperdrive since this war began.
So now for most Russians, the easiest way to get news is from the television. And there they’re getting the story the Kremlin wants to put out. If I was a journalist from the BBC in Moscow and went out on the streets with my cameraman and were to ask people what they thought, I can guarantee you that the people who would be prepared to go on camera would all say, oh, yes, we support the President.
There are little bits and pieces coming out that suggest that there’s really a lot of disquiet among people. Amazingly, given this atmosphere where you can get hauled off to prison, if you make any move to protest either going on the streets or speaking out, there are still street protests of people in Russia going on.
I don’t think from my prior experience of having been in Russia all those years ago, I don’t think that if people had full information about what was happening, that many people would be supporting this, so that’s something which might make him vulnerable. But it is still the case that it’s almost impossible for the opposition to organise.
So that leaves the only opportunity for pressure on Mr. Putin to come from his inner circle. But I think quite a lot of them are probably not happy with what’s happening either. So the question is, can they even get together to talk to each other, to say, would we be better off without Mr.Putin? And, of course, what he’s gambling on is they all publicly signed up to the war. So they all worry that they would be war criminals if he lost.
It depends how things go on the ground in Ukraine, too, because normally what happens if people feel that they’re losing the war? Then they think, well, I don’t want to be on the losing side. That’s going to be even worse. I’ll jump now and I’ll say I’m not supporting this, but so far that’s not happened.
You might expect Russians abroad, say in embassies, to start saying, we don’t like this war. They’re not doing that yet. So we’re not at that point. But watch this space.
Lisneal College, Londonderry – What is the best way for us as students to help?
Frederick Bremer School, Walthamstowe – What can young people living in the UK do to help?
One thing you can do is just be very public in your support, like lots of places are. I have quite a lot of friends who are (expressing support) these days. They’re wearing yellow and blue ties or yellow and blue clothes to show their support for Ukraine. Other people are putting up Ukrainian flags. Some people are putting things on their websites. So if Ukrainians see that, that will give them heart that they’re not alone in this. The other thing is just to think about what you talk about it in your classrooms and think about trying to understand it better. I think there will be more things you can do in the future. But for the moment, it’s about just trying to show solidarity in any way you can.
Stratford School, London – Will we be drafted? Will we be conscripted to the army?
No, I don’t think you will, because if you’re talking about British soldiers at the moment, this is not something which is touching our armed forces in that way.
Caterham High School, Ilford – Will we survive this moment?
Yes, of course we will. One of the things that’s been amazing in this conflict, which I don’t think Mr. Putin reckoned on, is quite how united many countries in Europe and across the Western world have been and how strong they’ve been in saying, well, we may need to take a bit of economic pain, but if we can use that to put pressure on Russia to try and stop pounding the Ukrainian people, we can put up with that.
That’s something that we should hold on to. We can play our part in that, in being patient and putting up with a bit of discomfort. It’s about uniting to try and be on the right side of this conflict and try and make it stop.