Jurisprudence

A Ukrainian Journalist on Russian War Crimes, the Biolabs Lie, and Tucker Carlson

“I would recommend some of these American journalists to come to Kharkiv and spend a night under shellings.”

Black smoke rises into the sky above a market after a bombing
Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. Sergey Bobok/Getty Images

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Ukrainian journalists have done heroic work reporting on Russian military atrocities, the refugee crisis, and everyday life in a country at war. They have done their jobs under unthinkable pressure, risking their lives to reveal the invasion’s devastation to the world. Their journalism has helped to counter propaganda promoted by both Russia and Russian sympathizers, such as Tucker Carlson and Tulsi Gabbard, who are eager to sow suspicion and skepticism toward Ukraine. When they’re off the job, many of these reporters are also helping their families flee the violence and facilitating aid for those who remain.

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One journalist reporting from the heart of the war is Oleg Skrypnik. A former reporter in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region, Skrypnik now serves as chief editor for 10 affiliated news outlets in 10 different Ukrainian cities—including Kharkiv, where he is based. He currently divides his time between Kharkiv, a city under continual Russian bombardment, and Western Ukraine, where his family has temporarily relocated. With the help of a translator, we spoke on Friday about reporting between bombings, refuting American propaganda, and coming around to President Volodymyr Zelensky. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Mark Joseph Stern: Are you in Kharkiv right now?

Oleg Skrypnik: No, I’m with my family in Western Ukraine waiting for 200 helmets and 200 bulletproof vests so I can bring them to Kharkiv. It’s weird because it feels safe here. We’re located far away from the airport and ammunition storages. But we are near the train tracks. I just hope it’s safe.

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How much of the invasion have you witnessed yourself?

I’ve witnessed military atrocities, bombing, shelling. When I was relocating my family to Western Ukraine, we passed an airport in a small city. Two minutes later, Russians started bombing the airport.

I have a lot of experience in military reporting. I worked in Donetsk for eight years and saw lots of bombings there and even worse conditions. Now, in Kharkiv, I’m exhausted, but prepared physically and morally for the experience. It’s 50-50: Sometimes you hide, sometimes you don’t. But we all know that if a bomb hits the place where we are, that’s it.

I know you’ve spent a lot of time working in Kharkiv during Russia’s brutal bombardment of the city. What has it been like reporting in the midst of a war?

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At the beginning, in Kharkiv, we had to hide in the subway. It was complicated to write there. We did try to post news but it was tricky. Now we work when there is no bombing alert, no shelling alert. But we don’t always get the alerts in time because Russians, they don’t schedule it. Whenever the Russian planes try to strike, civilians get killed.

There are a lot of rules about getting to places and reporting in war situations. If it’s a hot spot and something is happening there, the government mostly lets international reporters and TV reporters go. For online media, they issue a permit for what you can and cannot put online. It’s a problem for reporters. The most crucial thing is to understand what you must not ever publish online. For example, the location of our military, of course. That’s prohibited and no one has to tell anyone not to do it. We would never place information like where the bomb hit exactly, because that gives the Russian occupants information on how to track the buildings. But we can talk about Russian losses and how many Ukrainian soldiers were killed just to inform the community.

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Some right-wing American politicians and media figures like Tulsi Gabbard, Tucker Carlson, and Glenn Greenwald have begun promoting the lie that the U.S. funds biological weapons research in Ukraine. Have you seen this?

Oh, yes. Even in these hard times, a sense of humor helps us a lot to cope with all the hardships we face. So we have a joke: The only biological weapon that we have here in Ukraine are the corpses of Russian soldiers—and, after several days, their socks.

Their socks?

Yes, because they start to smell after a few days.

I see.

We used to have some people before the war who were also inclined to say these bad things about Ukraine, but we don’t have them any longer. There was one party called the Opposition Platform—For Life. Even after eight years of war in Donbas and Crimea, they said Russia isn’t bad, Russia is our brother, the United States and the European Union are bad. It looks like Russia put a lot of effort and money to develop this propaganda, to falsely claim that Russians are peacemakers who do nothing bad. We now see that it is completely the opposite. And the Opposition Platform—For Life is no longer here. [Note: Zelensky suspended the party due to its alleged links to Russia.]

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Meanwhile, over here, American right-wing media is promoting Russian propaganda. What’s your reaction to that?

I would recommend some of these American journalists to come to Kharkiv and spend a night in Kharkiv under shelling, when your hands are shaking and you can’t sleep. I had the experience of working in Donbas when it all started back in 2014, and even now my hands are shaking. It doesn’t matter if you are brave or not. When you are trying to hide from all these shellings and bombs, you cannot breathe or function normally.

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What do you think about the broader media coverage of the war?

I see serious support from international media in coverage of what is happening in Ukraine. But I don’t understand why Marina Ovsyannikova—who held her “no war” sign when she got into the middle of the news—has gotten so much attention. Because for eight years, her state-sponsored network has been saying that Ukraine has fascists in the government, only Russia is good, and the European Union and America are bad. I would like to see more news about what is happening in Ukraine and not about how Russian journalists or producers came up with this one slogan after eight years of lying to their people and the whole world.

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I’m curious how reporting on your own country’s invasion affects your journalistic standards. Do you feel an obligation to, for instance, remain neutral about who’s to blame?

For eight years, I stuck to journalistic standards in war reporting. I always told my journalists to be neutral, show both sides, don’t support any political party. But since the war started, I have lost a lot of friends and colleagues. And it was my personal decision to write “Russia” and “Putin” without capital letters. All in lowercase. What Russia is doing to our people and our nation is not acceptable, and these emotions should be seen by the whole world. Everybody in the world should see and know what is happening to Ukraine, including its journalists.

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Much of the world, including the U.S., has rallied behind President Zelensky in recent weeks. What do you make of his leadership so far?

I have to say that I did not vote for him. As a citizen, I was not very happy that he won. I thought he was a weak politician and our journalists criticized him—you know, as journalists, we always criticize presidents. We didn’t know what kind of agenda he would have during the war and we were worried. But President Zelensky, he did not escape, he didn’t leave his nation, he did the right things. Of course, his subordinates do make some mistakes. But this is wartime. It’s clear there will be mistakes. The president didn’t give away Donbas and Crimea. His agenda is that Russia has to return those parts of Ukraine that were taken from us back in 2014. He has incredible support from the whole nation because he does the right things. He talks to people. He’s not sitting in a bunker and recording some addresses to the nation like Putin is doing. For the first time, he can say he’s the president of all Ukraine.

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