Rules out the window: the Trump and Putin era. More uncertainty? More disruption?
Marta Dyczok interviews Matthew Kaminski, Politico’s Executive Editor, who talks about politics and journalism in an uncertain world
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Andriy Kulykov for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.
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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Marta Dyczok interviews Matthew Kaminski, Politico’s Executive Editor, who talks about politics and journalism in an uncertain world.
Dyczok: Matthew Kaminski is the executive editor of Politico Europe. He joined this position in 2015. He was previously working as an editor with Wall Street Journal, and before that he was working in Kyiv for the Financial Times. Mr. Kaminski has a quite unique perspective. He’d lived in Ukraine, USA, and now he is based in Brussels. For observing international affairs as a journalist there are few better places to do that. We reached Mr. Kaminski in Brussels. Thank you very much for finding time to join us. In this changing European and global landscape – with a new American president, Brexit, elections coming up in Germany and France – where do you see Ukraine is fitting in this picture?
Kaminski: It is such a confused picture to begin with. It’s confusion in Ukraine or about Ukraine. It is a confusion shared globally about where we are, and where we are heading. What is striking to me about the current phase we find ourselves in human history, is that for so long we were always able to hold on to something that would give us some sense of certainty about what about the current world order is. This is the role the US plays in it. This is the role the institutions like NATO or EU play in it. Those rails that you could hold on to are gone. It feels like they’re in a free fall, that’s a feeling that’s widely shared. This especially applies to Ukraine. Certainly before Maidan Revolution starting in late 2013 and even, let’s say, until two months ago, there were a sense of where Ukraine fit into this international puzzle. It was a country which slowly, but surely, getting closer and closer to the institutions of the west, namely the EU, maybe a little bit less NATO (although Ukrainians for sure wanted to go to NATO).
With Brexit, it was called into question whether EU is even going to be around in five years. With what happened after Maidan, with the annexation of Crimea, Putin has called into question whether the old rules of how we handle relations within Europe, that borders are respected, that wars are a relic of a different century – that was out of window. With Trump, you have to raise even much bigger questions about this European order, which was guaranteed by US and was in place for over 70 years now. It is really too soon to tell how, or if this dust is going to settle, or whether you are going to get more uncertainty, and more disruption, and possible destruction of institutions, perhaps of countries, in months and years to come.
Dyczok: One of the headlines in Politico that run in January “Donald Trump’s win shakes Ukraine.” The article, I think, aptly captures the feeling that Ukraine is worried, that it is left to face Russia on its own. I would like to ask you about Politico. In this world where information warfare has become a norm, and the lines between fact and fiction have been increasingly blurred, Politico is striving to maintain old standards of journalism. What are some of the challenges your media organization is facing in doing this?
Kaminski: I think fake news have been around for a long time as long as you had news. The yellow press has been around. The difference now, is that you can get stuff to people directly, and faster, with an almost unrelenting intensity, than ever before. I find it almost amusing, if it wasn’t slightly disturbing, that people who are yelling and screaming about fake news now, including the new team in White House, were the same people who were peddling stories two years ago, that Barak Obama was a Muslim born in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia. The debate on fake news seems not as new as we think it is. The quality brands in journalism that have done well during the campaign in covering news overseas are names you are familiar with for a long time – New York Times, CNN, and I can say with all due modesty Politico. That is because we all are trying to do our jobs as we were taught to do our jobs, ten, twenty, thirty years ago: we report fairly, we put a premium on accuracy, and getting the story right is the most important thing about the story. The habits of the good newsroom are mostly unchanged.
A small challenge is a speed of modern media, which is obviously different. In the old days, we thought that putting a daily newspaper was incredibly stressful. Every 24 hours you have to think about a layout and out together the publication. Now you do it live all the time. Sometime we speed, then you tend to get into trouble. We had radio and news wires for over a hundred years now. Speed is not new, live news is not something new. I think a bigger challenges to us are unrelenting attacks by people in power who try to discredit you all the time. Whether it’s Trump yelling about the media, or Kremlin, or RussiaToday putting stuff out there. They are pretending they are media, but actually it’s a government propaganda outlet, that helps to discredit media. The trust in media has fallen dramatically ever since Watergate. There was a slight blip up, and since then it’s going down. But trust in all public institutions in democratic world has been fallen by pretty much by the same rate. We always joke that in America the media has the same approval rating as the US Congress meaning that is very low.
And I don’t know quite what to do about that. It seems to be more of a function of the times we live in, where our political culture is, generally, and media as a player in that culture. In the same way as politicians are not very much trusted, media isn’t trusted. But I would say that the media that is committed to quality journalism is doing better work than ever before, in a more hostile environment towards the media. As an editor, my reaction is, we have the standards we have, we have a commitment to the kind of journalism that we put out, and you just take the heat as is comes out of the kitchen. But we also know there’s an audience that relies on you, that trusts you, and respects what you do.
Dyczok: The audience. That’s the point I wanted to get to. The audience is also partly a driver in this. The most read article on your webpage this week, or today, has the headline, “Theresa May Jokes about Donald Trump’s Hands.” So it seems one of the challenges you are facing is how to present serious information, and yet also deal with the fact that people follow these fluffy stories. Some of my students have been using your Politico reporting on Ukraine. And that’s the next thing I wanted to talk about. Ukraine is not the biggest story in the world these days, or in Politico. And yet Politico sometimes gets the big headline. The one that caught many people’s attention was, ‘Trump tells Ukrainian politician he won’t lift Russia sanctions.’ How did you guys get that scoop? That was a story about Tymoshenko having a meeting with Trump. You guys are in Brussels. How did you get that story?
Kaminski: Well, I’m not going to reveal exactly how that happened, there are tricks of the trade. But we’re a global publication. Part of our expansion into Europe a few years ago was a push overseas. So we set up headquarters in Brussels, but we have people in London, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, and so on. We have a good contributor in Kyiv. We have a huge operation in Washington, where one of our reporters, Ken Vogel, has done a lot of stories about the campaign, campaign financing. At some point last year he got interested in Paul Manafort. As you know Paul Manafort was working for Victor Yanukovych. That got him interested in the Ukrainian story. And one thing led to another. And we were able to stand up a story that in a meeting with Tymoshenko Trump was apparently charmed, and told her that he would keep sanctions in place. And that’s a message that’s been repeated by his UN Ambassador, Nikky Haley, and most recently by the White House spokesman. That as long as Russia is in Crimea the sanctions will remain in place.
But to get back to your comment about the top ten list, that is a bit of a popularity contest, but I don’t look at that very often. We’re not just about that. And any media outlet today. If you’re just about traffic, just about people coming to your site then you’re in the wrong business. Because it you’re about traffic you should be Google or FaceBook, and find ways to make money off it. But the way our business works is that we are putting out authoritative, must read, political coverage, for people who are in that world, the political world, feel they have to read us. And because those people are hooked to our journalism, that’s how we’re able to make this work commercially. Journalism is not a popularity contest, but we do put out stories that are a bit lighter, because readers might want to click on a Theresa May Donald Trump hands story, but they’ll also read the Ukraine sanctions story. And this newsroom is overwhelmingly committed to serious, bordering on wonky, reporting.
Dyczok: And the headlines sometimes. Is that perhaps a way of bridging the gap? Because another story that received a lot of attention had the headline, “Ukraine’s efforts to sabotage Trump backfire.” And it was the story about Manafort that you have already referred to. The article was very serious but the headline was a little bit eye-catching, if we can use that term.
Kaminski: Well, I think the headline was a good headline. I think it reflected what the story said, and found. Headlines are there to get people to read the story, without trying to fool them into making it seem like it’s something it’s not. If people get fooled by a headline then they won’t come back to your site, so we’re very careful about that. But in the digital space especially, much more so than on a printed page, you’re competing for people’s attention. The key thing is you want them to come to your headline if they see something that sounds interesting, something they would be interested in, then they click it. Even the way we write the stories, they’re written differently than I used to write stories when I was a print journalist, when I assumed I had someone’s attention, not undivided, but certainly concentrated, when they were holding that newspaper in their hands. Here you’re looking at someone who’s got a phone in their hands, with the headline, with the way you structure the story, you’ve got to keep that person in. Because the easiest thing for them to do is, first of all, not to click, but then is to click away.
Dyczok: Getting attention. This is something that Ukraine’s President Poroshenko is struggling to do internationally. Not only with the media but also with politicians. You know Ukraine very well. You know the United States well. You know Europe very well. Can I get your thoughts on what you think Poroshenko could be doing, should be doing, where Ukraine is actually headed and where you see Ukraine in the next few months, perhaps in the next year?
Kaminski: I haven’t been back to Ukraine for more than little bit, so I think my impressions are very much as someone who cares deeply about what’s going on there but hasn’t sort of checked in with the domestic politics for a while. So I’m basing this on the impressions that I have out here.
Dyczok: That’s the value of your perspective, because you can see it from the outside.
Kaminski: It’s my impression that Ukraine really needs to fight for, if you can use the word, attention of the new US Administration. Attention of the Europeans. Those are the two main partners. Both the Americans and Europeans are incredibly distracted by other big, big problems. Ukraine had the undivided attention of the world in spring of 2014, even in 2015. But then it started to fade. Now, it is very hard for Ukraine to compete, even though none of the problems that were raised by what happened two years ago have been solved. You still have a not-so-Cold War in Eastern Ukraine. You still have Crimea, kind of a sore point. You still have these problems domestically in terms of, this was a problem in Ukraine for the last 25 years, which is how do you reform a country, when your political class is as corrupt and as resistant to change as Ukraine’s is? With some notable exceptions. This government is clearly an improvement on the previous government, but it hasn’t got as far as many people, especially in Ukraine, would have hoped that it went. So there’s a bit of, I think, a Ukraine fatigue. What’s even more dangerous, is Ukraine apathy. And Ukraine apathy in Washington and Brussels that is brought on by it being sidelined by much bigger things.
So here, for the Europeans, the problem is the rise of populism in their own countries. It’s the very important elections coming up in France, Germany, Netherlands, and definitely Italy. It is Brexit, you know this sort of the dismantling of the European Union and this Western world. In the US, the attention is on whatever Donald Trump is tweeting in the last half hour, the last ten minutes. And when it comes to Ukraine’s part of the world, you have a President who doesn’t much care, doesn’t much know, except for some reason, he’s got this respect for Vladimir Putin and for Russia. You know, people speculate where it comes from, but where it does lead Ukraine is that it’s not a priority and if anything, this Administration seems inclined to not even take it into account, as it is thinking about moving ahead with Putin and Russia.
I guess there’s some good news here, on the one hand you now have Rex Tillerson, but they [US Administration] are so consumed by learning how to govern and in some ways, so consumed by all the domestic problems, that I’m not sure they can even move on anything, if they wanted to, with the Russians.
But the danger there for Ukraine is a bit different. One danger is that Ukraine will be sold out. It will be part of some grand bargain, and Putin takes advantage of having a President in the US who really for some reason wants to get along with him, and certainly doesn’t want to defend Ukraine. The other danger is that you have a President that’s so weak and distracted in Washington, that this is where Putin starts testing. And I’ve no idea how the fighting restarted in Eastern Ukraine. I have no idea if the blame is more on the rebels, or on the Ukrainian side, but it is very telling that this happened within two weeks of Trump taking office. I think the real challenge that you had with Obama, a President who already wasn’t all that willing to stick his neck out to help Ukraine, but at least there you had John Kerry at State, Joe Biden at the Pentagon, Ash Carter… sorry, Joe Biden as Vice President, Ash Carter at the Pentagon. You had Victoria Nuland at the Department of State in a less senior job. These were all friends of Ukraine, advocates for Ukraine. Those people are all gone.
Dyczok: Except for McCain
Kaminski: Except for McCain. He’s in the Senate. But he’s sort of fighting many other battles. But he is fighting the Ukraine battle, but you know I think Ukraine doesn’t have advocates any more inside government. And in Brussels, it doesn’t really have any friends. The Poles used to be close friends, but now they’re again kind of obsessed about what’s happening internally. They have their own problems here in the EU. The Germans have other priorities. The Hungarians are, you know, Vladimir’s very close friends. So it’s a very, very worrying situation internationally, if you’re thinking at it from a Ukrainian point of view.
Dyczok: Well that’s a very sober, realistic assessment. I was going to try to tease you out on how you see the end game, but you’ve laid out all the factors. I don’t know if you would like to speculate where you see this ending, and if you see this ending, or is this just going to be a continuation of uncertainty with all these factors moving in different ways?
Kaminski: I think one thing I have learned, and everyone should have learned in 2016 is not to make predictions, right, because we’d all be broke or worse if we put any money on. Exactly. I think it’s still fluid. I do think fundamentally I’m still puzzled why a country like Russia, which is economically backward, politically frozen, has nothing really to offer to anyone, is able to flex its muscles the way it has been. It’s just hard for me, that someone like Putin seems to be winning, when on paper he should be losing. But I guess it speaks to the… it says more about his opponents than about himself. But you know for him it’s the game, as it is for all authoritarian politicians, it’s how you stay in power. I think the big unknown is really do the Europeans save themselves, in some ways from themselves, you know, with falling Brexit, with the migration crisis, a pressure point, with these kind of… if Le Pen wins in France, if Bepe Grillo, the anti-Establishment party takes over in Italy, then you might see this thing careening out of control and then I don’t even see the US being able to hold it together. And about Trump. I think the war in Washington’s really between the forces of normalcy and establishment. The party, which prefers him to Hilary Clinton and feels like they’ve at least won something. They have Congress.
You know, following Brexit, with the migration crisis, pressure point, if Le Pen wins in France, if Beppe Grillo, this sort of anti-establishment party, takes over in Italy, then you might see this thing kind of spin out of control. And then I don’t see even US being able to hold it together. And about Trump. I think the war in Washington is really between, the forces of a normalcy and the establishment. The party, which prefers him to Hillary Clinton, and feels like they have at least won something in Congress, but they are also dealing with someone, who is incredibly unpredictable, is not one of theirs, and are they able to tame him, or is he just untamable? That is who he is, he is a rebel. He is someone, who got to where he is by actually doing the opposite of what people want him to do, by being kind of counter-class. He is not really a Republican either. And that’s how it plays into the international scene. Now, does the Trump administration become kind of what you expect the Republican administration to do – which is: committed to international relationships, strong on NATO, supportive of Ukraine, by the way, hostile to countries like Putin’s Russia. Or does Trump really succeed in tearing the US down as an enforcer of the current global order, and into becoming like any other country.
Because the moment the US becomes like any other country, then I think the world is in for a very difficult transition, because it is a big jaunt. For all the people complaining about America being too strong, wait till America is too weak. And that is not going to be a very pretty picture, with consequences ranging from economic and political disruption to possibly a conflict. Because that has always been a case in the last 150 years, when we had an order collapse, it collapsed with a cost being almost unimaginable.
Dyczok: Do we have time for one more quick question…
Dyczok: You talked about what potentially can happen with the United States, let’s look at Russia. As you said, Russia should not be as strong as it is. This week one of Putin’s opponents was arrested on seemingly trumped up charges. Do you see any potential for change within the Russian Federation as the one of the factors that will play into how the international scene changes? I do not see pressure on Putin externally changing things, but I see pressure from within, potentially changing things. Is that something that you could put into the mix?
Kaminski: I guess the one thing we learned from history is that regimes that seem to be the most stable, because they are the most rigid and the least free, are the ones that are the most unstable. Because in any moment they are going to collapse. From the outside Putin seems in a much better place than he did 5 years ago. There were hundreds of thousands of people on the street over there, it was a real threat to him, he had no popular legitimacy, he had no story to tell. And now his story is, ‘I’ve revived Russia.’ And he does seem to have, what seems almost like genuine support behind him. But it is a system that is not a normal system. It’s a system that is run kind of like an organized crime family, in part. There are none of the typical safety valves that we have in normal countries, either for public frustration, or for grappling with elites’ conflicts. And so it seems that Putin is probably more vulnerable than we think he is. He certainly seems to think he is vulnerable. His behavior suggests that he thinks he is very vulnerable. That is why he is doing all the things he is doing, including building the military, and turning the West into an enemy. But I’m not sure that if you were to replace Putin today, you would get a better alternative to him. And I do worry that his survival, as for any human being, is at the top of his mind. He knows that if he falls, he is probably dead. So he is willing to do anything it takes to stay in power. It is hard to imagine Putin one day retiring to a villa, on the Riviera …
Dyczok: No, absolutely not…
Kaminski: So, some external pressure might help, in a more savvy way. It is a remarkable situation where we have Russia and China, China is a growing economy, but it is still a relatively weak power. And Russia has aging nuclear weapons, but really has a fairly weak hand to play: it has got no allies really, it has got little to offer. It has an economy of a Third world country, dependent on a single commodity, or rather two – oil and gas. But it is playing a hand of a rising regional if not global power. And that is because we let it. It is not just on Trump; it is really more on Obama before. Where vacuums were created, Russians are moving in. I had a better sense that there was a more imminent threat to Putin before, but we just do not really know. No one really in 1987, or in 1988, nobody predicted that the Soviet Union would fall apart…
Dyczok: Precisely…or that it would have held together. At times we thought it would fall apart, it did not, so we are living in uncertain times, but you have laid out a number of the factors to watch. So thank you very much for finding the time. Was there anything else you wanted to maybe add that I haven’t asked?
Kaminski: No, thank you Marta, it is good to talk to you.
Dyczok: Matt thank you so much for this and perhaps next time we could talk about China. I think that is the place we are not paying attention to that perhaps we should be. Look forward to reading more of your things and I will send you a link to the interview. Thank you very much. We have been speaking with Matthew Kaminski, the managing editor of Politico Europe in Brussels.
Ukraine’s President Poroshenko had his first phone conversation with US President Trump on Saturday February the 4th. After the call, the White House released a statement which said that Mr. Trump had a “very good call” with Poroshenko, and the two Presidents addressed “a variety of topics.” According to the White House Statement, President Trump said, “We will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border.” The Ukrainian President’s press secretary reported that the two leaders are ready to explore additional steps to enhance the strategic partnership between Ukraine and the United States. And that Ukraine’s Poroshenko focused on the need to achieve peace in the Donbas, intensify economic and business ties, and discussed a forthcoming visit to the US. Another Ukrainian political leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, has already reportedly met with Mr. Trump in Washington. Politico ran a story on this, with the headline “Trump won’t lift sanctions against Russia.”
New National Police Chief
This week Ukraine got a new National Police Chief. Serhiy Kniazev was appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers, Ukraine’s government, on Wednesday February the 8th. Kniazev was promoted to the top police job from being the head of the country’s Criminal Investigation Department. There were mixed reactions to this appointment. He is reportedly a good manager. But he has worked within Ukraine’s police system for many years, and the system is plagued by corruption. The previous police chief, Georgian-born Khatia Dekanoidze, had quit the position last November, saying that her reform and anti-corruption efforts were being thwarted from within.
News in Crimean Tatar Now Broadcasting from Kyiv to Crimea
Crimean Tatars who remained on the occupied peninsula now have easier access to a new information source. Ukraine’s international broadcaster, UATV, has been producing news in Crimean Tatar for a while. This past week they increased their broadcast signal strength by switching to the Hotbird Satellite Frequency. Now UATV can broadcast into Crimea, as well as much of Europe. They also broadcast on-line. We’ll post a link to their website on ours. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCt3igz3aIXfS108KV_jZsMA
Celebrating Holidays in a New Way?
Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory submitted a bill to parliament which would introduce changes to holiday celebrations. A modernization and further de-Sovietization. The bill proposes to reduce the overall number of official holidays from 11 to 9. This would decrease the long holiday breaks that are a left over from the Soviet era. March the 9th is proposed as a new Taras Shevchenko day, to honour Ukraine’s most famous poet. This would be instead of marking March the 8th as international women’s day, something that was introduced during the Soviet era. May 9th will remain as the official Day of Victory over Fascism, and May 8th is the Day of Commemoration and Reconciliation, something the INM proposed a few years ago. For those of you who understand Ukrainian, you can listen to a Hromadske Radio’s interview with the Institute’s Director, Volodymyr Viatrovych, on the link we’ll post for you. https://hromadskeradio.org/programs/rankova-hvylya/yaki-vyhidni-hoche-skasuvaty-instytut-nacpamyati
The intensity of shelling began to decrease in Ukraine’s war zone on Sunday February the 5th. Whereas on Saturday, 3 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 8 wounded, starting on Sunday and for the rest of the week, there were no more casualties. However 15 more were wounded, and civilian targets continued to be shelled heavily. The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission released a Table of Ceasefire Violations in English, Ukrainian, and Russian, with all the details. If you’re interested you’ll find a link to the report on our website. http://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/298356
CULTURE and MUSIC
It was the 20th annual Ukraine Fashion Week this week. Designers showed their collections to Kyiv’s glitterati in the grand Mystetskyi Arsenal Art Space. Those who could not attend in person were encouraged to follow the 5 day extravaganza on-line, and Ukraine Calling listeners can check out the photos. http://www.fashionweek.ua/en/
In other cultural news, a Ukrainian, Oksana Lyniv, became the main conductor of Austria’s Graz Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s the first time in 150 years that a woman has been selected to this position, and the first time it’s a Ukrainian.
For your musical pleasure, here’s a contemporary song for you called, Talk to Me (Pohovory zi mnoiu). The lyrics and music were composed by the talented Khrystyna Holovko and Oleh Tymoshyk, from the L’viv group PIANO. It premiered on my weekly music show Pora Roku. Enjoy!Tune in next week for a new episode, and we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected]. I’m Andriy Kulykov for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Oksana Smerechuk, and Ilona Sviezhentseva. Sound engineers Timothy Glasgow and Andriy Izdryk. Special thanks to CHRW student radio at Western University for providing their studio and technical support for recording the interview. Web support Natalia Kucheriava.