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Taras Kuzio: «The hybrid war, the information war, did not begin in 2014»

Taras Kuzio talks to Marko Suprun about the Donbas, Russia, his latest book, and more

Show hosts

Marko Suprun


Taras Kuzio

Taras Kuzio: «The hybrid war, the information war, did not begin in 2014»
Taras Kuzio: «The hybrid war, the information war, did not begin in 2014»

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of Ukraine Calling. I’m Marko Suprun for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv.  We have a roundup of the weekly news for you, a feature interview with Taras Kuzio about his new book “Putin’s War Against Ukraine,” a cultural section and, of course, some music.




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Feature Interview: Taras Kuzio talks to Marko Suprun about the Donbas, Russia, his latest book, and more.

Marko Suprun: Welcome to Ukraine Calling. With us today is a guest from, formerly the U.K. but now also a wanderer of the world, Taras Kuzio. Taras Kuzio received his Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the University of Sussex, a Master of Arts in Area Studies: The U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe from the University of London, and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Birmingham, England. Currently he is a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. He has held positions at the University of Alberta, George Washington University, University of Toronto, and Chief of Mission to the NATO Information and Documentation Office in Kyiv, Ukraine. Taras Kuzio is the author and editor of seventeen books including, with Paul D’Anieri, The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order coming out in 2018. What we’re going to be talking about today is the book that came out in 2017 called Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime. Also a book called Ukraine: Democratization, Corruption, and the New Russian Imperialism in 2015, From Kuchmagate to the Orange Revolution in 2009, and Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives on Nationalism from 2007. He is the author of five think tank monographs including The Crimea: Europe’s Next Flashpoint from 2010. Taras Kuzio is also the author of thirty-eight book chapters and one hundred scholarly articles on Ukrainian and Post-Communist politics, democratic transitions, colour revolutions, nationalism, and European studies. He has been the guest editor of ten academic journals including: Communist and Post-Communist Studies, East European Politics and Societies, Nationalities Papers, The Journal of Communist Studies and Transitional Politics, and the Problems of Post-Communism. Taras, thanks for being with us today.

Taras Kuzio: Thanks for inviting me.

Suprun: So the new book called Putin’s War against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime. Tell us a little bit about how you came about with the title, and what were some of the thoughts that you had in bringing this book to light.

Kuzio: Well, it’s interesting history, because back in 2012 I was discussing the problem of the lack of English-language sources in the West on the Donbas, the Party of Regions, etc. Back then of course Viktor Yanukovych was Ukraine’s President. But the whole area of the Party of Regions as a political machine—it was the Ukraine’s only ever political machine in this American terminology. And the whole history and politics and economics of the Donbas is something that really had not been studied including, for example, in Ukrainian studies. It was kind of ‘beyond the pale’ is it were. So we launched a project and this project was funded by the U.S. based Ukrainian Studies Fund led by Roman Procyk and Bohdan Vitvitsky. Little did we know where this project was going to take us, thanks to a man to the north who runs a country to the northeast of Ukraine. So the project began in September 2013. It was initially to be a three-year research project on the Donbas but of course events overtook us.

Suprun: So the book was actually planned before the War started.

Kuzio: Well, a book more on the Donbas and on the Donbas within Ukrainian politics, and maybe a little bit of history. But of course the Euromaidan happened, then of course Russia launched military aggression against Ukraine. So what was a narrower research project became a wider research project, and there were many spin-offs of that beside the book. There have been many media op-eds, and academic articles dealing with Party of Regions, Donbas, crime and corruption, which is a big part of that whole area. One aspect of the book, one chapter of the book, deals with criminality and corruption in the Donbas. It’s an area that again was never featured in Ukrainian Studies, was covered in Russian studies more with the emergence of mafias in the 1990’s, and organized crime in Russia in the 1990’s, but not really in Ukrainian Studies. But you can’t talk about the Donbas unless you also talk about criminality. Especially in a region of the world where Vladimir Putin weaponizes everything including, organized crime.

Suprun: You do spend a lot of time on the Party of Regions, and I’m wondering about that connection between mafia politics and what the Party of Regions tried to establish in Ukraine. Can you comment on the nature of that construct?

Kuzio: The Donbas was the only region of Ukraine where different clans were forced, or pressured, to combine into one super-clan. That didn’t happen in, for example, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, and elsewhere. To this day there is still competing groups. So in the Donbas they were successful in combining these after a very brutal civil war that happened in Donetsk and Luhansk between the mid-1980’s and about the mid-1990’s where many people were killed. The areas of Ukraine where you had the fiercest criminal warfare were Donetsk, Odessa, and Crimea. Odessa has historically been corrupt, Crimea is not surprising because of the tourism and everything else there and the Russia troops and stuff. But Donetsk is a place where you cannot simply divorce local politics from criminality. What you have is a nexus between law enforcement, state officials, regional politics, and organized crime. And of course once the civil war was won by one side, which was the Akhmetov-Yanukovych side. By 1996 or so, after a very famous explosion in a football stadium in Donetsk where the big godfather of Ukraine Alik the Greek, Alik Greco was his criminal nickname, was blown to bits literally. Akhmetov arrived half an hour late for the football game. There was obviously bad traffic at that time in Donetsk. And he took over. And then he and Yanukovych basically emerged as a pair. He would do business and Yanukovych would provide the political protection as it were.

And then by 2000-2001 they had managed to ban everybody’s heads (other clan leaders), to create super Donetsk clan. Which then created Party of Regions. The guys who were on the street shooting the people, then began to buy very expensive suits, launder their money and try to be respectable. You cannot divorce it. It is also the only region of Ukraine where literally everything was controlled by one clan. In particular, such as Prosecutor’s Office, Secret Service, police, everything else. Which explains why in early 2014, when the protest began, that was the region of Ukraine where law enforcement did not intervene to actually suppress those pro-Russian protests. When the Party of Regions disintegrated so did their control of law enforcement. There was no law enforcement in presence. There was a vacuum.

Suprun: Let me ask you something in this regard. A lot of people I speak to often the Putin construct as dealing with what you say, which I think is an apt analogy, a “mafia- type organization.” You spend a lot of time with Western policy makers. Do they see this part of the world that way? Because some of their policy decision is based on the assumption, that some of this is just normal politics.

Kuzio: No. I think there will be always two faces of western policy makers. One is a public diplomatic face, and another is that you read in WikiLeaks, and what you hear them say to you privately. They have known for a long time in US diplomatic cables which would lead to WikiLeaks going back to even 2010, Russia then was being described as “mafia state.” Under Yanukovych, Ukraine had become a mafia state. I think a distinction should be made between a country with a problem of corruption, and a mafia state country, where organized crime is integrated into the nexus of the state. It’s a very different situation from most countries that have problems with corruption, especially in southern Europe and in Canada’s Quebec, for example. 

Suprun: One of themes in your book is that there is a very strong  thread to history, an attempt to understand what has been going on in this part of the world for a long time.  Being also of Ukrainian decent, that is almost a natural phenomena and being now an expert of contemporary Ukraine, is anything we are witnessing from the Kremlin today new?

Kuzio: In many ways, no. What is surprising that it all has been missed by Western experts, because it seems they kind of have forgotten the Soviet history, and they particularly have forgotten the issue of national identity. The hybrid war, the information war did not begin in 2014. All of the things that Russia is doing today were done before. Of course today Russia has a greater ability to do all that things with the use of modern technology, cyber warfare, Internet and social media. That did not exist in the Soviet Union. But things like assassinations abroad -USSR had been doing it since 1926 with an assassination of Simon Petliura. It did not begin with Yushchenko and Litvinenko in London. Information war campaigns and “hood winking people” what was called “maskerovka.”  They have been doing this since 1930s. Look how successfully they camouflaged the existence of famine in Ukraine (Holodomor 1932-1933), and fooled people like Walter Duranty, and others. Particularly in 1970’s and 1980’s the Soviet Union was big on questions of disinformation. They were quite successful. They did a massive campaign to convince the world that CIA invented AIDS. They would plant stories in the third world developing countries and then they would be picked up by Reuters, etc. In those days they could not check the information. No Internet, of course.  It was replayed and reprinted back in the USSR. Those kinds of methods are being adopted today in a more professional and expanded manner by the same people. Putin was a KGB officer and now he is in charge of Russia. But I think what the western experts ignored the most is the whole question of Russian attitudes to Ukraine. This area isn’t really new. If you go to Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies or to Professor Magocsi at the University of Toronto, they will explain to you these issues have been around for a long time. But Western historians of Russia and Western experts on Russia and so-called Eurasian affairs do not really want to deal with issues of national identity. There have been a lot of bias written in the West, which downplay the influence of Russian nationalism and exaggerate the influence of Ukrainian nationalism. To put it very bluntly, if Putin was to wake up tomorrow morning and say, “I now recognize Ukrainians as a separate people and Ukraine as a sovereign independent country”, the war would end the same day. 

Suprun: A lot of people are beginning to see this as that ‘war in reality.’ And you mention in your book about the Russian biker gangs for example. Do you think that this conscripting culture, specifically using culture to control territory and expand their reach, would you agree that the use of the agency of culture to further their geo-political aspirations? In other words, are we looking at a cultural war, and if so, how do you even begin to address that when this culture seems to be divergent from reality? You get Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) saying that Russia is going to adhere to the principals of the equality of the people, mutual respect, sovereignty, etc. What do we do?

Kuzio: The first thing the West has to do right now – and I think it’s understood now, including Angela Merkel a couple of years ago already – is that Russian leaders are serial liars. They do not tell the truth. That should not surprise us so much. There was always a big divergence in the Soviet Union between what was in the Constitution and what was said, and what reality was. That had continued in some ways in Ukraine in the post-Soviet period. The most democratic constitution in the world was Stalin’s constitution of 1930’s, (yet during this time Stalin) undertook mass crimes against humanity. This divergence between reality, and what is said, and written, is not new in that mind-set. They are used to working in this kind of “maskerovka,” deceptive lying. The problem Putin has is that, of course, he can have influences among sections of European and North American societies, which are anti-establishment, angry about immigration, this kind of nationalist populist sentiment. But among the ruling elites and the policy makers he’s lost the war. I don’t think he can win the war. And that is true also with Ukraine because they are not very flexible on the issues. On the one hand, Russia has weaponized everything. They are literally weaponizing organized crime, cyber warfare. You name it what they will weaponize in their favour. There are even Western reports that Russia is weaponazing cigarette smugglers coming to the Baltic States. Yes, you can smuggle this from Russia into Latvia or Estonia but in return for this you are an official spy for us.

But in culture, I think, they cannot win. Russian leaders and nationalists approach countries like Ukraine and the West with so many stereotypes that they do not understand. For example, they did not understand American elections and how they are going to work. They really believed that Hillary Clinton was behind the protests in Moscow. They really believed that, and did not understood how these things operate. In the case of Ukraine, I’ve joked on the seminars for policy makers in Washington DC that the people in the room, US government officials form the State Department, that people in the room are more knowledgeable about Ukraine than people in Moscow. And that is not surprising. Russian leaders, and Russian intelligence, and Russian political technologists got Ukraine wrong on two major occasions. In 2004 they got Ukraine wrong when they were absolutely convinced that (Victor) Yanukovych would win (the Presidential election). They saw 12% economic growth in 2004, and thought that only the west Ukrainians were going to vote for someone they called an American-Ukrainian nationalist (Victor Yushchenko). They were wrong there. And they were wrong in 2014, when they believed that Russian speakers in Eastern and Southern Ukraine would greet Russian soldiers with bread and salt. They were wrong there. They don’t understand the West and they don’t understand Ukraine. But they think they do. And that is their major downfall.  I think policy makers need to be less starry-eyed and more understanding of what this regime consists of. Russian regime is militocracy described as regime run by “siloviki,” the security forces. It’s the regime that is approaching fascism, and it’s a mafia state. And that is what Russia is today.

Suprun: The book again is called Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime by Taras Kuzio. It’s available in print an on It is full of interesting interviews.  Taras spent a lot of time at the front interviewing people from Luhansk and not just pro-Ukrainian, but people who are, let’s say, pro-Putin who try to bring Ukraine into Russia’s orbit. Taras, thank you for your time.

Kuzio: Thank you.


The War

The intensity of fighting between the Russian occupation army & their proxies and the Ukrainian army has not changed significantly over the last week. There were reports about an increase in hostilities, usually followed by information that the situation stabilized. On September 25 Russian proxy forces reportedly shelled residential areas of the town of Mariinka, in the Donetsk region. Three days later On September 28 shelling of residential areas continued in the towns Mariinka and Zhovanka, in the Donetsk region. One civilian was wounded. Over the last week three Ukrainian servicemen were killed in action and four were wounded.

Massive Explosion at Ammunition Depot

There was a huge explosion at an ammunition depot near Kalynivka, Vinnytsia oblast, almost 250 km west of Kyiv. Late in the evening on Tuesday, September the 26th, apparently a fire set off explosions from the weapons stored in the depot. As a result, about 30,000 people had to be evacuated from the surrounding area. As a safety precaution, many villages in the area were cut off from electricity and gas. There were transport disruptions and the airspace above the area was closed off for several days. Тhe extent of the property damage is not yet known.

A similar large explosion occurred in March at a depot in the Kharkiv oblast, in eastern Ukraine. Many top Ukrainian officials—including President Poroshenko—have cited the event as sabotage. However, there is no doubt that the loss of a large ammunition depot will result in a heavy blow to Ukraine’s military capabilities.

Reform in Education hits controversy

A new Law on Education, which President Poroshenko signed into law this week, and which has been recognized as a big stride forward in reforming the Ukrainian education system, has come under international criticism for its treatment of minority language groups. The Law would introduce new curricula, new teaching methods into Ukrainian schools as well as have an increased emphasis on Ukrainian as the language of education. However, for schools in minority language communities, this would mean that instruction in state schools, from 5th grade onwards, would be in Ukrainian, instead of in the minority language, as it had been to date.

Minorities in Ukraine have reacted with criticism and the governments of Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece have expressed their concern about changes to language instruction for minority language groups. The Foreign Minister of Hungary went so far as to say that Hungary will block all further steps of Ukraine’s European integration process in the European Union due to the language-in-schools issue.

The Ukrainian government has defended its legislation. According to Ukrainian legislators, the law is the basis for comprehensive educational reform, which will improve education and bring it in line with EU standards. Foreign Minister Klimkin stated that he saw using and learning Ukrainian as important, as a national security issue. He said that Ukraine must protect both Ukrainian as well as the languages of national minorities.

President Poroshenko insisted that “we could not but strengthen the role of Ukrainian in education.” There are plans to continue consultations with international partners concerning the controversial article in the law. Foreign Minister Klimkin and Education Minister Lilia Hrynevych are to meet with EU officials to discuss the language issues raised by the new legislation, and with the Council for Europe, which will subject the Law to expert scrutiny.

Poroshenko’s Canada Visit

Ukraine’s President Poroshenko was in Canada September 22-23. The President met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. While economics and peacekeeping missions were talking points of the meeting, a new announcement from Prime Minister Trudeau was that the Canadian government had begun the process of allowing the export of certain weapons to Ukraine. This move was seen as an important continuation of the 2015 deal made by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and will further coordinate Canadian support with U.S. actions.


The Deputy Head of the Crimean Tartar Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov, has been sentenced to two years imprisonment in a penal colony for calling for “separatism and calls for action aiming at the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity.” The sentence that Umerov received is considered dangerous for a 60 year old who suffers from diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

The court ruling handed down was even harsher than that recommended by the prosecutor. Umerov has said that he will appeal the ruling all the way to the European court of Human Rights. The sentencing of Ilmi Umerov took place the same week that a report was released by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights on abuses in Crimea. The report cites arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill treatment with no accountability, taking place in Crimea under Russian occupation.

Invictus Games

As the Invictus Games wrap up this week, Ukraine has had an excellent first showing. On Sunday, Serhii Torchynskyy brought home Ukraine’s first ever Invictus medal by winning bronze in men’s IF4 shot put. And the first gold was won by team captain Oleksander Pysarenko for indoor rowing. As of September 27, Ukraine’s official total medal count stood at seven. Pavlo Mamontov, who we featured last week, won Bronze in Rowing!


In this digital age, people in Ukraine continue to write, publish, and read books! Award winning poet/publisher Ivan Malkovych has just released a new Anthology of Ukrainian Twentieth Century Poetry, (Антологія української поезії ХХ ст. A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, 2017) It was presented at the L’viv Book Forum earlier in the month. This week, on September 28th, it was introduced to Kyiv readers. The event that was broadcast live by Ukrainian Radio and a number of musicians performed at the event. Several poets represented in the new anthology who are still alive were present. In Malkovych’s words, the collection represents the best of Ukrainian poetry from Tychyna to Zhadan.

Serhiy Zhadan is a contemporary poet and author from Luhans’k who now lives in Kharkiv, and is a literary superstar. When he presented his recent book, Internat, which is about the war in the Donbas in Kyiv on 26 September, the hall of Budynok Kino was overflowing. People flocked to see him like they do for rock concerts. And when seats ran out they stood or sat in the aisles, and even on the stage. After the reading, Zhadan took the time to sign books for everyone waiting in the long line up. The book is available on-line




There’s a band in Ternopil called Tik Tu. This week they played a “Golden Hits’ concert in Kyiv. Here’s a song from their 2016 album Shuma called “Maliuky,’ which means something like ‘little ones.” Enjoy!


We’ll be back with even more news, culture and music, so tune in again next week for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you so Write to us at: [email protected]. I’m Marko Suprun in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.

Interview transcribed by Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovernko and Nykole King. News by Oksana Smerechuk and Caroline Gawlik. War by Max Sviezhentsev. Info about Crimea by Elvira Saale. Culture and Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva.