What Putin Never Understood About Ukraine

April 20, 2022
Volodymyr Yermolenko discusses how Russia’s invasion has reshaped Ukrainian identity with Ezra Klein.

This is the transcript of the recent conversation between our Editor-in-chief Volodymyr Yermolenko and Ezra Klein, New York Times columnist.

I'm Ezra Klein. This is "The Ezra Klein Show."


Before we begin today, we're going to do another Ask Me Anything episode in a couple of weeks. So if you have anything you'd like to ask me, anything you'd like to hear me answer, please send a question to ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Again, ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com, and put AMA in the subject line.

For today, though, we've done a lot of shows at this point on the context for Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. The historic miss he drew on, the strategic logic for Russia he revealed, the economics of the invasion, the energy dimension of the invasion, the Russian media control that made it possible for him.

We've done less on the context for Ukraine's remarkable resistance to Russia's brutal decision-making here. What has it felt like to not just be in Ukraine during this period, but to be Ukrainian? And when I say this period, I mean more than the last few months. This is not Putin's first invasion of Ukraine. He invaded Crimea in 2014, and the world just shrugged. And this is not Ukraine's first remarkable act of resistance. The two recent revolutions in 2004 and 2014 set the stage for everything we're seeing today.

Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and the editor of the 2019 book, "Ukraine in Histories and Stories," which is a collection of essays by Ukrainian intellectuals that I highly, highly recommend reading right now. And I recommend it not just because of the insights it offers on Ukraine's deep past going back to the Middle Ages and the Cossack era of the 16th and 17th centuries, but on its recent past.

2019 — when this book was published — it wasn't that long ago, but it already reads like a foreign country. The deep disinterest of Europe and the West toward Ukraine. The sense that President Zelensky's election was evidence that Ukraine would largely capitulate to Russia. The view of Ukraine as not a beacon for the west, but as a country caught between the past and the future in a way that left it precariously positioned in the present, that gave it no real home.

Reading it today is a humbling confrontation with the way we are always living through a history we do not yet know. Yermolenko is also the editor of the English-language publication "Ukraine World," which I do want to note is funded in part by grants from western nonprofits and even government agencies.

His position has always been that Ukraine is much more western than the world realized, that its identity is much more distinct from Russia than the world realized. And I would say that position has really proven out in recent months. He's been in Kyiv during much of the invasion, and so that is where we begin. As always, my email, ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.


Volodymyr Yermolenko, thank you so much for being on the show.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Thank you so much for having me.

Ezra Klein

You've been in Kyiv for much of the war. Tell me how you're doing and what it has felt like.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

We have been watching Kyiv under missile attack several times, where basically the war has started for us as people living in the Kyiv suburbs probably at 5 o'clock in the morning at the 24th of February. So we didn't need to go to the news to understand that the war has begun. We just woke up from a huge explosion in our surroundings, and then we took our phones and watched this notorious Putin's address declaring a war on Ukraine.

And understanding that then people were saying in the chats everywhere that it was a missile strike. And this is, of course, was horrible, because we didn't expect that they will start with missiles, you know? And then as I have three kids — three daughters — we were trying basically to think how to make them safe. And finally, we have relocated them to the western Ukraine.

Then I was moving from western Ukraine to Kyiv, bringing humanitarian aid, and then working here, making a lot of information in English about Ukraine. I can tell you that initially from the very beginning Kyiv was constructing itself as a fortress city. Many people have joined territorial defense. That means that many, for example, streets have been barricaded against tanks. Many people just took their Kalashnikov and patrolled the city. They joined territorial defense.

And of course, many of the people also, after these missile strikes and after the news that Russians are going to surround the city, many people have left, primarily the women and children. And this kind of emptied the city a little bit, making surreal, tense, but at the same time very proud city, I would say — the city fortress.

And now in the coming days, I would say that people have started to return to the city, and it's slightly moving in the more lively direction. And some cafes are open. Some restaurants are open. And I have the impression that there are more cars and more people.

Ezra Klein

This is a strange question to know how to ask correctly. You're a philosopher. You're a news editor. I've read the essay collection that you edited on Ukraine and its history and its identity. And what is it like to go from living in a city that is peaceful, where you're working and doing your writing and shopping for groceries and checking your Facebook page and tweeting, all of a sudden to a city that is being shelled? What of your life before remains? What doesn't? What does passing through that barrier from normalcy to emergency feel like?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Well, a lot of things have changed very quickly in our understanding. Things have changed their meaning. For example, a window is no longer a window because you'd better not approach to the windows, people say, because if there is a shelling, you can be wounded by the glass of the window.

The light is no longer the light because the light can be dangerous if there are airstrikes. So you better switch off the lights when you are — in the evening, for example. Therefore, when you're traveling through Kyiv right now on car — and I do it regularly — you are traveling in the dark streets. So the lights from the streets are switched off. So you are in a very dark place, which never, never happened before, of course.

And if you enter — I several times took some families to volunteer to get them out of the city, and then we went to other villages, for example, and when there is dark, the villages are completely dark. There are no lights in the houses, because people are very careful enough not to give signs to artillery or to airstrikes, to jets — the Russian jets — that there are villages.

So the meaning of things have changed. Of course, your understanding of your house, of your home. For example, I relocated my family. I spent some time with my relatives in western Ukraine. It's very hard, actually, to lose your home. So I have an impression that your home, your house, your apartment is like the dearest person to you. So you want to come back. You want to write letters to your city, for example. You want to hug it, et cetera.

But what I experienced so far is nothing compared to what many other people experienced. So the war experience is different. You can't say that the war experience is everywhere the same, because it's different for a person who is on the front line. It's different for a person who is a refugee. It's different for a person who left his house or her house, but it's still having a place to come back. I have several friends who are basically not sure if their houses are still there. And of course, this is very hard, too, to survive.

Ezra Klein

You wrote recently that the war changes the perception of time. Tell me how.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Time is no longer a menu where you can select, you know, dishes. It's not like you are saying, OK, we'll do this tomorrow, and maybe I will do this the day after tomorrow, and maybe I will shift this in the calendar. If you take wrong decision, you can be dead. For example, my friends from the northern suburbs of Kyiv, on the first day, there were attacks on the suburbs. They just took their kids, everything they had, and they just left.

And they did the right thing. If they delayed their decision by half a day, they could be dead, because these cities will be heavily shelled, surrounded, et cetera. So the time is no longer linear or uniform time. You no longer have this uniform time. You really have time when you need to take very quick decisions.

Second thing is that you no longer count days. You don't make a difference between working days or weekends. The weekends no longer exist. And each day can bring absolutely different things. The same with space. So our usual roads, were used, for example, for traveling, they are no longer available.

And you can't go on GPS, really. Neither in this city, because many roads are blocked, nor when you travel in Ukraine, because you can end up going on the road where there are fights and where you can see Russian tanks or where there is a heavy shelling. So this really changes the perception of space. Space is not uniform anymore. It's just divided between a space where you're safe and the space where you are not safe.

Ezra Klein

I suspect that we all implicitly or explicitly have some theory of what we would be like under this kind of emergency, what we would do, how we would feel, how our neighbors would act, what they would be like. And I suspect it's wrong. What has surprised you about how you or your city has acted or how the mood or the sentiment has felt during this period?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Well, many people remain the same, even during these circumstances. But some people really did fantastic things, which I never expected them. For example, tiny people, poets, writers, go into the territorial defense, taking arms or doing something. Or as you can see, this became a meme about Ukrainian farmers on the tractors who are taking the Russian tanks.

But even if you ask about our President Volodymyr Zelensky, many people were afraid that he will not be on the top, he will not lead the defense. But that was not true. And I think even it's not because of him, but because of the spirit in the country that we have seen before the invasion, that the spirit of decisiveness, that everybody is prepared to defend your country with any means, with any possible tools that you have, either with arms, or as a volunteer, as somebody else.

Ezra Klein

It's really interesting, speaking of President Zelensky — when I was reading your book, the book you edited — and this book comes out in 2019, so not a million years ago. His election is taken by some of the people writing in that book as a kind of defeat.

The novelist Yurii Andrukhovych in an interview with you says that he's been talking to Europeans, and he would tell them, you will never understand when an 18-year-old child goes to war to die. And they would say to him, if I were 18 years old and the war came to my country, I would simply flee the country. You have to run away. You have to live.

And Andrukhovych goes on to say, about the 2019 election that brings Zelensky into power, that, oh, the Europeans are right. Ukraine is like the rest of Europe. People won't fight. But not only are they fighting, but Zelensky has become this remarkable wartime leader. Tell me a bit about why you think that happened, how different maybe the impression of him was then to what it is now.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

I think this happened because of an enlargement of Ukrainian identity. So Zelensky, if you will, is a self-made man. But at the same time, he's a person who made himself on the Russian-speaking audience, including in Russia, but also in Ukraine and other countries from the former Soviet Union. So he probably would qualify to what Russians are calling the Russian world, meaning that there is some Russian cultural political space which goes beyond Russian Federation and that Russia needs to reconquer.

But miraculously, this was not true. All those people from Eastern Ukraine, Russian-speaking, from many different backgrounds — Zelensky has Jewish background. He's a Russian-speaking person initially, right? All those people — after the 2014, they understood, I think, gradually, increasingly understood that Russia is something terrible, that it's trying to expand itself and grab for the territories of other countries. I think the occupation of Crimea was a watershed for many people who were sympathetic to Russia before.

And now, of course, when Russia is starting to bomb, to shell Russian-speaking cities like Kharkiv or Mariupol, I think the remnants of these people who were sympathetic to Russia, they no longer exist in Ukraine. So even very hardcore pro-Russian institutions in Ukraine, like Orthodox Church — what we call Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate — dependent on Moscow. Even in this church, we see many people, many communities cutting their ties from Moscow. And in this situation, the transformation of Volodymyr Zelensky from this kind of a latent Russian world to Ukrainian patriot, I think it's also a symptom of a transformation of many, many people in Ukraine.

Ezra Klein

One thing that is striking to me about that is how many people from different directions misunderstood or wrongly projected how this would go. So we were just talking about some of the views of what Zelensky represented in 2019. But you go to early February, America's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley — he tells Congress that Kyiv could fall within 72 hours of a Russian invasion.

If you look at how Putin created his supply lines and seems to have planned the beginning phases of his invasion, he seemed to think this would be quick. It would just be a lightning rush to Kyiv. It would decapitate the government, and maybe that would be that. It seems like a lot of the world, and maybe even some in Ukraine, didn't see what would happen when Russia actually turned an invasion from theory to fact. Why do you think so many people got it so wrong?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

This is history. History is unpredictable. So you can see transformations, incredible transformations of many people and many countries, many situations. So this is what basically makes history so interesting. And some people knew better, some people knew worse.

I think Russia miscalculated everything about Ukraine, because to a certain extent, Russia has become a victim of its own illusion, of its own disinformation. So many of us — Ukrainians, Americans — have perceived Russian information warfare as a threat to Americans, to Ukrainians. But it was also a threat to Russians, because it cut them from real fact-checking, from real facts, from reality. And, well, if an illusion and reality fight against each other, very often reality wins. So this is what happened in Ukraine, for example.

Ezra Klein

One thing that you've gestured towards is that both in 2014, with the invasion of Crimea and then certainly now, Putin himself has played a role in changing, reshaping both Ukrainian identity, but perhaps even more so Ukrainian sentiment towards Russia.

And it's a little ironic because he keeps justifying everything he's doing as an effort to unite what wants to be united. But he certainly appears to be deeply dividing what he wants to unite. How do you say Putin has changed either how Ukrainians understand Ukraine or how they understand him and Russia?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Well, in a sense, he, with his action, of course, he provoked a counteraction. And Ukrainian identity became much more inclusive. So as I said, for example, his idea that Russian speakers would sympathize with Russia, would align themselves with Russia, proved to be totally wrong.

And that means that Ukrainian identity — that's what I tried to explain in my op-ed for The Economist or some other newspapers recently — Ukrainian identity goes beyond these differences, linguistic differences, cultural differences. It doesn't mean that culture does not matter. I think culture matters a lot, and Ukrainian cultural traditions are very different from Russian cultural traditions.

Ukrainian language is different from the Russian language. Ukrainian music is different from Russian music. But Ukraine currently encompasses not only ethnic Ukrainian culture, it encompasses Jewish culture, for example. We have increased interest right now to the Crimean Tatar culture, to the Muslim culture. So you see how around these Ukrainian political identities, civic identity, you have different ethnicities, different religions aligning themselves.

And I think this is what actually is going on. It's not about only Ukrainian as a nation or Russians as a nation. It's a question about values. It's a question about whether you can build a anti-tyrannical politics in Eastern Europe, whether you can build a Democratic and Republican, in the political sense of the term, political system, political culture in Eastern Europe.

And Ukrainians always was saying that yes, this is possible. This was Ukrainian dream in the 20th century, in the 19th century, in the 17th century, et cetera. And with Putin's aggression, I think Ukrainians have started to dig deeper in our origins and bring them to the surface even more.

Ezra Klein

What do you wish people outside Ukraine understood about either Ukrainian origins or the nature of Ukrainian society?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Ukrainian society is first focused on the values of freedom. And sometimes it's very good, sometimes it's not very good. If Russian society is very monarchic — so society depends on its czar, on a leader, on Putin, whatever. So the leader shapes the nation.

In Ukraine, it's totally different. It's always society that shapes politics. It's always the nation, the public opinion that shapes the presidents, et cetera. Therefore, Ukrainian presidents find it very difficult to be very long in power recently. This willingness of freedom, both of freedom of your community, but also a freedom of individual, is very important for Ukrainians. And sometimes it's too important, and therefore Ukrainian usual politics is a little bit anarchic, I would say. Although not that anarchic as Russians are presenting it.

And this tradition, as I said, it goes very deep in this century. So I think it's important to understand that Ukraine did not come out of the blue. We have our special political tradition. We have people in the 19th century, like Shevchenko, Dragomanov, Lesya Ukrainka, Kostomarov, others who are formulating this anti-tyrannical vision of society. They called it the fight against autocracy. [UKRAINIAN]

But you can go deeper. You can go to the 18th century. You can go to the Cossack Don, the Ukrainian warriors, free warriors, Cossacks of the 17th century. You will find the same. You will find the willingness of freedom and special relations between the, for example, the Cossack leader and his army. This was contractual relations. So the relations of a contract, not relations between slaves and the master.

And I think this is very important. So basically by taking over Ukrainian lands in 17th century, Russians were — or Muscovites, at the time — were expanding this tyrannical vision of politics to Eastern Europe. Now we have the reverse process increasingly, not only in Ukraine, but in other countries of the Eastern Europe, even in Belarus, which is now under dictatorship, but I'm sure it will get free from it. So the extension, expansion of the values of freedom, and anti-tyrannical politics, Democratic politics to the East.

Ezra Klein

One argument you've made is that even behind the idea of freedom is a preference for certain kinds of social organization. And you've argued that Russia is top-down, very centered around very strong leaders — a Putin, a Stalin, a czar — and that Ukraine has been traditionally very bottom-up, which, as you suggest, can create difficulties for politics, for structures, but also creates certain kinds of organization that make a place like Ukraine very difficult to be conquered, but also just distinctive unto itself. Can you talk a bit about how that vision creates a different approach to organization and hierarchy?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Exactly. So one of the leading Ukrainian concepts, also dating from the 19th century, is the concept of community. In Ukrainian, it's called [UKRAINIAN]. So [UKRAINIAN] means that you form a community of people. And then there is a community of communities called the state. And then there is a community of community of communities called — I don't know — an international organization or federation of states, et cetera.

This was the dreams of many European liberals in the 19th century, what was called the Republic of Nations. And this was very natural for Ukrainians, for Ukrainian dissidents in the 19th century. But now it has very practical consequences, because Ukraine is now going through — was going, before the war — through the self-governance reform where communities, cities, towns, villages got more and more powers.

And this is what we are witnessing even now, because very important is not only how Zelensky is resisting, but how the territorial defense of a particular village is resisting or how certain cities and their mayors are resisting. We see an incredible now a harmony between the local patriotism, the city patriotism of, I don't know, Mykolaiv, or Kharkiv, or Odessa, or Mariupol, or Chernihiv, and national patriotism.

And now we have some mayors, like the mayor of Mykolaiv, Mr. Kim, who also became a star in Ukraine by the way he organizes the defense of his city to the south of Ukraine, and, by the way, how he organizes communication, for example. And I think this is the nature of this bottom-up politics.


Ezra Klein

How has Ukraine's success, on the one hand, at repelling the Russian invasion — been counterattacks now, territory recaptured. Russia's talked about moving some of its efforts away from Kyiv and towards the east, and it rallying international opinion, particularly European and American opinion. How has that changed the feeling around this war in Ukraine?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

I think there are two mistakes to be made. The first mistake was to underestimate Ukrainian capacity. And you mentioned that there was this underestimation in February, even in America, that Ukraine will — Kyiv will fall in 48 hours or 72 hours. That was one mistake.

The second mistake is going on now, both in Ukraine and inside Ukraine. Saying, OK, we are counterattacking. Good. Then Ukraine will be victorious. It's all OK. It's all fine. I think this is also a mistake because we should understand that, well, Russian army, poorly prepared, maybe with poor equipment it appears, not that strong as everybody believed, but still, it's a big army.

And if they're retreating from Kyiv, that means that they are regrouping their army to get some other successes. So Ukrainians, we have missile strikes against our military depots every day. We don't know how many resources — we ordinary citizens don't know how long we have military resources. So that means that Ukraine should be supplied from the international partners more and more with defensive weapons, with air defense systems, with antimissile systems.

Of course, the spirit is huge. The willingness to fight is huge. But we need equipment for that. So I would call not to be in this mood that sometimes this war is turned into international media into a kind of a tragic comic picture when Ukrainian farmers on their tractors pick up Russian tanks. It's all — of course, it exists, but it's not the full reality.

The full reality is cruelty of Russian army, shelling the civilians, destruction of the whole cities, artillery war, missiles war. And in this case, Ukraine, which is very strong in spirit, but which needs more material support.

Ezra Klein

I want to talk a bit about Ukraine's relationship with Europe. And this was something that was very powerful for me in reading your book, "Ukraine in Histories and Stories," reading from the vantage point of this moment, where Ukraine has become this great cause in the West. The frustration towards the West of even a couple of years ago.

And maybe one place to start is I had mentioned a quote earlier from the novelist Yurii Andrukhovych. But he wrote in that same essay — or said in that same interview, I guess it is, quote, "We Ukrainians are in love with Europe. Europe is in love with Russia, while Russia hates both us and Europe." Tell me about how that stood three or four years ago and how you see it as having potentially changed now.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Well, what is definite is that Russia hates both Ukraine and Europe. And I think Europe is kind of — in these particular years, in recent years, Europe was reluctant to understand that. We were spending so much time to explaining to Europeans, look at Russian TV channels, what they're saying about Europe, what they're saying about America.

This is a constant dehumanization rhetoric. They are dehumanizing Ukrainians, saying they're Nazis. They're dehumanizing Americans, saying they're imperialists or whatever. They are dehumanizing Europeans by saying that they are abusing children and reject family values and support only gay marriages, whatever absurdities Russians are saying.

And this was the reality of the past decade. And Europe was blind to it. Europe was still thinking that you can be friends with Russia. You can still love Russian culture, et cetera. This was a mistake. This was the blindness. The question is whether Europe is in love in Russia, with Russia increasingly less, I hope. I mean, Europe is still thinking — or some parts of Europe are still thinking that you need to give something to Russians. You need to give something to Putin. You need to find compromises, even at the cost of human lives, et cetera. And I think this is wrong. This is already the wrong logic, and we should go away from it.

As for Ukrainian attitude to Europe, Ukrainians are feeling that they're a front line. We are a front line, where there is a fight not only for Ukrainian national identity, but also for European values, for universal values. And basically that European values are not only defendable, but defendable heroically.

Because in Europe, among many European intellectuals before the war, many European politicians have found this kind of a feeling of a decadence, feeling of frustration, feeling that those values on which Europe has been built or America has been built — the values of democracy, the values of pluralism, media freedom, freedom of speech — these values are going against, right now, Europe or America.

And I was telling them, look, don't be that radical. European values are OK. Democratic values are OK. There are nations willing to fight for them. There are nations which are not really going to this decadent mood. And this is what is happening right now in Ukraine.

Ezra Klein

One of the striking things about the book is I would describe a number of the essays as being about or at least relaying the experience of feeling that Europe viewed Ukraine with something between disinterest and condescension. It's a very sort of tragic but also somewhat comic story from a woman who's trying to give European bankers a tour of Ukraine and try to show them parts of it they might like. Others talk about trying to convince Europeans to just even know where things in Ukraine are.

And at the same time, there's this idea of a decadent West, of liberalism that has exhausted itself. Here's a country that in many ways wanted to become more liberal, wanted to become more part of the West, and seemed to feel, from what I can read and tell, that it was having trouble getting noticed, having trouble getting people to care. Can you talk a bit about that? Because now there is such an outpouring of support and you see Ukrainian flags all around and polling shows this huge rise in support for adding Ukraine to the EU. But what was Europe missing before? What had gone wrong in that relationship before, from your perspective?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

I think what has got wrong, I tried to explain as early in 2014, when I wrote an essay, "Dreams of Europe," when I tried to assert that Europe does not believe in itself. And that is the problem. There is no faith in Europe — the faith in itself.

I was describing this Europe as Europe of rules, where you have certain rules to follow, but you don't really believe in the initial idea. Ukrainians are not ideal Europeans, because they probably have this faith in Europe, but they are not necessarily following the European rules, for example. And the Ukrainians have to make a big road as well to align themselves with the truly European civilization.

But I still think that the best thing you should read is going back to the times and read the classics. And people like Aristotle or Polybius have explained what's happening with these democratic societies when they forgot that the values they are based upon need protection, need defense, and you need to fight for them.

So as long as you take these values for granted, you no longer believe in them. You no longer consider them seriously. And I think this is what started to be happening in Europe. And by the way, in Ukraine, before the war, as well. So today we are living in a time when you understand that these values are in big danger, that you have to defend them, that you have protect them. And what Ukrainians were saying to Europe that this is not only Ukrainian fight. I think that gradually, Europe partially starts to understand it.

Ezra Klein

A moment ago, you mentioned a Europe of rules. And I always think that's a very evocative phrase, and it gets at something important in the difficulties in sustaining a belief or an aspiration in liberalism for many of us who live comfortably within it, which is these ideas, these ideals, these modes of governance, this approach to being in the world.

When you're fighting for it when it hasn't happened yet, it's very aspirational. I mean, when the other option is Putinism or totalitarianism, then you really see the value of liberalism. When you live under it, you begin to focus on its contradictions, its rules. It's about harmonizing trade regulations. And in America, the filibuster, and nothing passes. And everything is so slow and bureaucratic.

And people begin to get exhausted by the reality of trying to live under what if it is in fear of being ripped away, becomes very inspiring. How do you think about that tension between the way it's easy to take something for granted once you are in the kind of banal implementation of it, and then what it begins to look like when you realize you could really lose it or never have it?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

The experience of the war shows us again and again that you cherish life, you value life, in the point of when it's very close to death. At that point, you really understand what life means. This is a very important feeling. This is a very deep experience from which philosophy, art, culture grows, I think.

It's not accidental that the first big works of European culture, like "Iliad" is a poem about the war, about the loss. The most striking elements when Priamos goes to Achaean's camp to get the body of his son, right? So this is very important feeling, when you face the loss, when you face something that you lose, when you understand that something will disappear, can disappear. Your life can disappear. The life of your children can disappear. Your house can disappear. Your freedom can disappear, you know.

And this is what makes you strong. This kind of facing up with mortality, facing the mortality of humans. Maybe this is something that Ukrainians are now going through. It doesn't make them any better people than any other nations. But it's important to understand that there is something going on in Ukrainian society which will probably, after that, produce big culture, big literary works, big philosophical works.

Because this is really facing on this border experience, a liminal experience. It's very important. Coming back to Europe, there is a good French philosopher, Rémi Brague, who said that Europe has always been eccentrical. So basically, the most paradoxical thing about Europe is that certain values are born in some territories but then they move to others. They kind of expand into other territories, like the values of Greek democracy. And then Romans came and they took these values for Roman Republic or they took Greek aesthetics for their aesthetics.

So Europe in a sense doesn't have borders. It's this culture of expanding values. So I think this is what's now happening in Ukraine. Because Ukrainians are feeling right now that they are on this brink, where these European values are here in the minds of people, but somehow there is a big enemy that tries to remove these values, in a sense. And therefore, our lives are in danger.


Ezra Klein

I want to be careful in this question not to assume an end to a war that is very much not over and that we don't know how it will play out. But in more hopeful scenarios where there is a whole Ukraine on the other end of this conflict, how do you think about some of the rebuilding that will have to happen? I mean, there have been millions of refugees. Do you think most of them will come back?

There were very deep problems in Ukrainian governance and economics before this, just a huge amount of the economy happening outside of normal channels. Or maybe actually in that world, the shadow economy is the normal channel. How do you think about what kind of Ukraine you could have demographically and politically, if it survives this period?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Ukrainians are definitely thinking in terms of European values, democracy, republican values, anti-tyrannical values, human rights, et cetera. But I think the model of society that we need to develop should be different from, for example, the model of society in Germany or France or whatever. Because their models are based upon minimum security, because security is provided by NATO, by the United States, et cetera, in some countries. And big welfare state. The presence of the state in the redistribution, et cetera.

I think Ukrainians will be building in another model. And the fact that there is a shadow economy is showing that these are signs of this model, because shadow economy is just trying to avoid bureaucracy, trying to avoid taxation, et cetera. So I think the model of Ukrainian society will be kind of a reverse pyramid, compared to European society. It should be a very big presence of the state in security because we don't have guarantees that we'll be NATO or we'll have security guarantees from other countries. We will be obliged to have our army very strong.

But when it comes to the economy, probably the more liberal or libertarian even it becomes, the more it cherishes individual initiative, the better. So this will probably happen, this kind of an interesting balance between big presence of state in the security sector, defense sector, and very little presence of the state in the economic sector.

And probably this will make Ukraine kind of similar to America, in many aspects. These bottom-up politics also can be compared to American politics. To a certain extent, Ukraine is a kind of America close to Europe, or European America. You can think of it in that way as well.

What is also important is that we should make Russia pay. We should make Russia pay for all this destruction. This is what didn't happen in Syria. This is what didn't happen in other countries. Russia is saying, I will destroy, you will pay. And this is incredibly wrong.

One of the light motifs of Russian culture, by the way, is the motif of "Crime and Punishment," as we all know. The novel of Dostoyevsky. But actually, what we have in Russian political culture, in Stalinism, for example, is crime without punishment and punishment without crime. All those people who were sent to gulags without any trials or were exterminated, killed, they were punished without a crime.

And I think this is the most dangerous thing when we're looking for — when somebody is looking for compromises with Putin, something that we need to avoid. Because if Russia is not punished, is not kept responsible for its crimes, obviously it will continue them.

Ezra Klein

You've described Russia as, quote, "a wounded empire." And this very much has a potential to wound it further. Do you worry that as Russia becomes more internationally isolated, as its more ambitious aims for a quick victory and a total victory become more unrealistic, vanish completely, even, that it also becomes more dangerous? Because for Putin, to back down might become unthinkable, that he needs somehow to be able to say he won.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Of course, the risk exists. But to which conclusions it should lead us. If it leads us to the conclusions that we should give something to Putin, I think this is a wrong conclusion. I know such thinking is present in many countries. It's certainly present in Germany, in France and in some other countries.

We're still in this logic where we still believe that we can enter into a win-win situation with Putin, with Russians. My point is that Russians are not thinking in this win-win logic or positive sum game logic. They are thinking in the negative sum game logic, meaning that they are prepared that in a given transaction, in a given conflict, everybody will lose. But they hope they will lose less than others.

For example, they know they will lose in this war, but Ukraine will lose more, because Ukraine will lose a big part of its economy, cities destroyed, et cetera. Maybe this is the game. And if we give something to Putin when he understands it, well, everybody lost, and he lost less than others. Yes, he will consider this to be his victory.

So I think time has come to understand that — and Ukrainians are understanding that already — that you should be intransigent with Putin. You should really want Putin to have a military defeat in Ukraine and to have an economic defeat as a result of sanctions. The more compromises you have, the more victims you will produce.

Ezra Klein

If you had an audience today with President Joe Biden, what would you tell him?

Volodymyr Yermolenko

To be stronger. To look at his predecessors, probably other American presidents, who were also facing much stronger enemy. And to understand that Russia is not that strong as it feels, as it likes to show itself. It is a colossus with very weak body, with very weak legs. And even Ukrainians who are much less in number, who are much more, I would say, freedom loving and a bit anarchic, as we have seen, are able to defeat this Russian colossus. So we should not be afraid of Putin.

Ezra Klein

We always end the show by asking for three books you would recommend to the audience. And I'd ask the same of you, but with an emphasis on books that you think would help those of us who have not lived in or spent much time in Ukraine to understand it.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Well, I would start with the book that you mentioned already, "Ukraine in Histories and Stories" that I edited a few years ago. It was published by [INAUDIBLE] Ukraine and was republished then by Ibidem-Verlag and Columbia University Press. It's available on Amazon.

Other is, of course, the works by Serhii Plokhii, who is a Harvard University professor of Ukrainian history and director of Harvard Ukrainian Studies Research Institute. His history of Ukraine, "The Gates of Europe," but also his history of Russia, "Lost Kingdom," history of Chernobyl disaster. Many other books. He's very prolific. And I also have in this book, "Ukrainian Histories and Stories," I also have an interview with him.

I also advise you to read Ukrainian literature, in particular our great poet right now, our classic Serhiy Zhadan. So you can read his poetry. You can read his prose. Recently, the poles have nominated Serhiy Zhadan. For Nobel Prize. I think it's time for a Ukrainian writer to get a Nobel Prize in Literature. And there are lots of good scholars, not necessarily Ukrainian scholars, in the United States, in Canada, in Germany, in France, in Britain.

Many of them are my friends. I also can recommend, for example, from Cambridge, Rory Finnan who published recently a book about Crimea and about deportation of Crimean Tatars and about Stalin and about Crimean Tatar literature. I think it's really time to get more knowledge about Ukraine, about Eastern Europe, not only focusing on Russia.

Ezra Klein

Volodymyr Yermolenko, I hope you stay safe. Thank you so much for giving us this time today.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Thank you very much. It's a great honor for me.

Material was first published by The New York Times

Volodymyr Yermolenko and Ezra Klein