Ukraine-Russia war could be 'era-defining' conflict, reporter Simon Shuster says Time reporter Simon Shuster recently returned from the Ukrainian-Polish border. Watching as U.S. planes brought in loads of weapons, he felt like he was standing on the brink of something massive.

Reporter describes an astounding amount of military hardware going in to help Ukraine

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, on his reporting trip to Ukraine and the polar side of the border, my guest, Simon Shuster, visited the airbase in Poland, where the U.S. is bringing a constant supply of weapons. It made him think that the U.S. and its allies are already fighting this war. In eastern Poland, he met with the U.S. officials who are coordinating the military and diplomatic support for Ukraine. In order to understand the flow of humanitarian aid, Shuster drove an old Belgian ambulance filled with supplies in an aid convoy that traveled from eastern Poland into Ukraine. He's been writing about some of the key figures on the Ukrainian and Russian sides of this war.

Shuster is a national correspondent for Time magazine. From 2013 to 2020, he was Time's Berlin bureau chief, where he was responsible for the coverage of the EU and the former USSR. He reported extensively from Moscow and Ukraine. He interviewed Volodymyr Zelenskyy backstage at the Variety show he starred in just before he was elected president. Shuster interviewed Zelenskyy again after he was elected and went with him to the front of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and spoke with him about the infamous phone call in which Trump said, but first, do us a favor. Shuster was born in Moscow, and in 1989, emigrated with his family to the U.S., where they settled in San Francisco. He returned to Moscow in 2006 to work as a journalist and joined Time seven years later. We recorded our interview yesterday morning.

Simon Shuster, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You reported on the air base on the polar side of the Ukrainian border, and you said it's hard to imagine how much hardware we're talking about here. Describe what you saw in terms of the weapons that are being sent to Ukraine.

SIMON SHUSTER: Yeah. I mean, going into it, I was aware that there were massive shipments coming in. You know, there's often headlines about President Biden approving yet another aid package of lethal military aid to Ukraine. But when you see it in person, it's just really striking and astounding the amount of hardware we're talking about. I mean, what you see is basically a constant cycle of these enormous C-17 military cargo planes landing, unloading their cargo, taking off again day and night. And these things are just huge. They look like a building on its side or just a massive whale or something.

And, you know, we're talking about very serious military hardware. This isn't just Humvees and bulletproof vests. These are anti-aircraft missiles. These are anti-tank missiles. So the U.S. support has been very strong, I think, on the military side in terms of keeping Ukraine supplied. And I think it's, you know, it's important to see that. It's important for Americans to be aware of what that aid looks like and to understand it.

GROSS: So we don't have soldiers. We don't have like a military presence in Ukraine, but our weapons are there. So we're not fighting the war, but we're kind of participating in it. Do you think Putin sees the difference?

SHUSTER: From the rhetoric, no. I mean, he's - he said pretty clearly from the outset of the war, even in his declaration of war, he warned that anyone who tried - he kept it quite vague. He said anyone who tries to get in Russia's way or support Ukraine in this war effort will face consequences unlike any that they've seen in history. So that's a very, very severe threat. And I think it was interpreted by many in the West as potentially a nuclear threat. So he sees basically any support to Ukraine, certainly military support, as a participation in the conflict. That's pretty clear from his statements, from statements of senior Russian officials.

And to be honest, you know, on March 12, I was passing through a part of Ukraine that includes a major base, a military base. And that base was being used to essentially, you know, receive supplies from across the border in Poland, redirect those supplies. And that base was hit with a number of Russian cruise missiles on March 12. That was, I think, a major escalation on the Russian part. It also signaled that Russia is targeting clearly Western support, you know, that's coming in. That is valid military target for the Russians. And they've already taken strikes to prove that they mean business on that.

GROSS: And this was in Ukraine, not the Polish side of the border.

SHUSTER: That's right. But it was maybe 10 miles away from the border. And there were also a lot of foreign volunteers, volunteer fighters who were coming there, who have been coming to Ukraine, you know, by the thousands from my reporting. I've met some of them. I talked to one who survived that strike and described just horrible scenes of, you know, pulling people out of the rubble. So I think when - it's important to understand that when Russia decided to strike that base with cruise missiles, it had to be aware that foreigners - Americans, Brits, Australians - were likely to be there and were likely to get hurt, and it bombed it anyway.

GROSS: Didn't you visit one of the centers or bases - I'm not sure what to call it - where foreign fighters are being trained to fight in this war, people who have volunteered to fight on an individual, like, freelance basis?

SHUSTER: Yes. Yes. These are all volunteers. And I want to be clear that these aren't people, you know, sent by any NATO country. These are volunteers. All the ones that I met were volunteers. You know, I met Americans, Brits, an Australian. And they usually have military training in their home countries. But they have come just out of a personal desire to help Ukraine. I visited their dormitory in the city of Lviv, in west Ukraine, where they have, you know, rooms for the arriving volunteers, foreign volunteers who are coming to help. And I attended one of their training sessions where they were training Ukrainians, just Ukrainian civilians who were planning to join the fight or felt they needed some military training. They were training them how to handle a Kalashnikov assault rifle and how to do basic first aid in case of injury to stop bleeding, essentially - very basic stuff.

GROSS: When you were at the base in Poland where American weapons were being sent to be transported into Ukraine, you saw a lot of anti-aircraft weapons. Now, Zelenskyy keeps saying that we should close the skies. NATO is reluctant to issue a no-fly warning because then it means that NATO would basically be shooting down the planes that violated it. So if we're already sending anti-aircraft weapons, do you think - I know you're not a military person, but does it seem like Ukraine has enough weapons to close down the skies itself?

SHUSTER: I'd say not yet, but I do think it's important to understand that there are many ways or several ways to impose a no-fly zone. And the Ukrainians have asked for and demanded and pleaded for what you might think of as the most extreme way where NATO planes - air, you know, American Air Force pilots would be patrolling the skies of Ukraine and shooting down Russian planes that would be entering the space of the no-fly zone. And, you know, potentially shooting down Russian planes with surface-to-air missiles as well. So that's sort of the extreme scenario that the Ukrainians have really been pleading for and calling for since the beginning.

You know, in some of their statements, they say, OK, if you don't want to do that, if you think that's too risky and could escalate too quickly into a broader war between the U.S. and Russia, give us the hardware to impose a no-fly zone ourselves. That is also possible. And I think the United States has said publicly that they are doing that. They are providing anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine. Those seem to be effective. So Ukraine has had quite a bit of success shooting down not only aircraft but cruise missiles, shooting them out of the sky before they land. The reporting actually on that base that I mentioned - the reporting about the attack on that base on March 12 in western Ukraine suggested that Russia launched 30 cruise missiles and only eight of them landed on the base. So that would suggest either they have very bad aim or a lot of them were shot down. So it just goes to show that there are many ways to do this, and the United States is, you know, taking a sort of - is not going all the way to a no-fly zone, as the Ukrainians have asked for, but they are providing anti-aircraft weapons that the Ukrainians can themselves use to defend the skies and to shoot down Russian aircraft.

Those aren't getting to all the places where they're needed. I spoke just recently to an official from the city of Mariupol, which is just besieged and the scene of just the most horrific human rights violations. It's cut off from the world. It's really a humanitarian catastrophe there. It's totally encircled from the sea, from the land, from the air. And the official from Mariupol told me that they don't have anti-aircraft weapons. They need them desperately, and that's what they're asking for. And so those weapons are not reaching yet all the places where they're needed. But they are flowing in across that border where I spent some time, yeah.

GROSS: You also examined humanitarian aid by driving in an aid convoy. What was it in the ambulance that you were driving? What kind of aid?

SHUSTER: Medical supplies, first aid kits, you know, supplies for field surgery - anything and everything that could be useful to a hospital for treating traumatic injuries. And these things were gathered in the Netherlands by volunteers there - charity workers. And they bought this old used - (laughter) very used - ambulance from Belgium and donated it to a Ukrainian hospital in Kyiv. And the convoy essentially drove it over the border and got it to that hospital. And it was packed with things that the hospital needed to continue working.

GROSS: Did you drive all the way to Kyiv?

SHUSTER: I was driving with this playwright from Berlin. So we were kind of trading off. I went only as far as western Ukraine, and he then carried on with the convoy to Kyiv.

GROSS: Were you stopped along the way? Did you run into any danger along the way?

SHUSTER: I mean, I guess there were some moments that were dangerous. You know, so when I got across the Polish border with the aid convoy, there was a team of Ukrainian officers - military officers - who came to help get the aid the rest of the way. And they sort of, you know, rendezvoused with the convoy after it got into Ukraine. And they drove me the rest of the way in to Lviv - the city of Lviv. So I traveled then with them, which was a kind of safer way to travel, I think, because they know the roads and they get through all the checkpoints. You know, it's - it feels a bit scary still. This was in the middle of the night, so maybe 3 in the morning. It feels scary to go through checkpoints, especially after curfew, when you're not allowed to be out driving. In any case, at night, if you're going through any kind of checkpoints, you know, it's always a bit scary because the soldiers who are manning those checkpoints can't see you very well. They might see your headlights, and it's just an unpleasant situation.

GROSS: Are you worried that we're on the brink of World War III?

SHUSTER: You know, it was a strange feeling. I - when I was on my way back out to Poland from Ukraine and I stopped by this base again in eastern Poland where the aid is coming in. And you see these massive military cargo planes arriving and unloading and new ones arriving. And that day, for some reason, I was getting a lot of messages from strangers on social media and some friends asking me, you know, what do you think are the chances of World War III? You know, are we on the brink of nuclear war? And I just - I - you know, standing there, looking at those planes arriving, I really didn't know how to answer. I mean, if there is a brink that we're standing on, I think that would be it. It would be that border. That is the border between NATO and Ukraine. That is the border through which these supply lines are now going into Ukraine.

You know, we don't know how this is going to look. We don't know how Russia is going to react. And, you know, I'm not here to say that this aid should be curtailed by any means. You know, I think Ukraine absolutely needs this aid. I think polling has shown pretty conclusively that the American public supports fully, you know, the American backing of Ukraine and supply lines into Ukraine. You know, but standing there, there is a bit of a feeling in the pit of your stomach that we are on the edge of a really era-defining war. We're already in it. We're already in it.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about your reporting. If you're just joining us, my guest is Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine and the Polish side of the border. From 2013 to 2020, he was Time's Berlin bureau chief, where he was responsible for the coverage of the EU and former USSR. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine and the Polish side of the border. And for many years, he covered the former USSR, including Ukraine, for Time magazine.

You've interviewed President Zelenskyy three times. The first time was before he was elected president, and that was in 2019. You interviewed him backstage during his variety show. Then you interviewed him during the impeachment of Trump - the first impeachment. And you interviewed him again and went with him to the front of Russia's attack on eastern Ukraine. So the first time you met him backstage at his variety show, when he was campaigning, what was he like then?

SHUSTER: He was very optimistic and charismatic and I think, in some ways, a little bit naive about what it would be like to enter the fray in the arena of global politics. Yeah, so he was running this campaign that, I think, many people in the first days took as a joke because he was the country's most famous comedian. He played the president on television in a hit sitcom that every Ukrainian saw on TV. So when he announced that he was running for president, it would be a bit like - I don't know - Julia Louis-Dreyfus announcing that she was running for president, you know, halfway through the second season of "Veep." It would just be - people wouldn't be sure how to take it (laughter).

So the campaign was unusual. He didn't publish any kind of detailed electoral platform. He didn't engage in debates. And instead, he toured his variety show, and he continued producing his sitcom where, again, he played the president on television. And the variety show was a lot of fun. It was kind of vaudeville, slapstick, some political satire, a lot of songs, dancing. And that kind of served as his campaign rally that he took on tour around the country.

So I met him backstage of that at the premiere of that show in Kyiv in March 2019. And, you know, we talked about his campaign, but he was very vague. He basically said, don't worry so much. We'll figure it out. And if we can't figure it out, then we'll get experts to help me. You know, and I remember telling him that, you know, I didn't really understand why he would want to leave behind the very fun life of a celebrity comedian and, you know, showman in exchange for confronting Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in the political arena. But he said that, you know, he's - he thinks it's worthwhile. He thinks Ukraine is going in the wrong direction, and he's the man to fix it as an outsider who is untainted by the corrupt political clans that have run Ukraine for 30 years.

So he ran a campaign as an outsider, as someone completely outside the political realm of rules, protocols and norms, and it was very successful. He won with an enormous landslide. Seventy-three percent of the population voted for him.

GROSS: I remember you telling me that his aides - some of his aides told you that they tried to keep him away from Facebook because it was depressing for him to see critical comments and that he was very thin-skinned and really needed to be liked and to get applause. When I compare that to him being, like, the No. 1 target for Russia and, you know, him saying to the world, this might be the last time you ever hear from me - he showed such incredible courage and bravery. It's such a change from that description of him being thin-skinned and not being able to handle (laughter) criticism.

SHUSTER: Yeah, yeah. And it has been an incredible transformation. And I guess it's just a lesson in courage. I got to know him, you know, throughout his tenure as president. There wasn't a lot to suggest that he would step up in the way he has. And then suddenly in the presidency, after the initial sheen of that enormous victory wore off a little bit and he was faced with the task of governing and trying to seek peace with Russia on terms that would not be humiliating to Ukraine, the honeymoon period was not long. And people began to very harshly criticize him. His approval ratings dropped from upwards of 70% to - down to 20% in some polls.

I think one thing that really hurt him was - like many leaders around the world - the COVID-19 pandemic, his handling of that, his inability to get vaccine supplies for a long time from Ukraine's Western allies and partners. So he struggled with that a lot. And it's true. One of his advisers told me that they try to keep him away from social media platforms because it just puts him in such a foul mood to read nasty comments and criticism from strangers. You know, and that's not a good sign generally for, you know, a wartime leader, so I did have my doubts as to how he would behave. But, man, you know, he surprised me. He surprised a lot of people.

I think he's been an absolute inspiration for Ukrainians and, honestly, for many of the Western leaders who might have even preferred to sit this one out or stay on the fence and not antagonize Russia. But because of his moral leadership, his wartime leadership, the power of his oratory and speechmaking in venues like the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress, you know, has made it politically and morally very difficult for Western leaders to not support him, to not really back Ukraine in this conflict. And I give a lot of the credit to Zelenskyy for that.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is TIME magazine reporter Simon Shuster, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine and the Polish side of the border. He covered Ukraine and Moscow for many years. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET'S "STRING QUARTET NO. 5: IV")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine and the Polish side of the border. From 2013 to 2020, he was Time's Berlin bureau chief, where he was responsible for the coverage of the EU and the former USSR. He was born in Moscow and emigrated with his family to San Francisco in 1989. He returned to Moscow in 2006 to work as a journalist and joined Time seven years later.

I want to ask you about your correspondence with Alexei Navalny, who is Putin's No. 1 political enemy. This week, Navalny was sentenced to nine more years in prison after having served two already. You traded a series of letters with him from last October to January while he was in prison. So before we get more into the story of your letters, refresh everybody's memory about who Navalny is and why he's Putin's No. 1 political enemy.

SHUSTER: I think he's the opposition leader that was, for many years now, the only one who posed even a mild threat to Putin's rule. He is a blogger, a lawyer, an activist. His main focus is campaigning against corruption in Russia. His - he's famous for putting out these investigations, often on YouTube. He would make video investigations of corruption, where he would expose the extravagant and insane wealth of Russian officials who whose government salaries couldn't really explain why they owned or appeared to own a yacht in Sardinia or, you know, a condo in Miami.

So that was his trademark issue, corruption. And, you know, he used that issue to get a really massive following. You know, we're talking millions of people on social media follow him. He was able to organize very large protests in Moscow and other cities. He had a very large network of offices or kind of outposts in smaller Russian cities around the country, I think around 80 of them, where activists who are part of his network would, you know, campaign for democratic elections, run in elections, campaign against corruption and so on.

So that kind of infrastructure of dissent was very dangerous for the Putin regime. It was a huge concern. And the crackdown and the means Russia used to silence Navalny got increasingly horrifying around 2020. Navalny in August of that year was poisoned with a chemical weapon that nearly killed him. He survived that poisoning attack. He was taken in a coma to Germany, where he was treated and where laboratories confirmed that he was poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent that was originally produced by the Soviet Union. And after he recovered from that poisoning, he returned to Russia, which I think was a very courageous move. He knew that he would very...

GROSS: He knew he'd be imprisoned, yeah.

SHUSTER: Absolutely. He was prepared to go to prison. He said it was never a question for him whether he needed to go back. When we were exchanging letters, you know, I asked him, how did you - tell me about your conversations with your wife and your, you know, political allies when you guys were deciding, should I go back? Should I not go back? Maybe it's better to stay in exile and try to continue his activism from abroad.

And his answer was really categorical. He said there were no such conversations. It was absolutely obvious to all of us that I must go back. I will not take myself off the field, so to say, and become just, you know, another dissident in exile. I'm a Russian politician, he said. I have to be in Russia. He knew he would be arrested. He was arrested immediately upon arrival and sent to jail, then sentenced to prison for 2 1/2 years. And as you said, this week, he got another nine years. But these sentences to him, you know, from our correspondence, it's clear that they don't - you know, they're painful, of course. But he understands that he will be in prison as long as Putin wants him to be in prison or as long as Putin is in power. So he only sees the light at the end of the tunnel, you know, when there is some opportunity to have political change in Russia.

GROSS: He's silenced in prison. I mean, he can't - he describes his prison cell as like living in a shoebox. So but you managed to have this correspondence with him. How did you manage to do that? To the extent that you can tell us.

SHUSTER: Yeah. I don't want to say too much about how that happened, but it was with the help of his allies. And I worry now, given the sentence that came down just this week. That sentence is for nine years in a maximum security penal colony, a facility much harsher and more isolated farther from Moscow than the one where he's been for the past couple years. And, you know, I worry that his connection to the outside world will be curtailed. But we have to wait and see. But clearly, you know, the gloves are off, and they have been for a long time in terms of Putin's attacks on the opposition.

You know, and one thing I'd say, you know, if I could, Terry, the - looking back at what Putin did to Navalny, at the time, it seemed really extreme to me. You know, yes, Navalny was a political threat, but not an immediate one. And, you know, the idea of poisoning him and, you know, banning his organization, forcing all of his allies into exile, these kinds of really extreme steps that the Russian government took seemed really a bit crazy, you know. It seemed unnecessary. But now with the hindsight we have of this war, it has seemed to me like the attack against the opposition, the attack against Navalny was a premeditation for the war.

Clearly, Russia was planning this war for a long time. Putin had this in mind, at least as a possibility for a long time. And what he did in imprisoning Navalny and, you know, banning his political organization was he essentially destroyed the main group, the main political leader who could mount an antiwar movement in Russia. He did that well before he launched this invasion. And, you know, we can't say for sure whether the two events are connected. But with hindsight, it does look like Putin was preparing the political field in Russia to prevent any kind of organized antiwar movement from arising once the invasion was underway.

GROSS: When you were corresponding with Navalny, what were some of the highlights of the things that he told you, the things that seemed most important?

SHUSTER: Well, looking back, I mean, his prognosis in terms of the military, the Russian military buildup around Ukraine, his prognosis was the same as virtually every experienced Russia analyst that I was reading and listening to and talking to. The prognosis was that this is all a bluff and that Putin should not be taken seriously. He's just trying to squeeze concessions out of the West, and the West should not play this game. So that was a big part of my conversation with Navalny. I generally was inclined to agree with his assessment that there was just no way that Putin would go so far as to bomb Kyiv. I mean, Kyiv is a city that Putin has himself for many years called the birthplace of Russian civilization. So it just seemed unfathomable to me and I think also to Navalny that such a scenario could play out.

I haven't been in touch with him directly since the invasion began, but that was certainly, you know, a key point in our correspondence, that he was advising the West not to fall for Putin's bluff. It turned out it was not a bluff. Yeah, we exchanged a lot of letters, you know, about what his conditions are like in prison, how he sees the future of Russia, political change in Russia. And, you know, he says that, yeah, most likely it will not be a democratic or an easy process. Most likely it will have to come through some serious unrest, whether in the streets or inside the Kremlin, because the regime has sunk its roots so deep into Russia that dislodging Putin from power will be a very difficult task, he wrote, and it won't be easy. As he put it in one letter, our path was never strewn with roses - clearly an understatement. But, you know, he's still envisioning change in Russia.

But, you know, given the sentence that was handed down just this week, nine more years in a penal colony for him, it is hard to imagine at this stage what that would look like. But he's certainly not giving up hope. You know, one thing that really shone through in his letters was a persistent and undying hope that political change in Russia would come eventually.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine on the Polish side of the border. He's reported from Ukraine and from Russia for years. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine on the Polish side of the border. From 2013 to 2020, he was Time's Berlin bureau chief, where he was responsible for the coverage of the EU and the former USSR.

You wrote a recent story for Time called "The Untold Story Of The Ukraine Crisis," and this was about the relationship between Putin and Viktor Medvedchuk, who - I think it's fair to call a media oligarch. He ran, like, the mouthpiece for Russia in Ukraine, like, the TV stations that were really the mouthpiece for Russia. Is that a fair description?

SHUSTER: Yeah, that's right. And then the other point I'd add is that he was the chairman of the main opposition party in the Ukrainian Parliament, the biggest opposition party, which was a pro-Russian party.

GROSS: So you describe his early friendship and his continued political relationship and friendship with Putin as being a kind of important communications link from Putin into Ukraine. Can you talk a little bit about what that political relationship was like and how Putin was able to influence Ukraine through Medvedchuk?

SHUSTER: Yeah. Well, they're just close personal friends. You know, that's one dimension of this. They vacation together. Vladimir Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk's teenage daughter, Darya. There's footage out there of Putin coddling her and, you know, them on holiday together at Medvedchuk's summer house in Crimea. So, you know, they're close personal friends. But at the same time, there's a deep political dimension to their friendship, which is that Medvedchuk represented Putin's best chance of regaining control of Ukraine politically. This was Putin's closest friend, proxy and ally in Ukraine. As I said, he has a major presence in the Ukrainian Parliament. Until recently, he owned three Ukrainian television channels that were conduits for what you could call Russian propaganda into Ukraine.

And Medvedchuk, when I met him, when I spoke to him, he was pretty clear that, you know, this is the kind of compromise that Russia sees in Ukraine, that it would have a strong political force, that, you know, maybe it wouldn't be the president, but it would be strong enough to, you know, essentially, represent Russia's interests in Ukraine's strategic decision-making - right? - when it came to joining the European Union, perhaps, or joining the NATO alliance. Medvedchuk represented the possibility that Putin could have these proxies in - embedded in the Ukrainian political system who would prevent Ukraine from integrating with the West. And this was the kind of compromise solution that Russia envisioned, that I think Putin was at least considering, I think, pursuing through Medvedchuk. And what the story is about is, you know, how that political course kind of went awry and was shut down.

GROSS: One of the things President Zelenskyy did was shut down Medvedchuk's Russian-influenced TV stations. Why did he shut them down?

SHUSTER: That's right. So very soon after President Biden took office in the U.S., President Zelenskyy in Kyiv took a very hard line against Medvedchuk, these, you know, Russian politicians who act as proxies for the Kremlin in Ukraine, as mouthpieces for Russia. He banned their television channels. He seized some assets, including a major oil pipeline that was linked to Medvedchuk and his family. That oil pipeline helped bankroll essentially the pro-Russian or Russian political operation in Ukraine, right? You could think of it, you know, as the - again, it's a general (laughter) - it's a generous use of the word soft power. But it was at least, you know, short of military power.

So Russia was trying to gain control of Ukrainian politics by fielding its own politicians, right? And Zelenskyy went after them. He saw them as a fifth column, as essentially traitors undermining Ukrainian sovereignty. And in the spring of last year, Medvedchuk was actually charged with treason and placed under house arrest.

GROSS: So if these TV stations that Medvedchuk owned were a mouthpiece for Putin, for Russian propaganda, what was Putin's reaction when Zelenskyy shut down these stations?

SHUSTER: Yeah, Putin was furious about that. He made a public statement when Medvedchuk was - when he faced criminal charges and was put under house arrest. Putin called that an obvious purge of the political playing field. And if you look back at the chronology, the history of Russian forces building up on the border with Ukraine, that began in the spring of last year - and the first kind of massing of troops. And what I did in that story is, you know, I went back, and I looked at the chronology of what was going on at the moment when those troops - that troop buildup began. And it began less than two days after Medvedchuk's assets were seized by the Ukrainian government. So that doesn't prove causation, but there were - there was clearly a correlation timewise. And again, Putin was expressing real anger at Ukraine taking these steps against his proxies.

So as those events were unfolding, you know, Ukraine was going after Putin's allies and proxies. Russia was sending troops to the border at the same time. I met with Medvedchuk. I spoke to him. I interviewed him in his office in Kyiv. I interviewed one of his closest allies who basically functions as his envoy to the West. And the message from them - to summarize - was, look, we are the political option for Russian control in Ukraine. If you take us off the playing field, Putin will reach - is much more likely to reach for the hard-power options, for the military. So if Zelenskyy and Ukraine don't want to deal with us, you know, pro-Russian politicians, they're going to have to deal with a much harsher reality when Putin reaches for his armed forces.

I think, you know, it would be an oversimplification to say that this was the only reason Putin decided to invade. But I think it's quite clear that it contributed, that these political steps, these political changes inside Ukraine left Putin feeling like, you know, he didn't have any political options for regaining control of Ukraine.

GROSS: So where is Medvedchuk now? Do we know?

SHUSTER: I don't know. There were reports that he - so he was under house arrest when the invasion started - accused of treason and facing trial. But there were reports that, first, his wife fled the country, and then he was somehow able to escape house arrest. Those reports were credible. My sources confirm that he is no longer at home (laughter). So he escaped house arrest somehow very early in the invasion - I think in the first days. It's not clear where he is now.

I think he was certainly one of the candidates that Putin had in mind if Russia had succeeded in quickly moving in, decapitating the government in Kyiv, and installing some kind of puppet regime backed by the Russian military. Medvedchuk was certainly at the top of the list of the people that Putin might have wanted to install as a kind of viceroy or puppet leader loyal to Russia.

So, you know, I think he may still be - Medvedchuk may still be holding out hope for such a scenario. But realistically, given the military failures on the ground, it doesn't look like that scenario is going to play out any time soon. It's really hard to imagine, you know, Russia at this stage installing some kind of puppet government in Kyiv. I don't see how that's going to happen.

GROSS: My guest is TIME magazine national correspondent Simon Shuster, who spent many years reporting for TIME from Moscow and Ukraine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with TIME magazine reporter Simon Shuster, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine and the Polish side of the border. From 2013 to 2020, he was TIME's Berlin bureau chief where he was responsible for the coverage of the EU and the former USSR.

You know, I don't know what you'll have to say about this, but I've heard a lot of people - a lot of Ukrainian refugees talking about how they want to get back to Ukraine. And I keep thinking, what would you be returning to? So many of them, their homes were destroyed. They don't have a home now. It just seems that the impact of this war is going to last for so many years.

SHUSTER: Yeah, I have that feeling too. But among Ukrainians I speak to, there's an overwhelming sense that if they could just make it to the other end of this invasion, if they could just survive as a country with the leadership they have ub President Zelenskyy, if they could just survive, that they will be stronger at the other end. They will have the united, unified support of the world, of the West. They believe that their ambition, their long-standing hope of joining the European Union will be a lot more realistic if they survive this war. And, you know, everyone that I ask about, you know, what do you see on the other side of this, they say we'll rebuild. Don't worry about it. If we make it - and they're generally very confident. I mean, I really can't overstate how high morale is among Ukrainian people, among Ukrainian leadership, people around Zelenskyy. They believe in themselves. They believe in the cause of this war. And they do think that, you know, they'll be - they'll come out stronger if they can just survive.

GROSS: What was it like for you to return to New York after being in Ukraine and on the Polish side of the border and watching all these arms coming in, riding in an aid convoy into Ukraine, talking with diplomats who are organizing efforts in Ukraine?

SHUSTER: Yeah, it's hard, of course. I mean, I was thrilled to be back with my family and to spend time with my wife and our daughter and to be back home in New York. But it's very hard coming out of a situation like that. I mean, I found myself looking up at the buildings in midtown Manhattan, and I couldn't help but imagine, you know, a missile striking one of them or, you know, one of them damaged the way that buildings in Kyiv have been damaged, buildings in Mariupol. You know, this is a city that I knew very intimately. I love Kyiv. It's become like a second home to me because of my reporting, because of my family connections there. And just seeing the destruction of that city ongoing and other cities in Ukraine just gave me this feeling that, you know, nothing is really protected in the way that I thought it was before, you know. That's a hard one to carry, and it's made it hard to keep my mind in New York because I feel like mentally I'm still there. I don't necessarily want to change that. I think it's such a horrific and important set of events that I want to be there as much as I can to cover it and to understand it - yeah. But it makes, you know, being in a peaceful city a bit harder.

GROSS: Simon Shuster, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you so much for your reporting.

SHUSTER: Thank you.

GROSS: Simon Shuster is a reporter for Time magazine. I have something new to tell you about at FRESH AIR. We've just launched a weekly newsletter. It's written by producers Seth Kelley and Molly Seavy-Nesper. And it's a funny, engaging glimpse into the making of our show. You'll find out more about the interviews you heard each week and the ones you missed, as well as staff recommendations, features from our archive and a look at what's coming down the pike. You can subscribe to FRESH AIR Weekly at whyy.org/freshair. That's whyy.org/freshair.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

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