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Ukraine Report #1: The Morning of the Attack with Oliya Scootercaster

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Ukraine Report #1: The Morning of the Attack with Oliya Scootercaster

Oliya Scootercaster is a Ukrainian Video Journalist who has lived and reported around the globe, but recently returned to her hometown of Kyiv to document the ongoing conflict with Russia.

We interviewed her right before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

Visit her website, scootercaster.com, to see her on-the-ground footage of Kiev as this invasion unfolds, and follow her on twitter at @ScooterCasterNY.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Burn the Boats. Before we start, I want to apologize for the sound quality of this episode. For some context, my guest is halfway around the world in Kyiv. Twelve hours after our interview, Russia launched it’s invasion. Events have overtaken us. Even so, we’ve decided to air this conversation, Partly, to give you a sense of how it felt in Kyiv, to see an entire country held hostage by the threat of violence. But also to mark the moment, when Ukrainians held out hope that reason would prevail. There should be no doubt who the aggressor here is. It is Vladimir Putin.

Oliya has continued to document the invasion as it unfolds. We wish her the best of luck.

And we will do our best to continue bringing you insightful perspectives as the conflict evolves.

Here’s how it felt, to one Ukrainian journalist in Kyiv, on the eve of war.

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Oliya Scootercaster:

I mean, the worst case scenario is World War Three, but I remain hopeful that politicians will finish up their game and make a diplomatic decision instead of destroying lives.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Oliya Scootercaster, a Ukrainian video journalist who has lived and reported around the globe, but recently returned to her hometown of Kyiv to document the ongoing conflict with Russia. I asked Oliya to come on the show to share what she's seen so far, to discuss Ukrainian sentiments about the situation, and to hopefully provide some insight to what's next for Ukraine, Russia, and the US. Oliya, thanks for joining me.

Oliya Scootercaster:

Hey, thank you.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'd like to start with some of the background. Ukraine shares deep historical ties with Russia. It was part of the Soviet Union in 1991. It gained its independence, and some economic hardships followed along with political turmoil. But today Ukraine is a democracy, unlike its Russian neighbor. How do you, how do Ukrainians, think about their country and its relationships with both the West and with Russia?

Oliya Scootercaster:

I mean, in general, it really depends who you ask. From back when I was growing up, the younger generation seemed to lean more towards the European lifestyle and the older generation, of course, romanticized how the USSR used to be. Nowadays, it's, I mean, people just want peace. They just want to be able to live their lives.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is that attitudinal difference also present depending on geography. I mean, we hear all the time about the eastern regions Luhansk and Donetsk and Donbas. I imagine that's part of the internal tension as well. Right?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Correct. I went to… I stayed in Donbas for about two weeks. I did go to a village and I spoke to people around there. And most of them would basically just say that they're not for either side. They've been living in the country that's under war for, is it eight years now? And from what they told me, the prices have grown. They're not getting much help outside of volunteers. And they basically just want to get back to normal.

The people that I interviewed, the general message was they don't want either side. They just want peace and they want the prices to become normal again. They don't want to hear shelling. They don't want to see grenades. They just want a normal life.

Ken Harbaugh:

And what are you hearing as you travel around Ukraine or even there in Kyiv about, I guess, the balance of responsibility here? Is there a prevailing sentiment that most Ukrainians feel one way or the other about who's to blame?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Oh, I mean, pretty much everybody I ask just wants Russia to stop trying to get into the country, yes. I mean, yes, Ukrainians, the majority of the people... not the majority, I mean, everybody I personally spoke to, all blame the Russian side for invading. I'm saying majority because, of course, I didn't question the entire Ukraine, so I can only say a majority. But every single person I've spoken to just wants Russia to stop attacking or trying to mess with the country. Like they're all saying that back in the day, they never thought that somebody who the country considered their friend would ever attack them. And it's just like a feeling of disbelief.

Ken Harbaugh:

So let's bring it to the present that, I mean, you're describing it as an attack, and that is the movement of Russian troops into those eastern breakaway provinces. Is that right? Are we talking about the same thing?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Yeah. I mean, they're currently occupying Ukrainian territories and you know, as of, was it two days ago or a day ago, they moved in what they called peacekeeping troops into the Ukraine or into Ukraine.

Ken Harbaugh:

And what is your reaction, and the reaction of the people you talk to that framing, to calling them peacekeeping troops?

Oliya Scootercaster:

I mean, everybody knows it's not peacekeeping troops. There was a situation in Kazakhstan with a protest. And just around the time when peacekeeping troops came in, there were a lot of people killed. So that word isn't very comforting to anyone.

Ken Harbaugh:

And you're talking about the Russian moving in troops to Kazakhstan to prop up the autocrat there and peaceful protests.

Oliya Scootercaster:

From my understanding, it wasn't necessarily Russians. It was like multiple countries did it together. I remember somebody reported there's Russians and it was actually corrected later. But just in general, the peacekeeping troops do not sound very peacekeeping when you come into somebody else's country by force.

Ken Harbaugh:

What are the fears of Ukrainians now? You have a massive Russian presence inside eastern Ukraine. You have an even larger buildup of Russian forces just across the border. I would imagine there is a palpable fear that what you are experiencing is just the beginning of something bigger.

Oliya Scootercaster:

I mean, a hundred percent. While until very recently it was very calm and it didn't look like it was going to escalate, the last few days have changed everything drastically. So I think people kind of expect the worst to happen now. That's the general consensus that I've gotten. It's going to happen, we just don't know when.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk about specifically what you're seeing? I saw some of your reporting outside the Russian embassy, for example.

Oliya Scootercaster:

Right. So yesterday they announced the Russian embassy would be evacuating around Ukraine. When I arrived there, there were riot police in riot gear leaving. I'm not sure why they were there. And I went around the back to where the diplomatic cars would usually leave, and I saw a diplomatic car arrive and carry out a bunch of boxes that they brought into the embassy grounds. And then about half an hour later, you could see little flames and a lot of smoke coming out.

Ken Harbaugh:

And I mean, I think the implication is clear, right? But let's just spell it out. They're burning documents because they're going to abandon an embassy in a country they're about to invade.

Oliya Scootercaster:

Yeah, to evacuate the embassy, yes, I'm assuming they have to get rid of the classified information.

Ken Harbaugh:

Got it. What is Ukraine doing officially to prepare? Do you have insight into military preparations, into what the Ukrainian arm forces are doing to ready themselves?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Yes. So far there is always ongoing training. They called in reserves today, now officially. More people are trying to join different volunteer groups and official training groups. Volunteer groups actually seem to be part of the JFO. So I'm assuming those people, if they want to, they'll be able to join the army as well.

So this is something, this is the message that they shared with the journalists. That just now Russia-24 named a list of “85 people of the top leadership of Ukraine, which the investigative committee of Russia considers it necessary to bring to criminal responsibility for the genocide of civilian population of Donbas. The list includes the commanders of all brigades of the armed forces of Ukraine, 2014, 2015, and those who command now, defense ministers, et cetera, GFO and ATO.” So it seems like things are moving. The fact that they announced a list publicly like that.

Ken Harbaugh:

I was going to ask. So that isn't a leaked document. That is an intimidation tactic. They're putting that out publicly.

Oliya Scootercaster:

Yes. It appears to be, yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Okay. So you've described how the Ukrainian government is preparing and the mobilization of troops and the recall of guard members. How about the Ukrainian people? What are you seeing on the streets of Kyiv and outside Kyiv among your fellow Ukrainians?

Oliya Scootercaster:

I would say there actually are way less people in Kyiv now. Definitely over the last week, I see less and less people. So I'm assuming the ones that could leave, left. And the ones that are staying from the ones I spoke to, they all have their safety plan. They have their bags and documents ready to go. They have their extra water, extra food. You know, they're thinking of safety precautions and escape plans.

Ken Harbaugh:

Have you talked to anybody with a cultural memory of invasion or occupation? I would imagine for you and your peer group, this is otherworldly. But there are surely people who remember what European war looks like and just how devastating it is. Ukraine, of course, being the second largest country in Europe after Russia itself, this is not a minor affair.

Oliya Scootercaster:

Right. And I think most people understand that. I am a little surprised by those who don't seem to care or realize the gravity of the situation.

Ken Harbaugh:

What are the people you're talking about saying about the US and other Ukrainian allies, and what is needed from them?

Oliya Scootercaster:

In general, it seems people are grateful for all the help, but also some feel like there is a lot of talk and not enough action. I'm sure it also comes back from 2014, 2015 when not much was done after the country was invaded. And now is the deciding moment to see whether those words were empty. But it seems like some sanctions are happening. But you know, people are optimistic, but doubtful. I saw on a Ukrainian TV station, they did a little poll on whether the current sanctions are enough to change anything. And 85% said no.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is there a hope in that reaction that the West will go beyond sanctions? Are people expecting more than an economic response? What are they talking about? What are you talking about when you say living up to our promises?

Oliya Scootercaster:

I think people want more help. They understand that because Ukraine is not part of NATO, there is not much that can be done. But considering that this war could become everybody's problem, not just Ukraine's problem, I think they're expecting more and hoping more.

Ken Harbaugh:

When you say this war could become everyone's problem. Can you explain that a bit? How would a Russian invasion of Ukraine impact the rest of us?

Oliya Scootercaster:

From what I'm seeing right now, all countries are kind of entangled in the decisions. So if something were to happen, it's not going to be just Ukrainians, because there's already sanctions happening and everything, I feel like you will all get mixed. Like everybody will be a part of it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah.

Oliya Scootercaster:

And I still feel like Ukraine is simply being used as a chess piece, you know? But unfortunately it's this country and yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are you hearing about aid and support to Ukraine, and in particular the Ukrainian military, that is material like the shipment of equipment?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Yeah, there are regular shipments of things, weaponry and helmets from Germany. I think they gave a bunch of helmets. I mean, I'm seeing posts of some sort of help landing in Boryspil airport quite often.

Ken Harbaugh:

And what are your plans should the Russian forces now in eastern Ukraine decide to continue moving west? How close is Kyiv?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Kyiv is close to Belarus. So the danger here is mostly from Belarus. If they continue moving through Donbas, it will take a while to get to Kyiv. But the worry is if they were to push against Donbas and the army responds, what stops them from moving troops from Belarus towards Kyiv. And after the last speech I listened to by Putin, it's very concerning.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yes. Can you tell us about that speech, because there were some very alarming pronouncements in it, among them Putin saying that Ukraine, and this is a quote, "Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood." I mean, that seems like the excuse of every autocrat invading a neighbor.

Oliya Scootercaster:

It honestly just felt like it's something personal.

Ken Harbaugh:

Oh, what do you mean by that?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Mean, just all politics. It's a sight. There is so much hate for this country. And I can't even gather why.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Oliya, I'm wondering if anyone has suggested why it seems so personal for Putin, because I have picked up on the same. Something about the dissolution of th e Soviet Union is such an animating thing for Putin. He wants to undo that, and Ukraine is the centerpiece of that. Does that make sense?

Oliya Scootercaster:

What I'm hearing from basically every single person I've talked to about this is they think that he just has mental illness, that it's his age, and COVID isolation caused this. They bring to attention, for example, the long tables, the extremely long tables. And then some people mention the paranoia in the speeches, stuff like that. So the general message that I've been hearing is that it's just mental illness, or from him being older. And then there's nothing that can change it at this point.

Ken Harbaugh:

And when you say the extremely long tables for those who haven't seen them, you're talking about Putin sitting literally 20 feet away from an advisor in a meeting, like Wayne Manor style, he’s at the very end of the table, at the dominant position, and everyone else is at the other end.

Have you had the opportunity to talk to soldiers in the Ukrainian army or their family members about their state of mind and what they expect?

Oliya Scootercaster:

I mean, they just keep fighting. There's not much they can do. Some say it's the same thing. You know, they're still attacking us, it’s just escalated a lot.

Ken Harbaugh:

And this isn't a cold war confrontation. It is, it has become bloody. The invasion involved artillery, barrages. Funerals are already being held. This is very real and already deadly for Ukrainians, right?

Oliya Scootercaster:

Yes. I mean, at least there's daily, multiple injuries. There was death again today. There was more death the previous days. I mean, well before, when I was in Donbas, which was two weeks ago, from time to time, you would have an injury, a sniper would hit someone. Now it's escalated to daily numbers. Before. when the Joint Forces Operation would send the press a breakdown of what has happened, it would be this many violations occurred. This many violations occurred, nobody injured, nobody injured. And now when we receive this briefing, it usually has a count of how many people have been hurt, how many people have been killed. Yesterday a civilian was shot and killed. Others were also hurt. So it's definitely a large escalation.

Ken Harbaugh:

In your mind. What is the worst case scenario? How bad might this get?

Oliya Scootercaster:

I mean, the worst case scenario is World War Three, but I remain hopeful that politicians will finish up their game and make a diplomatic decision instead of destroying lives.

Ken Harbaugh:

And, yeah, that was going to be my next question. What do you hope for and what message do you want to convey to the US?

Oliya Scootercaster:

My message to people is just to remember that there are families here, just like you, just like everybody else. While it's so easy to get into politics and be like, "Screw that, screw this. Oh, no, I support this. Oh, no, he sounds cool." Like, there are actually people here whose lives are going to be destroyed. It's not just politics for them. And I think a lot of people forget that even just the fear mongering that was happening, I mean, it was constant. Like I would wake up in the morning, everything is fine. Two hours later, the invasion is imminent, I'm packing a bag. Two hours later, it's fine again. “Oh, okay. I can continue filming.” Then another two hours later, it's going to be another invasion. And it's constantly ongoing nonstop. And it's just not helping the Ukrainian people here. And I mean, things should be done that are helpful rather than hurtful.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yes. Thank you so much, Oliya, for your time.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Oliya for joining me. Visit her website, scootercaster.com, to see her on-the-ground footage of Kyiv as this invasion unfolds, and follow her on twitter at @ScooterCasterNY

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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