“The Image of Putin Has Broken”

Maidan protest, 2014
Maidan protest in 2014. Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty.
Julia Ioffe
February 28, 2022

On November 21, 2013, Ukrainian investigative journalist Mustafa Nayyem posted an innocent enough message on Facebook. “Meet you at 10:30 pm under the Monument of Independence,” he wrote. “Dress warmly, bring umbrellas, tea, coffee, a good mood, and friends. Repost in every possible way. Welcome!” 

It was a response to Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych bowing to pressure from Vladimir Putin to back out of an economic cooperation agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. Putin didn’t like the idea of Ukraine drawing closer to Europe—and away from him—so he sent Yanukovych a massive aid package, which was, essentially, a bribe. Like many other young Ukrainians, the 32-year-old Nayyem was not happy with the decision, which meant that Ukraine would continue to be stuck in the mentality and system of the sovok, the “dustpan,” which is slang for the Soviet era. So he called people out to protest. And because he was a bit of a journalistic celebrity, people listened and came out—lots and lots of people. And they stayed and stayed and stayed. Even when Yanukovych sent goons to beat up the college students and young people on Kyiv’s Maidan, or public square, they stayed and more people came to join them, people from all over the city, and then from all over the country.

It all came to a head on February 20, 2014, when Yanukovych, apparently under pressure from Putin, ordered the special police to open fire on the protestors. At the time, I was covering the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and seeing the news, I decided to go to Kyiv. By the time I managed to get on a flight, the shooting had thankfully stopped, but the death toll was in the dozens. I arrived on the 21st. Mustafa, who was a close friend of my boyfriend at the time, met me on the Maidan, gave me a flak jacket and a helmet, and then took me on a tour of the vast encampments that had now spread on the Maidan and around it. It was like being in Blade Runner. Lit by the fires blooming from oil drums and trash cans, young men in knee pads and athletic helmets trained with bats and pieces of wood bristling with nails. The shooting was over for the night, but there was talk it would start again tomorrow. The mood was tense, frightening. After the tour, I bought some water and food and holed up in my hotel room. When I woke up the next morning, the city was jubilant: Yanukovych had fled. The Revolution of Dignity had triumphed.

It was also the beginning of the long conflict that brought us to where we are today, a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Soon after that night on the Maidan, “little green men”—Russian soldiers without identifying insignia—showed up in Crimea. Astroturf separatists began to pop up in Donetsk. And now, here we are.

Mustafa, meanwhile, pivoted to politics. Along with two other journalists who had been deeply involved in organizing the Maidan, he ran for parliament—and won. He spent five years in the Rada, where, among other things, he served on the law enforcement committee and led a successful effort to reform the corrupt traffic police. In 2019, he left parliament to serve as the deputy director of Ukroboronprom, the state defense concern. In the spring of 2021, he joined the Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport as deputy minister, a position he still holds today.

Mustafa Nayyem during a session of Parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, June 2018.

I reached Mustafa on Sunday. He was still in Kyiv, and the day before, he laughed at me when, after seeing the reports of Russian forces shelling the capital, I asked if he was safe in a bomb shelter. “The bomb shelter is only for women, children, and old people,” he explained. (I joked that, now that he was 40, he had full rights to the shelter.) He was working feverishly, trying to get supplies to a city that was running out of fuel and bread, and was about to enter another difficult night. On its western border, shipments of weapons and humanitarian supplies were flooding in from all over Europe. It was the only way to get them in because the air space over Ukraine was now closed and teeming with Russian bombers and missiles. But many of the roads and bridges had been destroyed, too. It was a logistical nightmare and Mustafa hadn’t slept in days. Still, he took a bit of time to talk to me. He was full of the fighting spirit Americans are now seeing all over Twitter, and being, perhaps, a little too optimistic about the outcome of the war only three days into it. And though he acknowledged the dangers that still lay ahead, the surprise and delight at having held off a military that was stronger and more numerous, that was supposed to have conquered them by now, was palpable. For a man who was born in Kabul in 1981, two years after the Soviet invasion, this was no small thing. Our conversation has been translated, edited, and condensed for clarity.

Julia Ioffe: Let’s start with the situation on the ground. It’s Sunday morning here, it’s early Sunday evening in Kyiv. What are things like right now?

Mustafa Nayyem: The situation is that the entire country is completely and fully plugged in and helping the army in defending territory. The second thing is that everyone is suffering a lot; it’s a humanitarian problem, because all of this fighting has severely damaged the logistical connections and supplies of food, fuel, and ammunition all over the country. So we at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport are working to fix these supply chains as much as we can. Private businesses are also helping a lot. I’ve never seen this kind of unity of business, government and the people, not even during the Maidan. Back then, it was a conflict inside the country. The government was fighting the protesters and the protesters were fighting the government. Now, everything has changed so drastically. I don’t remember anything like this. The whole country is unified. Even people who used to fight each other, who publicly annihilated each other, who are from totally different ideological camps, different socio-economic levels, they’re united. You’re seeing opposition journalists helping the government get help to people, businessmen joining militias, people who had never before been involved in logistics are helping with transporting goods. Private businesses are providing free fuel, free transport of humanitarian aid, of weapons. There’s almost no criticism of the president. People are really supporting the army. People stopping tanks with their bare hands. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just stunning. 

Right now, we have three cities that are basically like Stalingrad: Mariupol, Chernihiv, and Sumy, which are still holding back the Russians. Every time, you think, that’s it, they’ve entered the city, and then our guys go on the counteroffensive and push them out. What’s key is that, for the third day in a row, the Russian army hasn’t been able to take a single regional capital or a single city. The Russians thought they would be greeted as liberators, but no one is greeting them. And the most important thing is that we all understand that they don’t have a chance. There is a clear understanding that they’ll never be able to capture the cities. They just won’t get in, because every brick and every piece of asphalt will fight them. There are 25,000 weapons in Kyiv alone and all these people will defend their city, they will all repel the invader. Because the Russians don’t have a chance. They haven’t been able to secure any territory. It’s incredible. The biggest army on the continent that has such power, and yet they haven’t taken a single city.

Yes, we are really suffering right now, things are really hard. It really hurts because we’re losing people. People are sleeping two hours a night because it’s impossible to sleep. You can’t fall asleep because you’re constantly watching the news. That’s why the biggest problem right now is that we really want to sleep.

You mentioned the bombed roads and destroyed infrastructure. You have Europe and the U.S. sending all these weapons and humanitarian aid. How hard is it to distribute it?

It’s not a problem. It’s something I’m personally working on and it’s not a problem. One issue is that there’s so much of everything that we don’t have time to pick it all up, but that’s a different issue. What we do lack is a powerful air defense system, and that’s the only way in which we’re losing, and even then, we were able to shoot down five fighter jets. There’s a different problem: if all this stuff had been given to us earlier and [the West] hadn’t dragged its feet all these years, we would have been much more prepared and there wouldn’t be so many casualties.

What do you need the most? People in the U.S. are constantly asking how they can help Ukraine.

Air defense systems. With neighbors like these, it’s obvious we need to build our own defense system and we have to anticipate what’s on the horizon. It should be built on this assumption because no one expected this turn of events—that Putin will start such a massive war with the use of aviation, artillery, and rocket systems.  

But people did expect exactly this. This is what the Biden administration has been warning you about for months, both publicly and behind the scenes.

First of all, no one believed them. Second, this concentration of Russian forces started in April of last year. We have been living with this war for eight years already. What was happening in Luhansk and Donetsk is now happening all over the country. They’re bombing us now, but we’ve already lived through this once. So when the Americans said, there’s going to be a war, for us, the war was already here, but somewhere far away, in the east. No one thought they would shell Kyiv. No one in Kyiv thought they would try to send troops into the city. No one could have imagined that they would send their fighter jets here. Really, we couldn’t believe it was possible.

But even if they all knew it, then why didn’t they supply us with weapons before? Why didn’t they see that Ukraine didn’t have enough? Why didn’t they, if they knew that we live next door to a country controlled by such a sick person and that he could get such a sick idea in his head, help us sooner?

But in the last three days, something very important happened. First of all, no one is scared anymore. At first, everyone was very scared. But then we all understood that there was no way out. We’re on our own land, we have to fight and we will fight. Now, people are still scared but there’s a sense that something shifted. I can’t imagine people laying down their arms. It’s impossible. People won’t lay down their arms. 

That’s why we’re seeing Putin start to break. The image of this great leader, he can do anything he wants in Moscow, he can get his way by breaking anyone over his leg like a twig—but not here. Here, you can go take a hike, bro. It’s not going to happen here. Everyone is telling you to fuck off. It’s become cool here. Our streets are now covered with billboards that say, “Russian ship, go fuck yourself.” Our railroad company wrote to the Russians, “Russian train, go fuck yourself.” Now everyone has told him to fuck off: all the countries of the European Union, who have closed their air space to him. Now we know that the Putin that we all thought was omnipotent, this image that he created and that his government media propagated, no longer exists. Now we all see that he’s a pathetic person who, despite having a massive army, couldn’t conquer anything. They’re losing—I cannot convey to you—they are losing an enormous amount of military hardware. Our cities are covered in their destroyed hardware. He’s losing his army. He’s sending in more and more, and losing it all. And he hasn’t accomplished anything. This image of Putin has broken. Putin isn’t Putin anymore.

The other thing is that he thought that everyone would sit back and watch, but that’s not what happened. Yes, of course, no one wants to get into a war and that greatly upsets us, but on the other hand, everyone came to Ukraine’s defense. Even the countries that were neutral and tried not to taunt Putin. Even Germany. They agreed to send weapons yesterday. Or Cyprus, Hungary, and Italy, which didn’t want to kick Russian banks out of SWIFT, have already agreed to this. 

There is no Putin. He made himself up and imposed himself on a huge nation that is now in total shock that this midget turned out to be a midget, rather than a king. This is an important point: Right now, we feel that it’s important to raise the bar. The question isn’t if we’ll survive. We’ll survive. The question is how he falls. Because he has to fall after this. He doesn’t exist and he will be annihilated as a leader and as a person.

See, this is what scares me. I worry that, if he feels like he’s losing, if he feels like he’s backed into a corner, he decides to carpet bomb Kyiv, to turn it into Grozny, which the Russian army leveled in the ’90s.

There’s a risk that he will use some kind of banned weapon, that they’re preparing the ground to do something ugly so that he can enter a different city. But I hope that he won’t manage to do this. My bigger hope lies with the Russian people. If before, Putin behaved like he and the oligarchs weren’t suffering and the country somehow made it through and had enough money, now the whole country will suffer. Now a Russian won’t be able to go into an Apple store and buy what they want like they used to. That’s a problem. It’s a small problem, but a problem nonetheless. And they will continue to suffer from the sanctions for many years because it’s not easy to roll back sanctions. That means that he’s signed his own sentence. People will come out into the streets and sweep him out. You already have [Russian oligarchs] Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska saying that they want peace. Come on. This has never happened before.

Why do you think the Russian army has been performing so poorly?

Because they’re dumbasses. Because they don’t know how to fight—and we do. Because to fight on someone else’s territory, you have to be motivated. What kind of motivation do these people have? We see that most of the soldiers who came here don’t understand why they’re here. If you’re fighting here, on your own turf, you might be injured, but you’ll tough it out because you know why you’re doing this. It’s different if you’re a Russian soldier. First, they kept you in the cold on the border for half a year, then they sent you in on hardware that’s absolute shit, where there’s no coordination, and you’re met with a highly motivated, tough army that’s been fighting for eight years. It’s a totally different story. And the guys who are fighting here, they understand that if they lose, they’re not just losing their life, they’re losing their country, their kids. Behind them are their wives, their families. What do the Russians have behind them? Nothing. No ideas, not even an understanding of what they’re doing here.

There are all these videos circulating in which captured Russian soldiers say that they didn’t know they were being sent to Ukraine. Do you believe them?

I believe it. I know for a fact that no one told these people that they were going to war with Ukraine. If they were told that, then it would have come out. Not through the American intelligence services, but from these soldiers. It’s obvious that they were pulled into this war while being told that they were participating in some exercises. The second thing I want to say is, we see how many corpses there are in our streets but how there’s no news about them [in Russia]. But we will show it. Our plan is to return these bodies. We will show them, however many there are. By our count, there are already more than 3,000. It’s more men than Putin lost in the entire Syrian campaign. And the most important thing is that they’re silent about it.

For Putin, this is a personal matter. He’s fighting Ukraine, but he’s also fighting his past losses. He lost Ukraine in [the Orange Revolution of 2004] and he lost it again in 2014. In 2013, he controlled everything here. He had the whole army, he had a pro-Russian president, the special services were pro-Russian. And he fucked up and lost it all. Now he wants to prove that he can win it all back, but he’s trying to win back something that no longer belongs to him. Ukraine will never accept it. He can’t turn us into Armenia or even Georgia.

I have a more personal question. You were born in Kabul in 1981. What’s it like to experience a second Russian invasion?

It’s completely surreal. When the Russians invaded, my father was about five to seven years younger than I am now. So I am now basically the same age as he was when that war came to him. My son is about the same age I was then, give or take. When I was a kid, they used to scare us with the word “Stinger.” We all knew that a Stinger was an American weapon to shoot down planes. Now I’m living through this a second time and I think it’s time to put an end to this empire. For me, it is a repeat of my entire life. My father ran from his country, he emigrated. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to repeat his fate. This is my country, this is my homeland. Putin made a massive miscalculation. For most Soviets, Afghanistan was somewhere far away. This time, he invaded a country that is very close, that used to be part of Russia. For Russians, this is very different from Afghanistan.

There’s a cult of Zelensky forming in the West, showing him as this brave and heroic leader who can also ballroom dance. How does this look from Ukraine? Is he as popular there?

I saw him maybe twice in my life, but last night I saw him and we talked for a long time. He’s very tired but he’s very energized. No one expected him to behave like this. I think his most important tool is that he tells it like it is. He’s not trying to pretend that someone’s winning or losing, he’s not trying to be coy with the people. He just tells it like it is. But his biggest trump card is that he speaks honestly to the West. He throws it in their faces, saying, Guys, all these years when you were helping us, you weren’t helping us but yourselves. We don’t need your handouts. If you want to help us, help us. If you don’t, don’t. 

Of course, part of his strength is that he has the army behind him as well as the Ukrainian people and their spirit. He is behaving in a dignified way and people understand that he won’t betray them. That’s his biggest strength. Before, there were doubts. People worried that he would betray them and compromise. But it didn’t happen. He really is the president of this country. Here, it’s not a cult in the sense that it’s forced on people or that it’s some kind of window dressing. People can see and feel that it’s also hard for him, that he’s also suffering.

Like I said, I talked to him last night for a long time, for the first time. He’s really fired up, he is intent on getting results. The idea is for us to get membership in the European Union, for us to have a conversation with the E.U. as equals. Not this previous approach of, Here, take a penny, sit over there and be quiet. No, thank you. And the way Zelensky does this, with openness and strength, that’s what really appeals to people. I now think that he can really do a lot for the country, that he will become a historically significant president.

I’m sure you’ve seen these American intelligence reports that the Russian government has put together kill lists.

Yes, I know, and I’m sure they exist. [Putin] speaks about it quite openly. It’s clear what he means when he says “demilitarization,” and it’s clear what he means when he says de-Nazification. He’s quite direct about this, that he thinks that our government is full of Nazis and it has to be gotten rid of. And I’m part of the government, so I’m a Nazi. 

Yes, a famous Afghan Nazi!

Of course! And Zelensky [who is Jewish] is a Nazi! So of course I believe that they have these lists and they won’t have a choice. Even if they are successful in taking over, they’ll have to destroy the people who know how to organize and how to get the people to rise up. But the problem is that everyone here is like that.

Are you not afraid?

Come on. Of course, I’m afraid. Of course, just the thought that there’s a man sitting somewhere in Moscow who put my name on a list and that at this man’s back are the special forces and an army and the power of a country of 140 million people. It’s kind of unpleasant.