Ukraine Through The Eyes of Reporters: Nolan Peterson

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If a year ago, you could find people in different parts of the world who have never heard about Ukraine, this is almost impossible to imagine in 2022. The brave resistance of the Ukrainians to the Russian invasion caused a wave of true admiration around the world, making people from all countries and continents learn about Ukraine, its culture and history. Apart from Ukrainians who are working hard to expose Russian war crimes and atrocities, international journalists who report from Ukraine also play a crucial role in helping the world see the truth about the unjustified and brutal Russian war. To highlight their work and understand how they approach their important role, Ukraīner started a series of interviews titled “Ukraine Through The Eyes of Reporters”.

Our second episode features Nolan Peterson, an American journalist and a military veteran who has lived in Ukraine since the summer of 2014 when Russia first invaded the country. He came to Ukraine to tell the world about the war and stayed here as he was inspired by Ukrainians who stood up to achieve freedom. In this interview, he shares his experience of being a foreign journalist, explains the motivation of foreign legion soldiers to come to fight in Ukraine, and gives his recommendations for soldiers coming back from war zones.

– So how much have you known about Ukraine before, and how did your background lead to what you are doing now in Ukraine?

The only thing I knew about Ukraine when I arrived here for the first time was that it was in a post-Soviet world. I felt very privileged to witness what I felt was sort of the birth of the democratic culture in Ukraine. When I first came here in 2014, I saw the volunteer battalions: men of all ages who decided to grow out there and fight for their freedom. It was incredibly inspiring for me. I am a military veteran from the United States, and the closest analogy I came up with what I experienced in 2014 was days immediately after September 11th, 2001, in the United States, when an American society gathered together. So, I was taken aback by this country’s democratic spirit and the love of freedom.

– What made you stay? Were there moments when you firmly decided that you were going to stay here for good?

When I first came in 2014, I thought that I would be here for 2 or 3 weeks. But that summer, I went to Mariupol, where the Russian forces were advancing. And I very vividly remember sitting on a hilltop in Mariupol watching a tank battle, and I thought to myself — this is crazy, a tank battle in Europe in 2014. I felt that this story wasn’t being transmitted to the world. I was repeatedly going to the frontline of Ukraine and experienced warfare, artillery, rockets. I thought that it was important to stay here and to remind Europe, the United States, and the world that there was a land war going on in Europe.

– In your opinion, why do so many people actually know so little about the roots of this war and about what is going on?

For many Americans, over the last few years, Ukraine was a story that was very far away. And it was always a challenge for me as a journalist to try to make this war matter to people’s daily lives in the United States, because everyone in the United States is worried about terrorism. There was a rise of ISIS in 2014, and China was a threat to our country, so it was always a challenge to cut through that noise and explain why Ukraine was important. I worry that this war was going to escalate into something far bigger and become a war that the United States could not ignore any longer. Because this war is genocide in Ukraine, and it demands the world’s attention. Russia’s aggression is now butting up against NATO, it’s threatening a potentially much larger conflict than one that’s contained within Ukraine. For me, as a journalist, it’s always a challenge to try to press on the American people on why this war matters. And unfortunately, we are at the place now where war has become a problem that the United States and Europe can no longer ignore.

– Could you explain why today it seems like a lot of people in the US from different political spectrums care way more about this war? Do you know where it’s coming from? What is the difference between 2014 and now?

Oh, I absolutely know why this war has now got people’s attention, both the United States and the world. Because in the lead-up to Russia’s February 24th invasion, there were so many stories of the territorial defense forces and the civilians who were preparing to fight. And there’s always this question like — is this for real? Do Ukrainians really have that much courage to grab their grandfather’s Kalashnikov and go out there and stare at the Russian tank? There is a spectacle that grabs people’s attention. But after these 3 days, when everybody expected Kyiv to fall, President Zelenskyy didn’t leave the capital and the Ukrainian people. And Ukrainian soldiers stood their ground. It became less about the scale of the spectacle of the war and more about the inspiring story of the people who are not going to roll over and be invaded. We are going to stand up for the values that my country, the United States, stands for — freedom, democracy, and liberty for everybody. Ukrainians fought for the same values. I think that this story resonated because Ukrainians became world heroes. It’s an inspirational story, that’s why it both grabbed the world’s attention and is still the number one story of the world.

– What you, as a person who has been here as a journalist since before the full-scale invasion, have seen that proves that it’s in fact genocide?

I saw the proofs with my eyes in Bucha and Irpin — all the dead bodies. I was a soldier and a pilot, I’ve been in combat, and I know what the toll of war is supposed to look like on the battlefield — and it’s not that hundreds of dead civilians were summarily executed. Russia doesn’t believe in Ukraine, both as a country and as a nation, that has the right to exist. That’s the most black-and-white, clear-cut example of genocide. And here we are in Europe again, one human lifetime later from the Holocaust, and people are still quibbling about whether it’s a genocide or not. We have a duty as journalists to call out the truth and tell what we see. And I think the evidence is clear that what Russia is doing is genocide. I think if we try to equivocate that fact or play word games, we are essentially empowering Russia to continue. So, it is important to call out exactly what Russia is doing. And that is — genocide.

– Can you tell a little bit about where you’ve been when you were in the military? And how does what you’ve seen contrast or compares to the war in Ukraine?

One of the biggest differences between what I’ve experienced in Afghanistan and what I’ve experienced in Ukraine is that Ukrainians chose democracy for themselves. It wasn’t something that was dictated to them or wasn’t something that they were told to do. Ukrainians, on their own record in 2014 during the Revolution of Dignity, chose this path for their country, and they have fought for it for over 8 years now. It’s a whole different experience to come to a country where people have embodied those values and those dreams on their own. The closest parallel to Ukraine would be my time with Tibetan freedom fighters. I spent some time in the Himalayas interviewing Tibetans who stood up and fought back communist China. When China invaded Tibet and tried to erase Tibetan culture, it challenged Tibetans’ right to exist. And every day Tibetans, including monks, took their arms and fought back. And even though Tibet and Ukraine are very distinct cultures geographically and in many other ways, that spirit to fight for their nations’ right to exist against the bully is something that really struck me. Also, just the fact — that normal people who never wanted to be soldiers, people who’ve never thought they pick up the gun and go to battle, just decided that they need to do this for the sake of their families, and for the sake of their country’s future — is inspiring. I think that it is the most remarkable story in the world when people who don’t want to fight — choose to stand for the people who they need to protect and raise up against these forces of evil.

– Do you have any observations on differences or similarities in terms of warfare?

When I served in the US air force, I deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I was involved in countersurge fights. But when I first arrived in Ukraine in 2014, I saw a tank battle, rocket attacks, and heavy artillery. And then this year, we’ve seen the full-scale invasion comprising air attacks, and missile attacks. So, it’s a completely different type of war than what I experienced as a combatant and saw as a journalist in some conflicts. Death is real and it’s there, and it can happen very quickly. This conflict is different because it is a conventional conflict between two modern militaries. The world is keeping a close eye on what’s going on here, but this conflict does have the potential to become much worse than it is now, and I think that is one very important motivating factor — first to keep an eye on it and not to let become this war forgotten again.

– A lot of people actually say that in order to not let this conflict spiral into World War III and the use of nuclear weapon — is to not supply Ukraine with weapons. Do you have any thoughts about that, and what would you say to those people?

I think, to someone who made an argument that by cutting off the weapons to Ukraine, this war would end — they clearly don’t know Ukrainians. They lasted 8,5 years without HIMARS, without javelins, without all these new tools we’ve given this country. So, if suddenly the western military dry up, Ukrainians would fight with sticks and stones if they had to. To not only stop Russia’s advance, but to turn it back and regain their territory. The best thing we can do is to support the side of good in this conflict and to allow Ukrainians to win this war. The only way to put the Russian weapons behind — is to defeat it. Ukraine is fighting for its existence right now. And who are we to tell them to give up? When you fight for existence, you only have 2 choices: to fight until you win, or to die. And Ukraine isn’t going to go down and die.

– What do you think about the motivation of foreign legion soldiers who come to fight in Ukraine? Why do they come?

I can draw upon my own story as a journalist who came to this conflict. I left my military career in 2012, and I remember distinctly the first feeling I had was, I asked myself — what’s next? And — who am I? And so when you leave the military, you lose the very important part of yourself and your sense of purpose in life. You are living for a higher purpose, people count on you, and you play a valuable role in this world. And I truly believe that what we often call post-traumatic stress after the war is not that soldiers are wounded by war, it is that they come home to lives in peace that just don’t match the amplitude of what they have experienced in combat. I was searching for that sense of meaning in my life. I imagine that many legion soldiers came here looking for purpose, and very similar to my experience, they arrived here and felt love for Ukraine, for the people, and the culture and were inspired by seeing this country fighting for its existence and its freedom. And I think as somebody who’s been to war as a combatant, you come to Ukraine, and it immediately feels like home.

– How can the civilians who haven’t been personally on the frontlines support their soldiers coming back? How can they help them integrate? Do you have any suggestions for the “do’s” and “don’t’s”? And how can also a country support these people during this period and also after?

One advantage that Ukrainian veterans will have after this full-scale war is over, compared with before February 24th, is that the war now affects almost all of Ukrainian society. I feel like Ukrainian veterans won’t feel so isolated because they will be a lot more societal to understand. However, life in many places of Ukraine is beginning to resume this normal rhythm and is distinct from what’s going on in the East and the South, where very intense combats are still going on. So, it’s going to be very important to give Ukrainian veterans a role in society and not just leave them on some minimum wage job when they get back home. The hardest part of coming back from war is often not the memories of the terrible things that you experienced, but losing your friends, comradery, that sense of tribe that you experience in the frontlines. I think that it’s important to get these veterans out of their apartments together, have veterans groups, where they can interact with each other, experience human relations in their life. But the most important is just to not let them be alone when they come back.

– What do you think is the role of social media at large? Do you think such intense coverage can harm? What’s your personal take on that?

Social media in this war has definitely been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we are able to document war crimes to show the effects of missile strikes and the mass graves in Bucha and Izium. However, on the other hand, there is an equally opposite reaction to this truth being pumped out. For those who support Russia, it’s hard to believe in the truth. Even if you show them a picture of something or a live video from the mass grave, they still won’t believe it. So, in some ways, social media is unable to cut through people’s preexisting biases, which is pretty scary. As a conflict reporter, I’ve never experienced so much anxiety as in this war because every time I go on social media and report something I’ve seen or have a picture of, there is an explosion or attack. You really have to think: are you helping Russia to target its missiles? Am I doing something that’s going to get somebody killed? Russia is a master of information warfare. But it’s pretty clear at this point that Ukraine has far surpassed Russia in its ability to use social media to its benefit.

That’s so unprecedented that we have so much visibility into what happens on the Russian side in the Telegram channels of Russian soldiers. You can go to Twitter and watch combat almost in real time. I remember yesterday there was a video of the Russian soldiers surrendering near Kherson. It’s just extraordinary to watch that within hours when it actually happened. I think we’re entering a new era of how information is used in warfare. But it is distressing, however, that many people still are unable to accept the truth. People still question whether or not Russian soldiers committed the tragedies in Bucha and Irpin.

– Do you have any advice or lessons that you would like to share with journalists coming to Ukraine who don’t have such deep and broad experience as you?

The first message I would send to any foreign journalist coming to Ukraine is that this story is not 7 months old. It’s 8,5 years old. The people have just gone through the Revolution of Dignity. And it was after 2014 that the spirit of resistance and resilience was born in Ukraine. It didn’t begin on February 24th, 2022. It began in February 2014 after the Maydan. So, I think it’s important for journalists to understand the context of the last 8 years, why Ukrainians have been so courageous, and why they fought so fearlessly. You need to go out there and be present. Being here is a great first step because you are not sitting in a newsroom in DC, in New York, googling your stories. But you need to be here, run in the trenches, put your life on the line, talk to people, go see things with your own eyes, have your boots on the ground — that’s the best way to cut through the noise and to tell the truth.

– What’s your favorite thing about Ukrainian culture, history, or anything you personally experienced here?

When I moved to Ukraine, I had this overwhelming sense that I was where history was happening. This is it. This is the most important place in the world right now. This is an epicentre of our moment in history, our collective experience in this life. We are living through something that people will remember for hundreds and maybe thousands of years. This is an incredibly important historical moment. That’s why I think to be here and to experience this, it’s remarkably gratifying because you feel like you have a far-road seat to probably the most important story of our lifetimes. When I first got to Mariupol in 2014, it seemed to me a very post-Soviet place. But the youth, the young people who live there, the millennial generation, transformed the city into a really bright, promising place. I think that’s such a tragedy that Russia went and destroyed that city. And I’m sure that what happened to Mariupol is an emblematic representation of what we don’t want to happen to Ukraine. We don’t want Russia to ruin this unbelievable sense of hope that Ukrainian people have for their future.

– Lastly, do you have a favourite place in Ukraine?

I don’t know if I have a place, but I love going on long walks with my wife here in Kyiv. This is probably the greenest city you’ll see in your life, with the river banks and the wooded areas in the parks. So you can get lost for hours walking around Kyiv, and I feel like Kyiv is my second home now. I’ll stay here as long as I can.

– If you could say one thing to Ukrainian people, what would you say?

I would say that you, Ukrainians, have inspired the world. When this war began, people may have doubted your ability to resist, but you’ve proven in these last 7 months that freedom is worth fighting for. And I think that many people now will believe that democracy is worth fighting for because we’ve seen how hard the Ukrainians are fighting for it. You are going not only for the country’s freedom, you are inspiring people all over the world to fight for their future and their freedom as well. This story will have effects across the world, and I think we have a lot to thank Ukraine for. Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine! – tr.)

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