(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” My guest today is Clarissa Ward, Chief International Correspondent at CNN. She’s covered conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. She’s also had extensive experience reporting in and about Russia, where she’s covered topics that President Putin has not liked, including investigating the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and covering Russia’s use of mercenaries in Africa.
That coverage has made Ward the target of Russian state media and gotten her effectively banned from the country. But none of that has stopped her from covering Putin, especially when it comes to his latest power grab in Ukraine. Ward has been reporting from the ground in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv throughout the Russian invasion. Last week, she was back home in London, so I was able to catch up with her then to discuss the war. Our waning attention on it, and how covering conflict affects her personally.
Clarissa Ward, welcome to “Sway.”
Thank you so much for having me on, Kara.
So let’s start with the big picture. Russia announced a new phase of the war last month, so talk about a little bit where we are right now. What does it mean, and where is Putin focusing right now?
So essentially, President Putin has had to dramatically downsize his ambitions in Ukraine. And after the failure of attempts to capture the capital, Kyiv, and even smaller cities like Chernihiv in the northern part of the country, they have now doubled down on a new offensive in the East, which is all focused on this Donbas region and these two breakaway republics that comprise the Donbas. But from what we’ve seen already, because I was there when this new offensive began, is that their progress has been incremental at best. And it’s really shaping up to be a long grind, a war of attrition. Russia is definitely operating in a different way to what we saw earlier on in the conflict.
Which, they were going for a blitzkrieg, correct?
Yeah, they were going for a blitzkrieg, and they got their asses kicked, honestly. And they took a huge amount of casualties. And so now, there is a little more caution in how they’re proceeding. I think they’ve tried to address some of the issues with resupply and logistics that have really tested their ability to make progress on the battlefield. And the Ukrainians have some major challenges as well, like they’re very much outmanned and outgunned as well. And yet, still, if Russia was hoping for an easier victory in the East, it’s already becoming clear that it’s not going to be that. And this could go on for months.
Talk a little bit about that — incremental. There’s nothing wrong with incremental. You certainly can win that way. But why do you think it failed so badly?
Well, first of all, I think it’s the danger of a lot of autocracies that you start to believe your own talking points and your own propaganda. And I think there was a sense for many that they were going to go into Ukraine and be welcomed by people waving white flags and throwing rose petals.
You’re here to save us.
You’re here to save us from these awful Nazis who have been perpetrating genocide in the Donbas region. And to give them some credit, if you look at how things played out during the annexation of Crimea, where not a shot was fired and where the Russian presence there has largely been embraced, you can understand the sort of hubris that allowed President Putin to think it might be a similar reception in other parts of the country.
So I think there’s several things at play — first of all, you know, sort of buying into your own propaganda. Secondly, dramatically underestimating the scale and scope and intensity of the resistance that they were going to encounter. And by the way, it’s not just the Russians who were unprepared for that. All of us were shocked to see how effective Ukrainian counteroffensive forces were. I mean, if you remember at the beginning of the war, U.S. intelligence officials were saying, two or three days until Kyiv falls. And then, there’s another element — and again, this happens a lot in dictatorships — where President Putin is just being told all the time whatever people think he wants to hear.
Everything’s great. We’ve got the best military. We’ve got the best weapons. We’ve got the best, best, best.
That’s not limited to autocracies. That’s not limited to autocracies. Let’s be clear.
Why was the Ukrainian resistance so strong? What do you attribute that to, in terms of training, in terms of — what is it about the people in the country and the military, obviously, which is — it’s not people just with pitchforks attacking Russians.
No, it’s not. I mean, the first thing that I think is easy to forget, because it’s sort of been overshadowed by the insanity and horror of what’s happened, is that Ukraine has been fighting a war for eight years, and it’s been much more limited in its scale and scope. But what that has done is, you know, there’s already been a paradigm shift in the mentality of people.
And so they do have this kind of willingness to suffer and to slog and to resist and to push and to come together as a country in service of this moment. I would also say Ukrainians are fiercely patriotic, by and large. I mean, I’ve been covering conflict in many years in many places, and the extraordinary unity and solidarity and resilience and courage — it has been truly, truly awe-inspiring, frankly. I haven’t often come across that.
So you were reporting in Kharkiv. Can you describe what it was like to go through that city?
I mean, Kharkiv is — I mean, first of all, it’s a wonderful city. It’s Ukraine’s second largest city. Beautiful city center — used to be a major buzzing sort of tech town, and everything changed overnight. I mean, completely changed. Anyone with children now lives underground. They’ve either left or they live underground. And what’s really happened in Kharkiv is that there, it’s never let up. So there’s still shelling and bombarding, constantly, but there’s a randomness to it.
And that randomness is almost even more cruel, in a sense, because there’s no part of the city that’s really safe. There are parts that are safer. There are parts that are much more dangerous, obviously. But it is kind of arbitrary. And the mayor, when I was there, had just ordered for these tulips, these beautiful yellow tulips, to be planted around the city center, which — on the one hand, you’re like, is this person insane? And then, on the other hand, you’re like, actually, this is the perfect illustration of resistance. And it’s this small quiet act of resistance, and it’s calm, and it’s poised, and it’s understated, and it’s elegant. But it’s kind of beautiful.
Yeah, yeah. The Ukrainians have a really theatrics, and I’m not using that in a negative way. But you did a segment following Ukrainian paramedics in the city. I want to play a clip from that — when you come under active Russian shelling, like you were just talking about — just random.
- archived recording (clarissa ward)
Aleksandra is trying to find the wounded person, but there’s no signal. At that moment, another barrage goes on.
Brace for the impact.
Can you talk about that experience, covering that?
Uh, I mean, you know, it’s even now, you listen to it — like, it was petrifying.
Mm-hmm. I’m sure.
It was absolutely petrifying. And I think that it gives you just a small window into what these first responders are up against every single day. So they get the call — OK, some rockets have fallen in this area. There’s a wounded man. We need to get to them. But what happens often — and it’s becoming more often. It’s a tactic the Russians used a lot in Syria. It’s called the double tap. So you send a mortar or an artillery round into — an apartment building, in this case. You wait half an hour. And then, when the first responders get on the scene, and there are more people on the scene trying to help those, you hit it again. And in doing so, you maximize the number of casualties.
Now, what was extraordinary to me about that moment is, we were extremely close to where those rockets were falling — 10 yards or so away. We had a good, hard cover there. The minute it was safe for us to extract, we extracted. Aleksandra and Vladimir did not. They went to the next store entrance, because they couldn’t find this man who had been wounded. They found him, they got him out, they took him into their ambulance, which the back window had been blown out. And they saved his life. And they’re 23 and 25 years old. And nothing really prepares you in life, I don’t think, Kara, for that kind of a moment and that kind of danger, and you just either step into it or you don’t. And — yeah, I found it pretty humbling. Because my instinct was like, we need to get out of here.
Right. So you just said the word, petrified, but how do you think about — people most — you have a very cool personality on screen — not cool, cold, but you look like you’re, I’m here, I’ve got my flak jacket on, I’m ready to go. Talk about being petrified as a — you’re super composed when you’re doing these reports.
Well, first of all, I think you have to — fear is something very important. If you don’t feel it, you’re stupid, right? Like, fear is an evolutionary phenomenon that informs us when we need to move out of a place. What you learn to do if you want to do this job and do it for a long time is to let fear sit in the passenger seat, but you don’t let it take the driver’s seat. Because the problem with fear is that fear and panic are bedfellows, and panic is what will really get you hurt, potentially, in a war zone.
So I recognize the fear, I feel it, I know I need to get out of the situation. But there’s also 10 other things that I need to do first. I need to determine if it’s safe. I need to make sure that we’ve got the material that we came and took this risk to get. I need to be sure that we’re all communicating as a team. I need to listen to my security consultant. You can actually hear him under the sort of barrage of explosions. He’s saying, stay under, because the camera is, like, trying to look at something. And so it’s not so — you have to be composed. And you have to be focused, but that doesn’t mean you’re not afraid.
Right. I actually — when I went to journalism school, I thought about being a foreign correspondent, and then every foreign correspondent I met was just fucked up — I don’t know how else to put it — by the fear, by the — they were just so — and I was like, no, I don’t think so.
And I did one thing where I was in a riot — a neo-Nazi riot in Germany — and it was terrifying. I just — I don’t know what else — they were lighting cars on fire. You never know what they were going to do.
And even though I was perfectly fine in the end, but it was terrifying, and I remember thinking, no.
Yeah, it is terrifying, and it’s OK to be terrified. It’s more what you do with that feeling and how you respond to it. And also, the more experience you get, the more you learn to understand that, OK, this might look terrifying, but where I am standing right here with this wall is covered. Like, I’m actually in a pretty good position.
How do you try to not let it get through to you in some fashion — the horror part of it?
So I think that when you’re in the field, there’s a sense to which you have to compartmentalize, right? Because the work also is so consuming and multilayered, right? We talk a lot about the sort of broad idea of journalism, but also working at television, there’s so much logistics going on, that there’s just a huge amount to think about.
And so in the moment, like, you want to be open to the experience of the people whose stories you’re telling and listen to them with, like, genuine sincerity and real presence. But you also have to know how far to let that in and when to then focus on, OK, now, we need to get, like, diesel for our generator and also start clipping this and translating that, et cetera, et cetera.
I think it’s really important to be able to compartmentalize in the field. I actually think it’s equally important when you come home to try to sit with some of it. And you know, when you’re talking about the sort of dysfunctionality of the typical war correspondent, which I do think is based on a kind of truism, I think a lot of that comes from them never wanting to sit and just let it all percolate.
Because some of it, it’s baked into the bones. It’s a huge amount of stress that you’re holding on to. It’s other people’s trauma. It might be even your trauma. And you have to find a place or a way to process that at some point.
Because like, I say always to younger reporters, the check is coming in the mail at some point. Like, you’re getting that check.
Here is a different image. You are a different image of a foreign correspondent.
Yeah, I think it has —
You have a family at home. You have kids.
Yeah, I think it’s changed a lot. I think probably with — there’s a lot more women doing this. And women have been doing it for a while. There’s plenty of trailblazers who came ahead of us, but there’s a lot of women doing it now.
And I think there’s also a lot of us who speak a bit more about the taboos of — it’s still a bit of a taboo to talk about mental health and PTSD and trauma and therapy. And I’m like, really, in this day and age, right, how can we possibly consider this stuff taboo? It’s ridiculous.
Is that a kid or a dog back there?
It’s a kid.
I forgot to lock him in the basement.
Good. Well, that’s what I do with mine. Yeah, that’s OK. I don’t mind him at all. So speaking of which, you can’t do that. You can’t cut that out, right? The idea that you have a family.
No, you can’t. And you know what else it doesn’t allow you to do? Because I used to come back from Syria particularly, and I’d feel so detached. I would feel like — I feel nothing for my husband, I feel nothing for my — I know intellectually that I love you, but I feel nothing.
I feel that this is bourgeois and banal, and I’m totally detached from it. You can’t do that when you have kids. Because it’s like this wellspring of love, and there’s a real kind of grounding physicality to the nature of — for me at least, being a mother, I can’t feel nothing with them.
Yeah, I know what you mean.
And so it is like an anchor that forces me to be present and be in my body and be open, which is challenging. Because then, it’s like, oh, now we’re going to just feel all the feelings. And definitely, when I’m in the field, I notice how that affects with my kids.
I’m a bit like, OK, let’s do our FaceTime every day, but I’m also trying to keep a distance a bit. Because if I let myself go to that space, then it’s like, all right, we’re in a different space from where I need to be right now.
We’ll be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow “Sway” on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Jake Tapper, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Clarissa Ward after the break.
So when you were covering the murder of civilians, some of the — they were going to be considered war crimes, presumably, in the end. These are people who are just not even fighting. They were there, and they’re in mass graves.
It’s truly —
Why is that happening?
Well, I mean, why is it happening? Is it the sort of — is it intentional? Is it — does it speak to this, what President Biden has called a genocide? Is it the act of a really undisciplined army?
I mean, I was so struck I went past one of their camps — a Russian camp — and it was a mess. I mean, it was disgusting. It was like a filthy mess. And I was with a security guy who’s a former military person himself, and he was like, oh my gosh, this camp, this mess, this squalor speaks to a real lack of discipline and a lack of morale.
So I thought that was interesting. I have never fully understood rape as a weapon of war. I mean, we know that it’s a very prevalent and persistent one, but I still struggle to get my head around it and why the sort of physiological drive — I just really — I really struggle to get my head around it.
And it’s just so — you know, and the way it’s being described — a lot of the women who have been raped, particularly in and around Kyiv and those suburbs, have said that there was one guy, and the other soldiers were trying to tell him to stop, but he wouldn’t stop. So they have framed it as more of a kind of regular aberration, as opposed to, this was the strategy.
But then, I don’t know if you heard this intercepted phone call, which literally haunted me — I can’t stop thinking about it — between this man and his wife. He’s a Russian soldier. He’s talking to his wife in Russia.
And he’s like, do I have permission to rape women while I’m here? And she’s like, yeah, sure, you do, just make sure you use protection.
And you realize — I mean, and the sort of cavalier ease with which they’re saying the most filthy, trashy, horrendous — I, I — you’re not dealing with normal people in a situation like that.
Well, that’s been propaganda after all that years. Sure you are. You’re doing exactly — this is what they’re prepared to do.
Yeah. I mean, but then you hear other intercepts where, you know, there’s a slightly more human response, where the woman might be like, oh, gosh, really? Oh, that sounds weird, you know. And then, they’re like, yeah, but it’s OK, and they’re like, oh, OK, well, if you say it’s OK. But at least you feel like there’s that hint of shame.
When you cover that, is that the hardest part of covering this? Or is it the actual attacks as the war is going on?
Oh, no, definitely the hardest part is people’s stories, people’s trauma. I mean, you know, like this woman whose two sons were killed, and you know, she came out of the house to talk to us and just completely broke down.
And it’s so hard, because you also feel like I’m making you relive a trauma right now by putting you through this interview. So like, how do I make this as painless as it possibly can be? But what we have found time and time again in Ukraine is people want their story on the record.
They want their stories out there, and they understand that there is power in speaking your truth and in having it on the record. This is what happened to me, or this is what happened to my child. But it’s heartbreaking, because so many people have so few answers.
And look, when you lose a child, I can only imagine, there’s never enough answers, right? There’s never something that you’re going to be told that’s like, oh, well, that clarifies that for me, thank you.
But to have such a murky picture of — but where was he standing, and who took him, and why did they take him, and what did he say, and what was the person name, and where was he shot and- – it’s just a — it’s a real horror. And then, I interviewed a woman right afterwards, and this one really stays with me.
Her daughter was taken by Russian troops. She was also taken for three nights, and then they let her go. She has no idea where her daughter is. She has no idea. Is she alive? Is she dead? Was she raped? Was she left alone? Was she taken a prisoner? Does she maybe not have — and that is absolute hell.
And so to be in someone’s presence when they’re in that kind of a moment, and see and feel the full force of that horror and that suffering is by far and away the hardest part of the job.
And there is no answer. There will be no answer for possibly ever.
No, there’s no answer, and there’s very rarely closure. And OK, we come in and we ask questions, and we’re present and we listen to the stories, and then we go. And then, what? Everybody is dealing with this trauma. And so you have a society where there’s, like, collective trauma, and also, the sort of day-to-day work of staying alive.
Right. You know, I’m not surprised it feels banal when you come back to real life, but it’s been over two months now since the invasion started. Do you feel like the world is losing interest or growing numb to the coverage of war, of this war? Because I interviewed Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk, and she expressed worries about this — that attention will wane, and foreign media will move on. Can you talk to that?
I think it’s always — every conflict I’ve covered, you get to a certain point where there’s, like, saturation level and fatigue starts to set in. And people don’t any longer feel as shocked or as horrified by it.
But I think as storytellers and as journalists, our job is to keep finding ways to make sure that we don’t become numb and desensitized to the horrors of war, because that is exactly how wars continue and grind on. And we know this.
You have to try to keep it on the front page. You have to keep it forefront in people’s conscience, and you don’t do that by preaching at people or kind of wagging your finger and telling them how important it is. You do that by finding characters who they can connect with and stories that they can relate to, whereby they continue to feel engaged and like they have a vested interest, and they care.
And so the bar does get higher in some ways. But also, I would say, usually, you’ll have a moment at this sort of stage where you might have a few days to put a story together, as opposed to a few hours in the beginning where the appetite is just relentless. And some of the most powerful storytelling comes out of opportunities where you do have a little bit more time.
Yeah, I call it the time when the big anchors go home. I don’t like you being there all in the first place. How do you like that?
Well, they’re still there for CNN. They’re still there.
For me, I just feel the way we can connect more people to these stories is by making them more accessible and not alienating people with a lot of geopolitical jargon, which — you and I can do that dance, and talk that talk, and go to that panel in Washington, and sound smart, and that’s great.
But if you want ordinary Americans to feel like they have a grip on what’s going on in Ukraine, then you need to create entrance points into the story for them, not put up barriers by saying, unless you understand what an E.U. oil embargo would mean for x, y and z, then you don’t have a seat at this table.
So Biden just proposed an additional $33 billion in military and economic assistance. Nancy Pelosi recently traveled to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Zelensky. Boris Johnson was there. Do you see these gestures as an intensification of U.S. and Western support?
Yeah, I think they are. I think they are. I think the fact that the Americans — this $33 billion, which is very, very significant — I think the fact that the Europeans are talking about an oil embargo — these are things that probably would have been inconceivable at the beginning of the war. So I do think it speaks to an intensification of Western support.
And I think that support has been buoyed by the fact that they see that it’s made a difference on the battlefield. And I think there’s a sense of, wait, the Ukrainians actually could win this thing. And so we need to double down on our support.
There’s another argument that can be made as well, which is like, OK, does this then just become, you’re prolonging the agony? You’re prolonging the length of the war, the amount of casualties? But to be honest, I’m not sure how much —
Well, for every day the Russians aren’t winning — every day they’re not winning is a day they’re losing, right?
Exactly. And so — but it’s always hard when you’re talking about war and moral clarity, and like, it’s obviously incredibly convoluted. But if there’s one war I’ve covered, which is less convoluted on that front, I would say it’s this one. I mean, there is very clearly a right and a wrong here.
Is there anything that would change the equation there, for more significant U.S. intervention or Western intervention?
I mean, the obvious one is chemical weapons or some kind of a tactical nuke, which — again, it would be so disastrous and so horrifying, it’s impossible to fathom how that would be possible. I still believe that Putin is a rational actor within the context or framework of his universe. So I want to believe that that would not happen.
However, I also acknowledge that I was wrong about the invasion. I never thought the invasion would happen. I did not believe that Putin would do that. And I think there is a sort of baked-in wishful thinking in a lot of my analysis about his actions, because I know other people who would be like, just look at recent history. It was all right there. I mean, it’s not like he was trying to hide it, you know.
Yeah, I’d have to say, I’m not an expert, but —
Did you call it?
No, I’m not a military expert, but from watching their technology stuff, they’re thugs. They’re paranoid and insecure thugs. So why not? Of course they will. They seem to be preparing Ukraine for propaganda, so something else follows that.
Well, and that’s also a big part of it as well. You don’t know how much of it is just sort of psyops designed to wig people out. Like, let’s keep just talking elliptically about chemical weapons attacks until people can’t, like, function — and how much of it is like, oh, yeah, we’re actually going to consider doing this and call it a false flag, and just escalate things off the charts.
This is a war of information. It’s really the first internet war in a lot of ways, although there’s been other sort of internet wars. But this one’s really quite significant. In addition to cracking down on social media, Russia also passed a censorship law in March that criminalized accurate reporting on the war in Ukraine. Talk about how it’s affected your approach — and in Ukraine, it’s different, but within Russia.
Well, I think it’s been — first of all, we’re very lucky in that our CNN’s Matthew Chance, who has basically lived on and off in Russia for more than 20 years now, is back in Moscow and is reporting from there, which I think is hugely important. Obviously, there are risks associated, and he has to be careful with his wording and very transparent about the entire process.
And I’m sure it’s a huge amount of pressure. But I do think it’s so hugely important for us right now to have a little bit of a sense of, what does it look like in Russia right now? What does it feel like? What are people talking about?
Even if you have to use words that are not the words you should be using.
Even if you have to use words that are not the words, there’s ways to get around that. I mean, it’s obviously not ideal. It’s blatant censorship. But there are ways, I think, to navigate within the sort of parameters of what’s allowed. Now, the problem is that those parameters are so random and shifting that you don’t know exactly what could get you into trouble.
For me, it’s been — I lived in Russia twice. I have had a long and very complicated relationship with Russia, but have a lot of love for many elements of it, particularly the culture and the history and the literature. And I have not been able to go back to Russia since I did this investigation with Bellingcat and with the Navalny team. And so I can no longer get a visa, and they, you know, have just put some nonsense propaganda piece out on state T.V.
You’re facing personal attacks, Russian state media calling you a propagandist and insinuating worse, and you were targeted in 2019 after the report about Russian mercenaries in Africa in Ghana and Nigeria, and then Navalny, of course, which is their biggest, most painful spot.
Bugaboo. Yeah. Yeah, no, they don’t like me very much. But for me, it’s like, I still desperately want to be able to go to Russia and to report from Russia, and to understand what’s really happening. Because for me, the very alarming piece in all of this is the sort of wide-eyed credulity with which the Russian public does seem to be absorbing a lot of this propaganda in spite of the facts that, granted, are harder for them to get to, because it’s not on state T.V., and you maybe are not on Telegram or one of these social media apps that would allow you to access some slightly more impartial and filtered information. But still, I know people who should know better.
Right, I have a friend who’s spent a lot of time in Russia — same thing. She can’t believe it, how many of her friends in Russia are telling her the opposite. And I was like, you do not have a Trump relative then — Fox news-watching Trump relatives.
So I get it. I get the situation. And in Russia, they’re absolutely — when you’re there, they’re inundated, especially older people, with this kind of propaganda. And I know you worked at Fox News. Tucker Carlson has been — clips on him in Russian state T.V.
How does that affect it? Is it trying to show that not all Americans are rowing in the same direction? Or what is the use of that? Now, let me just note — he’s gone back on his early point of view on Putin. Apparently, Putin’s a thug now. But nonetheless, initially, he was not.
Yeah. So I think there’s two sort of tactics that they’re implementing here. One is to show there is a side of America that actually thinks that Russia is powerful and justified, and that does not hate President Putin. The other is just more broadly to cast America as this kind of chaotic, riven with internal disagreement, divided, angry nation, where people are just shouting at each other and disagree about absolutely everything.
And it’s the sort of showcase for, like, this — you really want this? This is your democracy. Look at this. It’s just angry people shouting at each other. And so they like to trot that one out a lot.
So there’s a ton of disinformation being spread on both sides of this war. What are you seeing, and how does it affect your reporting? Because some of it, like the ghost of Kyiv, et cetera, et cetera — I have to say, Zelensky is fantastic at that version of propaganda, which is sort of morale-building propaganda, I guess.
And then, of course, there’s the Russian propaganda, which has been used excessively. How does it affect your reporting when you’re sort of in the middle of that? Because you don’t want to — you want to do down the line for some of the stuff.
I mean, first of all, it just means that every single piece of information you get and every single piece of video that you come across needs to be run with a fine-toothed comb. It just makes our jobs a lot harder, because the burden of proof is that much higher.
But you know, it’s sort of a flip side, because it’s also like, well, at least we’re getting lots of videos, right? And so once we can geolocate them and can put them into the appropriate context, then we do that. And it allows us to tell stories about places that we can’t get to, like Mariupol, for example.
But you do have to be very careful, and you do have to be skeptical, and both sides are going to implement propaganda for the purposes of morale or for the purposes of, well, trying to destroy another society if that’s what your goal is. But so, when you have a Ukrainian statement that seems like it might be far-fetched, or the numbers seem higher than it’s likely, or that the battle didn’t quite transpire in that way, I think you have to be careful about how you couch it and how you frame it. And if I feel like someone is coming to me with a story that they’re like — that obviously feels like a propaganda story, I probably will not focus on it.
Yeah. All right, so how do you see the conflict ending?
I mean, there’s a couple of ways it could end. It could be that President Putin decides to claim Mariupol as a victory, and that with Kherson, they can start to fashion a kind of land corridor to Crimea and try to market that as some kind of a victory. I think that’ll be very tough for him to call that a victory at this stage, especially when they’ve just said that the Donbas is the goal now.
So I feel like it is going to grind on for quite some time, and it will be incremental. And I worry that the more Ukraine wins, and the more Putin’s back is against the wall, and the more likely a scenario is in which something really terrible and crazy happens along the lines of some kind of a chemical attack or something like that.
Is there a path for someone like Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, to come to the fore? You have reported on him quite a bit. I mean, look, you had Nelson Mandela jailed for 25 years in South Africa.
I think if Navalny’s able to stick it out, then potentially, when President Putin is no longer in power, there will be a role for him and a place for him. The question you have to ask yourself — and I sort of had talked about this around the time he went back to Russia — I said, OK, he’s ready to be Russia’s Nelson Mandela.
But is Russia ready for Nelson Mandela? Does Russia want Nelson Mandela right now? And that’s the question I’m not sure I know the answer to.
And you mentioned the fall for Putin. How would that happen? Oligarchs inside — there’s of course those longtime rumors that he’s very sick.
Et cetera, et cetera.
— rumors about his health, which are impossible to confirm, but they don’t seem to be completely unfounded. I think the oligarchs know — oligarchs will not bring him down, because ultimately, he’ll just kick them out. The people would be able to bring him down potentially are the so-called siloviki, right, the strong men who surround him and who empowered him.
But the problem with that is that if he goes down, they’d probably go down, too. And he was quite clever. He had this national security council meeting right before the war, where he summoned all of them and he made them sit like little schoolboys in these chairs, and then he sat sort of majestically aloof at this enormous desk.
And he made each of them stand in front of the microphone and be like, I support this, I believe that the Donbas should be independent. And he kind of humiliated a lot of them along the way. It was the most bizarre psychodrama I have seen in quite some time.
But the intended effect, at least in part, was, well, now you’re all on the hook for this. Now, none of you can say, oh you know, I was vehemently opposed to this. You’ve all gone on television and said, we’re with you, boss.
Right, right. It’s a little like the Ohio Senate race. Anyway, in any case — it’s just a joke. A little Trump joke. OK, I want to finish up just briefly — I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about CNN, because wars are what the CNN machine is made for.
Your new boss, David Zaslav, pointed to CNN’s coverage in Ukraine as a proud moment. I’m curious whether you see this as a refocusing moment for the network.
I would just say that for me, it’s a point of pride, and it’s nice to feel that amid this uncertainty and amid this challenging moment, that CNN’s been going through — the CNN International, and with a lot of our colleagues from domestic, have really been able to work very hard in challenging circumstances to do what we do best. And um —
I’m just curious what it’s like from where you are. You had the CNN Plus shut down. You had the Zucker exit. Is that something that affects you as a reporter more? I’m talking to CNN anchors, and they’re both upset, and also confused, and they don’t know what’s going to happen.
They have a lot of loyalty towards Zucker still, which I was sort of surprised about. How do you, from afar, manage that? Do you miss someone like Jeff Zucker? Were you disturbed by the CNN Plus shutdown?
I think that we’re a little bit protected and cushioned from a lot of this, and particularly — OK, I’m in London at the moment, but I’ve spent 10 weeks in Ukraine this year. And so, so much of my focus has obviously been on covering the war.
Jeff was a great boss and gave me and so many others extraordinary opportunities and was incredibly hands-on and very caring and attentive. So obviously, it’s a loss when someone like that leaves. But I’m really excited to work with Chris Licht as well. I worked with him at CBS. He’s —
Oh, right, sure.
— brilliant, and no one knows more about programming, and I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do with CNN. And the CNN Plus thing, of course, is, like, devastating. So many people lost their jobs, and so many brilliant, talented people worked so hard.
And so yeah, it’s terrible, but it’s not something that most of us on the international side feel and experience firsthand. It’s more like through our colleagues.
Very diplomatic, Clarissa. Very diplomatic. Very well done.
But let me ask you, where do you think CNN’s going to go then? Under these new owners, there’s obviously pressure from all kinds of things, whether it’s streaming, whether it’s the changes in media. I have talked about CNN and Warner being too small, especially facing internet companies that big. How do you look at what you do as an international correspondent and the changing way news is delivered?
I look at it as being the unenviable job of people who are much smarter than I am to work out how this whole industry is going to reconfigure itself in the way that is inevitably already starting to happen. But I look at that with the understanding that you’re always going to need content. You need great content.
You need good-quality storytelling, and definitely as a society, you need good journalism. And so as long as I’m focused on producing those, I know that someone out there will find a way to disseminate them effectively, so that more people have access to it.
So would you — if that didn’t happen, would you go somewhere else, or where do you imagine you being in a couple of years? Would you go back to Fox News, for example?
No. I definitely would not go back to Fox. I learned a lot there as an overnight desk assistant. But yeah, no, I would not — I would not go back.
No, where would I go? I don’t — why would I go anywhere? I have the best job in television news. I really do.
But where do you imagine that going in the future? International news — do you think about the TikToks of the world being a news purveyor, or anybody else? Or you just think this is the way it’s going to be going forward?
No, I think it will change, but I fully recognize my own limitations. And so I don’t know where it’s going. I’m ready to ride that wave, but I do think that CNN is going to be right at the crest of that wave. I do.
All right. That is diplomatically where we will end that. Thank you so much for taking so much time.
I’ve loved it.
“Sway” is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Daphne Chen, Caitlin O’Keefe and Wyatt Orme, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud, and fact-checking by Andrea Lopez-Cruzado.
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