A relative mourns a 3-year-old killed in the war in Ukraine

A relative mourns 3-year-old Mykola Goryainiv, who died with his parents as they were trying to evacuate from a fighting zone in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine

Veteran U.S. newspaper journalist Brian Bonner has given the last 14 years of his career to Ukraine. As the longtime editor of the Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper in the country’s capital, he directed a staff of reporters who wrote about everything from Kyiv’s nightlife and food scene to the 2014 EuroMaiden Revolution that overthrew Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, triggering the start of Russia’s ongoing war. The newspaper also did groundbreaking work investigating governments and oligarchs from its start in 1995 all the way up to current President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Bonner was born in Wisconsin, graduated from high school in South Dakota and has a degree in history from the University of Minnesota. He spent 20 years as a local reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota and also filed stories from Russia, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Norway, Poland and the United Kingdom, before finding his way to and falling in love with Ukraine.

Former Kyiv Post editor Brian Bonner

Brian Bonner

His 14-year leadership of the Kyiv Post ended last November after the newspaper’s owner fired the entire 50-member staff, suspended operations for a short period, then restarted with new employees. Many of the refugees from the former Post launched their own Web start-up, The Kyiv Independent, where they’re covering the war — some from the front lines, some from other parts of Ukraine. (As of this week, the Kyiv Independent had 2 million followers on Twitter.)

Bonner, 62, now works as an editor at Geopolitical Intelligence Services, a think-tank that studies and writes about contemporary global issues.  A consummate newsman, he is now without a newsroom, left watching the biggest story of his career play out around him. He says he’s proud of the Independent editors and reporters he trained through his time at the Post, but acknowledges he’d love to be with them again, leading coverage of a war that looks to be headed to a prolonged stalemate.

I worked with Brian decades ago at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, and have followed his career with interest since both of us left. I’ve been worried about him ever since Russia invaded Ukraine five weeks ago and continues its efforts to take the capital city of Kyiv. So, I was especially grateful that I was able to reach him and he took time to talk. I asked how he’s faring physically and emotionally, his thoughts about news coverage of the war and what stories he thinks most need to be told. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

First, are you staying safe?
I’ve been in and out of Kyiv for the last month. Currently I’m safe. The train runs every day from where I am to Kyiv. My ex-wife and my daughter are safe for now; they were in a bomb shelter in Kharkiv but recently relocated to southern Ukraine. (Editor’s note: We are not disclosing Bonner’s location to protect his safety. He faces particular risk as an American and a journalist who has criticized Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine.)

If you were still running the Kyiv Post, how would you be covering the war?
The same way we covered the revolution and the start of Russia’s war in 2014. We didn’t know until the end how the revolution was going to turn out, whether Ukraine was going to win or lose. But you can go to a Reuters story today and it’s still called a “Russian operation.” This isn’t about “breakaway republics,” it isn’t about “separatist republics” — it’s a straight-up Russian invasion that started in 2014. And they don’t call it that.

I wouldn’t have left our newsroom. If I were there, I don’t think I’d do anything differently than the journalists who are covering this. We’d do it from our unique vantage point as the hometown newspaper, the capital newspaper in the country that’s being attacked. I’ve been dreaming of headlines, front pages, because I’m an old print guy. Part of me feels like an amputee because I just don’t have that outlet anymore, or the staff, or the printed newspaper, or the website to update, or the stories to edit or the coverage to plan.

Brian Bonner and his staff in the newsroom of the Kyiv Post in 2017

Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner, right, and his staff in the newsroom of the Kyiv Post in 2017, when several were targeted by Russian hackers.

Have you talked to your former colleagues who are covering the invasion?
The demolition of the Kyiv Post by the owner couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I’m very glad my colleagues stayed together at The Kyiv Independent. They’re much younger. All of them are bilingual, tech-savvy — an amazing generation of people that I was able to hire and mentor. They dispersed for safety reasons but they’re still kicking ass. And to be honest, the Twitter feed is everything in times of fast-moving stories. They jumped from nothing on their Twitter feed to 2 million. They’ve become the go-to news service. They’ve raised $75,000 in monthly membership pledges and have a GoFundMe campaign that has raised $1.5 million. Some have stayed very close to the front lines, but the front line moves and shifts, so it’s dangerous. They’ve done it with classic beat reporting: Some reporters are handling the refugee crisis at the border, some are handling the military, others are monitoring what Zelensky is doing, still others are covering the diplomatic side, and so forth.

They’re massively overworked; I’ve tried not to bother them. They don’t have a printed newspaper, so it’s a website, a daily newsletter and their must-go-to Twitter feed. I know from managing during COVID that it was a huge challenge to go from a newsroom to remote. But in that way, COVID provided a great lesson: You can still pull together with a little extra effort and manage people who are dispersed all over the nation or even abroad.

When I was editor of the Post, we had a policy for covering the revolution and war: You were never forced to go to the front lines. ~ Brian Bonner

How would you balance the need to protect your reporters with the need to tell this story?
When I was editor of the Post, we had a policy for covering the revolution and war: You were never forced to go to the front lines. It was voluntary, and we had enough journalists who wanted to volunteer. You have to not be cowboys, not send people out to their doom, and we never did that. And thank God we never had injuries in the revolution or war, despite the fact that thousands of people got killed and hundreds of people got hurt.

What do you think of the Western media coverage so far?
I’m proud of what the journalists are doing here. The human angles are everywhere. But the larger picture is that we have a 21st-century genocide against the Ukrainian people, against the Ukrainian state. I’m upset that officialdom is standing aside, treating it in some ways like a reality TV show. If we stand aside and allow this genocide to go forward, how is this going to look to the future of humankind? Do we say we didn’t intervene forcefully because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so we didn’t have a legal obligation? There’s a moral obligation, I think, to save Ukrainians.

If you get translations of Putin’s remarks, he sounds like an enraged Hitler. Ukraine is a democratic, peaceful country that is being punished just because it wants to keep its own statehood. There are people who oddly, at this late date, are apologists, trying to get us to understand Putin’s point of view. He has no legitimate point of view on this. That’s the frustration I feel when I watch some of the coverage.

Brian Bonner on covering Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Zelensky was very thin-skinned. He didn’t tolerate criticism well. I heard that he gave the blessing for closing (the Post) down and demanding that the owner fire everybody.

That said, he’s doing what a president needs to do in a time of war. He’s staying with his people, he’s motivating them, and I like this combination of shaming the West and being openly critical of how little Ukraine is being helped, yet at the same time recognizing that Ukraine is very, very dependent on its friends — the U.S., Great Britain, Poland and so forth. People are tested by crises and he is passing this one with more political courage than I see from most leaders around the globe.

But before, he was quite arrogant; he thought he knew better than journalists. Because he was a very popular entertainer, he got elected with the help of a lot of people you’d call reformers, progressive reformers. Then he ditched them within six months. He was declining in the polls and people were not seeing progress in the fight against corruption. After winning the election with 70 percent of the vote, he had become very unpopular.

One of his chiefs of staff early on, who either quit or got fired, said we don’t need the media; we just go over your heads. They were dictating who would go on political talk shows; his prosecutors would harass the Kyiv Post. There were other incidents. He was very contemptuous of investigative reporters, and openly so. So he was hardly a model president before the war.

What about the context?
There’s still not a true understanding of the evil that Vladimir Putin poses to the free world. Some people still think, ah, let him have Ukraine, then it’ll end at NATO’s border. Not gonna happen, guys. So wake up to that, stop him now, when he can be stopped more easily. The other thing is they say is that sanctions don’t work. Well, sanctions don’t work because they’re not severe enough. If you actually flipped the switch and disconnected the Russian economy from the world, and that means shutting off the oil and gas, he cannot fund his war machine.

We saw sanctions, very weak ones, rolled out after the Crimean invasion in 2014. They weren’t enforced. I don’t think the coverage has really reflected that.

What should the Western media be doing more of to hold people’s attention?
They need to stay on the story. We’ve seen some great investigations of assets. But in the short term it’s not about that. This is our moral test of the 21st century. Are we going to fail it again like we did with the Syrians, or are we going to pass it? Ukrainians are being killed just for being Ukrainian. That’s genocide, and it has to be stopped.

When you say stay on the story, what do you mean?
It takes enormous resources and energy, and there’s fatigue. It’s a marathon, and we’re now a month-plus into the active, full-scale invasion. As an American who’s made his life in Ukraine, I really hope Americans stay interested. I hope that they keep the moral obligation. There’s more than enough Ukrainian men and, actually, foreign fighters now to turn the tide. We need to understand the effects of this in the long term, in terms of alliances and the economy and reorienting our economies away from autocrats.

What should the media and reporters do to have this story heard above the daily din? Do we just keep filing stories and images and hope people pay attention, or is there something more to be done?
That’s a good question. I don’t know what more journalists can do. I think journalists are saints. They work way too hard and take too many risks.

The larger global struggle is over a free press, and that’s part of why Ukraine has been attacked by Putin. Ukraine certainly had big corruption problems, including in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration. And Zelensky is partly to blame for telling people that he didn’t believe there was going to be a full-scale invasion up until the week it happened. That led to a lot of complacency.

Ukraine is still relatively free, especially when you compare it to China, when you compare it to Russia, when you compare it to Belarus. This is where we need global support for journalism. And I think in crises like these we have to get resources to journalists who are able to get the story out. It’s illegal right now in Russia to call this a war. But Russians have internet; they can choose to find out the truth. Unfortunately, and this is even the case with some of my former friends in Russia, many buy into Putin’s lying with absolutely no concept of reality.

How are reporters getting access to people in Ukraine and how are they staying safe?
Access in Ukraine has been pretty good because there have been so many changes in governments,  so it’s never been a huge problem getting to people in power. The administration holds a lot of off-the-record briefings. It’s not like the Kremlin. Officials are all on Twitter or available on their cellphones. It’s a very open country — maybe too open. They had to crack down a little bit because journalists were getting too close to the front lines and there was a warning about the risk of tipping off the Russian enemy. One of the few times some censorship is valid is during war.

As for Ukrainian citizens, they are by and large a pretty open people; they’ll tell you their story.

What news sources are you relying on for coverage?
First and foremost I rely on my former colleagues, now at The Kyiv Independent. But that said, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Economist, Atlantic Magazine, Financial Times — they’re all over this story. I don’t live a day without CNN. Heaven forbid we lose our internet and TV and cellphones.

There are a lot of stories that would be huge front-page news but they get lost in the war. One of them is that Ukraine’s electricity grid was hooked to Russia’s. But now, fortunately, the grid has been disconnected from Russia and reconnected to the European grid. That’s a big, big deal and huge advancement in security, in the electricity market and the energy market.

Are there stories that are being missed or undercovered?
Stories aren’t being missed, especially about what’s happening in Ukraine and on the battlefront. But the bigger stories are the ones that are being told on the business desks, by the investigative teams, in the political arena. Those are taking place all over the world, in Brussels, in Washington, Berlin, Moscow and Berlin. You don’t need to be in Ukraine to tell this story. Even to interview Ukrainians now, you don’t need to be in Ukraine. Ten percent of the country has left.

The West moves slowly, but once it’s unified it does have power. Yet coverage shows that NATO is still a very timid organization. I don’t think Putin will ever use nuclear weapons, but this notion that the West is telling Putin what it will do and won’t do is kind of ridiculous.

As for stories that need more attention: How Putin’s money and the autocrats’ money have corrupted politics in the Western countries. Those are the big stories that can be done wherever you are in the globe. South Dakota became a leader of these blind trusts, where they’re not required to reveal who owns them, who got the money, anything. It’s just money laundering.

What news organizations are doing a really bad job of covering this?
I won’t watch him, but I know that Tucker Carlson on Fox is the poster child of Putin appeasers: Oh, let’s try to understand Putin, give him an off-ramp. The guy doesn’t WANT an off-ramp. I was asked to go on Fox twice by Sean Hannity and I didn’t respond. I don’t think you can argue with a guy whose whole platform is based on misinformation and supporting Donald Trump.

This is our moral test of the 21st century. ~ Brian Bonner

I think the hottest place in journalism hell goes to those who spread Kremlin propaganda — that there are bioweapons labs in Ukraine, that Ukraine was developing nuclear bombs, Ukraine is full of Nazis. This is such garbage that no journalists who run down the facts would repeat them. Even though it’s only Ukraine fighting, with Western supplies, it is a World War III in the sense that everyone has to choose up sides: Ukraine or Russia? If you choose neutrality, that’s taking Russia’s side.

And who’s doing the best coverage?
The people who write most insightfully keep history in mind: Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, Garry Kasparov, Diane Francis. And Illia Ponomarenko, who has become internationally famous, went to the University of Mariupol, which now is in ruins. Illia is funny despite the war. He was tweeting at 3 in the morning — ‘fucking Russians, stop your artillery! I’m trying to get some sleep here!’ He’s got a million Twitter followers last I checked. He’s the front-line guy, the military guy. He bought an apartment in the northwest suburbs of Kyiv, which was also the center of the battle, and lost it in the shelling. He wrote a piece — Is the front line moving forward or back? — and, as only Illia could do because he’s so well-sourced and is actually on the ground, gave us a very good state of play about whether Kyiv was going to fall. It was very nuanced. It was like community journalism. So that’s the one that stuck out because I’m a Kyiv resident. I own property here. I have my life invested in Kyiv. And, dammit, I want to know if I will still have a home or I’m going to be bombed in my bed or whatever.

Postscript: After our conversation, Bonner sent this link to a New Yorker podcast and a perspective story from The Kyiv Independent that he recommends for further understanding of the situation in Ukraine. Then he added this personal note: “Thanks for the time. Remember, if I die, I died doing what I want, where I want, with whom I want…nothing better in life.”

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