In response to:

The Party Line from the March 21, 2024 issue

To the Editors:

The conditions experienced by foreign journalists in Russia worsened well before Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. I arrived in Moscow as The Guardian’s bureau chief in 2007, two decades after Jonathan Steele [“The Party Line,” NYR, March 21] did the same job for the same British newspaper. Within months, unpromising young men in black leather jackets followed me in the street. There was a series of demonstrative break-ins at our family apartment. We were bugged, the UK embassy advised. The FSB—the main domestic successor to the KGB—summoned me for an interview in Lefortovo, the Moscow pretrial detention center where the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is currently incarcerated. Under Putin, Soviet-style methods of intimidation came back. In 2011 the Kremlin deported me from the country. It subsequently expelled other reporters, and as Steele correctly says, most US and UK newspapers have now exited Russia.

This gloomy experience is in contrast to Ukraine, where correspondents are free to report, to live, and to travel. Steele claims that there may be more “media manipulation” in Kyiv than in Moscow and says Western journalists have made no “sustained effort” to investigate the death toll among Ukrainian soldiers. This is unfair. In February, in response to a reporter’s question, President Volodymyr Zelensky admitted that 31,000 soldiers have died. Many think this is an underestimate. In a recent piece for The Guardian, I quote a Ukrainian paramedic who told me, “If you don’t recover a body, death is not confirmed.”* The reason, meanwhile, why Western journalists do not advocate a “cease-fire and negotiations” with Russia has nothing to do with “self-censorship,” as Steele alleges. Ukrainians note that Putin’s war plan—to subjugate Ukraine and to seize as much of its territory as possible—is unchanged. They believe that Russia would use any “deal” to regroup and to prepare a further military attack.

Luke Harding
London, UK

Jonathan Steele replies:

My former colleague Luke Harding is right to say that many think Volodymyr Zelensky was giving an underestimate when in February he produced for the first time a specific figure for Ukrainian military deaths. But surely this uncertainty highlights the need for serious investigation of the issue by journalists and others.

Harding is wrong, however, to imply that all Ukrainians oppose calls for negotiations because they think Russia would use a deal to prepare for a future military attack. The much-respected Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducts regular opinion polls. In May 2022, three months after the start of Putin’s illegal invasion, the institute found that 59 percent of Ukrainians wanted their government to engage in peace negotiations with Russia. Over the next few months, as Ukraine’s leadership talked up preparations for a big counteroffensive that would be launched in 2023, the public’s support for negotiations tailed off. It was down to 23 percent in January 2023. But the counteroffensive failed and the number of Ukrainians who want negotiations went back up to 42 percent in November 2023.

These important statistics show that millions of Ukrainians reject the official line that the war can only be ended by military means. The institute’s findings are rarely mentioned in the Western media either, through journalists’ ignorance or self-censorship.