SpyCast 5.28.24
Ep 635 | 5.28.24

“Zelensky, Ukraine & Intelligence” – with Simon Shuster


Dr. Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast", the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Each week we explore some aspect of the past, present, or future of intelligence and espionage. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a five-star review. I will literally take 30 seconds of your time. Coming up next on "SpyCast".

Simon Shuster: These answers were sort of like optimistic, happy-go-lucky, like, "We'll figure it out. Don't worry, Simon, we've got this." I certainly didn't have the impression that he or his entourage were prepared for what they were walking into politically. [ Music ]

Dr. Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is Simon Shuster, senior correspondent at "Time" magazine. He covers international affairs and has reported specifically on Russia and Ukraine for almost two decades. Simon's new book, "The Showman", explores the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky during Ukraine's war with Russia, with a focus on intelligence. Reporting directly from the president's inner circle, Simon pervades a fascinating first-person perspective on the man who has led Ukraine through one of their most turbulent periods. In this episode, you will learn about Zelensky's career pre-presidency, Zelensky's relationship with Ukrainian intelligence, reactions to the Russian invasion, and Ukrainian public opinion of Zelensky. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006 we are "SpyCast". Now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. I think first place that I wanted to start was could you just tell us a little bit more about that very first day of the war happening, something that is quite important to understand and you had a ringside seat? Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Simon Shuster: Yes; so the day that the invasion began, I went to some lengths to describe it as vividly as I could in the book based on interviews with President Zelensky and everyone around him. Most importantly I think was his wife, who described to me how they woke up that morning from the sounds of explosions happening outside. And this came as a deep shock to her and also to her husband. They did not expect or prepare for the Russian invasion taking the form that it did with an immediate attack on Kyiv bombardment from the air of civilian areas and cities across the country. President Zelensky and his team were anticipating some kind of attack that day, but the scenario at the front of their minds was a more limited escalation from the east where the Russians were expected to try to jump off more pieces of territory in the region known as the "Donbas". But when the bombing started, President Zelensky and his team understood that this was the nightmare scenario that the Americans had been predicting; and indeed the worse case, the most aggressive approach to the invasion that the Russians could have taken. So President Zelensky quickly jumped out of bed, put on his business suit that he normally wore to work, jumped in his convoy, after saying goodbye to his wife, a very brief goodbye, and sped to the office. And of course he was getting a flood of messages and phone calls from his aides, staffers, military advisors, military officers, informing him of what was going on. And he told the key inner circle of the presidential administration to, "Come to the office, come to the compound and we'll meet you there." So then they gathered there and began improvising. They began trying to figure it out as they went along. I mean, as I try to demonstrate in the book, you know, there's really nothing that can prepare you for the kind of danger, the kind of crisis that he faced that morning, that Zelensky faced that morning. There's no resume that can really prepare you for that, so that they had to think on their feet, and they did.

Dr. Andrew Hammond: I find it quite interesting in the book when you said that most Ukrainians didn't believe he had it in him. And then you say, "Neither did I." Can you tell us a little bit more about that? This transformation is really fascinating.

Simon Shuster: Yes, I mean, it's not that there was some kind of opinion poll taken ahead of the invasion, you know, in Ukraine asking Ukrainian citizens, "Do you expect [overlapping]?"

Dr. Andrew Hammond: Sure. [Laughs]

Simon Shuster: No. But I think from his opinion polls -- the opinions polls generally of his level of trust among the people and his level of support, was not high. It was in the neighborhood of 20, 25 percent. Generally, people were very dissatisfied in his leadership with his -- the failure of his attempts to bring peace and negotiate a lasting peace with the Russians, and generally didn't see him as a strong enough leader to lead the country in this great confrontation with Russia. So I think many people expected -- certainly worried about whether he would stay and fight. Zelensky promised that he would -- you know, I mean, he was saying that there wouldn't be such a dramatic invasion in any case, but he definitely said that he would stay and he would fight, and I -- and maybe it shouldn't have been as surprising at it was. But I -- also I didn't think he had, you know, not only the courage to stay in that moment, but the kind of leader we saw taking shape before our eyes on the screens of our phones and newsfeeds that I had the privilege of seeing developed in person there in Kyiv in the early weeks of the invasion. You know, I didn't expect that kind of figure to take shape. You know, I think many people didn't. Even some of his closest allies in the West, in Europe, in the United States did not expect him to lead the country the way he has with the kind of fortitude and courage that he's shown.

Dr. Andrew Hammond: And I just want to go back to the question of shock. I read that in the -- in your book and it was quite interesting to me. So we are an intelligence and espionage focused podcast because, you know, we're the International Spy Museum. So just some other people that we've had on the show they've -- you know, they've said, "You know, we saw this coming like quite far out, and you know, it was obvious that it was going to happen, and it was obvious it was going to be significant because, you know, there's armor columns, you know, gathering in certain places, and that doesn't happen if you're just -- if you have very limited objects and so forth." So I'm just wondering like is it that Zelensky wasn't being told by Ukrainian intelligence, or foreign intelligence agencies that this is what's going to happen, or was it more like disbelief like, you know, as an unwillingness to face up to the reality of the saturation? I'm just trying to work out like what's going on there with Zelensky and his wife.

Simon Shuster: No, I mean, I think that in terms of the intelligence question, I think it's a little bit unfair the way it's now presented, the narrative that has taken shape about how we -- how the world came to the point of the invasion. So if you just sort of follow what was available, the information that was available to Zelensky in the weeks and days leading up to the invasion, it was quite a variety in intelligence. Yes, the Americans were right. The Americans had the correct prediction, based on the intersect, based on the satellite imagery, based on the variety of intelligence they were looking at, but they were not the only game in town. The Europeans were looking at stuff on the same data and coming to different conclusions. Indeed, the Ukrainian intelligence services were also tapping their sources, of course, and looking at the same images that the Americans were sharing with the Ukrainian services, and they were coming to a different set of conclusions. It was a question of interpretation really, you know, "What are these forces going to be used for; is this a bluff, is this -- are they going to be used again for some kind of limited -- more limited incursion in Eastern Ukraine to try to seize more of the Donbas region? This was a great debate. People forget that now because, you know, it's always tempting with hindsight to say, "Oh, yes, we saw this coming. Oh, of course we knew every detail." But that is not -- that's disingenuous. And I've heard many people make that claim. The debate was very lively at the time. I remember it well. I was on the side, you could say, of Zelensky in not believing that Putin would go this far. I'm very -- I did not believe that there would be this full scale invasion. And I remember that debate very clearly, and I remember the types of intelligence that was going around, and the various services we were sharing with journalists like myself and many others. It was far from clear. And again, I remember the doubts. Some people suggested, including my sources in Kiev that, "Hey, the Americans aren't always right when it comes to intelligence; prognostication based on intelligence." You know, they -- a number of people raised the Iraq WMD issue, right, so that certain stains on the reputation of American intelligence. So it's -- it was a mixed picture. And that to my mind just to summarize gives me more sympathy and understanding for the difficulty of the position that Zelensky was in, in trying to, well, decide which prognosis is he going to believe? No one has a crystal ball. And with hindsight people like to claim they do or did, but that was not the case in the moment.

Dr. Andrew Hammond: Yes. So it was far from a slam dunk case?

Simon Shuster: It was. I mean, it felt to the Americans like it was a slam dunk, and there was a lot of frustration. I've spoken to US officials who expressed a lot of frustration. Some of them I quote in the book about being -- not being believed. I remember one conversation where a US official, you know, complained about not -- about European -- or European counterparts not giving the Americans the credit that the Americans felt they were due for predicting this correctly, you know what I mean? There was this kind of thing brought on too after the fact where the Americans were beating their chest a little bit and saying, "Look, we got it right." And hey, all credit where credit is due, they definitely did. But yes there was that kind of thing going on too where the intelligence services were sort of, well, you know, saying, "Hey, you got it right," or actually not acknowledging that that's success on the American part. Anyway, it was interesting but it was a bit of a sideshow. Once the invasion was going on, I think people were rightly concerned with other and more immediate threats and issues, not the question of interpreting intelligence before the invasion.

Dr. Andrew Hammond: Hmm. Yes, when you were talking there it reminded me a lot about the poor diplomatic people that were decrypted in the run up to Pearl Harbor. And people were saying, "Well, I formerly had been put in the hands of the secretary of state, and I formerly this, and I formerly that. But all of those "formerlies" don't really get you there.

Simon Shuster: Yes, and even if they had it's still a question of what will that senior leader, that head of state believe. Even if they have that -- even if they're looking at that intercept or whatever it is, there's always going to be an alternative voice that says, "Hey, yes, that looks bad, but X, Y, Z." So yes, that's a big factor.

Andrew Hammond: And it's interesting to see that you shared Zelensky's assessment that probably wouldn't do want they went on to do. And just to put that in context for our listeners, your -- you know, hope I don't embarrass you here. Your credentials in this area are like pretty much impeccable, born in Moscow, Ukrainian father, Russian mother, and have been helping reporting in the region for 17 years. So it's not like you're some stateside-based journalist who was jumping, you know, some hot story and didn't really understand the context, or the region, or any of that; like you're -- you've been a master in this stuff for quite a long time.

Simon Shuster: Thank you. Yes, [laughs] that's true. The divide was interesting. And I remember these debates going back and forth over time. So the colleagues in mind as a rule -- and this wasn't totally true, you know, in a hundred percent of cases, but generalizing here. As a rule, the colleagues, journalists, and analysts who predicted that the invasion would take place were more war correspondents, not regional experts like myself. So I'm a sort of regional political expert in Russian, Ukraine, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe. So I don't really know much about the military. So I was looking at these assessments of what military hardware is there, these things about old Russia had brought a stockpile of refrigerated blood. So to a military correspondent or a soldier with a certain amount of experience, that tells you something. To me it didn't say anything at all. I was like, "Okay, so what? So they brought refrigerated blood. Does that mean they're going to invade? I mean, I'm not convinced." So there was this divide between the regional experts, like myself, who focused on the politics, the history, the individuals trying to understand Putin's thinking. How does he operate, what are his motivations, what is his history of behavior, and does this fit into the pattern of Putin's behavior in the past? And the general consensus -- and I agree with this, was that no, that this would be out of character for Putin. Putin wouldn't do something so extreme. He would try to hedge. He would try to sort of put one foot in, but also leave himself a way out to deny, to obfuscate. This is generally his pattern of behavior that he's left for himself over the years. And there are, of course, counterexamples. But he thinks more like a spy and less like a soldier, as a rule. So in any case, all of that led me and a good number of my colleagues to assume that Putin would -- is probably preparing some kind of escalation, but it would not be the kind of blitzkrieg that we ended up seeing unfold. So we were wrong. I was wrong and, you know, I wasn't alone, but I take -- I own that. I take full credit [laughter] that the ones who got it right were the ones looking at the hardware and the frozen blood stockpiles, all this stuff and said, That is an invasion. There's no -- there's nothing else that that can be. So it was an interesting way thing. You know, everybody comes at these kinds of decisions and analyses with their particular set of experiences, their biases, their approaches, and their blind spots. For me a certainly big blind spot was the kind of military expertise, which I don't -- I still don't have. I'm not really a war correspondent. I mean, you know, yes, now I guess I can claim that title. But generally speaking, I'm more of a political correspondent, political writer, who covers a region where there are many wars.

Andrew Hammond: I think it would be interesting now just to know just to dive into Zelensky. I mean, what a fascinating guy. You first met him in 2019, and then this book is based on like lots of interviews with Zelensky himself and everybody in his inner circle. Can you just tell us a little bit more about Zelensky, like who is he, where did he grow up, what was his childhood like, et cetera?

Simon Shuster: Sure, yes. He grew up in a hard scrambled, rough industrial city in sort of southeastern Ukraine, a Soviet kid, pretty difficult Soviet upbringing. He grew up in a Jewish family. Both sides are Jewish, so I think the history of the Holocaust, and the victims, the family members of Zelensky who died in the Holocaust were very much a prominent part of his upbringing and something that the family talked about a lot. But he grew up, and his big distraction, his big hobby and love was performing comedy. It was a kind of comedy that was popularized in the Soviet Union in the 1980s when he was growing up in the city, Kryvyi Rih. And it was sort of like his groups and performers, usually students, high school students, or college students, performing together sketch acts, improv comedy, this kind of thing, some standup, singing, dancing. It was quite a show that they would put on. And he did this for some years, and that was his springboard into a career, a very successful career as a TV actor, TV producer, filmmaker, a star of the stage and the screen. I mean, he grew up by the -- by 2018 when he really decided to go into politics, he was really at the peak of the show business profession in that region. He was the country's -- you know, easily the country's most famous political satirist, one of the most famous just TV and movie celebrities in both Russia and Ukraine. And I think as he -- one thing that's important to know is -- was as he was thinking about going into politics, he played the president of Ukraine in a sitcom in a comedy TV show called "Servant of the People" that sort of invited or allowed Ukrainians to imagine him in the role of president before he actually announced his candidacy in real life. So that's an interesting dynamic and something, you know, that I've ever heard of in the history of the world. It's quite -- [laughter] you couldn't make it up if you tried. It would seem farfetched like if you made it up as a Hollywood movie that this TV president becomes the real president. But indeed, that is what happened with him. And his TV show where he plays the president it's called "Servant of the People". Very funny. I would recommend it to your listeners. It's on Netflix. It's on YouTube. You can watch it. It was --

Andrew Hammond: You can watch it with English subset? You can --

Simon Shuster: Yes.

Andrew Hammond: get them with English subtitles?

Simon Shuster: Yes, yes, yes. I think in -- on Netflix they even dubbed it into English. I'm not sure. But anyway, that was very much his springboard into politics. And it sort of -- it made it much easier for him and his team to imagine a career in politics or a presidential run because they had been writing the script of this imaginary world where he, the character Zelensky plays, stumbles sort of by accident into the presidency and becomes a very effective, very beloved and popular leader.

Andrew Hammond: And his father was a cybernetics professor. Is that correct?

Simon Shuster: Yes, yes, yes. That's right, he taught cybernetics at the university there in Kryvyi Rih, and he was especially focused on implementing cybernetics in the fields of mining and geology. So it wasn't just theoretical, he was setting up systems for managing minds that used computers to do it more efficiently. That was his profession. So a very high-level, prestigious career that he managed to achieve despite the anti-Semitism that he faced and many Soviet Jews faced at the time. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: The Jewish community in Ukraine has a long and rich history. At one point, the area was home to one of the largest communities of Jewish people across Europe. But we can't possibly summarize over a thousand years of complicated and deeply-layered history in this one interlope, but we give it our best shot. Judaism in Ukraine can be traced all the way back to at least the 9th century AD. One of the first written accounts of the Jewish presence in Ukraine comes from the naming of one of Kyiv's three sets of gates, the Jew's gate in 1016. For centuries, the Jewish community in Kyiv and across Ukraine continued to grow and thrive. However, as with many other Jewish communities across Europe and beyond, Ukrainian Jews faced violent anti-Semitism and expulsion from their homes. In the 17th century during the Koszyce Polish War, an army of Koszyce competents murdered an estimated 15 to 30 thousand Jewish people, destroying around 300 Jewish communities in Ukraine. In 1821, the first pogram against Ukrainian Jews occurred in Odesa, linked to the Greek War of Independence. Pograms continued against the Jewish communities of Odesa throughout the 19th century, eventually becoming unofficially tolerated by the Tsarist authorities. Prior to the Holocaust, Ukraine was home to an estimated 2.7 million Jewish people. By the end of World War II, somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 million of these people had been murdered. That's almost half of the Ukrainian Jewish population. Postwar, many Ukrainian Jews emigrated outside of the country to places like Israel and the United States. Today, the Jewish population of Ukraine sits at around 400,000, centralized largely in major cities like Kyiv. [ Background sounds ] And Zelensky's successful and by the monetary yardstick as well, isn't he. He's a millionaire by the age of 30?

Simon Shuster: Yes, yes. I mean, of course, as you would expecting, you know, someone who's -- who makes it big in the movie business, yes, you make a lot of money in that business. It's not like journalism. [Laughter] It's -- yes so he was easily a millionaire by the time he was 30; so we're talking 2008. By then he was -- you know, they were cranking out sitcoms, romcoms, reality TV shows. He starred in "Dancing with the Stars" -- you know this show? Yes, he was -- he --

Andrew Hammond: Yes. [Laughs]

Simon Shuster: Won that contest, and then he became a hero. [Laughter] Yes, he won and he was -- as a contestant and then soon after, he became a producer on the show. And they had like game shows, they're having -- they had all kinds of stuff on Russian and Ukrainian TV. They were just cranking it out, and of course making quite a bit of money, you know, with each show.

Andrew Hammond: Yes. And how -- so he's the biggest star in Ukraine. How big is he in Russia? I read that 85% of his business interests were there so he's very popular there. That's where a lot of his success is based. And we can go on to discuss the political ramifications of that in a minute, but I just wonder like how popular is he in Russia?

Simon Shuster: Extremely popular. Yes, ye was beloved. His movies were beloved. He always performed and produced television and films in the Russian language, which made them accessible to most Ukrainians, and of course, all Russians, and many people in other countries in that region who speak Russian. So one measure that is the fact that for a number of years, Zelensky hosted the New Year's Eve special on Russian television. That's usually a job reserved for the main entertainer in any country, right, and he played that role in Russia. Indeed, in New Years Eve 2013 to 2014, when in Kyiv in the capital of Ukraine, there was a revolution going on against Russian influence and in support of Western integration, Zelensky at the time was hosting the Russian New Year's Eve special on Russian state TV. So that gives you a measure of his integration also into the world of Russian show business.

Andrew Hammond: Hmm. Well, that really helps put it in perspective. And tell me a little bit more about the time that you first met him. So when did you first encounter him? And I'm just imagining, you know, maybe this wasn't an issue, but if someone is a comedian and then they're doing something serious, like quite often, you know, people are coming to talk to them and there's still a little bit of a like during or in underlying, you know, you're like a funny person, you know, "I'm finding that difficult to take you seriously." So I'm just wondering, tell me a little bit more about the first time you met him and to what extent was that legacy of comedy in the background in your head?

Simon Shuster: Well, it was in my head to some extent. I can't say that I was a big fan of his comedy before I met him. I wanted to take him seriously. I was reporting on the presidential elections, as I have done over, you know, several previous presidential elections in the Ukraine. That's just something I do, I cover the country. When he began gaining in the polls as this kind of dark horse candidate, I went to see him, and I spent quite a bit of time hanging around with his team. And they invited me once to go backstage of his comedy show. It was a big variety show that was -- he was putting on in the biggest concert hall in Kyiv. t was also going to be televised across Ukraine to millions of viewers, so it was quite a big performance. And I went backstage and that's where I met him for the first time. You know, I -- my mind was in the political sphere, so I was curious what is this person going to do as the president if he wins, and what are his political bona fides, and, you know, who is he as a politician? He made it, I should say, quite difficult to take him seriously, because he didn't have any serious answers to my political questions. When we went after the show backstage to talk, we talked in his dressing room that even after the performance -- that was our first interview, and he didn't have any glimmer of convincing or very well thought out answers to my questions about, "Okay, what are you -- how are you going to handle the very significant dramatic challenges that Ukraine faces domestically in the fight against corruption or internationally in dealing with Donald Trump," who was then in the White House, or Vladimir Putin, who was then already waging a war against Ukraine for some five years, having Annex Crimea in 2014, so five years before this conversation I'm describing. So Zelensky's answers were sort of like optimistic, happy-go-lucky like, "We'll go figure it out. Don't worry, Simon, we've got this," like, "We're going to -- all we need to do is kick out these corrupt elites that have been running the country for many, many years. And all we've got to do is bring in some fresh faces, some fresh ideas and just give us a chance, we'll figure it out." That was basically the attitude he took. And I came away -- you know, I found him and his team very likeable, and very funny, very cool to hang out with, they're a great group of people to party with; but I certainly didn't have the impression that he or his entourage were prepared for what they were walking into politically.

Andrew Hammond: And do you think that was a lot about like, you know, "I really want this role. I don't need to learn the lines now. I can learn my lines later," or about, you know, "Let's do it, guys." There's not a lot of naïveté or sort of optimism?

Simon Shuster: Yes, it's confidence. I'd say -- and that approach is very typical of Zelensky throughout his life. I mean in researching his transformations as a person from comedian, to politician, to wartime leader, I also thought a lot about what are the qualities that have remained consistent in him. And one of them for sure is this kind of "go get them" confidence where he just says, "Let's just try it. Let's just go. We'll improvise. We'll figure it out." He did this also in the early days in the invasion. He just has this inviting confidence in his own ability to think on his feet, to not lose his balance, to just go into a new and unfamiliar space or set of challenges and wing it, so to say. [Laughter] This is something he's been doing --

Andrew Hammond: Good old-fashioned "winging it"?

Simon Shuster: Yes, he's been doing it consistently and with a lot of success, I should say, throughout his life. Often as an entertainer, he would kind of pool his team of performers and producers into projects and adventures for which they felt unprepared, and indeed, they didn't have, you know, the money or the clout to do a certain project. You know, I described this in more detail in the book, but just to generalize here, he would tell them, "Don't worry, guys, let's go. We'll figure it out. Let's just try it and see what happens. What do we have to lose?" This is a very Zelensky kind of thing to do, a very Zelensky attitude.

Andrew Hammond: Yes. And he -- this belief in himself and in has the ability to use his charisma or his personality to persuade people, you know, if we can just like talk to -- and, "I can bring him around, we can do something, we can make a deal or we can ameliorate a saturation. We can make it a lot better," he has this sort of belief in himself. But tell the listeners what happens like with having Putin and Putin's assessment of Zelensky and vice versa.

Simon Shuster: Yes; so yes, I go into that in quite some detail in the book because I do think it's really a turning point in understanding how we came to this war. So the main promise that Zelensky made upon taking office, indeed the main promise in his inauguration speech in May of 2019, was to end the war in the Donbas, to come to terms with Putin and find some resolution to this long, simmering conflict that had by then already taken more than 10,000 lives. And in the first year or two of his tenure as president, he gave it a very good shot. He tried very hard to find some compromises with the Russians, to offer concessions, to really bring back to life this peace process that had been dormant or frozen for a few years before Zelensky took office. Of course, the central dimension of this was negotiating directly with Putin. For the first days of his administration, he ordered his team to set up a face-to-face meeting with Putin. They had a number of phone calls before that, but they finally sat down and met in Paris in December of that year, December of 2019. Zelensky prepared very diligently for those talks. I met him a few weeks before the talks just to check in and talk about his preparations and, you know, his expectations. And generally his attitude was, "Look, there's one man who has done all of this to Ukraine. There's one man who started this war back in 2014 when he attacked, occupied, and annexed the region of Crimea and then began this war in Eastern Ukraine, and that's Putin. So to stop this war, we need to talk to Putin." Many people in Zelensky's circle tried to talk him out of doing that, including US diplomats, including some of Zelensky's foreign policy advisors told him, "Mr. President, don't get pulled into a negotiation with Putin because you will be played. You will be used. You will not come away with an agreement that most Ukrainians would accept." But he said, "We have to try." He would actually get frustrated with people who tried to talk him out of this. And you know, coming to the meeting itself, it was a huge blow and a huge disappointment for Zelensky. He met the limits of his skills as a communicator that day. He was expecting to find in Putin subhumanity or pragmatism that he could turn in his favor and in Ukraine's favor. What he confronted was a man who had no desire to negotiate with the Ukrainians, who had a deep animosity toward Ukraine, and grievances going back many years, decades, even centuries that he had against Ukraine. So it was like talking to a wall of ice. They still continued feeling around for points of agreement. After those face-to-face talks, the Ukrainian and the Russian negotiators had a series of meetings where they tried to hammer out some kind of deal. But within a year or so, definitely it broke down. So they could not find much common ground and the talks broke down. By I'd say the fall of 2020, they were already deadlocked.

Andrew Hammond: It's interesting, reading your book, it reminded me in some ways -- I'm not saying it's a perfect analogy, of course, but it reminded me in some ways of probably one of the, you know, books on Reagan, President Reagan as Lou Cannon's "The Role of a Lifetime". And there's a sort of crossover where, you know, the role of a lifetime, and for Zelensky, this is sort of a role of a lifetime he's playing. But then also there's the Reagan, The Reykjavík Summit in '86, you know, "Let's just get rid of all nukes altogether." And you know, his advisors are like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," you know, like, "It's not like that simple. It's not going to work like that." But Reagan also had this, you know, belief in his own charm, and ability, and the sort of inner confidence or -- I'm not saying it's a perfect analogy, but it seems to me that there are some similarities there.

Simon Shuster: Yes, definitely. I mean, I think Reagan had more experience as a statesman than Zelensky did upon taking office. I mean, Reagan was the governor of California, so he at least knew how like government bureaucracy worked and so on. But yes, I think their styles are somewhat similar. Certainly, that confidence, the charisma, the showmanship, the understanding of how television works and how to make appeals, not only through argumentation but really through emotion. And Zelensky and Reagan I think both understood how important it was to really reach people on an emotional level and not only to present the dry arguments for this or that position.

Andrew Hammond: Yes. And Reagan's often called the "great communicator". You could say the same about Zelensky, couldn't you?

Simon Shuster: Yes, definitely. I mean, that was his skill. And as I tried to show in the book, you know, over the course of the chapters there describing his transition into wartime leadership, the toolkit and the set of skills that he developed as a showman, as an entertainer, turned out to be very useful to him in some surprising ways, and very useful to Ukraine once the invasion was underway. And he needed to rally support from the world, from the West first and foremost, but from foreign leaders and foreign people at large. I think he -- his skills as a communicator and as a showman really kicked into high gear in terms of the way they planned and executed their communication strategy. And then this is something that I tried too in the book, I sort of take you behind the scenes of that strategy and how they thought about it. And it surprised me the extent to which both Zelensky and some of his key advisors often used the language of television producers to describe their communication strategy as wartime leaders, so in the way that they presented themselves, the way they thought about the narrative, the way that they dressed even. You know, we know his kind of green fleece, and green t-shirt, and green sweatshirt. These were all -- you know, they were -- they came up with these things kind of in the moment improvising, but they were smart enough and aware enough of the power of certain symbols and that way the television worked, the way that social media works to understand that this uniform that they had invented for themselves just as a small example of what they were doing, was very powerful. It helped create a symbol, an image, an icon. And this was very -- this was not accidental. This was something they were very single-mindedly trying to do with Zelensky to make him the hero around which the world could rally and a symbol that would inspire people to support Ukraine and provide the assistance Ukraine needed to survive the invasion. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: In January 2023, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the famous doomsday clock to 90 seconds to midnight. This is the closest there has ever been to global catastrophe as an indicator of threat to humanity, posed ironically, by humanity itself, is indeed a powerful metaphor. Some of the reasons they gave for the move were biological threats, disruptive technologies, and climate change. But first and foremost was nuclear weapons. They cited the Finleyville threats to use nuclear weapons by Russian President Putin and Ukraine, and reminded the world of the terrible danger of nuclear escalation, whether by accident, intention, or miscalculation. The furthest the clock has ever been from midnight was in 1991 after the Cold War came to an end. If you're interested in what midnight may look like, you could watch "The Day After", a US film that came out in 1983, and left President Reagan, quote, "really depressed". Off "Reds", a British film that came out in 1984, and has been called arguably, "The most devastating piece of television ever produced." Intelligence, as you can imagine, has an important role to play in managing and mitigating the risk of that clock striking midnight and ushering in an apocalyptic catastrophe from which humanity and the planet may never recover. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick. [ Music ] [ Background sounds ] We're up to the point where the war has begun. So we've got an idea about his background. I've got an idea about how he became the man that he was, his running for the presidency, and so forth. So we've discussed the initial shock, and him then on putting on his business suit and getting down to it. We hear about the way that he manages the military. He quite often delegates to them and concentrates some of the things that we have just been speaking about. So I guess my question is because of the nature of our podcast, what's his relationship like with his intelligence services? How -- what kind of leader is he with them? Is it also, you know, "Do your thing and come back to me for something important that you need to know," or what's going on there so, you know, the main director of intelligence, the foreign intelligence service, the SBU, some big personalities there like Putin; or just give us a sort of like overview of Zelensky and the Ukraine and intelligence.

Simon Shuster: Yes, it's an interesting and somewhat long story. I mean, one thing I should mention at the top of this answer is that when Zelensky took office in 2019 at the very beginning, he chose his old childhood friend, a man named Ivan Bakanov to lead the country's main intelligence service, the SBU. That was a very interesting and somewhat unorthodox move. This -- Bakanov did not have any experience in intelligence or anything like that. He was a member of Zelensky's team in the world of entertainment, and they were childhood friends. They went to school together, going back to -- I don't remember how old they were when they met, but we're talking like elementary school, primary school. So this was Zelensky's intelligence chief for the first three years or so of his tenure as president. And Bakanov only lost his job during the invasion when it became clear and basically undeniable that the SBU in particular failed in its duties to predict and prevent the invasion; that its intelligence was sorely lacking, and indeed, the greatest defections in the Ukrainian state. The agency that saw the most defections to the Russian side was the SBU. There were some very high-level defectors, who as I write in the book, basically handed the keys to certain regions of Ukraine over to the Russians and let them take hold. So once those scandals began to emerge in the early months of the invasion, Zelensky did dismiss Bakanov and installed -- I mean I guess a more -- or someone with a more traditional intelligence background. But yes, I'd say early in the invasion, Zelensky's approach to the intelligence services were similar to the one he took with the military. It was -- he would ask them, "What do you need? How can we help you?" He would not get too mixed up in their affairs in terms of telling them what to do, what operations to undertake and so on. I think we saw during the invasion the agency known as "HUR", H U R, it's often spelled, or G U R, really come to the fore, because they are the ones who do the kind of wet work of operating behind enemy lines, you know, assassinations, this kind of thing. The SBU is more of a -- I think more comparable to the FBI in some ways. Yes.

Andrew Hammond: They're like [overlapping] --

Simon Shuster: Like MI5? Yes, MI5; their remit is broader than that, but they're a more domestic intelligence agency; whereas Domestic intelligence agency whereas GUR is military intelligence and also just kind of behind enemy lines type stuff, you know, commandos, that kind of thing. So they obviously in a time of full-scale war, they were more prominent; their skills were more needed and necessary. So they came to the fore, and that is the person you mentioned, Kyrylo Budanov, very much becomes central figure in the war-fighting effort in 2022. But over time, also Zelensky becomes more hands-on in his work with the intelligence agencies and with the military. Zelensky over time, as I described in the book, this is an evolution. It wasn't like a one-day sudden transformation. But over time he develops his own ideas, his own vision for how to wage the war, how to attack the Russians, how to hurt them, how to inflict pain, and how to demonstrate Ukraine can win. And sometimes those priorities and that vision for victory was not the same as his generals'. There weren't so much tensions between Zelensky and the intelligence agencies. But with the military, he did begin to have tensions as he disagreed, and he overruled the generals on a number of important strategic military decisions. Yes, and I think the same is the case with the intelligence services, only in the intelligence services generally they fell in line behind the president. I think both the GUR and the SBU are fully aligned with the president's priorities and agenda, and basically, you know, follow his orders.

Andrew Hammond: Just briefly, could you tell us a little bit more about Zelensky and Budanov? What's their relationship like?

Simon Shuster: Very good. Yes, I'd say they work well together, especially with the latest iteration of Zelensky's character and personality. So the wartime leader, the mature wartime president we see now is one who very much demands loyalty from his military intelligence services and, you know, wants them to do -- to follow instructions, which is, of course, a natural thing for a commander-in-chief to want in a time of war, especially. And Budanov has shown himself to be -- to fit very well with that approach. He is very loyal, and I would say very confident in the sense of he doesn't tell the president, "We probably -- this task is too much. This task is too hard." His answer is usually, you know, "You say jump, I say how high?" And he tries to get it done as quickly and as effectively as possible. And in many cases, he has been very effective, in some cases, less so. But he's that kind of commander. I think he's fully in the president's team. He seems very loyal to the president and very effective, you know, as someone who can deliver these dramatic attacks that Zelensky tends to like. And I'm generalizing here, but if there's something that can be said in general about Zelensky's approach to war-fighting is that he likes and often calls for these demonstrative attacks, attacks that show some kind of victory, even if it's not necessarily strategic, even if it's not really advancing toward the goal of -- in any obvious way of evicting the Russians from Ukrainian territory. But it shows that Ukraine is fighting back. So these are like the things that have cause big explosions in the night, you know, things that -- these high-profile assassinations. You know, these things are more in Budanov's wheelhouse, and he has been very effective in delivering those kinds of what I call "demonstrative attacks" against the Russians.

Andrew Hammond: Yes. And just as we get towards the end of the interview, I'm just wondering what do you think is the most misunderstood thing from the Western perspective about Ukraine or about the war in Ukraine?

Simon Shuster: Wow, that's a big one. [Laughter] I don't even know where to begin. I mean, I think nowadays, there's a misunderstanding that I often hear about here in New York where I'm based, people have this idea that often comes up in conversation that, "Well, if we turn off the tap of military and financial support -- " if, for example, Donald Trump comes to power and, you know, decides that we are no longer supporting the Ukrainians, that that will somehow force Zelensky and his team to negotiate with Russia and come to terms. It's a common thing I've heard. I think it's naïve. So from my knowledge of Zelensky as a person how he reacts to external pressure, how stubborn he is, how committed he is to this fight, and also some of the steps that the Ukrainians have taken in the past year or so to prepare for a continuing decline or even a shutoff in support from the US and other allies, they have been preparing this for a while. Zelensky is not the type to be pushed into some kind of capitulation for talks with Russians. They will fight tooth and nail to avoid a situation where they are somehow forced to the negotiating table. So I would just encourage your listeners when they hear people make that case that, "Hey, if we just cut off support, it will somehow magically lead to a negotiated settlement." That's not true. That's not what the Russians are talking about or ready for; they want all of Ukraine, they want to annihilate the country. And on the Ukrainian side, they are not interested in participating in a negotiation that could lead to something like capitulation. And they're not going to do that even if the West turns its back. They're going to continue fighting. And I've seen that determination, both in president Zelensky and his senior advisors, but also among the Ukrainian people. So that's important to understand. I think it gets lost a little bit, the level of determination still even more than two years now into the full-scale war. You know, they are at the wheel. They are in control of this fight. And they have done a great deal to ensure that they have the resources to keep fighting.

Andrew Hammond: And when is the next time that you go to the region, Simon?

Simon Shuster: I was hoping to go in April, but that's getting pushed back now; definitely sometime in the spring. I've got another assignment that's going to keep me busy elsewhere through April, so it looks like May.

Andrew Hammond: Well, this has been really -- it's been really great to speak to you and I really enjoyed your book. Even if you just look at the [inaudible 00:53:45] and reviews and so forth, you're getting some really great feedback, so hope you're proud of all the work you've done.

Simon Shuster: Thank you. I am, yes. Thank you.

Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much for your time. It's been a pleasure to speak to you. [ Music ] Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast". Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Just a reminder, if you enjoyed this week's episode, please consider leaving us a five-star review, or tell your friends and loved ones, or even better, do both. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast.spymuseum.org, or on Twitter at intospycast. If you go to our page of the cyberwire.com/podcast/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and film transcripts. I'm your host Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Rens, Afir Anoqua [phonetic], Elio Samuel, Elliott Peltzman, Tre Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought you from the home of the world's premier collection of intelligence and espionage-related art at the International Spy Museum. [ Music ]