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Ukraine Report #6: Russian Politics with Olga Lautman

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Ukraine Report #6: Russian Politics with Olga Lautman

Olga Lautman is a researcher and analyst who has been monitoring Russian and Ukrainian internal politics for years. She’s a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, and the co-host of the Kremlin File, a podcast that details the rise of Putin and the spread of authoritarianism across the globe, including the Trump White House.

You can Olga on Twitter @OlgaNYC1211, and make sure to check out her podcast, Kremile File.

Ken Harbaugh:

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I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn The Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

As the invasion of Ukraine unfolds, we want to provide timely insights from the experts. So we've launched a series of special unedited episodes separate from our normal content.

Today, I'm joined by Olga Lautman, a researcher and analyst who has been monitoring Russian and Ukrainian internal politics for years. She's a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and the co-host of the KREMLIN FILE, a podcast that details the rise of Putin and the spread of authoritarianism across the globe, including the Trump White House. Olga, thanks for joining me on Burn The Boats.

Olga Lautman:

Thank you so much for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think your perspective is going to be especially valuable because of your long history researching and understanding what is going on inside Russia. We've had tacticians on, we've had CIA analysts on, but I feel like you might understand the mind of Vladimir Putin as well as anyone. Can we start with his rise to power and just how brutal that was and some of the theories around the, I guess the instigating event, the apartment bombings.

Olga Lautman:

Yes. Okay. So Putin for starters is a KGB agent. He worked in Dresden and there were new revelations that he actually had a much bigger role than what the Kremlin and intelligence services gave him. There was even evidence that in Dresden, he was seeking from a scientist to get information on like poisonous chemicals and the research that the scientist was doing. So, I mean, it was a fascinating investigation that came out years ago. Then fast forward, he comes back to the Soviet Union, sees the Soviet Union crumbling around him. This devastates him. He ends up going into the mayor's office and then eventually heads FSB, which as KGB collapsed, it turned into FSB and SVR.

And then from there he decides... I mean, there's a backstory to it that he blackmailed Yeltsin with the corruption that Yeltsin was involved in. So he ends up getting a senior role in Yeltsin's administration, and eventually we get to the apartment building bombings, which was found out that it was orchestrated by Putin, Patrushev and FSB. And that resulted in over 300 Russians dead in a series of terrorist attacks, buildings being bombed. And this is what basically propelled him into power because from there he becomes this kind of hero, the Chechens get blamed, and then that's how the second Chechen war starts. And then we see the first signs of how far he will go in war when he decimates Grozny. And from there you see now the same images coming out of Ukraine. We saw this in Syria and pretty much anywhere the Russian military gets involved.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you dwell on that for just a little bit, because there's this narrative out there that we had no idea that he would go this far, that we underestimated him. But he has shown his hand time and again, the brutality he's capable of. Can you talk about what he did in that second Chechen war in Grozny, not to mention Aleppo and the countless other examples. Focus on Grozny because that was the direct and immediate result of his rise to power after the apartment bombings. He launches the second Chechen war and is literally unrestrained, nothing is holding him back.

Olga Lautman:

Absolutely. So he goes into Grozny. I mean, like I said, the scenes we're seen coming out of Ukraine, this happened in Grozny, and too bad the world didn't pay attention then. Basically the city gets decimated. Civilians are the targets. And the whole purpose of it was to break the will of the Chechens in order to take Grozny. I mean, this is what he is doing there. And while he's running this war, which I mean, it was full of war crimes and human atrocities, it was horrific, the journalists investigating this inside of Russia start dying, and they are assassinated one after another. Anyone who's actually looking into these war crimes ends up dead.

I mean, we've seen it on both a global scale when he launches his wars, and we've seen it more on a singular scale when he, for instance, used polonium to poison Litvinenko in London who was investigating and who had revealed that Putin and FSB and Patrushev were behind the apartment building bombings that killed over 300 Russians. And the first several years he spent domestically arresting his opponents and kind of making sure that all the agencies he has full control over.

And then from there we see around 2008 when he starts venturing out. 2007 was actually the first time when people should have paid mind besides Chechnya when he attacked Estonia. And Estonia has one of the biggest cyber attacks taking pretty much their financial systems and everything offline for days. And then by 2008, he goes into Georgia, same tactics, the disinformation, the civilians being the target. And then we see him again attack Ukraine in 2014, Annex Crimea. Going to Eastern Ukraine and basically he took 7% of Ukrainian territory after 2014. And then he gets involved in Syria. You see him using chemical weapons against children. You see schools, hospitals, and places where he knows civilian are, where he knows people are hunkering down and sheltering, that was the target of the Russian military.

So this is how the Russian military fights wars. Not to mention even the UN report of his mercenaries in central Africa where UN had a detailed report of how his mercenaries were coming in and just killing people in villages, raping women, and again, committing more atrocities. And we see all of this now tying back to what's happening in Ukraine, except now it's being played out on social media and people are actually paying attention. But Putin himself didn't change and nor did the Russian military. This is exactly the tactics they use to fight wars.

Ken Harbaugh:

We had a previous guest, CIA analyst, describe the hierarchy in Russia as an inverted pyramid. In the West and liberal democracies, you have an actual pyramid where the voter makes up the base and their support is what holds up the rest of the pyramid. But if you invert that in the case of Russia, you have one person at that point and everything else depends on that person, which begs the question, is removing Putin a realistic solution for those inside Russia? My fear is that all of this talk of regime change in Russia denies the fact that the people around him probably depend as much on him in moments of crisis as they did when everything seemed to be going well.

Olga Lautman:

Yes and no, because also Russia, going back to Soviet days, is such a paranoid society. So while things are going wonderful and they have power and they have money and everything, they will support Putin. Here you see what's happening. I mean, I actually just put together an article on this. In the one month since the start of war, you have seen Shoigu, his defense minister, has been missing for several weeks. Two FSB, a deputy and his subordinate, who were responsible for providing the political situation on the ground in Ukraine have been put under house arrest.

So now you see Putin beginning the purges and people around him, they understand that at any moment they could be next. You saw one of his administration people, Chubais, who's very corrupt, he's actually the architect of the kleptocratic system that was put in place in the early '90s in Russia, this horrific corrupt system that led us here, he just fled to Turkey with his wife. So you see this paranoia building and Putin is getting more paranoid. You see he's not having any more in-person meetings. Before he was having the meetings with his staff and his senior figures at 200 foot tables. Now it's on zoom. And we also are hearing reports that he has changed his staff who's responsible for cooking and housekeeping and whatnot.

So there's a paranoia being created inside. And the people who have failed, because, I mean, this is honestly one of the biggest humiliations Putin has suffered ever because he really thought, his military strategy was to.... He had spent so much time cultivating people inside of Ukraine like he did here in US, like he did in Europe, that he thought he was going to send in his military, the people he had cultivated and created actual political parties, that they would take over the local towns, take off Kyiv, take the centralized government and then all the local governments because these parties are in every single town, and that the military will kind of just walk in.

Apparently he was fed extremely bad information from FSB. And now you see, I mean, the humiliation he's suffering as like every single day there's another general who was killed in Ukraine that's like pinned to Twitter pages. And the losses he took. He's lost about 15,000 soldiers, which is more than 10 years of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Ken Harbaugh:

This growing paranoia though brought on by these losses and the way this paranoia is driving these purges, I think your implication is that that's a sign of political weakness. And that would be, I guess, a natural conclusion, but we've had paranoid regimes in Russia in the past that have been incredibly politically powerful. I mean, if we are looking at the stalinisation of Russia once again, purges might further entrench Putin's power. I think that's what I'm getting at, these signs of defections within, of discontent within, could that possibly lead to an even greater consolidation of Putin's power as he tightens the fist and crushes any remaining dissent as the intelligence flee across the border? Is there going to be anyone left to talk reason?

Olga Lautman:

Well, there's no one left right now to talk reason to him for the most part. I don't think anyone has his ear. And at this moment, he has no other choices. He either continues with what he's doing or goes down as a leader who failed and gave into the West, which is not an option inside of Russia or for any Soviet or Russian leader. Yes, he is tightening inside. We actually saw him give a very, very Stalin-esque speech of discussing cleansing of Russia, cleansing of scum and traitors and people in Russia who have doubts about the war, and you've seen it.

And at the same time as he's running this policy of like returning back to USSR on the global stage by trying to reclaim lost territory, domestically he's been bringing over the past several years the same exact Soviet practices, including sluggish schizophrenia, institutionalizing people for it. I mean, it's alarming. And over the past few years, anyone who discusses anything against the regime gets thrown into an institution and is told that he has schizophrenia and is drugged. This is what happened during Brezhnev, this is what happened in the Soviet Union.

So you see this tightening, but also at the same time, we are in a different time. Right now we have social media. Things now are different than then when there was a true iron curtain and people had no clue what was happening. Now with technology, that same iron curtain, as much as Putin tries to make it, it's not going to survive. I just don't seek Russia is too big of a country for him to run it in this paranoid state for too long. So, I mean, yes, I'm not saying he's going to lose power tomorrow, but I don't see on this path that he's on, that he's put himself on and the heavy losses externally and domestically, the defections and people now getting paranoid and information trickling in of what's happening, I don't see long term that being a viable policy of him being able to be in power.

Ken Harbaugh:

Talk about that information that is trickling in because we are seeing such incredible examples of bravery within Russia, like the television producer who managed to get on camera talking about the lies that the Russian people are being fed. But for now, it appears Putin is winning the propaganda war internally if we can believe some of these polls coming out. There is massive support for the special operation. It's illegal to call it a war inside Russia. What is that trickle of information like? What are you hearing about its dissemination within Russia? What's it going to take to break through?

Olga Lautman:

Okay. So there's a few things here as far as you are seeing more news anchors defecting and leaving Russia who have been working in power in their position for a decade, two decades. So we're seeing journalists leaving. We're seeing people begin to question it. And at the same time, you have to remember, look, during the Soviet Union where a dictator like Stalin or Brezhnev could hold onto power and keep information out, now it is impossible because then, like I said, it was a true iron curtain. People weren't allowed to leave Soviet Union. A lot were oblivious to what is happening outside in the world. They were just fed the information that they were given by the state, that it.

Now you have so much, and that's why I say there's a difference because of this globalization. Whereas the Soviet Union relied on its own, Russia has relied of putting their money into the West. And now you have several avenues of information trickling in. One, you have a lot of Russians who have family members inside Ukraine who are calling and sending them images and whatnot. And even though there are reports it's not sinking in and they're like these are lies, I mean, eventually the more they see it, the more they're going to begin to question that maybe there is something happening more than a special operation. Two, and the same thing goes for Russians having family members in US, in Canada, in Europe, I mean, everyone is right now calling back home and telling their family members what is going on, what are you doing.

So you have this, and you have the technology aspect because, I mean, over the weekend, you had VKontakte, which is equivalent to Russia's Facebook, someone hacked it. Someone put a message of the amount of soldiers who had died, the amount of military equipment Russia has lost, and what this actual war is doing inside of Ukraine, that it is specifically targeting critical civilian infrastructure and civilians. This message was pushed through to over 12 million VK users. So you have this.

Then you had another outlet, a very old Russian outlet that suddenly an article appeared acknowledging that almost 10,000 Russian soldiers had died. That outlet got taken offline like within an hour. They claimed that they were hacked and this is how their information... So you have this technology of people actually hacking to get their information in. I mean, between the family members, between the people, and then there's also this unrest which actually was one of the reasons that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union when family members were questioning what is happening with the Russian military, what's happening with their family members, where are they?

People are beginning to ask the same questions now at a quicker pace than it took during the Soviet Union, and they're basically not getting any answers. They're not getting answers from the Defense Ministry, from the investigative committees. They want to know where their family members are. What are they doing? Are they alive? Are they dead? So now there's just more. And on top of that, this is one of the key differences. Whereas during the Soviet Union people were used to being poor and standing on breadlines, here people got adjusted over the past 30 years; having a McDonald's, getting their morning latte, playing PlayStation and doing every other thing that Westerners do.

And to have all of these services and all these Western companies exit plus the pressure of these economic sanctions are basically sinking the Russian economy, that is making a difference now to people in their personal life whereas they didn't care what was happening maybe in Syria before or Libya or whatever. Now they care because it's affecting their personal household and there's every single Russian right now who's being affected, whether it be food shortages like sugar shortages or the Ruble crashing or soon it's going to be the state not being able to pay salaries on a consistent basis. All these elements together I think is going to allow for some kind of change inside eventually.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think you're right. I think that the key is going to be when the propaganda meets the reality of Russian boys not coming home. I mean, they can propagandize away the sanctions as the West victimizing Russia, but when moms and dads start asking about their boys, there isn't going to be an answer.

Olga Lautman:

Absolutely. And even with the sanctions, look, this is a state. While the West was celebrating that we won the cold war, in Russia I don't remember one day that there was nothing negative said about the West. I mean, they literally have been putting so much propaganda in what a threat the United States is for decades. So here, like what they're hearing now, Russians inside from the government, this is nothing new to them. I mean, I read their news every single day and I'm like, okay, we've been accused of this and that and whatnot. But it is going to come to a point like, what is different this time for McDonald's to close 850 stores, for Starbucks to leave, for Apple to leave.

I mean, because Russia has been feeding, and this is the danger when have an external enemy that you create and you feed these consistent lies about them and what a threat they pose. Now we're at a different point. Like people aren't going to be questioning like what exactly happened for every single Western company in a matter of two weeks, for the most part every, to just pack up and leave and close their stores and that's it. It's like today they're open, tomorrow they're closed.

Ken Harbaugh:

When it comes to questioning that narrative, how significant is the generational gap? It feels like Putin has done a very successful job with certain demographics inside Russia of creating external threats and convincing people that he is the answer to those threats. Do you see differences in how older Russians receive that versus younger Russians?

Olga Lautman:

Yeah, absolutely. The older Russians are more prone to watch state TV, to read state media. Whereas the newer Russians get all their information on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. They don't watch TV. So you definitely have that difference in opinion. Also, you have the more elite people who travel. I mean, they're used to crossing the border and going to Italy and France and Dubai. I mean, this is how they have lived their life and now to be trapped inside of Russia, that is going to be a problem for them. This is why you see after Putin started this brutal assault on Ukraine, the minute we saw the sanction start and Western companies closing, Russians inside got so scared, like a few hundred thousand, that they fled for the border themselves.

I mean, they did it in a definitely by no means anything compared to what Ukrainians are going through, but they also didn't want to be locked behind the iron curtain. Again, the country is so big. I just don't see this as a viable path going forward for Putin to run this country like this, to turn into one big gulag, because it might work temporarily but I don't see it working as a long term strategy for him to hold onto power this way, especially when he's paranoid about everyone around him.

I mean, another difference between the Soviet Union and now, you didn't have a class of oligarchs who had yachts parked in Italy, yachts parked in Spain, property everywhere in the US, in Canada, across Europe. I mean, they have billions of dollars parked outside that is being confiscated. And yes, the oligarchs have no influence over Putin. But now this is another class of people he created that are furious. I mean, they can't do anything. They can't travel any anywhere. And besides the sanctions, the beauty of this is that the West closed the skies off to Russian planes and every single parliamentarian who is used to going to Italy on their vacation is now trapped inside of Russia because US sanctioned everyone in State Duma and Europe did so a few weeks ago.

Ken Harbaugh:

You said that the oligarchs have no influence over Putin. I think it would really help to understand that Faustian bargain that they all struck, that economic power in Russia does not in a very explicit way translate to political power or especially military power. How did that come to be? Can you explain that to us?

Olga Lautman:

Well, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is full of resources. So basically you had this new class being developed with mafia and FSB, the Russia's intelligence agency, participating giving rise, and you had these mafia wars for people wanting to get control of the aluminum industry or this industry and whatnot. And this is basically like Deripaska. Deripaska was a mafia thug. He was given cover by a local mafia who gave him like a cruise show, which is like a roof to protect him. And eventually he rose to gain access to the aluminum and now we see him as an oligarch. There was so much corruption inside.

And when Putin came in, people here were like, "Oh, look, he's cleaning out the corruption." No, he wasn't. He cleaned out the corruption from people that he didn't know or just didn't personally like, and he moved all of that to people around him. And so he created these oligarchs. So you had people like Khodorkovsky who he had differences with, he stripped him of all his assets, threw him in jail until Khodorkovsky eventually got out of jail and left for Europe. And then people around him that he did like mostly from his mafia St. Petersburg days with his famous doctor that he had there. Those people around him, he created them. He gave them everything.

And with Russia, once you have this, and that's why I always say with the oligarchs and with just the whole system, there is such a thin line between Russian intelligence, the oligarchs, mafia and the Kremlin, because it pretty much they all at one point or another either played the role, worked amongst each other or are several of those roles.

So he created these oligarchs. And once he created them, and we've seen this time and time again, I mean, not the bigger names that we hear here, but I mean, over the years, I've seen someone falls out of favor with a Kremlin or one of Putin's insiders, they immediately get stripped out with their assets. Well, first they get arrested and charged for some 1990 crime that they just discovered. So they get arrested, lose all their assets and that's it. This is how Putin has the power over his oligarchs.

And at the same time, as he has this power and created them, their responsibility was, one, to move money for Putin, and two, to move money for Putin in order to fund terrorism operations across the West, influence operation and everything we've seen. This is why you'll consistently see oligarch's money involved in whether it be the Republican Party in US being flooded with money from Russia or across Europe the far right groups. I mean, this is part of the task. They say no, they're not going to have the money that Putin had basic allowed them to have.

Ken Harbaugh:

So every oligarch that remained standing in Putin's regime of that system was a pawn of Putin, which begs the question, is there anyone inside Russia who has a viable path to take his place?

Olga Lautman:

No. I mean, there's no way to have. The only way that would happen is Russia would have to go through another revolution like it did with what led to the Soviet Union collapse. And then from there it would just be left with a temporary vacuum as people fight for power. I mean, Putin has his own successors, but as much as people are loyal to Putin, they're also loyal to themselves. So for now, as Putin made their life sweet and lined their bank accounts, now you are seeing the repercussions of it because you every day are hearing more and more people being jailed just because his military operation is not going well. So right now there's too much paranoia surrounding them. They all know that at any moment he could lash out at them and they'll be next.

I mean, Putin is presenting this war as like such a successful special operation inside of Russia. I mean, how do you not see the Defense Minister for over two weeks? I mean, imagine United States or any other country like flaunting what a successful war there is and our senior official is just MIA? So you see clearly, and again, that's something that's going to eventually resonate with people because he can't be the only one delivering how wonderful this message is while everyone around him is slowly being jailed or worse.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, apparently the Defense Minister, Shoigu, was on a Zoom call yesterday but he was wearing the same tie and the same backdrop behind him as two weeks ago. I mean, it is really-

Olga Lautman:


Ken Harbaugh:

It is really very Soviet in its crudeness, in just how ghost the propaganda is.

Olga Lautman:

Yeah. It actually is hilarious because the day before, I had just put together for my Substack a list of all the things happening, people being arrested, disappearing. And then the next day I see like, oh, Shoigu reappeared. And then I go to look at Russian Twitter and Telegram, and I'm like, "Oh, no, he didn't." People ripped that up. That's another beauty, even though these are all opposition who have been forced out and they're right now in Europe or US like Navalny's people or Khodorkovsky's people, but they still have some kind of a voice and they all shredded that meeting two pieces, including a Russian media outlet, which again, is independent. I believe it's out to lobby now, who literally broke it down. And I reposted it in my Substack because I just thought how fascinating it was.

They broke it down, going frame by frame by frame to prove that that was not Shoigu. He was not at that Zoom call. And that that was kind of like a production thing that was done to kind of flash him for 11 seconds just to show that he was there. I mean, this is what happened in the Soviet Union. You had figures die in the Soviet Union. They would play reruns of their speeches for months and people would never even know that they're dead. Except now with social media, it's much harder because people recognize. I mean, they can compare the crinkling of a shirt. I remember Putin attempted to do this when at the start of COVID he went into his bunker to hide and people were criticizing him for going into his bunker to hide from COVID.

So he put out like this regional meeting he had with one of the governors. People within like, I don't know, 20 minutes of that meeting like located that that meeting in fact happened two weeks prior. They compared the wrinkles in the shirt, the tie, the movements, everything frame by frame to show that that meeting, he just threw it out that day but that it actually was reported on and showed two weeks ago and that he did not go again in the same poses and same movements and same everything to go meet this governor. So it's very hard with social media to keep that propaganda going.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's talk about the culpability of the West. And I don't mean that the West provoked this. Putin created a bogeyman, a complete lie when it came to external threats. But I'm talking about the seeming willful intent on the West to pretend this wasn't happening, that Putin was not the menace that he was. Why did he think he could get away with it? That'll be a refresher, because you mentioned Syria and Chechnya, but then I want to dive into the response.

Olga Lautman:

Absolutely. I've seen pundits on TV here arguing and making all these wasting honestly time arguing is Putin crazy? Is he unstable? Is it because he's been trapped in COVID, like by isolated and trapped in COVID and whatnot? Partially there is something to it. Yes, he kept a distance during COVID. But 99% of it is the only factor that has changed is we have changed. Putin committed these atrocities in Chechnya as I said. If that wasn't enough, he used polonium on British soil, a chemical weapon to assassinate a dissident. Then he attempted another assassination, killing someone in Britain when he attempted to use a chemical weapon, again, Novichok, on Skripal and as a result killed a British citizen.

He committed atrocities in central Africa, Libya, Syria. You name it, I mean, Russia has done it. They've attacked our elections. I mean, I always talk about the hybrid warfare toolkit they have, and they've attacked our elections. They've like ran mass disinformation campaigns inside of United States to the point US is not recognizable and like we will fight over our head of lettuce. And it just doesn't even make sense what's happening here. I mean, it makes sense. But like when you look from internally, it's like, my goodness, why is everyone so angry?

He has done all of this and we have never issued a full response. When Navalny, Putin tried to assassinate him a few years ago, again, using a chemical weapon, we put together a sanctions package, but Russia's money was so strong and this is where he invested the money. It wasn't on hypersonic missiles or clearly you can see now his military that's falling apart. It was on buying influence in the West, buying people, buying law firms, buying accountants, buying politicians. And this is where you see that he's been able to get away with over two decades of atrocities. I mean, I remember Bush came and said, "Oh, I saw Putin's soul." And I was like, what soul? Maybe the soul of the 300 people he murdered in Russia. But I mean, there is no soul there.

Then you had other leaders trying to reset. And where the Western mentality is, that we should sit down for negotiations, Russia sees this as weakness. Every time we sit down for negotiations, they see it as a weakness and they actually continue and get more emboldened as we've seen over the years. So I think it's a matter of the Western mentality of trying to negotiate everything, to giving a chance to the peace process. That doesn't work with Russia. Between that, and not holding Russia accountable. And then on top of it, the economic capture that they've so successfully done across Europe and US and Canada.

Ken Harbaugh:

Talk about just how powerful, how influential that money is in just one city. Let's take London, which you referred to as Londongrad, capital of a country that has seen the deployment of a radiological weapon, polonium against Litvinenko. Various chemical weapons, Novichok, you mentioned, against Skripal. And yet it hasn't been enough to overcome the flood of money and influence that that money buys in Londongrad. What is that money doing for them?

Olga Lautman:

And that, again, takes me to the point that the oligarchs, I mean, that is their job. So they move their money to Londongrad, they buy influence. They have these lavish parties that they invite all the people from different political classes and all the influential business figures and industry leaders and media and Hollywood, well, not in London, but entertainment, like their celebrities. And this is what they do. They use this money to kind of, one, first of all, these parties, there's nothing innocent happening in them as we've heard with Johnson attending Lebedev parties and then seeing the aftermath of that.

These parties and this relationships, I mean, it's so corrupt to the point that then the oligarchs basically own you because if you refuse, they destroy your life. They will release the information they have on you. The corrupt deals, the corrupt things that happened or at the parties. And this is how Russia works. They use the mafia, they use the oligarchs. In our case, it was Trump with the mafia. He's had relationships with the Russian organized crime for almost four decades. They have poured billions into Trump and his Trump Towers and all his businesses across the US. And here we saw a perfect example.

I mean, literally when I saw him during the campaign in 2015, what was happening on the Russian side, them running the influence operations, I was like, this is what happened in Ukraine. This is what they've been doing everywhere they go. They have their favorable people and then they try to put them into power to soften the foreign policy and kind of have the foreign policy run the way that Russia wants it to run, and that's it. So this is a perfect example.

And in London, for instance, you had the Skripals poisoned, you had a British citizen who died as a result of this chemical weapons being used on their soil. And then when it came to sanctions, because of the Russian money and influence, the sanctions started all the way on top and then ended up being watered down to the point that like a few people and companies that no one's ever heard of and that's going to have a zero dent inside of Russia, this is what ended up getting sanctioning.

So basically Russia got away with using a chemical weapon on British soil, killing a British citizen, with absolutely no repercussions. And this we have seen time and time and time again. And this is why we are now at a point where people fear, oh my God, we might be in World War III or entering. I mean, this is where we have been and this is now to a point that should have never been this much. It shouldn't have been war crimes committed in Ukraine for people to finally shut off the money flow, to cut all this dirty money that is funding operations to implode our own countries. It shouldn't have taken the scenes we're seeing out of Ukraine for all of these measures to suddenly happen.

Ken Harbaugh:

It definitely should not have taken that, but it feels like the liberal democratic world has finally woken up. I think one of the things I take heart from in observing this is that it's bottom up. I mean, there has been some leadership and some real standout leadership, but by and large democracies are functioning now as a reflection of the outrage of their voters and things that would've been unthinkable a month ago like Germany raising its percentage of defense spending to 2% or the US shutting off imports of oil and gas, that is being driven by moral outrage among citizens.

Olga Lautman:

Absolutely. And you see the effect it's having. I mean, we've been in one month in this war and the West finally, at least people inside of Russia are beginning to feel it and they'll lead people and people supporting Putin, they see we are serious. And we, during these decades, have had all these tools to do this, but people were too busy lining their pockets or too afraid to get the Kremlin med or like I said, the third option where just people use the Western mentality, which is great. And I am all for sitting down for communications and negotiations and whatnot. But with certain people like Putin and just that whole regime and all the hard liners surrounding him, I mean, these aren't people you negotiate. They use negotiations as intel operations to measure what kind of weakness and what they could exploit out of you, not because they're actually serious in sitting down and resolving an issue.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is this outpouring of support at the grassroots level being felt inside Ukraine? I want to be careful asking this question because it's not a substitute for Javelins, it's not a substitute for surface to air missiles, but is there value in what is happening on the streets of capitals all across Europe and the free world writ large in Japan and elsewhere? Do the Ukrainian people see and feel that?

Olga Lautman:

Absolutely. And yes, it's not a substitute for Javelins or helping Ukraine stop the air bombings and whatnot. But look, we're at the same time fighting two wars. We're fighting a kinetic war and an information war. So, people getting the truth out and not allowing the Kremlin to dictate the narrative, that is just as important. Well, no, Javelins are always going to be more important and providing military support. But the information war has a very important role because, one, the truth needs to come out. Two, we need to eventually collect evidence and eventually prosecute the Kremlin for war crimes. The only way that can happen is by having information come out.

And three, like you spoke, this is a ground roots effort. There are changes and there's so much pressure on every single government in the West because people here are completely just outraged and sickened of what they're seeing. And I see it for myself, whereas when at the beginning I've been documenting and worrying about this war since last February when Putin started preparations for this. But in January it was like, okay, whatever. February, when the war started, it was like, okay, you started seeing support. Now as I put out the images because I'm using my Twitter account to try to make sure people see what's happening inside Ukraine, people are like, "Enough. We can't just sit back and watch and let this happen." All these outreach people collectively are the reason that our governments are actually getting to a point that we are blocking this and shutting down these exports and whatnot.

We've spent most of our time talking about Russia and its aggression and the response of the West. In the time we have left, I want you to share with us what you're hearing from inside Ukraine. On the one hand, extraordinary stories of heroism and resistance; on the other, Mariupol and the kidnapping of children and the intentional targeting of shelters. What stands out for you?

I mean, it's horrific what is happening because as Russia's initial military strategy fails, they are going back to their very well-known tactics of now targeting and terrorizing civilians. This is no longer a war. This is like a series of terrorist attacks against civilians, against children. They promise a humanitarian corridor, and then the minute they see people fleeing who have not eaten for weeks, who have been living under the worst conditions, the minute they see these people fleeing, they decide to drop a bomb on them just to terrorize and whatnot.

I mean, look, Ukrainians have no choice. While we all sit here and discuss what Ukrainians should do, how are they doing, whatever, they have no choice. They blink for one second, they're going to lose their country. They need to continue fighting and they are fighting and they need to. I mean, they want their country. It's their country, it's their soil, it's their territory.

But we see Russia's tactics getting more and more ugly, and this is what we've seen in Syria where they are specifically now in destruction mode. They are killing civilians, they are targeting shelters, targeting schools. In Mariupol, there was a drama theater that was housing children and women for shelter. It said kids. Very clearly people in space saw that image. Russia bombed it into smithereens, trapping over a thousand people under rubble. I mean, this is the tactics we're seeing.

What else is alarming, and I mean, this really stands out for me and this is happening both in Mariupol and Kherson, that apparently there are reports that they are now kidnapping thousands of people, forcing them inside of Russia into filtration camps. Filtration camp sounds like Soviet Gulags to me. And everything else we see Putin in his Soviet mind, I'm pretty sure this is what is happening. These people are being taken against their will after three weeks of living with no electricity, no heat, no food, no medicine. Volunteers who are trying to get this food and medicine to people and the elderly are being kidnapped. And on top of it, now they are kidnapping mass amounts of civilians to take them inside of Russia to these filtration camps.

And then on top of it, on the Russian side, you have them discussing how they're soon going to go into Mariupol, into Kherson to do a cleansing of the city. I mean, we've seen cleansing and what happens when someone decides to do a cleansing during Hitler times. This is what they're saying. They're going to do a cleansing and that they're going to go in and take control of these cities.

So I mean, the situation, I cannot believe it's 2022 and we are watching genocide and war crimes in a country basically unprovoked. What was Ukraine doing? Living their life. I mean, Ukrainians one month ago were going to work as accountants, lawyers, doctors, school teachers, whatever it is. And then suddenly the next day, Russia decides to upend everything, start bombing their country and that's it. And now it's like for no reason. They weren't bothering Russia. No one was bothering Russia. And now we are seeing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, I mean, that we've seen in quite a while. I mean, same thing was happening in Syria, by the way, but this, we're getting more coverage and this is a little bit more bold than Syria just because Assad invited Putin in. Ukraine, no one invited Putin in. He decided to come in himself.

Ken Harbaugh:

I know that the EU and the Hague, other institutions are gathering evidence of war crimes. Do you know if there is an open source record of work being done there? Is there a more open attempt to collect evidence of what is happening inside Ukraine? Because you're right, naming and shaming is one thing, ultimate accountability is going to have to happen even if they aren't physically brought to justice.

Olga Lautman:

Yeah. No. I mean, you have, right now, it's still a little bit more disorganized, but every single city has people on the ground doing their best to take videos, to get images and to get them out to the world in case something happens to them. You see it flowing through social media and also being documented at the same time. And then you have on the centralized level the prosecutor general, Venediktova, who's also compiling a case to launch prosecutions for war crimes against generals and Russian soldiers and Putin and his whole regime and everyone involved in this decision.

But it is now becoming more organized. And I have a feeling in the next week, they'll be even more organized as this continues, because that's the most important thing right now. We need to make sure that every single person who committed a war crime, who killed a child, who killed a woman, a man, elderly people, who starved them to death. I mean, we had this during Stalin. I mean, he committed mass genocide, killing millions of Ukrainians by manufacturing a famine. And here we are now where they're starving cities. People are trying to get snow for water or some kind of source of something. And on top of it, they're being terrorized. Russian soldiers are going through houses in Mariupol raping women. We've seen reports of the same rapes happening in the suburbs of Kyiv.

I mean, that's incredible. It's sickening. In one case, Russian soldiers walked into a house, killed the husband and started raping the wife. The prosecutor general has the information, is documenting everything. But this is terrorism. This is terrorizing citizens in hopes that they will either leave and give Putin the land or that they just say, "Here, take it," and they'll end up being put into concentration camps for the fact that they attempted to protect their land, as Russia has said, by the way.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Olga, we usually try to end on an upbeat note on this show. I'm not going to do that today because I don't want people to look away. This is happening in 2022 right before our eyes and we ignore it at the risk of our own souls. Thank you so much for coming on. Please keep doing what you're doing and we'll keep following. Thank you.

Olga Lautman:

Thank you.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Olga for joining me.

You can find her on Twitter @OlgaNYC1211

And make sure to check out her podcast, Kremile File. The link is in the show description.

Thanks for listening to Burn The Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show. For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members and their supporters. To learn more, go to

Burn The Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen Executive Producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn The Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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