I'm a foreign correspondent based in the Moscow bureau of The Wall Street Journal (http://topics.wsj.com/person/S/paul-sonne/7264), where we cover news across the former Soviet Union. I spent the last month first at 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and then in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula in Ukraine's south that's now occupied by Russian troops. Before moving to Moscow a year ago, I spent nearly four years as a foreign correspondent at The Wall Street Journal's bureau in London.

The last year has been a big one for news out of Russia -- from the Russia connection in the Boston Marathon bombings to Edward Snowden's arrival, the Olympics in Sochi and now the crisis in Ukraine. I'm happy to talk about whatever you want, from Vladimir Putin to more general questions about working as a journalist abroad. Or we can talk about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, too : )

My Proof: https://twitter.com/PaulSonne/status/441608308710211586

Thanks a million to all of you for taking the time to come ask me questions. The questions were all incredibly astute, which was very impressive. I hope to come back and answer some questions in the future as things develop, but I have to go finish a story up now -- if there's something I didn't get to, feel free to shoot me a question on Twitter and I can try to answer it later on. I'm at @paulsonne. Thanks!

Comments: 317 • Responses: 51  • Date: 

telesputnik57 karma

estonian here. what are the chances of the conflict escalating to the point that the baltics should be worried?

PSonne63 karma

I think this is an important question. Russia has now raised the possibility of military intervention to protect an ethnic Russian population. Certainly that would raise concerns for a country like Latvia and Estonia, which still have very large ethnic Russian minority populations.

Still, I can't imagine a scenario at this point where Russia would intervene militarily in countries that are now part of the EU. That said, who would have predicted what's going on now a few months ago?

-dk48 karma

Setting aside the terrible precedent the Russian annexation of Crimea would pose, is Ukraine better off economically and socially with or without Crimea?

PSonne33 karma

I am not sure how much Crimea, as a place with a population of 2 million that's basically a tourist destination/Russian military hub, will affect the economy of greater Ukraine. Certainly, I think it's possible Crimea could add an extra economic burden to Russia, should Russia decide to absorb the country after the March 16 vote. More on the importance of that vote here: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304554004579422624182460570?mod=WSJEurope_hpp_LEFTTopStories&mg=reno64-wsj

IanStone42 karma

As a student of International Politics right now, we're taught that among other things, countries always have an abiding concern in their own self-interest. Given the strongly negative reactions internationally towards Russia's actions and that the violation of Sovereignty is so readily apparent, is Crimea so valuable to Russia that it's worth tarnishing their own self-image? Is this just a case of Russia acting without consideration toward anything else but what it wants short-term?

Also, was there anything prohibiting Ukraine's deposed president from asking for UN assistance, rather than Russian assistance when it came to stabilizing Crimea? It seems like that would have been a less politically charged and dangerous solution.

Thank you for doing this AMA, btw! I'm quite excited for this one.

PSonne69 karma

It's critical to understand that Ukraine is and probably always will be more "important" to Russia than it is to either the EU or the US.

Why is that?

Russia traces many of its most important cultural roots to Kiev. The eastern half of Ukraine is Russian speaking. Millions of people in Russia have relatives, business ties and genealogical roots in what is now Ukraine. They share a border and long were the same country (empire, if you will). Many share the same (orthodox) religion.

Meanwhile, a large portion of the US and Europe probably couldn't point to Ukraine on a map. It's a far off place.

What the intervention in Crimea shows is that Russia is willing to go to the wall to protect this historical relationship in Ukraine. The idea of a government loyal to the EU/US, actively rebuking Russia and rising to power out of a street protest movement is something Moscow sees as an incredible threat. Remember - Russia also has its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, so that makes this even more important, because there are military interests in addition to cultural/political ones.

In short, yes, Ukraine and Crimea are that valuable to Russia. They consider this their backyard (to the chagrin of many Ukrainians, particularly in the West).

soderkis30 karma

Why do you think the Russian official line has been that the troops in Crimea are not Russian soldiers?

PSonne26 karma

Good question! What the Kremlin has said is that it has authorized the use of military intervention in Ukraine to protect the interests of the "Russian-speaking population" under threat. The Russian-speaking population is nearly everyone in Crimea. I was there before all this happened and did not sense any particular threat to them. So I think this is about keeping consistency of messaging, perhaps. Though I don't know, to be honest.

Kriptik24 karma

As a correspondent yourself, what kinds of differences are you seeing regarding propaganda in Russian media compared to news outlets in the West?

PSonne33 karma

Russian state news has been emphasizing the threat posed by Ukrainian nationalists largely from the country's west to ethnic Russians largely in the country's east and south. There has been a lot of fear mongering. Russian state media has also presented the uprising on maidan - or Kiev's Independence Square - as a US/EU provoked coup that toppled a legitimately elected president (Yanukovych).

There is indeed a percentage of the people who were protesting on maidan who were ultra right wing Ukrainian nationalists. There is also a far smaller percentage who were violent when clashes broke out with security forces. These two groups -- rather than, say, the students who came out to protest -- have been emphasized to show the threat that the uprising poses both to Russia and ethnic Russians. Russia has now said it is reserving the right to intervene to protect its interests against these forces.

aign2222 karma

How is propaganda being used by the US side and the Russian side?

PSonne29 karma

If you want to see the difference between the Russian and American interpretation of events right now in Crimea, the easiest way is to look at Vladimir Putin's comments (Here in English: http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/6763) and the rebuttal that the State Department released yesterday (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/03/222988.htm). As you'll see there's a marked difference in opinion of what's going on in both Ukraine as a whole and in Crimea.

iamwhoiwas19 karma

Can you give us an "explain like I'm five" version of what Russia is doing in the Ukraine and why they are there?

PSonne46 karma

Here's a very streamlined version of events. After Viktor Yanukovych late last year turned away from signing an EU association agreement (essentially a trade pact that would have pulled Ukraine closer to Europe), protests erupted in the center of Kiev. At first it was mostly students, by most accounts. Then the opposition parties that wanted to push Yanukovych out of office jumped in, too. There was an attempt to crack down on this demonstration, which only produced more public outrage and swelled the protests. Soon what was once a protest was an entire encampment on Kiev's main square demanding the resignation of Yanukovych. Flash forward a few months to late February: violence erupts on this very square and people from both sides end up dead. Viktor Yanukovych flees Kiev in a matter of days and the opposition parties take control of the government. Russia sees this as a threat - they believe the uprising was provoked by the EU and the US -- and has made moves in Crimea as a response.

blaze9090110 karma

Does Russia really believe the uprising was provoked? Or are they using that as justification for their actions, which are actually driven by other motives?

PSonne35 karma

No, I think this is one place where Western diplomats and commentators often slip up. They say things like: Putin can't possibly believe that, can he? Yes, I do think Russia believes the uprising was provoked by the EU and the US. The appearance of top US and EU politicians and diplomats on the square during the uprising (Victoria Nuland, John McCain, Catherine Ashton, and many others) only served to reinforce the Kremlin's suspicions.

_sw_2 karma

What kind of a threat? What they were afraid of? Were they afraid that Ukraine will no longer do as they please and therefore they wanted to show that they simply can't.

PSonne7 karma

The threat of a street uprising that they see as supported by the EU and US, which topples a government, is real for Russia. They do not want a repeat of this in Moscow. Recall the large demonstrations against Putin's government in late 2011 and 2012.

Man-o-North18 karma

The Russian media portrays the Russian public as very supportive of the current occupation of Crimea. Do you have any facts on the ground about how it really is or is it as they say?

PSonne42 karma

A huge portion of Russians believe that Crimea should be part of Russia and just happens to be part of Ukraine as an accident of history. You can see where they come from (if you take a short version of history). Crimea was indeed part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev (then Soviet premier) made it part of Ukraine. At the time, both were Soviet republics, so it didn't make so much of a difference. But when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, all its 15 republics became independent countries, including Ukraine. Crimea -- despite being part of Russia and having a majority ethnic Russian population -- remained part of Ukraine. Certainly I think the opinion among many Russians is that this is an opportunity to right the slights of history. Of course, that's not everyone - and it varies depending on who you talk to.

karmanaut16 karma

What is the most surprising and unexpected thing you have learned about Russia in your time there?

PSonne45 karma

How much vodka I can (and can't) drink.

StabbyGypsy14 karma

In Kissinger's Washington Post op-ed yesterday he said "For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one." From your perspective, what is the West's policy on Putin?

PSonne8 karma

I do not know the answer to that question. Perhaps that's an answer in and of itself, I don't know. But we had quite an interesting article on the foreign policy approaches toward this situation a few days ago: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304585004579417531612266214

brettruffenach12 karma

Do you feel that, considering the complicated history of Russia and the US, that a certain picture is unfairly being painted regarding this situation? That there is more to this story than "Russia invading Ukraine and it's illegal and unjust"

PSonne16 karma

No conflict this complex can be explained in a single sentence. So if the question is: Is that sentence all you need to know? The answer is no.

Gamehenged8 karma

It seems the Russians are playing the propaganda game. It's hard to know if the Crimean people really want the Russians there. Do you feel the pro-russian demonstrations are staged by the Kremlin or are there genuine feelings that they want to join Russia?

PSonne16 karma

I think the question is passive feelings versus desire for aggressive separatist action. I don't doubt that a large swath of Crimea feels more Russian than Ukrainian and would sympathize with the idea of reuniting with Russia or leaving Ukraine. That said, did I feel that there were tens of thousands of people in Crimea who were willing to fight a war for it, or willing to do radical things to achieve it? No. I think that was a far more marginal, radical group.

HollaWho7 karma

Seeing as Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons in exchange for protection, what effect do you think this will have on non proliferation going forward?

PSonne4 karma

This is a very astute question, and I wish I had an answer to it. I don't. But I imagine any country in the position of negotiating nuclear disarmament going forward will take a very close look at the Ukrainian example - and try to draw up more stringent guarantees.

not-russian7 karma

Do you think there is still a possibility of Ukraine regaining control of Crimea at this point, outside of a full-out war? From my perspective it seems like Russia already has a pretty tight grip on it, from military to government to media.

PSonne12 karma

Yes, I agree with you. I think it's very hard to see how you step back from this situation and reverse what has already been done. You've got a new leader who was put in place with the help of Moscow. You've got Russian flags flying on the border, patrolled by both local security forces (loyal to Crimea/Russia) and militiamen with guns. How do you reverse that? I don't know. A bit more on how that all developed here: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304360704579415592160601418?mg=reno64-wsj

lucasbelaq7 karma

I hear the fascist term being thrown around by both sides. Hillary Clinton and a professor from Russia has compared Putin to Hitler. Russia is claiming that they are protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea from fascists. What role did fascists play in euromaidan and what role are they currently playing in Ukraine? Did they have any influence in parliament or the protest movement?

PSonne6 karma

Indeed, the word fascist has been probably used more than any other in the rallies and propaganda, and I think that's because anything connected to WWII in Ukraine (or really anywhere, but especially in Ukraine) has huge emotional impact. I wouldn't want to describe anyone as fascist, because as you note, it's a term that causes all sorts of debate for all sorts of good reasons.

What I think you are referring to is the involvement of ultra-right groups in the protest movement on maidan. They definitely played a role. I don't think anyone disputes that, as they too wanted to see Yanukovych go, too.

dyanceyfunnie6 karma


PSonne10 karma

I think there are books written on this topic! I do not think foreign news outlets are treated similarly to domestic ones. Because our coverage is not in Russian, it of course has less impact on the Kremlin's consituency.

As for domestic media outlets - there's a big difference between television and print/online. Television is very tightly controlled. But there are print/online outlets that manage to operate with relative freedom in Russia and do some really great journalism.

wosel6 karma

1) Can you confirm there are Russian soldiers outside Russian military bases on Ukrainian territory?

2) Do you think the safety of Russian speaking people was threatened after the events at Maidan in late February, and is it under threat right now?

3) If Crimea stays a part of Ukraine, do you think that would be a stable solution? If it joins the Russian federation, would that be more stable? Would an independent Crimean country be stable?

PSonne15 karma

1) Yes. Saw them with my own eyes. But they do not have any insignia. Here's a picture I took from outside the parliament in Simferopol, where they were standing last week: https://twitter.com/PaulSonne/status/439701597636296705

2) The argument is that the rise of Ukrainian nationalists, who indeed allied with the maidan movement and played a critical role in its success, pose a threat to Russian speaking people. This is the incident that Putin cited in his speech: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26277378 That said, I have not seen or heard of any evidence of attacks by Ukrainian nationalists against locals in Crimea.

3) The question of an independent Crimea so far does not seem to be on the table. If you look at the questions that seem like they will be on the March 16 referendum - it's essentially (a) stay as part of Ukraine, or (b) join Russia. More on that here: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304554004579422624182460570?mod=WSJEurope_hpp_LEFTTopStories&mg=reno64-wsj

Integrity_Defines_Us6 karma

What in your personal opinion are the chances of this escalating to some sort of war? Thank you!

PSonne21 karma

I was in Crimea this week and saw Russian soldiers -- without identifying insignia -- surrounding Ukrainian military bases. Neither side has engaged in fire, thank god. But this is a very dangerous situation, because a simple accident or one wrong decision, when both sides are standing there with their guns at one another, can set off a very scary string of events.

xxxtheaterjanitor5 karma


PSonne20 karma

That he has lost his mind.

SpikeyZOON5 karma

Where does this sit on your magnitude of really-interesting-geopolitics, to a person who perhaps considers this most fascinating event in my generation?

It has a little bit of everything! Parallels to appeasement, tense brinkmanship, east vs west, polarizing propaganda, the right to sovereignty, ethnic-fueled referendum, corruption and protest and reform, global world power political dissonance and isolationism... and overall a very smart, precise game of chess and exploitation that will undoubtedly be studied upon in the next generation.

PSonne6 karma

I am a complete and total Russia/former Soviet Union nerd, so this is absolutely engrossing for me.

Apostrophe5 karma

Hi Paul, welcome to Reddit.

Question: Do you think Moscow has considered the possibility that their actions in Crimea will push more European countries towards NATO membership - especially Finland and Sweden? And of course, Ukraine.

Is Crimea truly so valuable that they're willing to risk gaining thousands of kilometers of new border with NATO?

PSonne4 karma

I think after seeing the extent to which the Kremlin is willing to go to the wall to protect its interests in Ukraine, the US and Europe will likely be hesitant about pursuing NATO membership. I could be wrong about that.

LIATG5 karma

Hey Paul! Welcome to reddit!

Many people believe the no major government will go to war with Russia under reasonable circumstances. Do you share this belief, and why?

PSonne13 karma

Yes, I think this is the mutually-assured destruction theory dating back to the Cold War. The idea that one country with nuclear weapons wouldn't go to war with another. And yes, I think that makes sense, when you're talking about some sort of horrific full-blown war.

clearingstick5 karma

What do you expect the long-term reaction to be within Russian separatist states and with former enemies, as well as in other areas under territorial dispute?

The Russian logic in moving troops, for the "protection of Russian speakers," appears to be one that several other states with vested interests could use to expand and claim territory.

PSonne9 karma

I think you raise a good point. The possibility of absorbing Crimea into Russia as the result of a referendum certainly raises thorny questions for other regions of the former Soviet space. Does it mean Abkhazia will become of Russia too? Perhaps they will want their own referendum. Is Russia prepared to absorb them? Also, what about other nationalities that might want more autonomy? Can't imagine a scenario where Russia would be supporting a referendum in Chechnya.

AlvinTostig424 karma

Thanks for doing this! When you covered the Olympics in Sochi, I ran the "Dogs Of Sochi" twitter account. Thanks for sending me the photos of the dogs there!

PSonne4 karma

No problem. There are lots of stray dogs in Crimea, too!

peeping_bomb4 karma

The way I see it, the majority of Russian population is exposed to ridiculous amount of propaganda via Russian government-funded media channels.

What do you think we can do to fight such seemingly unwinnable war of disinformation?

PSonne6 karma

To a large degree, I am not sure that's under the control of anyone in the US or Europe. The reality is that the bulk of Russians get their information from television - it is by far the most influential medium. (That is also the case in the US.) But in Russia, since Vladimir Putin first came to power in 1999/2000, the state has taken control of essentially all the widely-carried television networks. That's very powerful stuff - particularly in a situation like this.

anthonybsd3 karma

Ukrainian-American here. I read English, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish press when keeping up with the latest developments on this, as well as reddit, twitter, blogs. What about you? I.e. besides your own WSJ sources (I imagine you are your own source!) what is on your daily list of "must check" news sources?

PSonne4 karma

I read the Russian press and in particular the local Russian press in Crimea -- which is definitely valuable. I suggest checking out Argumenty Nedeli Krym, 15 Minutes, etc.

vlozko3 karma

I get the sense that just freezing the assets of several key leaders is mostly a symbolic gesture with little impact. With many of the European leaders reluctant to go with strong sanctions, is there much of an idea of what they are actually prepared to do that would have significant impact on Russia?

PSonne4 karma

I think they know what they can do if they want to have a significant impact on Russia. The question is, at this point in the game, what will that change?

Rastighall3 karma

Based on what you saw, can you imagine in any way Crimea becoming under Ukrainian control again, if it ever were, or at least like it was before the revolution ?

PSonne6 karma

It would be very hard. How do you take the guys with guns flying the Russian flag at the border and tell them to go home without any violence?

TucanoCoffee3 karma

Can you speak Russian? Do you come across corruption in your day to day life?

PSonne5 karma

Yes, I speak Russian! No, I do not come across it every day. But I also work for an American company in Russia and don't actually do business in Russia, so I think in some ways my personal experience is probably not an accurate reflection.

smokeybones20103 karma

Based on what has happened so far, in you opinion do you think that all of this will be resolved with out the presence of the U.S. military in Ukraine?

PSonne3 karma

No one has seriously floated US military intervention so far, as far as I know.

arczi2 karma

Does Twitter make your job as a journalist easier or harder? I follow you and a lot of other journalists in the field, but the sheer volume of information coming out makes it almost feel like a second job.

PSonne3 karma

That's a really good question. In some ways, I think it makes it a lot easier because you can feel like you are on the ground somewhere when you are not and be very aware of what's going on in the moment. So, for example, if I see people are tweeting photos of a military base where something interesting is happening in Crimea, and I'm already there, I can show up a few minutes later. On the flip side, yes, you're right - it creates a deluge of information to keep track of that can distract you from doing the kind of 'talking to real people' reporting that's ultimately what is most important.

blaze909012 karma

If any western organization were to intervene, who would be first? Who would go with them?

PSonne8 karma

The OSCE has been trying to get monitors into Crimea - and last I checked they were stopped at the border today.

Fadawah2 karma

What can the international community do to prevent Crimea from merging with Russia. The Ukranian Supreme Court has called the referendum unconstitutional, but my impression is that the Crimean government doesn't really care.

PSonne3 karma

It may be too late.

twogunsalute2 karma

Hi Paul. Do you prefer Moscow or London for living and/or working? And where would you like your next posting to be? Have a nice day.

PSonne3 karma

Tough question. I really like both, but for very different reasons. I prefer Moscow's weather and energy. I prefer London's charm. It's a toss up. As for where I'd like to go next, I don't actually know. I'd like to report from the US for a little bit.

MatthewKupfer2 karma

Do you think there is a significant risk of interethnic conflict in Crimea? Several days ago a Twitter user wrote that the word "traitor" had been written on Crimean Tatar houses (I haven't seen confirmation of this), which would suggest to me some serous interethnic tension. Have you seen any confirmation of this?

PSonne1 karma

Yes, I think that is a risk. As you know, the Crimean Tatars largely do not want Crimea to become part of Russia again. That has created tension with the much larger ethnic Russian population. Hopefully that tension will not boil over.

gtt4432 karma


PSonne3 karma

I do not think the Russian population at large cares deeply about the customs union. But they do care deeply about - and generally have strong feelings about - Ukraine and Crimea.

NextLevelNextLevel2 karma

Journalism student and aspiring journalist here, thanks so much for taking the time to do this!

Some have discussed an end game which results in a split Ukraine: a western, European influenced independent Ukraine, and an eastern, Russian influenced, semi-autonomous territory. Do you see this as a possible scenario, and if this did occur, what would happen to Kiev?

Thanks for the reporting and the hard work you do to bring us the news!

PSonne2 karma

This is obviously a concern, but there is no way something like this would happen without a large amount of strife - something I think everyone wants to avoid.

Mesonic_Interference2 karma

Do you think that the fact that information straight from Crimea can be dispersed so quickly is having an impact on top-level political decisions surrounding the situation?

PSonne5 karma

No. As the deputy speaker in the Crimean parliament said today, many of the decisions they're taking right now have been planned long in advance.

SirRamen2 karma

What is your opinion on Putin's final goals for all of this? There have been a lot of back and forth, denials, etc, which confuse me.

Specifically, entering Crimea on the 27th, while citing a letter dated the 1st of March from the disposed president of Ukraine, then proceeding to deny any military involvement at all. Adding into this, stopping OSEC(?) moderators from entering Crimea and seemingly attempting to take Crimea through illegal local government actions.

PSonne7 karma

I wish I knew what Putin's final goals are. I do think one goal - which has potentially already been accomplished - is to show Europe and the US that Moscow is willing to take extreme measures to push back against what it sees as meddling in its backyard.

empathyx1 karma

What are your favourite foods and drinks in Russia?

PSonne5 karma

So many! Pelmeni, golubtsy, red caviar, blini. I'm a big fan of Russian food. As for drinks, I secretly like tarkhun, this Soviet-era soft drink.

lucasbelaq1 karma

As of right now, no shots have been fired, but a lot of escalation of tactics and psychological warfare has started with disinformation and propaganda campaigns from both sides. Putin is claiming most of the aggressive troops are self defense militias. If one shot is fired, if 1 death occurs, how quickly do you think it will escalate considering Putin says he's not responsible for the militias? Is the situation tense, or is it just power plays (like everything that comes out of North Korea). Is there any indication of other countries getting militarily involved? Who are Ukraine's strongest allies?

If it does escalate, what country besides Ukraine would be the most affected or threatened? (Is Poland mobilizing their troops to be militarily prepared or are they vulnerable to any events that's happening?)

PSonne2 karma

Yes, the situation is very tense, and yes, it could escalate quickly if one wrong shot is fired. How it would develop from there is largely unclear - it depends on the incident. So far, no, there is no indication of other countries getting involved militarily.

brgod1 karma

What is the most fun aspect of your job?

PSonne3 karma

Ending up in completely unpredictable places and situations. On a farm in Ireland. At the border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. At a pulp factory in Siberia. It's great.

nico_o0 karma

Do you really believe that there's any chance Putin is misinformed or 'delusional'? I always expect that as a world leader he'd be much more informed than almost everyone, and simply be playing his cards the way he wants.

PSonne3 karma

I do not think he is delusional - I know some people believe that, but I don't. I think he is actually very calculating and strategic.

feelingawfultonight0 karma

What advice would you give to a young reporter looking to be a foreign correspondent someday?

PSonne1 karma

Learn a geopolitically important foreign language (Chinese, Russian, Arabic, along those lines). And just show up wherever you want to report from.

Heisenberg6six60 karma

During your time in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia, have you perceived a gradual build-up of media reports and political statements portraying the events in Ukraine during the last few months as a coup driven by fascists/nazists backed by the West? Has it been presented as a threat to Russia's national security? Certainly, Putin would need substantial support from the Russian people in order occupy Crimea and threaten to "protect" Russian-speakers elsewhere in Ukraine. The political blow-back would be disastrous for Putin's image otherwise, would it not?

PSonne2 karma

Yes, there has been a buildup, and I don't think it has been gradual, actually. It has been drastic.

chefrae0 karma

Hi Paul thanks for doing this AMA. My question is: how have Russia's actions affected their economy?

PSonne1 karma

The actions have certainly affected both the currency and the market. More on this here: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304815004579416321113236510

Jokerz_her3-1 karma

What is your opinion about a possible Russian invasion of Crimea?

PSonne1 karma

Russian troops are already there.