I’m Nick Schifrin, Al Jazeera America’s first foreign correspondent, based in Jerusalem. I’m currently covering the crisis in the Ukraine from Crimea.

Since joining Al Jazeera America, I’ve covered the uprising in Ukraine, the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela, the war in Syria from the Syrian border and from peace talks in Geneva, as well as the ongoing Middle East conflict.

Previously, I was a correspondent with ABC News, where I was the Afghanistan/Pakistan correspondent and running the bureaus in Kabul and Islamabad. I was the first American journalists to arrive in Abbottabad after Osama bin Laden’s death and delivered one of the biggest exclusives of 2011: video from inside bin Laden’s compound, including the bedroom where the Al Qaeda leader was killed.

I’ll be answering questions starting at 12pm ET. Ask away!

Here's my Twitter account. (and proof)

Here’s my latest segment from Crimea.

You can read all of Al Jazeera America's coverage of the Ukraine crisis here.

And finally, you watch Al Jazeera America on your cable network using this channel finder.

Update, 1:41pm ET: Thanks for all of the great questions, I enjoyed answering them! I need to sign off for a bit, but I'll circle back around when I have free time and answer any more questions you may have. Thanks!

Comments: 179 • Responses: 36  • Date: 

tapedeckgh0st18 karma

Can you give us any insight as to the different viewpoints of people living with the occupation? I hear a lot of conflicting statements regarding the amount of support that the Russians are actually getting from Crimean citizens.

nickschifrin37 karma

In my experience here over the last few weeks, the majority of Crimeans feel more Russian than Ukrainian. That means, in general, they support the Russian presence. Polls and demographic numbers suggest the split is about 60/40 in favor of people who lean Russian. That is for a few reasons: historic connection to the Soviet Union and Russia; large cultural and language differences between Ukrainians from Crimea and Ukrainians from Kiev and the western half of the country; feelings that the Kiev government has always disregarded the needs of people in Crimea. Many of those who support Russia are ethnic Russians; many of those who oppose Russia are Crimean Tatars. For the people who feel Russian, they believe the new government in Kiev is illegal and a product of either a coup or radicals' overthrowing the old government. Many of them watch Russian TV, which encourages the idea that protestors in Kiev have already arrived in Crimea (no evidence to suggest that's true). For the people who feel connected to Kiev, they feel more connected to Europe and don't trust Putin or Russia.

tapedeckgh0st6 karma

Thank you for the response!

60/40 sounds like a more accurate figure. It's difficult when Western media portrays the support as being entirely fabricated by Putin while Eastern coverage denies that any sort of disagreements with the occupation even exist.

Followup: From what I understand of Putin's objectives, the occupation serves to protect the interest of those ethnic Russians or Russian supporters. Do you feel that this might have a negative impact on the ethnic divides already prevalent in Ukraine?

nickschifrin20 karma

I think the Russian troops presence has emboldened pro-Russian activists and militias. They have become more aggressive against anyone who opposes them. I think it's too early to know how that will play out in the future. But minorities are certainly worried about it.

bobthebobd16 karma

Is there pressure from Russia on reporters in Crimea to suppress information?

nickschifrin30 karma

The pressure doesn't come from Russia -- it comes from pro-Russia activists and militants in Crimea. We have seen multiple threats on journalists here. At least two journalists have been kidnapped by pro-Russian activists. I interviewed another journalist who was beaten up by pro-Russian militia members outside a Ukrainian army base. The AP video team was held at gunpoint and their equipment stolen. And my team and I were held by an angry group of about 150 pro-Russian activists outside another Ukrainian army base. They slashed our tires, threatened to tip our van over and take our equipment until we agreed to show them our video from inside the base. After about 2.5 hours they let us leave -- but they escorted us to the equivalent of the county line. The reason for this intimidation is they believe journalists are anti-Russian and "spreading lies" about Russia's presence here. They argue we are all pro-Kiev and pro-Europe. They target journalists as part of an information war that you can also see on the airwaves in Crimea: pro-Kiev channels have been pulled off the air, and Russian TV (which the majority of Crimeans watch) is filled with messages in support of troops in Crimea and against the new government in Kiev.

sjerose12 karma

Do you feel that the information war has actually swayed any Crimeans towards one side from the other?

nickschifrin13 karma

If you ask pro-Russian Crimeans what the Russian troops are protecting them from, many will repeat the same argument that Russian politicians are saying and Russian TV is espousing (regardless of the reality on the ground). So clearly, they are getting their cues. But most likely, they already agreed with those points.

i_feel_lucky_harry10 karma

People stare at me when I say that my favourite news channel is Al Jazeera, thinking that it is some kind of islamist-terrorist propaganda spreading news channel. Have you ever got the same reaction when you told someone about your workplace?

nickschifrin23 karma

In Israel, many are hostile to Al Jazeera. In Crimea, pro-Russians treat me better than if I still worked for ABC. There's hostility toward American channel names; they don't seem to think positively or negatively to an Arab channel name, and so I get better access to pro-Russian crowds.

aresef10 karma

I heard a story on NPR yesterday that, with the jamming and Russian propaganda, people from Crimea simply don't believe their western Ukrainian relatives that American paratroopers aren't marching in the streets of Kiev. How has Russia managed to be so successful at manipulating the war of public opinion?

nickschifrin17 karma

This is really important. This is the story being passed as fact by Russian TV, which is what the majority of Crimeans watch. And because pro-Ukrainian channels have been taken off the air, there's fewer and fewer voices to combat the Russian TV stories.

Eternally659 karma


nickschifrin43 karma

Well, as always, both sides have points. Crimea was Russia until 1954. But it was given away by Khrushchev to Ukraine. That was just an administrative detail -- until the Soviet Union collapsed, and suddenly Crimea was part of an independent Ukraine. The majority of Crimeans never wanted that. And some are suggesting today that Putin is trying to undo what Khrushchev did. Is the Kiev government illegal? No. Former president Yanokovych fled, he was effectively impeached, and the legally elected parliament chose a new caretaker government. But did Yanokovych flee after being threatened, as Russia points out? Yes. Can Crimea secede legally? Well, I'm not a lawyer, but what the West says is that the current Crimean Prime Minister was elected by a parliament while pro-Russian troops pointed their weapons at lawmakers -- and that before the vote, the prime minister only had 4% support. Therefore, the referendum that the prime minister has moved very very quickly to hold is not legitimate, no matter what the vote is. There are also concerns about intimidation that would limit the involvement of Crimeans who don't support Russia. As for the land grab/territorial integrity point -- there is no getting around the fact Crimea is part of Ukraine, and it is now being occupied by Russian troops.

trevortx7 karma

Hey Nick, based on your experience in reporting on the subject and actually being on location, what's your best guess as to how, why, and when this whole situation will end? Thanks!

nickschifrin13 karma

I never predict the future! All I can say about this is that day by day, it feels the Russian noose in Crimea is tightening. More Russian soldiers are arriving, they control more areas/bases/buildings; pro-Russian activists and militias are getting larger and more aggressive, and they are now closing off the borders; the government in Kiev and its soldiers based in Crimea have displayed no willingness to fight back except through non-violent resistance -- which hasn't convinced any Russian or pro-Russian Crimean to reduce his or her presence.

bigbear19946 karma

Do you feel that, as a journalist, that there is such a thing as true objectivity? Journalists and media outlets are often criticized for not being objective, but is objectivity possible?

nickschifrin7 karma

I try and present facts and speak to both sides. Of course journalists have opinions and beliefs -- we are people, not robots. But I (and all of my colleagues) hope that we share stories that enhance understanding for our viewers/readers, who will hopefully feel more educated after watching/reading. That might sound modest -- but that's my goal.

Orbett6 karma

Hey Nick. I'm arguing with a Russian colleague of mine and we're struggling to read between the lines in the media to determine whether or not the Russian activity in the Crimea does or does not constitute an invasion from either a legal or a practical standpoint. Would you be up to clarifying this for us?

nickschifrin11 karma

I don't think it's in dispute by any side that Russian soldiers have landed from Russia on the Crimean peninsula and are occupying many bases and buildings with the help of pro-Russian activists and militia members. But what Russia argues is that these soldiers needed to come to protect ethnic Russians from violence (none of which has materialized), and that the new government in Crimea invited the Russians in. Kiev and the West argues that the new Crimean government is not legitimate and does not have the right to invite another country's troops without the consent of the national government.

bobthebobd5 karma

Are people in Crimea going about their normal business, like work and school, or is everything halted in anticipation of vote and their future?

nickschifrin12 karma

Important question and one that I always wish I had more time to report on, wherever I am. Yes: there area lot of people going to work and school and trying to continue as normal lives as possible. But when you scratch a little below the surface, all anyone talks about is politics and and either their excitement (if they're pro-Russian) or dread (if they're pro-Ukrainian) of Sunday's referendum.

iamthefrogprince5 karma

Nick, I've been to Simferopol, Sevastopol, and Odessa many times over the last dozen years. Whenever i'm there , I've noticed that even amongst the mostly ethnic Russian population in the Crimea, there is a lot less support and Russian nationalism amongst the young. Have you looked at the demographics of Russian nationalism? As I recall, there was a lot of support amongst pensioners, but not so much in those under 30.
The Tatars as I recall were rabidly anti-Russian, are they worried about being given the boot again? What's the status of the UKR Navy ships in Sevastopol?

nickschifrin6 karma

I've spoken about Tatars elsewhere -- yes, they are worried about being deported again. On the generational gap -- well, in Crimea, I've met a lot of young people who are pro-Russian and a lot of young people who are pro-Ukrainian. In Kiev, the Independence Square movement was fueled by the young -- even if it was funded by the older generation. UKR Navy ships are blockaded or surrounded by Russian ships.

MethoxyEthane5 karma

Hi Nick, thanks for doing this AMA.

In my opinion, at least, a lot of the media attention in Ukraine has focused on the crisis in Crimea. While that is a very important issue to focus on, I'm not seeing very much in the news in terms of the upcoming presidential election. It seems pretty set that Tymoshenko will run for Fatherland and Klitschko will run for UDAR, but what of the other parties and candidates? Do you think the Party of Regions will run Yanukovych, or another candidate from within their ranks? Finally, do you have any predictions/thoughts as to how the election will transpire and how that may affect Ukrainian relations with both the West and with Russia? Thanks!

nickschifrin9 karma

Interesting questions. I think you're right: Tymoshenko and Klitschko are the top two candidates and will be joined by 1-2 Ukrainian oligarchs who helped fund the Independence Square uprising. I don't think Yanukovych will be returning -- his former allies in Parliament have already abandoned him. To be honest, I'm not sure who will run in his stead. But you're right to suggest that the presidential election will have a big impact on the future of Ukraine. Bob Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense, said the other day Putin's end game is a pro-Russian government in Kiev. If he is going to succeed at that, he needs to influence the presidential elections and the parliamentary elections. And if that's the case, Crimea is a small prize for him. The big one for Putin is eastern Ukraine and figuring out a way to convince the government in Kiev to stay in the Russian orbit rather than taking money from the West and trying to join the EU. And that means he has to have influence over the Ukrainian president.

bobthebobd4 karma

Do reporters in Crimea get better hotel rooms than in Sochi?

nickschifrin6 karma

ha! Well, from what I heard and saw online from Sochi -- the tap water in hotels in Crimea is a lot cleaner than the hotel tap water in Sochi!

bobthebobd4 karma

Crimea is an important topic, and is getting wide coverage. As a reporter do you know of another current event that isn't getting the coverage it deserves?

nickschifrin9 karma

I always think Syria needs more coverage than it gets. It does receive a lot of attention. But the scale of the suffering and destruction is impossible to overstate.

delayedregistration4 karma

What are the chances you see the crisis there elevating to a nuclear level?

nickschifrin12 karma

Virtually none. The US and Europe have no appetite for military confrontation. Ukraine's government is avoiding confrontation. The situation is tense, but we're not necessarily on the path to war. And that means we're nowhere near the path to anything nuclear.

WesleyPipez3 karma

Douglas Herbert tweeted about disappearances and confiscations; have you been negatively approached by locals and or those occupying Crimea?

Is there any leadership developments amongst the Tatars? Does this group seem to prefer autonomous status or are they Pro-Ukraine?

Your thoughts on Klitschko, if any?

"RT does not equal endorsement"....could you explain that briefly?

Thank you for the work you're doing.

nickschifrin8 karma

RT does not equal endorsement is standard Twitter language for journalists. Yes, we have been negatively approached by pro-Russian locals, who have threatened us and accused us of spreading lies. Tatars are pro-Ukrainian and very worried if Crimea becomes part of Russia.

ItsRyanWerner3 karma

My (admittedly basic) understanding of Crimea's history is that in 1944, Stalin deported indigenous Crimeans to Siberia. 45% of those people died due to hunger/environmental conditions and the rest were kept in camps until 1956. I can't imagine that this is lost on modern day citizens or that the current population is longing to be Russian in spite of this historical transgression.

My question: Does this history lesson shape the narrative of current events in Eastern Europe? Because it doesn't seem to do so in the US.

nickschifrin13 karma

Every corner you turn and every answer you're given is steeped in history -- specifically, World War Two history. Ask anyone who is pro-Russian and eventually they will use the term "Bandera" to describe the new government in Kiev. It's a reference to Stephan Bandera, who fought the Soviets for Ukrainian independence. The narrative that pro-Russians have is that after the Soviets helped win World War Two, Bandera and his men literally shot the Soviet soldiers in the back as they returned from central Europe home to Russia. So when these pro-Russians refer to the present government using "bandera," they are suggesting that anyone who is pro-Kiev government (and therefore pro-Europe) is not only a traitor to the 20 million Soviets who died fighting the Nazis, but also "fascists" themselves (meaning they're Nazis). In fact, we've seen at least one billboard suggesting the choice during Sunday's referendum is between the Nazis and the Russians. To your specific point about deportation: Tatars were deported by the Soviets and then returned to Crimea after the Soviet Union collapsed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are against the Russian presence here and agree with those Ukrainians who look west toward Europe.

babodonk3 karma

hi, i am really interested in what u think of other news sources, especially Vice News. their ukraine dispatches was pretty interesting...

nickschifrin6 karma

I thought the Vice News three-part documentary from here was revealing, interesting, well produced, and excellent journalism. In general, I find Vice's stories very good.

bunglejerry3 karma

Tell me about the future of Crimean Tatars if Russia really does take over.

nickschifrin8 karma

They're worried that history will repeat itself. They were deported before, and they fear if Crimea joins Russia, they'll be deported again. And they're being intimidated. In at least one town, their homes have been marked with an X or a cross. Many have created their own self-defense groups that patrol their neighborhoods at night. They're very worried what will happen after Sunday's referendum vote.

Nicomayhem3 karma

Hi and thanks for doing this Ama. My only Question is what is the most discrimination you've ever faced as a traveler/foreigner?

nickschifrin8 karma

In Afghanistan and Pakistan -- especially the rural areas -- there's a lot of pressure on foreign journalists not to travel to certain places. And the pressure is applied by militants who cut journalists' heads off. Here in Crimea, journalists get threatened by crowds -- but none of whom are militants. So it's a different level of intimidation.

cardamomgirl12 karma

Hi Nick, Thank you for your AMA. Do you know what is going to be the aftermath of this Ukranian crisis, maybe ten or twenty years down the line?

nickschifrin4 karma

I dare not predict what will happen next week -- let alone next decade! Whatever it is, let's hope it's peaceful.

mystikalhereigo2 karma

Nick, first of all great work. I am a big fan of AJ America and a long time fan of yours.

Anyways, during the whole Serry incident 5 or so days ago I was watching AJ America and you sounded very shook up when giving your report via telephone. How much danger did you feel that both you and Serry were in?

Also, what is your take on all the reports of journalists being attacked in Crimea? It very much appears to be systemic and coordinated to me.

nickschifrin7 karma

Thank you! Very kind. I was trying to stay calm during the Serry "phoners" (when I'm live on the phone). But I guess my voice betrayed me. It was less being shaken up than being in the middle of very dramatic developments: Serry being put into a car not under his control after being held my armed men; pro-Russian militia members at the airport pushing me away as I was on the phone, etc. The intimidation delivered to journalists is the same intimidation delivered to anyone who is pro-Ukrainian. Sometimes it's coordinated, sometimes it's not. But what's clear is that pro-Russians feel emboldened by the Russian presence to intimidate who they want to.

obscurehero2 karma

With some of the recent movement of Russian electronic warfare trucks as well as the escalation in rhetoric, have you had to start making plans for the possibility of being cut off from the outside world electronically?

Likewise, have you had to make contingency plans should things escalate further?

I imagine you can't be terribly candid about this.

nickschifrin7 karma

Let's just say that we feel totally capable of broadcasting and reporting from here, for now. But that the physical ability to cross the Crimean border has fallen to almost zero. All flights other than to and from Moscow are cancelled for the foreseeable future; and it's almost impossible to buy a train ticket to Kiev.

lietuvis10LTU2 karma

How much are you scared of locals in Crimea? And what is the most notable difference you saw between ukranians and russians there(assuming you did saw any ukranians)

nickschifrin7 karma

Almost everyone who lives here is Ukrainian. Many, though, are ethnic Russians. Am I scared? Not really. Almost everyone is very kind and generous, whether pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. But there have been groups of pro-Russian militia members and activists who have threatened me and threatened other journalists as well as pro-Western activists. A few scary moments, but nothing we didn't talk our way out of. But yesterday, we visited a base of Ukrainian soldiers who are under siege by Russians. They made us climb over the back gate to avoid the pro-Russian activists out front from seeing us. I would say those soldiers are a little scared of being overrun -- even if they wouldn't admit that to me during interviews...

atlrockr2 karma

Do you have any insight on the majority view of Ukraine concerning the uprising? Is it as region-specific as it appears on the news?

nickschifrin11 karma

It's very region-specific. In Crimea (where residents speak Russian), the majority look east toward Russia and they enjoy their legal and physical separation from the rest of Ukraine. Many of them want to either be independent or part of Russia. In eastern Ukraine (where residents speak Russian), which I visited before I came to Crimea, you find people who support Russia -- but often do not want to secede. These people associate more with Moscow than with Europe, but many argue separation could be economically catastrophic for certain areas. In Western Ukraine (where they speak Ukrainian), they feel more European, they connect more with European history, and they generally don't trust Putin or Moscow.

DavidCarraway2 karma

What's the most difficult story you've ever had to report? I mean difficult not only in terms of the reporting process, but personally as well.

nickschifrin4 karma

I've cried a handful of times during interviews. Hurricane Katrina when I was in Buloxi, Mississippi. With a Pakistani father in Lahore describing how he would fight for his daughter's education and right to thrive -- after she had been attacked with acid. Listening to young Afrikaans girls talk about Nelson Mandela. Those are difficult but inspiring moments. But I think personally, the most difficult thing I've seen and had to report on are suicide attacks. A few in Iraq and a very large one in Islamabad in 2008. Those images will forever be seared into my mind.

ntopliffe2 karma

What kinds of things do you do to stay safe as a journalist? What precautions do you take?

nickschifrin9 karma

The number one rule: find smart, plugged-in local producers/translators/fixers. Trust them and trust their guidance. And in general, keep your head down when you can.

Processtour2 karma

Are Ukrainians still pumped from their own political uprising and feeling they are ready to handle the Russian infiltration or are they feeling defeated and truly fearing what may com? It is probably a little of both, but what is the general perspective there?

nickschifrin9 karma

Depends on where you are. In Kiev, they are still pumped up -- but very much still mourning the 80+ protestors killed by police during the uprising, and very concerned that Russia will expand its presence into eastern Ukraine. Here in Crimea, pro-Ukrainians are scared of what's coming next. They are outmanned, outgunned and intimidated by the pro-Russian Crimeans (and the Russian troops.) If they felt any euphoria from Kiev, it was short lived.

bobthebobd2 karma

Are residents in Crimea who are against Russian involvement able to speak out, or do they fear for safety?

nickschifrin10 karma

Many fear for their safety. An organizer of a pro-Ukrainian rally told me yesterday his father had been kidnapped. I've aired multiple videos of pro-Russian activists fighting with, intimidating, yelling at, etc. pro-Ukrainian activists. One woman told me her boss threatened to fire her if she didn't go to a pro-Russian rally. She still hasn't agreed to an interview -- she's too scared.

bullmoose_atx1 karma

How do the Ukrainian people feel about Crimea separating from the rest of Ukraine? Does this have any support outside of Crimea or is it a political non-starter?

nickschifrin7 karma

There is some support in eastern Ukraine. But Crimea really is a world onto itself, and the east is going through its own upheavals right now. Kiev, as you might expect, is putting its foot down and demanding that Crimea not separate. But the Ukrainian government and military have demonstrated little ability or willingness to physically fight to keep Crimea. Which is why the momentum in Crimea is all with pro-Russian forces.

obscurehero1 karma

What is the general opinion of those you've talked to of their new PM Sergei Aksyonov? Do they support him? Do they not? Is it more polarized than we hear or is it less so?

How do you or other journalists in the region deal with the violence against journalists?

nickschifrin4 karma

All journalists try and keep their heads down and do their jobs. Some have been run out of town (just like UN Envoy Robert Serry), but most are just doing as many stories from all sides as possible. And on Aksyonov -- he only had 4% support before the Russian invasion. I get the sense many people here don't know him -- but if he successfully helps bring Crimea toward Russia, the majority of Crimeans would support that.

simciv1 karma

I had the great pleasure to visit Egypt in January of 2012. One of the things that got me while I was there was how normal everything seemed. Seriously, even though Tahrir square was filled with protesters a few times, the rest of Cairo (and Egypt for that matter) continued to function perfectly normally even though there was no government. Is this the same in the Ukraine, or has this revolution completely overthrown all normalcy in Ukraine. Can you still travel the country without passports, or are you now stopped every couple miles at checkpoints?

nickschifrin5 karma

Well, it depends on who you work for. Three of my Al Jazeera colleagues have been in jail for months -- just for doing their job. But other journalists can travel freely. As a tourist, I think Egypt is fine -- but you might be one of the few people visiting the pyramids! For the last few years, tourism has dropped dramatically.

NapalmRDT1 karma

Hi Nick. What is the foreign troops' general reaction to your presence around them?

nickschifrin8 karma

Well, depends on where and depends on what kind of soldier. If you're talking about grunts in Crimea -- I still haven't managed to convince a Russian soldier to talk to me on camera. I spoke to one the other day off camera (he admitted he was Russian). They aren't hostile at all, but they will try and stop you filming them. I have also met a few men I am convinced are Russian Special Forces. They are very adept at their jobs and deliver threats calmly but very seriously. You don't mess around with those guys -- especially because it's not clear who they really are and how connected they are with pro-Russian militia members who are more aggressive and less predictable and have delivered the majority of violent reprisals on journalists and pro-Ukrainian activists. If you're talking about other places: I always found Afghan and Pakistani soldiers extremely generous and kind.

choboy4561 karma

Everyone focuses on the negative things but I was wondering what was the most heartwarming thing you have seen while on location?

nickschifrin8 karma

I love heartwarming stories. Sadly, I haven't found one yet in Crimea. I'm sure there are some. But right now, there's a lot of rallying, a lot of intimidation, a lot of armed people across the peninsula, and a lot of worry ahead of Sunday's referendum. In Kiev, I loved the story we did about a volunteer nurse in Independence Square. She traveled from 10 hours away to help the fighters there. She was shot through the neck -- but survived. And is now returning to the Square. An amazing, inspiring story.

johnsbury-9 karma

Do you really believe that there was actually a person named Osama bin Laden that was killed in that compound?

nickschifrin7 karma