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 much of last year covering the conflict in neighboring Ukraine and was on the ground in rebel-held territory after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. 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.

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/569888740052762625

Thanks everyone for your time. I'm once again thoroughly impressed by the perceptiveness of your questions and the intelligence of Reddit's users. I have to run now, but I generally hang out in the Twitterverse at @paulsonne (https://twitter.com/PaulSonne). Hopefully we can continue the conversation there. Спасибо!

Comments: 742 • Responses: 41  • Date: 

GoogleplexStar142 karma

Hi Paul, thank you for doing this AMA.
I think that the question that is on everyone's mind is: How close are we to a full scale armed conflict that has Russia on one side and the EU/US on the other?
It's obvious that the cease fire in Ukraine didn't bring any results, and the perception is that the conflict is getting bloodier.
What is your insight on this? What's the general feeling in Russia, from what you can witness on the ground?
Once again, thank you for your reporting and for doing this AMA.

PSonne172 karma

Very good question. I don't think we're there yet. Though the risk is real. It has become a much more pressing question amid the debate over whether the US should or should not provide lethal arms to Ukraine (so far Washington has said it has provided only non-lethal aid). Those who are against providing weapons have warned of the possibility of sort of sleepwalking into a full-scale confrontation with Russia, because if the weapons do not serve as a deterrent, and Russia escalates in response by providing equally powerful weaponry to the rebels, then what does the US/EU do? The good news is that I do think EU and US leaders are aware of this risk, which is probably why we have yet to see any weapons deliveries.

TooSmalley93 karma

Does the whole "Macho man" cult of Putin actually exist in Russia? or do people think that most of his "Manly" actions are staged?

PSonne144 karma

Yes, it exists. You should see the t-shirt stands around Moscow. The 'macho' PR stunts happen because they tap into something that the Kremlin knows is attractive to his constituents.

jtl8572 karma

How noticeable an effect are the western sanctions having? Are they affecting everyday life for the average Russian?

PSonne107 karma

Though the main reason Russia's currency has plummeted is the plunge in oil prices, I think it's fair to say that the sanctions were a contributing factor - and most every Russian is certainly feeling the effects of the ruble's stark devaluation. Russia's response to the sanctions (banning an array of foodstuffs from the EU and the US) has been felt in supermarkets. Some higher-end stuff (such as Italian mozzarella) is now unavailable, but that affects only a smaller slice of the population. The broader population has felt a rise in food prices more generally.

jvd8139 karma

Some higher-end stuff (such as Italian mozzarella) is now unavailable

Where do you shop at? It's available at any Перекросток as well as Утконос.

PSonne108 karma

Is it Italian?

mkeough2362 karma

What is your impression of the Russian people and their perception of the crisis in Ukraine? Do you find that many are heavily influenced by Russian State Media?

PSonne126 karma

Yes. Polls repeatedly show that Russians are indeed heavily influenced by state television. You can find an article on one of those polls here: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/poll-finds-94-of-russians-depend-on-state-tv-for-ukraine-coverage/499988.html The effects are palpable. For example, even though most of the rest of the world believes Russia-backed rebels downed MH17, polls show that the bulk of Russians believe the airliner was downed by Ukrainian forces - something Russian state television has been alleging since minutes after the crash.

shehasnoclue50 karma

Do you think justice for Malaysia Flight 17 will ever be served?

PSonne83 karma

I think about that a lot. To be honest, most days I worry that it won't. I hope I'm proved wrong. Dutch authorities are still pursuing both an investigation of what happened and a prosecution.

I_Need_To_Go_To_Bed45 karma

From Russia's standpoint, what would be the absolute worst thing that Ukraine could do in this situation?

PSonne83 karma

Join NATO. Though I think it's pretty clear to most that NATO ascension for Ukraine is off the table because of how much of a provocation it would be to Russia.

Really_Elvis45 karma

I spent several months in Kiev in 2003. It is a beautiful city with great people. What are the living conditions there now and what is their view of Americans today ?

PSonne70 karma

Agreed, it is a beautiful city, and it does have great people. The view of Americans was generally positive in Ukraine during maidan, though I do think there are a lot of Ukrainians who now feel betrayed by what they perceive as the lack of support from the US and the West in the wake of those protests. As far as living conditions, Ukraine is not only facing an actual battle in the east but also a serious battle on the economic front. That's certainly affecting people in Kiev and elsewhere. The economy contracted by about 7% last year and it projected to contract by another 5.5% this year. The currency has plummeted to about 30 hryvnia to the dollar today, compared to about 9 hryvnia to the dollar last year. People are hurting - there's no doubt about that - and the economy is likely to get worse.

chuckberry31441 karma

in your opinion, is another cold war or worse likely in the near future?

PSonne156 karma

We're already seeing a level of confrontation between Russia and Europe/US that is reminiscent of the Cold War. But we're not going to see a return of the same thing, because the world is different, more globalized and connected. One of the key differences is that Russia doesn't have an explicit opposing ideology in the way that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Much of the Cold War was directed by the concept that democracy had to triumph over communism - it was not just a geopolitical confrontation but also a battle over how countries and the world should be run. Though the Kremlin of late has tried to emphasize how much Russia's ideology differs from European liberalism, it's not a full-scale articulation of an alternative system. What we see in Russia today is more a modified version of what you see in Europe or the US, not a completely different way of organizing society as you had in the Soviet era.

PSonne22 karma

We're already seeing a level of confrontation between Russia and Europe/US that is reminiscent of the Cold War. But we're not going to see a return of the same thing, because the world is different, more globalized and connected. One of the key differences is that Russia doesn't have an explicit opposing ideology in the way that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Much of the Cold War was directed by the concept that democracy had to triumph over communism - it was not just a geopolitical confrontation but also a battle over how countries and the world should be run. Though the Kremlin of late has tried to emphasize how much Russia's ideology differs from European liberalism, it's not a full-scale articulation of an alternative system. What we see in Russia today is more a modified version of what you see in Europe or the US, not a completely different way of organizing society as you had in the Soviet era.

gerned40 karma

I read somewhere that European countries are ramping up there militaries because of whats going on in Ukraine and the Middle East? Any truth to that?

PSonne85 karma

Yes, NATO is indeed ramping up its capacities in Europe as a result of what's going on in Ukraine. In particular, the Baltic countries feel threatened by what has happened in Ukraine and worry they could be next. Here are two articles on that topic: http://on.wsj.com/1Lvo5Uj and http://on.wsj.com/1LvocPI

MysticFear31 karma

How is the Bolshoi ballet?

PSonne42 karma

Pretty incredible. If you ever have the chance, highly recommend it.

njw9028 karma

Hi Paul What's the most difficult issue you faced in doing your job?

PSonne57 karma

Most recently, the most difficult thing has been writing about civilians on both sides of the conflict, many of them apolitical, who are suffering in truly horrific circumstances. Sometimes you write a story with the hope that something will change for them and then realize that even though the story did get a lot of readers and people did care, nothing actually changes for the people on the ground. That can feel a bit soul destroying sometimes.

TheRabbin28 karma

Hi, thanks for the AmA. I consider going to St-Petersburg this summer and am pretty close of booking my flight, would you recommend me to considering the actual situation in Russia ? Also if you recommend me to, any good places you know there ?

PSonne60 karma

I wouldn't let the situation stop you from going. It's one of my favorite cities. One of the most beautiful in Europe.

rthinker26 karma

When and how, in your opinion, the conflict in Ukraine will end?

PSonne60 karma

Not soon. The question is really different phases and levels of the conflict. I hope that the intense fighting phase will dissipate soon, and though they are regularly violated, the ceasefire efforts can help in that regard. If you look at other similar conflict areas in the former Soviet Union, such as Abkhazia, they have been in some state of conflict for decades, even though active fighting hasn't been as intense as it was. People now refer to these places as 'frozen conflicts' - places still stuck a state of 'conflict' that can bubble into violence any day if not active war zones. I think that's where we're headed.

kleedawson25 karma

Is Putin trying to rebuild the old USSR?

PSonne56 karma

I think he is trying to return elements of the old USSR to achieve his political aims, not return the old USSR itself. So much of Putin's political project is about tapping into the feelings of vanquished glory that took hold among many Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia descended into political and economic turmoil. He has presented his rule as an antidote to that, which is why you see elements of praising or perhaps even reconstructing the past as critical to his political messaging.

chicobarkay23 karma

My Russian wife and I have had some good natured (occasionally heated) debates about what's happening there. I've read some sources with conflicting accounts, but what's your take on the vote that took place in Crimea to become part of Russia? Was it legitimate? and if so, should that give Putin legal legitimacy to have taken it? Thanks

PSonne35 karma

I've written a little about this here: http://on.wsj.com/1DKMYfn The vote took place well after Russian soldiers invaded Crimea. So while many Crimean residents, perhaps the majority, indeed wanted to become part of Russia, I think it was a bit of a foregone conclusion by the time any sort of vote came along ; )

the_c00ler_king21 karma

What is your favourite type of pie?

PSonne43 karma

Pumpkin. Hard to come by in Moscow, as it so happens.

CharlesCat19 karma

If you're based in Moscow, do you feel that you can freely speak your mind, or do you have to keep yourself in check?

PSonne53 karma

I wouldn't say that I'm afraid to speak my mind publicly. I do try to keep my public opinions in check for other reasons - you never know who you'll have to interview or speak to for a story, and sometimes it can really work to your disadvantage to have your opinions so out there. Also sometimes my opinions change ; ) I also would say that it's different for me as a foreigner in some ways - I think Russian journalists would probably answer this question differently.

UrkerLurker19 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA been following your daily updates on twitter for a while now.

Have you seen the new footage about MH17 mentioned by the daily Telegraph and what is your take on this?

PSonne38 karma

I have seen reports on the new footage. I don't think anyone is under the impression that the site was treated with dignity, so the idea that the footage counteracts that perception seems off to me. The site was not treated with dignity, there are no doubts about that. We also know that the rebel fighters were the first on the scene, spent time going through and at times blocking off the crash site and took the black boxes (though later returned them to Malaysian authorities). As for the whole debate over locals taking things from the crash site, I never saw that, and to be honest, I think these were isolated incidents if they happened. Most locals did the opposite, as far as I understood - they tried to figure out how and where to return belongings they found and were incredibly traumatized themselves. I wrote a bit about this with my colleagues here: http://on.wsj.com/1LvsZ3w

TheKingOfPoop19 karma

What has been the highlight of your career and why?

Thank you for doing this AMA!

PSonne76 karma

It feels strange to describe something so tragic as a highlight, but covering the conflict in Ukraine has been the most intense period in my career - and at times the most rewarding. I had covered a lot of things before -- two Olympics, lots of corporate news, various elections and political scandals -- but I had never covered a conflict, which somehow seems more pressing from a reporting perspective. It sort of hits you over the head with the full array of human emotions -- from good to evil -- in a way that my previous assignments had not.

playwithfire72116 karma

Hi Paul. Thanks for doing this!

  1. Many scholars in the past have denounced the effectiveness of pure economic sanctions in coercing countries to make a change. With the sanctions being placed on Russia by the United States being at least mildly effective (tanking the worth of the ruble, Treasury Department naming Russian entities as illegal to aid, blocking company contact with Russian industry, etc...), do you see them finally being an effective, viable way to coerce nations to make a change in their actions?

  2. How has the uprising of pro-Russian militias in places like Donetsk and Lugansk affected the relationship between the civilian government and military leadership in Ukraine?

  3. Do you see Putin backing down any time soon?

PSonne21 karma

All very good and difficult questions! Let me try…

  1. I think economic sanctions probably work only over time - usually a matter of years, even decades -- in coercing countries to make a change. But what happens initially seems to be the opposite: hunkering down, tightening of control, etc. Certainly I think sanctions are an influential tool, but the question I always have is how long they take to work, is it fast enough, and is it worth the reaction you're going to get in the meantime?

  2. Lots of people who served in volunteer battalions or on the front ran in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections and formally entered politics. The prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, created a political party called the National Front that has a significant military element, including people who have served on the front and people from the Interior Ministry. So there is a mixing of the two. But I think its fair to say that the conflict has certainly stressed the relationship between the military leadership and the government (witness how many defense ministers Ukraine has had since the conflict began) - because most everyone will admit to you that Ukraine's military was woefully unprepared for something like this to take place.

  3. To be honest, no.

alent123416 karma

who's the enemy? some people say the USA is supporting a Nazi like regime. Others say the Russians are expanding again.

what's the real deal?

PSonne65 karma

That all depends on who you ask? I think the tarnishing of the new Ukrainian government as a Nazi-like regime stems largely from Russian propaganda. I'm also not sure that Russia is behaving the way it is primarily out of some sort of strong desire to expand geographically. I think it's probably more because Russia wants to retain what the Kremlin sees as its 'privileged sphere of influence,' which includes Ukraine.

ArnoldChase12 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA!

In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception that Americans have about the Ukraine conflict?

PSonne29 karma

Strangely enough, despite being an American, I spend more time talking to Russians and Ukrainians, so I'm probably less in touch with what Americans think about the conflict.

Blackknight2712 karma

hey! thanks for doing this AMA !

my question, Is if you could say what is best about Putin, what is one thing he does that benefits Russia?

PSonne31 karma

What most Russians who support Putin will tell you is how much living standards have risen during his time in the Kremlin. This is true. How much of that is due to his policies versus dramatically high energy prices during most of his tenure is a matter of debate. There's also a slice of the Russian population that likes how Putin has made Russia seem more powerful on the global stage, for better or worse.

NorbitGorbit11 karma

how would you create a non-touristy vacation/tour of russia?

PSonne22 karma

The standard trip is Moscow/St. Petersburg. But probably the best non-touristy way to do it is to check out all the incredible natural beauty Russia has to offer, which also would take you a bit off the standard tourist trail. For instance, Baikal, Kamchatka, Altai, Elbrus, Kizhi, Solovki.

NikolaTeslut11 karma

Hello Paul, thank you for doing this! Do you have any advice/tips for someone hoping to enter the journalism workforce soon? How did you get your start as a journalist abroad?

PSonne16 karma

Find a way to differentiate yourself. Enter journalism with a special skill that others don't have, whether that's knowledge of a lesser-studied foreign language (like Russian!) or deeper expertise in a subject such as finance, economics or defense. I started, like many people, as an intern - at the New York Times and the Associated Press in Moscow and then later at the Wall Street Journal in London. I likely wouldn't have received any of those internships had I not learned Russian, which turned out to be a real asset in finding a journalism job.

EvilCam11 karma

Is Vladimir Zhirinovsky still as crazy as ever?

Rusty_The_Taxman10 karma

Hey Paul, thanks for taking time out of your likely hectic & busy workday to fill us in on Ukraine, etc. through this AMA.

One question which I've been thinking over for a while now: Given your locality to Moscow, what's your general opinion about how regular Russian citizens percieve "the west"? Is there a noticable difference in how they treat/respond to you or your friends, or is this assumption of a newfound distain for Europe unfounded?

Again, thanks for your time.

PSonne15 karma

More broadly, there is certainly a difference in how society feels about the West, and anti-American sentiment has spiked dramatically. Have a look at this chart here: https://twitter.com/PaulSonne/status/565524815050997761 That said, it really all depends on the person. I have lots of Russian friends who haven't changed how they treat me at all - and many Russians are able to separate difference between states and actual people who live in or are from those states.

zombychicken8 karma

Do you think Russia is likely to expand even more than Crimea?

PSonne21 karma

Not right now. I think it's a bit of a misconception that Russia wants to take more of Ukrainian land outside Crimea and make it officially Russian territory. It may want to control territory indirectly, but as far as making Donbass part of Russia, the Kremlin more or less had the opportunity and refused. Donbass is quite a large land area with millions of people and a lot of state-dependent pensioners and enterprises - so it would be a fairly acute economic burden.

bellman478 karma

Thank you so much for doing this!

1) Do you think that the U.S./NATO should provide lethal-aid to the Ukrainians? If yes why and if not, why not?

2) Do you see Ukrainian conflict dying down in the near future?

PSonne9 karma

1) I tried to sketch out the arguments on both sides of this debate here: http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/02/05/should-u-s-arm-ukraine-we-list-the-pros-and-cons/

2) I could see a possible decrease in the level of violence (certainly that's what I hope we'll see) but I think the conflict will be existing in some form or other for quite a long time.

garhent8 karma

What is Putin's ultimate goal with aligning his government with the Eastern Orthodox Church? His anti-gay policies are rather odd to say the least. What's next, pink triangles on arms?

PSonne15 karma

It's part of Putin's broader drive to present his government as a sort of antithesis to Western liberalism. I've written a bit about this here: http://on.wsj.com/1zCljrL

spectatorinawe7 karma

Hey,thanks for the AMA,Paul. do you think there's a possibility of social unrest happening after the patriotic euphoria wears off and the ever growing economic concerns will turn into forced austerity among general population in Russia?

PSonne12 karma

I am not sure. There is an "anti economic crisis" rally being planned by the opposition for March 1. It will be telling to see how many people turn out for that. But since the mass protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, the government has tightened control over opposition activists and also stepped up messaging in state media that street protests don't lead to anything good. So I'm not sure that the economic issues are necessarily going to lead to unrest on the streets in the short term - but I could be wrong.

gemini336 karma

Hi Paul. Thanks for doing this AMA. a. How do you feel about objectivity in journalism? Is it okay to have a clear bias on a subject or the region you cover and still provide good journalism?

b. On scale of 1-10, 1 being completely objective and 10 being completely biased, how would you rate your journalism on the coverage of the Ukraine crisis? (I'll provide my rating later)

PSonne23 karma

Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller had what I thought was a pretty informative and robust debate on that topic - on whether journalists should strive for objectivity and if so what qualifies as objectivity. Here's a link to some of that here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/28/opinion/a-conversation-in-lieu-of-a-column.html?_r=1&

I'm not going to get into objectivity rankings. I don't even think that's possible.

gemini334 karma

I'm familiar with that Keller/Greenwald debate. They clearly felt (or at least Greenwald did) that journalists were aware of their own level of bias/objectivity. So I think it's odd to cite that debate as your answer and then say that rating objectivity is not even possible. Or am I misunderstanding your answer?

PSonne39 karma

I think most journalists are aware or try to be aware of their own level of bias/objectivity - and are constantly grappling with it. The question is how you grapple with it. On the second bit, I'm just not sure how rankings of objectivity could be, well, objective in themselves.

raichub5 karma

It's 7pm on a Friday, what are your plans? Better yet, what's your favorite thing(s)!do to unwind?

[Side Note: Do you people still call each other Comrade at all any more? I only ask because my RL name is Conrad and I've gotten the "So your name is 'Comrade'"]

PSonne15 karma

Read, go to the movies, have drinks with friends, eat Georgian food (which is what I'm about to do after this!). Officials do sometimes use the word comrade (tovarishch in Russian) but day-to-day people tend to use it ironically as a sort of reference to the Soviet past.

KMazor4 karma

Thank for very much for doing this AMA. My question has a personal root. I am a US citizen originally born in Lugansk, Ukraine. Currently my family is in the process of bringing over my grandmother from Ukraine. We've nearly finished the visa process and are just waiting for our remaining set of documents to be reviewed. My parents, and mother especially, are growing increasingly worried that the Ukrainian government may shut down the border before we're able to get my grandmother stateside.

So my question is, what are the odds of something like this happening as the conflict worsens?

PSonne9 karma

Do you mean shut down the border between the Lugansk region and Russia? At the moment, Ukraine does not have control over that border. It's manned by rebel forces on the Ukrainian side and Russian customs officials on the Russian side. Under the ceasefire agreement, control of the border is eventually supposed to return to the Ukrainians. But given how the ceasefire is going, I frankly don't see that happening in the near future.

inevitablescape3 karma

Who is your favorite author?

PSonne7 karma

Impossible question! I have many. As far as Russian authors go, probably Chekhov. As for American, I like Philip Roth and Junot Diaz.

machado_preto3 karma

Hey Paul, thanks for doing this!

Would you say it is dangerous for students to spend time abroad in Russia right now, as a result of the political and economical instability?

PSonne12 karma

No, I don't get a sense that it's any more dangerous to study in St. Petersburg or Moscow than it was before.

Dendrimer143 karma

I live in America for several years now but my apartment is off Leninski Prospekt (Тёплый Стан)... my tenants are paying in Rubles ... Do you anticipate a further degradation of the Ruble vs. the Dollar? How bad is it now that the Ruble is around 60 to the dollar?

PSonne6 karma

It all depends on the oil price, which is very difficult to predict. I've seen analyses pointing in both directions, to be honest.

douhaz2 karma

What is the preferred vodka to drink over there? What is the top shelf vodka?

PSonne4 karma

Russian Standard, probably.