Award winning reporter and SBU associate professor offers his take on Russia

Award winning reporter and SBU associate professor offers his take on Russia

Jonathan Sanders on assignment in Moscow. Photo from CBS News

Stony Brook University Associate Professor Jonathan Sanders, who won an Emmy and an Edward R. Murrow Award, reported on Russia for a range of news organizations, including as CBS News Moscow correspondent.

Jonathan Sanders on assignment in Moscow. Photo from CBS News

Sanders, who knew several important figures in late 20th century Russian history, spent considerable time with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who is the immediate past president of Russia before Vladimir Putin.

“I knew Yeltsin extremely well, I know his kids,” Sanders said.

Sanders believes the late Yeltsin’s extended family is “appalled” at Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. He also thinks the late Andrei Sakharov, who helped build the hydrogen bomb for Russia and then was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the abuse of power and working for human rights, would also be similarly shocked at Putin’s attacks

While Sanders thinks noteworthy and important Russian families likely oppose the invasion of Ukraine that has cost thousands of lives, forced millions to flee their homes and disrupted stock and commodities markets around the world, the associate professor said the Russian population itself is likely divided in its response to the war.

“People whose sole source of information is the Russian central media are aggressively listening to the message coming out of the Kremlin,” he said.

The people in this group tend to be 45 and older and are less urban. They know of events in Ukraine in the context of a military operation in Donetsk, rather than an outright war against a neighbor.

For many people in this older crowd, the message connected to hostilities between Russia and the rest of the world has echoes of earlier times, during World Wars and the Cold War.

After losing millions of their fellow Russians in World War II, many Russians “had a grandfather or great grandfather who served” in the military, “this makes rallying around the national cause important. The Cold War is radioactive material with a long half life,” he added.

They believe the West, and, in particular, the United States, “wants to destroy” them.

The culture and mythology that informs their world view comes from the country’s own tradition of spies and spy novels that are similar to the ones many Americans have read, except that the “bad guys” are the Americans and West Germans the way the protagonists of American spy novels are often Russian.

Younger people who are 35 and below, however, particularly those in cities, get their information from places like TikTok and foreign press, where they don’t receive the Putin party line.

These information lines have created tensions during family gatherings. Sanders described reports of students at teaching colleges getting into arguments with grandparents who believe in the state media, if not in Putin

Sanders has lectured in Russia, where the students in Moscow are “more astute and more diligent in reading the New York Times and watching the BBC than my students here in the United States.”

Sanders said the reason Russians who are protesting the war are younger not only reflects the reality that protesters in general tend to be younger, but also the fact that these are the people seeing and hearing firsthand information about the damage the invasion has caused to Ukraine and to the Russians rolling into the country in tanks.

Over time, pressure might build on Putin when the number of Russians killed continues to climb, although the pace of sharing information about the safety of the troops may remain slow enough that Russians families may not know about their lost loved ones, Sanders said.

Sanders was impressed with the military intelligence released just prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

The information that came out before the war was “remarkable. It’s going to mean there’s going to be a witch hunt of enormous proportions conducted by Putin for who is leaking things out of the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense.”

Sanders is not particularly optimistic about the outcome of this war for Ukrainians.

Sanders, who produced and edited the documentary “Three Days in September” that was narrated by Julia Roberts and described the siege of a Russian school by Chechen rebels in 2004, recognizes critical differences in the way Putin thinks tactically.

In a hostage situation, most countries and leaders put a priority on saving hostages. Putin, however, puts a priority “on killing the terrorists doing the hostage taking,” Sanders said.

Putin is likely hunkered down and isn’t listening to anyone else closely, even those who might try to tamp down on his most militant impulses, Sanders said.

Former President Donald Trump (R) “didn’t want to listen to anyone [about the 2020 election]. He only wanted to hear about election fraud. He didn’t want anyone to contradict him. That is mild compared to how Putin has isolated himself.”

As for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Sanders hailed the embattled leader for his ongoing commitment to the country and inspirational messages. After Zelensky spoke to the British parliament, echoing sentiments expressed by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the onset of World War II, Zelensky may be “the first charismatic hero of the digital age,” Sanders said.

While Americans and British saw Zelensky’s address as a tribute to his commitment to his country and his eagerness to preserve a democracy, Russians saw images of Zelensky with a different spin.

“He’s sucking on the teat of the West,” Sanders said. Members of state media believe Russia attacked Ukraine because of “great conspiracy” against the country.