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Russia's invasion of Ukraine has already changed the world as we know it


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the battle between autocracy and democracy, between dictatorship and freedom, Ukraine is now the front line and our front line, writes my guest, Anne Applebaum. She's a journalist and historian who has spent the past few years writing about authoritarian governments focusing on Eastern European countries and their leader's ties to Vladimir Putin. She's been writing about Russia's invasion of Ukraine for The Atlantic, where she's a staff writer. She's also written about the history of conflicts between the Kremlin and Ukraine.

Her book "Red Famine" is about the Famine in Ukraine that was created by Stalin in the early 1930s in his attempt to destroy the Ukrainian national movement. Nearly 4 million Ukrainians died. Soviet secret police simultaneously carried out mass arrests of Ukrainian intellectual, cultural, religious and political leaders, and exiled many of them to remote parts of the Soviet Union. She writes that the famine and its legacy play an enormous role in contemporary Russian and Ukrainian arguments.

Applebaum is also the author of the book "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism." She lives in London and Poland. Her husband is a representative in the European Parliament from the Polish opposition party. She's also a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, where she runs a program researching disinformation and polarization. Just a note before we start - because we pre-record our interviews and our show is played at different times of day on different stations, the news may have changed by the time you hear this. But this interview is to help better understand the history behind Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainians' fierce resistance.

Anne Applebaum, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I appreciate your time. I know how busy you are keeping up with events and keeping up with the people who you know in Ukraine. I know you have friends and associates in Ukraine. What are you hearing from them, and how are people deciding whether to flee or to fight?

ANNE APPLEBAUM: So nobody I know is fleeing. My friends and acquaintances are staying. Some of them will be volunteering for the territorial army if they haven't done it already. Others are journalists and observers who are trying to keep track of events and tell the outside world what's going on. So they are - I don't know anyone who's leaving at all.

GROSS: You think the support Ukraine is getting from around the world is a turning point. What is this turning point saying to you?

APPLEBAUM: I think it's a reflection of the amazing change in the perception of Ukrainians that has taken place over literally the past week. You know, it's a country people don't know well because they didn't have their own state until 1991. Usually, Ukraine, particularly in American media, is talked about in the context of America and Russia and geopolitics and the Cold War or the new Cold War. And very few people have focused on who the Ukrainians are and what they want. And I think the - in particular the, you know, the video clips put out by the president of Ukraine and the bravery that Ukrainians have shown in fighting, you know, an overwhelming force that clearly outnumbers them and has more weapons than they do for several days and holding off what many people believe would be a very, very fast Russian assault on Kyiv, on the capital city.

I think that has suddenly created an awareness that what we're seeing, you know, is not just, you know, it's not just, you know, you know, Russia knocking out some weak country. We're seeing a real conflict of ideas and a real conflict between a country that wants for its sovereignty, is willing to fight for its sovereignty. It wants to be a democracy. It wants to be different from Russian style - I should say Putin-style autocracy and kleptocracy. It's trying to become a different and better place. And I think that has created an absolutely different atmosphere in the conversation about Ukraine, both in Europe and America.

GROSS: Let's talk about why Putin has invaded Ukraine. Ukraine is very important to Putin. Part of it is his fear of democracy on his border. Why is he so fearful of Ukrainian democracy?

APPLEBAUM: Putin sees Ukraine in a number of contexts, and I'm sure we'll get to that. But one of the ways in which he perceives Ukraine is that he sees it as a kind of ideological enemy. Remember what happened in Ukraine. Ukraine, after the fall of the Soviet Union, became an independent state. It had a series of post-Soviet leaders. You know, for many years it was - it wasn't autocratic. It was always a fairly messy state, and it had elements of democracy from the very beginning. But it was pretty corrupt. You know, a few people got control of Ukrainian natural resources. And the Ukrainians themselves began to object to this form of government. And there was a big set of street demonstrations in 2004 and '05 that were aimed at preventing an election from being stolen.

There was another, even bigger and more important set of demonstrations in 2014, when an autocratic Ukrainian president, one who had been elected but then tried to change the rules of the game once he came into office, who was profoundly corrupt, who was very deeply linked to Russia, when he backed away from a promise that Ukraine could have a trade agreement with the European Union, that caused a massive street protest. And tens and hundreds of thousands of people stayed on the central square in Kyiv for many days. They waved EU flags. They waved anti-corruption slogans. They demanded democracy. They demanded a change. And he eventually, after firing on demonstrators, fled the country.

What happened then was new elections were held. A new president was chosen. We've since had another set of elections that President Zelensky, who's been so much in the news lately, became the president. But this to Russia - or not, I should say not to Russia, I should say to Putin - this sequence of events is his personal nightmare. So he's somebody who is a, you know, he's a dictator and a more - a crueler and more totalitarian dictator all the time. He has a lot of power. He controls, you know, all branches of Russian government. He controls the courts. He controls most companies. He controls the media. And yet, his great fear is of street revolution, of an uprising, of, you know, the language of anti-corruption and really the language of justice being applied to him.

GROSS: After the authoritarian leader of Ukraine who was allied with Putin fled the country and elections proceeded that, that's when Putin invaded Crimea and claimed it as Russian. So this is kind of a repeat of that, but in a much larger way.

APPLEBAUM: Yeah. So the invasion of Crimea was a punishment for Ukraine. It was a kind of saying, you know, you don't get to decide about your country. And then, of course, he invaded Eastern Ukraine with - he created a kind of fake separatist movement that's been backed all the time by the Russian military that have occupied a small corner of Eastern Ukraine. And he's kept that conflict going as a kind of way of destabilizing the country.

But this represents a change. I mean, you know, with this move, he's now saying, you know, that's not enough for me. It's not enough to destabilize democratic Ukraine. I need to control it. And we have a pretty clear idea of what he wants to do because of things that he said. He wrote an article last summer, really extraordinary article in which he described Ukraine as a false country. It doesn't have the right to exist.

A few days ago, he made a speech on Russian television in which he said again that Ukraine doesn't have the right to exist, that it's, you know, the only - essentially the only countries - post-Soviet countries that have any real sovereignty. Well, the only one is Russia. And Ukraine doesn't deserve to exist. And that, of course, has a slight - not just slight - had a genocidal overtone. It means that we can wipe out these Ukrainians and replace them with people who are more pliant.

And, you know, it's become clear that his goal is not just destabilization. It's control. And that's why the attack has taken the form that it has. So it's not just them trying to grab a little bit of land in the south, which is what many people believe they would do. It's an assault on the capital city, on Kyiv, on the second-largest city, Kharkiv, on the city of Odessa, you know, on other cities, and it's attempt to take control of the entire country.

GROSS: When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, that was cause for celebration in many parts of Russia and around the world. And as you've said, you know, Putin was not part of that celebration. He was with the KGB at the time, and he is still in mourning for the collapse of the Soviet Union and wants to restore some of that to its former, in his mind, glory. So how do you think that figures into his invasion of Ukraine?

APPLEBAUM: So that's the other part of the picture is that Putin, ever since 1989, when he was a KGB officer in Dresden and from there witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of East Germany and the end of Soviet domination of eastern Germany, he came back to Russia very distressed. He experienced that as a kind of catastrophe. What all of us saw as a great victory for democracy and freedom, he saw, as, you know, personal - you know, a personal tragedy.

He came back to Russia. He spent a number of years enriching himself. He was part of a group of former KGB and former Soviet apparatchiks who learned how to steal money out of Russia, launder it abroad, bring it back, invest it. He made himself and his friends quite rich. He made his way back into the government and, you know, eventually became president. And, you know, as president, cut off - you know, cut out all of his competition. But he's really never lost that feeling that 1989 was a disaster and 1991, which was the year of the breakup of the Soviet Union, was a disaster and that he seeks to make it right.

And in his recent statements, he could not be more crystal clear that that's what this is about. You know, he - you know, 1991 was a mistake. It has to be fixed. And pulling Ukraine back into a sort of Russian-speaking sphere of influence, you know, as a sort of post-Soviet empire, a kind of new Russian empire, is the other piece of what he's interested in here. Again, that's - and if that's what he wants, then he's not going to be satisfied with Crimea. Then he needs Kyiv. You know, he needs the whole country.

GROSS: Everything you've said that Putin wants, he's getting the opposite right now because of the invasion.

APPLEBAUM: Well, that's one of the great ironies. You know, one of the reasons Ukraine consolidated over the last eight years since since 2014 and one of the reasons why it's been growing stronger as a state and one of the reasons why the Ukrainians' sense of national identity has been growing stronger is because of this feeling of pressure from Russia. I mean, remember; Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014. This - you know, there's fighting in the East has been going on since then. A lot of people are veterans of that fight. Many of the veterans have made other careers in the Ukrainian government and state and society. They're very present in Ukraine. You meet them. They play - you know, they play important roles in - you know, in other spheres now.

And so the - you know, in fact, his pressure has, you know, created Ukrainian, you know, sense of patriotism in a state that was quite ramshackle and disorganized in its early years. And also, you know, as you say, he has now galvanized the West. He has inspired, you know, an extraordinary change in German foreign policy. A few days ago, the German chancellor has announced a rise in Germany's defense spending, which seemed impossible up until now. He's caused, you know, the NATO alliance to work together in a way it hasn't before.

The European Union, which is also not known for its military involvement or its foreign policy, is now supplying fighter jets to Ukraine. And even Switzerland is freezing Russian assets. The United States, which, you know, wasn't so focused on Russia and has been reluctant, you know, not only under President Trump but under President Obama, to see it really as an enemy now does. And so you're going to get a huge reorientation in American foreign policy to cope with this - with a new, you know, military and nuclear threat that comes from Russia. And, you know, he has up until now, as you say, achieved exactly the opposite of what he's says he's trying to achieve.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's a journalist, a staff writer for The Atlantic and a historian. Her books include "The Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Allure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview that we recorded with Anne Applebaum. She's a journalist and historian. She's a staff writer for The Atlantic, where she's been writing about the fighting between Ukraine and Russia and the history behind Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Her books include "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine."

I'm now going to ask you a question I'm sure you can't answer, but I'd like you to just reflect on it for a moment if you have anything to say about it. You know, Putin has actually poisoned some of his enemies with this radioactive poison. And I just keep thinking, is there anybody in his inner circle who thinks he has really gone too far to the detriment of Russia and who's going to try to use that same kind of poison on Putin to kill Putin and eradicate him as a threat to Russia? And along the same lines, I'm also wondering if there's anybody in his inner circle who would, now that the country's on nuclear alert, who would defy the order to use a nuclear weapon if Putin actually gave that order?

APPLEBAUM: So no, I can't answer that. I - his inner circle in recent years has grown very small. In the past, it was possible to hear things about Putin and learn them in Moscow. He was in contact with a lot of people. And, you know, they had friends and friends of friends. And it was possible to get some sense of what he was thinking. Over the past two years, he has been almost totally isolated. He seems to be very paranoid about COVID. That's why you see him sitting at the end of long tables far away from other people, I mean, these, you know, very strange television performances of the last several days and some strange meetings with foreign leaders.

At least until recently, if you wanted to see Putin, you had to be in quarantine for two weeks before you could go into his presence. And that means that he's been really cut off from everybody, from the business community, from other kinds of people that he used to speak to. And so we have we have very little knowledge, really, of who he talks to. I mean, somebody I know thinks that he speaks mostly to his bodyguards. And that makes access to any information about him and his inner circle hard to hard to gather.

It's pretty clear that some of the Russian elite dislike this. The business community very much dislike it, I mean, for obvious reasons. The Western sanctions are going to make it very difficult for Russian companies to do business. The - you know, even things like the airline flights being banned. It's suddenly become very difficult to travel in and out of Russia. That's going to make a lot of people's lives more complicated. The - I mean, we'll see if this really happens, but the promise to to confiscate the property of named people who are being sanctioned in - you know, in Europe and the U.S., you know, will affect people who are close to Putin. So all that has to create some level of discomfort.

And in addition to that, you know, there is really no long tradition in Russia of hating the Ukrainians. There is no national hatred of them. They don't conjure up any dislike or fear in the way some other Russian neighbors do. And I just - I find it very hard to to believe that either Russian elites or the Russian nation, you know, will like this war once they learn about it. I should stipulate that Russian state television - in fact, all Russian television has been almost totally silent about the nature of this war. They're still talking about it as if it was a regional conflict in the East. They have not mentioned the, you know, aerial bombing of Kyiv and Kharkiv. They haven't talked about what's going on on the ground. And so many Russians just don't know about it.

And I think the reason that he's concealing it from them - and remember; he didn't conceal the invasion of Crimea from them. The reason he's concealing it from them is he knows it will be unpopular. And so the chances that this is unpopular among, you know, very elite Russians is also very high.

GROSS: I've been thinking a lot about the last time we spoke, when you were writing about authoritarian governments and how they kind of have their own network of helping and supporting each other. It's like a new kind of authoritarianism that circumvents a lot of the condemnation of the rest of the world. They can support each other financially. They can trade with each other. And that also limits the effectiveness of sanctions.

So in the club, if I may use that word - in the club of dictators and authoritarian rulers who help each other loot their countries and stay in power, what are you learning from which countries are supporting Putin and which are kind of backing away? For example, China abstained from a vote at the U.N. in condemning Russia. They didn't vote on Russia's side, but they didn't vote against Russia, either. They just abstained.

APPLEBAUM: China's position is still unclear to me. They've said contradictory things. The Chinese have said that they, you know - they've - they want Russia to abide by - you know, abide by U.N. treaties that speak about respect for borders. They've also said that, you know, Russia - you know, that NATO expansion in Europe is a threat to Russia, which, of course, not true. And they've been very quiet in the last few days, at least, you know, since - as we're having this conversation, you know, about whether they're going to help Russia get around sanctions or not. So I don't know the answer to that.

I mean, we certainly see that Belarus is helping Russia both with allowing them to stage their invasion on their territory. They may also be - you know, again, as I speak, probably, they're beginning to send troops into Ukraine. You know, Russia will will no doubt seek support and trade from Iran, you know, again, from smaller countries like Venezuela, as well. So they will find partners. And they will find countries that they can do business with. It's just going to - it'll be much more difficult than it was for them in the past.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she's been writing about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. She's also a historian and author of "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with and Applebaum. She's a journalist who's been writing about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the history behind it for The Atlantic. She's also the author of the books "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Allure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." She's American but lives in Poland and England. She's currently a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. And she's joining us from Washington. Our interview is prerecorded, so events may have changed by the time you hear this. But this interview is about the history of conflict between Russia and Ukraine and how that helps explain the Russian invasion.

You had a program researching disinformation at Johns Hopkins University. I'm wondering what you're seeing now in America in terms of American disinformation about Russia and its invasion and disinformation being spread by Americans who are actually supporting Putin.

APPLEBAUM: There are Americans supporting Putin. I mean, they've gone a little quieter in the last three or four days. I mean, the most extraordinary and influential one of them is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who not only is pro-Russian in his broadcasts, but also, there are elements of what he says that make me think he's in touch with somebody who's giving him ideas. I mean, he had a very strange monologue about Ukraine not really being a democracy because they've locked up their main political opponent. And by that he meant the arrest of a pro-Russian oligarch in Ukraine who's not his political opponent, actually, he's somebody who's accused of grand corruption.

The question is, how does Tucker Carlson know about that story? How come he gave the story that twist? Who was telling it to him? You know, I don't have the answer to that. I don't know. But he clearly is in touch with Russians or people close to Russia who are trying to get him to present the news in a certain way.

In addition to that, of course, there are the usual kind of Russian bots and trolls and supporters on social media, somewhat less than there used to be, both Facebook and Twitter, somewhat a little bit less YouTube, but particularly Facebook and Twitter have gotten much better at identifying these so-called, you know, false networks of bots. I mean, they can now see when somebody is trying to artificially pump up a certain idea, where they've created a lot of fake followers or when they're trying to push something that - they use the expression inorganic. And they've gotten better at that. I think that's clear and that makes a difference. So I don't see social media disinformation as the huge problem that it was, for example, in 2016.

GROSS: Let's talk about some deeper history, some history further into the past that is kind of echoing now in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and this is the famine that Stalin orchestrated in Ukraine in the early 1930s. And you wrote a whole book about it called "Red Famine." Why did Stalin see Ukraine as a threat?

APPLEBAUM: So curiously, or maybe not curiously, Stalin, like Putin, also saw Ukraine as a vector for ideas that could undermine him or threaten him. Stalin sought to create a unitary state where only one ideology was allowed. And the Ukrainians, who had made an attempt at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and '18 to create their own state, retained this desire for independence and sovereignty. He perceived them as disloyal. And he feared a Ukrainian revolt or revolution.

And at the time of his decision to collectivize agriculture - that meant that the Soviet state took over private property, took over land and horses and tractors and farm implements, and nationalized them and made them, you know, gave them over to the state, he was especially afraid of a Ukrainian rebellion against that policy. And indeed, there was such a Ukrainian rebellion. As I write in the book, there were even a few armed rebellions. People had weapons in their barns left over from the revolution. And they shot at Soviet apparatchiks and activists who came to implement the collectivization policy.

And at one point, he became very afraid that there would be, you know, the Ukrainians - even the Ukrainian Communist Party was disloyal. Ukraine was disloyal. And so he changed the policy in Ukraine. He harshened, changed a whole series of laws that meant that teams of activists would begin to go from house to house in Ukraine and collect people's food. So this was a famine that was not caused by the weather. It was not caused by drought or insects. It was caused by the confiscation of people's food. So the grain, fruit, vegetables, sometimes farm animals, everything was taken away from people with the idea that that would weaken the peasantry and weaken the desire for rebellion.

GROSS: Was there a cover story for that like, oh, we're collecting your food to better distribute it to the people?

APPLEBAUM: Yes. The cover story was that Ukrainians and other peasants - I should say this happened elsewhere in the Soviet Union, too. It's just that the numbers are different and more stark in Ukraine. You know, the cover story was that the peasants are refusing to turn over their food to the state. There are food shortages all over the country, which there were at that time because collectivization was so disastrous. And we are going to search and take away the peasants' food and give it to the cities.

GROSS: Leaving none for the peasants.

APPLEBAUM: Leaving none for the peasants. And that was openly discussed. I mean, that was Soviet propaganda. It was in the media. People knew that this was happening.

GROSS: So something else that Stalin did - and I think this is very relevant to today - he moved a lot of Russians from Russian cities into Ukraine, replacing some of the peasants because among the things Stalin did was a lot of peasants died. Nearly 4 million people died in the famine in Ukraine. But also, Stalin was rounding up, like, cultural, religious, political and intellectual leaders and imprisoning or exiling them. So can you talk a little bit about this displacement of Ukrainians to prison or exiled to Russia and their replacement with Russians from Russian cities?

APPLEBAUM: So, yes, after the famine, in the immediate wake of the famine, there was a mass arrest of Ukrainian artists, intellectuals, writers, people who wrote dictionaries. There was a kind of attack on the Ukrainian language, you know, museum curators. Many were arrested and wound up in Soviet prisons and eventually the gulag.

At the same time, as there was a mass death of peasants, Russians moved into Ukraine, sometimes in organized programs and sometimes just because, you know, there were opportunities in Ukraine. And so the the entire Ukrainian Communist Party was replaced with people who would be more loyal to Moscow. Some of them were Ukrainians. Some of them had more Russian roots. You know, most of the Ukrainian ruling class or elite was slowly - not just in the 1930s, but in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s also changed over and replaced, again, either with people who were loyal or with - for people from Russia.

And the idea was to Russify Ukraine - so to make it a more Russian country, more Russian-speaking, you know, to eliminate the Ukrainian language from higher institutions of education, from the government. Peasantry were still speaking Ukrainian, but they tried to keep Ukrainian out of the public sphere. And the idea was to eliminate Ukraine slowly as a country that could somehow someday be in conflict with Moscow.

GROSS: So when Putin talks about the Russian culture being so important in Ukraine and Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, is Putin neglecting to mention that part of the Russification of Ukraine was something that was forced by Stalin in the 1930s?

APPLEBAUM: Of course he - of course. He's deliberately neglecting it, if he's ever thought about it. Putin regards Ukraine as a false state - that, you know, pretty much everybody living there should be Russian. He has a very peculiar set of historical theories, which I don't - genuinely don't know where he got them, that explain why everybody who speaks Ukrainian or feels themselves to be Ukrainian really isn't. And instead, he imagines that the Russification that took place, actually in the 19th century, as well as in the 20th century, you know, represents some more real form of Ukraine. So, yes, I mean, he - Putin doesn't - either doesn't know or doesn't acknowledge the truths of Ukrainian history at all.

GROSS: In part because of the famine, you think that Ukrainians have always thought of the government as them, not us, because the government for so long was the Soviet government who was trying to destroy any remnants of Ukrainian independence. And so the Ukrainians have distrusted government, and you say there's been no tradition of Ukrainian civil service or military service or public service because of all of that. So how do you think that figures into, you know, recent Ukrainian history and what's happening now?

APPLEBAUM: So certainly in the first years of the creation of an independent Ukraine, you know, it took a long time for people to believe that this was their government - you know, the democracy was real or that it represented them. And I even remember a Ukrainian friend telling me this - years and years ago in the 1990s - telling me that he was against democracy because he said, well, you know, you have one bunch of people there stealing, and if you get another group of people in - if they get voted out and there's another group - well, then they'll steal even more, you know? So (laughter) - and so there was a lot of cynicism for a long time about democracy in Ukraine and about the nature of the Ukrainian state.

I mean, up until even recently - I mean, in recent years, really since 2014, it has been getting better. There is a better atmosphere. There's a younger generation, a new generation of people who are much more inclined to think of the state as their state. You know, there are a couple of very good universities in Ukraine that sort of specifically seek to cultivate that idea, you know, that public service is a good thing and people should do it.

And then I think also the war meant that many people wound up serving, you know, either in the military or in other institutions out of a sense of, you know, fury and anger and patriotism. And I think the experience of this occupation - or this invasion, rather - however it ends - and there are many still-dark scenarios. However it ends, it has already changed Ukraine. The experience of being in the territorial army, the way in which people are working together, will be remembered for a long time.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She is a journalist, a staff writer for The Atlantic and a historian. Her books include "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Anne Applebaum. She's a journalist, a staff writer for The Atlantic, where she's been writing about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She's also a historian and author of "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine."

How concerned are you that Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to a wider war and even a nuclear one?

APPLEBAUM: I am very concerned that Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to a wider war. And it could happen in two or three different ways. One is that if this war goes on longer, if it goes on for a long time, then the Ukrainian resistance will need to get weapons from Poland, from Romania, from across the border. And then it's very likely that the Russians could - you know, whether pursuing Ukrainians across the border or whether trying to stop those flows of weapons - could eventually attack or threaten a NATO country. And that would then require a NATO response, including an American response.

The second thing I'm afraid of - and this - I'm a little reluctant to speak about it because it's very frightening and it might - you know, the - I don't have any evidence for whether it's real or not. I mean, but there is a fear that because Putin thought he was going to win very quickly, you know, he believed that - he believed his own propaganda, essentially. He believed that Ukraine was not a real country and that they wouldn't fight. And he expected to be, you know, in Kyiv and in control of the country within 48 hours, and that's how his invasion was set up.

That didn't happen. It's not going to happen. Instead, what he's - what's happening now is they're now beginning to ramp up the level of random violence. So they're now shelling civilian residential areas in Ukrainian cities, which was - I don't think was part of the original plan, but it's there now because they don't seem to have any other ideas. And there is some fear that he would become very frustrated and he would use a nuclear weapon somehow.

In annual - or not - they're not every year. But in the regular military exercises that Putin holds in the western part of Russia, they do exercise the use of nuclear weapons and usually what they exercise is the explosion of one in the air, you know, as a form of threat. You know, they explode it over the Baltic Sea or something as a way of scaring people.

And there is some fear that he will do that if he feels there's - if he feels he's losing the war and there's no other option. Putin makes these threats in order to make people afraid. And so it may be that the purpose of him hinting at, talking about nuclear weapons recently and, of course, the purpose of including this nuclear trial, this nuclear practice in his exercise, in his military exercise, is the purpose of that is to make us afraid. It doesn't necessarily mean they would really do it.

GROSS: Even things that he said he would do to make people afraid he's actually done.

APPLEBAUM: Very often he has done things that he said he would do, but not always.

GROSS: I keep wondering, how does President Zelenskyy feel about having run for office and won? I doubt he ever expected to be a president during wartime when his country was under attack by Russia. And, I mean, again, he had no political experience before this. He was a comic and starred in a Ukrainian sitcom as a teacher who kind of accidentally becomes president. Do you have any insights into how he's personally handling being president in such a really, you know, terrifying situation?

APPLEBAUM: So somebody said to me just about a week ago - so before the invasion, I was talking to someone who knows him or has been watching him who said to me, the one thing that he's not going to do is flee the country. And I said, why? And they said, because he's an actor, and he understands that he has a role to play, and he will play the role, you know?

And I think he meant that not in a superficial sense, but, you know, that he understands that if you're the president of the country, you have a - what you do has symbolic importance and, you know, you are not yourself. You know, you don't get to make choices as, you know, you and, you know, what you might personally want to do. You have a larger responsibility to the citizens and to your country's image in the world. And it looks to me like that description of him was accurate. And so whatever he might personally feel, you know, wish he'd never run for president or wished he could leave or - you know, he's not going to do it because he all of his life has learned, you know, once you enter the - once you enter the role, you play it to the end. And I think there's an element of that.

I mean, I think it's important that people know it's not just risking his own life. He has said that his family is not leaving Ukraine. He has a wife and children. They remain as - I don't know exactly where they are. I assume they're in Kyiv or outside Kyiv. Everybody around him is there. The most famous communication he's made since the war began was a moment when he and his closest advisers stood outside of the presidential palace, and he said, I'm here. The president of the Parliament is here. The president of my parliamentary faction is here. My chief of staff is here. We're all here. We're not leaving. We're not going anywhere. We're going to defend Kyiv, you know, glory to Ukraine. And it was extremely moving. It was authentic, but it was also something that was done by somebody who understood that he had to send a message to people that would resonate.

GROSS: He said that he is Russia's No. 1 target. I'm sure you believe that that's true.

APPLEBAUM: Yes, I do think that's true. I mean, there are stories about assassins having been sent to Kyiv to kill him. I think, yes, that is probably true.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's a journalist, a staff writer for The Atlantic and a historian. Her books include "The Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Allure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and let's get back to my interview that we recorded with Anne Applebaum. She's a journalist and historian. She's a staff writer for The Atlantic, where she's been writing about the fighting between Ukraine and Russia and the history behind Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Her books include "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine."

How do you think this conflict is likely to change the world as we know it?

APPLEBAUM: Much depends on how this conflict ends, which we can't now predict, but it has already changed the world as we know it. I don't think that we will ever again smugly assume that, you know, borders in Europe can't be changed by force. We will never assume that the so-called liberal world order is still something that has meaning to everybody.

I think we will change the way we think about security and about the military in Europe but maybe elsewhere. I hope that it changes the way we think about Russia, that, you know, a lot of - you know, even President Obama treated Russia as a kind of secondary problem. You know, it was a regional annoyance. And I think that the nature of modern Russia represents something more important than that, that it represents a real, you know, ideological threat to the kind of society that we live in. And even if we don't perceive it that way, they perceive us that way. In other words, the Russians see us as an enemy, us - and I mean America and Western Europe and Central Europe. They perceive us as an enemy. And they see that, you know, the defeat of us is what Putin needs to survive.

And Russia - I keep saying Russians although I mean Putin because I don't believe that all Russians support him. But he sees - you know, he must defend himself and his power against our ideas. And that therefore means that as long as he's in power or someone like him is in power, that he is a formidable enemy. He also, it should be said, has lots of imitators around the world. So people watch very closely what he does. They copy it. They echo it. They imitate it. You know, if he does win the war in Ukraine in some form or he does establish some kind of occupation of Ukraine, then others will take note that that's something that's possible for anybody.

GROSS: Since you run a program at Johns Hopkins University researching disinformation and polarization, and since the U.S. has midterm elections coming up soon and a presidential election in a couple of years - knowing what we know about how Russian disinformation and Russian bots played such a significant role in the 2020 presidential election, what are some of your concerns about how Putin might try to interfere again in our upcoming elections?

APPLEBAUM: I'm more concerned about Americans who have learned from Putin's tactics and will be using them themselves. And I'm more concerned that the techniques and the attitudes, and the social media games invented by autocrats, will be used and are being used by - in particular by a part - one part of the Republican Party. It's not inconceivable that the left could do the same, but they don't right now. So this is a - I'm concerned about a range of groups doing it. But right now, it's a part of the Republican Party. And they're - what they've learned about the uses of extreme rhetoric, about the way to appeal to dissatisfied people, about the way to use language that evokes approval in people who are inclined to admire authoritarian leaders - all of that will be used whether or not the Russians are involved. And that's really my deeper concern.

One of the things that makes democracy work is trust in the process. So people have to feel that they voted, they lost. But, you know, the rules were the rules and somebody else won. And then they have to accept the result and move on and try again in four years. Once people begin to question the process and ask whether it can ever be trusted or it can ever be fair, then you will have people ceasing to accept the results of the election. I mean, we already see it with the 2020 election. This could get worse. This could persuade people that it's right or it's allowed to steal an election because elections are so bad and so fake and so rigged. And this could cause an enormous disruption either in - either this year or in 2024.

GROSS: Anne Applebaum, thank you so much for joining us.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the books "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism" and "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be the creator of the HBO Max series "Raised By Wolves," Aaron Guzikowski. The show is set in a future where a religious war has devastated Earth. In an attempt to save humanity, two androids, named Mother and Father, are sent to a distant planet to raise and protect human children. The series is about parenting, faith and about what makes us human. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: It makes me sad to end today's show by saying goodbye to our associate producer, Kayla Lattimore. She's leaving us to be a producer at what promises to be a pretty exciting, new podcast, which I can't tell you about because we've pretty much been sworn to secrecy until a public announcement is made. We hired Kayla during the relatively early days of the pandemic, when most of our team was working from home. So Kayla became the first and only person we hired through meeting only on video chats. I'm proud to say, despite that, we did good. And we made a great choice in hiring her. I'm grateful she moved to Philly and I got to work with her in person. She's been such a pleasure to work with and always calm no matter what. I should have taken lessons from her while I had the chance. We wish her good luck. And we congratulate the people behind the new podcast for having the good judgment to hire her.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and, for one more time, Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.