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December 15, 2022updated 16 Dec 2022 2:32pm

John Sweeney on going back to the front line at 64: ‘Getting your feet dirty means you see stuff’

John Sweeney on why staying in Kyiv was the best decision he ever made.

By John Sweeney

The typewriter clatter-clatter of an ancient newsroom? Not quite: machinegun fire from not far enough away. Then came a crump of heavy artillery and I slipped on the icy pavement outside the rudest shop in the whole world – the Co-op, Bakhmut – and I found myself saying, yet again: “Fool, Sweeney, fool. At 64, you are too old for this.”

And also the other thing. Not since I was the worst cub reporter on the Sheffield Telegraph in 1981 – they extended my probation because of my “difficult” attitude – have I felt such thrill at doing my job, of telling the stories of the ordinary, extraordinary people of Ukraine standing up to the Russian killing machine.

True, my short two-minute 20-second films I make for Twitter on my phone don’t have the reach of the stuff I used to do for my beloved Panorama. But the video I made from Bakhmut a few days ago has had half a million views.  

Old dog: new tricks. Woof! Woof!

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I flew out to Kyiv on February 14th. I’ve had some bloody awful Valentine Days but this was the worst. To be honest, I was sick to the stomach of the West running scared of Vladimir Putin. I first called the master of the Kremlin a war criminal 22 years ago in my old paper, The Observer, when I saw evidence of Russian war crimes in Chechnya. When a Russian heavy metal convoy 40 miles-long got within 12 miles of Kyiv, a ton of TV, radio and print reporters left.

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I stayed.

This turned out to be the best professional decision I’ve made, whole life. It wasn’t foolish. The great Catherine Belton spelt out the mathematics of war to me before the invasion, that the attacker must have multiple times more soldiers than the defender. This February Ukraine had 300,000 people under arms so Putin needed 900,000 to take Kyiv, assuming an attacker-to-defender ratio of three to one. But like Britain in 1940, Ukraine is a democracy under attack. Never underestimate the democratic bear. The Russians needed a seven-to-one ratio, that is they needed 2.1 million soldiers against 300,000 defenders. Instead, they launched their big war with 200,000 – a tenth of the necessary number. 

I never thought that the Russians would take Kyiv but if they did I was planning to take off my lucky orange hat and find a hole in the ground and a bottle of whiskey and hide. That was Plan B.

Plan A – the Russians wouldn’t take Kyiv – meant that all I had to do was sit and wait and see whether my hypothesis would hold true. I made a promise to myself, that I would stay in Kyiv until my courage or my supply of alcohol ran out. Under martial law, the supply of alcohol was banned and I got down to my last half bottle of Irish whiskey when I discovered the Buena Vista Social Club.

There’s a shot of me outside the BV looking guilty clutching a Waitrose bag-for-life holding seven bottles of Italian red posing for a selfie with the Ukrainian National Guard military police. If only they had looked inside the bag, I would have been in trouble. 

Arrested on suspicion of being a Russian spy

No big British media company wanted my stuff on a routine basis apart, that is, from the Jewish Chronicle. I explained that I was a lapsed Catholic and they said they didn’t care. Reporting for them was a real pleasure. I did spots on LBC, the Jeremy Vine Show, BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Wales, BBC Scotland and RTE.  

But best of all I set up a Patreon account in Ukraine and started doing my war diaries for Twitter on my phone. Content fired up interest and interest led to patrons. So when on Day Two a guy in plain clothes, albeit with a gun, told me to stop filming I ignored him.

Fool, Sweeney, fool. I got arrested on suspicion of being a Russian spy by the guy with the gun, a Ukrainian soldier, Vlad Demchenko. Two commanders and Vlad hauled me off in their jeep to the SBU HQ – Ukrainian intelligence – for investigation. Hanging out in the SBU HQ was not great, it being the number two target of the Russian army, after President Zelenskiy. And I was freelance and I had no boss to ring to say: “Get me out of here.”

The SBU were cool, professional, and after an hour I was out on the street again. Of the four of us in that jeep, only Vlad and I are still alive. The two commanders were killed by the Russians in an ambush in the Battle of Kyiv. Vlad’s become a big friend. I took him to the Buena Vista where Fleet Street’s finest went up to him, saying: “Well done for arresting Sweeney but why the fuck did you let him go?”

I’m a writer not a fighter

It is true to say that at the start of the big war, things were chaotic. Ukrainians were on the look-out for Russian saboteurs, the enemy was at the gates and maybe as many as 200 people were killed by “friendly fire”. I went out of my way to be obviously unmilitary: the orange beanie, a big camel-coloured duffle coat, saying “God Save The Queen” as loudly as possible as I walked up to checkpoints. When I finally got a flak jacket I had it embroidered with flowery patterns, the message being: “I’m a writer, not a fighter.”

Emotionally, it was tough at times. With my first fixer, Eugene, we went to the basement of the children’s hospital and found 20 kids, dialysis patients. If they stayed in the city, they could die; if they left their machines, they would die. When a clown made them laugh I was grateful for my COVID mask because behind it I was weeping. That said, reporting simple things – “the electricity is still on, the internet is still on, there are no Russian tanks in my street” – gave people across the world an honest take that Ukraine was not giving up. My Twitter followers grew from 60,000 in February to 270,000 today.

In March my patrons peaked at 2,000 and have dropped down at the rate of roughly a 100 a month to 1,300 today. Still that means I get a good monthly pay cheque that enables me to commute to Kyiv from London and go to the frontline. I’ve been to Kharkiv with Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, the transgender journalist from Las Vegas the Kremlin loves to hate, and Bakhmut three times. Vlad Demchenko got me into a quiet trench in August but my last trip was seriously heavy. Kupiansk, Izium, Dvorychna: none of my reporting would be possible without my patrons who are the best bosses a storyteller like me has ever had, ever, and I love them to bits. Each month I try to write a long-read piece which I then share on social media so everybody can read my stuff for free. But my patrons get the first shout.

Getting your feet dirty means you see stuff

With my pals at Chalk & Blade I made a podcast from Kyiv, Taking On Putin, that told stories of the war and the man behind it which led to a book, Killer In The Kremlin, which sat in the Sunday Times best-seller list for six weeks. 

I’d give full marks to the British reporters covering the big war, though sometimes I worry about their drinking. Perhaps they should think about changing their lifestyles. Oliver Carroll is the only other Tranmere Rovers fan in Kyiv but his reporting for The Economist is the other reason he stands out from the pack. It was great to bump into Jeremy Bowen and Clive Myrie and young John Simpson in Kyiv: titans all.

My whole life in journalism I have always valued reporters over columnists. Getting your feet dirty means you see stuff. Sitting in an office one and a half thousand miles away means you can get the fighting spirit of ordinary Ukrainians dead wrong. The Kremlin will be pleased with Mary Dejevsky, of The Independent , General Sir Richard Dannatt and Peter Hitchens of The Mail On Sunday – although the more astute Russian fascists may fear that Hitchens is a little over the top.

To cheer people up, I organised a festival in Kyiv, mocking Putin, which raised nigh on £10,000 for Ukrainian charities. A crowdfunder to win the lucky Sweeney beanie raised £15,000.

The war is grimmer now, the Russian killing machine more effective but the West is finally sending some of the heavy metal the Ukrainians need. I’m an optimist that at some point Putin’s machinery of fear will falter and ordinary Russians will see him for the fascist dictator he is. The fastest way of achieving that goal is a Ukrainian victory.

Kyiv in 2022 feels like what I’ve read about London in 1940: a city full of people who want to drink beer and go dancing and yet have to fight a monster. It has been the proudest time of my reporting life to help them tell their story. And to finish off my little films by saying: “Love from Kyiv”, then “VPDFO!” which stands for: “Vladimir Putin: Do Fuck Off!”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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