A newspaper and then investigative journalist for more than two decades before he moved into broadcasting, the award-winning John Sweeney has worked for The Observer and the BBC’s Panorama, among others, covering wars, revolutions and chaos in more than 60 countries including Romania, Algeria, Iraq, Chechnya, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Bosnia. John Sweeney sat down with Radio Free Europe’s Georgian Service this week to discuss Putin’s eventual death, the declining support for Ukraine, and Elon Musk. We began by asking him to explain the initials on his renowned hat.
“Well, actually I have three hats,” he tells us. “This Saturday, Vladimir Putin turned 71, and to celebrate his birthday, and celebrate is not the right word, some Ukrainian friends and I staged the ‘Vladimir Putin Fuck Off Festival,’ the VPFO. We’re about to launch these hats and sell them and send all the profits can go to Ukraine charities. I’ve also got one with VPHFO – Vladimir Putin Has Fucked Off! That’s my Vladimir Putin funeral hat for when he gets killed or if he dies. I mean, the idea of wishing somebody dead is a dark thing, but Putin has got [the blood of] so many innocent lives on his hands, not just the people who have been killed here, but also in the First and Second Chechen War, which I think he started deliberately. His claim that Chechen terrorists blew up flats in Moscow in September 99 – the evidence is overwhelming that this was a black operation by the KGB. Then there’s the war in Georgia 2008. All the issues could have been resolved peacefully. Instead, Russia invades. Then when Bashar Al Assad’s brutal crackdown on the opposition in Syria turned into a civil war, Russia sides with the dictator. And then he’s invaded Ukraine twice. So this is a man who’s got a history of invading countries or of creating and helping dictators fight wars for no good reason. So it’s true to say, with that kind of record, I do wish and I do want him gone.”
Assassination or natural death, which do you think is more likely?
Well, the problem is, how can we know which is which after the fact? What happened to Prigozhin is interesting for a number of reasons: it proves my thesis that the West can’t do a deal with Vladimir Putin, because you simply cannot trust his word. Prigozhin did a deal with this man, he stopped his mutiny 150 miles off Moscow, and they do a deal. And then Prigozhin and all the high command of Wagner are blown to bits in the sky, in a fireball. So if Putin dies, or falls ill and dies naturally, has he died naturally or has somebody poisoned him? And how good and how robust will the autopsy be? So there’s an issue. But I think that Putin has ruined the good name of Russia for generations, in the same way that Adolf Hitler destroyed the good name of Germany for generations. And it’s going to take a very, very long time for Russia to be forgiven for what it’s done. They have to do two things, the first of which is to say “sorry,” in the same way that Willi Brandt went to the Warsaw ghetto and got down on his knees and said sorry. And they have to pay massive reparations to the Ukrainians for the damage they’ve done.
I’m a passionate supporter of Ukraine, and I feel scared because I believe that Vladimir Putin has been at war with the West since he took over. And we’ve known about this, and we are not doing well in this war that we don’t know we’re fighting. And that is a great danger for us. I believe that Ukraine’s war is honorable. We’ve got to stand up to Russia and fascism, because if Putin wins in Ukraine, then we’re next.
You’ve been recording war diaries – and you’re now on Video 585. How many more do you think you’ll get to make?
That’s a tough question. It’s a grim one. I’ve done today’s war diary, where I’ve said the problem is not with Ukraine; the problem is with us in the West, because we’re fearful. And we’re timid. And we’re fickle, and we’re bored. And we’ve got war fatigue, and war fatigue helps Vladimir Putin because of his hatred. This is what’s so difficult with a psychopath, his hatred: it doesn’t go, it doesn’t dial down, it doesn’t get bored, it doesn’t get exhausted. He carries on hating Ukraine and hating the people who support Ukraine. And while the Western rhetoric has been good, our delivery has been less so. And the Ukrainians are suffering and paying in blood for the price of greed and our timidity and our failures, and our failure to understand.
How realistic would it be to assume that the recent US Congress funding cut is a trend that’s not going to stop?
I’m an optimist. And I would hope that Joe Biden wins the next American election. I hope that happens. But it’s very possible that he doesn’t. At the moment, the opinion polls are giving it to Trump. And if the opinion polls continue like that, then I’d like Biden to step down to make way for a younger Democrat. There is a problem with Joe Biden’s age, that’s true. I am full of despair for my friends in the United States, though. At the moment, Trump is more popular than the sitting president, who is a good president, I think, and he’s done his best to really help Ukraine.
This feels to me like an existential war between good and evil. And if you don’t get that, there’s something wrong with you. And for the American Congress to deliver a budget where there is no aid for Ukraine sends a terrible signal to the people who are fighting, and also a terrible signal to the people in the Kremlin who started this brutal and utterly unnecessary war, and a terrible signal to the Chinese Communist Party, who are watching. What’s so incoherent about Trump is that he keeps going on about China being the enemy. Well, China’s watching this. And if we fail Ukraine, and Russia gets a victory or a part victory, it makes China’s adventurism against Taiwan far more likely. And that speaks to me as bloody obvious. But, as we’re talking, Elon Musk, the world’s richest man perhaps, is using his money to poison the Twitter platform, and to mock Zelensky, a leader of a democratically elected country, which was invaded by a fascist neighbor.
At the beginning of the war, Musk was hailed as a hero for providing Starlink to Ukraine. And now we see him parroting Putin’s propaganda, being hailed as Elon The Muscovite on Russian state TV. What do you think is the reason for his turnaround?
I don’t think he’s been bought; I think he’s got too much money. But I think he’s a fool. And he’s got something about power. He’s the world’s richest man, but he can’t do everything, and he can’t shape other people’s political opinions completely, whereas Vladimir Putin can, and I think part of Elon Musk’s problem is that he feels jealous of Vladimir Putin. Because when Putin says black is white in Russia, most people will say black is white, because they know if they don’t, they will die. It’s Elon Musk’s Messiah Complex that envies this bigger god in Putin who can actually change reality. All that Elon Musk can do is change our perception of reality. And he’s doing it very well: he’s got Twitter. But Twitter isn’t everything, and he doesn’t control it completely. So I think there is a kind of strange envy for the social control. Every time Elon Musk puts forward his Kremlin narrative, people like me, or the Ukrainians, an awful lot of people say, “you’re talking rubbish, what’s wrong with you?” And I think he envies Putin, because in Putin’s Russia, people like me and people like you don’t exist, or they’re in prison, or they fall down a flight of stairs, or they fall out of the window, or they drink the wrong kind of tea. And in his heart, Elon Musk is a fascist who wants that degree of social control, and he’s jealous of Putin. And he’s trying in some way to woo him, hoping some of his dark magic will rub off on him. That’s my best guess for this matter.
I’ve now written two books and made a film about this war. And the evidence is overwhelming: Russia tortures, Russia castrates Ukrainian POWs, Russia tortures anybody in occupied Ukraine, they rape women, they rape children. And Putin sits on top of this. Vladimir Putin is a psychopath who invades his neighbors, who runs a fascist state. And that state torments, rapes and castrates and tortures and kills children. And for the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, who commands a platform which is based on free speech, who favors a man who kills free speech and kills people who try and practice it in his country and actually, as it happens, abroad too – it’s almost incomprehensible. And my best possible explanation for it is that Musk wants the social control that Putin has.
I think it’s fair to characterize this as a journey. The question is, what’s the end goal?
I don’t think Musk is good enough to work that out. He’s an engineer, but he’s not a very good engineer. He’s a showman who’s good at finding clever people who can do smart things for him. And then he’s risen and risen and risen, in part because he’s ruthless, in part because his father was horrible to him. And what you’ve got here is a kind of toddler who’s very good at making money, who is suddenly being asked: “what do you think?” And guess what, if you ask a two-year-old what they think the future is, they will say, “I want this, and I want that, and get out of my way if you don’t let me have it.” And you need a good mom and a good dad to say “no, no, come on. Be nice. Play nicely.” But we’re only seeing this fascistic side of Elon Musk now. I want to buy a Tesla, they’re a beautiful car. I like driving them. I’m a rational human being, you know, it’s a great car. But Henry Ford made great cars. And he was a fascist admirer of Adolf Hitler and was anti-Semitic. And Elon Musk makes great cars, or his company does. And he’s a fascist, and he supports Russia and fascism. And he likes Vladimir Putin, and there’s something wrong with him.
There’s a rather unsavory aspect to it: how much can Ukraine afford to alienate Musk entirely, considering its dependence on Starlink?
It feels that there’s something very weird about Elon Musk, in that his political drivel is separate to his money-making genius. And the two coexist in the same chassis. And he hasn’t quite got the wits to work out that the one will affect the other, and he’s slightly irritated about that. But my sense of it is that he won’t kill Starlink.