Journalist Mike Eckel ’93 Reports from Ukraine

Alumni9 MIN READ

The experienced reporter with extensive experience on Russia and Ukraine covers the invasion

Journalist Mike Eckel ’93 shooting the Turkish city of Diyarbakır in 2015 (Courtesy of Mike Eckel)
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
March 2, 2022

A Russian language and culture major at Colby, Mike Eckel ’93 has been a journalist for more than two decades, focusing on Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union. He has covered political, geographic, economic, and cultural stories from the region, as well as conflicts and wars—the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and war in Donbas, Ukraine. And now the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“This is the biggest deployment of military force against another nation in Europe since World War II,” said Eckel, a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe based in Prague, Czech Republic, where he has been living since 2019. 

Although Eckel had been to Ukraine many times before, six weeks ago he began reporting on the atmosphere amid the growing Russian military presence on its borders. As Eckel was traveling from Donbas to Kyiv, the Russian invasion began. He responded to questions from Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 from his hotel room in Moldova, where he had just arrived after leaving Ukraine en route to Prague. 

How was the atmosphere in Kyiv when you first arrived and how has it changed since the invasion? 

When I first arrived in the middle of January, the atmosphere was definitely calm, and people were paying attention to the growing rhetoric in the (Russian) statements. But the city was operating as normal. Restaurants, shops, bars, cafés, hipster barbershops, heavy traffic—Kyiv is notorious for its traffic. And shortly around the time that I arrived, Americans and other European nations started pulling their diplomats out and sending them to the western city of Lviv, or in some cases, pulling them out altogether. That caught a lot of people’s attention. It irked the Ukrainian government. But for Ukrainians and Kyiv residents, that made them stop and think: Why are the Americans pulling out their embassy? That really was a stop-here-in-your-tracks moment for a lot of Ukrainians. Then things built steadily after that. … People were beginning to pack go-bags, emergency bags, and to take their relatives out of the city, moving them west. And then, of course, all hell broke loose on Thursday. In fact, I got back to Kyiv that day.

Was the timing coincidental?

Completely coincidental. I was planning to come back to Kyiv and actually fly home on Thursday night just to rotate out for a bit. In fact, I was on an overnight train from the Donbas to Kyiv (when I learned about the attack). I was in a train compartment, and my companion, a businesswoman traveling to Kyiv, got a phone call at 5:30 in the morning. She sat up on the bed and started talking kind of anxiously. She was talking to her son, I believe. I could hear her getting agitated. And I thought, well, that’s interesting. And I rolled over, put my pillow over my head, and tried to sleep some more on the train. And then my editor called me probably 10 minutes later and said the invasion had begun. So I got the news at 5:30 in the morning on an overnight train from the Donbas to Kyiv.

The 2014 war in Donbas is still in recent memory. Were you on an assignment there? 

My assignment was to do reporting both in Kyiv and to get out to the front lines in Donbas, because as people tend to forget, Ukraine has been at war for eight years already. And what the Russians did last week on Thursday is not a new thing. There’s been this low-level, increasing intensity of conflict in the East, and along with my Ukrainian colleagues, I went out to Donbas to gauge the atmosphere and talk to people who were beginning to get agitated, talk to the front line. We were out in the trenches, literally the trenches, with some Ukrainian units. 

Mike Eckel ’93 in the trenches with a Ukrainian marine infantry unit in Donbas in eastern Ukraine. Before the invasion, he embedded with them in their bunkers for about a day, doing interviews and reporting from the front lines. The photo was taken by his colleague Maryan Kushnir. (Courtesy of Mike Eckel)

Did you see this large-scale Russian attack coming? 

I mean, the evidence was clear on what the Russians were doing. They were very open about their movement of troops, weaponry, and forces to the borders east of Ukraine and into Crimea and then even into Belarus. So through satellite imagery, through other open-source intelligence or press briefings, people were able to document and watch what was going on. There was a split among military analysts, policy watchers, and journalists about whether President Putin intended to fully go through with it. There were some who were more pessimistic and said, yep, you don’t deploy this size of force unless you’re actually going to use it. There were others who said the Americans were raising holy hell as a way to forestall or preempt Russian moves. And then there were those who thought, having written about and analyzed Putin for years, that this may be a great big poker game, that he might be bluffing, and that the Americans might be calling his bluff. I fell into the latter category, that I thought this was a little bit of a poker game. I’m not the only one; there were lots of people who thought that there was a bit of a bluff going on here and that there would be a way to not only call his bluff but also find a diplomatic off-ramp to allow him to save face and back down. But, in the end, he pulled the trigger.

You have significant experience covering conflict and war. What drew you into this kind of journalism? 

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the reason I got into journalism was because of my background in Russian and international relations. And the reason that happened in the first place was because of my time at Colby. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a lament and a shout-out to a professor who died just a few weeks ago, Sheila McCarthy. She was a longtime professor of Russian language and literature at Colby. The entire reason that I got into Russian and international studies was because of Sheila McCarthy, who really just totally inspired me and sent me on my way to Russia, and I spent a year in Russia in my junior year at Colby.

Were you interested in Russian at all before Colby?

As a high schooler, I did Spanish as a foreign language, and I got to Colby and there was a foreign language requirement. At the time, the Cold War had ended. And there’s all this excitement about Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and Russian seemed like an interesting language. And once I took Russian 101 with Sheila McCarthy, I was just totally smitten. And so it was a lark of a decision, but it was a fateful decision. It’s been stuck with me after all these years. The reason I got into journalism is because of my Russian. You may not end up where you think you might end up. I mean, my second job out of Colby was working for a student exchange program, helping to bring post-Soviet students to the United States to study. But a couple of years later I really caught the journalism bug, and it led me into my journalism career.

You’ve covered war and conflict extensively. Is there anything that is different about this war than any other you have seen in the region? 

It’s like the opening of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy: All happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. And there’s something of relevance to wars as well. This is to say that the conflicts that I’ve covered have all been different in their own way and have their own characteristics. Of all of the conflicts that I’ve covered in the past, this one is the most perplexing. There just is no rational reason why this should happen. Why does the Kremlin, why does President Putin feel like his legacy needs to be defined by this brutal war? Because he thinks that Ukraine shouldn’t exist as a country, that is this artificial notion, which is just patently offensive to what, 40 million Ukrainians?  

So were you surprised by the Ukrainian response to the attack? 

I’m a little surprised to witness it firsthand. There’s really been this powerful rally behind the flag, and I saw it driving around Ukraine. Every street corner, there is this checkpoint that’s been set up with sandbags, men with hunting rifles checking IDs, and people making Molotov cocktails. So it’s really just this full-on national society-wide war footing to defend the nation. And there’s this weird, counterintuitive understanding about what has gone on over the past eight years with Russia and the way that it’s approached Ukraine. The Kremlin has done more to create the notion of a Ukrainian identity over the past eight years. It has consolidated Russian opinion and the society thinking about themselves and thinking about who they are as a nation. That has pushed Ukraine even further away from the notion of what Russians (or) the Kremlin has about what Ukraine should be as a country. Ukraine is lost as a country for Russia. It is this powerful, independent, sovereign nation whose identity is being forged in a war against its neighbor. And the ramifications of that will resonate for generations.

Where do you think this war will go? How do you see it ending?

Now that we’ve crossed the rubicon of last Thursday and Russia has done this massive invasion, the next logical question is what’s the endgame here? If it had been a limited type of operation, if they had just made it like the Donbas, where Russian-backed forces have been fighting for eight years, then you could maybe chart out a few plausible endgame ideas. But again, this is a massive, full-scale invasion of another country from the three sides. President Putin is not messing around. 

The other thing to keep in mind is, if you recall in the run-up to the invasion, there were these ultimatums by the Kremlin and then there were these responses by the Americans. The Kremlin demands have shifted slightly over time. You have to pay close attention to see what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, but they’ve changed, they’ve vacillated. So is the endgame the restructuring of the European security structure? Is it to keep Ukraine out of NATO? Is it to teach the Americans a lesson? Is it to correct old grievances going back to the 1990s? My best guess is the goal is to topple the Zelensky government, teach them a “lesson,” maybe install a puppet government, and show the West the Russians mean business. Maybe that’s the endgame. A separate question is what happens with Russia and the Putin regime and the government going forward? Because again, we crossed the rubicon, and the West’s relations with Russia will never be the same. We’ve dialed back the clock 30 years now with this invasion.