Nolan Peterson Tells Us What’s Really Happening in Ukraine

BUCK: Nolan Peterson, he is the senior editor at Coffee Or Die Magazine and his most recent video of volunteers who are coming together with whatever gear, whatever hunting rifles they can on the ground in Ukraine, it’s up at It’s an amazing video Nolan’s got there on so go to and check that out. Nolan, thanks for being us with us.

PETERSON: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

BUCK: So you’ve been covering Ukraine for years, and I know this, I’ve been following your work and the conflict there which Russia’s already taken off Crimea, they’ve already bitten off that chunk, so to speak. They’ve taken parts, control of parts of eastern Ukraine. But now there’s concern with a hundred thousand plus soldiers that there could be, in the weeks ahead, a full-scale invasion. What do you think about this? How seriously is it being taken by the Ukrainians you’ve been talking to in recent days?

PETERSON: Well, I think the Ukrainians were probably initially skeptical about the possibility of a major invasion. But I have seen in the last week, week and a half it changed in their opinion where they are now seriously concerned that the ongoing war in the eastern Donbass region could escalate to a country-wide conflagration, a major invasion by Russia. I have to say my previous profession before I was a journalist was as an Air Force special operations pilot.

And I spent the lion’s share of my twenties preparing to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan or spending time in those countries in combat. And I always associated war with the Middle East or some Third World country. But you walk around here in Kiev you’ve got McDonald’s restaurants, Niketown stores. Malls just had their Black Friday sales, even though they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here. Their Christmas decorations are going up.

And it feels like I’m in the opening scenes of some World War II movie on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Warsaw or something. And it’s just really hard to appreciate or the contemplate the fact that in the twenty-first century we’re thinking about a major armored invasion of a European country, about the fact that tanks might be rolling down the streets here in Kiev and there might be air strikes in the city.

They’re stocking the bomb shelters, preparations for what could be a country-wide offensive. So it is serious, and I think as somebody who’s seen many wars in my time just the notion of being here in a European city and contemplating a World War II-style invasion, it really drives home the precariousness of the moment we’re in and the stakes.

We need to get this right and we need to prevent this from happening because if Russia does invade with the full forces it has to bear, I don’t think the war will be quarantined to Ukraine, and it could very well spark a general war in Eastern Europe — and I think that would be a war that our country would probably no longer have the luxury of ignoring or staying out of.

CLAY: Nolan, that was really a well said and descriptive example of what it’s like on the ground right now in Ukraine. What sense — and I know you interviewed people about their willingness to fight in the event Russia invades. What sort of resistance can Ukraine put up against Russia? How many people in Ukraine might welcome a Russian invasion? Give us a sense for how the nation of Ukraine would respond, in your experience or expectation, to a Russian invasion.

PETERSON: That’s a great question. So Ukraine’s regular military compromises about 250,000 active duty soldiers. And they’ve got about 900,000 reservists from which they can draw to augment those forces in time of war. And they have not as of now mobilized those reservists. That’s not to say that Ukraine doesn’t take the threat seriously.

Just to mobilize the reservists is a massive undertaking in terms of the costs and also the political capital that the Ukrainian government would have to expel, to call up that many people into active-duty service. Russia has the ability likely — according to recent reports — of mobilizing about 175,000 troops. However, Russia’s long-distance, long-range-fires capability is massively outpowers Ukraine.

We’re talking about missiles, multiple launch rocket systems, obviously, the air force, air strikes. So an initial Russian attack would… The predominant thinking among many experts and also here in Ukraine among the military officials is that a Russian attack would likely start off with sort of a Shock and Awe campaign if you want to compare it to (laughing) something America does.

To eliminate as much of Ukraine’s regular military as possible sort of right off the bat with missile strikes, bombing fires, like I said, air strikes. And then after that, it’s sort of a guessing game what comes next. Are the Russian forces going to try and actually move in Ukraine with an armored invasion to take ground?

Or will they just try to effectively kill as many Ukrainian soldiers as possible to force a political capitulation from the Ukrainian government to basically bring Ukraine back under Russia’s fold, political fold? If Russia were to actually try to hold ground in Ukraine, I really… I’m very fearful of that possibility because after being here for 7-1/2 years, I can tell you that the Ukrainian people are resolutely against Russia.

BUCK: Nolan, can we keep you, ’cause I want to explore a little more with you here a lot of things. One, I mean, since you’re laying out in so much more detail than we’re hearing anywhere else in the news the reality of what this could be and what this is right now. When you talk about how it could spark a broader conflagration, one that the success could find itself drawn into, that gets a lot of attention.

Could we keep you through for a few more moments? We’re just gonna go to a break here and we’ll keep you through. We’re speaking to Nolan Peterson. He is on the ground in Ukraine. He is a journalist, a veteran, and he is the editor-in-chief of Coffee Or Die Magazine . We’ll bring him back here in a moment and answer this question: If this goes bad, how bad can it get?


CLAY: Let’s go right back to Ukraine. We are talking to Nolan Peterson, who is on the ground there giving us a sense for what that country is like right now. Eerie times as potentially Russia prepares to invade Ukraine. We’ve got a lot of people out there listening to us, Nolan, a lot of military veterans, a lot of people who are currently in the military but also tons of civilians. Why should Americans care about what happens between Russia and Ukraine? Paint the picture.

PETERSON: All right. I’ll give you two answers to that question. The first is related to what I witnessed in a couple of years reporting on this war and that is in 2014 I saw for myself a tank battle outside the city of Mariupol. A tank battle in 2014 in our time in a European country, and it really impressed upon me the fact that the idea that world wars are over is a fiction, and we are naive to think that it cannot happen again.

And so I would say that we have to be vigilant to not let this war escalate to the point that it sparks a general war in Eastern Europe, which could spread throughout the continent and then draw the United States in eventually in a conflict with Russia. The war should end here. It should end in Ukraine, and we need to do everything we can to stop it from escalating to a conflict that spreads throughout the region.

BUCK: Nolan, what does that look like? I mean, just on the ground there from your perspective, what would you want to see the Biden administration right now do?

PETERSON: Okay. Well, the second thing, Ukrainians are willing to fight for their freedom, unlike the people in Afghanistan and Iraq who we sort of forced the idea of democracy and freedom upon. I worry, however, that the war has been going on for 7-1/2 years now. In 2014, Russian forces invaded Crimea, and they invaded — in an unconventional invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

And so for 7-1/2 years we very sort of like tepidly giving Ukraine military aid. And it was under President Trump that the United States gave lethal weapons, the Javelin anti-tank missiles, to Ukraine. But I fear that the time is already passed for the United States to give Ukraine the kind of aid it would need to deter a full-scale invasion, right? We’ve helped them in the war in Donbass is a trench war, snipers, artillery, drone attacks.

We’ve given them things that help in that war. Counterbattery radar is the ability to fire back against daily shelling and whatnot. But the ability to defend against a major Russian invasion includes things like surface-to-air missiles, defensive surface-to-air missiles, and things like that to deter and defend against long-range fires, missile strikes, air strikes, that sort of thing.

So at this point I think that we should just be hopeful that the current crisis passes, move forward on giving Ukraine things that it can use to defend itself — not attack, but defend itself — from a major Russian attack, and then for now just make it as clear as possible that obviously it is not in America’s interests. It’s clear that we’re not gonna send ground troops to Ukraine to defend Ukraine.

But we should make it clear that we’ll leverage every economic tool we have to punish Russia. I think that it is worrisome, however, that yesterday they’re talking about all these new sanctions they’re gonna put on Russia and whatnot if Russia invades. But the EU gets 50% of its natural gas from Russia, and we’re going into the dead of winter.

And I personally have doubts about the resolve of the EU to levy very harsh, new sanctions against Russia knowing that they have an energy crisis ongoing in Europe right now. Will Europe be willing or have the courage to stand by America to enact those tough sanctions should Russia invade? That’s an unknown.

And that brings, I think, us to this potential of a wider war, and that is there’s a cleave, east-west in Europe, within NATO and the EU within the Baltics states and Poland, countries that have living memories of Soviet oppression decades of the KGB and mass murders and world wars. They take the Russian threat as an existential threat to their sovereignty, their freedom, and their way of life — their democratic way of life.

And so I fear that if there is a major Russian invasion of Ukraine, those NATO and EU countries in this region may not wait for orders from Washington or Brussels or Berlin or Paris to intervene in what they might see as an existential threat against their countries. And if that happens, if you do see countries deciding that they need to get involved, then you’re talking about — forgive sort of the corny expression — but that Franz Ferdinand moment that sort of starts a cascading series of events that we cannot arrest, and that could lead to catastrophe.

BUCK: We’re speaking to Nolan Peterson, senior editor at Coffee Or Die Magazine and a veteran himself who’s in Ukraine right now; so if you hear a delay for a second, folks, it’s ’cause he is on the other side of the world and he’s been covering Ukraine for years. And, Nolan, you mentioned some of the some of the other countries in the region, Poland, the Baltic states, places that have all too clear a history and a memory of what it was like under the Soviet era. What are they doing, and what will they call for, you think, if there is even a limited Russian incursion into Ukraine?

PETERSON: Well, you’re already seeing just today Lithuania sent shipments of ballistic body armor and whatnot to Ukraine to I think more of a sign of solidarity than anything. Ukraine produces plenty of weapons and military gear, but I think they’re demonstrating their support. But I think when you look at for example, the recent Belarus border crisis, right, you see a militarization of NATO’s eastern frontier along the borders with Belarus and Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, that is really unprecedented for our time.

And, by the way, you had Russian nuclear-capable warplanes flying near that border region at the same time. So the tensions are extraordinarily high, and obviously if we have 175,000 Russian troops pouring into Ukraine which borders Poland, I… I don’t know. I think that is that question mark, like I said, that Franz Ferdinand scenario.

And it’s up to those countries. They may perceive it’s in their best interests to do something about it. Whether that’s sending massive amounts of hardware to Ukraine, maybe there will be civilian volunteer fighters, which I highly suspect will be a possibility, you’ll probably see civilian volunteers coming from those countries to support Ukraine.

One of those countries will send Special Operations Forces. It’s all speculation at this point. But I think the orphan arching message should be that should Russia invade, you’re kickstarting a series of events that are out of everybody’s control.

CLAY: Nolan, 30 seconds here. Sorry to cut you off.

PETERSON: That’s okay.

CLAY: What’s the time frame? When will this happen, in your mind, this invasion, if it’s going to happen?

PETERSON: Russia has the forces in place to execute immediately if they so choose. I suspect that if the Kremlin has decided that they are going to invade, it will most likely happen this winter. I say January-February. The reason being that during the winter is when Russia has the most leverage over the EU as far as gas supplies. Russia… Like I said, the EU gets about half their natural gas from Russia. If the EU wants to put sanctions on Russia, Russia says, “All right, we turn the gas off,” and suddenly you got people freezing in their apartments in Paris.

BUCK: Nolan, look, man, stay safe. We’ll have you back to talk more about this as it gets closer. Thank you for joining us. Nolan Peterson from Ukraine, Coffee Or Die Magazine.