Dominic Nicholls is the defense and security editor for the national British daily The Telegraph. He's also a British Army veteran of tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Northern Ireland, and he earned his master's degree in defense studies from King's College London.
In an extensive conversation with RFE/RL's Georgian Service fellow Vazha Tavberidze, Nicholls predicted that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's eventual successor won't waver on Ukraine. He also said Western diplomats now openly scoff at "bombastic statements" from the Russian officials' "cosplay pantomime from the 1960s." And he argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't care about the human cost of his war but that "it will be the money that will get him."
RFE/RL: From Johnson and from many prominent Western political leaders, we've been hearing statements like "it's the West's war as well" or "it's the civilized world's war against Putin in Ukraine," and "it's Europe's war." If that's the mindset, why change horses mid-race?
Dominic Nicholls: Well, one man doesn't make a government policy, one man doesn't make a national endeavor. We don't have a presidential system. So the prime minister, as powerful as he or she is, also is very much beholden to his or her cabinet and ultimately to the people. I think the individual MPs (members of parliament) have to really take into account their constituency's feelings, the 70-odd-thousand people who vote for them, to a much greater degree than probably in the U.S. system. And therefore if there's a groundswell of opinion among the population, it very quickly feeds through to the members of Parliament, who then start lobbying the cabinet and prime minister because they may fear for their seats in any future general elections.
So I think there's a much more dynamic lightning rod between the public and the prime minister in our system. And "why change horses mid-race?" It's not as if [Johnson] had, regarding Ukraine anyway, any particularly outlandish or forthright views that are not shared across the political scene here in Britain, and therefore it's extremely unlikely that whoever succeeds him will change the policy in any way.
RFE/RL: The impression was that for Boris Johnson it was important also on a personal level. How much of an important figure was he on the geopolitical chessboard?
Nicholls: Well, he always saw himself as a grand statesman. He was a big fan, a biographer, of [Winston] Churchill -- saw himself, I think, in that mold. But I don't think that was his prime motivation for going and visiting [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy before many other Western leaders, and very early in the war -- at great personal risk, it has to be said. I think he did it from genuine motivation. So there's partly his personal feelings, and perhaps a little bit of his personal domestic political troubles that led him to want to go.
But he really was channeling the spirit and the feeling here in Britain. Regarding any successor, there might not be so many visits [to Ukraine], but I don't see any wavering of support at all. And the one great thing that Johnson did do was, in the early weeks of the war, to rally the European political establishment to harden up their position, particularly on weapon transfers.
And I think that ball is rolling, so you might not need such a powerful voice now to get it going, you just need a good, strong, steady hand at the tiller. So any successor who might not be the razzmatazz, flamboyant showman that Johnson was, but I think the political heft of a British prime minister just to keep on with that policy -- and I can say there's no suggestion at all that anybody would change that -- I think that will be sufficient to keep the political momentum going.
RFE/RL: About this meeting with Russian-British businessman Yevgeny Lebedev, what implications are there? And we could probably talk about this for an hour, we don't have that much time. But if you could very shortly sum up what implications are there -- and how strong and embedded the Russian oligarchy and their money is in the U.K.?
Nicholls: The suggestion was that after a NATO conference a number of years ago when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, he went straight from there to a meeting with Yevgeny Lebedev, who Boris Johnson made a member of the House of Lords -- son of a former KGB officer. And I mean, not only is that an odd place to go straight off to [after] a NATO conference. But also, he should, as foreign secretary, not have gone there without his officials and without all sorts of clearances in advance, which didn't happen.
So, who knows, they might have just had a nice couple of days on the yacht, swimming and having a nice time. But the suggestion is that there could be national security concerns about that, or at the very least that somebody in such a position of high office did not see that you can't play around with national security, you've got to do it properly.
I mean, Boris Johnson liked making his own rules and being a bit of a groundbreaking politician -- that's fine when you are announcing a new housing strategy, or new education strategy, you can be as groundbreaking as you like, as innovative and break-the-mold as you like. But you don't mess with national security. When you're in a position to deal with national security, you have to do things properly. Might sound boring, it might sound very bureaucratic, old school, but actually, it is so, so dangerous, not only what might, may, or may not happen but the impression it gives that you'd have to tread very carefully there.
And I think he was extremely unwise to listen to his own counsel to think that such an action was acceptable. And although, I mean, it's somewhat past now because he has gone, but I think this in itself would have been yet another scandal.
RFE/RL: Russians, both the general public and officials alike, are gloating that Johnson's fall from power will happen to anyone who tries to "destroy Russia." Is that a warning that's going to affect Western leaders, such as French President Emmaneul Macron and his ilk, for example?
Nicholls: [Laughs] No. I think people now look at these bombastic statements that come out of the Kremlin and quite frankly, laugh. They have been laughing openly. They used to laugh diplomatically, sort of when the cameras were off and when the newspapers had switched off our recorders, and now they're doing it openly. I mean, these statements are meaningless. This is just a bunch of old men, generally, mostly exclusively in Moscow, who see themselves in some sort of cosplay pantomime from the 1960s tub-thumping in the Cold War. I mean, it's just so boring. Come up with some more ideas!
Dmitry Peskov is wheeled out every day as the Kremlin spokesman. And he throws this insult and that insult, and there's always "Oh, watch out, watch out, we'll come and get you." Oh, come on, then. Crikey.... Just so boring. They haven't updated their language. They haven't updated their ideas, as we can see playing out in Ukraine. They've not updated their view of the world to keep up with the pace of society and the changes going on around them and in their own society. And we just get these insults. It's like, "OK, right, [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, what do you say, who are you insulting today? Yeah, fine. OK, whatever, great."
We all move on. And the world moves on and progresses and advances. And I think this is part of the problem, that there's increasingly a young society in Russia who, if they're able to access free information, they look around and they see other people getting on with their lives and embracing technology and embracing new ideas and new cultures. And they're being left behind. And it's sad to see, it's a horrible thing, because Russia is a wonderful country currently being led by a bunch of gangsters who think they're in some sort of black-and-white movie that they once watched.
RFE/RL: But speaking about that disappointment among young Russians: For the last 15 years I've been interviewing people, and it's prevalent and it was as important 15 years ago as it is now. But that young generation is now in its 30s or 40s. And some of them now are supporters of Putin. So what changed?
Nicholls: Well, I think it's exceptionally hard if you grew up in an atmosphere where the information is starved, it takes a great leap of imagination and humanity to question your world and question what is happening about you. The information age really kicked off in the late '90s, and with smartphones and all the rest of the access to information has been very good. But also I think it's led to a lack of clarity. There's so much information now that you almost can't make sense of it. And you then go out to the world, to the Internet, to try and get more information to make sense of it, and actually, that extra dollop of information just adds to the chaos.
And we want clever and ambitious politicians, quite frankly. But clever, ambitious, duplicitous, mischievous, corrupt? No, we don't want that. But this chaos of the information environment has allowed these types of characters to come along and cherry-pick from history and cherry-pick information from history, and cherry-pick their information, and put a very convincing case over about why people should vote for them or should support them, and why any grievances in society can be exacerbated.
And I think what's happened over the last 20-odd years is that it's been far easier to divide society. It's led to a them-and-us-type society. And, as I say, unless you are particularly strong-willed, it takes a great leap of confidence to question that and to say, "No, I'm not going to believe that, I'm going to look for my own information."
So I can't necessarily blame a lot of people who have grown up not listening to the propaganda but living on it -- it's the air they breathe -- so I can't really blame them for then having the mindset and the framework of understanding the world that they do. All we can do is continue to put out factual, honest, accurate, well-analyzed information offering different viewpoints rather than just one viewpoint and allow their humanity to make their own minds up and take the information in and hopefully be independent, sentient beings to make sense of it.
There's no point in trying to meet disinformation with disinformation -- that just adds to this murky world of information. All we can do, it's the classic aim of journalism, is shine a light in dark places. That's all we can do, and hope that the sort of inner humanity will allow them to reach their own conclusions and start questioning some of the fundamental architecture that they've grown up with.
RFE/RL: On the Ukraine front lines now, as you write, July 6 was the first day since the beginning of the war that Russia neither claimed nor was assessed to have made any territorial gains. What does that imply on the grander scale?
Nicholls: Two things. I think as Russians themselves have said, Russian forces are on an operational pause, in terms of military necessity. I think that's correct. I think they are exhausted, they've lost a huge amount of fighters and equipment -- as has Ukraine, we shouldn't deny that, I'm not suggesting it's all glowingly one-sided and Russia is inevitably going to lose -- far from it.
This is a very, very hard-fought fight that's going on. But I think Russia have used up a lot of their better equipment, which is why we're seeing old T-62 [tanks] being brought out of retirement and out of the old storage yards. They've used up a lot of fighters, certainly their best ones. In the Ukraine theater, they've drawn men and equipment from around Kharkiv to the north and Kherson to the south, to fight this battle in the Donbas. And even then, they were just having to grind forward at barely a kilometer a day, very, very heavily led by artillery, absolutely pulverizing the place, and then moving in afterwards to metaphorically plant a flag on the rubble that remains. So they do need to pause.
Now, I don't know whether this pause has also been forced upon them by Ukrainian tactics, and in particular the flow in over the last few weeks of the heavy artillery, the HIMARS [rocket] systems, the very long-range, very precise artillery system that seems to be targeting Russian ammunition supply dumps, and headquarters.
On the first possibility, if they don't have the ammunition, they simply can't keep up -- their tactics are to use artillery first and then roll in with the tanks and infantry later. So if you deny them the access, either the ammunition itself because you destroy it, or the access to it, by destroying the railways -- Russia primarily uses railways to transport its ammunition -- then it can't proceed.
And if you destroy its headquarters, then we know Russia doctrinally has a very top-down leadership model. It doesn't allow low-level initiative at a battalion or company/platoon level. It has to wait for the big decision up there to filter down through the chain of command. If the headquarters is destroyed, then the orders are not sent and certainly nothing is acted upon. I think a combination of those two has forced this pause on Russia.
Now, it probably suits Ukraine more to have a pause now, because they also are extremely tired. They've been fighting a very hard war for four months now, and they also are in need of recuperation, to rest and fix their people and their equipment.... And there's training of new [Ukrainian] fighters in Western countries. So the longer Ukraine can hang on, the more they're able to train people and take delivery of these very high-powered and precise weapon systems.
I would imagine Putin would want [Russian forces] to keep going. He doesn't really care about casualty figures. He's quite happy with a kilometer a day, regardless of the cost, as long as he sees the line moving west. But I would have thought if he was at all listening to any military advice -- and there's absolutely no evidence that he is -- but I would have thought the military advice would be that the army needs to rest for a few weeks.
RFE/RL: On the Luhansk retreat, you write that Ukrainians have achieved their goal of "slowing the Russian advance, making the enemy pay dearly for every mile gained, and getting out without being decisively engaged." But then again, the Ukrainians do have to reclaim those territories at some point. Do you see that happening, and at what cost?
Nicholls: Yes, they do. I'm no propagandist for the Ukrainian government. I'm not trying to say that everything's fine and they're not taking casualties and they're not losing [troops or territory]. I mean, it's a horrific situation that's happening there. I'm just trying to put it into what it means militarily, diplomatically, and in geostrategic terms. But yeah, you never want to give up ground because you're going to have to take it back. If it's your country, you're going to have to take it back at some point. It is a bold decision to trade ground for time; you are making the gamble that you will preserve your fighting power to come back to another day and take that ground back. And of course, there are no guarantees in war. So to give up any territory is a bold choice to make.
All the messaging from Ukraine is that they will take it back. Of course, time is on their side, it's their country, they are in no rush. Russia needs to get this done quickly; the longer they stay there, the more they are exhausting themselves and the more opportunity there is for their own domestic support to dwindle, when this "special military operation" turns out to be a long, grinding war. So Russia wants to get this done sooner rather than later.
Ukraine, they don't they don't want any land to be held in Russian hands. But they have had Russians camped inside their country since 2014, let's not forget. So they've been preparing for a very long time for this, to eventually counterattack. Whether they're in a position to do so yet, I'm not sure. I don't think they are right now. And it will be costly at the time, but this is existential for Ukraine. They know, they've seen with their own eyes that regardless of what nonsense comes out of the Kremlin.
Let's say [Russians] take the [entire] Donbas, which I don't think they're going to anytime soon at all. But let's imagine Russia takes the Donbas and then sues for peace and says: "Right, that's it. All we wanted to do was protect the Russian-speaking people in the east of the country, and we'll hang on to the south." Who's going to believe them? Because they've been camped out in the east of the Donbas since 2014. And then they rested, they built the forces up, and then they've pushed through since February 24. So who's going to believe them now if they say, "Oh, no, we've got no territorial aspirations over the rest of the country, you're perfectly safe." It's just fanciful to think that that's going to be believed.
So Ukraine now know that they're in the fight for their very existence. So they're not going to stop now. They might play a long game, and build up their forces slowly and incrementally, but there's no chance that they are not going to go back and seek to push Russia back, at least to the February 24 boundaries, which would include getting all Russian forces out of the south.
RFE/RL: Which would be victory for Ukraine?
Nicholls: Well, "victory" is a very loaded term. I don't like using "victory" unless it's small tactical victories. I don't like talking about victory in the big sense, like winning and losing. I keep getting asked, who's winning and losing? Who's winning this war? And I say "China," and people look at me in a bemused fashion. But you could argue that all Ukraine has to do to win is survive. Russia wants to destroy this democratic, sovereign, independent, successful former Soviet state on [its] doorstep; it cannot allow Ukraine to be used as an example...because people in Russia will say: "Hey, look, can we have some of that? That looks good. Can we have some of that as well?"
RFE/RL: When you ask who is going to believe Russia, I can think of at least one, not figure, but group in Western Europe, and those are the guys who will be calling for a cease-fire as soon as possible and a cease-fire at any cost. Do you see that pressure increasing on Kyiv?
Nicholls: I don't see the pressure increasing much, if at all.
RFE/RL: As the situation worsens inside Europe, as well, do you see those calls being intensified?
Nichols: No, they're a constant background noise. This is what happens in a healthy democracy. It's very interesting that these arguments are seized upon by Russia all the time to show huge cracks in the alliance. I mean, guess what: In an open democracy, you're going to have differences of opinion. Differences of opinion don't mean the alliance is in crisis and about to crumble; it's just a different way of looking at how humans debate things. We have a much more open society here. This sort of access to information and the ability to hold our leaders to account, it's just unheard of in Russia.
So the fact that some people are calling for a cease-fire, and to give up land, and Ukraine should do a deal, I mean, that's fine. I'm glad these voices are out there, because it allows the issues to be exposed. And then we could all have a look at it and discuss it and throw stones at the idea. And we come out to what people really want.
The idea of suppressing these ideas as if they don't exist and pretending they're not there, and shutting down any kind of debate, I think that is more damaging. But no, I don't see that these issues -- suggesting Ukraine should give up ground and sue for peace now -- I don't see them gaining any great strength. And the more we see evidence of what Russia has been doing in some areas, the more it hardens up the opinion that this needs to be stopped right here and now.
RFE/RL: You say Putin doesn't care about losses. If estimates, including the British ones, are correct, the Russian forces are losing around 250 to 300 soldiers a day. What figures should that be to make Putin reconsider? Can 1,000 make Putin have second thoughts about his operation?
Nicholls: I don't think it will come down to casualty figures for Putin. They've expanded the age of conscription up into the 50s now in Russia, so he doesn't care [about] the human cost. I think it will be the money that will get him -- the cohort of his client oligarchs, basically.
Although Putin is very, very powerful, we shouldn't forget that there's a coterie of people around him who, if they wanted to and if they all were of the same mind, they could have a very serious effect. And they are more motivated by money. It is a big issue, of course it is.
So there are two ways of ending this, as I see it, which is: firstly, you impact those people and they then do something to get rid of their leader in Russia; or you physically push the Russian forces out of the country or back to the February 23 start line. So that is either a military solution, which is going to be long and hard and very costly, or a longer-term, possible economic solution -- that's when sanctions start to bite -- and that's when you need the united front from the West to keep those sanctions up and that sort of financial pressure.