Chernobyl, war or gender stereotypes: Often we in Western Europe are very ignorant when it comes to Ukraine. One person who knows better is Conor Clyne, who is very familiar with the mentality, culture and politics of his adopted country Ukraine. In the following interview, he talks about living in Odesa during wartime, the nature of Russia’s war and the benefits of living in Eastern Europe. By Florian Zoller
Conor Clyne is Irish-British lawyer with a background in International Relations. He worked for the European Commission and even served as the president of the International Polyglot Society for several years. Due to his his interest in the former Soviet Union, he decided to settle down in Ukraine more than ten years ago. There, he lives the lifestyle he calls: the ‚Tsar Experience’. On his YouTube channel, he addresses a diverse range of topics: from lifestyle issues in Ukraine to the Russo-Ukrainian war. Reason enough to let him share his expertise with us.
Irish-British lawyer and Ukraine connoisseur Conor Clyne in interview
Dear Conor, at the moment you are again in Odesa. Now in summer and autumn of 2023, Odesa is being bombed massively by Russia. Parts of the harbor as well as the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa have been destroyed. What is it like to live there in wartime?
I spent around 5 weeks in Odesa in July and August and I am now with clients in both Poland and Latvia. The last week that I was in Odesa was particularly tough with almost nightly Russian rocket and drone attacks. The city’s cathedral took a direct hit and there was also significant damage to other historical buildings in the center. Russia clearly is not interested in ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of Odesites.
There is a daily bomb alert everyday. As someone who has no idea what war means, how should I imagine such a situation? What does it do to a person’s psyche?
There are normally several air alerts per day in Odesa. One learns quickly to adapt and assess the threat level of each alert accordingly. Humans are resilient but living already for 18 months under almost daily stress from Russian rocket attacks will take its toll on many Ukrainians’ mental health unfortunately.
Immediately after the Russian invasion, you fled to Romania. What made you decide to return to Odesa anyway?
On 25 February 2022, we evacuated from Chernivtsi (where I had prepositioned myself and my girlfriend in anticipation of possible new hostilities) to Bucharest via Suceava. In fact we returned briefly to western Ukraine in April 2022 and by June 2022, it was clear that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had successfully resisted the Russian army in most of the country and that many parts of Ukraine would be relatively safe to return to. Odesa is where I consider home so we wanted to come back as soon as possible in spite of the war.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces have recaptured considerably large territories (Kharkov, Kherson) in the second half of 2022. However, the current counteroffensive is going very slowly. Do you think the war could end with the complete recapture of all Russian-occupied territories (including Crimea)? How would the West have to support Ukraine for these goals to be realized?
Yes, I see the resolution of this phase of the Russo-Ukrainian War as the full liberation of all de jure Ukrainian territory. The timeline in terms of realising these goals is correlated with the speed and scale of Western military and financial support. Unfortunately it does not appear to be as quick or as significant as it should be to bring about a quick Ukrainian victory.
Under what conditions do negotiations between Ukraine/ the West and Russia make sense?
When it has become clear that one side has a significant upper hand militarily then the other side will be open to serious negotiations.
From the outside, Russia and Ukraine seem to have many things in common: interwoven history, similar/ same language(s), same denomination, family ties. What is the reason why since 1991 – that is, the creation of these two states – there has been such an estrangement between these two “brother nations”, which has now resulted in this terrible war of aggression by Russia and the second invasion since 2014?
Russia and Russians are imperialist. Even if there was no territorial dispute under International Law between the two countries before 2014, Russians do not truly accept Ukraine’s right to independence. Russia under Putin has an unattractive political and economic model for the majority of Ukrainians, hence, they have turned towards EU accession as their future path. The GDP/capita in Poland and the Baltics (all of which joined the EU) is at least double that of Russia. Ukrainians see this path as the better option. Russia refuses to accept that Ukrainians should be allowed to leave their sphere of influence, hence, the continuation of politics by other means, i.e. war.
You not only know Ukraine very well, but you have also lived in Belarus and Russia. This is now a very difficult question: But have you been able to identify differences in mentality that might explain why Ukraine is oriented towards Europe, while Belarus and especially Russia towards the imperial past?
If Belarusians truly had a free choice then the majority would likely reject Russia and turn westwards to join the EU for the same reasons as Ukrainians have. Lukashenka currently allies with Russia as he sees it as a way to stay in power in Belarus. On the other hand, Russia is a revanchist empire whose majority doesn’t seem to genuinely accept the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its borders in 1991. Most other European empires evolved away from imperialism after suffering some sort of defeat. Russia is on that same trajectory in Ukraine.
Although you have certainly had interesting and beautiful experiences in Russia and Belarus, your relationship with these two states may have changed fundamentally since February 2022. How do you deal with this ambivalence? Are you still in contact with people from there?
Personally I make a distinction between Belarus and Russia here. Belarus has a government in exile that has significant popular support among Belarusians that is opposed to Russia’s aggression and wants Belarus to transition to a liberal democracy and join the European Union. The same is not true of Russians. Russia has invaded Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. The war still enjoys widespread support even now in Russia and most Russians appear indifferent to the horrific war crimes and attempts at genocide being carried out in their name. It is extremely disappointing. I don’t have any Russian friends who support this war and most of them live in the West.
In public there are voices like the well-known Canadian psychiatrist Jordan Peterson or the misogynist Andrew Tate, now accused of alleged human trafficking in Romania, who justify Putin’s war of aggression and hold the West alone responsible for it. Where do such unqualified interpretations of this war come from? Is the political right in the West a useful idiot for Putin’s cause?
I see the radical left in the West as being ‘useful idiots’ as they are supposed to be against imperialism but often incomprehensibly blame the West for Russia’s aggressive and unprovoked actions against Ukrainians. At the other extreme, much of the political far right is allied with Russian fascism because they share many of the same values. Andrew Tate is an alleged rapist, human trafficker and misogynist currently awaiting trial in Romania. Vladimir Putin is also accused of many of the same things. As for Jordan Peterson, he simply does not have the expertise in the region or in international relations to provide any useful insights into the Russo-Ukrainian War, in my opinion.
Do you think that the ones responsible for this war will ever held accountable for it? What are possible measures to convict war criminals?
Vladimir Putin has already been indicted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. There’s an arrest warrant issued over the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia which is basically a form of genocide. Whether all war criminals will be brought to justice in this war depends a lot on the final outcome and whether Russia will ultimately hand over the accused to the relevant courts. A defeated Russia with a new leadership may decide that that’s a good option to restore relations with the West and to begin the process of Russia rejoining the international community in full.
Before the war, you advertised on your YouTube channel with the so-called “Tsar Experience”. What does this mean?
I help high level Western guys to boost their lifestyle by living 3-12 months per year in Eastern Europe. My in-person services are known as the ‘tsar experience’.
What are typical common misconceptions we in Western Europe have about Eastern Europe in general and Ukraine in particular?
One important misconception of Eastern Europe that I deal with on my YouTube channel is that the quality of life is universally low in the region. While the economic development is definitely lower overall than in Western Europe, if you have significant sources of income that you can manage remotely, the cheaper cost of living can mean a superior quality of life in Eastern Europe than in the Western Europe or North America. Many parts of Eastern Europe are more affordable and thus offer a high standard of living. In particular, I appreciate the great food, convivial atmosphere and beauty of the region.
How do you counter the stereotypes that Western men in Ukraine are only sex tourists?
I advise my clients to escape being automatically labeled a ‘sex tourist’ by learning the local language, spending at least 3 months per year in the city and providing genuine value to the local community.
Why should people from Western Europe visit Ukraine in general and Odesa in particular?
It’s difficult to recommend visiting Ukraine as a tourist at the moment during the war. However, many foreigners do visit Ukraine as volunteers to provide humanitarian assistance.
And connected to that: What are your further plans for you personally and your YouTube channel? Do you plan to live in Ukraine for many more years?
Since June 2022, I’ve been advising my clients primarily with respect to 4 alternative cities: Almaty in Kazakhstan, Chișinău in Moldova, Riga in Latvia and Warsaw in Poland. This is now the main focus of my channel. I look forward to providing my clients with the best advice for lifestyle in Ukraine after the war is won by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Images: Conor Clyne