Over the past eighteen months, Ukraine has frequently found itself outgunned by Russia in the international information war raging over the country’s future geopolitical trajectory. This has been due in large part to a relative lack of English-language media platforms providing international audiences with information from a specifically Ukrainian perspective. However, the number of Ukrainian English-language TV projects continues to grow as Ukrainians recognize the importance of getting their message out to the wider world.
The latest addition to this growing segment is UA Tea Time, a weekly TV chat show that airs via satellite to over 30 countries as part the Ukrainian national public broadcaster’s embryonic English-language service. The show, which began recording in July, is the brainchild of Ukrainian showman Sergey Velichanskiy and his French co-host Olivier Vedrine.
Inspired by Euromaidan
Mr. Vedrine has been a Kyiv resident for the past three years and is an outspoken advocate of the country’s European choice. After having first come to Ukraine in order to establish a university, he then found himself gripped by the Euromaidan protest movement. He now combines his educational initiatives with a consulting role on EU integration at Ukrainian law firm Proxen, and activism in support of Ukraine’s efforts to assert its independence from the Kremlin. This admiration for Ukraine’s European aspirations was one of the driving factors behind Mr. Vedrine’s decision to enter the infowar arena. He explains that he was also motivated by an awareness that the country is still struggling to be heard by many in the international community.
The Frenchman is no stranger to the inner workings of European institutions, serving as a member of the Academic Council at the Assembly of European Regions. He is well aware of the knowledge deficit regarding Ukraine that persists among many senior European powerbrokers, and seeks to use his new chat show role as a means of introducing international viewers to ‘the real Ukraine.’ “We want to show the public that there’s much more to Ukraine than the current conflict. It is important to promote the emerging generation of young Ukrainians who are embracing European values, and to demonstrate that Ukraine is in the process of transforming itself. It will be a long journey, but I want to promote the idea that Ukraine is on the road,” he says.
Ukraine is not Russia
One of the key messages Mr. Vedrine identifies is a disarmingly simple one – Ukraine is not Russia. He argues that international audiences struggle to understand the current crisis in Ukraine because a large percentage continue to subscribe to the misconception that Ukraine was ‘always’ part of Russia and only recent began attempting to assert its independence. “Ukraine and Russia share the same historic roots but their pasts diverged a long time ago,” the Frenchman opines, pointing to the democratic traditions of the Ukrainian Cossacks before contrasting this with Russia’s long embrace of authoritarianism.
Mr. Vedrine, who has relatives in both Russia and Ukraine, has spent considerable time in Russia and boasts of a deep affection for Russian culture. He says his Russian friends have branded him a Decembrist in response to his support for Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, but he remains adamant that he is no Russophobe. “I am not anti-Russian – I am anti-Putin,” he says. “I would love to see Russia integrate into Europe, but it needs to do so on the basis of European values, not authoritarian values.”
Kyiv as freedom focus
Mr. Vedrine likes to compare today’s Kyiv to London during WWII, when the British metropolis became a haven for those fleeing occupied Europe and established itself as the de facto world capital of freedom. He says he is convinced that the Ukrainian capital is now well on its way to becoming the focal point of a free Russia, and looks forward to hosting what he terms as ‘free-thinking Russians’ on his new chat show. The Frenchman feels that the unique position Kyiv occupies in Russian culture makes it the ideal place to offer up intellectual alternatives to the ‘Russian World’ as championed by the Putin regime, and says that the city’s unrivalled seniority within Russian history means that it would be impossible to ignore. “Kyiv is the mother city of all Russian civilization - everything came from here,” he opines. “Kyiv is their past, and it can also be their future.”
European values in Ukraine
The big challenge now will be finding an audience for his message. Ukrainian media platforms tend to lack the international reach of their Russian counterparts, while many Ukrainian media initiatives also struggle to engage wider audiences beyond those with a personal interest in Ukrainian issues. While acknowledging these challenges, he says his goal is to reach past the limited confines of traditional Ukraine-watching circles and introduce the country to new audiences. “We aim to become a platform for the new Ukraine and a place where the values being embraced by today’s Ukraine can be debated and defended. I remain convinced that European values hold the key to the future of Ukraine. These values are universal but they must be defended and cannot flourish without support.”