The Ukrainian resistance is drawing droves of foreign fighters to Kyiv — including an award-winning Russian writer who long interpreted the Kremlin for American readers. “I have burned my bridges,” says Sergei Loiko. “If I go home, they will try me as a traitor and put me behind bars for 15 years.”
Loiko is no stranger to war zones. He reported on Russia for the Los Angeles Times for decades, winning an Overseas Press Club award for his coverage of the bloodshed during the Maidan Revolution in 2014, and Putin’s proxy war against Ukraine in Donbas. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times awarded Loiko its “best reporting” award for his “incomparable Ukrainian coverage,” including reportage from the long, pitched battle for the Donetsk airport. (Loiko also wrote a “documentary novel” about that fight, Airport.) Loiko last wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2020.
Loiko appeared in a viral video last week, dressed with a combat helmet and camouflaged vest, standing among Ukrainian soldiers and calling on men across the world to “join us in this struggle” against Vladimir Putin’s aggression, which he likened to World War III.
“My name is Sergei Loiko. I’m 69 years old. I’m Russian. I’ve been a Los Angeles Times correspondent for 27 years,” he says in the video. “In my tenure as a journalist I’ve been to many wars and armed conflicts, but I’ve never taken up sides. I’ve never taken up arms. This is different.”
“This is an assault rifle in my hands, and I’m here in Kyiv, in Ukraine, not as a journalist, but as a fighter in this Armageddon struggle between the good and evil,” Loiko continues. “I have taken my side — the side of the good alongside these Ukrainian heroes. They are fighting not for just Ukraine … They are fighting for you, for Europe for America, for the rest of the world.”
On Tuesday, Rolling Stone reached Loiko at his apartment in downtown Kyiv. He says he took down his video from YouTube after receiving a request from a Los Angeles Times editor, who raised concerns it could create safety issues for Loiko’s former colleagues. (The editor didn’t want to speak on the record, but confirmed the request.)
Loiko posted a new video with less Los Angeles Times branding on Thursday. “I am no longer a journalist, I am a free man,” he says. “I am here on the outskirts of Kyiv to defend Ukraine from my motherland, from Putin, the Hitler of today.”
Taking up arms with the Ukrainians, Loiko says, has made a return to his home of Moscow impossible — at least as long Putin remains in power. He describes Putin as a delusional and desperate tyrant who would rather destroy Russia than accept defeat. He adds bluntly that he hopes to spur regime change in Moscow. “I am joining this war because I want to kill Putin,” he says. “Our victory will mean his demise.”
In an hour-long interview — interrupted by a call from his battalion commander — Loiko expounded on life under siege in Kyiv, his insights into Putin’s motivations, and why he thinks Ukraine today is comparable to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is life like in Kyiv at the moment?
Pretty tense. Everybody expects a serious attack that may be coming this week because Putin’s primary goal was to seize Kyiv and topple the government. But as we all know, his blitzkrieg plan was screwed up.
Maybe a million people have left Kyiv already. Kyiv used to be a very lively city, with cafes. It’s a ghost city now. My wife’s mother walked the dog this morning and she came back home and said, “We need to run to the store. They brought in potatoes!” Can you imagine? Old people spend three to four hours in lines to buy medicines. There’s a curfew that starts at 8 p.m. At 7 p.m. in downtown Kiev you only see the people who walk their dogs.
Tell me about your career as a journalist.
I’m Russian, and I used to be a Los Angeles Times translator, then reporter, then correspondent, and then writer until 2016. And I briefly worked for them again in 2019.
What made you decide to join this fight?
In my tenure as a journalist, I’ve never taken up arms. I’ve never taken up sides. Because it’s totally unprofessional, right? But in 2014 I realized that I had entered a war that put me on the brink of choosing a side, because it was black-and-white.
In all the previous wars and military conflicts I covered, there were always two sides of the story. Each side had a grain of truth. But in 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea and then a big part of the Donbas region — and filled it with tanks and artillery and military units, and trained the local militia to become soldiers. That was a very simple situation. It was the battle between the good and evil.
This [current] battle between the good and the evil is even more clear. Putin is threatening the world with the use of nuclear weapons.
How long have you been in Ukraine?
I arrived in Ukraine about a week before the war. I have cancer, and I was about to have surgery, but I had to put it off and come to Ukraine.
Did you arrive expecting to fight?
I didn’t expect them to launch a real war. I doubted that he was so crazy, Vladimir Putin. But he’s digging his own grave. He has destroyed my Russia. I don’t know what will be the outcome of this war, but Russia has already lost. Putin has already lost, because there’s no way out of it for Russia and himself.
Then I decided, to hell with it! I’m dying anyway, I have this fucking cancer. So I decided that it’s time for me to take sides, and this is a fucking biblical event. I want to be, finally, on the side of the good. [Laughs.]
Can I ask you what your diagnosis is?
I don’t want to go into it. I have metastases in my kidney.
Are you experienced with weapons or fighting?
I was in the special forces [in Russia], in a unit protecting the nuclear missile base in the far east on the border with China in 1974. The firearms have not changed since then. I have a rather good knack for dealing with them. It’s like skating. Once you get the knack of it you will never forget.
When you say that Putin has destroyed Russia already, what does that mean from your perspective?
He has finally succeeded in making Russia an outcast — a worse outcast than North Korea. Today the big news is that McDonald’s is closing its facilities in Russia. I remember when the first McDonald’s opened in Russia 30 years ago. That was the sign that Russia is finally joining civilized society. Now McDonald’s is withdrawing from Russia, meaning Russia has no place in the civilized world any more. And economically, Russia is going down the drain. I wouldn’t be surprised if it declares default as a country in the next few months. I can bet you on that.
Why do you think Putin started this war? What do you think the Kremlin’s objective is?
Putin is obsessed with Soviet history. So he made a cult of Victory Day on May 9. He forgot that was a pyrrhic victory. That Russia, the Soviet Union, was almost completely destroyed, and if the United States and Great Britain had not helped, I don’t know what would have been the outcome of the war. But Putin makes a big deal about this history.
He’s like a kid who is still playing war. It’s like a drug to him. But it’s not a game. It’s a real war. He envied so much Stalin and the Russian generals who beat the Nazis that he decided to “beat the Nazis” himself. But there’s no such thing in Ukraine, so he invented “Nazis” to beat.
I don’t know if he really believes in that shit — that the Ukrainians are Nazis, that they have been killing women and children for eight years in the Donbas. This is a total lie. I’ve been around this place for a long time and I’ve never seen anything like this. The president of Ukraine is Jewish. What the fuck are you talking about? What Nazis?
The problem is that Putin, in 20 years of his reign, has turned Russia into a country where no decision can be made without his OK. There’s no democracy in Russia, and everyone is afraid to say something negative, and he has completely lost touch with reality.
Do you expect to be carrying a gun yourself, or is your role more symbolic?
If it comes to that. I’m ready to do it. I realize that they will not allow me to be a fighter fighter. But everybody in Ukraine knows me as the author of Airport, and they are happy to have me. I like to be there and help them get motivated, but their motivation is already the best motivation. This is the kind of motivation I saw in war movies as a child, when the Russians fought against the German fascists. Now there are Russian fascists, so the picture has completely reversed itself. Look at the way they are fighting this war now. They’re bombarding peaceful residents. They almost razed Mariupol, a big city, off the face of the Earth. They did the same with Izyum, a smaller city. They’re now leveling Kharkiv.
But they didn’t win any of those battles. They didn’t capture any of the cities, and you can’t win the war unless you capture the cities. They will never be able to capture Kyiv. Not because I’m here, but because the defenders of Kyiv, they defend their motherland, they defend their loved ones. They will fight to the last drop of blood in their veins.
In the video you posted, you spoke about this being World War III. Do you see it that starkly?
That’s what the stakes are. Putin cannot lose this war because there’s no way he can save face after that. He cannot afford to lose this war. The son of a bitch is just crazy enough to use, tactically at least, a nuclear weapon. He’s like a cornered rat. He’s dangerous. It’s just totally horrible that the fate of the world may depend on the whim of one crazy person in the Kremlin.
Putin will do everything in his power to win this war, and it’s going to become fiercer and fiercer and fiercer until something happens to him — until he is removed by his own people. The people around him are not all as crazy as he is.
You’re not only taking up arms yourself, you’re calling on others to join the fight.
My call was for men with military training, with military experience, to come and join us in this struggle. I understand that your governments cannot do it because they don’t want to provoke Putin to start a nuclear war against NATO. That would be the end of the world. But I understand there are many people with combat experience who don’t depend on their governments to come and fight here — like they did in 1936 in Spain, when a lot of people from all over the world, including Ernest Hemingway, came to help the Republicans against the [Franco regime]. Right?
And you see this is a similar moment?
It’s a similar moment. But this time we will win this war, because we have more support and we have a better army than the Republicans in Spain in 1936.
You make this seem almost glamorous, but you have seen the horrors of the Donbas fight up close. Do you think people in Kyiv and elsewhere are prepared for the hell of street-level battles?
For street fighting? Yeah. The volunteers I’ve talked to, they’re ready for street fighting. They will fight for every street, for every house in Kyiv, and they will not stop until they kill all the invaders. If Putin chooses to enter Kyiv, it will be the end of his army, because his armored vehicles will be destroyed by all the anti-tank weaponry that the Ukrainians have now. They will be shooting at them from every house, from every cellar, from every street corner.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
I think the more the world gets involved in this, the harder it will be for Putin to win this war. But as I already said, he already lost this war. Even if he captures Kyiv. Even if he captures Khakiv. How the hell is he going to occupy the land? He puts [Viktor] Yanukovych, the former president, in charge? Yanukovich will be killed the next day.
There used to be a huge rift between the various parties in Ukraine. It’s a democracy. Everybody has his own opinion and can express it freely. What Putin has managed to do is unite the entire country against him — even the communists.