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Who's been to Ukraine this week?
A look at the familiar faces popping up in the war zone
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As the Russian advance lurches westward, sending millions of Ukrainians and other refugees fleeing ahead of it, a few brave souls have packed their bags and headed in the opposite direction: Across the Ukrainian border and into the heart of a country desperately fending off invasion. Some of these people entering Ukraine are motivated by duty, responsibility, honor, and the misguided dream of fighting a “target-rich army”; others by diplomatic entanglement and geopolitical solidarity.
But a third group traveling down the E40 highway into Western Ukraine is motivated not merely by duty or honor or politics but by an even higher obligation: The will to create content. After all, if the world’s attention is upon Ukraine, well, that just tells you where all the attention is. On social media, photographs and tweets from familiar faces from conflict zones of the past mingled with dispatches from eager podcast-streamer-newsletter proprietors ready to document (themselves documenting) the war.
Indeed, the question “why is he there?” could be answered with at least five different names. A rundown:
Spotted by Globe and Mail correspondent Mark MacKinnon in Odessa earlier in the week:
Why is he there? No war zone would be complete without an appearance from Lévy, a French philosopher and frequent conflict-zone traveler who later confirmed on his own Twitter account that "of course" he was in Odessa:
The Financial Times writes:
'The other day we were about 20km from you Kyiv Nazis and now we are even closer,' he wrote [on Telegram] — claiming to be close to Hostomel airport, just north of Ukraine’s capital. 'You can relax for a minute, because you won’t have to look for us — we’ll find you. Oh, you don’t have long left. It’s better you surrender and stand alongside us [ . . .] or your end will be at hand.'
The Financial Times was not able to independently confirm the authenticity of the videos. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, on Monday said the Kremlin had 'no data' on whether Kadyrov actually was in Ukraine."
Why is he there, assuming he was actually there? Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, loves to make content for his Telegram account. Kadyrov reportedly returned to Russia a day or two later and cut a sort of good-natured cross-promotional social-media skit with Elon Musk.
Former Facebook product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez
Why is he there? Apparently, to donate body armor. Defending Martinez (a former Facebook product manager, former Twitter advisor, author of the memoir Chaos Monkeys, Substack newsletter proprietor, and recurring tech-discourse character) a friend compared his desire to "cover and write about war" to Michael Herr and Graham Greene.
Penn was in a presidential press briefing the day the invasion began; the official Facebook page for the Ukrainian President's Office thanked him for his "bravery and honesty." He left the country on foot a few days later along with other evacuees; it was briefly believed that he'd caught COVID-19 in Ukraine but Deadline now reports "the suspicion is that the test result was a false positive, per his camp."
Why is he there? Penn has been working on a documentary about Ukraine and Russia with Vice Studios since last November. For anyone regarding the timing as suspicious, USA Today usefully clarifies: "Fact check: Russia-Ukraine conflict predates actor Sean Penn's forthcoming documentary." According to his Twitter, on which he has been calling for a no-fly zone, Penn is still in touch with the Ukrainian government.
Why is he there? Tracey, an independent journalist, has technically only traveled to the border of Poland and Ukraine, for the purpose of reporting.