While many people in Russian society still remain in shock over the war in Ukraine, it is difficult to access truthful information in the face of the propaganda machine at work there, Piret Reintamm Benno, former deputy head of mission at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, said on on ETV's "Terevisioon" on Wednesday morning.
Reintamm Benno, who had worked at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow since late 2016, was one of the diplomats expelled from Russia as part of a symmetrical response. She arrived back in Estonia on April 1.
"We hit the road as a family sometime in the afternoon last Thursday," she recalled. "Spouse, daughter. It's about 12 hours from Moscow to the border. That night we reached Pskov, where we spent the night, and we crossed the border back into Estonia before noon the next day."
The trip went smoothly, she said, despite having heard of instances of likewise expelled colleagues being harassed as they left Russia. "I've heard of things happening along the way," she said. "We didn't have any drama, no one harassed us, although we were afraid of that happening as well."
Reintamm Benno said that the majority of diplomats are still in Moscow and still working.
"Moscow is our biggest bilateral embassy," she said. "They have a bunch of diplomats and a bunch of employees dispatched there from Estonia that don't have diplomatic status, and most of them are still there on site."
No rational explanation for war
"Terevisioon" host Owe Petersell asked whether people in Russia are also wondering why Russia had to attack Ukraine at all.
"I think that they are wondering that," Reintamm Benno replied. "Last night I read a lot of material, and the word that was used quite frequently immediately following February 24, when the invasion began, was 'shock.' And the word 'shock' continues to be used to describe people's state of mind. It's been more than a month now, and this still hasn't changed. Asking 'why?' is very much justified in that regard."
The diplomat admitted that she had been among those who believed that it wouldn't reach the point of war.
"I fully agreed with analysts who said that [Russia] cannot go to war because that would be so incredibly detrimental — politically, economically, socially — in every way possible," she said. "And as we can see today, then those analysts were 100 percent correct and then some. But that didn't stop them. I was basing [my position] on such a rational approach. Unfortunately, that decision was made by someone basing [their decision] on what we would call rationality."
Russian narrative framing war in Ukraine as against the West
Petersell also asked whether Russia's propaganda machine has done such a thorough job that the majority of Russians actually believe that Ukrainians are mostrous people that must be wiped off the face of the earth.
"That is a little more differentiated," Reintamm Benno replied. "Coming back to the fact that Russian and Ukrainian societies are closely linked even just via how many people are related to one another — many people with a Ukrainian background live in Russia, work in Russia, friendships, things like that. It's not possible to erase this. But then they focus on some sort of alleged groups, that there are some kind of nationalists there, some kind of warmongers, crazy bandits, the Azov Battalion — that they are the enemy."
But more broadly speaking, the narrative being spread in Russia is that "Ukraine is just the battlefield, but they're actually fighting against the U.S. and the collective West for Russian life or to preserve the Russian identity," she added.
On the subject of the war crimes that have recently been exposed in Bucha, Reintamm Benno said that the fact that the Russian media is reacting to these events indicates that source information is moving somewhere as well.
"The knowledge that terrible violence has been committed against civilians definitely exists," she said. "It is a matter of the narrative that is being sold to Russian society, i.e. 'These weren't us, these were [committed by] someone else' and so on."
On the subject of sanctions, the diplomat explained that as Russia has such robust financial reserves, it's difficult to notice the impact of sanctions that have been placed on them, including ending the purchase of Russian gas and banning tech imports from Russia.
"Russian gold reserves and such have been frozen, but they have more," she said. "In that sense, [sanctions] won't help overnight; this takes time. Starbucks or H&M can withdraw from Russia overnight, but we can all understand that these are symbolic steps, and a society's foundations will not be rocked by them."
Reintamm Benno was unable to say what lay ahead for her professionally. "I'm still working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," she said. "Hopefully I'll receive some interesting offers."
Editor: Aili Vahtla