Since Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago, journalists at The New York Times have covered the tragedies, devastation and death tolls, as well as Ukraine’s resistance and resilience. As the war grinds on with no end in sight, The Times has created a new role for Thomas Gibbons-Neff, the former Kabul bureau chief: Ukraine correspondent.
Mr. Gibbons-Neff, a former Marine who completed two tours in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010, joined The Times as a reporter in 2017. As the Kabul bureau chief, he followed the Taliban, even interviewing a commander he had fought years before on the battlefield. Though he officially began his new role this month, for the past year he has covered the front lines of the war in Ukraine as well as changes to civilian life in the country: In the battered eastern city of Bakhmut, he reported on a food stall standing tall; from the Donetsk region, he spoke with soldiers on the front lines of the artillery war in the east. He was also part of the team that revealed Russia’s massive battlefield failures.
Moving forward, Mr. Gibbons-Neff will focus on deep investigations. Recently, for example, he explored how many American volunteers lacked training when they joined the Ukrainian front. In an interview, he discussed the evolution of covering the war. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
How do you define the role of a Ukraine correspondent?
In the initial days and weeks after the Russian invasion, there was this notion that Ukraine would collapse relatively quickly. Obviously, it turned out that wasn’t the case. Ukrainians have fought valiantly and managed to retake territory. In July 2022, the paper decided to name a Kyiv bureau chief, Andrew Kramer, and in March created my role. I’m supporting Andrew but also working on enterprise targets, things that take a little more time to report out.
If the conflict were to end tomorrow, Europe would look much different than it did on Feb. 23, 2022. Whatever happens, Ukraine will play a very big part in the years to come.
Have you noticed any big shifts in your coverage since you started reporting on the war?
Before last March, the last time I had been in Ukraine was in 2015, covering the fight against Russian-backed separatists in the east. Throughout the years, my main focus has been on the role of the combatants and how they interacted and fought against one another, whether it be the Russians or the Ukrainians — and then the civilians caught in the middle.
I’ve wanted to focus more and more on people caught between Ukraine and Russia, and these battered towns and cities. What has really stuck with me is the people who wouldn’t leave their homes in the face of this violence, their resilience. It’s corny to say, but it really — personally, not so much as a reporter — reshaped how I thought about home.
What have been the biggest challenges in covering the war?
Wrestling with access and being allowed to go certain places to see things that you need the press officer for, or permission from the military unit. A lot of people think that it’s easy to show up, and there’s everything you need to write a story. Parts of Ukraine have been under attack since 2014 and Ukrainians know how to manage the press fairly well. So navigating those parameters and not rubbing anyone the wrong way has always been tough.
While you were serving in Afghanistan, did you want to be a journalist and report on conflicts?
No, but it’s where my experience in a conflict zone helps me fit in. It seemed like a natural place, I think, at least for the paper.
I was in the infantry. We had embedded journalists with us there; it was pretty baffling to me to be on the front lines fighting and then have a man or a woman running around in a helmet, without a weapon, describing what we were doing. It wasn’t something I had thought about much, but it was definitely inspiring to see. I like to think that pointed me in this direction.
In your articles, you capture destruction but also resilience. Is resilience something you look for, or is it something that you notice naturally?
Having fought in and then covered Afghanistan and having all of these different perspectives on how civilians and combatants endure war has helped. It’s not that I look out for it, but I think it’s a really important part of the Ukraine story that should be portrayed to The Times’s readership.
When people read about a war, it’s often digested like it’s something happening on a different planet. The emotions, the noise, the violence — it’s one thing to read about it, but to understand it is difficult, if not impossible. I think by focusing on the mundane moments of life and being able to relay that to our readers helps. It gives people a frame of reference, and hopefully some empathy, for those caught between the guns and fighting on the ground.
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