Taking on Putin, the new podcast from journalist John Sweeney, opens with the sound of an air raid siren. Sweeney is currently in Kyiv, Ukraine, and has been there since the beginning of the war. You may have seen his videos on social media where he wanders the streets in his “lucky” orange beanie. The siren, he says, has been dubbed “Putin’s lullaby” by Kyiv residents; it means the city is under attack.
Sweeney, a long-serving reporter best known for his work on the BBC’s Panorama, has been on Putin’s tail for 22 years, since he first saw evidence of alleged war crimes perpetrated by the Russian army in Chechnya. “Back then, no one listened to me,” he says. “So when I see reports and see video of the Russian army bombing Ukrainian refugees as they flee, I feel sick.” His podcast on Putin has been in the works for nearly a year, though the situation has advanced in ways you suspect even Sweeney did not anticipate.
There have been three episodes so far, the first taken up with scene-setting in Kyiv with the help of two residents who, before the war, worked as tour guides in Chernobyl. The subsequent installments look at what happens to critics of the Kremlin: we hear about the Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on the war in Chechnya and who was poisoned in 2004 and then shot dead in her apartment block in 2006.
“No one else dared ask the questions she did – and then her voice fell silent,” says Sweeney. He also talks to Marina Litvinenko, widow of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who died of polonium poisoning in London in 2006.
There’s a discernible streak of gonzo in Sweeney. It’s what led him to square up to Scientology representative Tommy Davis during a Panorama interview and lose his temper (he later apologized). It’s also what allowed him to ambush Putin at a museum in Yakutsk, Siberia, in 2014, over the conflict in Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Posing as a “professor of mammothology”, Sweeney positioned himself in a line of curators ready to shake hands with the Russian leader. When his turn came, he said: “Sir, do you regret the killings in Ukraine?”
Sweeney parted ways with the BBC in 2019. Here he describes himself as an “old-school reporter”, though his modus operandi is distinctly modern, with his daily video diaries and a crowdfunded podcast made on the hoof. As with his last podcast, Hunting Ghislaineabout the fall of Robert Maxwell’s daughter, Taking on Putin features a liberated Sweeney free to rant, swear and speak his mind, with no management telling him to apologize. Here he reveals how people have asked why he is in Kyiv and how he thinks he is helping the war effort. “Being the eyes and ears of the free world matters,” he says. “It does not justify Vladimir Putin’s killing machine, but it does hold it to account. . . Information is light. ”