Journalist Graham Phillips (Photo by Geovien So/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Our man in the Donbass

The curious case of Graham Phillips

We are all familiar with the phrase “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” — yet it contains wisdom that we may not appreciate. It is not enough to tell truths. We must tell the whole truth. In other words, we should not present a partial narrative and exclude information that is inconvenient.

People who observe the media and the alternative media should know that it is possible to at once report truthful information, and to simultaneously paint a false impression of reality. Here, the journalist Graham Phillips is an old hand. 

I’ve been following Phillips for some time now, long before he gained wider recognition for his sham interview with the captive British-Ukrainian Marine, Aiden Aslin. Phillips is a British national, but widely known to be a fervent supporter of the Russian Federation and of the invasion of Ukraine — although he maintains he is an independent journalist, funded only by his readers’ donations. As one would expect, his backstory is as unusual as his politics. There is some conjecture about where he was born: Wikipedia says it was Nottingham, whilst the FCDO sanctions list states Dundee. Having studied Philosophy and History at the University of Dundee (or possibly journalism — again, Phillips’ account contradicts this), he briefly worked in the civil service, at the now defunct Central Office of Information. He then moved to Ukraine in 2010, after initially visiting the country to watch England play at a match in Dnipropetrovsk, now Dnipro. 

Whilst living in Kiev, Phillips worked as a freelance journalist, with an interest in investigating violent crime. He also kept a personal blog. It appears Phillips deleted this blog some time in 2022, but it’s still accessible on Internet Archive. The content can only be described as vile; frankly, reading it has left me slightly depressed. It contains posts chronicling Phillips’ experiences paying for sex in Amsterdam and various guides on how to pick up women in Ukraine.

In one post entitled “Prostitutes and Me (Part 1 of 2)”, he recounts an evening in Amsterdam when he and some American tourists visited the city’s red-light district. Describing an encounter with a prostitute called “Natasha”, Phillips cringeworthily remarks that he put in “one of the performances of [his] career” and that “even Natasha seemed impressed”. In his next post, Phillips returns to the brothel to find the same prostitute: “Natasha had been so ideal, everything just right, we were the same age even, like kindred spirits.” Tragically, Natasha is nowhere to be found, and Phillips loses his passion for prostitutes after a second, much less romantic encounter.

Phillips’ interview may constitute a violation of Article 13 of the Geneva Convention

By April of 2014, Phillips was reporting for Russia Today, covering the developing conflict in the Donbas. Whilst reporting in the east of Ukraine, Phillips was twice captured by the Ukrainian Military then released after a short period in detention. He was then deported to Poland and banned from returning to Ukraine for three years. Undeterred by this legal intervention, Phillips went back to Ukraine to continue reporting. Sometime around November 2014, he was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar shell whilst reporting from Donetsk. It was around this time — between 2014 and 2015 — that Phillips worked for Zvezda, a TV channel operated by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. In 2015, Phillips was reportedly awarded a medal by the Russian Border Service, a branch of the FSB — high praise indeed.

Over the next few years, Phillips started working within the UK and Europe again, making a scene wherever he went. He crashed various embassy and parliamentary events, and wreaked havoc at a press conference held by Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat in October of 2018, calling Higgins a “NATO propagandist”. He was eventually led away by police. 

By November, Phillips was in Vienna, accosting the then Ukrainian ambassador to Austria, Olexander Scherba. Phillips recorded a video of this encounter, but later took it down. This was a wise decision on Phillips’ part — as the video reflects very badly on him — however the footage was later reuploaded to YouTube. In this video, Phillips corners Scherba and accuses him of being a supporter of terrorism and genocide in the Donbas, repeatedly shouting, “I am the most honest journalist in the world.” 

Phillips gets more than he bargains for. Scherba thinks on his feet, telling him: “You are not a journalist at all. You are just a small human being who feeds on the hate between Ukraine and Russia … You are a grown man who travels Ukraine and Russia and pays women to have sex with him. You are a sex tourist.” Phillips then follows Scherba as he walks towards the Ukrainian embassy, insulting him in broken Russian and asking him about the Azov Battalion’s Nazi allegiances, without giving Scherba the time to properly respond. At one point, Phillips even goes so far as to say “Ты гандон” (you are a condom), desperately trying to goad Scherba into a physical confrontation. The attempt fails, and Scherba enters the safety of the Embassy compound. All in all, it’s a rather pathetic spectacle, unbecoming of “the most honest journalist in the world”.

When the Russian Army invaded Ukraine in 2022, Phillips made his way back to Ukraine via Belarus. He reported from Mariupol on the battle for Azovstal Steelworks, where another British national was fighting as part of the Ukrainian Military: Aiden Aslin. On 12 April 2022, Aslin surrendered along with the rest of his unit, after running out of food and ammunition. Aslin later described his time in DPR captivity as “absolute hell”. He told reporters he was “stabbed, beaten, psychologically tortured, and forced to take part in propaganda”. Aslin also recalls witnessing a Ukrainian prisoner of war being murdered by DPR soldiers in the next cell.

By 18 April, Graham Phillips arrived to interview Aslin. Although YouTube rightly took Phillips’ video of the interview down, it is still available elsewhere on the site. The footage shows Aslin handcuffed in the corner of a small room, his eyes glazed, his expression detached. He speaks slowly, as though trying to anticipate the words he’s expected to say. Phillips begins the interview by saying that Aslin is a mercenary, and therefore the Geneva Conventions don’t apply. 

This is, of course, demonstrably untrue. At the time, Aslin was a sworn serviceman of the Ukrainian Marines, and he had been for some time. Aslin later stated in a podcast that whenever he was interviewed the man who beat him would be nearby, and that his captors had confiscated his military credentials. Even without this context, the fact that Aslin was under duress is patent from the interview footage itself. For instance, when Aslin says “Luhansk”, Phillips angrily corrects him to say “Lugansk”, the Russian-dialect pronunciation of the city’s name. As works of propaganda go, it’s fairly unconvincing.

Many have supposed that Phillips’ interview constitutes a violation of Article 13 of the Geneva Convention. As the barrister Geoffrey Robertson KC said: “Coercive interrogation of prisoners of war for propaganda purposes is contrary to the Geneva Conventions.”

In July 2022, Graham Phillips made legal history. He became the first British national to be sanctioned by the British Government. This is a very severe measure to place on any individual, as it means he cannot access any funds held by UK banks, nor can he access trust services. In effect, it’s financial exile. The FCDO official statement of reasons for Phillips’ sanctioning is as follows:

Graham PHILLIPS is a video blogger who has produced and published media content that supports and promotes actions and policies which destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, or independence of Ukraine.

It seems the British Government’s official reasoning for sanctioning Graham Phillips had nothing to do with his interviewing Aiden Aslin, superficially, at least. 

Of course, this does set a dangerous precedent. In general, I don’t believe the British Government should sanction journalists purely for the act of political expression, irrespective of their views. Some might argue that this is behaviour more befitting of the Russian Federation than one of the world’s oldest democracies. As much as I dislike Phillips personally, the decision sits uneasily with me, as it does with many others.

Many of his videos revolve around the classic Kremlin talking points

Then again, what else can the UK Government do? Their options are limited by the fact that Phillips operates and resides in a territory that will not honour international arrest warrants. In light of the possibility that Philips may have committed a war crime, the argument has been made that rather than sanctioning Phillips, the Government should have issued an international warrant for his arrest. The problem with this is that there is no guarantee that Phillips will ever return to the UK or the EU, so an arrest warrant may not be an effective way of disrupting his activities. Today, Phillips continues to operate under sanction, based in the Donbas.

The origins of Phillips’ political motives remain unclear. Many of his videos revolve around the classic Kremlin talking points: that Ukraine is a Nazi state, that the war wouldn’t have been necessary had the Ukrainians not been shelling Donetsk for the last eight years. To be quite fair to Phillips, some of his reporting is genuinely original and does contain truthful information that is seldom covered by western media.

For instance, Phillips has reported on the shelling of Luhansk and Donetsk. One video shows him driving around the centre of Donetsk, filming incoming artillery and the impact of the attack on the city. On his telegram account, he has posted images of the casualties. As Phillips argues in several of his videos, this is not routinely reported on western media, whilst the impact of Russian shelling on Ukrainian cities is diligently reported.

Of course, the reasons for this are not necessarily nefarious, although this is what pro-Russian propagandists want people to believe. It’s more likely that western media outlets don’t report the shelling of Donetsk and Luhansk simply because of the logistical challenges involved in operating from these areas, rather than a conspiratorial bias against Russia and the DPR.

The other positive thing that strikes me about Phillips — regardless of his political allegiance — is his dedication. He goes to the frontline and records videos from separatist positions, even as Ukrainian shells are impacting the ground close by. Indeed, he seems to be almost unfazed when the shells detonate. He has the same wide-eyed expression as he has in all his other videos. There is truth in Phillips’ coverage, and for that reason alone, he’s worth watching, whatever you think of his motives. 

The problem with Phillips’ reporting is that it’s selective. Yes, there are neo-Nazis in parts of the Ukrainian Army; yes, there are Ukrainians in the east who would rather their regions be part of Russia; and yes, the Ukrainians have been shelling Donetsk and Luhansk, undoubtedly killing civilians in the process.

What Phillips leaves out of his reporting is the fact that all of this is true in the inverse. There are also neo-Nazis in the Russian armed forces. The Russians have not only shelled multiple Ukrainian cities, but destroyed them, killing thousands. He also leaves out the fact that the various referenda performed in eastern Ukraine, showing massive support for joining the Russian Federation, are widely known to be a complete farce. According to multiple sources, Russian soldiers were going door to door collecting votes and filling the ballots in themselves. Apart from North Korea, virtually no nation states recognise these referenda, not even Serbia — the faithful hound of the Russian Federation. 

When Phillips’ work does engage with the other side of the war, he attempts to create a grey area. In a video about the Bucha massacre, Phillips talks about his journalistic principles: 

I’ve only ever reported on what I’ve seen myself, not only what I know to be the case as a journalist, but what can be shown on videos I’ve filmed, and what can be objectively proven by video evidence.

For the most part, this is actually true. Phillips’ reporting does primarily rely on what he can show on video. Speaking specifically about the Bucha massacre, he makes a very peculiar argument, however. He begins by saying he “cannot say for sure what took place there”, but he then shows footage of Russian soldiers giving out humanitarian aid to civilians. He uses this as evidence that it is therefore “logically inconsistent” that Russian servicemen in Bucha would behave as barbarically as they are accused of doing. 

From watching his reportage, it seems that he is anything but a shill

The issue with this is that the footage he shows was taken over a hundred miles north of Bucha, in Gorsk. He admits this in the video. It is inconceivable to me how even a staunch follower of Phillips’ work could believe this argument. The proof that war crimes have taken place in Bucha is overwhelming, and a subsequent investigation by Amnesty International “documented 22 cases of unlawful killings by Russian forces, most of which were apparent extrajudicial executions”. More to the point, the footage Phillips shows as evidence is irrelevant: the accusation of war crimes was never levelled at every single Russian serviceman, just against those who committed them in Bucha. 

Only time will tell what happens to Graham Phillips. It seems unlikely he will change his views. I began this investigation believing he must be an asset of the FSB, or in some way in the pay of the Russian Government. However, no proof of this exists. From watching his reportage, it seems that he is anything but a shill. Indeed, he is a true believer — a man convinced of the righteousness of his cause, regardless of evidence to the contrary. In a convoluted sense, it’s hard to begrudge Phillips as a journalist. After all, he believes he’s telling the truth. 

Whilst writing this article, I spoke to Eliot Higgins and asked him what he thought about Phillips’s sanctioning. His response was terse:

Given his behaviour towards me he probably deserves to be sectioned more than sanctioned.

I rather agree with him. 

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