Event Highlight

Spotlight Interview: Sean Penn and Robert O’Brien Discuss the War in Ukraine

By Katherine Noel
Posted May 23 2024
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert O'Brien, Sean Penn, Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo
Left to right: Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert O'Brien, Sean Penn, Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo (Photo: Shahar Azran)

Just hours before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with an unlikely companion: Academy Award-winning actor and filmmaker Sean Penn. 

Penn was in the country making a documentary about Zelensky, a TV comedian turned Ukrainian president. But when war broke out, the film’s focus shifted to chronicling the conflict’s first months. By coincidence, Penn and his camera crew were able to spend the first day of the war with Zelensky in his bunker in Kyiv, as Russian airborne special forces sought to kill or capture the president. 

Sean Penn
(Photo: Shahar Azran)

“It was the 23rd of February that we first met face-to-face — no cameras — and he agreed that on the 24th we would start shooting this documentary,” Penn said. “We went back to the hotel to prepare for our day of shooting, and we tried to lay our heads down, and then the rockets started coming in.”

To Penn’s surprise, he received a call from Zelensky’s office the following morning, announcing the president would be following through with their pre-scheduled on-camera interview that day.

"The Ukrainians...fortunately have this guy who in that moment from [February] 23rd to the 24th, all of us that had the privilege of being in that room with him on that day, it was two different creatures,” said Penn. “And he clearly on the 24th, it was clear in his face he'd been born for this leadership."

Penn, who is also founder of a crisis response organization called CORE, spoke about his documentary — released in 2023 under the title Superpower — during an April 29 Spotlight Interview on the war in Ukraine hosted by Columbia’s Institute of Global Politics. He was joined by Ambassador Robert O’Brien, who served as President Trump’s national security advisor from 2019 to 2021 and is currently chairman of American Global Strategies and an IGP Carnegie Distinguished Fellow. The discussion, which was moderated by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton in her role as chair of the IGP Faculty Advisory Board, touched on bipartisan efforts to support Ukraine, the military aid package recently passed by Congress, and Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. The Spotlight Interview followed an Across the Aisle discussion moderated by Secretary Clinton on hostage diplomacy with O’Brien, Penn, Roger Carstens, Julia Neswhiat, and Jason Rezaian.

Clinton commended Zelensky’s leadership and resilience through the early months of Russia’s invasion. In the war’s first days, he refused US and UK offers of evacuation from Kyiv, famously responding: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” 

“Without leadership at the top there would not be a Ukraine today,” said Clinton. “In my view, if President Zelensky had taken the offer by the UK, US, and others to seek safety in the face of what was a brutal invasion intending to try to decapitate [Ukraine’s] leadership, I'm not sure Ukraine would have survived…. I give Zelensky an enormous amount of personal credit for the way he's conducted himself and tried to, under tremendous stress, keep the country together, keep it fighting.”

Sean Penn, Robert O'Brien
(Photo: Shahar Azran)

O’Brien spoke about the $61-billion foreign aid package passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support on April 23. It will provide critical military assistance to Ukraine, and came only after months of delays and resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill. O’Brien lamented the delay, saying the United States didn’t get the Ukrainians the weapons they needed early enough, but also praised Speaker Mike Johnson for pushing the bill through the House.

O’Brien said the idea that a nation can just invade — seize territory because it has the military or economic might — and conquer [another] country is a clear violation of the UN Charter and international law. Given the context, he added, supporting Ukraine is simply “the right thing to do.”

The event ended with Penn referring back to Superpower, the documentary.

“As is said in the movie, there is [in Ukraine] a national tradition of disillusionment. Things do tend to implode from the inside,” he observed. 

“I think we have to help Ukraine not implode from the inside, and that they will succeed in resisting the Russians.”

Watch the Spotlight Interview: