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Timothy Snyder: Putin’s essay on Ukraine creates mythical history to cover foreign policy failures

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Timothy Snyder: Putin’s essay on Ukraine creates mythical history to cover foreign policy failures
Edited by: A. N.
On July 12 this year, the Kremlin website published a lengthy essay authored by Russian President Vladimir Putin and profoundly titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which claims that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and have always shared a single history.

Timothy Snyder, a famous American scholar of modern European history and an influential public intellectual, responds to this essay in his address to the recent Kyiv Security Forum where international political, civic, and military leaders, economists, and security and foreign policy experts gathered to discuss the issues of war and peace, and national and international security.

He states that Putin’s false view of history presented in the essay leaves Russia without its own story and that the essay’s real purpose is to cover up the fundamental foreign policy failures in Russia’s relationships with Ukraine, the West, and China.

Address by Timothy Snyder, Historian, Richard C. Levin Professor at Yale University, at the Kyiv Security Forum

Good afternoon. My name is Timothy Snyder, I’m very pleased to have been invited to speak to you today in the framework of the Kyiv Security Forum. What I have been asked to do is say a few words about Mr. Putin’s attitude towards Ukraine. And this I am very happy to do.

As all of you well know, earlier this year Mr. Putin published a kind of essay expressing his own attitude about Ukrainian and Belorussian and Russian history. Now, this essay, historically speaking, is entirely without merit. When I read it as a historian, the feeling I have is the same feeling I have when, for example, at a cocktail party I’m forced to speak to someone who has a very strong conviction about something in the past, but doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Normally a historian in that situation simply smiles and nods and finds an excuse to walk away. But because Mr. Putin is not just anyone, because Mr. Putin is the head of state of an important country, one has to take these views seriously. One has to take them seriously not as history, because as history they’re laughable. But one has to take the seriously as politics.

So, the first thing to know about this particular essay… the first thing to notice about this particular essay is that it’s not really about Ukraine at all. It’s really about Russia. What we see, when we read this essay with care, what we notice, when we read this essay with care, is that it’s really about an absence. It’s about the absence of a story of Russia. There is no story of Russia that Mr. Putin is able to tell. What he is able to tell is a story about some kind of encounter with Ukraine which somehow for mysterious reasons went wrong.

The second thing we notice about this story is that this is not the story about the future, it’s a story about the past. And here we see something characteristic about Mr. Putin’s regime. There is no future in the way that Mr. Putin talks about Russia. There’s only a past. A mythical past. And this is a characteristic problem of his kind of regime. In an oligarchy or in a kleptocracy, or plutocracy – whatever you prefer – where all the resources are captured by a few elites around the center of the regime – it’s very difficult to talk about the future. It’s very difficult to imagine the future. So in that situation, what the kleptocratic regime does is it produces myths about the past. It fills the space of politics where there is no future, with the past.

But the problem here is that the story doesn’t have Russians in it. The story doesn’t have people in it. What the story reveals is just how early Russia is in the development of its own national story. The way that Mr. Putin tells his story, Ukraine is there as a kind of crutch. Belarus is there as a kind of crutch. Russia is unable to tell a story about itself and so the story that is told relies upon other peoples. So, as I say, Mr. Putin’s essay is not really about Ukraine, it’s really about Russia. And what it’s telling us is that the head of state of the Russian Federation is not capable of telling a story that is only about Russia… that Russia has not yet reached the stage of development where that kind of thing is possible.

So when we read this essay in the context of Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine what it’s basically telling us is that Russia invaded Ukraine because Russians do not yet know who they are. Russia under Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine in order to be able to tell a kind of story about who Russians are. And this story – and this is a terrible thing for Russia – the story is entirely negative. The story is that “We are the people who are not understood by the rest of the world. We are the people who are not understood when we say we are the same people who the Ukrainians are. We are the people who are not understood by the Ukrainians when we tell them ‘You and I are the same people.’” So, what Mr. Putin is creating for Russia is a kind of identification which is mythical, which is located in the past, and which is entirely negative. It’s entirely dependent upon other people rejecting what Russians say about themselves and about the rest of the world.

And here’s where the problem, I think, reaches its deepest point: because this negative definition of Russia becomes a kind of substitute for an actual foreign policy. If Mr. Putin had an actual foreign policy, in the sense of foreign policy defined to protect the long-term interests of the Russian Federation and its peoples, that foreign policy would be concerned primarily with China. It would be concerned primarily with protecting Russian sovereignty vis-à-vis China. Russia has existential problems with respect to China. Russia has no such existential problems with respect to the West. But the invasion of Ukraine, and all of the storytelling about the invasion of Ukraine… it creates problems with the West which did not have to exist. In other words, what Mr. Putin has done with this invasion and this story it to cut Russia off from the West, entirely unnecessarily, and put Russia essentially in a position of being a country subordinate to China. That is Mr. Putin’s foreign policy “achievement.” Looked at with a cold eye, it seems very much like a foreign policy failure.

Insofar as Russia has leverage in the world, it’s because Russia is between the West and China. By invading Ukraine, Russia cut itself off from the West. Thereby it’s seriously weakening its position with respect to China. This is Mr. Putin’s foreign policy inheritance.

That leads me to the final point. That is something which is essentially unsayable in Russia, at least in public policy circles. And that is that Russia cut itself off from Ukraine. The whole thesis of Mr. Putin’s essay is that Russia and Ukraine should be together, but by some mysterious conspiracy of Western actors they’ve been held apart. The truth is actually much simpler than that. The truth is right in front of our eyes. The reason that Ukraine and Russia are not close is that Russia invaded Ukraine. In other words, if Mr. Putin’s goal really was to have Russia and Ukraine in friendly relations, it is no one else but precisely he who has made it impossible. Not just for the duration of his own regime, but for years and decades thereafter. In other words, if he really does care about this thing that he’s written about (and I think he does), I think the thing that he’s written is historically ridiculous, but I think he believes it as a human being. If he really does care about Russia and Ukraine being close, there is no human being in the world who is more to blame for the absence of those close relations than he himself, Vladimir Putin. It is he himself through his foreign policy, through his actions, through his choice to invade Ukraine, who has made close Russian and Ukrainian relations impossible. Now, this is unspeakable, this is something that cannot be said, and therefore Mr. Putin has to indulge in this long historical fantasy which allows him to say: “No, no, it wasn’t me, it was the West. It doesn’t have to do with something that just happened, my invasion of Ukraine. It has to do with some kind of long historical fable.”

And this brings me to the answer to the question: why this essay? Why now? Why seven years after the invasion of Ukraine? The answer has to do with not the past but the present. It has to do not with Ukraine but with Russia. And very particularly it has to do with late stages of Putin’s regime. Mr. Putin is the aging leader of a despotic regime. A despotic regime which has failed on its own terms. It has failed to establish Russia as an independent foreign policy actor. In fact, it has put Russia in the subordinate position vis-à-vis China. And it’s failed to bring Russia and Ukraine closer together. On the contrary, by invading Ukraine, Russia has insured Ukrainian enmity for a long period of time. So, at this stage of Mr. Putin’s career, what is left is to cover up these failures with a lie.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Timothy Snyder is one of the world’s leading historians and a prominent public intellectual in the United States and Europe. An expert on Eastern Europe and on the Second World War, he has written acclaimed and prize-winning books about twentieth-century European history, as well as political manifestos and analyses about the rise of tyranny in the contemporary world. His work has been translated into more than forty languages, and has inspired protest, art, and music. He serves as the Levin Professor of History and Public Affairs at Yale University and also a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

His chief books are Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (1998); The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (2003); Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (2005); The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke (2008); Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), Thinking the Twentieth Century (with Tony Judt, 2012); Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015); On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017); and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018). Snyder is co-editor of The Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in Europe and North America (2001); Stalin and Europe: Terror, War, Domination (2013); and The Balkans as Europe (2018). His essays are collected in Ukrainian History, Russian Politics, European Futures (2014), and The Politics of Life and Death (2015).

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Edited by: A. N.
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