Western policy and Ukraine – interview with Timothy Snyder

A man with a capital M: Historian Timothy Snyder has been helping Ukraine become part of European history and civilization for many years
A man with a capital M: Historian Timothy Snyder has been helping Ukraine become part of European history and civilization for many years

Western policy errors, prospects of Donal Trump winning U.S. presidential elections, and major risks Ukraine faces in the war with Russia — the range of topics covered in an Oct. 21 NV interview with U.S. historian and Yale University professor Timothy Snyder.

At the annual meeting of the Yalta European Strategy (YES), organized with the support of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, everything revolves around the historian and political scientist: cameramen pin a lavalier microphone on Snyder, one of the director’s assistants pulls out a book for an autograph, while a photographer constantly takes pictures of the star guest.

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Snyder has been an intellectual A-list celebrity for the past 10 years, especially in Eastern Europe. It is he, a detail-oriented researcher of the Ukrainian history of the 20th century, a brilliant interpreter of the meanings of the Russian-Ukrainian war, who weaves Ukraine’s past and present into a global narrative.

Snyder speaks at numerous international venues, from conferences to the UN Security Council, advocates for international support to Ukraine, explains the fascist nature of the current Russian regime, and works on documenting Russian crimes in Ukraine. He raises funds to strengthen Ukrainian air defense and visits wounded Ukrainian troops in hospitals.

At the same time, Snyder remains an influential academic who does not stop pondering the fate of the West, particularly Europe, in the 21st century.

NV: Ukraine is belatedly receiving much-needed weapons. We understand the West is used to looking at Russia through the lens of the Cold War and Soviet greatness, and this tradition is still strong in assessing Russian risks in the West. Is the United States playing it too safe with Russia?

Snyder: I think we haven’t been afraid of Russia enough for a while. We thought that Russia has become a normal country, that [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin is a normal leader in essence, that he’s just a technocrat and is only interested in money. Therefore, I think that in the 2010s, we didn’t pay attention to the fact that Russia has become a completely different country. In my opinion, it was an oligarchic fascist country, these ideas were already important to Putin. I think we missed that period, didn’t notice it.

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You ask whether we in the West are afraid of the use of nuclear weapons. This fear has relatively little to do with the Cold War and more to do with people’s natural ability to feel anxious. I think Russia has largely learned to manage the feeling of fear and anxiety in people, and this is their important tool in international relations. The nuclear threat has become a tool of constant blackmail, our every action has been met with the threat of nuclear escalation. We’re told over and over again that there will be a nuclear war if we buy a new car. There will be a nuclear war if we paint our house. There will be a nuclear war if we change the school our children go to. No matter what we do, there will be a nuclear war. And it was quite effective intimidation during the first year of the war. But, I think, they’ve exhausted themselves.

NV: You call Russia an oligarchic fascist state, but for some time the West believed that the free market would bring democracy to Russia. Was it a miscalculation from the beginning? And if it was, has it been corrected now?

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Snyder: This is a great historical question because it involves mistakes that everyone has made. Paradoxically, the last stage of communism in the Soviet Union turned out to be monopoly capitalism. [Soviet dictator Joseph] Stalin designed the Soviet Union in such a way that it had only a few important enterprises. And since [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev, it [the Soviet Union] existed thanks to oil and gas exports. And when you get to 1991, you have this very centralized system with not so many enterprises. Only a few of them are profitable. Oil and gas are very profitable. Minerals are profitable. And you have a fight between several people for control over several sources of income. There is little room for democracy here. In my opinion, this is a mistake of the whole Leninist-Stalinist [political] tradition, the idea that you must concentrate everything.

But there is also the mistake that people in the West have made that any capitalism is good capitalism. Capitalism seemed a kind of magic. It seemed that it was necessary to simply remove the previous regime, and then capitalism would come and bring democracy. And we encouraged you, we encouraged people in the post-Soviet space in Eastern Europe to think just like that, to associate capitalism with democracy. And I think that was a big mistake that we made.

NV: We see this war is about correcting mistakes. Countries such as Ukraine and Moldova have been a grey area for Europe and the United States for a long time. Who are we now? Is the Western world ready to accept us as part of its family, or are we still the ones who are being helped out of compassion?

Snyder: I would certainly emphasize that everything has changed radically. I mean I’ve been working in Ukraine for almost 30 years, and what Ukraine means to people now is very different from what it meant two years ago. That is, you can only be a family member when someone knows that you exist. And now everyone knows that Ukraine exists, and the associations that people in Europe and the United States have with Ukraine and Ukrainians are generally positive.

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But there is an institutional issue that is more complicated. I think Ukraine should be a member of both the European Union and NATO so that both institutions will continue to function. And that’s why I think the Ukrainian leadership is right when they say that it’s important. But it’s important not only for Ukrainians, but it’s also important for all of us. Because, as this war shows, and I’ve been trying to prove this for a long time, it’s impossible to make Europe safe without ensuring Ukraine’s security. So even if you don’t care about Ukraine, you should still think about it as the missing piece of your security. If we can integrate Ukraine correctly, everything will probably be fine with the rest of Europe. And I continue to think so and insist on it.

NV: We see the war in Ukraine is dragging on and costing many lives of Ukrainians. But how much does each new year cost the civilized world when Russia is not defeated? What might be the consequences of such delay?

Snyder: I’d rather count something positive than negative. I think the Ukrainians themselves can provide a better argument for how much they’re doing for other countries by waging this war. So, when you’re waging this war, resisting Russia, you’re preventing Russia from attacking anybody else. By waging this war, you’re actually carrying out NATO’s entire mission yourself. You absorb and repel the Russian attack, which has been NATO’s main mission for 70 years. And you do it with a tiny, almost invisible percentage of NATO’s defense budgets.

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You also make war in the Pacific far less likely. Because if Ukraine defeats Russia, it will be much more difficult for Beijing to decide to attack Taiwan. You give us security in a very, very deep way. And we tend to take it for granted, or we tend to say: “Ukraine is risky, I don’t like these risks.” But in fact, Ukraine is already making the world much safer today.

Therefore, I answer a slightly different question: I would say the biggest risk we face is not making sure that Ukraine wins. Because all these things I mentioned and a few more, such as the risk of nuclear war or the preservation of international law, depend on Ukraine’s victory. Therefore, the biggest risk we can take as a world is not helping you win.

NV: Ukrainian intellectuals are currently discussing the fact that modern Western Europe is made up of people lulled by the feeling of their own security. They live in a world where war is impossible, that’s why it’s so difficult for them to accept the need to bring this war to Ukraine’s victory as soon as possible. Is that the case?

Snyder: I have a slightly different idea about this. I think Western Europeans have repressed their own imperial past. That is, on average, not many people in the Netherlands think about Indonesia. France doesn’t think much about Vietnam and Algeria. And Germany doesn’t think too much about Ukraine, which was its target in WWII. I mean the Second World War was Germany’s imperial war for control of Ukraine. But in opinion polls, if you ask Germans, I think only 1 % of them see it that way. Therefore, it seems to me that Western Europeans don’t think of themselves as countries with an imperial past. They think of themselves as peaceful people. And that’s why they don’t look at Russia and say it’s another imperial country waging an imperial war. And they don’t take the logical step they should have taken, namely: we became good and peaceful countries that we are only after we lost [imperial] wars. The European Union appeared only because we all lost wars for our empires.

Therefore, Russia must lose this war. I think Europeans misunderstand their own history. And I think that this prevents them from understanding the main thing, namely that this war in Ukraine is an imperial war. Imperial warfare is the opposite of what they’re enjoying now. And the people who wage imperial wars must lose.

That’s why it’s so important for Ukrainians to continue to convey the individual experience of people in the war. The Ukrainian experience is a very good remedy for peaceful oblivion. Because if someone comes to Kyiv, or if they have a Ukrainian friend, they begin to look at certain things differently.

NV: Ukraine is one of the important topics of the next presidential elections in the United States. What should Ukraine do if Donald Trump comes to power?

Snyder: Your main task is to talk to your European partners now that you have a plan. Because Europeans have a nasty habit of blaming us, Americans, for everything. And it’s often justified, and it’s our fault. But in this case what is happening is that the Europeans are saying: “Oh no, what if Trump wins?” Well, if Trump wins, he’ll pull the United States out of Ukraine, he’ll pull the United States out of Europe, and he’ll quite possibly pull the United States out of NATO.

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If Trump wins, all Americans will do for four years is stage insurgencies and counterinsurgencies across the country. And even in the worst case, Europe still has the resources to support Ukraine and win this war. I think it’s very important to tell the Europeans about this now, because the Europeans are psychologically preparing themselves to say: “Well, the Americans are gone, and we’ll probably have to lose.” And this is a very dangerous way of thinking. It shouldn’t be allowed.

We know it will be bad if Trump wins. If Trump wins, if [candidate from the Republican Party] Vivek Ramaswamy wins, if [another Republican] Ron DeSantis wins, it will be very bad for you. This is absolutely 100 % clear.

NV: Politics is the art of the possible. Will Ukraine be able to somehow influence Trump’s allies and supports if they take power? What arguments could work for them?

Snyder: All you can do is tell the Americans that you’re doing better for them, not worse. Because there are actually quite a few people among Republicans who understand how important Ukraine is. It’s a very divided party on issues regarding Ukraine. And it’s important to tell the Republicans, to give them arguments that you’re solving the problems facing the United States, not creating them. And help them as much as possible. It’s the only thing you can really do.

NV: We’re focused on war, and it’s clear that we look at it differently than much of the world. But still, what’s important for them that Ukrainians don’t think about or don’t know?

Snyder: As for the United States, your main problem is not how they feel about Russia, but how they feel about China. Everyone in the United States is obsessed with China. And when people try to explain how important Ukraine or even Russia is, our “Chinese” [-obsessed] community says: yes, the war in Ukraine is very important, but it will be over in a year, and what really matters is China. Therefore, the important argument to be made, and it’s a true argument, is that the best policy toward China is a good policy toward Ukraine, because if Ukraine wins, we’ll have a lot less reason to worry about China.

Yes, there are problems with the perception of this war. We really don’t have Ukrainian experts. We have only a few experts on Russia left. Very few people who are now making policy toward Russia actually know Russian, unlike the situation 50 years ago. Today, everyone is interested in China.

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But another thing I want to say about this is that it’s important for Ukrainians themselves not to be post-imperial. Yes, Russian culture is better known in the United States, but to be honest, people like me, people who work in the government, in the elite, will say: “Oh, yes, of course I’ve read [Russian novelist Fyodor] Dostoevsky.” But the truth is that there is a lot of room for Ukraine to positively impose itself as a culture. So instead of telling Americans that [Russian poet and novelist Alexander] Pushkin is an imperialist, which he is, tell them that [Ukrainian poet and novelist Serhiy] Zhadan deserves a Nobel Prize. Tell them about all this war poetry being written now. Tell them about Ukrainian culture now, because Ukrainian culture has been amazing for the last 10 years. So, it’s better to make a positive push than to worry so much about what the Russians are doing. You shouldn’t worry so much about Russia, you should take care of yourself and the future.

NV: This year you gave a course on the history of Ukraine at Yale University. What was the most interesting feedback from your students?

Snyder: You know, this is a quite easy-going academic course in the United States. The most interesting thing for me was to find out that many Ukrainians took this course. The best thing I hear from Ukrainians is when they say: “Oh, it helped me understand my own history.” And it’s nice, because it’s not just a compliment, it shows that Ukrainians are ready to continue thinking about their history, which is very important.

I also particularly like, and it has already happened several times, when Ukrainian soldiers say: “You know, I was listening to your lecture as a podcast.” I think: “That’s great.”

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine