Natalia Tolub. Dec 20, 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to make his country an independent player in international politics, put Russia in a position subordinate to China, and damaged relations with the West and Ukraine. Timothy Snyder, a world-renowned historian and professor at Yale University, made a corresponding statement at the Kyiv Security Forum.
“What Mr. Putin has done with the invasion of Ukraine, and all of the storytelling about the invasion is to cut Russia off from the West, entirely unnecessarily, and put Russiaessentially 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,” he said.
Snyder underlined that Putin’s actions cut Russia off from Ukraine and damaged relations for decades to come.
“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 historian believes.
The reason that Ukraine and Russia are not close is that Russia invaded Ukraine. In other words, if 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. It is Putin 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’,” the Yale University professor noted.
He believes that Putin is the aging leader of a despotic regime that has failed on its own terms. It has 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 Putin’s career, what is left is to cover up these failures with a lie.
Absence of Russia in its history
According to Snyder, Putin’s famous essay expressing his own attitude about Ukrainian and Belorussian and Russian history is entirely without merit, historically speaking.
“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,” Snyder says.
According to him, one has to take Putin’s reflections seriously “not as history, because as history they’re laughable. But one has to take this seriously as politics.”
“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,” Snyder underscores.
What this reveals is just how early Russia is in the development of its own national story. The way that Putin tells his story, Ukraine and Belarus are kind of crutches. Russia is unable to tell a story about itself, and so the story that is told relies upon other people’s.
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 Putin’s regime: there is no future in the way that Putin talks about Russia, there’s only a past, a mythical past.
Snyder highlights that this is a characteristic problem of the Putin regime. In an oligarchy or in a kleptocracy, or plutocracy, 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. In the historian’s opinion, the problem is that the story doesn’t have Russians in it.
“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. And this story – and this is a terrible thing for Russia – the story is entirely negative,” Snyder said.
So, what Putin is creating for Russia is a kind of identification that is mythical, that is located in the past, and that is entirely negative. It’s entirely dependent upon other people rejecting what Russians say about themselves and about the rest of the world.