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Snyder: There will be no Maidan on Red Square

FOTO N - Vladimír Šimíček
FOTO N – Vladimír Šimíček

Kremlin wants to disrupt the whole process of European integration of which Ukraine is only one example, says historian and Yale professor Timothy Snyder.

In a few days the EU will very probably prolong the sanctions against Russia, are they working? Are they an effective enough way for the West to contain Russia in Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea and the support of separatism in the east of the country?

The sanctions are primarily important because they demonstrate the existence of unity and the capacity for decision making of the European Union. One can never be sure how sanctions will affect the targeted country because there are so many variables at play. The main purpose of the sanctions is to demonstrate that the European Union is united enough to follow through with this policy. If you ask me if it’s enough, no, clearly it’s not enough. In my view the most important Russia policy is Ukraine policy. Russia is a very opaque authoritarian regime which is very resistant to outside influence, for better or for worse.  If Ukraine is a fragile state under partial military occupation with obvious economic and political problems, sanctions are a necessary tactic for the immediate moment, but the real strategy is to take time and financial resources to try to strengthen the Ukrainian state.

A year ago you proposed in an article that the EU should offer candidate status for Ukraine. But as we saw recently, the Riga Eastern Partnership Summit was a big disappointment without big steps forward. Is Europe afraid of Ukraine?

Generally I would say the idea of prospective membership is a very positive thing. It was very positive for Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary.  The present situation is similar to that after 1989. Poland was not going to the EU immediately after 1989 but future membership was a very important prospect. So even if it took 15 years, as it did,  you had this target, this idea that if you are doing the right things you will be rewarded. Ukrainians are not stupid, they know in any case that they won’t be full members of the EU tomorrow or in five years.   But nevertheless the idea that it’s possible is very important. Rather than say we can’t do this in ten years – which everyone knows anyway – it’s better to say that in principle membership is possible if you do right things. It’s the same message but the way how you deliver it is important politically.

What would it do to Europe if it absorbed Ukraine?

The EU has no choice but to constantly enlarge. I think because what has happened with the EU is that its very existence generates a positive model for the European states which are on its borders. Even in for some people Russia entry to the EU is seen as a positive future. You can’t stop enlargement because each example shows it’s possible. If Slovakia or Romania can be in the EU, why not Ukraine, honestly? Or in some distant future why not Russia? You can’t stop the dynamic. The second reason why it would be a good thing – is it makes sense for the EU to consider itself as a kind of state-building project. Europe and Asia are safer when there are functional states which control their territories and borders.

Will the EU will be stronger then?

Helping Ukraine to move towards membership is helping Ukraine to build a normal functional state and that is in the interest of everyone, including for that matter Russia.  And once Ukraine is in the EU, it has a lot to offer. It has a highly educated population. It has quality agricultural land which the EU doesn’t have so much of. From Dnipropetrovsk to Brussels everybody knows what needs to happen in Ukraine – anticorruption and the rule of law. And that is something that Ukrainians cannot do by themselves.  They need very significant conditional aid targeted to specific segments of the Ukrainian society.

Aren’t the military actions of Mr. Putin an attempt to stop Ukraine from being a more modern European country?

It doesn’t seem that Russia has an interest in annexing eastern territories; if it did it could – who would stop them. Russia doesn’t seem to care about the population of these territories. If they cared they would not start a war which costs thousands lives, injuries, and millions of displaced people. Ruining people’s lives a strange way to show concern. But I think you are right that Russian leaders believe that they have an interest in is disrupting the Ukrainian state, but it’s much bigger than that. They want to disrupt the whole process of European integration of which Ukraine is only one example. The Maidan was about the orientation of Ukraine towards Europe. The Russian response was not just to disable the Ukrainian state but to try to hurt the European Union by supporting right wing populist forces inside the EU. By claiming that the EU is decadent and so on.

We see that Putin has some allies among the radical left and right wings. Is he a new prototype of a nationalist who radicals admire?

I think it’s a question for the radicals. There are three things: firstly, some of the populists and fascists them are getting their money and attention from Putin and pretty much everyone likes to receive money, the second thing is about some ideological affinities especially with the anti-human rights, anti-sexual rights and minorities agendas, and thirdly, a common interest in destroying the EU. The Russian strategy is essentially destructive, to turn the European Union into a big mass of nation-states in which Russia would be relatively more powerful. The EU is essentially the best way of life ever offered in the history of the West; the Russian offer is to destroy that in the name of a Donetsk-type lifestyle.  Alliances with European populists, or Nazis and fascists are pulling those countries out of the EU.

European parliament wants to monitor the financing of populist parties by Russia, but is the bigger problem not politicians like Fico or Orban from traditional parties who are fighting against the sanctions?

The Russian strategy has several different levels. One is you support true radicals, Nazis, fascists or people who can cause a lot of troubles, another is you support the populist right, people against the EU, then you support separatism of all kind – the claim that the Scottish referendum was falisified, friendly support of UKIP in England; and the next thing is you cultivate members  states among the EU  to varying degrees, like Hungary, Slovakia, Cyprus, Greece or the Czech Republic.  If you have a pro-Russian voting block inside the EU then the EU cannot make policy.

You mentioned the unity of the EU, isn’t it surprising that after a year there hasn’t been a rebel among the 28 states who could veto the sanctions against Russia?

The present moment is a challenge to the European Union and it’s very important that it has a united response. It is a little surprising that is has been possible so far, but we cannot be too optimistic because there are some leaders who constantly put these sanctions in doubt.  As I say the real test is a package of financial support that would help in the construction of the Ukrainian state.  If 10% of the budget devoted to Greece were devoted to that, we might see real progress.

In one month Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in Moscow twice, during the 9th of Maycelebration he was the only EU prime minister in the Russian capital, does it say something about Slovak diplomacy?

What struck me most was that he was the only prime minister from the EU. I know little about his career so I don’t know his motivation. As a general matter what united Western leaders was the idea that commemoration of the Second World War is about peace and not about war. The way how Moscow celebrated was threatening to its neighbors. Why Slovakia as a country close to Russia would be interested in celebrating the Second World War in this imperialist way is a question for Slovak elites.

Mr. Fico came to Moscow at a time when Russian state TV broadcast a documentary which describes the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as brotherly help to prevent a NATO and fascist coup. Before this Russian officials had apologized for the invasion. What do you think of this new wave of rewriting history where Stalin is seen as a good leader and the pact with Hitler as a positive thing?

The whole scheme of Russian history now is that everything that happens now, in the future or happened in the past, that the current Russian leadership doesn’t like – is a result of a American plot against Russia. They are even claiming in museum exhibitions that the medieval period was the result of a western conspiracy against Russia. So it’s not just now, the Maidan was a plot, 1991 was a plot, 1968 was a plot, everything was a plot. This of course is ridiculous and eventually will offend everyone except Russians. But this is very bad for Russia. If you think that in your history everything is a conspiracy against you, it generates this siege mentality where you think you are right and everyone else is wrong and constantly persecutes you for no reason. It’s very important to have a normal history where you realize that sometimes you are wrong and sometimes you are right. History is much more complicated than just an international plot.

What does this view on their own history mean?

The whole problem with the idea of an anti-Russian international conspiracy is that it means that whatever Russia does, it is right and and justified in doing anything. The second relevant thing for politicians like Prime Minister Fico is the lesson that the Kremlin is going to humiliate you. You can go to Moscow and say I agree with your vision of the Second World War and then they will humiliate you with their vision of the Prague Spring. There is no friendly cooperation of equals of the kind Slovakia can expect in the EU.  Before you go to Moscow you have to know that and learn from that.  You have to expect that your nation’s actual history will be treated like a meaningless political resource.

In your book Bloodlands you describe the mass killings done by Hitler and Stalin. Now what we see in Russia is not only the glorification of Stalin by Putin but even the defending of his pact with Hitler which is generally considered in the West as a deal with the devil.

There are really good reasons why the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is seen as a negative turning point in Europe, chiefly because it began the Second World War. All of the horrors of the Second World War followed from this pact. What is Russia up to? Perhaps if you are going to rehabilitate Stalin as a good manager you really have no choice but to rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I don’t think that is such a good example of being a good manager.  Hitler wanted to destroy the European system and was successful. Putin can’t say directly that he admires Hitler’s diplomacy, but rehabilitating the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is a way of rehabilitating the process of state destruction. This pact happened in the middle of the period from 1939-1941, when the European order was destroyed, when Germans and Russians worked together, when Czechoslovakia disappeared, Poland disappeared. Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia all of them went away. Six states were removed from the map so you can basically say the old order vanished. My basic read of this rewriting of history is that it is part of Putin’s attempt to destroy the European order. The other interesting thing, which may or may not be coincidence, is that Russia is trying to reach out to the extreme right. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the same thing: reaching out to the extreme right in the hope of turning its energies against the existing European order.

When Putin is watching what’s happening in Ukraine, is he satisfied or has he still not achieved what he wanted?

I will say the same thing I said a year ago. This is a strategic disaster for Russia because its strategy depends on balancing between the European Union and China and when you alienate one of them then you are forced to lean to the other. What’s happened is that Russia is becoming more and more a satellite of China. I don’t think its great geopolitics or strategy. The sudden tilt to China is a mistake because it limits Russia’s options in the future. Normally they could choose between west and east in the future. But by invading they lost the western option, which doesn’t make sense from the point of view of their own interest. They can never admit that they are losing. But we are in a situation where everybody has lost. Europe, Russia, Ukraine even America is losing. It’s not a zero sum game; it’s a negative sum game. The biggest losers are the thousands of dead Ukrainians, Russian soldiers and their families, millions of refugees. Only China is winning.

But Moscow can’t say that…

Russia’s regime cannot acknowledge that they have made the world hostile. I think Putin expected that the Ukrainian state would collapse; the Kremlin hoped there would be no Ukrainian state, no Ukrainian nation. They expected that as soon they went into Crimea everything would collapse, but it did not happen, even when they entered Donbas with the same expectations. Although the Ukrainian state is very weak and needs lots of help it hasn’t collapsed and continues to exist. You can expect that if you invade someone the state could consolidate rather than fall apart. Now places like Kharkiv, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk exhibit a much more Ukrainian orientation.

Putin has helped them to find a Ukrainian identity about which they were probably never thinking before this crisis?

That happened immediately after the invasion of Crimea a year ago and it’s very sad. The idea of Russian civilization is fine if you are reading Dostoevsky for example, but when Russian civilization is defined as politics then people are forced to make a choice. The moment when Russian tanks cross the Ukrainian border Ukrainian citizens have to make a choice. Than Ukrainians are forced to define Russia as a hostile and different society; millions of Ukrainians have said this, including Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The Kremlin pushed things too far by making the  claim that everybody who speaks Russian is somehow part of the Russian political world. When you say that ‘Russkiy mir’ is more than just civilization, you can expect resistance. You cannot say every place where they speak English, like Canada or Nevada, is part of the British empire.  People will be happy to read Shakespeare in school, but that does not mean that they will welcome the British navy.    So the invasion of Ukraine is a huge historical turning point. It’s the first time for a long time that people in that part of the world can choose and now they have chosen and it’s part of the Russian strategic failure. Russia no longer has a great amount of sympathy in Ukraine.

The leadership of Donetsk and Luhansk separatists stopped the Novorossia project. Is this project dead?

It would require more Russian weapons and soldiers and a bigger war than we see now. They have two strategic logics – one that Novorossia needs a port like Mariupol. The second is that it would take years to build a bridge to Crimea and it’s cheaper to just conquer the territory and that would mean a much more aggressive attempt to destroy Ukraine and to sever it from the Black Sea. What I am pretty sure of is that if they would choose either option the West’s reaction would be qualitatively different  than its response so far. Then you are moving to areas where civilian resistance will be much more significant with the help of the Ukraine military which is already stationed there. After a year of listening to Russian propaganda western elites are much smarter. Not like with Crimea and Donbas. They are not going to be surprised by an attempt to build a land bridge to Crimea; they will automatically categorize it as a Russian invasion.

Nobody knows what’s going on in Putin’s head?

No, this is the problem of tyranny, that we are forced to ask questions with no answers.

After Crimea and even more so after the murder of Nemtsov Russian experts are very skeptical about the authoritarian trend in their country, where opponents are murdered, NGO´s labeled not only as foreign agents but also as undesirable, and journalists are afraid for their lives. The western dream of democratic Russia, even Obama’s attempt at a ‘reset’ was naive?

Foreign war is often done as a substitute, for example when you don’t want to make reforms. Fighting the war in Ukraine was a way for Putin to consolidate his position without actually doing anything for Russian society. This is true for all kind of regimes. When the USA invaded Iraq in 2003, which was also in my view a strategic disaster, what I said at the time was that it does make leaders too popular and thus bound for a fall. The difference is that in a democracy there is a way out. Eventually you can elect somebody from a different party. Russia doesn’t have this option because it is not a democracy. This means that no one has a way out of this. The only thing to do is to say that this is terrific, this is great and blaming the western world more and more which means Russians feel more isolated. It is a vicious circle. It almost never goes the way you want when you invade another country. There is no serious debate in Russia about what’s happening. So it’s normal that the regime feels threatened and things like Nemtsov’s murder have to be expected when a dictatorship is fighting a war. That is why I think the war is just as bad for Russia as it is for Ukraine, if not worse.  It puts Russia in a situation where no one can see a way out.

In comparison with Central Asian leaders Putin is still young so he can rule for decades…

Because of their story about Maidan as an American plot and the fear there could be a Maidan at Red Square they have put a lot of money into the security apparatus, from FSB, and the Night wolves to Chechen paramilitaries, they have some kind of security pluralism. In preparing for a situation which will never happen, since there will never be a Maidan on Red Square, they have overprepared and this is when something bad can happen. They have created too many guys with too many guns who don’t have real jobs because there is no Maidan and no real Russian opposition.

Putin’s popularity after Crimea jumped as never before and is still high. Does it mean that for Russians it is more important to be imperialistic than to have a free society?

Leaders are always popular during wars. President George Bush Senior during the first Iraq war had a rating of about 90 percent and he managed to lose the elections. Russian propaganda has also created an atmosphere where everybody is against Russia, and even educated Russians from the middle class tend to believe this. Thirdly, if you don’t have real elections in Russia, it means that the Russian leader has to be very popular. Not like in the West where with popularity of about 40 or 30 percent you can still govern. Putin will not have 80 percent forever and at the moment when it will be lower than 70 the Levada center will either stop with public surveys or they will be faked. This is the tragedy, when you have 80, you need 80 forever to legitimize you.

In Ukraine it is a totally different situation, a year after the election of Poroshenko many people are disappointed with slower reforms than they expected, on the other hand we have seen many big things like the statues of Lenin that have fallen in cities like Kharkiv, and some conflicts with oligarchs. You are quite often in Ukraine, what’s your impression?

The basic mood is moved by the senseless war, people are dying, and every big city has a lot of refugees. One in ten people in Kharkiv is a refugee, imagine that in Bratislava. What we are also thinking is that Ukraine cannot reform by itself as Slovakia or Poland could not do it before. There has to be a lot more aid provided to Ukraine and of course it has to be wisely used. They need hundreds of billions of dollars divided among several thousand things.

What is your opinion on the package of desovietization and denazification laws which also include controversial paragraphs about 20th century Ukrainian freedom fighters? Isn’t it similar to the controversial Russian law about the role of the Soviet Army? Shouldn’t the debate on history be widely open?

That’s my view exactly. I am against all such history laws, even the German one. If you can’t win a debate about your own history, about National Socialism being bad, laws cannot help you.  There are bad and worse history laws. The Ukrainian one is somewhere in between Russian and German one. The Russian is more specific about what you can and cannot do and I believe the Russians will prosecute you; I don’t believe Ukraine will prosecute you. I think it discredits laws if you cannot implement them. I made my career by writing about ethnic cleansing in the region and also about UPA. Are they going to prosecute me when I fly to Kyiv next week? I don’t think so. Even Poland has a law like this which says you can’t criticizes Poles for taking part in Communism and National Socialism which is crazy because obviously those regimes could not have existed without some cooperation. And plenty of Polish historians have violated this laws and no one has been prosecuted. The real question is – do you want to be a country where you debate stuff and are surprised because history is full of surprises or do you want to be a country where they try to scare people about debate. Do you want to be an open or closed country? Ukrainian identity is not a problem, now it is as clear as Italian identity. Their problem is state administration and rule of law. When the government passes laws like this I worry that it’s not fixing real problems. What you need is an effective Ukrainian state, and these kinds of laws are just distractions.

Are Ukrainians ready to debate about the leader of UPA, Stepan Bandera, whose portrait was also visible at Maidan,  and who Russia used to describe the Ukrainian government as fascist?

Give them 60 years. How quickly did the Germans deal  with Adolf Hitler? The whole history of the Holocaust in Germany as serious history started in the 1990´s. I would say don’t pass historical laws,.  don’t be sure who was hero or villain, open archives, which they have done, let historians write and see what happens. Let them have their own discussion. I have researched issues which a lot Ukrainians don’t like. Debate is very important, just listening to the government or foreigners can be misleading. You need your own debate and it takes time.

There is consensus among EU leaders that Minsk II is the only chance how to limit the conflict in Ukraine. But even during the ceasefire everyday people are dying. Can a Minsk agreement achieve a peaceful solution?

I don’t think that Minsk can actually solve the problem since Russia will not admit that they have troops in Ukraine and therefore, logically, cannot remove them.  In the Minsk document they signed an agreement that foreign troops will be removed but it doesn’t mention Russian forces. So can we expect anything from this agreement. How would you expect me to leave this room if I will not admit I am in it? The process should go on, but the real game is not Minsk. It’s the competition between occupied territories and the rest of country. I don’t think Russian forces will withdraw from Donbas anytime soon. So long as they are there you cannot have normal rule of law there. The real game is the long term competition between trying to build a functional state which respects basic human rights and alternatives like  Crimea and the separatist´s so called DNR and LNR, a competition about which one is better. The West should focus on how they can help Ukraine build a better democratic state. If we wait until they withdraw from southern and eastern Ukraine than we will never help this country.

If Russia does not admit to having troops in Ukraine does this mean it is a hybrid war?

A war where you lie about commencing hostilities and use illegal techniques like no insignias on uniforms is worse. Intellectuals are mistaken when they say we are not sure if it’s a war. But the truth is it’s worse than regular war. It’s war plus deceitful illegal tactics. It is designed to confuse people. There is no doubt that it’s conventional war – they have sent tanks, rocket system, troops.

If you could, how would you define this period we are living in?

I would agree with everyone who is saying that it is a post postcold war period. The period from 1989 to 2014 with consensus on borders, continuous EU enlargement, this period is over now. Russia has broken the rules of the post cold war period, they broke Helsinki,  the Budapest memorandum etc. For Russia it’s uncharted territory, for the EU it’s a big challenge which members have to respond to.

We are in the post-post Cold War period.  This is the era when Europeans do (or don’t) realize that the project is liberating and Enriching and requires some effort to defend.


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