Oct. 29, 2014 by Darius
[A few days ago, I attended a very interesting talk by Yale University professor Timothy Snyder entitled “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options.” I shared some of Snyder’s remarks yesterday, on Russia’s “postmodern” approach to the truth, and I will wrap up tomorrow with Snyder’s comments about Russia’s handling of Ukraine specifically.]
According to Prof. Snyder, in the summer of 2013, Russian foreign policy was reoriented to portray the European Union, not the United States, as Russia’s primary geopolitical foe. According to Russian foreign policy at this time, the EU was a central, institutional adversary whose existence was a threat to Russia. Russian propaganda against the EU kicked into high gear. The preferred line of attack has been that the EU is “decadent”—morally corrupt and inevitably doomed to fail and fall apart.
According to Snyder, though, the period from November 2013 to March 2014 can be seen as the biggest failure in Russian foreign policy since 1941. The fundamental miscalculation was that Russia believed it could buy off and/or threaten now-deposed President Yanukovych of Ukraine. The results: Russia lost control over a largely pliant government in Ukraine, Russia lost Ukrainian public opinion, and Russia lost its relationship with the West. Russia’s strategic balance between the EU and China was shattered, as evidenced by the signing of an economic deal with China that didn’t actually benefit Russia. Now, Russia can’t admit its mistake, so it must cast doubt on the entire global order to keep a small piece of Ukraine.
Snyder described Russian strategy as one of relativism. Russia faces many absolute weaknesses. Thus, the only way for it to increase its relative power is to weaken its neighbors. This applies to the EU. Altogether, the EU is vastly stronger than Russia in almost every conceivable measure. This strength, though, depends on the EU’s cohesion. That is why Russian foreign policy has been directed at fomenting discord and breakup of the EU. This policy has taken many forms. On the propaganda end, the recurring message that the EU is decadent is paired with the message that Russia is morally healthy and the defender of the “true” and Christian Europe. The implication is that when the EU inevitably disintegrates, Russia will be left as the standard-bearer of the true Europe. On a more substantial level, Russia actively supports right-wing populist parties across Europe, from the UK Independence Party in Britain to the Front National in France to even neo-Nazi parties in Austria. When Russia brought in “international observers” for the Crimean referendum on leaving Ukraine and joining Russia, almost all of those international observers represented right-wing neo-Nazi groups.
Additionally, Russia has employed two propaganda ploys aimed at European audiences. The first is that all Ukrainians are fascists. Snyder said the Ukrainian government is regularly referred to in Russian propaganda as the “Nazi fascist junta.” Clearly, this is designed to appeal to the European left wing. The second is that the whole Ukraine issue is about geopolitics. This claim is designed to convince Europeans that the issue is really the United States’s fault and isn’t either their problem or their responsibility to deal with.
In Snyder’s view, Ukraine has been on the direct receiving end of a Russian policy aimed at the EU. This means that until Russian policy towards the rest of Europe changes, Russian policy towards Ukraine will not change.
Tomorrow, I’ll share Snyder’s comments about Russia’s policy towards Ukraine.