Oct. 30, 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 on Russia’s “postmodern” approach to the truth on Tuesday, and his observations on Russia and the EU yesterday. Today, I will wrap up with Snyder’s comments about Russia’s handling of Ukraine specifically.]
The primary Russian strategy against Ukraine is to deny the very existence of Ukraine. Russia has tried to do this through propaganda in several ways. First, many Russian government officials never even speak of Ukraine, instead referring to the government of Ukraine as the “Nazi Fascist junta.” Second, Russia promotes the idea of “Novorossiya,” which harkens back to the greatest extent of the Russian empire, and subsumes Ukraine, as the logical place for Russian influence today. Russia also routinely denies the existence of the Ukrainian nation, instead considering them wayward Russians. Finally, Russia has promoted the idea that linguistic, not national, boundaries are the best way to define the region, and because Russia propaganda denies the existence of a Ukrainian language, linguistic boundaries render Ukraine meaningless.
According to Snyder, Russia has taken a “reverse asymmetry” approach to Ukraine. This means that while Russia is clearly the stronger power, it has resorted to using asymmetric warfare, including not wearing uniforms, using civilians as human shields, and others. In fact, Russia has deliberately used the tactic of partisans everywhere: get the Ukrainian army to shell Ukrainian cities in order to drum up popular support for the partisans. The result has been a humanitarian disaster in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The point of the “reverse asymmetry” policy is to convince domestic audiences and the world that Russia is indeed the weaker side. (The implication is that Russia is going up against not just Ukraine but the US as well.) But there is a limit to Russia’s “reverse asymmetry” policy: the number of actual Russians killed fighting. An overwhelming majority of Russians are opposed to fighting a war in Ukraine, but a majority also support current Russian activity there. That means that to most Russians, their understanding of Russia’s current activity in Ukraine falls short of being a war. This kind of reasoning only holds as long as Russian casualties are kept low or nonexistent.
According to Snyder, Ukraine’s biggest problem for the last 20, 10, and five years has all been the same: establishing rule of law. To many Ukrainians, the EU represents the rule of law, which is why the cancellation of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU last November was seen as a breaking point.
Snyder laid out a number of policy recommendations. First, Ukraine should be offered prospective EU membership. It wouldn’t be an immediate thing, but it would stimulate foreign direct investment in Ukraine, including, ironically, by Russian companies looking for an accessible foothold in the EU. Second, the US and Europe should come forth with major humanitarian aid for Ukrainians suffering in the fighting, especially before winter sets in. Snyder showed real concern for the fate of hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine who lack some combination of food, water, fuel, and electricity as winter approaches. Finally, the US at least should be aware that Russian policy is aimed at Europe, not the US, and that Russia invokes the US as a way to divide Europeans.
As an interesting side note, Snyder mentioned China has won the most from the Russia-Ukraine issue: it is now easier for China to negotiate gas prices with Russia, and contracts are now more enforceable in Ukraine, a boon to Chinese business there. In fact, China’s holds leases on 9% of fertile land in Ukraine. But Snyder felt that in the end, Russia will tilt back towards the West and away from China. The more Russia’s folly in Ukraine continues, though, the harder that eventual tilt will be because the Russian government will be shackled by the Russian public opinion it has created.