Tim Snyder: How Putin Misjudged the Western ResponseHistorians in the News
tags: Vladimir Putin, Russian history, Tim Snyder
While a horrible humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Ukraine right now, and while the horrific slog ahead is highly uncertain, the Russian effort has reportedly bogged down. In part due to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s successful rallying, fantasies that the West would fracture in the face of the Russian onslaught haven’t materialized.
Why did Putin get this so wrong? For an answer, I reached out to Timothy Snyder, who has written numerous books about Russia, Ukraine and the region. An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.
Greg Sargent: What is it about Putin’s way of seeing the world, and his understanding of his own mythologies, that made it inevitable that he’d underestimate the Western response?
Timothy Snyder: For me the most revealing text here is the victory declaration, which the Russian press agency accidentally published on Feb. 26. What they say is that the West just basically needed one more push to fall into total disarray.
If you watch Jan. 6 clips over and over again, you can get that impression. The Russians really have been fixated on Jan. 6.
They thought a successful military operation in Ukraine would be that nudge: We’d feel helpless, we’d fall into conflict, it would help [Donald] Trump in the U.S., it would help populists around the world.
Sargent: When you say Russia has been making a lot of Jan. 6 — what do they read into it?
Snyder: Number one, they use it to mock us by saying, “These are just peaceful protesters.” Number two, they use it for one of their favorite arguments, which is that democracy is a joke everywhere.
But the deeper point is that Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election on Jan. 6 made the American system look fragile. They think, “One more Trump and the Americans are done.” In invading Ukraine, they think they’re putting huge pressure on the Biden administration. They’re going to make Biden look weak.
That probably was their deep fantasy about the West: Successful military occupation in Ukraine; the Biden administration is totally impotent; we humiliate them; Trump comes back; this is a big strategic victory for us.