Espreso. Global

Many reasons to believe Putin's regime must end – historian Timothy Snyder

26 March, 2023 Sunday

Historian Timothy Snyder believes that the arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin is the first step towards the complete collapse of his regime in the Russian Federation


He expressed this opinion in an interview with the Espreso TV channel.

Hello, and thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and to ask you a few questions.

Glad to be with you. 

Mr. Snyder one year into the war. Can we at least try to make some interim conclusions about the war, and I don't talk about the situation on a battlefield. I talk about the perception of the war in Western Europe in the West and maybe in Russia.

Well, if we start from the West, the way people see Ukraine has certainly changed. So you Ukraine is now been established in every society as an important country, and people are interested in Ukraine and in the Ukrainian past, which is something very new. In terms of the political debate, a shift has taken place from can Ukraine survive to can Ukraine win, which is a very different question.

As far as Russia is concerned, I think we are looking at a war that the Russian leadership chose and cannot abandon and which it will fight to the end, whether it is the end of the war in Ukraine or whether it is the end of the regime, but they will fight to the end.

Let's talk about the latest decision of the International Criminal Court in Dutch Hague. And this court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Putin. Should he be afraid about this? Or maybe he is sitting somewhere behind Kremlin walls and is just laughing?

So number one the most important thing about the arrest warrant from the Hague is that it reminds us that law matters. Russia has broken essentially every possible form of international law by invading Ukraine, and in doing so it threatens not only Ukraine and its people, but the whole idea of there being an international order. So whether or not Putin is actually arrested, the idea that law matters and that law governs is really important, and it's one of the things that Ukraine is defending for the rest of us. As for Putin, he's probably not concerned about being arrested but I don't think he likes being condemned by the West. Why? Because although the Russians tell us every day that they hate us and they don't care about us and they despise us, the West is nevertheless the only source of internal prestige. It's where they send their children to study in schools. It's the model for how they dress and for how they talk and how they do television and they care. Putin will not forget that this happened to him and neither will Russian history. I also think it makes his life more complicated because any thought that he could not travel to Germany or he could not travel to 132 countries has now been made more complicated. But maybe even more important than that is that this will be read inside Russian domestic politics. There are many reasons to think that Putin regime should come to an end. Just if you're a Russian player now and this is one more reason. It doesn't help your country to have a leader who can't travel and is seen by many people as a war criminal.

Mr. Snyder. Do you really think he might be arrested in Germany, for example, if he decided to go there? 

Yeah. But he's not going to go to Germany.

Yes, I know but if he...

Yeah, look, can Trump be arrested? We all face the same issue is somebody above the law, and if we care about law, we have to say no. No one is above the law. The laws above all of us equally. So can Trump be arrested? I hope so. Can Putin be arrested? I hope so. It depends upon us if we say, oh no these things never happen. What we're doing is we're saying dictators always win, but they don't. Charles Taylor was tried by the Hague, Milosovich was tried by the Hague. They don't always win. And whether or not in this particular case, they're going to win, we have to say well, he should be put on trial. We will try to put him on trial, and will urge the Germans to arrest him. And by the way, I think it's very important in Germany's own history, in Germany's own self-image that they said publicly we will arrest him that seems to me because they've gone a long way very quickly from saying this is an important international partner to saying, this is a possible war criminal who we would arrest. That's actually quite a transition. And I really hope, as do all of Ukrainians, that someday Putin will be arrested and tried. 

So to explain what is happening right now in Russia, you even invented the special terms schizofascism. So I have two questions about this. First, can you please tell us more about it? What is the difference between schizofascism and just fascism, and has this Russian schizofascism somehow evolved during the year after the beginning of the full scale of invasion.

So first of all in fairness, since I started talking about schizofascism it turns out that there is actually a Russian thinker who uses the term schizofascism, which I didn't know but so it's not clear that I invented it. But schizofascism means I'm a fascist and I say you're the fascist. This term I think helps us to understand what Russia is. So fascists talk about fascism. I mean in Russia, in Russian Nazi or fascist means my enemy, it means not Russian. It doesn't have any substantive content. So when people in the West hear the word fascism or Nazi, we think okay, you're talking about concentration camps and a one-party state and all these things. But in the official Russian political language, it just means the enemy whoever I don't like today. That's all it means, whoever's against us. That's all it means and so people who really are fascists like Alexander Dugan or Prokhanov. They have no trouble calling people who are liberals or democrats fascists because to them it just means well you're against Russia. You're the end. You're my enemy of choice today. And that's the important thing because it's actually fascism which is all about enemies so that someone has to think about this a little bit. The fact that the fascists are calling you a fascist actually just means that they're fascists.

Mr. Snyder when I read about this term schizofascism, I immediately thought about the term maybe it would someday appear schizoputinism because I will explain what. I mean because when I read the Russian newspapers on the Internet or when I watch the Russian propaganda TV channels, those people are thinking about Putin as the only leader to save Russia. They think about him like the Son of God that came to the Earth to save them, to liberate them and to bring them to some kind of Russian prosperity and Russian life. Do you think this term schizoputinism someday will also appear?

No, but I think you're making a very interesting point, and it's a point about the difference between Ukraine and Russia. And I would say Ukrainian political learning because I've been coming to this country for a long time and this idea that someone is going to save us. I mean that was an idea let's face it in 2004-2005. I mean the idea was okay. We get the wrong person out, we get the right person in and then everything's going to be okay. But if you think that way, you're not really going to have a democracy, you're going to think okay. As you say, it's going to be the Savior, the right person, the leader. And really what you need is to have …you know, you had your Kravchuk, you had your Kuchma, you had your Yushchenko and Yanukovych, and you had your Poroshenko and you have your Zelenskyy. You have different people and they reflect different moments in your history. And that's fine and that's good . Things move forward in some kind of normal way. Right? And that's what Russia doesn't have. I mean because Putin is not just Putin as a person. It's the fact that he's been in power for 20 years, which is so horrible for Russians because it makes them think. Well, it's not the system. It's not the rules. It's not the elections. It's just this guy and once you think that, you're not going to become a free person, you're going to be passive, and you're going to think of politics as being this kind of permanent vertical of power. And that's made Russia the kind of country that it is.

Western leaders often tend to say that all the wars come to an end at the negotiation table. Well, just to continue the discussion about schizofascism. Do you think it's likely or it's possible to sit down at the negotiation table for Ukrainians with the schizofascists right now?

Let me answer the question in a broader way.

The Second World War ended because the Germans lost and the French war in Algeria ended because the French lost. The French war in Indochina ended because they lost. Our war in Afghanistan and Iraq ended because we lost. Wars end when people lose. There might be negotiations or not. We lost the Vietnam War and then they were going to negotiations. So somebody has to lose first? Somebody has to lose and I think this is just a basic point that often goes missing in the West. Maybe there will be negotiations. I don't think so. But maybe there will be but only after Ukraine wins. If Russia wins, there won't be any. If you're still fighting, there won't be any. The only way you get to negotiations is to have Ukraine win. So people want the war to come to an end. They have to help Ukraine win. Whether you sit down with people is your decision. It has happened in the past. If you choose to negotiate, you don't choose who you're negotiating with right? But that will be your sovereign decision that you make at some later point.

Given the historical patterns, you know the historical patterns very well. What kind of future awaits for the country that right now we unfortunately call Russian Federation?

To answer that question, I'm going to do something which you can't do, and I wouldn't expect Ukrainians to do, which is to ask what is the real interest of Russia? I think Putin is actually a terrible geopolitician. I mean people look at him, as at an operator with this kind of charisma. I don't understand it because I don't feel it. People think he's made Russia Great or whatever. But this whole move against the West, which they started around 2000, maybe earlier - Georgia, cyber attacks on Estonia, invasion of Ukraine 2014. This whole move against the West from the point of view of the survival of Russia or the sovereignty of Russia makes no sense because if Russia is going to exist and be powerful, if you really believe in a multipolar world which they say they do, then that means you have to be one pole among others. You have to say, okay, we're gonna sometimes be with the West or sometimes be with China. But what they've done to themselves by invading Ukraine the second time is they've push the West away. And there were so many people in the West who wanted to cooperate with Russia, but now they've pushed the West away which means they're now dependent on China. And this is already happening.

I mean, it's happening before our eyes right now that Russia is becoming a kind of dependency on China. They talk about sovereignty but what they're really doing is they're making themselves dependent on China. They're depended on China, and every day they fight in Ukraine is another day they're more dependent on China. I mean every day they bring their soldiers from East Asia to die in Ukraine, they're making China stronger. Every day that they're forced to sell everything to China at China's prices, they're making China stronger. So the Chinese are just watching this and enjoying it. And so, where Russia is going, is it becoming a kind of dependency of China? That's where they're going. And I think that's the secondary question is who actually ends up controlling the resources in the Russian Far East because Russia's wealth depends upon Moscow's wealth I should say right. Moscow's wealth depends upon resources that are found in the Russian Far East. Who controls those resources in the long run? Is it Moscow or is it Beijing or is it someone else? Is there some kind of breakup of Russia?

So again, I'm doing this thing which I don't expect Ukrainians to do but if I were thinking about the future of Russia, I would try to end this war today. I would replace Putin with somebody else and I would try to find some way to talk to the West. And that way to talk to the West would be to pull Russian soldiers out of Ukraine. That would be it because all the Russian soldiers came out of Ukraine, then you could say okay Putin made a mistake, we want to start again. And the West would have to say yes because you've pulled all your soldiers out of Ukraine. And then Russia would have a chance to be a sovereign country because they could go back and forth between China and the West. I think Putin is driving Russian sovereignty into the ground now, and the longer he fights in Ukraine, the worse it becomes.

You have already said that Putin is a bad geopolitician. But what was the biggest mistake of Putin when he was at first contemplated about the start of the full-scale invasion and then when he decided to do this?

We are in Lviv. We're in the Habsburg World. We're in old Austria and one of the great Austrian writers was a guy called Robert Musil. And he wrote the book The Man Without Qualities and in this book The Man Without Qualities, there's an Italian diplomat, wonderful character and he says, ‘Never do the thing that you want to do’ diplomacy. And if you feel like you want to do something, don't do it. Just don’t. And I have a similar thought with Putin in Ukraine. I think he used to be more of a balanced person, and he used to have a better sense of what was going to happen and what the consequences of his actions would be. As he's gotten older and as he's read more bad literature, he's become more prisoner of his own ideas, and I think invading Ukraine was something he wanted to do. And so he violated that basic rule of international politics. Don't do the thing that you want to do. I think he wanted to invade Ukraine and it's going to be or it's already been a disaster for Russia, and it will also destroy his reputation. If he had done something else, he would be remembered in a very different way. But this last year of war has changed the way that Putin is going to be remembered.

Isn't his reputation destroyed already?

It could get worse, you know, it could get worse. I mean I can't tell the Russian leaders what to do and I don't really know how ...I mean I think no one really knows how people are thinking about this close to Putin, but every day he's in power it gets worse. I don't see how we can turn this around. Somebody else will have to turn it around.

Maybe one day somebody will. Let's talk about the Ukrainian future. I mean the future after the war, after our or our common victory with our allies and partners from the West. So what kind of country to your mind Ukraine might be?

It's a great question. Let's talk about the things that have been really good about Ukraine during the war. Number one. One thing that's been really good is civil society and horizontal cooperation. So that's something that you have to keep going because it's a way for citizens to believe in themselves that they can do things. Very important for having a free country is people believing they can make a difference, they're not helpless, they're not paranoid. They don't believe in conspiracy theories. They can do things themselves. So that's a very good thing. Another very good thing Ukraine has is successful elections even during war time. So regardless of the personalities of Poroshenko and Zelenskyy, it's very important that Poroshenko lost, and Zelenskyy won. You had a change of power during a war - it's very good. Those are all the very good things. The things that we have to worry about in the future are how Ukraine is rebuilt, and the danger for you is that we give too much money to one person. We shouldn't do that. We, America, the West and so on, we should be finding all those hundreds of NGOs, and we should be helping them. We should have relations with all the oblasts. We should be helping them. We should have relations with all the cities and be helping them.

This is not about Ukraine, but the whole history of this sort of thing shows that you have to do this in a non-centralized way. I say that just because we don't want Ukraine to get in this situation where the central power is suddenly getting all this money. It's not about the personalities, it's just about the structure. If we can manage to do that, I can see and imagine Ukraine which will be better than Ukraine in 2021, with better public transportation, better city squares, better Kharkiv than it used to be, although I really like Kharkiv. Where the cities are more modern and where the highways are better. All these things, I can imagine ways that Ukraine would be better if we do reconstruction in the right way. 

And then finally Ukraine needs Europe and Europe needs Ukraine. I mean the reason to get out from under Russian Empire is to become Ukraine, but also to be with all these other places. And Europe needs you because they need a project. They need a story about themselves, a newer fresher story. Their story about themselves has to do with 1945, but they just need a newer story. They need a success which they can call their success and that success should be Ukraine after the war.

Mr. Snyder. My last question for you for today is what would be the historical responsibility for Russia and not for Putin but for Russia for everything he did during the war? 

That's a wonderful question because I think responsibility is a really key term in international politics, and it goes back to what you said about the law. I mean, maybe we want to arrest him but it's important for us to say you're responsible. We think you're responsible. We believe in responsibility because one of the problems with Russia is this whole culture of impunity. We'll do something bad then we'll do something worse. And then we stop believing in these rules, and then we say we don't believe in the rules. 

And that we'll not be punished.

Yes, and of course like everybody in every country, like people mess around with the rules and they try. But it's another thing to say, there are no rules. Nothing really matters, which is where Russia is. So first of all, it's very important that Russian assets be used to rebuild Ukraine, a way has to be found to do that. Second of all, in terms of historical responsibility, I'm not going to talk as a historian, people have to think about how Russian history was written, and how we all were thinking about Russia. This is kind of my own domain. But clearly one reason for this war was that too many of us for too long believed a certain story about what Russia actually was. And then we got to the point where Russia actually invaded Ukraine before we realized, wait a minute, the story about Russia that we believe hasn't allowed us to understand some other historical realities. Ukraine being one of those historical realities. So historical responsibilities are also our own responsibility to rebuild let's call it European history or the history of the West in such a way that Ukraine actually fits in. And the cool thing about that is that when you do that when you put Ukraine in, then European or Western history is actually much more interesting and it makes much more sense.

I don't want to just talk about the Russians, there are things we have to do as well. But then the people should be tried. There should be long boring trials in which people are found guilty and then there are things that we can talk about what you're up to the Russians themselves.

I think it's a problem for everybody, not just the Russians that we look back in history and we say we were always innocent, we never did anything. Ukrainians can fall prey to that, Americans can fall prey to that. Russia shows what happens when you take that to an extreme, as Putin has done. Putin's ideas are that Russians are always innocent, it was always somebody else. It was always the Germans, the Austrians, the Jews, Brussels, Berlin, Washington. It was always somebody else. We are pure, we are innocent, we never did anything wrong, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that never happened. We never did anything wrong.

I'm now talking about the things that we can't do, but for there to be a decent Russia, I realize it's a hard concept, but they have to get over that. They would have to do that because there's a notion of historical responsibility. I'm just saying this because the word responsibility is very important, but I can't make you responsible. I can try to hold you responsible. I can say there's the law and you owe me a lot of money. We can do that to Russia. But at the end of the day responsibility is also something internal, something that you have to feel, and that we can't do for Russia, we can only do it for ourselves.

Thank you very much Mr. Snyder for agreeing to talk to me. Thank you very much for giving answers and your insights about the past, future and about our victory. Thank you once again. 

Glad we can do it.

Author: Yuriy Fizer

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