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Interview: Putin's Strategic Mistake Was To Choose The West As An Enemy, Historian Says

Demonstrators hold up pictures of Vladimir Putin and Aleksei Navalny at a rally near the Russian Consulate in New York following the announcement of Navalny's death on February 16.
Demonstrators hold up pictures of Vladimir Putin and Aleksei Navalny at a rally near the Russian Consulate in New York following the announcement of Navalny's death on February 16.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to be remembered as a great ruler of Russia. History professor Timothy Snyder believes he will rather go down as a ruler who severely weakened his own country, by choosing to have the West as an enemy and China as a patron.

Snyder, an author and expert on Central and Eastern Europe, spoke to RFE/RL at the Munich Ukrainian Lunch on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on February 17 following the announcement of the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in an Arctic prison.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

RFE/RL: How do you think Aleksei Navalny will go down in history?

Timothy Snyder: I think that's a very Russian question because Russians remember the people who die in camps, people who die in prison, in a very special way. Putin wants to be remembered as a ruler of Russia, but Navalny is going to be remembered in a different way because Navalny died for his country, rather than killing other people.

As a historian, I think Navalny's significance is that he tried to show that other things were possible, you know. We'll never know what kind of leader he would have been. But he, the message that he had, was a message that you have to be courageous. Not everyone has to be as courageous as he was, but you're not going to go anywhere unless you're a little bit courageous. And that's a very important message for the future of Russia, because people are going to have to be a little bit courageous.

RFE/RL: You already mentioned what kind of place Putin wants to have for himself in history, but what do you think history has in store for him? How will he be remembered, depending on the outcome in Ukraine?

Snyder: Well, look, he wants history to be about things like Russian rulers. But history is about other things besides Russian rulers; history is about human experience. It's about wealth and who has it. And I think that historians of the 21st century will be writing about inequality of wealth. And in that history, he's certainly one of the major villains. He's one of the most important oligarchs in the world. He's someone who's -- if you're an oligarch, you're allowed to have strange fantasies, no one can stop you. And then those fantasies you have end up affecting the world. So, various oligarchs have various different fantasies. One of his is that Ukraine doesn't exist. And that's a fantasy which is causing tremendous harm in the world.

Timothy Snyder (file photo)
Timothy Snyder (file photo)

But what I'm trying to say is that historians aren't all historians of Russia. Historians are historians of other things, and historians of society and historians of economics are going to remember him as an example of an oligarch whose strange fantasies damaged the world. Historians are also historians of ecology. They're historians of nature, historians of climate. And Putin's power is based on hydrocarbons, is based on natural gas and oil. There are other villains, but he's one of the major villains of that story, of keeping the world dependent on those things, from what you really have to move on.

As far as the history of Russia is concerned, I think he will be remembered as someone who made the Russian state much weaker, because I think he's made, already more than 10 years ago, a profound strategic mistake, which was to choose to have the West as an enemy. That was a choice he made, and choosing to have the West as an enemy means choosing to have China as a patron. And I think having China as a patron is a much weaker situation for Russia than trying to be between China and the West.

So I think he'll be remembered as someone who made a basic strategic mistake.

RFE/RL: Even if he tries to emerge victorious on his own terms in Ukraine?

Snyder: A Russia that emerges from the war in Ukraine victorious will still be a Russia which is doing China's work for China, by destabilizing the West, by weakening the West. Even a Russia that invades other countries is still fundamentally doing China's work.

So, I think regardless of how Ukraine turns out, the mistake is deeper. The mistake is not just that Russia never had to fight Ukraine. Russia never had to make an enemy of the West. That's the fundamental mistake.

RFE/RL: What I infer from what you are telling me is that this strategic defeat of Russia, that was so much talked about around this time last year in Munich, and then kind of died off, that you still believe that a strategic defeat has been inflicted on Russia?

Snyder: Well, we can all lose. See, everyone thinks that either Russia loses or the West loses. But we can both lose; everyone can lose. Russia can lose to China, and the West can be weakened as a result of Russia's local victory. We can end up with a world where everybody's worse off. That's also possible.

So I think Putin inflicted Russia's strategic defeat a while ago, by himself. The question is whether that strategic defeat is then shared across other countries: Eastern European, Western European, and North American countries. That's how I see it. He made a big mistake for Russia. And then the question is, whether the costs of that will continue to spread out around the world.

RFE/RL: So, who is winning in this grand strategy game? Putin might be a loser, but who else is losing?

Snyder: I think it's a great question. The winners in all of this can just be a very few people, right? The winners can be the people who run tyrannical systems of different kinds -- winners can be a few people in Tehran, a few people in Beijing, a few people in Moscow, and the losers can be almost everyone. So, if Putin can win his war in Ukraine, the winners won't be the Russian people, the winners will be a few people around Putin, including himself.

The mistake is not just that Russia never had to fight Ukraine. Russia never had to make an enemy of the West. That's the fundamental mistake.

It's because I think the larger issue, which goes beyond geopolitics, is the question of what sort of systems we have. The kinds of systems where only a few people do well, or the kind of systems where lots of people are free and have a chance of doing well. And it is fundamentally about that.

And humans, we know from history that humans can do it either way: You can be a country which is free and cease being a country which is free. That's the oldest history we know, I mean, one of the oldest histories is the history of ancient Greece. Human beings are very adaptable. They can be free, and then a generation later, slavery can seem normal again. And I think that's the ultimate question.

So, in that sense, you know, humanity can lose, because the possibility of having a normal system, which is democratic, where there's the rule of law, where your children have some chance of having a more interesting life, that can all go away.

RFE/RL: There is an interview of yours in Der Spiegel, roughly one year ago, where you said the following: "We need to do all we can to make sure Ukraine has a very decisive battlefield victory this year. We need to supply them with as many weapons as we can to save lives on both sides and get Moscow to back down faster. The only way to protect lives on both sides is to end this war, and the only way to end it is to help Ukraine win." I think you'll agree that this hasn't quite happened, to put it mildly, so where do we stand now in Ukraine?

Snyder: We're in the same situation. I mean, of course, that didn't happen. But it was still the only way to end the war. And it's also still the only way to win the war. Wars are unpredictable, and they tend to go on for a long time. And it's very important to manage your own emotions and not think, well, because we lost a battle, we lost the whole war.

My analysis is fundamentally the same. It's just that now, because we've taken longer to give the Ukrainians what they needed, the war is going to last longer. But the overall logic is still the same. I mean, I think in 2024, it's a matter of Europeans helping Ukrainians to hold the line, and so that in 2025, something like a victory will be possible.

RFE/RL: Europeans? With the omission of the United States?

Snyder: I hope the Americans come through, but if you're a European you have to be thinking: If the U.S. doesn't help, what do we do? What is the required minimum that we do to make sure the Ukrainians don't fail?

RFE/RL: Do you get the impression sometimes that the West is not willing to win?

Snyder: Yes, I get the impression that we have problems with victory. I think that's a very profound question. I think there's one line of analysis, which is more of a German line of analysis, which says: We shouldn't win because the Russians will be upset. And I think that's a mistake, because, of course, Germans are right, that you have to deal with Russia, but a Russia that's been defeated is going to be an easier Russia to deal with.

And then there's an American -- not even a line of thinking, but a kind of paradigm -- which says: We don't want to win, we want to be on the right side. But being on the right side is not enough in a war. It may be enough in a classroom or in a debate, but you need to win. And I think you can't win unless you talk about winning. You can lose either way. But I think the absence of the category of victory has made the planning much harder. It leads to various kinds of wishful thinking about how somehow this will all go away.

RFE/RL: That is exactly what I wanted to ask you about. With how things are going at the front, what does a Ukrainian victory -- whether full or partial -- look like?

Snyder: So, Ukrainian victory is the same thing as a Russian defeat, right? You lose a war when politically you can no longer do it. That's Clausewitz, that's the fundamental definition of victory: making your opponent unable to continue for whatever reason. Defeat means politically you can't continue, for whatever reason. So, the United States couldn't continue in Vietnam, the Soviet Union couldn't continue in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: But Putin seems to be on board with that, making sure that he'll outlast others, he'll be the last one in the game.

Snyder: Yeah, exactly. And in that sense, he's correct. But that doesn't mean that he has to win. It just it means that he understands that part of the situation correctly. But a Russia which is already mobilized can't mobilize. The Germany which was completely mobilized is the Germany that lost the war, right? And this full mobilization is the last thing you do before you lose, and Russia is totally mobilized. We're not. And that means that Russia is doing what it should be doing from Putin's point of view. But it also means that Russia is vulnerable.

RFE/RL: Does that mean Russia has peaked?

Snyder: Well, I think it's peaked in terms of mobilization of manpower and some resources. There's a big question of how Russia is getting hold of so much Western technology. And that's something where the West has to be much more attentive, because they're still manufacturing weapons with Western microchips all the time. And so they could get better at that, or they could get worse, and that depends on us.

RFE/RL: And finally I wanted to ask you about Georgia and Moldova -- two countries that unlike, say, the Baltic states, don't have the luxury of the security umbrella. They don't even have a security hat, so to say. What does the war spell for those two?

Snyder: I think that's an easy question. Georgia and Moldova are in a special category. These are countries where Russian military experimentation has already taken place. And should Ukraine fall, God forbid, Moldova's strategic position is, of course, disastrous. And Georgia is, of course, further away from anyone's concerns than the rest of Eastern Europe,

RFE/RL: For maybe unfair but understandable reasons?

Snyder: Well, I'm glad you said that, not me. So there's sort of two different lines of analysis here. One is, if Ukraine falls, what are the next easiest pieces for Putin? Which would be Moldova, maybe Georgia. And then there's also, if Ukraine falls, the West is so demoralized that you then poke into NATO, because you think you can succeed, by attacking a Baltic state.

RFE/RL: So you don't go for the easy pickings, because they're not going anywhere?

Snyder: You can get them five years from now. So those are two different ways of thinking. If Putin were in that position where the West was demoralized, those are two different lines of thinking: One might be that he would think, well, you know, we can clean up in the Caucasus, or we can go and I can humiliate [NATO], I can complete this operation. Which, by the way, I think would be a mistake on his part.

But those are two different ways of thinking, which are both possible. And those are, of course, like two of the 100 reasons why Ukraine has to win.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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