13 Feb 2024

Timothy Snyder Debunks Putin’s Historical Justifications for Aggression

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Yale Professor Timothy Snyder has written a number of important books on the history of the Eastern European Borderlands and is the perfect authority to refute Vladimir Putin’s faux historical justifications for aggressive war.

In a talk with Tucker Carlson, Putin uttered sentences about the past. I will explain how Putin is wrong about everything, but first I have to make a point about why he is wrong about everything. By how I mean his errors about past events. By why I mean the horror inherent in the kind of story he is telling. It brings war, genocide, and fascism.

Putin has read about various realms in the past. By calling them “Russia,” he claims their territories for the Russian Federation he rules today.

Such nonsense brings war. On Putin’s logic, leaders anywhere can make endless claims to territory based on various interpretations of the past. That undoes the entire international order, based as it is upon legal borders between sovereign states.

In his conversation with Carlson, Putin focused on the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. Moscow did not exist then. So even if we could perform the wishful time travel that Putin wants, and turn the clock back to 988, it could not lead us to a country with a capital in Moscow. Most of Russia’s present territory is in Siberia. Europeans did not control those Asian territories back then. On Putin’s logic, Russia has no claim today to the territories from which it extracts its natural gas and oil. Other countries would, and Russia’s national minorities would.

Putin provides various dates to make various claims. Anyone can do that about any territory. So the first implication of Putin’s view is that no borders are legitimate, including the borders of your own country. Everything is up for grabs, since everyone can have a story. Carlson asked Putin why he must invade Ukraine, and the myth of eternal Russia was the answer.

The second problem, after war, is genocide. After you decide a a country in the deep past is also somehow your country now, you then insist that the only true history is whatever seems to prove you right. The experiences of people who actually lived in the past and live in the present are “artificial” (to use one of Putin’s favorite words).

In the interview, and in other speeches during the war, Putin depends on a false distinction between natural nations and artificial nations. Natural nations have a right to exist, artificial ones do not.

But there are no natural nations. All nations are made. The Russia of tomorrow is made by the actions of Russians today. If Russians fight a lawless war of destruction in Ukraine, that makes them a different people than they might have been. This is more important than anything that happened centuries ago. When a nation is called “artificial,” this is justification for genocide. Genocidal language does not refer to the past; it changes the future.

Everyone who does not fit Putin’s neat story (Russia is eternal, so Russians can do whatever they want) has to be removed, first from the narrative of the past, and then from those counted as human in present. On Putin’s logic, it does not matter what people believe or how people understand their own past. It is he who decides which souls are bound to which other souls. Other views have no place in nature, because they arose from events which (in his story) should never have happened. His view must govern the past, which requires violence in the present: genocide.

If there are people who say that Ukraine is real, they must be destroyed. That has been the logic of Russia’s mass murder from the start. Putin expected Ukraine to fall in a few days because he thought he needed to eliminate a few Ukrainians in an artificial elite. The more Ukrainians there turned out to be, the more people had to be killed. The same holds for physical expressions of Ukrainian culture. Russia has destroyed thousands of Ukrainian schools. Everywhere Russian troops reach, they burn Ukrainian books.

The third problem is a fascism expressed as victimhood. Putin is the dictator of the largest country in the world and personally controls tens and more likely hundreds of billions of dollars. And yet in his story he is a longwinded victim, because not everyone agrees with him. Russia is a victim because Russians can tell a story about how they need to fight a genocidal war, and not everyone agrees. Ukrainians are the aggressors, because they do not agree that they and their country do not exist.

Indeed, says Putin, Ukrainians are “Nazis,” a word that in his mouth just means “people who refuse to accept that Russians are pure no matter what we do.” This is a victim claim: if the Ukrainians are “Nazis,” then Russians — even though they started the war and have killed tens of thousands of people and kidnapped tens of thousands of children and carry out war crimes every single day — must be the righteous sufferers.

This is how myth matters. If all the wrong in the past was done by others, as Putin says, then all the wrong in the present must be done by others. Putin’s story divides good and evil perfectly. Russia is always right, others are always wrong. Russians can behave like Nazis while calling others “Nazis” and all is well. Russia is a people with a special purpose, resisted by conspiracies. Putin’s war has been fought with fascist slogans and by fascist means, with mass propaganda and mass mobilization.


I regret to feel obliged to warn my readers that Professor Snyder is every bit as terrible and wrong-headed on US domestic politics, particularly on democrat lawfare on Trump and the January 6th protests, as he is right on European History and Russian aggression.

2 Feedbacks on "Timothy Snyder Debunks Putin’s Historical Justifications for Aggression"


Is English this guy’s native tongue? It’s hard to believe that Japan is not a “natural nation” when was it “made” lol?!


Millions of historians have been “right” and yet terribly wrong throughout history. Putin and Russia play by toddlers rules. This history lesson means less than nothing to them. Russians do want Eastern Europe back. They took it once it’s theirs and they want it back. No matter what happens in the sort term in Ukraine it will still get worse in the long term.


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