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With Us or With Them? In a New Cold War, How About Neither.

Hannah Beech reported from Bangkok, Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya, and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City. Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting from Jakarta, Indonesia.

April 24, 2022

By Hannah BeechAbdi Latif Dahir and Oscar Lopez

BANGKOK — As the bonds of traditional alliances fray across the globe, the Royal Thai Army, the United States’ oldest treaty partner in Asia, has cast a wide net.

This year, with the world reeling from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Thai soldiers hosted American troops for Cobra Gold, annual military exercises that are one of the largest shows of force in the Asia Pacific. A few months before, they participated in Shared Destiny, peacekeeping drills run by the People’s Liberation Army of China. And in 2020, the Thais hedged their bets further, signing an agreement for their cadets to receive training at a defense academy in Moscow.


The geopolitical landscape following the Ukraine invasion has often been likened to that of a new Cold War. While the main antagonists may be the same — the United States, Russia and, increasingly, China — the roles played by much of the rest of the world have changed, reshaping a global order that held for more than three-quarters of a century.

Governments representing more than half of humanity have refused to take a side, avoiding the binary accounting of us-versus-them that characterized most of the post-World War II era. In a United Nations General Assembly vote this month to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, dozens of countries abstained, including Thailand, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Singapore. (The resolution succeeded anyway.)

Once proxy battlegrounds for superpowers, swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America are staking their independence. The return of a bloc of nonaligned nations harks back to a period in which leaders of the post-colonial movement resisted having their destinies shaped by imperialism. It also points to the confidence of smaller countries, no longer dependent on a single ideological or economic patron, to go their own way.

“Without a doubt, the countries of Southeast Asia don’t want to be pulled into a new Cold War or be forced to take sides in any great power competition,” said Zachary Abuza, a security specialist at the National War College in Washington. “As they say in Southeast Asia, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”


Having to align themselves with one power or another, Mr. Abuza added, left many nations around the world “desperately poor and underdeveloped at the end of the Cold War.”


As a result, even the United States, the Cold War’s victor, cannot count on the support of some of its traditional partners in vocally condemning Russia for its attack on a sovereign, democratic nation. The NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011 and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 have only heightened mistrust of the West. Both military actions left countries in those regions struggling with the political fallout for years after.

“The crux of the matter is that African countries feel infantilized and neglected by Western countries, which are also accused of not living up to their soaring moral rhetoric on sovereignty and territorial sanctity,” said Ebenezer Obadare, senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indonesia, a sprawling democracy once ruled by a dictator favored by the United States for his anti-communist stance, has said that it will welcome President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when the country hosts the Group of 20 meetings this year. It, too, abstained in the U.N. vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council.

“Our government has adopted the questionable strategy of trying to ignore the biggest geopolitical earthquake in 70 years in our agenda as this year’s G-20 President, which kind of blows my mind,” said Tom Lembong, a former trade minister.

Other U.S. allies have characterized their decision to diversify as a function of American absenteeism. Last year, as China spread its vaccine diplomacy around the world, the United States was seen initially as hoarding its pandemic supplies.


Before that, during Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an expansive trade pact that was meant to counter China’s way of doing business. Countries like Vietnam that had staked their reputations on joining felt betrayed, once again, by Washington.


Mexico, a longtime U.S. ally, has emphasized its neutrality, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has rejected sanctions on Russia.

“Mexico’s neutrality is not neutral,” said Tony Payan of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Mexico is poking Washington in the eye.”

About one-third of American ambassadorships in Latin America and the Caribbean remain unfilled. The vacancies include Brazil, the largest regional economy, and the Organization of American States.

“Many Latin Americans were realizing that the United States was abandoning them,” said Vladimir Rouvinski, a professor at Icesi University in Cali, Colombia.

Russia cannot count on automatic allegiance from its historical allies, either. Apart from a sense of autocratic camaraderie, ideology is no longer part of Moscow’s allure. Russia has neither the patronage cash nor the geopolitical clout of the Soviet Union.


Venezuela, Russia’s staunchest supporter in Latin America, received a high-level American delegation on the heels of the Ukraine invasion. Nicaragua, which became one of the first countries to back Russia’s recognition of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, has since tempered its enthusiasm.


During a March U.N. vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cuba abstained, rather than backing Moscow, although it and Nicaragua later rejected the effort to kick Russia off the Human Rights Council.

“They’re trying to walk a fine line between certainly not celebrating the invasion, but also not clearly condemning it, arguing in favor of peace,” said Renata Keller, a Cuba expert at the University of Nevada, Reno.


The most noticeable hedging has come from Africa, which accounted for nearly half the countries that abstained in the March U.N. vote.

“We don’t know why they are fighting,” President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania said in an interview, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

She added that she was “not sure” there was a clear aggressor in the conflict.


For Thailand, the decision to train with the American, Russian and Chinese militaries, as well as to buy weaponry from each country, is part of its long history of balancing between great powers. Deft diplomacy allowed Thailand to emerge as the only nation in the region not to be colonized.

The current drift away from the United States, which used Thailand as a staging ground for the Vietnam War, also stems from the political pedigree of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power in a military coup eight years ago.


“Though Thailand may currently appear as a democracy, it is at heart an autocracy,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer in international affairs at Naresuan University in Thailand. “A regime such as this will have autocratic bedfellows, including in Moscow.”

The same holds in Uganda, which receives almost a billion dollars in American aid and is a key Western ally in the fight against regional militancy. Yet the government of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has been criticized by the United States and the European Union for a pattern of human rights violations.


Mr. Museveni has responded by assailing the West’s interference in Libya and Iraq. The president’s son, who also commands the country’s land forces, tweeted that a “majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine.”

Uganda, like dozens of other countries, can afford to speak up because of a new top trading partner: China. This economic reality, even if Beijing promises more than it delivers, has shielded nations once dependent on other superpowers from stark geopolitical choices.

Strategically located countries like Djibouti, host to Camp Lemonnier, the largest permanent U.S. base on the African continent, have diversified. A few years ago, after President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s invitation, Beijing established its first overseas military outpost in Djibouti. Mr. Guelleh also secured loans from the Chinese to help develop ports, free trade zones and a railway.

Growing Chinese engagement has provided African countries with “alternative investment, alternative markets and alternative ideas of development,” said Cobus van Staden, at the South African Institute of International Affairs.


But if the world feels more comfortably multipolar these days, the ripple effects of the fighting in Ukraine are a reminder that globalization quickly links far-flung nations.

Escalating global prices for fuel, food and fertilizer, all a result of war in Ukraine, have heightened hardship in Africa and Asia. Already contending with a devastating drought, East Africa now has at least 13 million people facing severe hunger.


And populations outside of Europe know too well that their refugees — such as Syrians, Venezuelans, Afghans, South Sudanese and the Rohingya of Myanmar — cannot expect the welcome given to displaced Ukrainians. In a race for finite reserves of care, aid groups have warned of the perils of donor fatigue for the world’s most vulnerable.


“The whole world,” President Hassan of Tanzania said, referring to Russia and Ukraine, “is affected when these countries are fighting.”

Parents Aren’t the Only Ones With Rights

Frank Bruni (@FrankBruni) is a professor of public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk,” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter and can be found on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

21 April 2022

By Frank Bruni

Contributing Opinion Writer

Enough about “parental rights.” I want to talk about nonparental rights.


I want to talk about the fact that a public school, identified that way for a reason, doesn’t exist as some bespoke service attending to the material wants and political whims of only those Americans with children in the science lab and on the soccer field. It’s an investment, funded by all taxpayers, in the cultivation of citizens who better appreciate our democracy and can participate in it more knowledgeably and productively.


Each of us has skin in the game. And each of us, even those of us without children, has the right to weigh in on how the game is played.


But you wouldn’t know that from the education conflagrations of the moment — from the howls of protest from parents about what their children are or aren’t exposed to, what their children are and aren’t taught.

You wouldn’t know it from the arguments for Florida’s recently enacted ban on talk of gay and trans people with young schoolchildren. That measure, nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” initiative by its opponents, was called the Parental Rights in Education bill by its promoters — as if it were restoring and safeguarding some fundamental prerogative that should never have been challenged, as if parents’ sensitivities and sensibilities hold extra-special sway.

They matter, definitely. But one parent’s sensitivities and sensibilities don’t reliably align with another’s. Or with mine. Or with yours.

And raising the banner of “parental rights,” which is being hoisted high and waved with intensifying passion these days, doesn’t resolve that conflict. Nor does it change the fact that the schools in question exist for all of us, to reflect and inculcate democratic values and ecumenical virtues that have nothing to do with any one parent’s ideology, religion or lack thereof.


If the prevailing sensitivities and sensibilities of most parents at a given moment were the final word, formal racial segregation of educational institutions would have lasted longer than it did. There’d still be prayer in some public schools, and I don’t mean nondenominational.


I’m not equating those issues with current fights over L.G.B.T.Q. content in curriculums. Nor am I pushing specifically for that content, whose prevalence and emphasis remain murky to me, as they do, I’d wager, to most of the Americans who have vociferously entered the fray.


I’m sympathetic to the perspective that there’s a time, place and tone for such discussions. Too much too soon can be a clumsy, politically reckless provocation. So can vaguely worded, spitefully conceived, intentionally divisive laws, like the one in Florida, that encourage parents specifically to file lawsuits if they catch the scent of something they find unsavory in their children’s classrooms.

Parents do and should have authority over much of their children’s lives. No quarrel from me there. I’m in genuine awe of the responsibilities that parents take on, and I feel enormous gratitude toward those who approach those responsibilities with the utmost seriousness.

But public education is precisely that, and it’s both inappropriate and dangerous to treat the parents who have children in public schools as the only interested parties or as stakeholders whose desires are categorically more important than everybody else’s. The spreading cry of “parental rights” suggests as much. And the wrongness of that transcends any partisan affiliation.


When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, plenty of parents disagreed with the mores that they attributed to the schools down the street. But many of them, at least in my imperfect memory, responded not by screaming at school boards but by rerouting their children to parochial institutions. If they wanted overt religion in their schools, they patronized overtly religious schools.


More than a few of them turned to home-schooling. I don’t have a whole lot in common with home-schoolers, but I respect their acknowledgment of what they can and can’t ask a taxpayer-funded institution to do. They seem to recognize the line between public and private. I hear too little about that line when people quarrel over schools today.


None of us get from public schools the precise instruction and exact social dynamics that we’d prescribe. That’s because they don’t exist to validate our individual worldviews.


They’re public schools, and I and most of the other people I know, whether we have children or not, are happy to fund them, because we believe in education and we believe in democracy. What we don’t believe — what I don’t — is that “parental rights” take precedence over civic ideals.

Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans

This is a transcript from the New York Times of a weekly podcast by Ezra Klein, one of its staffers, in which he interviews Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about Russia and Ukraine.

15 March 2022

Ezra Klein

I’m Ezra Klein. And this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

There is this line I’ve been thinking about from Timothy Snyder’s book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” which is a book that, when it came out, people understood it’s about totalitarianism or authoritarianism coming to America. But if you read it, it is very much about Ukraine. And in that book, Snyder writes, “There is a difference between memory, the impressions we are given, and history, the connections that we work to make — if we wish.” If we wish.


So Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian. In recent years, he became something of a hero to liberals for a series of books particularly “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century,” which became something like a Bible for worried liberals early in the Trump era. These are books about what it feels like and what you do when your society is beginning to creep down or trip down the road to authoritarianism.


But that perspective for Snyder, those learnings, they don’t come from his immersion in American politics. They come from his immersion in Ukrainian politics and history. Snyder’s core academic subject is Ukraine. He’s written six books entirely or partially about Ukraine. And these are very much books about the way Ukraine has been repeatedly invaded and turned into a subject by surrounding powers.


And in these books, something Snyder is very alert to is the way that imagined histories of Ukraine, what he would call stories or myth, feed the justifications used for these bloody invasions of Ukraine. And so a topic for him that emerges out of that is how the stories, particularly when they’re dressed up is histories, the stories we tell ourselves, how they create all kinds of different politics, how they can lead us to peace or to war, to a sense of inevitability or a sense of desperate persecution, to a sense of integration or imperialism, to a wariness about the world or complacency about it.


And that is what this conversation is about, the stories being told in America, in Europe, in Russia, and, of course, in Ukraine, and how those stories both created and could, in the end, decide the crisis we’re in. As always, my email, ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.


Tim Snyder, welcome to the show.


Tim Snyder

Glad to be with you.


Ezra Klein

A core argument of your book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” is that different understandings of the past — myths, histories, memories — they create different politics. And I want to begin by focusing on the kind of politics that you see as defining and maybe blinding the United States and Europe in recent decades, which is the politics of inevitability. Can you tell me about that?

Tim Snyder

Yeah, thanks for asking about that. I think time is a really essential component of politics. But it has the feature, like many important ideas, that it seems self-evident or natural to the point of invisibility. So time is a kind of parameter for everything else. The way we think about time just becomes as natural as breathing. But actually the way we think about time is an idea.

So by the politics of inevitability, I mean the notion that sometimes goes under the heading of progress. I mean the idea that some kind of outside force is going to guarantee that the things that we desire and wish for are actually going to come about. And if that seems abstract, then what I mean in particular with reference to the United States after the end of communism in 1989 is the notion that there are no alternatives left in the world.


To quote Margaret Thatcher or to quote Frances Fukuyama, history is over. And it’s inevitable that a larger force, namely capitalism, is going to bring about the thing that we desire, namely, democracy and freedom. And that idea was in the air. That idea shaped everything else. And I think that idea has a lot to do with the crisis of democracy and freedom that we’re in right now.


Ezra Klein

What strikes me about that conception of the politics of inevitability is it also lends itself to a false belief in predictability, that to the extent many in the United States, many in Europe did not correctly foresee where Putin has been going over the past decade, but have also just missed a lot of world events or even reactions to our own actions in other countries, that some of it comes from believing too deeply that others will see the axioms of progress or the fundamentals of rationality the same way we do. There’s been a recurrent conversation since Putin invaded Ukraine about whether or not he is rational.


And there’s one set of questions about psychological rationality. But I actually think more of that conversation is picking up on a sense that he is not acting like he sees the world and weighs the costs and benefits the way we do. And that, to us, seems irrational, as opposed to it suggesting maybe we had believed others were more predictable or more bought into our models than they are.


Tim Snyder

I think that’s exactly right. What the politics of inevitability does is that it teaches you to narrate in such a way that the facts which seem to trouble the story of progress are disregarded. So in the politics of inevitability, if there is huge wealth inequality as a result of unbridled capitalism, we teach ourselves to say that that’s kind of a necessary cost of this overall progress. We learn this dialectical way of thinking by which what seems to be bad is actually good.


And, of course, that applies to foreign affairs as well. When we look at countries that are not making the quote-unquote “transition” to democracy the way we expect, you know, we find excuses. We imagine that the general trend is going to our direction in some deep way. And then we fail to notice, what has been the case for the last 15 years or so, that the world is actually moving in a very pronounced and easily observable way away from democracy.


And it can lead us to extremes too. The Iraq War of 2003 is an extreme example of where the simplified logic of the politics of inevitability gets you. If you think that democracy arises because of natural forces, then you might really get yourself to believe that if you destroy a state, then the next logical or inevitable thing to happen will be the flowering of democracy, which of course, historically speaking is absolutely crazy. But I want to land on your point about irrationality because I think it’s incredibly important. And I would actually push it a bit further. What the politics of inevitability does is that it teaches you not to think about values at all.


Because the politics of inevitability assures you that whatever the good things are, they’re being brought about automatically by some invisible hand, right? The market is like Mom. You know, it’s going to take care of you with that invisible hand. And you don’t have to think about what the values might be, what you actually desire. You lose the habit, right? You never perform the mental gymnastics of stretching to figure out what a better world might actually be because you think you’re on track to that better world no matter what happens.


So it’s not just that you don’t recognize that somebody else’s values are different from your own. You’ve forgotten completely that there is such a thing as values, that they might be plural, they might be different, they might be contested. And so you find yourself, as you say, in this kind of binary where I’m rational and the other guy’s irrational.


But actually, your notion of rationality is completely meaningless. It’s just means-ends rationality. But you can’t even really define what the ends are, your own ends. And you’ve lost the habit of asking what another end might be like.


So in the case of Mr. Putin, it’s, in my view anyway, absolutely the case that he doesn’t care about the things that we think people ought to care about. You know, he doesn’t care about the Russian economy. I don’t think he even cares about Russian interests, perhaps not even the survival of the Russian state.

But he does care about other things. And he’s been very clear about those things. He cares about how he’s going to be remembered after he’s dead. He cares about an image of an eternal Russia. He cares about these things which are out of our normal field of view. But that doesn’t make them either rational or irrational. It just means that they are different values.


And once we realize that there’s a plurality of values and we actually stretch ourselves again to see that, then we can track backward from that and start to ask about means-end rationality. But when we forget all about ends, which is what the politics of inevitability has done to our brains for the last 30 years, then we can’t actually talk about rationality. You can’t talk about means-end rationality if you don’t know how to talk about ends anymore.

Ezra Klein

I do want to talk about means-ends rationality. But before we get there with how we have understood that for Putin, I want to ask about something subtle I’ve seen you argue before, but it strikes me as important, which is that the nature, the equation of inevitability, has been different in America and Europe — we now talk about the West, but that there is an important difference between what the United States has seen the world is traveling towards and what Europe has seen it traveling towards and assumed it would be traveling towards. Can you talk about that?


Tim Snyder

Yeah, absolutely. So the conceptual model of the politics of inevitability is meant to apply generally. But, as you say, it takes on different forms in different cases. In the U.S., we’ve already really talked about it. The basic notion is that history is over. Markets bring capitalism. We are exceptional, but will no longer be because everyone will soon become like us. That’s the way the world is actually moving.


And then that brings with it a predictable set of problems. Like, for example, wealth inequality or addiction to social media, because all of these forms of things that you expect to be progressive don’t turn out to be. But you’ve dulled your own sensibility. And you’re unable to notice the problems.


In Europe, there’s a different story of inevitability, which is interesting, but which is equally false. The European story of inevitability is that there was a Second World War. And European nation states fought that Second World War. And they learned from the Second World War that war was a bad thing and, therefore, began a process of integration, which began with economics. And the logic of economics led to cultural and political cooperation. And that has maintained peace.


The problem with that is that it’s completely not true. European integration was not begun by nation states. It was begun by failing empires. And the European process of integration is not about nation states cooperating. It’s about failing empires finding a place to center their economics and their politics and their identity as those empires go away.


Ezra Klein

I think that point about inevitability being driven by an economic calculation in the U.S. is important. And I think it’s important to how we’ve seen Russia. I want to present you as something President Obama said about Russia in 2016, which was partially an effort to needle Putin, but also was true to how he understood the situation. So the quote is, “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are.”


And I think what you see there is that the politics of inevitability is hitched to this idea that economies drive history. And if you believe that idea, then it becomes irrational to do things that will harm the path of your economy. And, of course, invading Ukraine, which Putin had done before that with Crimea in 2014, but as he’s done much more now, is a terrible thing for your economy. You get involved in an occupation. You have all these sanctions placed on you. And this question in the West is, how, why would he do that?


But if you don’t see the future as defined by the path of your economy, then perhaps it looks very different. So I wanted to see how you understood that quote in retrospect, in that way of looking at Russia? What might we have missed?

Tim Snyder

Let me let me first tie it in a general way to the politics of inevitability. Because a couple of things the politics of inevitability gets wrong, even before we get to what Americans get wrong, are inequality. So we have to remember that Mr. Putin probably has about $100 billion personally. So if you have $100 billion personally, then the question of how your economy is doing starts to become a little bit abstract or secondary. I mean, it’s just a kind of iron sociological rule, if there are any, that how much money you have and your reliable access to it is going to determine how you see the rest of the world. And that’s, I need to hang that on inevitability because one of the things we got wrong about Russia is something we got wrong about ourselves, namely that sudden increases in inequality of wealth aren’t going to matter. It doesn’t matter if we privatize really quickly in Eastern Europe. It doesn’t matter if oligarchs emerge. Because all that matters is creating a market economy. And that market economy will then magically resolve all of the political and administrative and institutional and moral and cultural problems for us. So that’s something that’s deeply wrong in the politics of inevitability, you know, even before we get to that calculation.

But then with President Obama and the geopolitics of it all, the countries that tend to disrupt things tend to be structured rather like Russia. I mean, Russia is very much like Serbia, in a certain way, at the time of the first and second Balkan Wars and the First World War.


Yeah, it’s a — know, you could say Serbia is a small power on the European scale and Russia is a small power or a moderate power on the world scale. But in both cases, there’s vast overinvestment in propaganda. And there’s vast overinvestment in the military. And you can take a relatively small G.D.P., and if you use it the right way and you have some practice, you can use that to disrupt the rest of the world.


So I guess, I mean, the other thing I would want to say about that is that I think you’re absolutely right that it reflects the politics of inevitability of the Obama administration, you know, this kind of notion that if we can just eloquently enough describe the way that history has to be going, then it will go that way.


And I think there are different flavors of this and different administrations. But actually I think up until the Biden administration, which has been a bit different, every administration in the last 30 years has had some problem of this kind.


Ezra Klein

One thing that you say about this kind of approach to politics is that one of its blindspots is a belief that ideas don’t matter, or at least an underestimation of how much ideas do matter. So, and let me actually go a little bit further than that. To some degree, I think there’s a prizing of the idea that ideas don’t matter that much. And I sometimes think this way too, a preference for structural factors, a belief that ideas are somewhat soft, that they are something you maybe talk about, but in the end, you know, what really matters is how much steel you can produce or what your demographic birth rate is or any number of harder facts. So what does it mean for a country or for a civilization even to stop believing so much in the power of ideas?


Tim Snyder

So I’m going to start with a nagging distinction. And I hope you’ll forgive me. I think we’re not talking about not believing in ideas. I think we’re talking about believing in bad ideas. So for example, the notion that ideas don’t matter is an idea. It’s just a dumb, banal, inaccurate idea.


But it is nevertheless a conviction, right? I mean, just like the associated idea that we don’t have to think about what people really want because markets will allocate efficiently, that’s an idea. It’s just a kind of pale zombie, you know, barely makes it down the road sort of idea. So we have ideas, they’re just very stupid ideas.


And I would suggest that — I’m sorry to put this little harshly, but the problem is not so much that we don’t believe in ideas. It’s that we believe in a whole series of totally indefensible ones. And so then the question becomes, you know, why is it that we think that the intellectual landscape is naturally so colorless? Why is it that we think that that’s normal?


And I’d like to historicize that by just mentioning a couple of factors which I think are pretty important. So we spend more and more of our time engaged with algorithms. And the algorithms are entirely functional, right? I mean they’re chiefly designed to keep eyeballs pointing at screens for the purposes of advertising.


And we, as humans, have this wonderful ability to accommodate. We make compromises. We go halfway with things. And I think as we go halfway with our machines, we tend to flatten out ourselves. We tend to be less capable of imagining the kinds of things that the machines can’t imagine, don’t care about, that the algorithms are naturally indifferent to, which are values — you know, loyalty, patriotism, justice, whatever it might be.


And another underlying factor here that generates bad ideas is inequality. Inequality makes it very hard to have serious conversations because the people who control the resources end up monopolizing the conversations. So we have unbelievably stupid ideas about going to space or immortality or whatever it might be. But those things consume, you know, the resources, the intellectual resources, they take up too much of the landscape so that better conversations can’t actually take place.


So, I mean, those are two of the structural things. I think that the deepest connection of all might be that when we say that ideas aren’t important, we are excusing ourselves from thinking about the future. You know, because when we can tell ourselves the future is inevitable, but, of course, it’s not, right?


A Serbia or a 9/11 or a Russia can come along and things won’t be the way you expect. But, in fact, the future is unknown and depends to a great deal upon us. And it depends upon our actions, which can only be unpredictable and interesting if they’re guided by values, if they’re guided by creative ideas.

And so I associate this flat discussion that we have about ideas when we say, oh, they’re not really important and then we proceed to issue some very stupid ones — I associate that with the closing down of the future, that as people are more and more afraid of the future, they’re more and more afraid to venture out with ideas. But also in the other way around, the worse we get at talking about ideas, the harder it is for us to imagine the future as being anything else but like the present or the present with some kind of catastrophe.


And that, by the way, is something which strikes me as being really unusual about our moment. You know, I mean, not getting into whether things are getting better or getting worse, but what’s, I think, what’s different about our moment compared to 1970 or 1950 or 1890 is that people don’t seem to have the ability to imagine different futures, that we seem to be stuck where we are or between where we are and then like the threat that what we have will just be taken away.

Ezra Klein

I want to add one more possible explanation here. And for listeners, if this is all sounding a little heady, I’m going to go into grounding all this in a minute. But I do think this part is important. I wonder, particularly in the United States and Europe, if both ideas and a belief in ideas are not casualties of a certain form of success and stability.


And what I mean by that is that the longer you are implementing an idea — the idea of the United States, the idea of European integration — the more you end up caught in the frustrating, deadening, often dull questions of, well, we have to harmonize regulations for grain across the European Union, or in the U.S. Senate we have the filibuster and nothing can get done.


And over and over and over again, I think one thing that inevitability gives you is a kind of explanation for why your ideas that once seemed so thrilling have become this tedium of implementation, conflict, regulation, et cetera. And I bring that up because, in particular, it seems to be important for understanding the role of the European Union in all this.


And it’s something you say about the European Union, which is it begins in the shadow of these tremendous states. Like European integration as an idea in the post-Wold War II era is one of the most thrilling irenic concepts in human history. And then by this point in human history, by the point that Putin is attacking Ukraine and, obviously, Putin is helping this along, it has become dull, bureaucratic.


You know, Britain leaves. You have Brexit. And so there’s a conflict, I think, between ideas. And societies have spent a long time relatively successfully implementing them and, as such, have become more alert to their contradictions and disappointments than to their inspirations and, on some level, begin to extrapolate that exhaustion out in the way they read everyone else too.


Tim Snyder

Maybe. I mean, I think you’re right that there’s this extraordinary chasm between how interesting the European Union actually is and how tediously people, including the people inside it, tend to speak about it. I think the European Union is extraordinarily interesting because of its novelty.


There hasn’t been anything like it before. And I think it’s extraordinary interesting too because it addresses this basic problem of modernity, which is what to do after empire. And we had a period of 500 years where European powers, including the United States, gained physical or some kind of control over much of the Earth.


Now we’re in a kind of post-imperial period. But the question of what to do next, no one really knows the answer to. You know, you can pretend that you’re a nation state and that you’re separated from everyone else, as some right-wing politicians propose. But, in fact, there has to be some kind of connection. And the Europeans have actually figured out what that is, I mean, first before anyone else, which is that you have to pool sovereignty. In order to strengthen your state, you have to give some parts of your state away. And that’s incredibly interesting.


And the fact that you have this contiguous zone of democracies, you know, where people live longer and self reportedly better and happier lives than in the United States, by a lot at this point, is incredibly interesting. But the way people talk about it, I agree, is completely tedious. And I don’t know if we need such a deep explanation for that.


Your explanation may be too interesting. I mean, I tend to think that when you’ve attained something, you tend to take it for granted. And so if one wants to see how the European Union is interesting, one has to go beyond it. So the Ukrainians, for example, think that it’s very interesting indeed. So much so that they were willing to take risks for it in 2014. And even now in 2022, they’re quite actively associating what’s happening to their country with Europe and also, as you suggest, with different understandings of the Second World War.


You know, and that’s interesting. They tend to understand that Putin is presenting the Second World War as an argument for more war, putting it very bluntly. Putin is saying that the lesson of the Second World War is that Russians are always innocent and everyone else is always guilty and that a leader of Russia can assign blame. Whereas the Ukrainians are more along the lines of, no, we were there too and we suffered just as much, if not more. And the lesson of the Second World War is more like what the Europeans say, namely that the age of empire is open and there should be this kind of cooperation. That, I think, is actually really interesting. It’s just happening beyond the borders of the European Union.

Ezra Klein

I want to use this as a bridge to talk about Ukraine. And something you just said is really important in understanding Ukraine’s both past and its history. A premise of your book “Bloodlands” is that World War II was very heavily fought over Ukraine. Ukraine is much more central to World War II than it is, I think, in the American narrative of World War II. So tell me a bit about that. We’re going to go through some other eras for Ukraine too. But what is Ukraine in World War II?

Tim Snyder

I mean, when we tell the story of the Second World War, we naturally begin with ourselves. Everyone does it. But I guess some of us are more justified than others in doing it. And there’s a funny tension, which is that the things that are the darkest, the things are the most important are actually the hardest to look at. And so they tend to be marginalized.


So the way we tell the Second World War is completely inside out, you know, Western Front rather than Eastern Front. And in the Eastern Front, we don’t really understand what Hitler’s ambitions were. So I guess in the broadest possible way, it’s important to understand that in a colonial paradigm, Ukraine is going to be central. Ancient Greece got grain from Ukraine. In the 16th century, Poland effectively colonized Ukraine during the Age of Discovery and sold grain from Ukraine around the world for gold and silver that came from Latin America. In the 20th century, Stalin also colonized Ukraine. And he actually used that language.


He talked about self-colonization, internal colonization, the notion being that if you’re going to imitate capitalism, which is what Stalinism was all about, if you’re going to imitate capitalism at an accelerated pace, you have to go through all the stages of capitalism, including the imperial stage. You have to exploit yourself because you don’t have distant Maritime colonies like the British do. And Ukraine was the main thing to be exploited because of the fertile soil. Hence, collectivization of agriculture, hence a famine that kills 4 million people.


And I have to say all that because it’s prelude to the Germans. Hitler is looking at Ukraine as a breadbasket. Hitler is looking at Ukraine as the last best opportunity for the Germans to create a colonial system, which he sees as like that of other countries, but coming in later, coming in harder and allowing Germany to catch up and become a superpower, like the British are, like the Americans are from his point of view.


And so his war aim, his central war aim is to destroy the Soviet Union and to control the oil fields in the Caucasus, but above all, to control the rich soil of Ukraine, from which most of the population is going to be expelled or starved. A small group of Ukrainians will be allowed to survive to work the collective farms that Stalin has left. And all the agriculture will be diverted West to Germany to allow Germany to become a kind of balanced economy and this great empire.


So it’s all about Ukraine. The Second World War, in Europe at least, is all about Ukraine. If not for Ukraine, if not for that vision, which we under the heading of “Lebensraum,” there wouldn’t have been a war. I won’t narrate the whole business. But the Poland, the France, the Britain, those are distractions on the way to what Hitler is really trying to do, which is get to Ukraine.


Ezra Klein

And at the same time, I mean, Ukraine at this point is part of the Soviet Union. But even now, as you describe in “The Road to Unfreedom,” Ukraine is very and unusually central to ideas of Russian greatness. The philosophers that Putin has rehabilitated, that he himself obsesses over, that he gives their books to all the officials of the Russian state, they see Ukraine as having this strategic, but also semi-mystical relationship to Russia. Why is Ukraine so important in that cosmology?


Tim Snyder

I’m glad, by the way, that you mention Putin reading books and giving books to other people. Because it’s an answer that I didn’t give to your earlier question. You know, we can say that ideas don’t matter. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter to other people.


And if we think they don’t matter, we’re all the less equipped to figure out where they’re coming from. For many people, the whole notion that Putin reads books or that Putin has ideas, at least until very recently, seemed strange. We wanted to kind of grasp him in terms of this narrow means-end rationality, where his ends must be similar to our ends, which is just having more stuff and having stability.


But, in fact, I mean, it’s quite right, as you suggest, that Putin is taking part in a long tradition of thinking of Russia by way of Ukraine, I’d put it that way. And this can’t be discussed as history. Because as history, it just doesn’t work at all. I mean, historically speaking, the lands around Kyiv, very interesting.


You know, Vikings convert to Christianity, have their state broken up by succession problems and Mongols, join the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which they supply with a language of law and a code of law, become part of Poland, enter in a really fractious interesting Reformation and Renaissance as part of a larger Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.


There’s 1,000 years of history of the land around Kyiv before there’s any contact between Kyiv and Moscow. 1,000 years, that’s a long time. And so this business of there being some kind of organic connection doesn’t make any sense historically. But there is a kind of mythical process which historians can look at and find interesting, which goes something like this.


When Kyiv and Moscow are finally brought into contact in the late 17th century after Poland lost a war, churchmen in Kyiv told churchmen in Moscow that there was this thing about this baptism around the year 1000. And that meant that Ukraine and Russia were part of some larger unity.


The baptism was a Viking warlord came from a clan of slavers known as the Rus, hence the word “rus.” The word “rus” comes from the name of a clan or a business, if you like, of Viking slavers in the ninth century, 10th century. And they’re the ones who converted to Christianity.


The one who did it was probably called the Valdemarr, which in modern Russian is Vladimir and in modern Ukrainian is Volodymyr. So it’s that guy, that Viking warlord who was mythologized 700 years later by Ukrainian priests who are trying to persuade Russian priests that Ukraine and Russia are together because they’re trying to secure their own place in this expanding Russian empire.


And then what Putin does with it — and this is the mystical part — is that he sees history just in terms of a kind of fragmented unity, which is his word by the way. He wrote this very long essay in July of last year, which we called “On the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine.” And everything about it is wrong, starting with the title. But it’s revealing that he sees the past in terms of a lost unity. And so the things which don’t seem to fit that unity he dismisses immediately as artificial. If something shows you that Ukraine isn’t just part of Russia, that’s not really the past. That’s artificial. That should be stripped away.


The real past, although you can’t always see, it is this underlying unity. And that brings us very close towards the kind of ideas precisely that animate this war in Ukraine. In that essay and then his recent pronouncements, he stresses that Ukraine as a state, as a nation is not real. What he means is that all of the facts which you and I might see which might suggest that it is real, all those things are artificial.


Those things have to be stripped away in order to get to the underlying reality, which is that Ukrainians really do want to be part of Russia. They may not know it, but as soon as we get rid of their elites, as soon as we get rid of their state, they will realize all of that. So this notion of underlying unity, you know, it’s interesting, it’s an idea.


But it also has a kind of terrifying political implication. It is, technically speaking, a totalitarian implication, that what politics is all about is not just ignoring the facts, but destroying the facts insofar as they’re in the way of this vision which actually animates what politics is supposed to be all about.

Ezra Klein

I want to take a detour here for a minute into Vladimir Putin’s mysticism. Because this is a place where I think it is strange enough that a lot of the Western conversation just doesn’t go there. We’re very comfortable having a debate over whether or not Putin is doing this because of NATO expansion. But if you read him, and then as you do in “Road to Unfreedom,” if you read the people he is reading, NATO comes in very late in his analyses. What he talks about much more is this, again, semi-mystical understanding of Ukraine.


But not only that. I mean, as you show, he’s very attracted to mystical philosophers in general, philosophers that are very different. I mean, they’re not having — this is not John Rawls over there. There is something going on around fundamental ideas about the nature of states, peoples, reality, leaders. How would you describe the cosmology of Vladimir Putin?


Tim Snyder

OK, um well, why don’t we start with Rawls. So, I mean, John Rawls, the most important liberal political philosopher of the last decades, has various devices by which the idea is to help us see how we should think of ourselves as being alongside other people. And we should take their interests into account. It’s a kind of practical Kantianism.


The notion is that philosophy is only, ethics is only real if we’re actually thinking from, able to, take the point of view of another person. And Rawls starts his book “Theory of Justice” with devices to try to get us to think our way into other people’s perspectives. Imagine that we didn’t know who we are, then what would we value, you know, that kind of situation.


Putin’s philosophy begins from an entirely opposite position. I mean, the philosophers that he seems to have been influenced by — and I’m just taking his word for it. I’m following what he says and whom he cites. He was asked by a group of young Russian historians who the most important influence on him was. And he cited this guy, Ivan Illyn. And I think the record beares that out pretty well.


That philosophy starts from the position that you don’t think about other people at all. You don’t think about ethics at all. The only thing that matters in the world is God. And what matters with God is that he’s left us behind this kind of spoiled world.


And the only way — and I’m shortening it a bit here, but this is the basic idea. The only way to repair the world, to heal the world, to bring all the pieces back together is for there to be a certain kind of Russia.


And that Russia, how do we know it’s the right kind of Russia? We know it’s the right kind of Russia because it doesn’t have any fragmentation in itself. In other words, there’s none of this messy business about counting votes. There’s none of this messy business about people having different opinions.


There’s just a leader. And the leader, by way of his clear decisions and actions, asserts, embodies, creates this unity on the scale of a nation. That’s when we can tell that it’s the right sort of Russia, the kind of Russia whose mission it is to bring a sort of unity to the world.


So, I mean, that’s all in its way perfectly consistent and interesting. But you’re right that it’s hard to throw a bridge from any kind of pragmatic liberal tradition over to that sort of metaphysic, which is beginning from the premise — you know, Rawls is basically beginning from the premise like, hey, if we could see each other’s point of view, we could sort things out.


This is beginning from the premise that the world is wrecked and, therefore, we need charismatic acts of violence to generate the sort of healing and unity. It’s a different world of ideas. I mean, it’s a world of ideas that we used to know better. I mean, this is going back to some of your earlier questions and saying something that maybe one of us should have said.


Back when we were, you know, when the United States was engaged with either fascism or communism, we did have to think a little bit harder and read a little more broadly in these characters, right? We have all these debates now in the U.S. about what fascism is and so on. And one of the reasons why we have these debates is that it’s all become very abstract. But there was a time when we thought about it quite seriously because there was fascism in our country. And there was fascism that had taken over other countries. And so I think part of what’s happened the last few decades is that, you know, going back to some of the things you said, actually, that we’ve lost the habit of imagining these alternatives.


And then when one appears, it appears to us, as you said in your question, it appears strange to us, right? Where strange means something like dismissible. And dismissible means something like it can’t be that. So let’s go back to more familiar things like, is it NATO expansion, yada, yada. You know, whereas clearly like that geopolitical framework, it’s very comfortable for us because we want it all to be reasonable.


It’s also very comfortable for us because it allows us as Americans to think that, you know, we’re at the center of things. But it’s obviously nonsense. I mean, whatever Putin is doing with respect to Ukraine, it can’t be motivated geopolitically. Because geopolitically speaking, all that he’s doing is pushing his country faster and faster into being a vassal of China. That’s the main geopolitical outcome of this. This staring at NATO and staring at Ukraine, as Mr. Putin invites us to do, is fine.


But any sensible analysis of Russian geopolitics would begin from the fact that they have a long border with a very powerful neighbor that basically sees them as a source of natural resources and that every time Russia antagonizes the West, it deprives itself of the ability to balance between China and the West. So Mr. Putin’s geopolitical legacy is that he’s accelerated the process quite drastically of turning Russia into a kind of appendix to China. So, I mean, I don’t think geopolitics is much of a starter. I just think it’s where we find ourselves more comfortable. It’s kind of default for us. It’s a place where we feel OK.

Ezra Klein

So we’ve talked a bit then about Germany’s story of Ukraine during World War II. We’ve talked a fair amount here about the Soviet Union and then later Putin’s stories of Ukraine. What is Ukraine’s history of Ukraine? What is the national identity there that is cohering, being drawn on by Zelensky? How do they tell it?


Tim Snyder

Well, I think one of the interesting things about Ukraine is that they’re not going for that kind of story, or at least most of them aren’t most of the time, which I find very encouraging. Because if, you know, what we have in the world is just a kind of duel of homogenizing stories, then that’s very boring for one thing. But it’s also incredibly conflictual. Whereas what the Ukrainians are doing, interestingly, is that they’re dealing with the post-imperial the post-Soviet situation in a kind of ramshackle, not particularly clearly articulated way. What do I mean by that? I mean that there are a lot of folks, you know, some of them are Ukrainians in Canada or North America, who want Ukraine to be all about the Ukrainian language. And they want to make their own argument about how it’s not the Russians who come from, you know, Kyiv 1,000 years ago. It’s not them, it’s us. And if I have to referee, is it the Russians or the Ukrainians, then it’s the Ukrainians. But it’s not really anybody, right? It was 1,000 years ago. And a lot of things supervened. And there was a lot of human agency involved.


But what the Ukrainians, I mean, it’s not that I don’t want to talk about Ukrainian history. It’s my subject. I love it. I’m teaching two classes on it next fall. I’ve written six books about it. But what I want to say is that what’s interesting about the Ukrainians is that they seem to be moving more towards the argument that the nation is not about a clear story of the past. It’s more about action directed towards the future.


And I say this because both in the case of the Russian invasion in 2014 and in this much more stressful period now, when I talk to Ukrainians anyway, I don’t find them talking much about the Second World War, about ancient hatreds with Russia, or about some long narrative which has to be clear in some way. I find them more focused on what they’re doing.


You know, if there’s an encouraging remarkable thing about the Ukrainian reaction to this war, it’s not just the soldiers are fighting. Although that’s amazing enough when you consider what it would be like to be invaded by the Russian Federation. It’s that everybody seems to be doing something. The journalists are working.

The civil society organizations are active. The rich people are sharing their stuff. I don’t want to idealize it. But the general picture is of people who are engaged. And that is what a nation is, or at least that’s one version of what a nation is, right?

Like a French historian said that a nation is a daily plebiscite. It’s not about having the past all in order. It’s not about having all of your blue books on a shelf, all of your red books on a different shelf. It’s about what you do every day, you know, as a collectivity which exists, as a collectivity because it’s directed towards some kind of a future. So I’m happy to talk about how the Ukrainians see their history.


But I think this business about being a civic nation and having a nation which is based upon asserting its own existence day to day is the real contrast with Russia, or at least not Russia, but the real contrast with Putin and his narrative and his myth.

Ezra Klein

That line reminds me of the great John Lewis quote, which I’ll paraphrase here, which is democracy is not a state, it’s a practice, which I always think is underrated. But let me ask you one piece about Ukrainians’ more recent moments of national identity formation. Because you talk quite a bit about this in “Road to Unfreedom,” which is the Maidan Revolution. Could you talk a bit about Maidan and what that meant?

Tim Snyder

So it’s interesting because it goes back to our earlier discussion about whether Europe is boring or not. What happened in 2013 in Ukraine was that a duly elected, but oligarchical and quite corrupt, president called Viktor Yanukovych was tolerated by large segments of the population because he promised that he was going to move Ukraine toward Europe, which meant specifically the signing of what’s called an association agreement in the Autumn of 2013.


At the last moment, days before it was supposed to be signed, Yanukovych changed his mind under extreme pressure from precisely Russia, which led to protests, which were first called Euromaidan because the idea was that people were protesting the loss of their future precisely.


Because especially for the kids, for the young people, for the university students who started the protests, that’s what Europe was all about, right? It is about a vision of where they could be as Ukrainians in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. When Yanukovych sent riot police to beat the students’ heads in, then their parents and their grandparents and so on came out under the slogan of “our children should not be beaten.”


And these became much larger protests with a back and forth between riot police and with protesters. And then at that point, by December of ‘13, these protests, they were much more existential. They were about, do we have the right to be out here? Do we have the right to be where we are? And they became also a kind of — I mean, they became a kind of demonstration of togetherness where the point — I mean, one of my artist friends, Vasyl Cherepanyn, called this corporeal politics, where the point was to show your support by other people by being there.


And before the Maidan became violent, this was a transformative experience for a lot of people. Because it got us out of the kind of routine that you and I were both referring to in different ways, the routine of staring at your computer, you know, the routine of everyday administrative choices.


I remember very vividly people on the Maidan telling me that when they went home and watch T.V, or flipped on their computers, they were afraid. But when they were out there with other people, they weren’t. They felt good. And so there’s the transformative experience of being together with, you know, hundreds of thousands of other people. But then there’s also the risk. And this is where the Ukrainians start to disagree, start to get frustrated with the Russians and irritated with the Belarusians. Because they will tend to say when they started beating us, it’s a good thing that we stayed, right? It’s a good thing that we stayed because we had to show that an oligarch was going too far, that by breaking the law, by using violence against us, he was going too far.


And I think in a kind of broader historical sense, they’re on to something, right? Like at what point do you and how do you resist extreme inequality? Especially when your local oligarch is then being backed by the internationally most important oligarch, namely Putin, who was sending advisors and giving financial incentives for these protests to be violently quashed. And, indeed, as these protests were underway, had already ordered an invasion of parts of Ukraine.


So the Ukrainians think of Maidan as a moment where they were together and they resisted and they won. And it goes well with the last question because, you know, Maidan like everything else in Ukraine, was bilingual. Like people would go up to the stage. And they’d give a speech in Ukrainian then come back and ask their friends in Russian how it was going. It wasn’t about asserting some kind of cultural homogeneity. It was about getting together and doing something, right? And in that sense that you’re together when you’re doing something and the thing that you have to resist might well be a state which has gone too far in the direction of corruption, that’s a pretty characteristic, I would say, Ukrainian sensibility at this point.

Ezra Klein

Could you spend another moment on the language issue? And from a particular direction, you mentioned earlier that you were glad that I brought up that Putin reads books. And I found there’s been a tendency — not yours, but among others to almost admire the fact that Putin has ideas and stop right there, right, that it’s just interesting, isn’t it, that Vladimir Putin has ideas, that he’s read books, that he has a concept of a history that he’s trying to put forward in lengthy speeches and essays. Without, I think, really offering any critical analysis of the fact that his ideas are bad, that they’ve made predictions about the world that are wrong, and that they don’t really add up.

So one of his big ideas is that Ukraine is full of Russian speakers, which is to say it is full of Russians, in some sense. And that they are oppressed, they’re under forced assimilation, that he is — at some level, they are to liberate the Russians of Ukraine, which you know exist there because there is so much Russian spoken. But obviously at the same time, the president of Ukraine, Zelensky, is a Russian speaker. So there’s something very odd in the way that Putin is using language here and very different from what language is in Ukraine. Can you talk a bit about that?


Tim Snyder

Yeah, I mean, I think this kind of ethnic nationalism is one of these dumb reductive ideas which we hold even as we say that ideas don’t matter, right? So the American Revolution was English speakers against English speakers, at least as best I can remember, mostly English speakers against mostly English speakers.


And, you know, and I are speaking English. But we would be very surprised to find out that during the taping of this podcast Boris Johnson had said something about how we need to be liberated, that would be strange.

Politics and language don’t match up in that way at all, right? It’s a logical fallacy.


And in Ukraine, second point, insofar as there is a drift toward speaking Ukrainian rather than Russian, which there is such a thing. But it’s very, very slow. And it’s chiefly among young people. It’s mostly as a result to Putin. So in the real empirical world after 2014, after the Maidan, people tended to shift their express language preference towards Ukrainian because Russia had just invaded the country.


And one imagines that will happen again because of this invasion. So the very thing that Putin says he wants to preserve, the Russian language, is actually harmed by his own actions. His interpretation of people shifting, the same people saying that they speak more Ukrainian now, is to call that genocide and to imagine that those people somehow disappeared, which is just, it’s plainly untrue. But the paradox is that it’s his own actions which are bringing about this result.


And then this is connected to that kind of the difference between a mystical reality and lived experiential reality that we’re talking about before. Because what Putin is saying is that these people are Russians, but they don’t know it, they don’t know it. And they need to know it.

And so then that raises the question, what kind of violence, what kind of lengthy and terrible occupation would be needed for that, would be needed to transform tens of millions of people who think they are Ukrainians into Russians? And by the way, that’s the kind of thinking that Raphael Lemkin had in mind when he coined the word genocide. Genocide is not just about the mass attempt to murder every member of a group, as, of course, the extreme case of the Jewish Holocaust.


But genocide is the aspiration to try to remove a group that exists from the Earth, right, to take a group and make it no longer exist. When Putin says there’s no Ukrainian nation, there’s no Ukrainian state, when he suggests that the fact that you speak Russian means that you’re really a Russian whether it or not, he’s expressing, you know — and this is very sad, I know — but he’s expressing precisely that kind of aspiration.

Ezra Klein

I want to pick up on something you said there about the way this is fundamentally backfiring from the perspective, at least, of that ambition, to liberate and restore the Russian identity of Ukrainians. You’ve written that, quote, “no Ukrainian policy ever led to as much Ukraine as Russia’s war on Ukraine.” How is Russia’s war on Ukraine changing Ukrainian national identity? What has Putin actually helping to create here?


Tim Snyder

So I first want to say something about how language can be positive. Because I don’t want us to come away from this with the impression that all that’s happening is that people in Ukraine are moving away from Russian. They slowly are. But it’s not an either-or thing. Basically, everybody still speaks both languages.


And it’s an interesting — the day that the Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, I was doing a doctoral defense in Ukrainian of a dissertation. And everybody who was there in the room spoke Russian. But they were all Ukrainians, right? And the dissertation was about a Ukrainian who, among other languages, knew Russian.

And there’s a richness there, right? Like one of the things that I find important about the Ukrainian case is that I tend to think that if we’re going to make it in the 21st century, it’s going to have to be with national identities or some kind of identities which are a little bit more ramshackle, a little bit less homogenizing, you know, and which probably involve in practice more of the kind of daily code switching that the Ukrainians do all the time.


So people don’t necessarily notice this, but the Ukrainian soldiers fighting this war are speaking Russian. And this leads to these really interesting situations because Russia has now invaded a country whose inhabitants can yell at them and protest in their own language, but who also have a language in reserve. I mean, there was a film there’s a moment ago that I saw a little girl singing in a bunker. She was singing that song, which I’ve never liked at all, the “Let It Go” song from the “Frozen” movie. But she’s singing it in Russian, right, because she saw the movie in Russian probably.


And everybody claps. And that’s totally normal. So I think that kind of bilingualism and code switching will survive this war. And I think President Zelensky will continue as long as he lives, you know — and may it be long — he will continue to speak Russian with his family and Ukrainian with his people. Because those are the rules of linguistic engagement in that country.


I think the identity that’s being created doesn’t really have to do with that. I think the identity that’s being created has to do with action. It has to do with having done something, right, where the meta example is Zelensky’s choice to stay in Kyiv and risk his own life, right? I think the national identity is being formed has to do with that. It has to do with being there, with helping one another out, with having some kind of a common cause.


And I think as with Maidan eight years ago on a larger scale, you know, hopefully when this war ends, it may be soon, that’s how identity will be remembered. Not so much that it was an opposition to Russian culture. Russian language, Russia — although, of course, that will be present — but more that we stayed, we did things, Ukraine is present in our lives now, and that’s a sign that it’s a nation.

Ukraine is present in our lives now not because of its linguistic practices. Most of us watching can’t tell what language they’re speaking. It’s present in our lives now because of the actions which are universally recognizable. And I think it’s that which — it’s really that which distinguishes Ukraine and Russia right now rather than the culture, rather than the language.

Ezra Klein

Something you’ve said in different venues is that Putin’s essays, speeches about Ukraine are less revealing about the nature of Ukraine than they are about the nature of Russia. You wrote, “what is most striking about Putin’s essay is the underlying uncertainty about Russian identity. When you claim that your neighbors are your brothers, you are having an identity crisis.” Can you talk a bit about what’s being revealed, or for that matter, confused here about Russian identity?

Tim Snyder

I think Russian national identity is extremely confused and you can understand the need for Ukraine as a kind of shortcut, as a kind of way of resolving all these problems. Because you can say, well, I mean, this is a kind of dumb analogy, but you can say, well, the only problem with my life is I don’t have somebody else, you know? But anybody who says that is probably incorrect. And what Putin is saying — if we kind of reduce all the philosophical stuff down to a very simple proposition, he’s saying, Russia is not itself without Ukraine.


But if you’re not capable of being yourself without attacking and absorbing, violently, someone else, some other country, the real question might be about you, the real question might be about how you see the world, how you’re living in the world. So I think there’s a serious problem with Russian national identity. And that’s not just the kind of psychological problem for one man or for Russian society. It’s a political problem for the whole world.


Because insofar as Russia only exists as an ambition to “unify” quote, unquote, with another country, that leads us to where we are now. I mean, but then let’s go very hardcore political with this now. One reason why it’s hard to have a Russian national identity is that it’s so hard to do anything with the Russian state. And the reason why it’s so hard to do anything with the Russian state is that the Russian state is controlled by an oligarchical clan with the head oligarch in charge.


So you have not only extraordinary inequality of wealth, but you also have basically zero rule of law. And so you can’t have domestic policy in the conventional sense. So what can you have? You can have rhetorical flourishes. You can have visions of unity. You can have spectacles. You can have wars abroad. That’s what is left for you.


So like if nationhood really is a daily plebiscite, but you can’t perform the daily action of policy in a normal way, then the state has to go somewhere else, right? The state has to say, well, our problem is not that, you know, one person has $100 billion or that a few people have most of the wealth in the country.


That’s not our problem. Our problem is that we just don’t have Ukraine. And then that becomes a kind of song. That becomes a poem. The poem is very attractive. We become who we are by way of something else. And, you know, then you throw in some baptisms and whatever. And it’s very fetching, right? It’s very fetching. But it’s a sign that maybe you haven’t figured out who you are yet.


And I think that like we forget that there’s never been a Russia. There was a Russian Empire ruled by a largely foreign elite over a population that mostly didn’t speak Russian. There was a Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union was internationalist. And that wasn’t entirely a sham. And its elite was, in fact, multinational. Stalin was not a Russian. And it wasn’t built on national principles.

You know, Putin insists — and we tend to go along with him. He says like everything from the Vikings to the Soviet Union, that was Russia, right? And that’s simplifies things for us. And so maybe we kind of go along.

But there’s never been a Russia like the Russia that’s existed since 1991. There’s never been a Russia, which has had to just be Russia. And just being Russia turns out to be difficult. I mean, in a way, like that’s the challenge which Putin is not actually facing. Like what does it actually mean to just, to be Russia? He’s closed that all down by building the kind of state that he’s built.


He’s made it impossible for Russians to think about a future by the intense lawlessness and by the intense centralization of media and wealth. So the question what is Russia can’t be answered in the normal way, which is by referring to what Russia might become. It has to be answered in these other ways, by way of other people. That’s what I mean by when I say there’s an identity problem.

Ezra Klein

I think the idea that there is confusion here is a little underestimated. And so I’m glad you brought it up. So I’m a writer. And one thing you learn as a writer is that some of what a speech or an essay conveys is in terms of the words.


And some of it is in terms of the form, the structure. These actually carry a lot of information. And one thing I have found — and I recognize this could just be language barrier. And I’m reading translations. But the thing I found reading Putin’s articles and speeches on Ukraine is it his use of history itself, the way he constructs what he’s posing here as an argument is disorienting in a way that reads to me as intentional as a choice.


These documents have this very strange looping associative quality where these long historical digressions resolve into almost nothing at all. It’s like proving his point doesn’t matter even if you prove it. If you want my house, but I own my house, and then you’re explaining that your great-great-great grandfather once thought he owned my house, it just doesn’t matter, right?


You’ve spent a lot of time telling me about old arguments, but even if you were right, it wouldn’t matter. And that’s the feel of the speeches, that he’s almost trying to bury you in so much detail you can’t see that there’s nothing happening at the center of it. And I’m curious in your reading of him if that rings true to you.


Tim Snyder

Yes, yes, I do. I think that’s right. And I think it’s — your question is a good way of answering your previous question that when the answer is right in front of you, it’s extremely tempting to circle around and to try to bring other things in and to do something else, which he does, which is he adds this incredible tone of like faux assurance to it all. I mean, he has this tone of the person who is sitting next to you at the bar and who knows everything.


And if you try to interrupt, he’ll like stop you. He has that guy’s mode of delivery. And I think that there is an effort — there’s a kind of desperate effort of convincing myself here that’s going on. You’re talking about speeches in general, but I think what you say applies most to his July 2021 essay on historical unity, which is 7,000 words, which is rather long for a publication by a head of state.


And which, as you say, wouldn’t convince anyone who didn’t already believe it that there is some kind of historical unity between Russia and Ukraine, but which nevertheless has a level of intense tedium to it, which suggests that he kind of wants, the effort itself is meant to show that something serious is going on here. When, in fact, what’s going on is quite loopy. When in fact what’s going on is an axiomatic belief that Russia can only be Russia if Ukraine is brought into Russia.


And the word confusion you use is very important because you sometimes — there are various ways to cut through confusion. But one way to cut through confusion, as the fascists were glad of pointing out, is to say, well, at the end of the day, I don’t have to make sense because I can carry out a transformative act of violence. And the transformative act of violence will speak for itself.


Like that’s the thing which actually makes sense, right? That’s the thing that makes sense of the world. So I do think there’s a connection here between a deep commitment to something, which can’t actually be explained, but which can be acted upon. And I think this is another reason why when we reason about Putin, we shouldn’t be reasoning from our own premises.


We should at least start from where he’s starting from. Because there is a logic here. You know, the logic is cutting through the confusion, undoing the fragmentation. I may not be able to think it all through, but I’m going to show you that I can act it all through. The world may not be the way I describe. I may not be able to gather up in my paragraphs, but I can gather it up in my paratroopers. I can make it make sense. Watch me make it make sense.

Ezra Klein

We’ve talked about the way Putin’s vision is instantiated through action, the way Ukraine is increasingly constituting the next version of itself, hopefully — hopefully through action. I want to end back where we began on the U.S, and Europe, who in our own ways, I think, have been shocked out of the politics of inevitability, but it isn’t quite clear to me what comes next for either, either in terms of vision or long term even in terms of action. And I’m curious if you have another normative or predictive view of that, of what the West vision is becoming, what its politics are becoming, or what they should become?

Tim Snyder

I’m not sure I can get that far, but I’ll give it a shot. I think that what the Europeans ought to do is they ought to be offering membership negotiations to Ukraine. And not just because Ukraine deserves it, but because that’s part of the way out of this war is at the end of this war, however it ends, the Ukrainians will have lost much.

And if we want them to stop fighting, there has to be something meaningful towards which they can look in the future. And European Union membership is very much that for them. But I also think this with respect to the Europeans themselves, that you can only tell your story about the Second World War for so long.


And, you know, Mr. Putin is working the story of the Second World War in an extraordinary way. But in a way, he’s doing, he’s kind of doing people a favor. Because he’s showing that perhaps it’s time for a different reference point. And that reference point could be the war that Putin himself has just started. And I sense that, you know, some of these people in my column, for example, they realize that their own generation of politicians has to seize on the moments of today and create a story which will serve later politicians. Because, let’s face it, 80 years down the line from now, it’s not going to be the Second World War.


For the Americans, one of the things I find very encouraging about the American reaction to all of this, which I think has been nimble and admirable in a number of small ways, has been the lack of ambition. I mean, the lack — I mean, not that it hasn’t been ambitious. But it hasn’t taken place within a framework of, we can really do it all and we’re just choosing not to do it all.


There hasn’t been the grand, the story about how we enforce red lines or how we’re going to create a new world order or how we’re going to create a tabula rasa after invading a country. There isn’t any of that. It’s much humbler. And one sees that within that humility, there’s actually an awful lot that the United States can do. But that that humility is also inspiring to others, to the Europeans precisely. It’s worked very well with the Europeans that we’ve been helpful, but not overbearing.


But I think there may be one other thing here, which we’ve learned, which is that it’s time to start again with a lot of things. It’s time to start again with a lot of things. You know, I’ve enjoyed talking to you about history. That’s what I do for a living. But Mr. Putin has kind of showed how you can reach so far down into the past that what you come back with is perverted and dirty and destructive. And that, you know, what we need is less the kind of casual references to models, more historical knowledge, but also just a kind of a sense of, ah, the future could be very different.


So thinking forward from this crisis, we should be thinking about things like conceptually now, this was a hydrocarbon war. If it weren’t for a certain hydrocarbon oligarch, Vladimir Putin, there wouldn’t have been this war. And as we — and I understand, we, in the short term, you have to pump, et cetera, but looking into the future, this war is the kind of war we will have if we become the kind of world which is dependent upon the natural gas and the oil and the people who are able to control the profits from them.


I mean, this war is an argument, a strong argument for avoiding the kind of catastrophe which global warming is going to bring to us, right? So there are ways to take this war and use it not to revive all of like the various analogies, but also to use it as a moment, as an impulse where we can say, aha, OK, we did some things right here.


But there’s a deeper lesson about, you know, the structure of, for example, I’m just using the example, there’s a deep lesson about the structure of energy, which we need to be getting from this too. Because the horror of the way Mr. Putin uses the past, those kind of logical extreme to which he’s pushed that, reminds us that what we really need is a future and that democratic politics can’t be just about defense. You know, it has to be defended.


But if democratic politics is going to be continued, going back to your quotation from John Lewis, you know, it has to be a practice which is aimed towards the future. And there are lots of bad ideas. But if we’re going to have a future, we’re going have to start thinking about different ways that things could turn out. And if the Ukrainians have given us anything, it’s that they’ve bought us that time, right?


I feel like every day that they stay on the battlefield buys us a week, a month, a year of thinking about how things could be. Or if you put it the opposite way, like imagine that Zelensky had fled and that the state had collapsed, right? What kind of suffocating, intellectually and morally narrow, hollow world would we be in right now? What would we be talking about right now? Thanks to the fact that they’re doing something, they’ve given us this chance to think bigger.


And in the last two weeks, we really have thought bigger as Americans, as Europeans, as a transatlantic community. As a world, we have thought bigger thanks to this. So Ezra, I’m not giving — that doesn’t give you a vision of the way things go. But at least I’m trying to express an attitude about how this particular crisis has been usefully restructuring the way we think and how we might go forward with that.

Ezra Klein

I think that is a lovely attitude and orientation to have. So then let me end, as we always do, with what are three books that you would recommend to the audience?

Tim Snyder

Well, if you want to get inside these ideas of Mr. Putin in practice in a way which is less heavy than you and I have done it, I would strongly recommend Peter Pomerantsev’s books, especially — well, his first one and then his second one. But his first one is called “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible,” which, of course, is a quotation from Hannah Arendt, “Origins of Totalitarianism,” which I will just make then book number two.


Because Arendt is very good at getting inside the kinds of logics that we’ve talked about, the forms of politics which seem to us to be, quote, unquote, “irrational,” but which have their own dynamics and their own ways of succeeding. I think that’s probably a very important book to be reading.


And then I guess since we mostly ended up talking about Russia and Ukraine, I will just plug my colleague Serhii Plokhy, who’s the chair of Ukrainian history at Harvard, one of many terrific Ukrainian historians now working in North America who has an overall history of Ukraine called “Gates of Europe.” That gives a very nice background.


And it handles some of these issues of the way things actually work. I mean, for me, national identity doesn’t go in lockstep with the things we know about the past. But when we know more about the past — this is a point Isaiah Berlin liked to say — the more we know about the past, the more we know is not true about the present. And so a big rich history like Serhii’s about the past is interesting in itself. But it also helps us to evaluate and to steer clear of some of the myths that are in politics in the present.


Ezra Klein

Tim Snyder, your book, “The Road to Unfreedom” is terrifyingly relevant right now. And I highly recommend it to everyone listening. Thank you very much.


Tim Snyder

Thank you, Ezra.




Ezra Klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Rogé Karma, Annie Galvin and Jeff Geld. This episode was fact-checked by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Original music and mixing by Isaac Jones. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special Thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin, Kristina Samulewski and Joanna Szostek.