Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and the author of “The Road to Unfreedom” and “Bloodlands.” He recorded a new audio edition of “On Tyranny,” with 20 new lessons about Ukraine.
A decade ago he proposed that politics begins with friend or foe, following the Nazi legal thinker Carl Schmitt and the Russian fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, whom Putin regards as a teacher. Ukraine was a forced friend: Anyone who did not understand that Ukrainians were part of Russian civilization was an enemy. For Putin, the “unity in the souls” of Russians and Ukrainians was the will of God defended by an act of cleansing violence.
In a long essay in July, Putin argued that there was no Ukrainian nation. Complementing his earlier claims with some that he presented as historical, Putin wrote of the “unity” of Russians and Ukrainians. The West had confused Ukrainians to believe that they had their own separate identity, but that could be corrected.
This echoed Hitler’s view. The führer also thought the Ukrainians were natural colonial people, who, once liberated from the supposedly Jewish leadership of the Soviet Union, would happily serve new masters. Dmitry Medvedev closed the gap between these two positions, making clear that what disqualified Ukrainian government was its Jewish president. In the weeks before the invasion, Russia refused to negotiate with Ukraine, presenting it as a vassal.
Putin continued the argument on Feb. 21, announcing that Russian troops would cross into Ukraine because the Ukrainian state was artificial. Since Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia,” Russia had the right to correct its mistake.
To assert that there is no nation and no state is to claim the right to destroy them. “Denazification” and “demilitarization,” the two war aims that Putin announced on Feb. 24, the day his invasion began, meant nothing less than this.
“Denazification” means the elimination of people who do not understand that Ukraine is part of a larger Russia. It is easy to be distracted by the perversity of the Nazi reference, since Ukraine is a democracy with a Jewish president, and Russian bombs even killed a concentration camp survivor. But underneath there is politics: “Denazification” for Putin just means the license to kill or deport. Since the term “Nazi” does not refer to anyone in particular, it is a justification for endless war and cleansing. So long as Ukrainians resist, there will be “Nazis” to punish.
“Demilitarization” means the destruction of a sovereign state by force, which would include the elimination of anyone capable of preserving the elementary forms of sovereignty. The initial aim of the war was to capture (and presumably kill) the Ukrainian leadership, which Putin characterized on Feb. 24 as an “anti-people junta” and the next day as “drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”
On March 16, in the course of a feverish speech attacking his domestic critics as “traitors” and “scum,” Putin referred to Russians with ties to the West as “gnats.” In his mind, Ukrainians are Russians who like Westerners. They must be corrected by force — “cleansed” or “spat out,” as he put it in that speech.
Putin envisioned the collapse of Ukraine in two days. That did not happen, but the appropriate propaganda was in place. A victory declaration was accidentally published by the official Russian press service RIA Novosti on Feb. 26. It reprised all of Putin’s genocidal themes from the perspective of “a new epoch.” The Ukrainian state is no more, and the population of its territory has joyfully accepted Russian domination. “Unity” has been achieved via the “resolution of the Ukrainian question.” A Ukrainian state “will never again exist,” and the masses have settled contentedly into life as “little Russians.”
The distance between these fantasies and reality guarantees the present atrocities. Putin cannot admit to an error, and he must try to bend the world to his fantasy. Victory can mean only a country so destroyed that the remnants of a stateless population have no choice but to accept that they belong to a foreign nation, submit to Russian police control and reeducation for the rest of their lives, and accept that their children will be raised as Russians without any of the freedoms that they as Ukrainians have known
This ambition is visible in the way the war is prosecuted: The teams of assassins keep coming, and local elites keep disappearing. Thousands of Ukrainians have been deported to Russia against their will. Hospitals, schools and civilian bomb shelters are targeted again and again. One-quarter of a population of 44 million people has been displaced by war.
Putin’s words are clearly reflected by his country’s actions in Ukraine. Article II of the United Nations Convention on Genocide specifies five acts that fulfill its definition of “genocide”; all five have been committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. As for evidence of intention: Putin has been confessing it all along.
Ukrainians understand all of this; it is why they are fighting. Seeing Putin’s genocidal aspiration can help the rest of us understand where this war has come from, where it is going and why it cannot be lost.