The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Putin badly misjudged the West, as explained by a Russia expert

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
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With President Biden traveling to Europe to shore up the Western alliance against the invasion of Ukraine, it’s become overwhelmingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin badly underestimated the potential for a resolute and unified response from the United States and its allies.

Right now, Biden is holding emergency negotiations with NATO, and a new round of sanctions is set to target Russia’s elites and its economy. U.S. officials are reportedly charting out possible responses if Putin escalates with chemical or even nuclear weapons.

While a horrible humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Ukraine right now, and while the horrific slog ahead is highly uncertain, the Russian effort has reportedly bogged down. In part due to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s successful rallying, fantasies that the West would fracture in the face of the Russian onslaught haven’t materialized.

Why did Putin get this so wrong? For an answer, I reached out to Timothy Snyder, who has written numerous books about Russia, Ukraine and the region. An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.

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Greg Sargent: What is it about Putin’s way of seeing the world, and his understanding of his own mythologies, that made it inevitable that he’d underestimate the Western response?

Timothy Snyder: For me the most revealing text here is the victory declaration, which the Russian press agency accidentally published on Feb. 26. What they say is that the West just basically needed one more push to fall into total disarray.

If you watch Jan. 6 clips over and over again, you can get that impression. The Russians really have been fixated on Jan. 6.

They thought a successful military operation in Ukraine would be that nudge: We’d feel helpless, we’d fall into conflict, it would help [Donald] Trump in the U.S., it would help populists around the world.

Timothy Snyder: Putin has long fantasized about a world without Ukrainians. Now we see what that means.

Sargent: When you say Russia has been making a lot of Jan. 6 — what do they read into it?

Snyder: Number one, they use it to mock us by saying, “These are just peaceful protesters.” Number two, they use it for one of their favorite arguments, which is that democracy is a joke everywhere.

But the deeper point is that Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election on Jan. 6 made the American system look fragile. They think, “One more Trump and the Americans are done.” In invading Ukraine, they think they’re putting huge pressure on the Biden administration. They’re going to make Biden look weak.

That probably was their deep fantasy about the West: Successful military occupation in Ukraine; the Biden administration is totally impotent; we humiliate them; Trump comes back; this is a big strategic victory for us.

Sargent: There’s an essential through line from Jan. 6 to what we’re seeing now: Accountability for Jan. 6 becomes more important in this geopolitical context, where we’re reentering a conflict with Russia over whether liberal democracy is durable.

Snyder: I think you put it extremely well. Putin’s idea about Ukraine is something like, “Ukrainian democracy is just a joke, I can overturn it easily. Everybody knows democracy and the rule of law are just a joke. What really matters are the capricious ideas of a tyrant. My capricious ideas happen to be that there are no Ukrainians. I’m going to send my army to make that true.”

That is much closer to the way Trump talks about politics than the way the average American talks about politics. I’m not saying Trump and Putin are exactly the same. But Trump’s way of looking at the world — “there are no rules, nothing binds me” — that’s much closer to Putin. So there’s a very clear through line.

Sargent: Republicans condemn the invasion. Yet on some fundamental level, they’re not willing to forthrightly disavow Trump’s alignment with Putin and against Ukraine and the West.

Snyder: I have this faint hope that Ukraine allows some folks to look at domestic politics from a new angle.

When we were in the Cold War, one reason the civil rights movement had the success it did, and one reason we kept up a welfare state, was that we were concerned about the Soviet rival.

Russia is a radically anti-democratic country now. Not only has it done frightful things to its own society; it has invaded another country that happens to be an imperfect democracy. We’re also an imperfect democracy.

When you have to look straight at the reality that a big powerful country is aimed at taking imperfect democracies and wiping them out, that gives you pause. I’m hopeful the realization that democracy rises and falls internationally might change the conversation at some deeper level about how we carry out our own voting.

Sargent: Rising populism made Putin think Western liberal democracy was on the losing end of a grand struggle. But Biden and the Western allies may have seen that populism as a reason to get more galvanized and unified in response to the invasion.

Snyder: In Putin’s mind, there’s a kind of confusion of pluralism with weakness. He’s misjudged both Zelensky and Biden, who are both pluralists: They’re both willing to look at things from various points of view. That can look like a form of weakness.

But history also shows that you can be a resolute pluralist. It’s actually a worldview. In very different ways, Zelensky and Biden both embody that: At the end of the day, this whole idea that we listen to each other is something that we’re going to defend.

People in Ukraine are used to being able to exchange views and listen or not listen to their own government. That’s the thing which makes them different from Russia right now. That’s not something Putin can see from a distance.

Sargent: You put your finger on something that’s been an anti-liberal trope for at least a century: That pluralism is in some sense crippling to the possibilities of resolute national action. Putin is steeped in that type of anti-liberal philosophy, isn’t he?

Snyder: Authoritarian regimes look efficient and attractive because they can make rapid decisions. But they often make rapid bad decisions — like the rapid bad decision to invade Ukraine. Putin made it with just a handful of people, so he could make that decision rapidly.

That’s the reason you want institutions, the rule of law and pluralism and public discussion: To avoid idiotic decisions like that.

He’s been working from a certain far-right Russian tradition — that the state and the leader are the same person, and there should be no institutional barriers to what the leader wants to do.

It’s important for us to see that this is the realization of a different model, which has its own logic.

Sargent: Paradoxically, we’re seeing that model’s decadence display itself.

Snyder: Of course the situation is dangerous right now. But a lot of the sparks that are flying out of Russian media are a result precisely of their own fear and their own sense of crisis.

Your word “decadence” is helpful here: When you’re decadent, what you say starts to depart more and more from the way the world actually is. Some Russian politicians are talking about how Poland needs to be taught a lesson. That’s alarming but it’s also unrealistic.

Sargent: I want to explore something you said to Ezra Klein: That in many ways, the response from the Western allies has been realistic and grounded, in that they aren’t trying to do too much.

The balance between drawing a hard line against acts that Russia might see as a trigger, combined with robust sanctions, potentially charts a new realism about what the Western alliance can accomplish. It’s both idealistic and realistic at the same time, isn’t it?

Snyder: The thing that I’ve liked about the Biden administration is that they don’t have this metaphysical language that previous administrations have had about American power. They’ve stuck much closer to the ground.

They say, “We can’t do everything. But we can be creative and do a lot of things.”

By the way, that includes some stuff that we and others could go further on. We have to keep pouring arms into Ukraine, and the Europeans — now is the time to move forward on not buying oil and gas from Russia.

Sargent: What’s your sense of where this is all going?

Snyder: This war is happening because of the worldview and decisions of essentially one person. And I think it comes to an end when something shakes the worldview of that one person.

If the Ukrainians can get the upper hand and keep it for a few weeks, I think the worldview we have been talking about may start to shudder.

The right side has to be winning. That’s when we might have a settlement that ends this horrible war.

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