Russia launched a military attack on neighboring country Ukraine on Feb. 24. While unprovoked by Ukraine, the tension on the Russian side has been building up over a long period of time, as Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, has continuously denied the existence of Ukraine’s sovereignty as a state.

At a virtual event open to the public on March 2, sponsored by Emory University and Georgia Tech, Yale professor Timothy Snyder discussed how this crisis began. Snyder is an expert in Russian and Ukrainian studies, as well as the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Snyder began his presentation by outlining the reasons for Russian aggression against Ukraine. “If we look at the war planning, and if we look at the rhetoric among Russian nationalists, and if we look at the press documentation … we see very clearly that the idea, the purpose, of the invasion was to reach Kiev, destroy the Ukrainian government, capture and presumably kill its head, its president, Volodymyr Zelensky,” Snyder said. “From there, the Ukrainian elite could be destroyed and the remaining inchoate, undefined masses on the territory of Ukraine would naturally drift towards Russia and become part of a larger union.”

Putin’s goal to destroy the nation of Ukraine is genocidal in nature, Snyder said. He explained that, according to the Genocide Convention, “targeting the elite of a nation for destruction in the anticipation that that nation will then no longer exist is a genocidal purpose.” Although Putin claims to be fighting genocide through this war, he is actually starting one himself. Snyder compared Putin’s claims to those of Hitler in World War II –– Hitler justified the war by claiming that Germans were being oppressed across the country’s borders in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and Germany therefore needed to invade and destroy those states to protect the German nationality. This rhetoric is “exactly the same kind of atrocity talk that Mr. Putin is using today,” Snyder said.

Putin is justifying his actions by claiming to protect the Russian nationality, as there are Russians living across the border in Ukraine, but he is destroying the sovereign nation of Ukraine and its people, Snyder explained. He emphasized that this war is a fascist action on the part of Russia, and that Putin is using “atrocity talk” as a cover for white nationalism and violence.

“Perhaps the worst thing about the atrocity talk is that it serves to trivialize some of the concepts  that we have from the Second World War, which allow us to define the world that we live in morally and aspirationally,” Snyder said. “If you speak about ‘denazification’ and have in mind the murder of a duly-elected Jewish president, if you speak about genocide and have in mind the genocide that you were about to commit, what you’re doing is turning these words around, you’re making a mess of them, you’re making them very difficult for other people to use. So the attack on Ukraine is bad enough, of course, but the language that is being used to justify it is a second kind of offense and an important one.”

Snyder also discussed how Putin’s language surrounding Russia’s military attack blurs the distinction between history, memory, and myth. History, as Snyder defined it, is explored with “uncertainty.” He explained that the past has to be organized and evaluated in different ways through a mindful approach. Memory, on the other hand, “means an organization of the past in such a way that only one set of events could have happened,” he said. “If we are comforted that we were always on the right side, if we are confident that we in the past were always innocent, then the tangible political effect of that is that we then believe that whatever we do now must be right.” In Russia’s case, the country has memory laws in place to ensure that the past is “remembered” in specific ways that seek to shroud a dark past.

One such memory law was renewed just prior to the invasion of Ukraine. This law, Snyder said, punishes Russian citizens who speak about Putin and Hitler’s alliance in World War II, during which the Soviet Union invaded and annexed half of Poland and the three Baltic states –– Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The strengthening of this memory law highlights key concepts of Putin’s rhetoric and actions against Ukraine.

Snyder explained that Russia is behaving in a similar fashion compared to the Soviet Union in 1939, which denied Poland’s sovereignty and characterized the invasion as a “rescue operation,” rather than a war –– just as Russia is doing to Ukraine now. “The myths cleanse everything, they purify everything. They make history, they make the past seem like just one cycle,” he added.

Moreover, Snyder said, Putin essentially claims that it is “God’s will that Ukraine and Russia be one country,” referencing the beginning of the nation during times of early Eastern Christianity, and writing this version of history into Russia’s memory. This blending of history with memory and myth is what creates a simplified historical cycle and a dangerous precedent for the future, leaving out the complexities and the human agency involved in the nation’s past.

“In that story, there’s no room for anyone to disagree with the dictator,” Snyder said. “The dictator has literally become the arbiter of history. The dictator is literally writing what happened in the past, and therefore what is permitted in the future.”

In addition to being genocidal, the war in Ukraine is imperialistic. Putin does not want the state and people of Ukraine to have the right to self-determination, Snyder said. This is also the reason why Putin does not want Ukraine to be permitted to join the European Union, he added. That being said, there is no deep-seated conflict between Ukraine and Russia that provoked the war, but rather a one-sided tension amongst extreme Russian nationalists –– specifically, Russian nationalist leaders –– since much of the country was left surprised and unprepared when the violent attacks on Ukraine began, Snyder explained further.

He added that Russian nationalism and imperialism were also the reasons behind the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, during which Russia annexed Crimea.

Furthermore, Snyder explained that there has been a rise in postmodern inequality due to capitalism following the end of the Cold War in 1989. While this inequality can be seen across the globe, “it doesn’t seem to have been sharper anywhere in the world than in the Russian Federation, where just a very small number of people seem to control the majority of the wealth and where the president of the country is at the head of the dominant oligarchical plan,” Snyder said.

In Russia, he explained, postmodern inequality has reached such an extreme level that the country has become disconnected from the rest of the world both in terms of communication and understanding of how the world works –– with increased inequality comes decreased social mobility.

Due to this phenomenon, Putin does not have the desire nor the ability to operate through domestic policy. Instead, he operates through foreign policy, specifically, foreign policy that benefits Russian elites such as himself instead of the country as a whole. These factors lead to issues like Putin’s tyranny and his radical decision to attack Ukraine, Snyder explained.

As opposed to a deeply rooted conflict between the two countries, Putin’s Russian nationalism, imperialism, and inequality-caused disconnect from the world have led to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Snyder also added that in addition to the war being fought across Ukraine, the war is also being fought across the international economy and “across the dimension of factuality.” 

Continuing to emphasize Russia’s censorship and misleading rewriting of history, Snyder said that censoring alternatives to Putin’s language and conceptualization of the past and future means censoring the facts. “It also means pushing away the principle of noncontradiction,” he said.

“We’re not just dealing with a tension, we’re dealing with an attempt to disable us intellectually,” Snyder continued. “When Mr. Putin says that the invasion has to take place in order to denounce a country, and that country is ruled by a democratically elected Jewish president, that’s not just a tension, a misunderstanding of a problem … it’s an attempt to disable our ability to reason from point A to point B. There’s an attempt to create a vacuum which sucks in all the facts. There’s an attempt to create a kind of emptiness in which this kind of tyranny can continue.”