Timothy Snyder had originally set out to write about Russia and its relations with Ukraine and Europe. However, events let to a different book. It evolved into The Road to Unfreedom, a history of Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US in the 2010s. Russia would end up playing an key role in both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 election, which saw Donald J. Trump elected as the 45th president of the United States. Many local journalists who had seen Putin’s playbook in Russia and the Ukraine were not at all shocked by Trump’s victory. Snyder, who was born in 1969, is an American historian, a specialist in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. The Yale professor’s most famous work is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, in which he explored how “In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people.” It was an acclaimed book, which I must get round to reading.
A central idea The Road to Unfreedom is the distinction between two opposing narratives of history. The narratives of inevitability include free market evangelicals who prophesy the triumph of the free market or Marxists who foresee the withering away of the state. For them history is moving inexorably toward a clear end. Events such as the fall of communism and the Global Financial Crisis have seen these narratives being challenged by the narratives of eternity Here’s how Snyder describes it:
“The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.
In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present. In foreign policy, eternity politicians belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens. Using technology to transmit political fiction, both at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling.”
Snyder introduces us to a thinker I had not heard of before – an obscure Russian fascist, called Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin. Such is Putin’s devotion that he organised the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains for reburial in Moscow in 2005. According to Ilyin, God made a mess of the world but fortunately there was one pure and innocent being — the Russian nation. Consequently, whatever Russia did, and does, to defend itself is legitimate. One day it will find its redeemer – inevitably a strong and virile man – and triumph. I wonder who that might be.
This redeemer will wage war on Russia’s enemies. These foes start with his own citizens who have the impertinence to demand democratic rights. Then, we get Ukrainians and other neighbours who dare to be independent. Finally, we have the European Union and the United States, who offer the temptations of a more prosperous way of life. Snyder has an interesting take on Putin’s strategy, which he calls strategic relativism:
“The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe, and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be gained by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skilful player will lose less than everyone else.”
Apparently Putin once described the internet as a CIA conspiracy. That was then. Now the Russian state has unparalleled expertise at manipulating cyberspace to apply Sun Tzu’s “confusion to our enemy” principle to a mass disinformation war. They have effectively transformed international affairs by waging a systematic war on the very concept of truth. The internet has made getting into the heads of Europeans and Americans is considerably easier than it was in the past. The Russians like to fight in this psychosphere rather than on the battlefield. With electronic screens you can create havoc with a few cleverly targeted messages. The great advantage of this way of fighting is that the bang for the rouble is unbeatable; Russia’s cyber budget is less than an F-35 according to Snyder.
How Russia employed propaganda in the Ukraine is fascinating. They were able to use the internet to target opposing political susceptibilities. To appeal to the right they argued that the Ukraine was an artificial construction run by an international Jewish conspiracy. To attract the left, Ukraine was an artificial construction by fascists. Then there was the brazen lying with Putin denying that Russia had invaded the Ukraine. This was complemented by something that is more traditional – the atrocity story:
One day after Russia began shelling Ukraine, Russian television provided a compelling escalation in the competition for innocence. On July 12, 2014 Pervyi Kanal [First Channel] told a stirring—and entirely fictional—story of a three-year-old Russian boy who was crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk. No evidence was provided, and independent Russian journalists noted the story’s problems: none of the people in the story existed, nor did the “Lenin Square” where the atrocity supposedly transpired. When confronted with this, Russia’s deputy minister for communications, Alexei Volin, said that ratings were all that mattered. People watched the cruci-fiction, so all was well.
Finally they created a cacophony of competing rumours to create doubt. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on 17 July 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, the Russians did not deny it. What they did instead was to float a series of possible conspiracies. One of these was that it was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet. Instrumental in this campaign was Russia Today, whose slogan is – “Question More“. Yana Erlashova, who used to be one of the star reporter for the Moscow-based, international news network claims to have found many witnesses who said they had seen jet fighters:
“I don’t push any scenarios or theories, I just report what people say.”
Despite this modesty she has produced a documentary called “MH17: A Year Without Truth” I found it referenced on what seems to be a far-right website, which praises the video:
“The anti-Putin agenda of the Zionist-controlled media in the West, however, blames Russia in this blatant false-flag operation and ignores the facts and evidence. This video is highly recommended viewing.”
The Dutch Safety Board’s official technical report concluded that a single, powerful, Russian-made Buk ground-to-air missile had hit the plane.
These dark arts employed in Ukraine were then employed in the west. In Germany Russia spread false information, like the fake story of a German schoolgirl’s gang-rape by Muslims. The bombing in Syria created millions of refuges, many of whom ended up in Germany. This provided a fertile area for the German far-right; Alternative for Germany In the 2017 German federal elections the AfD won 12.6% of the vote, the best performance of such a party since 1933. Snyder shows how Russian news sources promoted the idea that the Scottish independence referendum had been “rigged”. The goal of course is to undermine faith in democratic institutions and processes. They have also sought to sew division in the European Union. Russia TV regularly featured Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Russia’s great European success was the Brexit referendum. However, they were not finished yet.
Snyder dubs Trump Russia’s candidate. The hacking of emails, the spreading of disinformation, the Russia-linked Facebook ads and the troll farms may well have decided an election where the margins were very small. I don’t know what Mueller will unearth in his investigation. But what Snyder has shown already seems scandalous. He talks about how Trump would retweet Russian propaganda posts. He also shows how Trump’s business was saved by Russian buying his properties in order to launder money. What about Paul Manafort, the American lobbyist, political consultant and lawyer, who joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team in March 2016. As well as lobbying dictators like the Philippines’’ Ferdinand Marcos, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, he was promoting the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. According to leaked text messages between his daughters, Manafort was also one of the proponents of violent removal of the Euromaidan protesters which resulted in police shooting dozens of people in 2014. In one of the messages his daughter writes that his “strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered.”
Ultimately there is a fascinating dovetailing between Russian disinformation campaigns and Trump’s shameless mendaciousness. Of course politicians have always been economical with the truth. But Trump has a total disregard for the truth. One unlikely hero in this story is Mitt Romney. When he called Russia the US’s number one geopolitical foe, he took a lot of flak. Obama quipped that “the 80s called and wants their foreign policy back.” According to the New York Times Romney’s words displayed “a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.” Now amid Mueller’s probe of the 2016 presidential campaign Romney appears to have been prescient. And we are living in a world turned upside down, with the Republicans blasé about Russia and the Democrats hawks. Indeed one Democratic senator compared the Russian intervention to Pearl Harbour
I have always found Putin’s mix of Soviet nostalgia, Orthodox Christianity Fascism and homophobia difficult to understand. Snyder’s book has helped me see things a bit more clearly. I can also see how this all relates to what has been happening in the West. Snyder likens Putin to a perverse doctor who diagnoses you and then tries to make your diseases worse. Nevertheless, Putin’s diagnosis is correct. Wealth inequality, economic problems, voter suppression and gerrymandering, race relations, and the opioid crisis are all very real. Without these Putin’s efforts would not have had the impact that they undoubtedly did. I will admit that I am intrigued by the way Putin has been able to achieve his geopolitical goals. I have always had a sneaking admiration for the KGB, one of the few things that actually worked in the Soviet Union. I would also say that none of this is new. When I hear about the meddling in the U.S. election, I do remember that the Americans have been known to influence elections in a number of countries. However, we will have to look at how we can make our societies immune to such damaging interventions.