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Ukrainian anti-aircraft gunners


„The Ukrainians are buying the Europeans time“

As we mark two years since Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, star historian Timothy Snyder says its vital that the West gives Kiew the support it needs.

By Chris Cummins

When I spoke to historian and commentator Timothy Snyder, he was fresh off a train from the Munich Security Conference and was a bit fed up with Europeans talking about their mood about Ukraine. The feeling at the meeting in Bavaria had been was gloomy. The Russia military had just taken the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, and a US aid budget was being held up by US Republicans in Congress. Russia, the illiberal aggressor, seemed in the ascendancy.

There have certainly set-backs, admits Snyder, who is a permanent fellow at at the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences. But the Yale professor warns that a sense of negativity in the West about Ukraine’s chances of resisting this unprovoked attack by an autocratic neighbour is damaging (and don’t forget most commentators had believed Ukraine would roll over in a few days in 2022). Ukraine must win, because a victory for an illiberal aggressor in Europe would be catastrophic. And Ukraine can win, Timothy Snyder insists, if the West gives them the logistical support but also belief they deserve.

Timothy Synder on 2 years of Ukraine war

Radio FM4

Timothy Snyder: We have to be careful about our mood. My overall view is that the Ukrainians have fought extremely well. They’ve done an enormous amount of security work for the rest of us. So long as we give them what they need they’re going to be fine. Which means that the only way that they lose is if we talk ourselves into thinking that they can’t win and then don’t give them the things that they need.

Chris Cummins: Yet we’re seeing that an aid package is held up at the moment in the US Congress and we saw Russia taking Avdiivka. To what extent are the two things linked?

Timothy Snyder: Well, according to the Ukrainians, they’re directly linked, and I think we should believe them. I mean, they say it was impossible to defend Avdiivka because they didn’t have sufficient artillery shells. They don’t have sufficient artillery shells because the Americans at this point have cut them off completely.

That said, the other side of that is that if the Americans passed the package, which I think they probably will, then Ukraine will be in a much better position to defend itself. The worry is that we don’t do things because we say that the Ukrainians are not doing well. They’re not doing well because we’re not doing things. We’re responsible.

Chris Cummins: What do you think are the consequences for European Union countries, if Russia wins this war?

Timothy Snyder: Well, when was the last time that a democracy was destroyed by an autocracy in Europe? When Germany defeated France in 1940, it was a very bad thing and it would be a similarly bad thing if Russia defeated Ukraine.

I think in an odd way, the Ukrainians are victims of their own success; because since they’re doing all the work, no one else has to fight. And since we don’t fight, then we ask ourselves questions. If the Russians had immediately defeated the Ukrainians, the Europeans would have had to react in a much more radical way.

Ukraine is a chance for Europe because the Ukrainian resistance to Russia means that Europe can persist and reconsider and do better. The Ukrainians are buying the Europeans time to do the things that Europeans needed to do anyway.

„As long as Putin is in power, further wars are inevitable“

Should the Ukrainians lose, that’s a tremendous strategic blow because it means that Europeans are cut off from resources that they need and from human beings that they need. It means that those resources and human beings can be turned against Europe. It means that Russian power is much closer to Europe. It means that Russia has realized that it can win a war, as they see it, against the entire West. So why not try again?

And indeed, as long as Putin is in power, further wars are inevitable because he needs the spectacle of some kind of foreign conflict to distract from domestic politics.

Chris Cummins: We saw a stunning statistic here in Austria in the past weeks: in December, 98% of the gas imports to this country came from Russia. Is that having a real impact on the situation in the war?

Timothy Snyder: I’d prefer to speak of the problem for Austrian interests in the long run. Part of being a sovereign state is having a sovereign political discussion. And it’s hard to have a sovereign political discussion with that degree of energy dependence.

Taking a step back from Austria, I think one of the reasons why this war started was Germany’s decision to make itself dependent on Russian gas, which sent a moral signal, and it also enriched the wrong Russians.

Austria is not as important as Germany in terms of what happens, but in terms of Austria being a sovereign country, I think it would be very important to radically diversify, because with dependence on energy comes very strong biases in how political discussions take place.

Chris Cummins: We are getting this impression at the moment that Russia is celebrating successes in the war. Do we know really to what extent Russia is actually in the ascendancy?

Timothy Snyder: I think the Russians have been pushing the idea very hard that they’re winning. They’re trying to demoralize us, and they’re trying to convince us that there’s no sense in supporting the Ukrainians. This has been their propaganda line for several months. They have taken one town. In doing so, they’ve lost a very, very large number of soldiers and equipment. They’re taking losses and an untenable pace. So it’s not that they’re marching forward towards victory in any meaningful sense.

So things can be hard in Ukraine and also hard in Russia. But we don’t have the view into Russia that we have with Ukraine.

My own understanding is that things are actually going quite poorly for Russia, and that they think their best hope is keep going until the American elections, win a symbolic victory or two so that it doesn’t look like they’re losing. Try to spread the narrative that they’re winning and then hope that Trump wins the elections. I think that is what they’re thinking at the moment.

Chris Cummins: Are we overlooking some of the Ukrainians’ battlefield successes?

Timothy Snyder: Yes, we completely are. I mean, the Ukrainians have basically held the line, and they’ve inflicted tremendous losses on the Russians, and they’ve done very well with the limited supplies that we’ve given them.

And then, strangely, we haven’t really reported on their major victory in 2023, which was clearing the Black Sea. Ukraine is a breadbasket for the world. It can feed almost half a billion people. And one of the things the Russians have tried to do has been to cut the Ukrainians off from world food markets. The Ukrainians, on their own, with almost no outside help, managed to clear the western Black Sea and ships are now sailing in and out of Ukraine. And that food is reaching Africa, that food is reaching the Middle East, which is preventing instability and starvation.

This is a major victory for the Ukrainians, which I don’t think we formulated as such, because we only think we talk about the stuff where we’re helping. If the Ukrainians do it on their own, we tend not to write enough about it. And that, in a sense, also gives a very false impression of what’s happening.

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