On a tour of the UK for a series of talks and lectures, Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University delivered remarks on “The War for Truth” in the conflict over Eastern Ukraine at University College London on 25 February, 2015.
Summarising the competing narratives contributing to the conflict, Snyder pointed out that Ukraine had been affected by all major trends of European history, such as Greek civilisation, the Vikings, Jewish migration and Christianisation. Whereas Ukrainian links to European history should be considered organic, Russian links to Europe, while often genuine, more often than not constituted a conscious political choice. European political institutions should therefore regard Ukraine as an integral part of Europe as a whole, rather than as part of a Russian sphere of influence.
Russia’s position is characterised by its geography spanning both Europe and Asia. In 2013, Russian foreign policy departed from efforts to find common ground with the West, taking a Eurasianist turn instead, in which it sought to position itself as the leader of a global conservative renewal.
Snyder went on to discuss the ends, ways and means of both sides were employing propaganda (in its original meaning of conveying a narrative), and that Russian propaganda was much more effective than Ukrainian propaganda, which he labelled “conventional” and “ham-fisted”.
The former’s success had taken the Russian government by surprise, in that it largely failed to mobilise ethnic Russian support in Eastern Ukraine to the desired extent, but did greatly undermine popular support for political actions against Russia within the European Union. While acknowledging certain Russian interests as legitimate, Snyder dismissed many Russian claims conveyed in transnational mass media since the Maidan protests, such as their identification as ethnically nationalist; conversely, Snyder pointed out, the “Heavenly Hundred” killed on Maidan represented a cross-section of post-Soviet pluralism in Ukraine in terms of age and ethnicity. Driven by the Russian-speaking urban middle classes of Kyiv, Afghans and Armenians, among others, were to be found among the dead of February 2014.
Snyder identified three main reasons for the effectiveness of Russian propaganda in Western Europe. First, Russia has committed far greater resources to propaganda than Ukraine; pro-Russian pundits receive much more airtime on RT (formerly Russia Today) and outlets in all media in many societies of the continent, and parties such as Die Linke in Germany and Jobbik in Hungary sceptical of the ideological and institutional consensus on which the EU is built. Secondly, Russian propaganda caters to a variety of audiences, creating many different realities in different political spheres across the EU, and finally, addresses many concerns that resonates with these audiences. For example, denouncing the supporters of Maidan collectively as fascist tapped into the concerns of the European left to prevent at all costs the resurgence of extremist ethnic nationalism. Traditionalist audiences, conversely, are catered to by a narrative of homosexual privilege created by liberal institutions. Uncertainty over the EU’s future, such as Greece’s persistent debt and reform crisis, facilitate Russia’s position. Snyder’s remarks and answers to questions at the end therefore highlighted that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine was as much about the European Union as about Ukraine and Ukrainians.