This lecture by Timothy Snyder, well-known as the author of Bloodlands, attracted a large and attentive audience.
Setting the historical background, Professor Snyder said there was no current of Europena history that had not affected Ukraine while Muscovy had gone its own way as the successor of the Tartar Khanate. More recently, Ukrainians saw the Great Famine of 1933 as something directed against their country specifically, while for Russians it had been a common misfortune; and WWII had seen the whole of Ukraine occupied as against 5% of the territory of the present-day Russian Federation.
Since 2013, the Russian media had portrayed events in Ukraine in terms of WWII–for Russians, WWII had been something that largely happened elsewhere.
The present situation could be traced back to the events of 2011/12 in Russia. Anti-regime protests had led to the Government turning away from the middle classes and appealing to the broader masses. This had been accompanied by Eurasianism in foreign policy, comprising a combination of conservatism and hostility to the EU. Yanukovych responding to pressure to turn away from the EU had led first of all to the Maidan, and then to a ‘bourgeois revolution’ among the Russian-speaking middle classes of Kiev, who saw their path obstructed by a glass ceiling of corruption. Those killed had been representative of the mixed local population.
Russian tactics had been based on reversed asymmetrical warfare, where as the stronger side they had used approaches such as deliberately drawing fire onto populated areas so as to alienate the populace that were normally the province of the weaker. But they portrayed themselves as heroic resisters of Fascism.
The Russian leadership had applied strategic relativism in for instance relativizing the existence of Ukraine as a state. Since the EU was strong and Russia was weak, they had tried to bring it down to their level by breaking up the connections that held it together. Edward Snowden had been employed at the Transatlantic level, but the heart of the strategy was to break up the EU. This had involved seeking client states such as Cyprus and Hungary, supporting separatists like UKIP and calling for a recount in the Scottish referendum, supporting the far right, attempting to control access to hydrocarbons and to undermine a Common Energy Policy for the EU.
Addressing the question of whether civil society actually existed, professor Snyder asked his audience Were you paid off to be here? The Russian authorities did not believe in the existence of civil society as a concept, which did not hinder them from preventing it in practice.
The philosophy of applied postmodernism had a number of elements. Making up things that were not true hardly required further comment while liberation from context had been pioneered by Fox News. Things they did especially well were political marketing and organised cacophony. Political marketing meant that different audiences received tailored messages (‘Ukraine is gay/fascistic/anti-Semitic/part of worldwide Jewish conspiracy’). Organised cacophony meant improvising a range of discourses in response to an event such as the shooting-down of MH17 so as to muddy the waters until the event had lost its impact. The motto was you can’t trust anybody because everybody lies equally. The consequence of this was that the Western powers had allowed themselves not to know what was going on in Ukraine and so, for instance, had failed to re-route civilian air traffic.
Certain types of truth were important to maintain. Aristotelian non-contradiction meant that Ukraine could not be both Jewish and anti-Semitic. Legal truth meant that a state had an existence as a legal entity–for instance, Canada certainly used the same language as the US but was a separate state on the basis of law. Existential truth meant that you could take a risk and get killed, your existence was authentic and not that of a hired extra. Social truth meant that you could try things out with people you trusted and form civil society.
Russian TV used the methods of British TV, one could not speak of different had civilizations. Rather it was a question of what you thought existed: one the one hand you had the state with supra-national organisations above it and civil society below; on the other hand it was the state and a variety of charades.
Ukrainian propaganda was weak, while Russian propaganda was effective. While the war on Ukraine was going worse than expected (there had been no spontaneous uprisings in Donetsk or Lugansk) the war on the EU was going rather better than expected.
As to What should we do? Europeans should beware of American-style optimism whereby democracy would effortlessly spring up everywhere. The two or more generations of peace, prosperity and freedom they had enjoyed were a historical anomaly and needed to be carefully guarded. Russian propaganda had no traction in the states that had been subject to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact: Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.
Oligarchy and the rule of law did not sit well together, but the West needed to accept sovereignty and work with states like Ukraine as they were so as to make progress.