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What Putin's renewed 6-year term means for Ukraine and the West

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Over 100 people have died in the attack at a concert hall near Moscow last night. Russian authorities say the gunmen are in custody, and elsewhere on our program, NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow on the very latest. This deadly assault comes the same week that Russian President Vladimir Putin was elected to a fifth term. It will put him on a track to rule Russia longer than Joseph Stalin. What might his rule portend for the United States and Europe? We reached out earlier in the week to Timothy Snyder. He's a professor of history at Yale University, author of the book "On Tyranny" and head of a new Ukrainian Global History Initiative. Does Vladimir Putin's election to a fifth term just mean that most Russians support him? Isn't that democracy?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: I guess I'd stop right there on the word election. The word election suggests that people have a choice and that their choice matters. And I think in the case of Russia, that's deeply misleading. What we have in Russia is more of a kind of acclimation procedure where the central authorities instruct the regional and local authorities that they're to come up with a certain percentage of apparent votes. So it's not even really a question, as Jake Sullivan says, as to whether this is free or fair, because it's not even really an election.

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SIMON: You've been especially outspoken in behalf of Ukraine and what you see as the need of the West to support Ukraine against Russian invasion. Why?

SNYDER: Well, there's a connection here to the election, or nonelection, which I want to point out. We haven't actually done anything for Ukraine for the last six months. And some people have said if you cut off aid to Ukraine, then Russia will seek negotiations or peace. And Mr. Putin's speech right after this electoral farce tells us exactly the opposite. He said that the main priority in his next term is going to be to conquer Ukraine. And I think that's something we should take seriously. As far as why I support Ukraine - because it's the right thing to do, because we have an international order of laws, because we should try to prevent the horrors that have happened to Ukrainians, but also because it's in America's interest. Ukraine is doing the work of fighting the war in Europe that we've been trying to prevent for 75 years. They're doing the work of deterring the Chinese by showing how hard these kinds of wars are. They're doing the work of protecting the reality and the idea of democracy at essentially zero cost for us.

SIMON: Did the West provoke Vladimir Putin by expanding NATO to Russia's borders?

SNYDER: No, of course not. NATO did nothing to provoke Putin. Putin is not afraid of NATO. The Russians say again and again at the highest levels - the level of the president himself, the level of the former president, and also in their propaganda every evening - that their goal is to destroy the Ukrainian state and to destroy the Ukrainian nation. That doesn't have anything to do with NATO.

SIMON: Do you believe that the West support should include, at some point, if necessary, the commitment of air power and even troops?

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SNYDER: Let me put it this way. It's a horrible war in which millions and millions and millions of Ukrainians have lost their homes, in which tens of thousands of Ukrainians have lost their lives. It's a war with tremendous risks for the United States, for Europe and for the world. The best thing that one could do would be to end this war. And the only way to end it is by the Ukrainians winning it. So one has to start the calculation about ending this war by thinking of what a Ukrainian victory would look like. Too much of our thinking about this war has had to do with trying to feel good about ourselves, virtue signaling, delivering systems that, you know, Americans feel are OK for Americans to deliver. I think it's better to think in terms of what the Ukrainians would actually need to destroy Russian logistics and get the Russians out of their country.

SIMON: But what kind of equipment are you talking about that we've withheld?

SNYDER: First of all, in terms of numbers, Americans, you know, cross certain thresholds which they think are important, like armored fighting vehicles or tanks. But the numbers of things we deliver are basically insignificant. And then in terms of the logistics, it's long-range stuff. It's strategically silly for there to be a bridge running from Russia to Ukraine right now. That bridge has to come down, which means that people have to be calm about delivering long-range weapons. Beyond that, though, the basic thing that Ukrainians need is artillery. This is an old-fashioned war fought by artillery. It's embarrassing that the United States is being outproduced by one German company.

SIMON: I come back to a question I tried previously. If the goal of a free and independent Ukraine that can resist Russian invasion is that important, would you contemplate the commitment of American troops and air power, NATO troops and air power?

SNYDER: Well, NATO, no, but I mean, it's - people talk about NATO a lot. NATO actually plays a pretty insignificant role in this conflict. It's mostly there in Russian propaganda. It's the European Union, the European Commission, which has actually been supporting Ukraine, which is very interesting, and separately, European member states of the European Union, but not NATO itself. I don't think there's any reason to think that American troops would ever be necessary. It would be perfectly reasonable, though, as President Macron and other European leaders have proposed, to have European troops in Ukraine to cover, for example, Ukraine's border with Belarus, or to serve as peacekeeping troops in areas that are under Ukrainian control. That would be totally normal in this situation. There's no reason why it's normal for there to be hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Russian troops destroying Ukraine and killing people, and it's somehow unthinkable that anybody else would do something normal to support the parts of Ukraine that are under Ukrainian control at the moment.

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SIMON: What might you say to those Americans who just don't feel - you know, it's on the other side of the world. It's a long way away. It's got nothing to do with us.

SNYDER: It's got everything to do with us. Democracy is a matter of morale, and democracy has been collapsing around the world for the last 15 years. We've reached the point where an autocratic regime is trying to destroy a democracy by force. That doesn't happen historically, very often. And even if you don't care about democracy, which I like to think people do, it's a big mistake to let a conventional power lose a war to a country which is threatening with nuclear weapons. The consequence of that, of allowing nuclear blackmail to prevail, is that lots of other countries will build nuclear weapons. And the entire international order, the thing that brings us prosperity, the thing that allows our market economy to work, is based on not allowing countries to invade other countries. If this is allowed to succeed, then we're going to have much more chaos in the world in general, and that's going to affect the United States profoundly.

I would switch it around. Things have gotten better in this country for the last couple of years, in large measure, thanks to the Ukrainians doing a disproportionate share of the work. It speaks really badly of us when we can't recognize that other people are doing things for us, and we should be pitching in to do the little bit that we need to to help those other people who are keeping the world order much safer for us than it otherwise would be.

SIMON: Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

SNYDER: It's been my great pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.