Historian Timothy Snyder on how war ends in Ukraine

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An elderly man walks past a car shop that was destroyed after a Russian attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. (Leo Correa/AP)
An elderly man walks past a car shop that was destroyed after a Russian attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. (Leo Correa/AP)

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LISTEN: 'First person: Leaving Russia to avoid war in Ukraine.'

Russia invaded Ukraine eight months ago, seemingly unprepared for the fight Ukraine would put up.

Scholar Timothy Snyder answers the question: How will the war in Ukraine end?

“There's no question whether we should stop fighting or not or continue like nobody's asking that. We all know we will continue fighting," Julia Tymoshenko says.

Tymoshenko is a 23-year-old living in Kyiv, Ukraine. She wants the war in her country to end. But she will only entertain one outcome:

“I know that there could be lots of outcomes of this," she says. "Some of them were scary and horrific, like the discussions about the nuclear use of the nuclear weapon. But for us, we only see those with Ukraine's victory.”

Dmitry Grigoriev left his home in Moscow to avoid fighting in Russia’s war.

“I don't see any reasons that it would end in a good way. And that I would really be able to ... simply come back after the war ends," he says.

Today, On Point: Historian Timothy Snyder on how war ends in Ukraine.


Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale. Author of several books, including "Our Malady" and "The Road to Unfreedom." (@TimothyDSnyder)

Also Featured

Julia Tymoshenko, Ukrainian woman living in Kyiv.

Dmitry Grigoriev, Russian man living in Georgia to avoid mobilization.

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How constant has Ukraine's resistance to resistance to Russia been?

Timothy Snyder: "Let me try to put that into a couple of contexts. Number one, when we think of the history of that part of the world, we're generally doing so through an imperial Russian framework. There's an imperial Russian story that if we know anything about this part of the world, we know that story. It's the story that Putin tells in a very simplified and vulgar version.

"And in that story, there's always been Russia. There's never been Ukraine. Russia goes back 1,000 years. There was a baptism in 988. Magically, that baptism created this eternal nation, Russia. No one else has a right to tell the story or talk about this story. Russia's a great power. It always has been. And so on. This sort of imperial language silences and it traps.

"When Russian imperialists talk about always and never, which they do a lot, they're trying to exorcize this form of imperial power. When they say Russia and Ukraine were, quote-unquote, always together. Or when they say, 'Crimea was always part of Russia.' They're saying things which are not only just not true historically, they're also training our minds into a certain kind of way of thinking about the world in which there are great powers. And then there's everybody else. And only the great powers matter and only the great powers get to tell the story.

"In fact, both Russia and Ukraine are rather new entities, at least as far as national societies are concerned. If anything, the Ukrainian national idea is older than the Russian one. It's pretty easy to trace it back to the Cossacks, which Julia mentioned. In the 17th century, the Cossacks carried out a rebellion against what were then Polish overlords. Which was the beginning, I think, of a Ukrainian national idea. From that point forward, most of Ukraine, most of the time was governed by Russia.

"And in that sense, she's right that a lot of Ukrainian national thinking has been directed against Moscow. But the story is actually much longer and more interesting than that. Ukraine has connections to basically every moment and every trend in European history.

"And if I could just add one more thought. What's actually interesting about the present moment is that the Ukrainians are only dealing with the Russians. In the last in the last centuries, Ukrainians have had to deal with Austrians and Germans and Poles, as well as Russian imperialism. And the interesting thing about the moment, and although it's a terrible, terrible moment, this is also a hopeful thing. Right now, the Ukrainians are only having to deal with the Russians. All the other traditional forms of imperialism on their lands are gone. It's just the Russians now."

On how wars end

"First of all, we're kind of out of the habit of thinking about conventional wars and how they proceed. And maybe we're also out of the habit of watching the side that we want to win, win. And that's what's actually happening here. I mean, the Ukrainians are setting a kind of example of what to do in this situation, which you can actually find in much of what Julia's is saying.

"They were right. They were right to anticipate an invasion. They resisted at the beginning, when almost no one thought they would. They showed solidarity across society with others. They had a very good defensive plan, which they were able to carry out, and they were able to solicit help from abroad. And now the way that they're fighting, and this is a very important point, is not only admirable, but successful.

"They haven't lost any meaningful territory since March. ... They're winning this war as a result of basically their own actions. And my basic point is that conventional wars end the way that they end. They end when the side, you know, one side or the other, or both, believes that it's no longer politically sensible to keep fighting. And that's the most likely way for this war to end. Is with a Ukrainian victory which changes politics in Moscow, such that Putin is forced to change the subject."

On the track the war is on

"Putin began this war for basically political aims. He's not going to be able to achieve those aims. And at a certain point, the costs for him politically at home will become great enough that he will have to find a way to change the subject. He'll have to find some kind of a way to pivot. I think if he takes too long, what happens is that his popularity, which is going down, will be a problem. His rivals, who now have much more articulate voices, will feel like they can take even more public stands.

"The people who have made some kind of career fighting in Ukraine will also want to have a voice. And he's going to face a situation of a kind of growing, oligarchical pluralism around him. And as that struggle for power continues, and in my view, it's already begun. At a certain point, the people involved will not think it makes sense to have troops in Ukraine anymore when there's a struggle for power going on in Russia. That is a normal ... I admit not as exciting as nuclear war, but that's a normal way for the war to end. And I think that that's the track that we're on."

On where war has left Ukraine 

"In the Ukrainian case, there is a Ukrainian state and Ukrainian society which unambiguously is fighting a war. And the situation in Afghanistan or even in Vietnam was much more complicated. I mean, here we have one legitimate democratically elected government where popular opinion is on the side of not only fighting the war, but very much on the side of receiving the kind of help of the United States that it's getting. I think in order to minimize the kind of trauma that you're talking about, the most important thing is to end this war as quickly as possible, which means Ukrainians winning this war as quickly as possible.

"Because I think fundamentally, Julia is right. The only way this conflict can end is if the Russians realize in some kind of fundamental way that this imperial adventure is over, that that Russia is going to have to be built on different principles besides invading Ukraine, that Russia is going to have to decide what it is besides just being the anti-Ukraine, that they have to have some kind of other politics besides the politics of us and them.

"As for the Ukrainians, your question is excellent. I think it's very important for us to understand or remember that a Ukrainian victory also means a Ukrainian recovery, that the Ukrainians need to be offered a future in the European Union. We need to be talking about how the cities are going to be rebuilt. Because again, for the Ukrainians, this is all about the future. They were headed in the right direction.

"You know, these places where the Russians leave death pits ... these were suburbs of Kyiv which were beautiful places where they have parks with forests and where people were looking for better lives. Ukrainians want to get back to that. And part of the victory is us being able to say, yes, we will help you after the victory, build some kind of a future. We will be there to invest in support."

On criticism of Putin

"The main thing that complicates Putin's moment is the fact that Ukraine is resisting. It's Ukrainian resistance, which then puts various kinds of pressure on the Russian army, the Russian armed forces in general. It puts pressure on Russian propaganda. Russia's a propaganda state. And the story that Ukraine doesn't exist and we've therefore defeated them in three days was a great story, but it didn't happen.

"And so Russian propagandists are now struggling with what kind of story they're supposed to be telling about this war. And there's more and more disagreement even on Russian propaganda stations about what's actually going on. That's a problem for Putin. Reality is starting to slip away from the propaganda hold that he has, and propaganda is basically how he runs the country."

What is at stake outside of Ukraine if the international community actually starts turning away from Ukraine itself?

"This is fundamentally about imperialism, Russian imperialism, but it's about imperialism as a challenge to the world order. The Ukrainians have done an awful lot, not just in their own neck of the woods, but also with respect to China and Taiwan. They've made it seem like it would be a very bad idea for China to try to invade Taiwan, thereby removing the scenario that everyone is worried about, for a real kind of world conflict.

"If we don't help Ukraine to win, we're showing that we're giving away this example of courage. We're giving away this exemplar of dedication, which Julia was talking about. We end up with a much darker world, where people think no matter what risk you take for democracy, democracy is going to have a chance. Because look at the Ukrainians, they lost.

"We're also looking at a world where a leader like Vladimir Putin, who is repressive across every possible dimension, is going to be in control of Ukrainian food supplies, and where someone who's an oligarch whose wealth is based on selling hydrocarbons, is going to have a consolidated and stronger position in the world at a time of global warming. When we need to be moving in exactly the opposite direction. So there are a lot of things at stake in this war that go beyond Ukraine itself, important as Ukraine is."

On helping in Ukraine's fight for democracy

"There's a basic difference here, which is that Ukraine actually is a democracy, and they actually are resisting a tyranny. In these other cases, we might have told ourselves stories like that, but those stories, especially in the Iraq war, were lies. And that's on us. We made a mistake here. We actually have a chance to help other people take risks for democracies. What we are doing in helping Ukrainians to win is reduce the risks for all of us around the world, at a very minimal cost to ourselves. This is not a risk. It's a chance, and it would be a shame not to take it."

This program aired on October 25, 2022.


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Dorey Scheimer Senior Editor, On Point
Dorey Scheimer is a senior editor at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


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Tim Skoog is a sound designer and producer for On Point.



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