Rebuttal to Timothy Snyder’s essay on Ukraine in the ‘New York Review of Books’

When I learned that the eminent historian on East Central Europe, Yale professor Timothy Snyder, published a commentary article in The New York Review of Books five days ago entitled “A Way Out for Ukraine?”   I lost no time bringing it up on the screen for a close read. Disappointment came quickly…Read on


 Rebuttal to Timothy Snyder’s essay on Ukraine in the New York Review of Books


By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


For the moment our media are focused on events in Ukraine, more particularly on the standoff in Independence Square between opposition demonstrators and the authorities. We are being treated to a torrent of commentary, much of it from the usual suspects, political scientists, whose stock in trade is political advocacy, namely what passes for democracy promotion. Long standing or in-depth knowledge of Ukraine is wholly optional for these shapers of public opinion.

Fact-based analysis from historians and other degree-holders in the social sciences with experience in Ukraine is the rare exception. For that reason, when I learned that the eminent historian on East Central Europe, Yale professor Timothy Snyder, published a commentary article in The New York Review of Books five days ago entitled “A Way Out for Ukraine?”   I lost no time bringing it up on the screen for a close read.

Snyder’s name was well familiar to me. In April 2011 I heard him speak at the annual convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in Columbia University when he presented his newly published and widely hailed book The Bloodlands.  In his address to an audience that included both senior professors and the general public, Snyder impressed with his novel approach to his subject matter entailing a reordering of our conception of very emotive fundamental issues that seemingly were put to rest decades ago: the intellectual dimension of the titanic struggle between Nazism and Stalinism  over control of East Central Europe, the lost traction of Operation Barbarossa and the adoption of the Final Solution for European Jewry, the relative weighting of Nazi death camps versus field operations in exterminating the Jews and other undesirable minorities.  In his work, Snyder brought together the recent findings of researchers in many countries of the region who had used newly opened archives to rewrite their local history but who most often were not taking in the findings of their peers in other countries. Snyder brought to the task a rare fluency in languages of the region, both those present today and those which have perished (Yiddish). He demonstrated a sophisticated, nuanced mind.

For these reasons I expected his essay on the Ukrainian situation today would be fresh, insightful and well informed.  And yet there was also a warning note:  Snyder’s essay came to my attention thanks to a laudatory tweet from Europe’s most outspoken Neoconservative, a signatory of Neocon position papers going back to the Project for a New American Century, the viscerally anti-Russian politician, Carl Bildt. The Swedish Foreign Minister has been very much engaged in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program from its very inception as a co-sponsor with his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski. “Excellent historian” said Bildt of Snyder.


Snyder opens his essay with the facile statement that there are two fantasies:  one, on Yanukovich’s side which he calls ‘exhausted’:  Ukraine still has geopolitical importance and can play off Europe and Russia for the country’s gain.  The other, which he calls ‘dangerous,’ is on Putin’s side: that Ukraine is not really a sovereign country but a lesser brother to be taken in hand.  Both of these attempts to encapsulate the driving issues of today’s Ukrainian predicament are seriously wanting.


The geopolitical significance of Ukraine is by no means exhausted or a figment of the Ukrainian President’s imagination. US and EU pursuit of what most commentators describe as the ‘Ukrainian prize,’ the most populous borderland state between Russia and Europe, can be traced straight back to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 master work The Grand Chessboard, in which the leading foreign policy thinker of the Democratic Party, mentor to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, explained that Russia with Ukraine was an imperial power while Russia without Ukraine would be weak.

The EU’s failure to offer financial aid to Ukraine to induce it to sign free trade and political association agreements has nothing to do with the country’s lacking geopolitical attractiveness. It has everything to do with the EU’s own financial shakiness following the near demise of the Eurozone in the sovereign debt crisis of the past two years.  And it is the consequence of a deep malaise within the Union, its ‘expansion fatigue’ from difficulty digesting the new Member States of the past few years.


Meanwhile, Snyder’s taking the ultimate Realist, Vladimir Putin, for a misguided Romantic nationalist shows how little the good professor understands today’s Russia and its leadership. 


Snyder’s snarky remark about Russian television and ‘those who still watch it’ employs low-ball argumentation, meaning it is dismissive without being factual.   Russian charges of Western financial support for the Ukrainian demonstrations may be debatable, but the blatant meddling by European politicians in the internal Ukrainian standoff is shown daily on Euronews and other Western media. The arrival in Kyiv of a European Parliament delegation from the single largest bloc, the European People’s Party, to show its support for the Opposition; the fraternization of West German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle with protesters in the street before taking his place at the OSCE meeting; the anticipated, uninvited arrival of Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, to help mediate between the Government and Opposition: all of these are unprecedented actions of disrespect for a sovereign state. They are the behavior of a colonial power towards its possessions.

In the midst of his essay, Snyder conjures up the image of ‘another Russian armed adventure in Ukraine.’ He tells us:  “A Russian military intervention would bring bloodshed on a scale that people of the region know all too well.” Snyder is willfully confusing Russia today with the Soviet Union of 1956 or 1968. This ignorant and irresponsible presentation of hypotheticals is an abuse of his academic credentials.

The essay then moves on to other equally improbable hypotheticals in search of an exit from Ukraine’s present dilemma. He raises the possibility of Yanukovich ceding power to the Opposition to save his skin while guarantees of his personal security might still be negotiated.  Or he suggests that the Ukrainian constitution might now be modified to replace the current presidential system by a system where executive power is vested in the prime minister, easing the way to a transition of power away from Yanukovich to the Opposition.

These scenarios are amateurish and unworthy of our specialist from Yale.

Stepping back from the specific arguments he raises, we see that Snyder is thinking at the level of a sloganeer. High sounding words about ‘visa-free travel’ and ‘normal civilized European life’ cannot substitute for finding solutions to Ukraine’s impending economic melt-down. Foreign currency reserves are exhausted. Eighteen billion dollars in debts fall due in the new year.  And the country is in recession, as Snyder acknowledges. 

These challenges may be intractable. But if any solution is to be found it can come only through three-way cooperative action by Ukraine and its suitors in West and East.


In a follow-on essay I will look closely at how and why Snyder, who has proven himself to be remarkably agile walking through the minefield of Jewry’s collective memory of the Holocaust to the point where a leading  commentator identifies him as ‘the Diplomat of Shoah History’ has allowed himself to be so blatantly partial, so undiplomatic and so over-confident when wading into questions of Russian-Ukrainian relations.  That tells us as much about the state of mind of his readers in America’s intellectual elites as it does about Professor Snyder himself.


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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013