Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder



Russia is undertaking a media exercise regarding Russian-occupied Ukraine, which its propagandists call "referendums" on annexation by Russia. People elsewhere are struggling to characterize this action. I am going to propose "obscenity" and "element of war crime." 1/

The point that people make about these media exercises is that it would be illegal to hold referendums during an armed conflict and under the threat of the use of force. This is of course true. 2/

And it is of course reason enough to ignore these media exercises completely. But it is just the surface of the problem. 3/

If held, referendums would indeed be illegal. They are not really being held. It takes infrastructure to hold an election. It is not there. No meaningful voting is actually going on. 4/

It is also illegal to claim to hold a referendum. But we should be careful: when we say "illegal referendum" we might convince ourselves that voting happened. 5/

What is more: even if the Russians actually had voting infrastructure, which they don't, and even if they intended to have people in the occupied territories vote, which they don't, they couldn't do so. 6/

They couldn't do so since they do not actually control the totality of any of the regions where they will claim that voting is taking place. 7/

This is why I refer to "social media exercises." At a certain moment, Russian media will just declare that (something like) 97% of the people of Donetsk region want to join Russia, 96% in Luhansk, 86% in Zaporizhia, 80% in Kherson. 8/

These numbers will be invented, made up. They are already in a file somewhere. 9/

These media claims will have no basis. There will be no more reason to report those numbers in a sentence with the word "referendum" in it than there would be to report my claim, made here, that 97% of the inhabitants of Brooklyn wish to join Mississippi. 10/

In that sense, it is beside the point to say that such numbers are implausible, because they will just be invented. 11/

But yes, the fictions provided in the media exercise will be implausible. And deliberately so. The way Russian propaganda works is to tell a lie that everyone knows is a lie, and then to show by force that there is no alternative to living as though the lie were true. 12/

That is how Russian elections work at home. The numbers are not meant to be believed in a literal sense. 13/

So this Russian media exercise is ludicrous. But it is not funny. It is disgusting. What about the dead? What about the more than 100,000 civilians the Russians killed in Mariupol? How should we think about their votes? 14/

What about the more than three million people Russia placed forcibly deported, many of whom are now in camps? 15/

Everywhere Russia occupied territory, it leaves behind mass graves. When I was in Ukraine, I visited some of them, as well as the homes of people who had lost family members. 16/

While I was there, the Ukrainian army liberated much of Kharkiv region, and now we know of more mass graves, for example in Izyum. 17/

When Russia claims that huge majorities of Ukrainians want to join Russia, they are claiming that Ukrainians like death pits, that Ukrainians like rape, that Ukrainians like torture, that Ukrainians like deportation, that Ukrainians like to have their cities obliterated. 18/

Such an attempt at public humiliation is despicable. 19/

That is why the ongoing Russian media exercise ("referendums") are an obscenity. The Russians are, in effect, claiming that Ukrainians want to celebrate their own ongoing genocide. 20/

The Russian media exercise ("referendums") should therefore be understood as an element of Russian war crimes, and as nothing more. 21/21

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