The strategy behind Russia’s sarcastic tone towards the West

President Biden said Tuesday that Russia’s decision to move troops into parts of eastern Ukraine was “the start of a Russian invasion.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t characterize it that way, but as the world watched for a possible invasion, Russia consistently used sarcasm in its messaging.

At a press conference last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova presented the idea of ​​Russia invading Ukraine as an almost trivial idea.

“Hello. Sorry for being a bit late,” Zakharova said on Feb. 16. “I was just checking whether we were invading Ukraine or not. Spoiler: we’re not.”

A sarcastic tone is a tool often used by Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who, following a meeting with his British counterpart, recently said: “I am really disappointed that this looks like a deaf talking to a blind man, etc. Basically, no one hears either one.”

The strategy behind the sarcasm is not new and has been used since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, said Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder.

“I remember very clearly that President Putin said at the time that there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, and if there seemed to be any, it was just people who had bought camouflage used at a local store,” Snyder said. “It’s kind of postmodern cynicism, trying to put you on your back, trying to confuse you.”

Adopting this tone also allows Russia to assert its power by declaring what is real and what is not, while trying to be humorous, Snyder said.

“It’s like a cynical pose – ‘Nothing is true. Nothing is real. We’re bolder than you, because we’re ready to say anything, and you don’t mean anything,'” Snyder said. “But at the same time, it’s also a way to save time. It blurs things so that you spend your time trying to figure out what’s going on, rather than just looking at the simple facts on the ground.”

Snyder spoke with NPR All things Considered on how the tone of Russian diplomats compares to that of their American counterparts, the audience targeted by this sarcasm, and the strategy behind Russia’s message.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On how this sarcasm compares to the language of the Democratic West

It’s very, very different. I mean, the contrast with the Americans or with the Germans is very striking. Western diplomats are usually serious to the point of boring. And I think, especially when they’re up against the Russians, they’re trying their best to be more factual and more careful in their speaking, because they want to avoid the trap of being drawn into, you know, a some kind of comedy contest or some kind of sarcasm contest.

On whether the US should use a different tone when communicating with Russia

I think the United States uses a different tone. There is something historically new about what the United States is doing, and that is openly using intelligence to try to describe things that Russia might do. And so far they have hit the nail on the head. And that clearly took some of the fun out of the Russians. It’s hard to be sarcastic about something that the other party correctly predicts you’re going to do, you know, and then you actually do it. So I think we should probably give credit to this new development on the American side.

About who is the audience of this sarcasm

I think it’s both domestic and foreign. [Russia is] try to tell us that they are not afraid of us. They are ready to laugh at us. They try to show that they are equal to any superpower and that they can put us in our place, they can make us feel humiliated.

For domestic audiences, the message is also the same. But in this particular case, they’re also trying to tell the national audience that they really aren’t doing anything wrong. They really don’t plan to invade Ukraine. And it is important to know that at this precise moment, this is what the Russians believe. The Russians think there is no chance that their country will invade Ukraine.

On how this message affects people’s understanding of the situation

They are definitely trying to confuse you. I mean, there are two ways to do this. You can do nothing and insist that you do something, or you can do something and insist that you do nothing. And right now, they are clearly doing something. They have units that should be in Asia, which are normally there to protect against China, all over Europe. They are definitely doing something. And the combination of doing something and saying we’re not doing anything is very confusing.

Why Russia is Talking About Ethnic Cleansing, Refugee Crisis, and War Crimes When It Comes to Ukraine

Well, they must have some kind of excuse to invade. So, let’s remember, the Russian people don’t think there is an invasion plan. And therefore, the question of whether Russia should invade does not even arise. If there is going to be a major invasion, Russia needs to raise some kind of serious issue, which it can use to at least persuade its domestic voters that something is happening.

Genocide is a code word here. Genocide means World War II. And this represents concern about the future of Russians beyond Russia’s border. But what worries me about their use of the word genocide is the weird way the things they accuse others of tend to be the things they are about to do themselves.

On how the US is doing in talks with Russia

I think Americans are doing the right thing by trying everything they can. Despite all our talk of language difficulties, the Americans have done a pretty good job of anticipating what the Russians are going to say in advance and preparing us for it. So we were thrown a lot less this time around than in 2014.

I think the Americans are right that we simply cannot say for sure what, ultimately, Mr. Putin intends to do, so we should have broad-based diplomacy. We should keep trying. But you know, it’s a process. There will be no meeting or a moment when everything will change.

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