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The strategy behind Russia's sarcastic tone toward the West

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The White House is describing Russia's latest actions in Ukraine as the beginning of an invasion. Tensions, which have already been high, are even higher as Russia moves troops into eastern Ukraine's two breakaway regions, and the country's legislative body has authorized Putin to deploy forces outside the country's borders.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The U.S. and its European partners have announced sanctions in response. But despite the deteriorating situation, President Biden said at the White House this afternoon that he's still willing to try and find a diplomatic solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's still time to avert the worst-case scenario that will bring untold suffering to millions of people if they move as suggested. The United States and our allies and partners remain open to diplomacy if it is serious.

CHANG: About a week ago, February 16, Western leaders were similarly on edge. U.S. intelligence had predicted that could be the day Russia staged an invasion. That same day, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs held its weekly press conference.

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MARIA ZAKHAROVA: (Through translator) Good afternoon.

CHANG: Maria Zakharova, the ministry spokesperson, took the podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANG: (Through translator) Sorry for being a little late. I was just checking whether we were invading Ukraine or not. Spoiler - we are not. On to the minister...

RASCOE: This sarcastic tone is a tool Russian officials often use, and we wanted to get a better sense of the strategy behind the sarcasm. So we called up Timothy Snyder. He's a history professor at Yale. I asked him how long Russian officials have been using this kind of almost taunting tone with the West during moments of conflict.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: We certainly saw it the last time that Russia invaded Ukraine back in 2014. I remember very clearly President Putin saying at the time that there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine and, if there seemed to be, it was just people who had bought used camouflage from a local store.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through translator) You can go to a store, buy uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No. These were...

SNYDER: So I think we're looking at something which goes back 10 years. It's a kind of postmodern cynicism, trying to put you on the back foot, trying to confuse you.

RASCOE: And, I mean, part of it is to keep people on edge. And one way to get people really worked up is to tell them to calm down, right? Like, that's, like, one - or I've found in my life, somebody tell me to calm down...

SNYDER: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Then I get real worked up, right?

SNYDER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, they're trying to - they're definitely trying to confuse you. I mean, it used to be - I mean, there are two ways of doing this. You can do nothing and insist you're doing something, or you can do something and insist you're doing nothing. And right now they're clearly doing something. I mean, they have units that should be in Asia, which are normally there to protect against China, all the way over in Europe. They're definitely doing something. And the combination of doing something and saying we're doing nothing is very confusing.

RASCOE: How does this sarcasm from the Russian government compare to the sort of language we hear from diplomats in the democratic West?

SNYDER: It's very, very different. I mean, the contrast with the Americans or with the Germans is very striking. Diplomats in the West are generally earnest to the point of being boring. And I think particularly when confronted with the Russians, they do their best to be extra factual and extra careful about the way they speak because they want to avoid the trap of being drawn into, you know, some kind of comedy contest or some kind of sarcasm contest.

RASCOE: And also, I just wonder, like, who is the audience for the sarcasm?

SNYDER: I think it's both domestic and foreign. They're trying to tell us that they're not afraid of us. They're willing to make fun of us. You know, they're trying to show that they're an equal to any superpower and that they can put us in our place. They can make us feel humiliated. And for the domestic audience, the message is also the same. But in this particular case, they're also trying to tell the domestic audience that they're really not doing anything wrong. They're really not planning to invade Ukraine. And it's important to know that at this particular moment that that's what Russians believe. Russians don't think there is any chance that their country is going to invade Ukraine.

RASCOE: Well, and that's interesting because it does seem like, you know, beyond the sarcasm, like, Russian officials have continued to make this point that, despite this tense relationship that Russia and Ukraine have, that the two countries are actually on the same page when they say Western leaders in the media are overblowing the conflict. Like, what is your assessment of that?

SNYDER: What the Russians are doing is they're turning around something the Ukrainians are trying to say. What the Ukrainians are trying to say is that they don't know if Russia is going to invade tomorrow or the next day or not but that, for them, Russia is a constant threat. Russia's already in their territory. The thing that Russia is doing now they could do again six months from now or a year from now. And the Russians are trying to take advantage of that and recasting it as the Ukrainians saying that they don't think there's a threat right now. What the Ukrainians are trying to say is that there's a threat right now, but there's kind of a threat every day of the week and every day of the year.

RASCOE: Another rhetorical tool that the Russians seem to be using now is modeling language from the Kosovo war. They're talking about ethnic cleansing, a refugee crisis, war crimes. What's the aim there, in your view?

SNYDER: Well, they need to have some kind of a pretext for invading. So let's remember the Russian people don't think there's a plan to invade. And therefore, you know, the question of whether they - Russia should invade doesn't even come up. If there's going to be a major invasion, Russia has to gin up some kind of serious issue which they can use to at least persuade their domestic constituency that something's going on. Genocide is a code word here. Genocide stands for the Second World War. And it stands for anxiety about the future of Russians beyond the border of Russia. But the thing that worries me about their use of the word genocide is the odd way that the things that they accuse others of tend to be the things that they're about to do themselves.

RASCOE: The U.S. has been engaged in diplomatic talks with Russia for four months at this point. Should the U.S. be trying a different tone and strategy in trying to get through to Russian leaders?

SNYDER: I think the U.S. is using a different tone. There's something historically new in what the U.S. is doing, which is that they are using intelligence openly to try to describe the things that Russia might be doing. And so far, they've hit the nail on the head, and that has clearly taken some of the fun out of it for the Russians. It's hard to be sarcastic about something that the other side correctly predicts that you're going to do, you know, and then you actually do it. So I think we should probably give some credit to this new development on the American side.

RASCOE: That's Timothy Snyder. He's a history professor at Yale whose book "The Road To Unfreedom" details the postmodern rise of Russian authoritarianism. Thanks for being with us.

SNYDER: Very glad to talk to you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "EL TORO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.