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The strategy behind Russia's sarcastic tone toward the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with the German chancellor following their meeting over Ukraine security last Tuesday.
Mikhail Klimentyev
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Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with the German chancellor following their meeting over Ukraine security last Tuesday.

President Biden said Tuesday that Russia's decision to move troops into parts of eastern Ukraine was "the beginning of a Russian invasion."

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not characterize it that way at the time, but as the world watched for a possible invasion earlier this week, before the full-scale operation Thursday, Russia consistently deployed sarcasm in its messaging.

During a news conference last week, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, framed the idea of Russia invading Ukraine as an almost trivial idea.

"Good afternoon. Sorry for being a little late," Zakharova said on Feb. 16. "I was just checking whether we were invading Ukraine or not. Spoiler: we are not."

A sarcastic tone is a tool Russian officials often use, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who following a meeting with his British counterpart recently said, "I am truly disappointed that this is like the deaf talking to the blind, etc. Basically, nobody's hearing each other."

The strategy behind the sarcasm isn't new and has been used since Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014, said Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University.

"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," Snyder said. "It's a kind of postmodern cynicism, trying to put you on the back foot, trying to confuse you."

Taking this tone also allows Russia to assert power by declaring what's real and what isn't, while also trying to throw in some humor, Snyder said.

"It's like a cynical pose — 'Nothing is true. Nothing is real. We're more daring than you, because we're willing to say anything, and you're not willing to say anything,' " Snyder said. "But at the same time, it's also a way of buying time. It clouds things so that you spend your time trying to figure out what's going on, rather than just watching the simple facts on the ground."

Snyder spoke with NPR's All Things Considered before Russia invaded Ukraine about how the tone of Russian diplomats compares to their U.S. counterparts, the intended audience of this sarcasm and the underlying strategy beneath Russia's messaging.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On how this sarcasm compares to language from the Democratic West

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.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has used sarcasm when addressing serious topics including the relations between Russia and Ukraine.
Yuri Kadobnov / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has used sarcasm when addressing serious topics including the relations between Russia and Ukraine.

On whether the U.S. should be using a different tone to communicate with Russia

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.

On who is the audience for this sarcasm

I think it's both domestic and foreign. [Russia is] trying to tell us that they're not afraid of us. They're willing to make fun of us. 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.

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's what Russians believe. Russians don't think there is any chance that their country is going to invade Ukraine.

On how this messaging affects people's understanding of the situation

They're definitely trying to confuse you. 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. 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.

On why Russia is talking about ethnic cleansing, a refugee crisis and war crimes as it relates to Ukraine

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, the question of whether 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.

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