Whether he pulls his troops back or attempts to bomb Ukrainian cities into submission, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already lost the war he launched against the country, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued.
“This war is not about conquering this city or that city. Putin can conquer all of Ukraine, that’s completely true,” Harari told Channel 12 news on Friday. “But this war is over the very existence of a Ukrainian people.”
Putin, he said, began the war “because he has a fantasy he’s built up in his head that there isn’t a Ukrainian people, that Ukrainians are actually Russians, that they want to be a part of Russia, and that only some small Judeo-Nazi gang in power is preventing it.”
Putin believed that he’d go in, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee, the military would surrender and the population “would greet the Russian tanks with flowers.”
But “he was wrong all along the way.”
The past few days, Harari said, had proven that “there is a Ukrainian people; Zelensky did not flee; the Ukrainian military is fighting like crazy; and the population is throwing Molotov cocktails at tanks, not flowers.”
“Yes, he can conquer this country, but he won’t be able to hold it… There is no chance. With every passing day, he sows more and more seeds of hatred between Ukrainians and Russians — who didn’t hate each other before. They were family. This is hatred for generations. By his own hand, he is ensuring there is no chance of them uniting.”
But Harari acknowledged that there was a real danger Kyiv and other cities would become the next Aleppo — the Syrian metropolis that was pounded by Russian forces, causing untold tragedy.
When people like Putin come up against a cold hard reality they don’t like, he said, they tend “to try and break reality.”
The historian expressed hope that the Russian people would not allow such a thing to happen.
“It’s one thing to send bombers to Aleppo, when those fighting door to door are Syrians and those being killed are Syrians, and it’s something else when it’s at Russia’s door, when it’s Russian soldiers being killed, when it’s relatives [being hurt],” he said, noting the familial relations between many Russians and Ukrainians.
“I don’t think Putin cares. As far as he’s concerned millions can die, millions can lose their homes. But I think the Russian people will care. And I hope the Russian people won’t let it happen.”
Harari lauded the Ukrainian people’s fierce fight for their home. Unlike Russians, he said, Ukrainians have chosen democracy.
“They were at the same crossroads [as Russia] after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and they chose democracy. And time after time when someone tried to threaten their democracy, they chose democracy again.”
Harari lamented the effects the war would likely have globally, including changing budget priorities in many countries, leading to increased focus on defense budgets, to the detriment of health, welfare, and education.
He also said the crisis had made clear how relevant the threat of nuclear war remains.
“People thought ‘nuclear weapons are something from the sixties, there was some Cuban missile crisis…’ [But] it is here and now — it took three days from the outbreak of war to the beginning of threats with nuclear weapons.”
On the subject of Western sanctions on Russia, Harari said Russia has little going for its economy beyond its natural resources.
“If the West is smart, what it should do is not just sanctions, but a ‘Green Manhattan Project.’ Green energy that will dislodge oil and gas from their central role. When oil prices go down to $20 a barrel, it’s the end of Putin’s regime.”
Asked what he thought of comparisons between Putin’s campaign and Adolf Hitler’s expansionism that launched the Second World War, Harari said he was not a big fan of the rush to compare the two, though he acknowledged that “there are certain similarities.
However, he stressed, “There’s a very big difference. Hitler had an ideology, and the German people were to a great extent united behind this ideology. Here it’s a war of one man only. It’s not a war of the Russian people. The Russian people don’t want this.”
“It’s not even a war of that small circle around Putin, those oligarchs… They have their yachts, their homes in London, their castles in France, the private jet — that’s what they want from life.”
“This is a truly rare historic event — of a war by one man. Unfortunately, it’s a man with astounding power, several of whose screws have come loose,” he added.
Regarding Israel’s stance, and its concern to keep its people safe with Russia so influential across the northern border, Harari said: “There is a murderous dictatorship that is threatening to kill hundreds of thousands, to throw them out of their homes. Do the Jewish people need someone to explain to them where morality lies in this situation? So yes, I understand that there are also [vital Israeli] interests and they cannot be ignored. But where you can help, help. If you can’t send weapons, send medical equipment. Send food. Provide moral support. There are things that can be done.”
He also suggested that a potential silver lining of the war could be “an end to the culture war within the West: left against right, liberals against conservatives, Fox News against CNN.
“One of the most optimistic things that happened to me in the last few days was I was switching between CNN and Fox News and suddenly they looked the same. They suddenly understand that there’s something infinitely more important, and infinitely more terrible than what they’ve been afraid of over the past few years, and they can unite around it. The moment that happens, there’s no need to fear anyone. The Western world is far stronger than the Russians and even the Chinese.”