Timothy Snyder’s pernicious influence
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After the breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine this week, the historian and bestselling author Timothy Snyder offered journalists what he called “some guidelines for writing about this catastrophe.” His eleven-tweet primer on good journalism garnered 20,000 retweets and more than 130,000 likes.
Below I offer some guidelines for deciding whether Snyder is a good guide to how to do journalism. But first I want to explain why I think this matters.
The Ukraine War stands a non-trivial chance of leading to either (1) nuclear war; or (2) a wider non-nuclear conflagration, one that extends to NATO nations (and could then lead to nuclear war). Both probabilities grow if US policy is driven more by moral outrage than by cool calculation. And there are influential people, like Timothy Snyder, who seem bent on maximizing the role of moral outrage.
Sometimes it’s hard to fault them for that. If Snyder indicts Putin for bombing civilian power grids—or for the many other objectionable things he’s done, like invade Ukraine in the first place—that’s fine, because there’s no doubt Putin did these things. But to greatly overstate our confidence that Putin has committed an egregious crime—like intentionally flooding thousands of homes—is not fine. And to discourage journalists from seriously exploring the question of whether Putin committed the crime is really, really not fine.
Snyder begins his Twitter thread by telling journalists that they shouldn’t “bothsides a calamity”—by which, it turns out, he means they shouldn’t report that Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of blowing up the dam unless they add that Russia is not to be believed. After spending some time on opaque metaphysics (“When a Russian spokesperson claims that Ukraine did something, e.g. blow a dam, this is not part of a story of an event in the real world”), Snyder gets around to explaining why we can be sure that Russia is the guilty party.
My own view, by the way, is that it doesn’t make obvious sense for either Ukraine or Russia to have blown up the dam, and that the dam may have just collapsed. This is not an eccentric view. In a podcast conversation among three very prominent and emphatically pro-Ukraine analysts—Dmitri Alperovitch, Michael Kofman, and Rob Lee—all agreed that the dam’s collapse had mainly downsides for both Russia and Ukraine. Alperovitch thinks the collapse probably resulted from known structural problems (and may have been triggered by an errant floating mine).
But Snyder—who unlike Kofman and Lee isn’t an expert on Russian military strategy, or military strategy broadly—seems sure that Russia had powerful motivation to blow up the dam. He writes:
“Armies that are attacking do not blow dams to block their own path of advance. Armies that are retreating do blow dams to slow the advance of the other side. Ukraine was advancing, and Russia was retreating.”
Actually, Russia wasn’t retreating. The Russian army in the vicinity of the flood faced no pressure from Ukrainian forces and no prospect of near-term pressure. Analysts—including the three I just mentioned—didn’t expect a big river crossing below the dam to be part of the Ukrainian offensive that began this week, an offensive that is taking place a long way from the areas affected by the flood.
In fact, the long-term effect of the dam’s collapse may be to create the possibility of a river crossing by Ukrainian troops. The flood has already deluged a fair chunk of Russia’s elaborate defensive entrenchments on the eastern side of the river and is thought to have swept away many Russian landmines. That would make a Ukrainian crossing—weeks from now, after new shorelines have stabilized—more auspicious than it would have been last week.
So this particular Snyder reason for believing that Russia blew up the dam is the opposite of persuasive. Here is his other main reason for believing that:
“Russia was in control of the relevant part of the dam when it exploded. This is an elemental part of the context. It comes before what anyone says. When a murder is investigated, detectives think about means. Russia had the means. Ukraine did not.”
Yes, Russia does control the dam. In fact, among the reasons nobody expected a big river crossing by Ukrainian troops is that, because Russia controlled the dam’s flood gates, it could gravely complicate an attempted crossing on a moment’s notice. Now that the dam is breached, Russia no longer has that power. So this is a second sense in which the breach rendered an eventual Ukrainian river crossing more viable, not less.
Note the parallel between the dam breach and the breach of the Nord Stream pipeline last year. Back then, as many Westerners passionately assured us of Russia’s guilt, cooler heads generated questions such as: Wait, since Russia could have achieved the same end—stopped the flow of gas—by just flipping a switch, why would it choose to blow the whole apparatus up, thus depriving itself of the future ability to control the flow of gas?
The analogous question applies now: Why would Russia sacrifice its own future control of the flow of water when it could, whenever it wanted, cause a flood without sacrificing that control? It isn’t in Snyder’s nature to muster the kind of detachment that leads to such questions.
As it happens, this week brought bad news for the dwindling number of people who still think Russia blew up the Nord Stream pipeline—news that (as Kelley Vlahos noted in Responsible Statecraft) has a kind of relevance to this week’s dam breach. The Washington Post reported that, before the Nord Stream explosion, the Biden administration got detailed reports from a European intelligence service that Ukraine was planning to blow up the pipeline using a team of scuba divers. And, the Post notes, after the pipeline blew up, “German law enforcement investigators uncovered evidence about the bombing that bears striking similarities to what the European service said Ukraine was planning.”
So when Snyder says that, in the case of the dam, “Russia had the means. Ukraine did not,” he’s overlooking a possibility: Ukrainian special ops scuba divers—who apparently are really good at blowing stuff up underwater—could have made the extremely short swim from Ukrainian-controlled territory to the dam and planted explosives. Presumably it’s harder to blow up a dam than a pipeline, but this dam had the aforementioned structural flaws.
Again, my own view is that the structural problems by themselves may have been the culprit (perhaps assisted, as Alperovitch speculated, by an errant mine). My point is just that Timothy Snyder’s near-certainty that Russia is the culprit lacks foundation; his (understandable) attachment to the Ukrainian cause seems to have kept him from thinking clearly about this. Yet he feels entitled to reprimand journalists who try to report objectively, without bias toward either Ukraine or Russia.
This endeavor—the attempt to report the news from neither of two conflicting perspectives, but from a perspective that transcends them—is the journalist’s calling. And it remains the journalist’s calling even when the journalist hopes that one of the two sides in a conflict will prevail (because, for example, one of the sides was invaded by the other).
Snyder writes that you should “avoid the temptation to bothsides a calamity” because “that's not journalism.” Actually, some would say that “bothsidesing” is the essence of good journalism.
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AI researchers at chipmaker Nvidia plugged GPT-4 into Voyager, their Minecraft-playing bot, writes Will Knight of Wired. GPT-4 governed Voyager’s behavior as the bot explored the game’s expansive and variegated world.
Knight highlights two implications of this science project: 1) “Large language models” can carry out an array of complex tasks on computers—and may soon automate a lot of white-collar work. 2) Minecraft might be a good arena for testing powerful new AIs—to reduce the chances that they’ll wreak havoc in the real world, once they’re let out of the sandbox.
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