Every week brings grim and dramatic news from the war in Ukraine: Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilian convoys; Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons; captured towns liberated by Ukrainian forces; young Russian men fleeing conscription. Yet it is no coincidence that Europe’s most destructive conflict since World War II is taking place on Ukrainian soil. After the Cold War, most of Central and Eastern Europe, including the three Baltic states that had liberated from the Soviet Union, were integrated into NATO and the EU. But Ukraine remained a place of uncertain allegiance, neither in Western alliance structures, nor aligned with Moscow, nor officially neutral.
In Russia, Putin’s earthy, grievance-filled nationalism and authoritarian style of government contrasted with a vibrant, if imperfect, democracy in Ukraine and a society learning to be proud of its national culture and statehood. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Donbass in 2014, Ukrainian leaders have come with growing resolve to see their country’s future in the Western family of nations. For its part, the Kremlin and its ultranationalist supporters viewed these aspirations as a US-inspired plot to degrade Russia’s identity, interests, and prestige, bringing closer a confrontation between Russian and Western civilization.
Both something more than a Russian-Ukrainian war and something less than a full-scale military clash between Moscow and the west, the conflict is in its eighth month and shows no signs of ending soon. . The partial mobilization of Russian civilians by the Kremlin and the attempted annexation by fictitious referendums of four Ukrainian provinces indicate that Putin is engaging in a protracted fight. Ukraine is buoyed by recent advances on the battlefield and the promise of sustained military and economic support from the West to continue its struggle. For their part, Western governments are bracing for a harsh winter of war-induced recession and energy crises that could dampen the public mood, but they believe too much is at stake to allow settlement that rewards aggression. of Putin.
Two new books, written by authors with first-hand experience of conditions in Ukraine, do an excellent job of placing the war in its broader historical, geopolitical and social contexts. Each has a specific goal. Anna Arutunyan, Russian-American scholar of post-communist Russia and Ukraine, focuses on Hybrid warriors why fighting broke out in Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2014, setting the stage for Putin’s wager last February on all-out war. Samir Puri, professor of war studies and former British diplomat, pays particular attention to Russia’s road to war with Ukraine to the broader international framework of Ukrainian-Russian hostilities, especially how they reflected and were heightened by tensions between NATO and Moscow.
In his illuminating and well-researched book, Arutunyan lays out a nuanced argument about the Donbass conflict that will not satisfy some Ukrainians but is compelling nonetheless. She argues that it’s too simplistic to portray the Kremlin as the sole instigator of the 2014 separatist uprising. However, it is missing. . . the extent to which the premises [pro-Moscow] the separatists and Russian non-state fighters and activists who initially came to fight alongside them shaped the insurgency and the war it sparked.
Because the Kremlin did orchestrate the annexation of Crimea, some Western policymakers and analysts assumed that the same must be true of the Donbass conflict. However, the fighting was “as much fueled by local divisions as by interference from Moscow”, writes Arutunyan. Certainly the widespread violence would not have erupted without Russian involvement. But the social divisions in the Donbass dating back to independence from Ukraine in 1991 were real, and some local Russians, estranged from the authorities who seized power in Kyiv after the Maidan revolution in early 2014, were ready to fight back.
One of the reasons lies in the modern history of Donbass, shaped by Russian immigration, the dominance of heavy industry in the regional economy and Sovietization, says Arutunyan. With a predominantly Russian workforce in factories and mines and a heroic image forged in the fires of Joseph Stalin’s shattering industrialization, the Donbass “became the cradle of a Soviet identity par excellence”. Interviewed in May 2014, many pro-Moscow locals told him they did not want to be incorporated into Russia but wanted “a version of the Soviet Union”.
Arutunyan describes those who took up arms as “idealists, enthusiasts, mercenaries, vagabonds, men and women with a criminal past – who were not acting under orders from Moscow but…. . . who felt. . . forgotten, slandered and misunderstood — pushed to the margins of history”. A fighter told him: “When the Soviet Union disappeared from the face of the earth, I didn’t really accept the Ukrainian regime”.
“On some level I just wanted to run with a Kalashnikov,” said another fighter.
Non-state fighters from Russia were also involved, a development which, as Arutunyan insightfully observes, recalls how volunteers fought for the Tsarist Empire against Ottoman Turkey in the 1870s. from the right of [Russian] civil society . . . independent businessmen, think tanks and political activists coalesced around an imperialist agenda”.
In August 2014, Russia sent regular soldiers to eastern Ukraine, but for seven years and more Putin refrained from recognizing the small breakaway states of Donetsk and Luhansk. He also abandoned the so-called Novorossiya project, an ultranationalist vision of Russian-held territory stretching from Kharkiv to Odessa.
Then everything changed in February. Why? Arutunyan mentions Putin’s sense of national victimhood, heightened perhaps by his immersion during the Covid-19 lockdowns in the works of Russian mystical pseudo-historians such as Lev Gumilev. Briefings on US conspiracies from the FSB intelligence agency may have influenced him. Whatever his motives, Arutunyan doubts the war will end well for Putin but tries to sound optimistic about Russia. “This war may represent the violent last gasps of a dying empire that will leave something new in its wake…a new Russia, with its own new national identity.
In his thought-provoking and thought-provoking book, Puri describes Putin as “enchanted with an apocalyptic nostalgia for the Soviet and czarist incarnations of the Russian Empire”. He shares Arutunyan’s view that Putin’s isolation during the pandemic seems to have hardened his animosity toward Ukraine, citing a 2021 essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which was “a bright red flag warning that something nasty was heading towards Ukraine”. ”.
Puri, author of The Great Imperial Hangover (2020), a well-received book on how the legacies of empires shape the modern world, comments that for 500 years Russia had little experience of not being an empire. Unlike countries with foreign possessions, the Russian state and empire grew together in the vast spaces adjoining the heartland of Russia.
Coupled with Russian population movements in the Donbass and other regions, this certainly made it easier for Putin to view post-Communist Ukraine as a “wandering province,” not a sovereign state. Puri quotes Vladislav Surkov, a former senior Kremlin adviser on Ukraine, as saying in 2020: “Forced coercion for brotherly relations, this is the only method that has historically proven effective when it comes to Ukraine.
Puri is not an apologist for Putin’s Russia. Yet his book will spark some controversy with its claim that the United States and its allies have mishandled relations with Moscow by offering Ukraine unrealistic hopes of NATO membership. “Tens of thousands have perished along the way to prove that NATO’s open door must always stay open, no matter the neighborhood. NATO has, of course, no blood on its hands here, but as an exercise in effective governance, NATO’s past record of managing the membership aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia is of poor quality.
Puri also blames European policymakers for forging ties with former Soviet republics at the expense of Russia, while failing to take into account that Moscow has retained the power to forcefully contest that it should be held to account. away from the future of Europe. There’s something to that, but it arguably understates how Putin’s aggressive foreign policy went hand in hand with the increasingly repressive regime he was building at home – a trend the West had little influence.
What about the future of Ukraine? Puri thinks partition, although not desirable, is possible. He cites Cyprus, divided since 1974, and Germany during the Cold War as grim examples. More broadly, he asks, like Arutunyan, if Ukraine can be free, sovereign and not threatened by Russia in the long term. Although he offers no definitive answers, readers might well conclude from his ruthless investigation that the best guarantee for Ukraine would be a free, democratic Russia free from imperial inclinations. How to get there is quite another matter.
Hybrid warriors: Proxies, freelancers and Moscow’s struggle for Ukraine by Anna Arutunyan, Hurst £20, 352 pages
Russia’s road to war with Ukraine: Invasion amid the ashes of empires by Samir Puri, Biteback Publishing £20, 304 pages
Tony Barber is the FT’s European commentary editor
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