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The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History (2023)

Tekijä: Serhii Plokhy

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"Despite repeated warnings from the White House, Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the world. Why did Putin start the war--and why has it unfolded in previously unimaginable ways? Ukrainians have resisted a superior military; the West has united, while Russia grows increasingly isolated. Serhii Plokhy, a leading historian of Ukraine and the Cold War, offers a definitive account of this conflict, its origins, course, and the already apparent and possible future consequences"--… (lisätietoja)
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On February 24, 2022, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, an act of unprovoked aggression not seen in Europe since World War II that summoned up ominous historical parallels. Memories of Munich resurfaced, as well as the price paid for inaction. The West heard terrifying if unmistakable echoes in the rumble of armored vehicles and boots on the ground, and this time responded rapidly and unhesitatingly to both condemn Russia and steadfastly stand with Ukraine. Post-Trump—the former president seemed to have a kind of boyhood crush on Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin—the United States, led now by the Biden Administration, acted decisively to partner in near-unanimity with the European Union and a newly re-emboldened NATO to provide political, economic, and especially military aid to beleaguered Ukrainians.
The world watched in horror as Russian missiles took aim at civilian targets. But there was also widespread admiration for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who defied offers to assist his flight to a safe haven abroad by reportedly declaring that: "The fight is here: I need ammunition, not a ride." But while most Ukrainians were indeed grateful for the outpouring of critical support from abroad, there was also background noise fraught with frustration: Russia had actually been making war on Ukraine since 2014, even if much of the planet never seemed to notice it.
Since, at least until very recently, most Americans could not easily locate Ukraine on a map, it is perhaps less than surprising that few were aware of the active Russian belligerency in Ukraine for the eight years prior to the full scale invasion that made cable news headlines. Many still do not know what the current war is really about. That vast sea of the uninformed is the best audience for The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History [2023] by award-winning Harvard professor and historian Serhii Plokhy.
The conflict in Ukraine has spawned two competing narratives, and although only one is fact-based, the other—advanced by Putin and his neofascist allies in Europe and the United States—has gained dangerous currency as of late. In the fantasy “world according to Putin,” Ukraine is styled as a “near abroad” component integral to Russia with a shared heritage and culture that makes it inseparable from the Russian state. At the same time, Ukraine has brought invasion upon itself by seeking to ally itself with Russia’s enemies. And, somehow concomitantly, Ukraine is also a rogue state run by Nazis—never mind that Zelenskyy himself is of Jewish heritage—that obligates Moscow’s intervention in order to protect the Ukrainian and Russian populations under threat. That none of this is true and that much of it is neither logical nor even rational makes no difference. Putin and his puppets just keep repeating it, because as we know from Goebbels’ time, if you keep repeating a lie it becomes the truth.
And that truth is more complicated, so of course far more difficult to rebut. It is always challenging for nuance to compete with talking points, especially when the latter are reinforced in well-orchestrated efforts peddled by a sophisticated state-run propaganda machine that has an international reach. Ukraine and Russia, as well as Belarus, do indeed share a cultural heritage that can be traced back to the ninth century Kyivan Rus' state, but then a similar claim can be made about France and Germany and their roots in the Carolingian Empire a bit farther to the west—with the same lack of relevance to their respective rights to sovereignty in the modern day. And Russian origins actually belong to fourteenth century Muscovy, not Kyiv. In its long history, Ukraine has been incorporated into Tsarist Russia and its successor state, the Soviet Union, but its vast parcels were also at various times controlled by Mongols, by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, by Austria, and even by a Turkish khanate. Yet, Ukraine always stubbornly clung to its distinct sovereign identity, even when—like Poland under partition—it was not a sovereign nation, and even as the struggle to achieve statehood ever persisted. That is quite a story in itself, and no one tells that story better than Plokhy himself in his erudite text, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine [2015, rev.2021], a dense, well-researched, deep dive into the past that at once fully establishes Ukraine’s right to exist, while expertly placing it into the context of Europe’s past and present. Alas, it leans to the academic in tone and thus poses a challenge to a more general audience.
Fortunately, The Russo-Ukrainian War is far more readable and accessible, without sacrificing the impressive scholarship that marks the foundation of all Plokhy’s work. And thankfully the course of Ukraine’s recent past—the focus here—is far less convoluted than in prior centuries. While contrary to Putin’s claim, Ukraine is not an inextricable element of the Russian state, their modern history has certainly between intertwined. But that changed in the post-Soviet era, and the author traces the paths of each in the decades since Ukraine’s independence and Russia’s drift under Putin’s rule from a fledgling democracy to neofascist authoritarianism.
Ukraine became a sovereign state in 1991 upon the dissolution of the USSR, along with a number of former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Overnight, Ukraine became the second largest European nation (after Russia) and found itself hosting the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal on its territory. As part of an agreement dubbed the “Trilateral Statement,” Ukraine transferred its nuclear weapons to Russia for destruction in exchange for security assurances from Russia, Britain, and the United States. This crucial moment is too often overlooked in debates over aid to Ukraine. Not only has Russia plainly violated this agreement that the United States remains obligated to uphold, but there surely could have been no Russian invasion had Ukraine hung on to those nukes.
Ukraine suffered mightily in its decades as a Soviet republic—most notably during Stalin’s infamous man-made famine known as the “Holodomor” (1932-33) that killed millions of Ukrainians—but 1991 and its aftermath saw a peaceful divorce and both nations go their separate ways. Each suffered from economic dislocation, corruption, and political instability at this new dawn, but despite shortcomings throughout this transition, Ukrainians looked to the West, saw greater integration with Europe as central to their future, and embraced democracy, if sometimes imperfectly.
Meanwhile, Russia stumbled. Some of this can be laid to missed opportunities by the West for more significant economic aid and firmer support for emerging democratic institutions when Russia needed it most, but much of it was organic, as well. Vladimir Putin, a little-known figure, stepped into a leadership role. With slow, calculated, and somewhat astonishing proficiency, former KGB operative Putin gradually dismantled democracy while generally preserving its outward forms, cementing his control in an increasingly authoritarian state—one which most recently seems barreling towards a kind of Stalinist totalitarianism. Along the way, Putin crafted an ideological framework for his vision of a new Russia, born again as a “great power,” by borrowing heavily from 1930s era fascism, resurrected and transformed for the millennium.
Interestingly, while I was reading The Russo-Ukrainian War, I also read The Road to Unfreedom [2018], Timothy Snyder’s brilliant study of how neofascism has gripped the West and Putin’s pivotal role in its course: interfering in US elections, sponsoring Trump’s candidacy, seeking to destabilize NATO, encouraging Brexit in the UK—and an aggressive revanchist effort to annex Ukraine to an emergent twenty-first century Russian Empire. Snyder both confirms the general outline of Plokhy’s narrative and zooms out to put a wider lens on the dangerous implications in these cleverly choreographed diabolical maneuvers that go well beyond the borders of Ukraine to put threat to the very future of Western democracy. As such, Putin may imagine himself as a kind of latter-day Peter the Great, and sometimes act as Stalin, but the historical figure he most closely imitates is Adolf Hitler.
Like Hitler, Putin first sought to achieve his objectives without war. For Ukraine, that meant bribery, disinformation, election interference, and other tactics. And Putin nearly succeeded with former president Viktor Yanukovych—who attempted to effect a sharp turn away from the West while placing Ukraine firmly into Russia’s orbit—until he was toppled from power and fled to Moscow in 2014. A furious Putin replayed Hitler’s moves in Sudetenland and in the Austrian Anschluss: puppet separatists agitated for independence and launched civil war in Ukraine’s east, and Crimea was annexed by Russia following a mock referendum. The war in Ukraine had begun.
The Obama Administration, in concert with the West, responded with economic sanctions that proved tepid, at best, and went on with their business. Ukrainians fought courageously in the east to defend what remained of their territory against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office, voicing overt hostility towards NATO while projecting a startling brand of comraderie with Vladimir Putin. Snyder wryly observes in The Road to Unfreedom that the last advisor to the last pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was none other than Paul Manafort, who then became the campaign manager to candidate Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up.
If Snyder sometimes leans to the polemic, Plokhy strictly sticks to history, even if the two authors’ perspectives essentially run parallel. The Russo-Ukrainian War is most of all a well-written, competent history of those two nations and of their collisions on and off the battlefield that spawned a full-scale war—one that did not need to occur except to further Putin’s neofascist nationalist ambitions. If I can find fault, it is only that in his sympathy for the Ukrainian cause, Plokhy is sometimes too forgiving of its key players. In the current conflict, Ukraine is most certainly in the right, but that is not to say that it can do no wrong. Still, especially as I can locate much of the same material in Snyder’s work, I cannot point to any inaccuracies. The author knows his subject, demonstrates rigorous research, and can cite his sources, which means there are plenty of notes for those who want to delve deeper. I should add that this edition also boasts great maps that are quite helpful for those less familiar with the geography. Plokhy is an accomplished scholar, but an advanced degree is not necessary to comprehend the contents. Anyone can come to this book and walk away with a wealth of knowledge that will cut through the smokescreen of propaganda broadcast not only on Russian TV, but in certain corners of the American media.
This review goes to press on the heels of Putin’s almost-certain assassination of his most prominent political opponent, Alexei Navalny, in an Arctic gulag where he had been confined under harsh conditions for championing democracy and standing against the war in Ukraine, and just days away from the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, as Ukrainian forces abandon the city of Avdiivka and struggle to hold on elsewhere while American aid withers under pressure from Trump’s MAGA allies in the House of Representatives, who went on recess in a deliberate tactic to sidestep a vote on aid to Ukraine already approved by the Senate. Trump himself, the likely Republican nomination for president this year, recently underscored his longstanding enmity towards NATO by publicly declaring—in a “Bizarro World” inverse of the mutual defense guaranteed in Article 5—that he would invite Russia to attack any member nation behind on its dues, a chilling glimpse of what another Trump term in the White House would mean for the security of both Europe and America. Trump once again lives up to his alarming caricature in Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom: the fictional character “Donald Trump successful businessman” that was manufactured by Putin and then marketed to the American public. And just a week before Navalny’s murder, former FOX News host Tucker Carlson conducted a softball “interview” with Putin that gifted him a platform to assert Russia’s right to Ukraine and even cast blame on Poland for Hitler’s invasion in 1939. We have truly come full circle, and it is indeed the return of history.
These are grim moments for Ukraine. But also for America, for the West, for the free world. With all the propaganda, the misinformation, the often fake news hysteria of social media, the average American voter may not know what to believe about Ukraine. For a dose of reality, I would urge them to read The Russo-Ukrainian War. And, given the stakes this November—not only for Ukraine’s sovereignty but for the very survival of American democracy—I would advise them to take great care when casting their ballot, because a vote for Putin’s candidate is a vote for Putin, and perhaps the end of the West as we know it.

Link to my review of: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy

Link to my review of: The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, by Timothy Snyder

Review of: The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History, by Serhii Plokhy – Regarp Book Blog https://regarp.com/2024/02/18/review-of-the-russo-ukrainian-war-the-return-of-hi... ( )
  Garp83 | Feb 18, 2024 |
“The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History” is real-time account written by an historian possessing a deep appreciation of Ukrainian history and culture. It is an in-depth study of centuries long timeline leading to the current conflict.

The first chapter, “Imperial Collapse”, examines the myths and facts of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia developed over the last five centuries by princes and politicians, warriors and clerics, historians and linguists. Chapter 2 fast forwards to the 1990s and the parallel tugs-of-war between “Democracy and Autocracy” taking place in Ukraine and Russia. Chapter 3, “Nuclear Implosion”, raises the issue of the distribution of the Soviet nuclear arsenal from a perspective of how the balance of power between Ukraine and Russia would have been shifted had Ukraine retained the weapons stored in its territory, had not the Bush Administration policy of limiting the number of nuclear states prevailed. Chapter 4, “The New Eastern Europe” is the twenty-first century story of the during which Russia and its erstwhile vassals shifted their relationships through commercial and political deals. Chapters 5 through 11 are accounts of hot war from “The Crimean Gambit” to press time in December 2022. Chapter 12, “The Return of the West”, chronicles the remarkable coalescence of western nations in opposition to Russian aggression. Chapter 13, “The Pivot To Asia” is an analysis of Russia’s eastern turn to compensate for its lost markets and influence in Europe.

As I followed news reports, I have had many questions, not covered in the press. How long has Crimea been part of Ukraine? Since 1954. Has Ukraine been part of Russia, if so, when? Much more complicated. I knew generally that Russia had a fleeting experiment with democracy, but how did it return to autocracy? By what process did Ukraine reach its current political status? What road has led to the 2022 invasion? “The Russo-Ukraine War” provides answers to these and other questions. It also introduces new concepts that encourage further research and contemplation. Is this a continuation of the dissolution of the Russian Empire that began in 1917, or maybe even 1905? Is this truly the return of history, with its military aggression and all that it follows in its wake? Much to think about. I applaud Prof. Serhii Plotky for bringing his insights into this informative and thought-provoking book. ( )
  JmGallen | Sep 1, 2023 |
The book was written over the 1st year of the war (Feb 2022 to Mar 2023) at a faster pace than usual for a history book - and so can not be a comprehensive and detailed view of the war. That said, it gives a good coverage of the war to date in the second half of the book, with the first half covering a brief tour over the far history of the Ukraine/Russian Empire relationship and then a m ore detailed overview of events post the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and up to the commencement of the war in 2022.
The book is recommend for anyone wanting a better understanding of the reasons for the war and the main players and events. However, further reading is required (there are many detailed notes to the chapters) as the average western reader would have little to no background knowledge of the key players and the complex series of events from the collapse of the Soviet Union leading on to the war in 2022. While the author does attempt to cover these, it is a lot to ask in a single volume - and so I found I gained some better insight into the causes of the war and the positions taken by various countries/parties, this book is really an introduction only. ( )
  Daniel_M_Oz | Aug 10, 2023 |
Detailed description of the background and history of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  cfzmjz041567 | Jul 2, 2023 |
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(Preface) The start of the Russian invasion caught me in Vienna, the capital of the former empire whose actions triggered World War I and the city whose takeover by Nazi Germany as part of the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 led the way to the outbreak of World War II.
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"Despite repeated warnings from the White House, Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the world. Why did Putin start the war--and why has it unfolded in previously unimaginable ways? Ukrainians have resisted a superior military; the West has united, while Russia grows increasingly isolated. Serhii Plokhy, a leading historian of Ukraine and the Cold War, offers a definitive account of this conflict, its origins, course, and the already apparent and possible future consequences"--

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