theguardian – Thursday 19 February 2015 10.29 GMT
Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa review – an unrivalled account
When Arseniy Yatsenyuk**, Ukraine’s prime minister, told a German TV station recently that the Soviet Union invaded Germany, was this just blind ignorance? Or a kind of perverted wishful thinking? If the USSR really was the aggressor in 1941, it would suit Yatsenyuk’s narrative of current geopolitics in which Russia is once again the only side that merits blame.
When Grzegorz Schetyna, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, said Ukrainians liberated Auschwitz, did he not know that the Red Army was a multinational force in which Ukrainians certainly played a role but the bulk of the troops were Russian? Or was he looking for a new way to provoke the Kremlin?
Faced with these irresponsible distortions, and they are replicated in a hundred other prejudiced comments about Russian behaviour from western politicians as well as their eastern European colleagues, it is a relief to find a book on the Ukrainian conflict that is cool, balanced, and well sourced. Richard Sakwa makes repeated criticisms of Russian tactics and strategy, but he avoids lazy Putin-bashing and locates the origins of the Ukrainian conflict in a quarter-century of mistakes since the cold war ended. In his view, three long-simmering crises have boiled over to produce the violence that is engulfing eastern Ukraine. The first is the tension between two different models of Ukrainian statehood. One is what he calls the “monist” view, which asserts that the country is an autochthonous cultural and political unity and that the challenge of independence since 1991 has been to strengthen the Ukrainian language, repudiate the tsarist and Soviet imperial legacies, reduce the political weight of Russian-speakers and move the country away from Russia towards “Europe”. The alternative “pluralist” view emphasises the different historical and cultural experiences of Ukraine’s various regions and argues that building a modern democratic post-Soviet Ukrainian state is not just a matter of good governance and rule of law at the centre. It also requires an acceptance of bilingualism, mutual tolerance of different traditions, and devolution of power to the regions.
More than any other change of government in Kiev since 1991, the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych last year brought the triumph of the monist view, held most strongly in western Ukraine, whose leaders were determined this time to ensure the winner takes all.
The second crisis arises from the internationalisation of the struggle inside Ukraine which turned it into a geopolitical tug of war. Sakwa argues that this stems from the asymmetrical end of the cold war which shut Russia out of the European alliance system. While Mikhail Gorbachev*** and millions of other Russians saw the end of the cold war as a shared victory which might lead to the building of a “common European home”, most western leaders saw Russia as a defeated nation whose interests could be brushed aside, and which must accept US hegemony in the new single-superpower world order or face isolation. Instead of dismantling Nato, the cold-war alliance was strengthened and expanded in spite of repeated warnings from western experts on Russia that this would create new tensions. Long before Putin came to power, Yeltsin had urged the west not to move Nato eastwards. (…)
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