Two years ago this week, protests began in Kiev against the government of Viktor Yanukovich. Their result has been the dismemberment of Ukraine, a war in Donbass, and a series of economic sanctions levied by Western powers against the Russian Federation. In discussing Western responses to the Ukrainian crisis, journalist Marvin Kalb remarks in his new book Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) that, ‘What was not done was for high-level policymakers to study, if only briefly, the long and intricate history of Russian-Ukrainian relations. … In all this history, Ukraine, as Russia’s “little brother”, lived in a close but uncomfortable and contentious relationship with its “big brother”. One always was tied to the other, a record of intertwined interconnections.’
Kalb’s book attempts to make up for this deficit by charting the history of Russia and Ukraine from the time of Kievan Rus through to today, and then seeking to explain why Russia has acted the way that it has, and what all this might mean for the future. In principle, this is quite a good approach. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Imperial Gamble is really two books combined into one: first, a history of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship; and second, an analysis of contemporary politics. Given that it condenses 1,000 years into about 100 pages, the former is inevitably very superficial. It is also somewhat simplistic. For instance, Kalb claims (p. 39) that under the Mongols, Russia ‘slumbered in darkness … its culture … virtually extinguished,’ which ignores the flourishing of Russian monasticism, the rise of Muscovy, and many other developments of the era.
When it comes to later periods, Kalb’s account sometimes slips from simplistic to inaccurate. Kalb claims (p. 83), for instance, that ‘Stalin, in a mad moment, also considered the wholesale deportation of all Ukrainians. But, in February 1956, Khrushchev … disclosed that Stalin could not give the order, “because there were too many of them”.’ Khrushchev did say that, but he was cracking a joke at Stalin’s expense, not saying that Stalin had actually ‘considered the wholesale deportation of all Ukrainians.’ I know of no evidence that he had. And coming to the post-Soviet era, Kalb writes (p. 116) that Ukraine has ‘survived … relentless pressure from Moscow’ since 1991. Yet, for years Russia subsidized the Ukrainian economy with cheap gas, at a cost to Russia of tens of billions of dollars. This was hardly ‘relentless pressure’.
Nor are these the only examples. There are a number of little errors of fact. For instance, on page 84, Kalb refers several times to Ukrainian nationalist Dmytro Donstov, when the man’s name was Dontsov. And on page 85, he says ‘In June 1942 his [Andrei Vlasov’s] army division was decisively defeated’, but Vlasov wasn’t a divisional commander, he was an army commander (2nd Shock Army). ‘In late February 2014, hundreds of demonstrators were killed in Maidan’, Kalb writes (p. 231). In fact, the total death toll was about 130. He similarly exaggerates the scale of the Bolotnaya protests against Vladimir Putin in late 2011 and early 2012, the largest of which was about 60,000 strong, writing (p. 224) that Putin ‘had seen hundreds of thousands of disgruntled Russians demonstrating in Moscow against him.’ One might argue that these are not important details, but they make one doubt Kalb’s knowledge and the extent of his research.
In other cases, the errors aren’t so minor. For instance, Kalb says (p. 160) that in April 2014, ‘pro-Russian rallies popped up in Donetsk, Kharkov, Luhansk, Mariupol, and even the southern port city of Odessa, instigated by Moscow and organized by Russian special forces.’ While others have also claimed (incorrectly in my view) that Russian troops instigated the uprisings in Donbass, the idea that Russian special forces were active as far as Kharkov and Odessa is quite unsubstantiated.
Kalb also muddles up his timelines to produce a misleading narrative. ‘At the last minute’, he writes (p. 139), ‘Yanukovich changed his mind. He refused to sign the EU agreement. … Days later, an elected president fled in terror’. But it wasn’t ‘days later’, it was three months later. Then on page 143, Kalb says: ‘On occasion, angry demonstrators threw firebombs at the police, and the police responded with gunfire. Pictures of the dead and wounded further inflamed passions. On December 6, as though to break the cycle, Putin summonded Yanukovich to Sochi.’ In fact, the first deaths didn’t occur until 22 January, after and not before the 6 December meeting. In another confused timeline, Kalb (p. 175) describes fighting in August as the Ukrainian Army closed in on Donetsk, and then mentions the rebel Vostok battalion, saying that 40 of them, including 33 Russians, were killed ‘in a major battle near the rebel capital’. But this battle wasn’t in August, it was in May. So Kalb has put facts about one time in the middle of a description of another time. Then, he writes (p. 179) of the rebels parading prisoners in Donetsk ‘during the Minsk negotiations’, but the parade was on 24 August and the negotiations on 26 August. The events weren’t simultaneous. Again, one might say that the error is a minor one, but it is sloppy.
Thrown in with all this are a bunch of overstated denunciations of Putin, who is described as ‘cunning, manipulative, and ultranationalistic’ (p. 2), and as running an ‘ayatollah autocracy’ (p. 24). Putin, writes Kalb (p. 140), seems ‘in both style and action, to blend Stalin with the worst of tsars’. ‘Putinism may be one of the bleakest of modern autocracies’, he says, adding that Putin has ‘an ever-expanding ego’ (p. 197). In addition, Kalb regularly states that ‘Putin believes this’ or ‘Putin wants that’, as if these were provable facts, without ever explaining how he knows these things. Putin ‘has bought into the myth that Russia is again a superpower,’ we are told (p. 224-5), ‘This is his guiding vision … and it inspires his policy and strategy. … He is convinced that only an authoritarian, ultranationalist regime can protect Russia from its enemies.’ Perhaps all this is true, but we need more than Kalb’s bald assertions to prove it.
Oddly, though, after denouncing Putin at every available opportunity, Kalb suddenly abandons the moralizing tone and becomes a hard-headed Realist, and concludes by in effect telling Ukraine and its Western allies to give Putin what he wants. ‘There is no escaping history,’ he writes (pp. 219-221), ‘Ukraine’s fate has been enmeshed with Russia’s. It always has been, and probably always will be. … Ukraine is the junior partner. Therefore, any realistic solution to the current crisis must first satisfy the interests of Russia and then those of Ukraine. … If Ukraine is to survive … then it must first strike a political and economic deal with Russia.’ ‘Ukraine’s future is linked to Russia’s,’ Kalb continues (p. 244), before telling readers (p. 248) that, ‘We should encourage Ukraine and Russia to negotiate a realistic modus vivendi between them, aware that Russia, by virtue of its power position, is likely to get the better of the deal. … This is not the time for dangerous games of chicken with Russia.’
In short, Kalb appears to be saying that Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine, and that its ‘ultranationalist’ leader is a serious danger, but that Ukraine should accept that it is the weaker than Russia and appease it. Somehow, I doubt that many readers will accept this juxtaposition.
There are books I disagree with which I nonetheless think are worth reading. This isn’t one of them.