One of the advantages of working at a university is having access to a large number of academic journals. In this post, therefore, I will take the opportunity to highlight a couple of recent articles from these.
The first is from the latest edition of Survival, the journal of a prominent British think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The author is Elizabeth Pond, described as ‘a Berlin-based journalist and author’, who worked for 20 years for the Christian Science Monitor and in 1981 published a book about the Soviet Union entitled From the Yaroslavsky Station. Entitled ‘Will Ukraine Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory?’ the article begins with the words: ‘In holding Russia’s military behemoth to a stalemate in President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on Ukraine, Kiev has won an improbable victory.’ According to Pond:
The rebels kept edging the front line west during the year of the poorly observed truce [from September 2014 onwards], kilometre by kilometre, and tried for one last major breakthrough in January and February 2015. Yet the Ukrainian lines basically held. For a few months more Putin continued to talk about his original dream of reconquering Novorossiya, the eastern 40% of today’s Ukraine that Catherine the Great had seized from the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century. By May he had dropped the subject, however, and by the end of August there was a sudden change in leaders among his Donbas proxies that brought the less militant Denis Pushilin to the fore in time to approve the new 1 September 2015 truce. … As provisional peace breaks out, the 1,000 Russian officers and trainers in the Donbas and 50,000 troops still massed just over the Russian border no longer seem menacing to Kiev.
Pond continues her article by expressing concern that Ukraine’s oligarchs may now squander their country’s ‘victory’ by renewing their internecine squabbles. Still, she voices the hope that oligarchic competition ‘might eventually lead, in conjunction with the current anti-corruption drive and with decentralisation on the highly successful Polish pattern, to real political parties instead of today’s patron–client clans devoid of policy content. … They might even capitalise on the new Ukrainian identity that Vladimir Putin has bestowed on them by war to reconcile western and eastern Ukraine politically.’
The second article appeared in what is probably the most prestigious academic journal in the field of Russian and Eastern European studies, Slavic Review. The journal’s current edition begins with an article by Yale professor Timothy Snyder entitled ‘Integration and Disintegration; Europe, Ukraine, and the World.’ Snyder starts by writing that, ‘It is not so often that a true revolution takes place in Europe, mobilizing more than a million, provoking counter-revolution and mass killing’. Snyder looks at Ukrainian history through lenses of colonization v. decolonization and integration v. disintegration. He argues that the First World War was the first step in decolonization and disintegration as multinational empires fell apart, but the Soviet era then witnessed a new era of colonization. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the colonial era came to an end, and Ukraine is now seeking reintegration into Europe through the European Union. But whereas the EU is a force of integration in Snyder’s analysis, Russia is a force for disintegration, seeking to tear Europe apart. Thus Snyder writes that,
In the summer and autumn of 2013, Russian foreign policy shifted, taking the disintegration of the European project as an explicit goal. … the Kremlin defined the EU as an opponent. … in the first weeks of authentic surprise at Ukrainian preferences, the impulse was to call Europeans and Ukrainians homosexuals. The origin of the anti-Maidan policy was the anti-EU policy, of which it was a constituent part. … the war [in Donbass can be seen as] … unfolding from a larger campaign of disintegration. … Russia shows no inclination to annex Luhan’sk or Donet’sk oblasts, preferring instead to leave them in a permanent state of disaster. … Russia’s proposal seems to be to subjugate to destroy.
‘The Russian project to destroy Ukraine and the European Union in the name of an alternative global order should not shock or confuse,’ says Snyder, ‘If the Maidan was about agency, sovereignty, and Europe, Russia’s anti-Maidan is about propaganda, conspiracy, and empire.’ He ends by urging readers to distance themselves ‘from the alternative reality of propaganda, whose tropes can otherwise serve as a tempting substitute for thought’.
In my opinion, there are several things wrong with these two articles: errors of fact; omissions of fact; and highly disputable conceptual foundations.
Elizabeth Pond gets important facts wrong. In the excerpt above, for instance, she claims that in January and February 2015, ‘the Ukrainian lines basically held’. Yet this was the period in which the rebel forces in Donbass successfully surrounded the Ukrainian Army at Debaltsevo and then eliminated the Debaltsevo pocket. If this was a Ukrainian ‘victory’, I would hate to see what a Ukrainian defeat looks like. Pond then says that for months after Debaltsevo Putin ‘continued to talk’ about conquering Novorossiia. For an academic article I have just written, I have examined public statements which Putin made about Donbass in this period. In not one of them did he talk about conquering Novorossiia. Pond is just plain wrong.
Snyder also makes errors. For instance, his claim that the ‘disintegration of the European project’ has been an ‘explicit goal’ of Russian foreign policy since 2013 is false. Senior officials such as President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have never said this. One might argue (with some difficulty) that destroying the EU is a hidden or implicit goal, but it certainly isn’t an ‘explicit’ one.
Both authors omit uncomfortable facts. For instance, in talking of ‘Russia’s military behemoth’ Pond ignores the fact that the Ukrainian Army wasn’t for most of the time fighting that ‘behemoth’ but rather was fighting fellow Ukrainians, who have always made up the vast majority of the rebel forces. This is at least better than Snyder, who claims that the local rebels consisted primarily of ‘criminals and local right-wingers and Nazis’. Snyder also manages to mislead by omission. In his second paragraph he mentions that the revolution in Kiev provoked ‘counterrevolution and mass killing’ and later writes that, ‘Russia was forced to use its own troops. Ukrainians have died in the thousands in these two oblasts’. The juxtaposition of words within these two phrases suggests that it was the counterrevolutionaries and Russian troops who did the killing. In fact, the Ukrainian Army is almost certainly responsible for the majority of deaths in Donbass through its shelling of rebel-held towns. Snyder doesn’t tell us this.
Finally, both articles suffer from conceptual problems. They assume a greater degree of Ukrainian unity than probably exists, given that the country is engaged in civil war. Pond writes of ‘the new Ukrainian identity that Vladimir Putin has bestowed’. There might be something to this, but one should be careful about exaggerating the extent of this unified identity. As recent elections have shown, the south and east of the country continue to vote in a different way to the rest of Ukraine, and the idea that Donbass shares in any ‘new Ukrainian identity’ smacks of wishful thinking. Snyder similarly falls into the error of assuming a unitary Ukraine, talking, for instance, of the European ‘aspirations of Ukrainians in 2013 and 2014’, as if all Ukrainians shared these aspirations. They obviously didn’t, or there wouldn’t have been a war.
Equally problematic, I think, is Snyder’s description of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship as a colonial one. Given the interconnectedness of Ukrainian and Russian history over hundreds of years, colonialism doesn’t seem to me to be a useful way of looking at it. And while it is fair to point out the suffering of Ukrainians under Soviet rule, this needs to be balanced with all the Soviets did to expand Ukrainian language education, foster the promotion of Ukrainian elites, and so on – acts which don’t easily fit the colonial model. All in all, Snyder’s conceptual framework strikes me as promoting a rather simplistic view of Russian-Ukrainian relations.
If you can access these articles, I urge you also to read the reply to Snyder written by Bulgarian academic Maria Todorova, which appears in Slavic Review immediately after Snyder’s article. Todorova hits the nail on the head. She writes that what Snyder has produced is ‘a simple, not to say simplistic argument, wrapped in an obfuscating scholarly garb. … It is disappointing that a historian … should present a monolithic, almost anthropomorphic Ukraine, without any internal diversity, in his discourse. … We have come full circle to what Snyder himself warns against: “the alternative reality of propaganda”.’