Book review: Ukraine à fragmentation

Frédérick Lavoie is an independent journalist from Quebec, who speaks Russian and has spent his career reporting on the countries of the former Soviet Union. His new book Ukraine à fragmentation (which unfortunately is only available in French) takes the form of a long letter to Artyom, a real four year old boy from Donetsk who was killed by a Grad rocket in January 2015. Lavoie says that the purpose of his book is to explain to Artyom why his life was cut short. ‘I am not trying to prove the justice of any cause,’ Lavoie writes, ‘What concerns me is understanding and explaining to you why a conflict which could have remained purely political not military ended up with a rocket falling on your head.’

Lavoie divides his book into two sections: the first is an analysis of the events which led to the war in Donbass; the second is a description of a month-long trip to Ukraine in early 2015. Along the way, the author views the damage caused by government and rebel shelling, meets supporters of both sides in the conflict, and allows each their say.

Lavoie’s journey begins in Kiev, from where he goes to the former rebel strongholds of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, after which he enters rebel-held territory and attends Artyom’s funeral in Donetsk. He then travels to the port of Mariupol in southern Donbass before returning to Kiev and ending his trip in Lvov. Lavoie remarks that ‘my instinct tells me that the European model remains the best option for Ukrainians, even the Russophones of the east.’ Nevertheless, he comments that, ‘Everyone is to blame … for this vain and useless war,’ and it is ‘the revolutionaries of Euromaidan’ and the politicians whom they brought to power who receive the brunt of his criticisms.

Lavoie dates Ukraine’s fragmentation back to 30 November 2013 when Ukrainian police forcibly broke up a protest camp on Maidan square in Kiev in order to erect a Christmas tree. Violence was never used during previous demonstrations. Now it spiralled out of control. The protestors responded to their eviction by returning in force. Extremist voices became louder, and although they were a minority, ‘they led the charge’, and their tactics became more and more aggressive. In the process, says Lavoie, ‘Maidan made political violence acceptable’. As the father of one of the anti-Maidan protestors killed in the 2 May 2014 fire in Odessa tells him: ‘The revolution created a precedent. It showed that you could seize power with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and weapons. After that, Pandora’s box was opened. If you could do that in Kiev, why not also in Donetsk and Lugansk?’

The events of Maidan struck fear into many people in Crimea and Donbass. Whether these fears were justified isn’t important, Lavoie says. What mattered was that these fears existed. Addressing Artyom, he writes, ‘Your parents’ worries and those of millions of others about what happened on Maidan were not fictional. … They needed to be reassured.’ Instead, according to Lavoie, ‘Those who took power in Kiev suffered from a victor’s complex. They could not think of negotiating with those who opposed the changes. They had achieved their revolution at the cost of a hundred dead. They believed that they had won the right to impose their vision of the country. It was for the vanquished to adapt, to ally themselves with the victors, or to shut up.’ The result was war.

Towards the end of the book, Lavoie meets pro-Maidan liberals in Kiev. ‘They are young, intelligent, cultivated,’ he writes, ‘They are the incarnation … of the best in Ukraine. … And yet. When I talk about the causes of your [Artyom’s] death … they are suddenly intransigent, Manichean, even ignorant. They are selectively indignant. Their capacity for empathy, discernment and self-criticism stop where the front line starts.’ The only explanation they have for Ukraine’s fragmentation is the ‘external enemy’. Lavoie complains: ‘Whether it is a rebel leader or a grandmother at a loss in the face of the bombardment of her village, they don’t want to hear them. … They don’t want to know their reasoning, to understand how they shifted from neutrality to hatred of Kiev because of a shell negligently fired at their house.’

These people are well-informed, says Lavoie, ‘except for the conflict in the east. On that subject, reasoning is reduced to one word: Putin.’ ‘The revolutionaries will tell you that this isn’t a civil war, but purely and simply a foreign invasion,’ he says. But this isn’t the whole story. As he writes, ‘Without Russia’s aid the rebels could not have resisted the Ukrainian forces for more than a few weeks. But without substantial local support, rebellion would never have taken root in Donbass.’ The problem is that ‘Kiev … will not admit its responsibility.’

The author concludes: ‘As long as the victors of the revolution deny their share of responsibility for the current tragedy, Ukraine can only continue to fragment.’

At a presentation Lavoie recently gave in Ottawa, a Polish diplomat delivered a long rant denouncing him for ignoring what the diplomat considered the real cause of the war in Donbass – Russia. I fear that this reaction may be fairly typical, and that Lavoie’s message will fall on deaf ears. This is a shame. The message needs to be heard. I encourage Frédérick Lavoie to have his book translated into English so that it can reach a wider audience. It deserves to.

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30 thoughts on “Book review: Ukraine à fragmentation”

  1. “What mattered was that these fears existed”

    What also mattered how they were fuelled by Russian media beyond all imagination. Many pro-Russian fighters in Donbass admitted in interviews that they left to fight only because of what they saw in Russian TV. And the reality on the group was completely different from the irrusianality in Russian TV. Are you ready yet to admit the role of Russia in fueling that conflict?

    “The revolution created a precedent. It showed that you could seize power with rocks”

    Did you ever wonder why revolutions start at all? How it’s possible to change authorities in a state where elections are falsified and law doesn’t work? In such situation, is a peaceful change of power possible at all?

    “If you could do that in Kiev, why not also in Donetsk and Lugansk”

    This is completely unjustified equation. In Donbass there were both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protests. No one was killing pro-Russian protesters, and no one was even killed – until Girkin arrived.

    “They could not think of negotiating with those who opposed the changes”

    False. Just two days before his commando arrived Yatsenyuk was in Donetsk, speaking and negotiating with the pro-Russian parties. This is not the type of opression that you’re trying to portray here. New authorities were constantly involved in negotiations and attempting a peaceful resolution – and this is probably why Girkin was sent.

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    1. ‘Just two days before his commando arrived Yatsenyuk was in Donetsk, speaking and negotiating with the pro-Russian parties.’ It took Yatseniuk two months to come to Donetsk, and from what I know you are wrong that he was ‘speaking and negotiating with the pro-Russian parties’. I don’t believe he did, but rather spoke with officials. If you have information to the contrary, please provide the source.

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      1. The sources I have seen (news agencies such as the BBC as well as newspapers) say that Yatseniuk visited Donetsk for a three hour visit on 11 April, by when the Donetsk administration was already occupied, but the people he met are universally described as ‘regional leaders’ or ‘officials’. He didn’t meet any anti-Maidan protestors or representatives, and although he declared that he was willing to devolve power to the regions he did not engage in anything which could be called a ‘negotiation’ – at least nothing of the sort is described in any of the sources I have read. I have not seen anything which justifies your statement that ‘New authorities were constantly involved in negotiations’, but would be happy to look at it if you can provide the source.

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    2. Oh, that’s thou, Cortez! Flaming with indignation at the book of such “zradnik” and “Putin’s agent”.

      Did you ever wonder why revolutions start at all? How it’s possible to change authorities in a state where elections are falsified and law doesn’t work? In such situation, is a peaceful change of power possible at all?

      Yeah, about that…

      – “Euromaidan” wasn’t a revolution. It was a coup d’etat. One group of oligarch cronies replaced another at a through. Nothing really change. The socio-economical and political formation stood the same.

      – So-called “free world” recognized Yanukovitch elections as legitimate and mostly free. Same went to Rada’s elections. The same they did with Poroshenko’s and new Rada’s elections. Huh. Guess someone’s is lying here. Is it thou, Cortez?

      Also, Cortez – and what about the illegal capture of city and oblast administrations in the West of Ukraine – which happened before the glorious PEREMOGA and equally glorious Euromaidan? What about “peaceful protesters” on Maidan capturing governmental buidlings?

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    3. “Many pro-Russian fighters in Donbass admitted in interviews that they left to fight only because of what they saw in Russian TV.”

      Let’s see some of those interviews, what do you say? If there were ‘many’ it shouldn’t be hard to provide some substantiation.

      I’d be interested to hear your take on what they might have seen on Russian TV which presented an inaccurate version of events. Did they hear that the status of Russian as an official language was to be rescinded by the introduction of legislation? If so, that was true. Turchynov eventually declined to sign it, but the bill existed, its intent was not in dispute and the damage was done.

      Did they see that the kangaroo unelected government in Kiev was openly and gratuitously hostile to the country with which most of the easterners shared ethnic roots? What, that was a lie? You know it was and is absolutely true – the present sort-of-elected government loses no opportunity to insult Russia and blame it for its problems.

      The events which unfolded in Ukraine will eventually provide rich fodder for a study in how an externally-fomented coup, initiated on a perception of opportunity and piggybacked on minority nationalist hatred, ended with the fragmentation and ruin of the country.

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    4. Well said.
      Mr. Lavoie should take some history lessons before travelling next time.
      In this instance he would have understood that Russia has, for hundreds of years tried,(ultimately unsuccessfully, albeit with colossal loss to Ukrainian life), to deny even the very existence of a Ukrainian state, language, history and culture.

      Through the brutal policies practised during Holodomor, the Russian-led Soviet system depopulated the eastern oblasts of its native citizens, mostly by death.
      Ethnic Russians were relocated there during and after this period to serve the purpose of undermining Ukrainian statehood.
      They have been there ever since and were always an easily exploitable population via a Kremlin orchestrated propaganda network under the puppet regime of Yanukovych.

      Yet many citizens there always identified themselves as Ukrainian, hence why Donbass was part of Ukraine after the vote of independence in 1991, and still is (note the return of the Tatars to Crimea at this time, and how they again suffer now).
      Yet I am sure that Mr. Lavoie’s book is scant on meetings and interviews with pro-Ukrainian people in the ‘republics’.
      Why? Because to publicly admit such views there is tantamount to a death sentence.

      Are we supposed to believe that there aren’t pro-Ukrainian voices in the ‘republics’?!
      Did Mr. Lavoie ask the armed groups there why a shell fell on Artyom’s head?
      Does he even know who fired the shell, given the Russian-led forces’ propensity for targeting civilian areas under their control (and blaming the UAF to gain weak local support for their presence)?

      Mr. Lavoie, you can dress the conflict any way you please but to deny that it is a Russian invasion is to bury your head in the sand, especially when there is an overwhelming pile of evidence to prove it.

      Your argument is no different than saying that France’s inability to reconcile itself with Vichy France led to war.

      Phil Cooke

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  2. If you have translated accurately – and there’s no reason to imagine otherwise, but I don’t have the actual book in front of me – Lavoie is shaping up to be a hell of a writer; moving, literate and empathetic. He has several golden phrases which are verbal epiphanies, such as “They are selectively indignant”. Precisely, and the phrase locks the sociopolitical situation in a freeze-frame which makes it instantly understandable.

    I don’t know what leads him to the conclusion that the European model is ‘the best option for Ukraine’, since that is demonstrably not true in the short to medium term, but perhaps he meant that a negotiated settlement rather than a civil war might have resulted in a Europe-leaning Ukraine which preserved its trade ties with Russia. There is no indication Russia would have fought this, and indeed it was put up to Brussels that Ukraine be the bridge between the EU and the EAU. An overconfident Brussels that assumed any overtures from the Russian Federation were made in weakness curtly responded that Ukraine must choose. Under the current circumstances the Ukraine which exists today has no chance of survival, and those who think differently are only fooling themselves because the truth is too painful. But in the larger view, Europe as it currently exists might not survive it, either.

    An excellent review, Paul. It made me want to buy the book, which I suppose is at least a peripheral objective of a good review.

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    1. “the European model is the best option for Ukraine”

      Uhm, which one? The one that exists in France? In the UK? In Switzerland? In Hungary? In Greece? In Portugal? In Albania?

      The fact is – despite much talk there is no “Common European Model” ™, and “European Values” ™ are also very flexible. Like some kind of rubber produce.

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  3. It’s always a pleasure to read your reviews, Paul. I do hope Ukraine à fragmentation is translated soon; it certainly seems worth reading.

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    1. Thanks, J.T. The positive comments on the book reviews encourage me to keep them coming. Next up is another journalistic account of the Ukrainian crisis – Tim Judah’s ‘In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine’, which Amazon delivered to my door today.

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      1. I’m glad I could help, Paul. I’m always interested in reading others’ appraisals of Russia/FSU-related books, as I plan to launch a Russia-related review blog of my own soon. Your reviews have helped me expand my to-read list by quite a few books. I look forward to reading your opinion on ‘In Wartime’.
        Is Tim Judah related to Ben Judah (the author of the notorious ‘Fragile Empire’) by any chance?

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      2. Tim is Ben’s father. I confess to having not read ‘Fragile Empire’, as it’s subtitle, ‘How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin’, is so ridiculous it has put me off,

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      3. “Tim is Ben’s father.”
        Oh dear…his father? Let’s hope he’s a lot better than his son…

        You are wise in your aversion to ‘Fragile Empire’, Paul. I slogged through that book for a review back in 2012. Judah’s thesis is not quite the retread of tired cliches about Putin as an all-powerful, manipulative dictator that you might find in a work like Masha Gessen’s ‘Man Without a Face’. Rather, Judah believes that Putin has failed to build a strong and centralized system and, as a result, his personal political authority and the integrity of the Russian state are under threat. Judah’s Putin is an insecure thief who has lost control of his subordinates, who cannot leave his post because he is terrified of getting his comeuppance.
        It’s a rather cynical analysis that does not offer any serious critique of the political thinking behind “Putinism”. It cannot explain why Putin, as an individual, retains the support of a majority of Russians. It does not address how despite the alleged “grand larceny” that took place under Putin, there was enough money left over to build up enormous reserves and raise living standards substantially. Nor does it bother to investigate whether Putin’s actions had any rationale behind them at all. In short, it’s a hatchet job, and you’re probably better off without it.

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      4. @PaulR Have you considered reviewing books on Ukraine written by academics who have spent decades specialising in Ukrainian studies?

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      5. In March, a special edition of the academic journal European Politics and Society is coming out dedicated to Ukraine, with submissions not only by myself but also by Ukrainian scholars such as Volodymyr Ishchenko and Westerners who have long studied Ukraine, such as David Marples. Some of those contributing to the edition might be described as `pro-Maidan`, others are not, so it should be an interesting mix. As most blog readers don`t have access to academic journals, I intend to review the various articles here.
        As far as English language books are concerned, the only recent publication which might really warrant a review is Plokhy`s `Gates of Europe`, but as it is basically a historical work, stretching back 1000+ years, it`s of limited interest to me, so I doubt I will bother. There is also Yekelchuk`s `The Conflict in Ukraine: What everybody needs to know`, but it consists of lots of little 2-page essays rather than a continuous narrative and as such is a sort of ‘beginner’s guide’. It’s thus not really the kind of thing I would review. If you have other suggestions, let me know.

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  4. Well, the author seems to be overthinking it, and overthinking it grotesquely. Which is, of course, natural, if want to write a book. However, I disagree with the ‘both sides do it’ approach he seems to be employing there.

    In reality, the government, elected overwhelmingly by the east, was brought down by an armed putsch, carried out overwhelmingly by the west. Civil war is the most natural, if not the only possible outcome. End of story.

    Russia helped the east a bit, but unfortunately not nearly enough. Status quo ante has not been restored, the wrongs/crimes committed by the putschists were rewarded, not punished.

    Which means that the war will continue until the country splits into small pieces.

    And that’s all there is to it, as far as I’m concerned.

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  5. @PaulR

    I don’t really understand your lack of interest in the Plokhy book. Ignorance of Ukrainian history has characterised Western Russianists’ attempts to understand the recent crisis. It’s evident in the numerous egregious factual errors in Sakwa’s monograph (none of which, if I may say, you picked up upon yourself).

    Obviously, there are few monographs. Academics are more circumspect than journalists. Andrew Wilson’s Ukraine Crisis. What it Means for the West is certainly flawed (his biases are evident in his failure to question the sources that support his views). But, at least unlike Sakwa, he understands the background. For that reason, it is worth reading and reviewing. There is also Ukraine Between the EU and Russia: The Integration Challenge by Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk. I haven’t read it, but I did see one of the authors speak, and I found her paper very authoritative.

    There are several collections out. David Marples has edited Ukraine’s Euromaidan: Analyses of a Civil Revolution. There is The Maidan Uprising, Separatism and Foreign Intervention: Ukraine’s Complex Transition edited by Klaus Bachmann. I have no idea what these are like, but would be interested to hear about them. There is also Sakwa and Pikulicka-Wilczewska’s Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives (one or two of the contributions in there are quite few ropey, mind).

    If you are willing to discuss academic journals with issues devoted to the crisis, there is Ab Imperio 2014/3, Kritika 2015/1 and the Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 2015/1. All have interesting articles, even if one does not agree with them.

    You wrote recently about the poor writing on “Russia” (under which you seemed to subsume the current Ukraine crisis) in the West. However, it struck me that none of the books you mentioned were by Ukraine specialists. It struck me as odd to make such a statement without referencing such works.

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    1. Maybe I will give Plokhy a go. It depends on how much time I have. Journalistic accounts have the advantage of being quick reads! Andrew Wilson’s book is, frankly, very poor – extremely biased and when you check the footnotes for stories about the initial Donbass uprising they are things like a Winnipeg-based Canadian Ukrainian diaspora website, hardly what you would call a reliable source. In my end of the year blog post, I said that I would try to do less commentary on bad stuff and make more of an effort to find good materials, so that very much rules out a review of Wilson.

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      1. I found similar issues while reading Andrew Wilson’s ‘Ukraine Crisis’ as well.

        ‘Gates of Europe’ is fairly good in my opinion. Plokhy shows the complex history of Ukraine, a history that involves geography, language, religion, politics, culture, national identity, economics, and war (albeit in a rather fast-paced way). The text is highly readable. However, it is opinionated. It does not shy away from discussing the current situation – which is not a bad thing, mind you – and places much of the blame for the crisis in Ukraine squarely on Russia. If you don’t mind that, ‘Gates of Europe’ is worth a look.

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      2. Let it not be said that I am unresponsive. I have bought Plokhy’s book and will review it in due course (which may take a while).

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      3. When reviewing a flawed book, one should always still consider what one can learn from it. Wilson’s account of the crisis is, as I acknowledge in my previous post, problematic for the exact same reasons you mention (although at least he deigns to offer us the sources for his dodgy claims; by contrast, Sakwa often doesn’t even give us a footnote). The usefulness of Wilson’s book is the background; his view of what has driven Ukrainian politicis over the last 25 years is more compelling. But maybe it is better to read the stuff Wilson wrote before he joined the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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  6. “They don’t want to know their reasoning, to understand how they shifted from neutrality to hatred of Kiev because of a shell negligently fired at their house.”

    The Ukrainian ‘army’ (if you call Azov & the like an army) purposefully targeted civilians. Their own fellow countrymen, women and children JUST because they didn’t agree with maiden which was a foreign invasion but egged on and organised by the US and EU.

    The US is asset stripping Ukraine all for oligarchs gain, be they Ukrainian oligarchs or American.

    The real enemy to ordinary west Ukrainians are not those in the East but those in Washington and Brussels and the good ol’ right sector.

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    1. “The US is asset stripping Ukraine all for oligarchs gain, be they Ukrainian oligarchs or American.”

      Actually, I believe the plan is to get rid of the national (Ukrainian) oligarchs (which is, I believe, what the ‘anti-corruption’ campaign demanded by the west is all about), and hand everything over to the multinationals.

      And once that happens, the Ukrainians will learn what the real robbery of national resources looks like. National oligarchs are angels, compared to the western multi-nationals. National oligarch at least have an incentive to keep the population alive, fed, and somewhat satisfied. Akhmetov built a big stadium in Donetsk. Monsanto will just chew ’em up and spit ’em out…

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  7. “Many pro-Russian fighters in Donbass admitted in interviews that they left to fight only because of what they saw in Russian TV.”

    maybe because Russian tv shows video like this and many many others
    that western TV instead ignored ?

    Ukrainian army killing innocent people Lugansk (02.06.2014)

    Read accurately what author wrote , it’s pure truth !

    “Towards the end of the book, Lavoie meets pro-Maidan liberals in Kiev. ‘They are young, intelligent, cultivated,’ he writes, ‘They are the incarnation … of the best in Ukraine. … And yet. When I talk about the causes of your [Artyom’s] death … they are suddenly intransigent, Manichean, even ignorant. They are selectively indignant. Their capacity for empathy, discernment and self-criticism stop where the front line starts.’ The only explanation they have for Ukraine’s fragmentation is the ‘external enemy’. Lavoie complains: ‘Whether it is a rebel leader or a grandmother at a loss in the face of the bombardment of her village, they don’t want to hear them. … They don’t want to know their reasoning, to understand how they shifted from neutrality to hatred of Kiev because of a shell negligently fired at their house.’

    I call this kind of people,
    very frequent in the west Ukrainie
    the UKRO-Taliban

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    1. This is unfair to the Taliban. The Taliban are just religious conservatives; these people in western Ukraine are true Europeans, the superior race, scornful of the Russian ‘horde’ (which includes the eastern Europeans).

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