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.