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Review July 2024

A return to history and the Russo-Ukrainian War

Review by Oleksa Drachewych
Serhii Plokhy, 2023
ISBN 9781324051190
376 Pages
Published by: W. W. Norton
Monument of Petro Sahaidachnyi in Kyiv. The statue is covered with sandbags, only the statue's head and raised left arm are visible. There are trees and vegetation around the statue. The background has a muted blue sky with white clouds. Monument of Petro Sahaidachnyi. Photo by Maksym Tymchyk on Unsplash.

Serhii Plokhy is among the most prolific historians of Ukraine and of Russia. His past works include histories of Russian nationhood, Ukrainian nationhood, the Yalta Conference, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is only fitting that one of the great historians of the region would tackle the subject of Russia’s War in Ukraine. His broad knowledge of both Russian and Ukrainian history and his careful analysis, highlighting what is known and what is speculation at the time he completed the manuscript in February 2023, make his book immediately a must read.

Plokhy’s book is largely a narrative of the history of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia before recounting key events and trends of the Russo-Ukrainian War. First, it seems necessary to highlight his preferred term for the war. While many news agencies and scholars have emphasized Russia’s War in Ukraine or against Ukraine as their preferred nomenclature, Plokhy argues the Russo-Ukrainian War is a better descriptor. This name reflects how Ukraine has become Russia’s equal on the battleground and is actively resisting Russian aggression. “[T]he invaders faced resistance not merely from partisan groups but from a strong regular army,” he asserts. “The Ukrainian state proved itself capable of surviving and functioning under continuing warfare to a degree matched by few states in Ukraine’s European neighborhood during the wars of the twentieth century.” (p. 294) 

History holds that answer for Plokhy. Ukrainian nationalism had always been a thorn in the side of the imperial designs of the Russian Empire, and later, the Soviet Union.

Plokhy argues that the war is “a return to history,” the subtitle of his book, and a nod to Francis Fukuyama’s provocative piece, “The End of History?”, written at the end of the Cold War. Plokhy focuses on what the longue durée of relations between these two nations. The first half of his 300-page overview details this history from Kyivan Rus through to the days before the escalation. Here, Plokhy outlines why Russia claims Kyivan Rus as its ancestral lands and outlines the rise of Ukrainian nationalism (a consequence of Polish nationalism and its rebellion against the Tsardom in 1830) through the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the Soviet experience.  

Of course, any book that focuses on the Russo-Ukrainian War will naturally be tasked with explaining why Russia and Ukraine are at war. History holds that answer for Plokhy. Ukrainian nationalism had always been a thorn in the side of the imperial designs of the Russian Empire, and later, the Soviet Union. Upon the Soviet Union’s collapse with the establishment of post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine’s independence, the divergent paths of Russia and Ukraine over the next thirty years made war increasingly likely. Ukraine embraced democracy, even at times of economic crisis, while Russia increasingly succumbed to autocracy. Successive revolutions – independence in 1991, the Orange Revolution in 2004, and Euromaidan protests and the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 – entrenched Ukraine on this democratic path, while Russia under Boris Yeltsin, and especially, Vladimir Putin, saw a democratic Ukraine as a challenge to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in Eastern Europe. 

When Eastern European nations, including the former Eastern bloc and the Baltic states, joined NATO for their own security interests, Russian leaders feared Ukraine would follow. Ukraine meanwhile had few options outside of NATO to ensure its freedom from Russian domination. Requiring economic intervention in the mid-1990s, Plokhy argues Ukraine felt it needed to agree to denuclearization in order to gain Western economic aid. Ukraine had few choices and after the signing of the Budapest Memorandum, many Ukrainian leaders increasingly believed NATO would be best for its autonomy and security interests. Western leaders toyed with Ukrainian membership, yet made it always out of reach, a result of attempts to keep positive relations between Russia and NATO countries. Yet the fact Ukrainian membership remained a possibility rankled Putin, especially when in 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush supported it. For Plokhy, it is clear that NATO’s “non-decision” (p. 89) to bring Ukraine into the alliance was a key turning point and one that encouraged Russian aggression against aspiring NATO nations. With NATO unwilling to protect non-NATO nations against Russian aggression in that moment, and NATO unwilling to offer Ukraine (and Georgia) membership, it signaled to Putin and Russian leaders they could be aggressive, and it also left Ukraine in a weakened position in defending its interests against Russian influence.

Instead, for Plokhy, the Russo-Ukrainian War, as in 2014 and again in 2022, happened because of Russian imperialism and the long history and tension over Russia’s perceptions of Ukraine and its need to control or influence Ukraine. 

Putin, his decision-making, and his view of Russian history and imperialism loom large in Plokhy’s account. To Plokhy, Putin thinks like “the tsars and the commissars” (p. 91) who wanted to secure buffer states on its western border. Putin took on an increasingly antagonistic approach to the West and gradually, he saw Ukraine as a threat to Russian influence in Europe, becoming an anti-Russia. Ideas about a New Russia and a Eurasian Union, both concepts which included Ukraine in Putin’s vision, also played a role as Putin and Russian leaders focused more on developing a multipolar world order to challenge the United States. Thus, when Ukrainians ousted their president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Putin saw his designs challenged. He then made the decision to invade Crimea and to form pro-Russian movements in the Donbas. Ukrainian military failures led to the Minsk accords; Plokhy argues that the Ukrainians were forced to accept Russian terms, while Russia immediately broke them. Plokhy also likens the lack of Western response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea to Anschluss, the Nazi seizure of Austria in 1938. This reflected both the West’s lack of any meaningful response to Russian aggression, while the Russian annexation of Crimea served as a hint at further Russian machinations against Ukraine. 

As to why Putin escalated in February 2022, Plokhy is less direct, and this is sure to frustrate some readers. Plokhy provides an overview of the various arguments that circulated in early 2022 – Putin’s potentially declining health, Putin’s concerns over COVID, Putin’s growing concern about his legacy in the pantheon of Russian history, perceived American weakness due to its withdrawal from Afghanistan – but does not settle on any specific catalyst. Instead, for Plokhy, the Russo-Ukrainian War, as in 2014 and again in 2022, happened because of Russian imperialism and the long history and tension over Russia’s perceptions of Ukraine and its need to control or influence Ukraine. 

The second half of the book is broadly a narrative of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Plokhy is interested mostly in showcasing how the war developed as it did, but also in accessibly providing a definitive account, as far as he can state in February 2023. The resiliency of the Ukrainian state and people is a common theme, as is the “return of the West.” Plokhy lauds American recognition of Russia’s threat to Ukraine in late 2021 and the Biden government’s subsequent decisiveness. He also criticizes the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron for their hesitation and tendency to try to appease Russia. American leadership drove the return of relevancy of NATO and of the West in helping Ukraine fight Russia. Meanwhile, Russia has turned increasingly to the East and at the time of Plokhy completed his manuscript, Russian-Chinese relations were evolving, with it appearing that Russia would become China’s junior partner. 

When he wrote, he believed Russia’s antagonism towards the West would not be going away anytime soon and he argues that the Russian escalation in Ukraine is the greatest challenge to America’s unipolar dominance in the world order. Russia hoped to return to great power politics but found itself challenged, and its weakness had become apparent in early 2023. He also argues that the continued influence the Ukrainian and Russian national projects have on one another will not end anytime soon. Just as Ukraine has become more united as a result of the war, so too will Russia continue to define its nationalism against Ukrainian resistance to its imperialism and ideas of a Greater Russia. “By paying an enormous price in wealth and the blood of its citizens, Ukraine is terminating the era of Russian dominance in a good part of eastern Europe and challenging Moscow’s claim to primacy in the rest of post-Soviet space,” Plokhy concludes (p. 294).  

Plokhy remains a master at his craft (and he will add further to our understanding of the war with his forthcoming Chernobyl Roulette: War in the Nuclear Disaster Zone). Undoubtedly, some of his analysis and his conclusions will be re-evaluated in the future, but until then, his book is a fruitful, even-handed, and necessary starting point for anyone looking to understand why the Russo-Ukrainian War has taken place and its larger impact in global affairs.

Oleksa Drachewych is an assistant professor of history at Western University and a lecturer in history at King’s University College. He is currently working on a book discussing parallels between Soviet atrocities during and after the Second World War and Russian atrocities in Ukraine today. He is the author of The Communist International, Anti-Imperialism and Racial Equality in British Dominions (Routledge, 2018) and the co-editor of Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial and Racial Questions (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).