Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands is a compelling account of the unfolding of the recent crisis in Ukraine. The book offers a powerful revision of the prevailing monochromic representation of the conflict in mainstream Western media and academia.
Although the ceasefire, brokered by the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine in Minsk on February 12, 2015, is largely holding, there are incessant outbreaks of violence along the contact line between the Ukrainian army and the rebel forces in Donbass.
Without an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine in sight, Richard Sakwa’s latest book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, is a timely and pertinent guide to understanding the origins of the conflict and analysing associated security risks.
Asymmetry of Post-Cold War global order
The author suggests that the conflict is rooted in the asymmetric nature of the post-Cold War political and security order. Indeed, Sakwa demonstrates that, following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, the EU security system virtually merged with that of NATO.
As a result, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) programme now requires states in Eastern Europe that sign the Association Agreement and aspire to join the EU to make a deliberate choice between EU integration and maintaining close ties with Russia.
Similarly, the terms of the November Ukraine-EU Association Agreement implied that existing economic and security partnerships between Ukraine and Russia had to be abolished. Therefore, Sakwa maintains throughout the book that the EU’s policy towards Ukraine once again exemplifies the EU’s adherence to the principle of ‘Wider Europe’, which leads to Russia’s exclusion from the regional political cooperation structures and frustrates its geopolitical ambition.
The author indicates that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian leadership, including Putin, was instead aspiring to embrace the concept of ‘Greater Europe’, an inclusive continental order based on equality of all the European states.
Simultaneously, Moscow was disillusioned by NATO’s continuing expansion eastward. Sakwa argues that Mikhail Gorbachev and millions of Russians saw the end of the Cold War as a shared victory. Instead, Russia’s concerns about the expansion of the collective defence alliance were ignored as those of a defeated nation.
Thus, the Western post-Cold War ‘triumphalism’ antagonised Russia as the ‘shared neighbourhood’, ex- Soviet and satellite states, became a ‘contested’ one. Thereupon, Sakwa convincingly concludes that “NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence”. The author thus considers the current crisis in Ukraine as the repercussion of a long-standing rejection of Russia’s legitimate geopolitical concerns.
The book’s particular merit is in its comprehensive account of modern Ukrainian history and its struggle to come to terms with its national identity, a factor often overlooked by Western analysts.
Sakwa distinguishes between two existing narratives within the Ukrainian political establishment and the society. He calls the first camp ‘monists’, because of their emphasis on the singularity of the Ukrainian experience, institutional monolingualism, cultural autonomy and alignment with Europe and the Atlantic security community. Conversely, ‘pluralists’ recognize Ukraine’s cultural and linguistic diversity and push for the need to give it a legal protection with Russian institutionalized as a second state language.
Sakwa believes that the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the aftermath of the Maidan protest and ‘monist’ rhetoric of the new government in Kiev provoked resentment and fear among Russian-speakers and inevitably led to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, nationalists repeatedly marched in Kiev to celebrate a controversial hero, Stepan Bandera, the ideologue of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).
The UPA is responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles, Russians and Jews. Unlike the majority of Western experts, Sakwa sees the contradictory nature of Maidan, rather than Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine, as the root of the current crisis.
‘Ukraine’ vs ‘Ukrainian’ crisis
Sakwa distinguishes two simultaneous and mutually reinforcing processes fuelling the current conflict in Ukraine.
Firstly, internal tensions inherent to the Ukrainian nation and to its state-building processes following the country’s independence in 1991 have triggered what the author calls the ‘Ukrainian crisis’. Thereafter, the internationalization of this domestic instability, which thereby became the ‘Ukraine crisis’, through the involvement of the United States, the EU and Russia has in turn nourished the societal ambivalence in Ukraine.
Thereby, the EU is evidently at the centre of Sakwa’s analysis. The author argues that the misguided policies of the EU and its incapacity to take decisions on European affairs independently of the United States are key reasons for which the crisis in Ukraine remains unresolved.
Despite shortcomings, a valuable alternative interpretation
Although Sakwa’s analysis is generally solid and well-researched, some of the arguments in the book are contradictory. For instance, the author suggests that the loss of Crimea could have been prevented if the new government proposed timely concessions and addressed existing fears of the Crimean population.
On the other hand, Sakwa argues that Russia’s ‘Crimean gambit’ was a result of legitimate geopolitical concerns that Moscow would lose its naval base in Sevastopol. The second argument, thus, implies that Russian leadership would go ahead with its plan regardless of political decisions in Kiev and undermines the first.
Additionally, Sakwa classifies rebels in eastern Ukraine as ‘pluralists,’ despite arguing that their goals remain generally unclear. The discourse of the insurgency leaders presented by the author suggests a strong rejection of the Ukrainian identity. Therefore, this could be described as an anti-Ukrainian ‘monism’ developed as a response to the Russophobic ‘monism’ omnipresent in Kiev.
All in all, Frontline Ukraine is a compelling and powerful account of the unfolding of the recent crisis in Ukraine. The book is a helpful introduction to Ukrainian history and politics and essential in order to make sense of the current crisis, which is deeply rooted in Ukraine’s post-Soviet formation and post-Cold War global order.
Sakwa’s analysis will also be highly relevant to analysts seeking an alternative to the predominant and rather mono-dimensional Western interpretation of the recent events in Ukraine.