Peter Hitchens reviews Richard Sakwa's excellent book — one which has been condemned to obscurity. Maybe because it seeks to tell the truth?
This article originally appeared at The Daily Mail
You might have thought that a serious book on the Ukraine crisis, written by a distinguished academic in good clear English, and published by a reputable house, might have gained quite a bit of attention at a time when that country is at the centre of many people’s concerns.
But some readers here now understand that publishing, and especially the reviewing of books, are not the simple marketplaces of ideas which we would all wish them to be.
And so, as far as I can discover, this book :
‘Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands', by Richard Sakwa. Published by I.B.Tauris
…though it came out some months ago, has only been reviewed in one place in Britain, the Guardian newspaper, by Jonathan Steele, the first-rate foreign correspondent whose rigour and enterprise (when we were both stationed in Moscow) quite persuaded me to overlook his former sympathy for the left-wing cause (most notably expressed in a 1977 book ‘Socialism with a German Face’ about the old East Germany, which seemed to me at the time to be ah, excessively kind).
Mr Steele’s review can be read here
I have said elsewhere that I would myself be happier if the book were more hostile to my position on this conflict. Sometimes I feel that it is almost too good to be true, to have my own conclusions confirmed so powerfully, and I would certainly like to see the book reviewed by a knowledgeable proponent of the NATO neo-conservative position. Why hasn't it been?
But even so I recommend it to any reader of mine who is remotely interested in disentangling the reality from the knotted nets of propaganda in which it is currently shrouded.
Like George Friedman’s interesting interview in the Moscow newspaper ‘Kommersant’ ( you can read it here http://russia-insider.com/en/2015/01/20/2561 ) , the book has shifted my own view.
I have tended to see the *basic* dispute in Ukraine as being yet another outbreak of the old German push into the east, carried out under the new, nice flag of the EU, a liberal, federative empire in which the vassal states are tactfully allowed limited sovereignty as long as they don’t challenge the fundamental politico-economic dominance of Germany. I still think this is a strong element in the EU’s thrust in this direction.
But I have tended to neglect another feature of the new Europe, also set out in Adam Tooze’s brilliant ‘The Deluge’ – the firm determination of the USA to mould Europe in its own image (a determination these days expressed mainly through the EU and NATO).
I should have paid more attention to the famous words ‘F*** the EU!’ spoken by the USA’s Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, in a phone call publicised to the world by (presumably) Russian intelligence. The EU isn't half as enthusiastic about following the old eastern road as is the USA. Indeed, it's a bit of a foot-dragger.
The driving force in this crisis is the USA, with the EU being reluctantly tugged along behind. And if Mr Friedman is right (and I think he is) , the roots of it lie in Russia’s decision to obstruct the West’s intervention in Syria.
Perhaps the key to the whole thing (rather dispiriting in that it shows the USA really hasn’t learned anything important from the Iraq debacle) is the so-called ‘Wolfowitz Doctrine’ of 1992, named after the neo-con’s neo-con, Paul Wolfowitz, and summed up by Professor Sakwa (p.211) thus: ‘The doctrine asserted that the US should prevent “any country from dominating any region of the world that might be a springboard to threaten unipolar and exclusive US dominance"’.
Note how neatly this meshes with what George Friedman says in his interview.
Now, there are dozens of fascinating things in Professor Sakwa’s book, and my copy is scored with annotations and references. I could spend a week summarising it for you. (By the way, the Professor himself is very familiar with this complex region, and might be expected, thanks to his Polish ancestry, to take a different line. His father was in the Polish Army in 1939, escaped to Hungary in the chaos of defeat, and ended up serving in Anders’s Second Corps, fighting with the British Army at El Alamein, Benghazi, Tobruk and then through Italy via Monte Cassino. Then he was in exile during the years of Polish Communism. Like Vaclav Klaus, another critic of current western policy, Professor Sakwa can hardly be dismissed as a naif who doesn't understand about Russia, or accused of beinga 'fellow-traveller' or 'useful idiot'.
He is now concerned at ‘how we created yet another crisis’ (p xiii) .
But I would much prefer that you read it for yourself, and so will have to limit my references quite sternly.
There are good explanations of the undoubted anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies of some strands in Ukrainian politics. Similar nastiness, by the way, is to be found loose in some of the Baltic States. I mention this because it justified classifying the whole movement as ‘Neo-Nazi’, which is obviously false, but because it tells us something very interesting about the nature of nationalism and Russophobia in this part of the world. No serious or fair description of the crisis can ignore it. Yet, in the portrayal of Russia as Mordor, and the Ukraine as Utopia, western media simply leave out almost everything about Ukraine that doesn’t appeal to their audiences, the economic near collapse, the Judophobia and Russophobia (the derogatory word ‘Moskal’, for instance, in common use), the worship of the dubious (this word is very generous, I think) Stepan Bandera by many of the Western ultra-nationalists, the violence against dissenters from the Maidan view ( see http://rt.com/news/ukraine-presidential-candidates-attacked-516/). The survival and continued power of Ukraine’s oligarchs after a revolution supposedly aimed at cleaning up the country is also never mentioned. We all know about Viktor Yanukovych's tasteless mansion, but the book provides some interesting details on President Poroshenko’s residence (it looks rather like the White House) , which I have not seen elsewhere.
The detailed description of how and why the Association Agreement led to such trouble is excellent. I had not realised that, since the Lisbon Treaty, alignment with NATO is an essential part of EU membership (and association) – hence the unavoidable political and military clauses in the agreement.
So is the filleting of the excuse-making and apologetics of those who still pretend that Yanukovych was lawfully removed from office: the explicit threat of violence from the Maidan, the failure to muster the requisite vote, the presence of armed men during the vote, the failure to follow the constitutional rules (set beside the available lawful deal, overridden by the Maidan, under which Yanukovych would have faced early elections and been forced to make constitutional changes) .
Then here we have Ms Nuland again, boasting of the $5 billion (eat your heart out, the EU, with your paltry £300 million) http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rm/2013/dec/218804.htm which the USA has ’invested in Ukraine. ‘Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the United States has supported Ukrainians as they build democratic skills and institutions, as they promote civic participation and good governance, all of which are preconditions for Ukraine to achieve its European aspirations. We’ve invested over $5 billion to assist Ukraine in these and other goals that will ensure a secure and prosperous and democratic Ukraine.
It’s worth noting that in this speech, in December 2013, she still envisages the supposedly intolerable Yanukovych as a possible partner.
Other points well made are the strange effect of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, which has created the very tension against which it now seeks to reassure border nations, by encouraging them, too, to join, the non-binding nature of the much-trumpeted Budapest memorandum, the lack of coverage of the ghastly events in Odessa, the continuing lack of a proper independent investigation into the Kiev mass shootings in February 2014 .
Also examined is the Russian fear of losing Sevastopol, an entirely justified fear given that President Yushchenko had chosen to say in Georgia, during the war of August 2008, that Russia’s basing rights in the city would end in 2017. The ‘disappearance; of the ‘Right Sector’ and ‘Svoboda’ vote in recent elections is explained by their transfer to the radical Party led by Oleh Lyashko.
Professor Sakwa also explores Russia’s behaviour in other border disputes, with Norway and China, in which it has been far form aggressive. And he points out that Ukraine’s nationalists have made their country’s life far more difficult by their rigid nationalist approach to the many citizens of that country who, while viewing themselves as Ukrainian, do not share the history or passions of the ultra-nationalists in the West.
Likewise he warns simple-minded analysts that the conflict in the East of Ukraine is not desired by Russia's elite, which does not wish to be drawn into another foreign entanglement (all Russian strategists recall the disastrous result of the Afghan intervention). But it may be desired by Russian ultra-nationalists, not necessarily controllable.
He points out that Russia has not, as it did in Crimea, intervened decisively in Eastern Ukraine to ensure secession. And he suggests that those Russian nationalists are acting in many cases independently of Moscow in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas. Putin seeks to control them and limit them, but fears them as well.
In general, the book is an intelligent, well-researched and thoughtful attempt to explain the major crisis of our time. Anybody, whatever he or she might think of the issue, would benefit from reading it. It is shocking that it is not better known, and I can only assume that its obscurity, so far is caused by the fact that it does not fit the crude propaganda narrative of the ‘Putin is Hitler’ viewpoint.
How odd that we should all have learned so little from the Iraq debacle. This time the ‘WMD’ are non-existent Russian plans to expand and/or attack the Baltic states. And of course the misrepresentation of both sides in the Ukrainian controversy is necessary for the portrayal of Putin as Hitler and his supporters as Nazis, and opponents of belligerence as Nazi fellow-travellers. The inconvenient fact , that if there are Nazis in this story , they tend to be on the ‘good’ side must be ignored. Let us hope the hysteria subsides before it carries us into another stupid war.