Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, by Richard Sakwa

John Barber on a powerful critique of Western policy

March 5, 2015

If Ukraine disappeared from news headlines after the ceasefire agreed last September between Ukrainian and separatist forces, it has dramatically returned to world attention in 2015. Civil war has brought death and destruction in southeast Ukraine where a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Russia’s support for the separatists is ever more evident, while in the US calls to provide the Ukrainian army with “lethal assistance” grow stronger by the day. “Proxy war” takes on new and dangerous dimensions.


In these fraught times, informed analysis of the causes and context of the crisis is invaluable. It is provided in Richard Sakwa’s important new book. He portrays the conflict as the result of two interacting processes: an internal conflict over the nature of the Ukrainian state, and an external contest for influence over Ukraine’s future. The former he sees as a battle between a “monist” strategy of “Ukrainianization” and a “pluralist” policy of different nations within a sovereign Ukrainian state. The external protagonists are Russia, determined to retain influence over Ukraine, and the West, set on incorporating it in the “Atlanticist” world.

In his view the crisis is the result of Western triumphalism after the end of the Cold War. This produced, he argues, an asymmetrical security structure in Europe, excluding Russia while incorporating former members of the Warsaw Pact. He cites George Kennan’s description of Nato’s expansion as a “tragic mistake”. With ever closer relations between the European Union and Nato, an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU was bound to fuel Russian fears of the West’s intentions. President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision in November 2013 to reject the agreement would precipitate the Maidan protest and his own downfall.

Sakwa’s account of the crisis is a powerful critique of Western policy towards Ukraine and Russia. Challenging the dominant consensus, he sees it as the prime cause of Vladimir Putin’s “shift from a realistic and pragmatic foreign policy to a more romantic-nationalist inflexion”. Some may question the latter description, but it is highly probable that the annexation of Crimea was a defensive and opportunist reaction to the Western-backed coup in Kiev, whatever the subsequent consequences.

This book was completed in December 2014, at which point fighting had resumed in the separatist Donbas region in the east of Ukraine, although not at the intensity of recent weeks. This may explain Sakwa’s uncertainty about whether talk of a new Cold War is appropriate; it is, he says, a comparison that “looks backwards rather than forwards”. Whatever the case, “the gloves are now off and a new period of confrontation will continue until there is a change of either leaders or paradigms or both”. It is hard to disagree with this conclusion; the question is what form confrontation will take. Here Mikhail Gorbachev’s words in a recent interview give pause for thought. He saw, he said, “all the signs of a new Cold War…It could blow up at any moment (and) would probably inevitably lead to nuclear war.”

A century ago the great powers, in Christopher Clark’s striking image, “sleepwalked” into catastrophe. If still greater tragedy is to be prevented in the 21st century, it will depend, as Sakwa ends by saying, on imaginative leadership and a willingness to engage in dialogue on all sides. “Otherwise Europe will once again be torn by a new Iron Curtain and the dogs of war will be unleashed on a global scale.” The stakes could not be higher.

John Barber is fellow in Russian history and politics, King's College, Cambridge

Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands

By Richard Sakwa
I. B. Tauris, 220pp, £18.99
ISBN 9781784530648
Published 29 January 2015

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