The New Observer Book Reviews,Reviews,Russian Federation Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands. Richard Sakwa

Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands. Richard Sakwa


Richard Sakwa is a Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. This book is a work of scholarship. He probably knows that he will be called “a Putin apologist”, as is anyone who tries to consider the situation in Ukraine objectively. This may be why this book is meticulously annotated. It is refreshing to read someone who is considering the conflict from all points of view. Some of the scholars and writers he quotes are Russian. Any why not cite the work of people from outside Western academia? 

The title of this book indicates how Sakwa sees the conflict. It is critical to his understanding that Ukraine is at the border between Russia and the West. And that internally, Ukraine is also a “borderland” country. In explaining the conflict Sakwa sees a conflation of two conflicts; an internal Ukrainian conflict between “monists” and “pluralists” and a global conflict between the West and Russia resulting from a failure to integrate Russia into (or alongside) the Western global system following the fall of the USSR. (This is a simplification. As I have mentioned one of the strengths of this book is the detailed analysis; Sakwa discusses the separate failures of the US and the EU to sort out a modus vivendi with Russia in considerable detail). The “monists” are those Ukranians who believe in a single integrated Ukraine, united around the Ukrainian language and a Ukrainian nationalist vision of history. The “pluralists” are those who respect Ukraine’s complex history and who might have envisaged a country which respected different cultures and traditions and which was organised in a federalised way so as to give autonomy to different regions. His analysis, (again I am simplifying somewhat), is that the end result of the Maidan was that “monists” came to power in Kiev and in failing to resolve the dispute with the “pluralists”, created conditions which led to the fracture in Ukraine, which the Minsk agreements failed to solve. 

This book was published in 2016, after the crisis of the Maidan revolution and the annexation of Crimea. The analysis goes right up to 2016. It is incredibly prescient about what might come next; that is the war which broke out in February 2022 when Russia launched a military operation against Ukraine. What follows is a brief summary of the main analysis in each chapter.

Chapter 1 – Countdown to Confrontation 

This is the worst imbroglio in Europe since the 1930s, with pompous dummies parroting glib phrases and the media in full war cry. Those calling for restraint, consideration and dialogue have not only been ignored but also abused, and calls for sanity have not only been marginalised but also delegitimated. It is as if the world has learned nothing from Europe’s terrible twentieth century.

Hear, hear, we can say. Sakwa is not simply writing recent history. His book has a moral purpose. It is clear that he belongs to the school that believes that if we understand a problem then we have a fighting chance of solving it. Alas, there are no statesmen, or women, on the scene.

Sakwa traces the roots of the conflict back to how the Cold War ended. The Western elites saw it as a triumph and vindication for their ideology. They expected Russia (perhaps like other Eastern European countries) to fall into line, accept the ideology and perhaps a minor role in the Western-led world order. But, Russia was not ready to see it as a defeat. (I have added to Sakwa’s presentation). Sakwa argues that the global (as opposed to internal to Ukraine) roots of the crisis lie in structural contradictions in the international system. But, for the neocons in Washington, the problem is simply – Russia. The problem with this is that it leads to anti-Russia decisions which provoke the reactions they claim to be defending against. They become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In this chapter Sakwa correctly identifies that under Putin Russia has not sought to directly challenge the Western led world order but to be accepted in it as an equal. In a sense Putin has been calling for the West to mean what it says about “level playing field” and “International world order”. From the perspective of Great Power politics this is inevitable; the dominant state will abuse international rules as and when it suits them. A rising state will refer to those rules as a lever. (But, ultimately, the rising state is no more likely to play by those rules if and when it becomes all-powerful. Indeed in 2022 we can already see this. There is much about Russia’s position in the present conflict which is reminiscent of the US actions in Iraq in 2003. Not least the questionable justification of “pre-emptive self defence”). 

Central to Sakwa’s analysis is his view that there are two worldviews in Ukraine:

Two models of Ukrainian statehood, the monist and the pluralist, have long been in contention. They correspond to the long struggle in Ukrainian history between those who assert that the country is an autochthonous cultural and political unity in its own right, and those who believe that common ancestry in Kievan Rus, a loose federation of East Slavic tribes from the ninth to the thirteenth century ruled by the Rurik dynasty, means that they are part of the same cultural, and by implication, political community.

One of the strengths of this book is that the author considers divergent points of view. This is an example;

Putin’s view that Russia and Ukraine are just two aspects of a single civilisation is widespread in Russia, whereas Ukrainian nationalists argue that their country long ago set out on its own developmental path (more on this later in this chapter).

Another strength of this book is that the author eschews simplistic explanations. For example; he does not describe Ukraine as being split between a “nationalist West” and a “pro-Russian” East. He is at pains to assert that even in the strongly Russian speaking areas in the East of Ukraine, there is (or was) a feeling of belonging to Ukraine, at least of being connected to a Ukrainian community. This point emerges in his discussion of the history of Ukraine. Again, when he discusses the more recent politics of the Donbas he is at pains to say that, at least initially, even within the breakaway regions the movement was for autonomy in Ukraine rather than to completely break away. 

Ukrainian nationalism 

In this chapter Sakwa presents a brief historical overview of the ideological roots of Ukrainian nationalism; for example in the writings of Dmytro Dontsov in the 19th century. Another theme which reoccurs in his examination of present day politics is introduced here. Ukrainian nationalism, while not being “liberal” is “pro-Europe”; 

The other side of the coin is the denial of the common historical path of Russia and Ukraine accompanied, in Dontsov’s words, by ‘unity with Europe, under all circumstances and at any price – that is the categorical imperative of our foreign policy’.

The history of Ukrainian nationalism during the war years is extremely contested. I do not think that everyone agrees with Sakwa’s history: the OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Unity formed the Waffen SS Nachtigall and Roland divisions and committed large-scale atrocities. The UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) was formed in 1943 to fight for Ukrainian independence, initially in the context of the Polish-Ukrainian civil war and killed “70,000 Poles, mainly women, children and unarmed men”. 

A different (and Ukrainian nationalist version) is found in the book by journalist Matthew Owens about the Ukraine crisis:

In February 1941 Bandera made a deal with the leaders of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) to form two battalions of ‘special operations forces’ from the ranks of OUN supporters. One battalion, Nachtigall, or Nightingale, was among the first German troops to enter the city of Lviv – part of the area of pre-war Poland that had been absorbed by the USSR under the Nazi–Soviet pact of 1939 – on 29 June 1941.25 [1]

In this version the Nachtigall battalion (not associated with the SS) simply took part in a military operation to take Lviv. However; Owen’s source is given as Plokhy The Gates of Europe. I haven’t read this book but, based on the reading reviews of the book, it offers a Ukrainian nationalist view of history. Sakwa’s version may be more reliable, but it would help if he sourced it.

Sakwa characterises the Ukrainian nationalist version of Ukrainian history thus: 

Monist nationalism draws on a naturalistic, historicist and restitutive narrative of Ukrainian statehood, suggesting that Ukraine has finally come together naturally after the deviations and mistakes of history.

Sakwa shows that the tradition of strong Ukrainian nationalism continues to the present day; for example Ukrainian nationalists in the Maidan looked to the OUN and Bandera as predecessors. In 2010 then President Viktor Yushchenko gave Bandera the title “Hero of Ukraine”. One year later the new President Viktor Yanukovych annulled the award. If nothing else this highlights the faultlines and divisions in Ukrainian society. It is another of the strengths of this book that it presents a detailed analysis of the fault-lines without siding with either position – “monists” or “pluralists” as being “right”, though the author does argue for a solution in Ukraine which integrates both views and both communities. (As of today, October 2023, it is impossible to see this being possible and it must be that we are now looking at a permanent split). 

Sakwa does not accuse the leaders who came to power in Kiev following Maidan of seeking to suppress Russian speakers: “There is little evidence that the civic rights of Russian-language-speakers were systematically abused, even at the height of the mobilisations in 2004 and 2014”. His nuanced analysis is that it was not that the post-Maidan government actively sought to destroy Russian culture (though the attempt to reverse a law guaranteeing minority language rights was unfortunate). Rather, as a whole, they just couldn’t go far enough to find an accommodation with the pluralists in the East.

One of the implications of Sakwa’s analysis which eschews simplistic West Ukraine v. East Ukraine narratives is that it will now (2023) be very hard to find a solution. Even a solution which simply draws a new border somewhere does not adequately solve the problem. 

Sakwa argues that the support of Ukrainian nationalist parties such as Svoboda for EU membership is not driven so much by their desire to adopt EU normative standards of governance but by the idea of a geopolitical space – one which is not-Russia. If this is correct one can only wonder what the EU thought they were doing welcoming Ukraine so readily. Indeed, later in the book Sakwa suggests that the EU has allowed itself to be driven by a vision of a “Wider Europe” rather than a Greater Europe. This is a narrower and more geocentric vision than that of Greater Europe, which could have included partnership with Russia.

Chapter 2 – Two Europes

In this Chapter Sakwa elaborates his view that there are two visions of Europe. Wider Europe and Greater Europe. Wider Europe is a territorial concept which is based at least in part on “not-Russia”,  and is increasingly becoming synonymous with NATO. Greater Europe is the vision of cooperation across the European continent including Ankara and Moscow as well as Western Europe. Sakwa writes that the direction of the EU has been towards “Wider Europe” rather than towards “Greater Europe”. Sakwa argues that under the malign influence of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Carl Bildt the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) took on an even more divisive form than it would have done otherwise. After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war it became easier to make the case to set up a defensive barrier against Russia, but this was the wrong lesson to draw since, in Georgia, Russia was acting defensively, not least because of the (to them) perceived threat of Georgia joining NATO. This is summarised by Sakwa:

The EU was launched on the path of geopolitical competition, something for which it was neither institutionally nor intellectually ready. Not only was the Association Agreement incompatible with Ukraine’s existing free-trade agreements with Russia, but there was also the Lisbon requirement for Ukraine to align its defence and security policy with the EU.

Like other scholars Sakwa says that Putin was initially pro-European but moved away from this. On the one hand Sakwa suggests that the rising economic position of Russia in the years 2000-2008 allowed for more independence. In addition the Russian elite felt offended by the polite contempt Europe treated them with. From a European point of view there was an extreme wariness of anything that looked like a Russian attempt to drive a wedge between Europe and the US. Sakwa quotes a Russian diplomat as suggesting that the post-Communist countries who joined the EU infected it with an anti-Russia spirit. 

A key point which emerges from this chapter is that, in Sakwa’s telling, relations with Russia soured in particular because of a tendency never to consult with Russia on matters which affected Russia. A particular case in point is that Russia was absolutely excluded from discussions about the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement even though that would have had real consequences for the Russian economy. An example of the problems caused by the way that the West spoke to Russia is given here:

Even the former secretary of defence Robert Gates condemned ‘the arrogance, after the collapse [of the USSR], of American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians in telling Russians how to conduct their domestic and international affairs […] [which] led to deep and long-term resentment and bitterness’.

Sakwa argues that Russia “is certainly not planning to create a rival bloc to the Western alliance system” but at the same time cannot accept the view of Western capitals that NATO is some kind of global benign actor. Of course, now, in 2023, it would seem that the Kremlin would like to create a rival bloc (made up of Iran, North Korea and probably they would like China to be on board as well as the EEU countries). Sakwa’s story is that this state of affairs was avoidable had more effort been made to integrate Russia and to address their concerns. I would assume that certain hawks in Washington would say that Russia’s alienation from the Western world is all of their making. But the record, as detailed in Sakwa’s book, shows just how little effort the West made to work with Russia. We may never know if it is true that Russia, under Putin, would (will? though now it seems far-fetched) have been willing to accept the US led world order so long as their specific national concerns were treated seriously and so long as the tone was more positive – because this didn’t happen. 

Sakwa criticises the EU for not being open to Russian offers to discuss issues collaboratively. For example; Sakwa quotes a Russian official as lamenting that the EU was too keen to turn the question of the EU v. the EEU into a geopolitical contest rather than a question of mutual cooperation. Or, again, that the EU rebuffed Putin’s attempt in 2009 to discuss a tripartite structure to modernise Ukrainian gas infrastructure. 

(I would add that it is probable that these offers from Russia were assessed as being “spoilers” by the EU; that is they were probably seen as bad faith Russian attempts to frustrate Ukraine from being pulled out of their orbit and into the EU one. Russia had the weaker hand to play and it seems like the EU recognised this and felt they did not need to cooperate with Russia. On the other hand, it seems that the EU missed that these questions were existential for Russia, not least because of the way that EU membership was increasingly linked to NATO, and failed to understand that Russia was signalling that it could not simply accept Ukraine falling lock, stock and barrel into an Western-Atlantic security block for which the EaP was seen as a pathway). 

Chapter 3 – Ukraine contested

This chapter discusses in detail Sakwa’s thesis that there are two competing visions in Ukraine; monist and pluralist. The treatment of this theme is much more detailed than merely, “the West of Ukraine is European and the East more pro-Russian”. One point which Sakwa makes repeatedly, and supports with evidence, is that, Crimea excepted, there was, prior to the crisis a genuine sense across Ukraine of Ukraine being a single country. Even those in Eastern Ukraine who were not “monists” – Ukrainian nationalists believing in an integral Ukraine centred around Ukrainian language – still believed in Ukraine as a country. The conclusion is that there was an opportunity in Ukraine to balance between these competing visions and, through some kind of federal mechanism, to allow both viewpoints to flourish in Ukraine. This opportunity was squandered.

Sakwa discusses the contentious issue of language and writes that Ukrainian nationalists inflexibly sought to defend the preeminence of Ukrainian. Only after his election in 2010 did Yanukovych manage to introduce a law which allowed minority languages to be given official status in local regions where there was a significant minority of speakers of that language. 

The background to these struggles between monists and pluralists is the development in the 1990s of a now stable oligarch plutocracy. A small number of individuals and “clans” control most of the wealth of the country. These groups survived the 2004 Orange revolution and there continued to be an intersection of oligarch interest and politics. Many leading political figures in Ukraine are also oligarchs. (For example Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko).Yanukovych’s family exploited his position as President to enrich his family. But, this was nothing new. On the other hand, Sakwa says that Yanukovych’s rule showed increasing signs of authoritarianism, for example allowing or initiating prosecutions against his political predecessors; Yulia Tymoshenko and former interior minister Yury Lutsenko. 

Sakwa notes that Ukraine is one of just two post-Soviet countries whose GDP (in 2016) had not recovered to its 1991 level. The other is Kyrgyzstan. This background of corruption and authoritarianism formed part of the driving factor for Maidan.

The European Association Agreement, which Yanukovych decided at the last minute not to sign, triggering the Maidan, contained several clauses which foresaw security alignment between Ukraine and Europe (and thus NATO). In Sakwa’s telling, Russia and the EU (under the influence of the Baltic States and Poland) and the US were fighting over the borderlands. The borderlands themselves were riven with corruption and self-interested politicians. Outside of the oligarch influence politics was characterised by an unresolved face-off between Ukrainian nationalists and those (predominantly) in the East who had a more pluralist vision. As Sakwa writes, in 2013:

The two trains were hurtling towards each other.

Chapter 4 – The February Revolution

In Sakwa’s telling the Maidan protests initially started off as a protest against corruption and bad governance but quite quickly took a shift to the right, with right-wing parties and armed formations from the West of Ukraine (who had displayed Nazi flags when taking over public buildings in Lviv)  coming to the fore. Missteps by the authorities made a bad situation worse. 

In discussing the pro-EU aspect of the Maidan Sakwa explains that Ukrainian nationalists are attracted to the EU not for its normative values and practices of good governance, but chiefly because, for them, it represents a geopolitical “not Russia”. It is a way of balancing against Russia. (This makes sense. Before the current, 2022-23 crisis, Poland was in a major dispute with the EU about the rule of law. Ukraine, were it to be part of the EU, would be closer to Poland than to the core Western European values of liberalism and good governance). 

Sakwa cites the available evidence which suggests that the killings by sniper fire on the Maidan Square may well have been carried out by extreme nationalist provocateurs. At any event the Maidan revolution ushered in a nationalist government with little representation from the South and East. The popular mood became infused with Ukrainian nationalism; in town squares Lenin statues were knocked down. In the East people perceived a threat and rose up against the new power in Kiev. The revolution did not achieve its original goal of challenging corruption and the bureaucratic-oligarch system was not significantly affected. 

The EU had negotiated a compromise with the Maidan and Yanokovych which would have allowed for a controlled political settlement. But when this was rejected by the Maidan they went along with the seizure of power by the insurrectionists. 

As has been widely reported one of the first moves of the Maidan installed government was to attempt to rescind the law already mentioned which Yanokovych had brought in in 2012 which gave minority languages official status. The law was not signed into law but the signals were probably clear to pluralists in the East. 

In Odessa rightists massacred at least 48 anti-Maidan demonstrators in the Trade Union building. A Svoboda MP cheered the result. Neither Kiev nor the West has shown much interest in getting to the bottom of what happened.

Russia was, Sakwa suggests, enraged by these developments. 

Chapter 5 – The Crimean Gambit 

This chapter discusses the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Sakwa does not say as much directly but he appears to take the view that Putin could have decided not to annex Crimea but lacked the skill and imagination to make that choice. 

Sakwa reviews the events which led up to the annexation of the peninsula and, rather naively in my view, suggests that the decision to annex was prompted by the negative noises coming out of Kiev:

Timely concessions over the Russian language, federalisation and other core long-term demands may have been enough to avert the region’s secession, and indeed the subsequent conflict in the Donbas.

However; he has just explained that for Russia the key issue was their naval base in Sevastopol  and the imperative to avoid the humiliation of it being taken over by NATO. It is hard to see how a compromise could have been found on this point; even had the new authorities in Kiev been willing to affirm the base leasing arrangements it would have been hard for Russia to trust them. I think Sakwa is on stronger ground when he makes this argument in relation to Donbas. 

In discussing the annexation of Crimea Sakwa writes:

Russian actions were prompted by ‘realist’ geo-strategic motives, but these were supplemented by ‘ethno-national’ concerns based on the idea of the ‘Russian world’…

He detects a new orientation in Putin’s rhetoric from this point with a shift towards supporting specifically ethnic Russians rather than the earlier more generalised support for worldwide Russian culture. I quote this because this shift has, in 2023 (7 years after the publication of this book) become even more pronounced. Since the initial failure of the Special Military Operation, the rhetoric has started to sway between two poles; sometimes we (still) hear logical arguments about strategic security and the Minsk agreements, but these are often adulterated with much more nationalist sounding arguments about how the now seized territories in Eastern Ukraine are naturally part of Russia. 

In this chapter Sakwa reviews the various arguments put forward to legitimise the annexation of Crimea, for example that the Maidan coup has vitiated the constitution of Ukraine so why should its terms be still taken to apply to Crimea? Overall, though, Sakwa does not appear to be convinced by these arguments. He argues that the annexation of Crimea set up counter-currents in Kiev and fostered Ukrainian nationalism. Indeed this is a recurring theme in this book; each action by one side led to counter-actions by the other side and the situation spiralled, whereas cooler heads and rational discourse could have led to problems being solved.

Completely the wrong narrative

In the annexation of Crimea, writes Sakwa, “The tensions generated by the asymmetrical end of the Cold War were now exposed”. And this was a serious situation, because a conflict which had been below the surface and glossed over with polite remarks about “partners” now became open. The next chapter in this story is now playing out in Ukraine. This breakdown (if that, since relations after the end of the Cold War were never resolved on an equal footing) is now accompanied, as Sakwa points out, by a crude and uninformed diatribe about a revanchist Russia trying to grab land, or, worse, by explanations that Russia/Russians are somehow just inherently destructive. Sakwa mentions the Economist, the State Department and “a raft of Russophobic former Soviet Bloc states” (i.e. the Baltic states) as well as monist Ukraine, as being the cheerleaders of this unintelligent narrative. This is important, because this narrative, of a revanchist Russia out to seize territory is now common currency in the Western media; it reaches absurd heights in the willingness of people who should know better to fall for the Ukrainian propaganda line that if Ukraine falls Russia will attack other countries. (Except if Ukraine really were to collapse it seems possible that Russia might seek to integrate Transnistria). The evidence is contrary; under Putin Russian foreign policy has been defensive. Indeed land has been given up e.g. to China in an agreement over their border. There was also an offer to settle the Kuril islands dispute with Japan. Crimea has always been a very special case for Russia, and this should be obvious. Putin, it is clear, was reluctant to annex the Donbas; he could have done it at any time prior to 2022 if that had been his primary aim. Rather; the pressure was mounting; for example the 2021 US Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, which, once again, reaffirmed US commitment to bring Ukraine into NATO.

Sakwa points out that the annexation of Crimea crossed a US red-line. A country had re-ordered Europe without permission from the rulers of the world. Sakwa ends this chapter with the following summary. This analysis is as pertinent now, in 2023 as it was in 2016:

The motivation was not the establishment of a ‘Greater Russia’, let alone the re-establishment of the Soviet empire (although seized on by those who sought these goals), but in defence of the continentalist idea of a ‘Greater Europe’ and Russia’s national interests. In so doing, Putin has questioned the right of the US to define red lines, while challenging Atlanticism in its entirety. In response, the US has declared a new Cold War against Russia, egged on by the political–media elite and followed with greater or less reluctance by its European allies.

Chapter 6 – When history comes calling 

In this chapter Sakwa discusses the political manoeuvring in Ukraine immediately post-Maidan. In the Presidential elections in 2014 Petro Poroshenko won; Sakwa suggests that he was chosen because he represented a middle-way between the authoritarian excesses of Yanokovyh and the Maidan insurgency. Poroshekcno favoured Ukraine joining the EU. Crimea did not vote in the election and electors in Donbas faced difficulties. Radical right leaders from the Maidan who stood for election as President did not do well though a nationalist candidate Oleg Lyashka who subsequently led a battalion in Donbas came third with 8% of the vote. 

Sakwa’s main thesis in this chapter is that following the elections Porosehnko lost the opportunity to establish a pluralist Ukraine based on dialogue between the competing visions. Instead, in his own words he set out to “liquidate” the anti-Maidan insurgents in the East. The Presidency was hostage to the spirit of the rightist Maidan and the government largely made up of militants. He also stresses that with Porenshencko elected as President there was continuity rather than a break with the system of bureaucratic-oligarchy of the preceding years. Other oligarchs switched sides to support the Maidan revolution. The oligarch Igor Kolimoisky became an active player, financing militia units and, according to Sakwa, suppressing anti-Maidan dissent in the Dnepropetrovsk region. He was not the only oligarch who came out in favour of the new regime. Some oligarchs took advantage of the chaos and their networks in parliament to obtain state resources and to carve up Yanokovych’s business empire. 

Critical to how events subsequently unfolded was that the right-wing militias of the Maidan either became part of the new security services or existed as independent battalions. Either way; these minitory but armed formations were able to frustrate any attempts to resolve the Donbas conflict peacefully. On the political front attempts were made to introduce a more decentralised constitution. On 21 May 2014 the Ukrainian parliament “adopted a memorandum” which included a line about ensuring the regions were funded”. The “draft constitution” of June of that year included proposals for decentralisation. However, these measures did not go far enough. The “monists” were afraid of ceding too much autonomy to the regions. 

The banning of the Communist Party in 2015 disenfranchised the 13% of the electorate who had voted for it in 2012. Sakwa quotes one Ukrainian commenter who argued that the root of the problem was that the liberals on the Maidan had allowed the revolution to be taken over by “monists”, or nationalists.

The post-Maidan government took out a loan from the IMF and had to implement an austerity programme. The economic part of the EU Association Agreement was signed on June 27 2014, among other changes, according to Sakwa, leading to a modification in Ukrainian law to permit GMO in agriculture. The political part had been signed on March 21 before the new Presidential election on 25 May 2014 in which Poroshenko was elected. The signing of the economic part immediately created problems in Ukraine’s trade with Russia, with Russia being, legitimately, concerned, for example about re-export to Russia of EU origin goods. As we have already mentioned Sakwa stresses how disastrous it was that the EU had not engaged with Russia on these matters; apparently they only started to engage after the signing of the economic part of the Association Agreement. 

Chapter 7 – The Novorossiya Rebellion 

Sakwa starts this chapter about the rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk by re-capitulating his analysis that the “separatists” initially did not, in fact, seek unification with Russia, but, rather, he says the majority mood was for integration into Ukraine with autonomy. Sakwa cites surveys by both the Pew Research Centre and the Kiev International Institute of Sociology to support this line. As far as the involvement of Russian forces is concerned Sakwa rejects the characterisation of the rebellion as being initiated by the Kremlin but, equally, acknowledges that there must have been some material help. 

Sakwa see’s Russia’s involvement clearly, in my view. On the one hand they felt they should offer support to their compatriots and fellow-travellers in demanding federalisation. On the other hand, they leveraged the conflict in order to further their strategic goal of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO.

The Azov battalion played a significant role in the ATO (Anti-terror operation) against the rebels in Donbas. (Later, in 2019, it played a role blocking the implementation of Minsk). [2] A senior commander of Azov expressed the group’s philosophy to a Times reporter: “We consider the present tendency of Europe leads to the destruction of civilisation, with no control of immigration, the destruction of the family, of religious identity and of everything that made Europe Europe.” The question which screams out at us is; what was the EU (and the UK) doing backing this horse? Sakwa has already answered; the EU has let itself be lead by former Communist state members who have a narrow geopolitical and “anti-Russian” vision of Europe and by an anti-Russian agenda of US State Department hawks and “democracy” exporters. The EU was simply not able to meet the geopolitical challenge it had created by dragging Ukraine into the Association Agreement while refusing to take account of Russia’s legitimate concerns. The attraction of Ukrainian nationalists to Europe is not an attraction to the liberal values of, say, Angela Merkel. They have more in common with Europe’s “far right”. Indeed Sloboda is, according to Sakwa, allied with France’s Front National. 

Poroshenko made, in June, a serious effort to offer not federalisation but a degree of decentralisation. It was not enough for the rebels but went too far for his own Security Council. Sakwa describes further attempts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict including a meeting in Berlin in July 2014 attended by German and French foreign ministers, Lavrov and the new Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klmkin. But here, the US did not help by applying further sanctions on Russia, which made it hard for Russia to drop their support for the rebels without being seen to be cowed by America. Nor did the US put pressure on Poroshenko to come to a negotiated settlement. (A pattern repeated in 2022). In June 2014 Poroshenko included in a draft constitution proposals for some decentralisation. I do not know what happened to these proposals. 

It appears that Sakwa evaluates Moscow’s strategy in Donbas as supporting the rebels up to a point and as far as autonomy within Ukraine. To some extent Putin was bound to do this and was a hostage to this situation as the rebellion had considerable popular support in Russia. Once he had started to back them he could not back down. At the same time Moscow was trying to use the conflict in order to achieve the strategic goal of blocking Ukraine from joining NATO, rather as (as Sakwa suggests) Moscow supported South Ossetian breakaway from Georgia in 2008 as a way of blocking Georgian membership of NATO. It is obvious how a frozen conflict in Donbas would have met Moscow’s strategic aim, though later Sakwa suggests that it is not clear that Moscow specifically wanted a frozen conflict. It is not clear to me how a resolution to the conflict which resulted in an autonomous region in Donbas could also have achieved Moscow’s aim of blocking Ukraine from ever joining NATO. I have heard this claim made by nationalists in Kiev – as a reason why autonomy could not be granted to Donbas, but I don’t understand the mechanics of this. Sakwa mentions the reasoning but does not explain the mechanics; how did this block Ukraine’s route to NATO membership?

With some 10 percent of its territory given special status, Ukraine’s road to NATO membership was indefinitely blocked – an irreducible Russian goal that could have been achieved months earlier without war.

Those opposed to the ceasefire argued that it would create a ‘frozen’ conflict that would allow Russia to influence the development of Ukrainian policy. It would ensure that NATO membership for the country would have to be indefinitely postponed.

In September 2014 the Ukrainian parliament passed a law granting substantial decentralised power to rebel-occupied Donbas including language rights, but the powers were limited to three years. 

Chapter 8 – Worlds in Collision 

It is unavoidable to mention and Sakwa explains very well how Western political leaders delegitimized Russia and the Russian leader. This was happening already at the time of the Sochi Olympics. (I can recall a deluge of criticism in Western media of Russia at this time). This happened before the annexation of Crimea and provided a kind of poisoned atmosphere to the Crimea and Donbas conflicts. Sakwa provides a quote from US Secretary of State John Kerry about President Putin which really illustrates the problem; Western leaders just cannot accept that Russia may be different. If they are different it is because they are estranged from reality:

‘You almost feel that he’s creating his own reality, and his own sort of world, divorced from a lot of what’s real on the ground for all those people, including people in his own country.’

This cultural nonsense does not provide a good context in which to solve political problems.

One of the huge strengths of this book is the level of detail. For example; Sakwa discusses how the EU sought to block the South Stream gas pipeline project. This was a proposed pipeline to carry Russian gas across the Black Sea from Russia to Europe, avoiding Ukraine. At the same time in Ukraine there were discussions around privatising their gas networks to US/EU buyers. Had South Stream gone ahead these assets would have become virtually worthless. Sakwa also makes the point that the US influenced Europe to take a hostile stance towards Russia even though sanctions and, he argues blocking South Stream, were contrary to the economic interests of Europe.

Sakwa argues that sanctions on Russia connected with the conflict in Donbas continued to be applied even when there were prospects for peace, thus harming rather than helping any peace process. He also argues, and I agree, that one of the reasons for sanctions is propagandist; the idea is to scapegoat the target country and make it look like they are at error. In this case the sanctions approach meant that policy-makers could: “avoid facing hard questions about how the structure of post-Cold War international politics could have allowed the crisis of Ukrainian statehood to become an international crisis of the first order.”

As I have already mentioned, another strength, in my view, of Sakwa’s work is that he is not afraid to include the Russian point of view in his efforts to produce a balanced account. Here he is quoting Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov at the time:

America believes that it won the Cold War and Russia, which is the continuation of the Soviet Union, lost it. From this they deduce that Moscow must now obey and behave as a younger partner in international affairs, as well as its interactions with the US. Essentially, this annuls the possibility of us having our own national interests. It annuls the possibility of us having a value system that is different from America’s or that of other Western countries.

It seems evident that the Russian leadership understands the West better than the West understands Russia.

Sakwa argues that the EU failed to demonstrate even a modicum of statecraft. The sanctions policy was a classic case of externalising blame. No one tried to understand the roots of the conflict. The sanctions made the problem worse. 

Chapter 9 – Frontline Politics 

In discussing the factitious and indeed poisonous political climate which led up to the crisis, Sakwa, once again, shows that he has deep insight into the events, going beyond the kind of partisan (even crude and cartoonish) polemics which have come to pass for valid media and even political commentary. (He comments on this trend himself: “An unholy alliance of opportunist politicians and subservient media traduce their opponents, ignoring the views of experts and scholars, to portray them as mendacious and untrustworthy.”). For example; in discussing Russia’s objections to the Ukraine – EU Association Agreement he acknowledges that Russian diplomacy was often “heavy-handed and alienating”. 

Sakwa correctly shoots down the pervasive and enduring (now in 2023 more than ever) myth that Russia wanted (wants) to take over all of Ukraine. In reality, at this stage, their aim was to influence Ukraine. Had they wanted to “conquer” Ukraine the time to do that would have been immediately after the Maidan coup when Ukraine was in disarray and when restoring Yanukovych would have provided them with the needed political cover. On the other hand there was (and is) sometimes a certain ambiguity in Putin’s language. For example in April 2014 he said: “‘The intention to split Russia and Ukraine, to separate what is essentially a single nation in many ways, has been an issue of international politics for centuries.”. As Sakwa points out this kind of language infuriated the “Ukrainisers”. There is a domestic ideology in Russia which supports unification with “Malarouusia” and Putin’s willingness to express Malarouusian ideas feeds into the view that Russia is involved in a revanchist land-grab (then and now) in Ukraine. In essence though, Sakwa, argues that the core and strategic objectives for Russia in Ukraine were to block Ukraine’s ascension to NATO, to block the US military moving in, and to do something to defend Russians and Russian speakers in Donbas. (After, of course the annexation of Crimea which was primarily about the key naval base at Sevastopol). 

Putin’s explanations given at the time were coherent. For example:

He admitted that an election was held, 

“but, for some strange reason, power ended up again in the hands of those who either funded or carried out this takeover. Meanwhile, without any attempt at negotiations, they are trying to suppress by force that part of the population that does not agree with such a turn of events. At the same time they present Russia with an ultimatum: either you let us destroy the part of the population that is ethnically, culturally and historically close to Russia, or we introduce sanctions against you. This is a strange logic, and absolutely unacceptable, of course”

Sakwa suggests that there is an element of exaggeration in “destroy” but, after the Odessa massacre, concerns were not unreasonable. 

As Sakwa points out, had there been a plan to seize Malaroussia the rhetoric in speeches would have been consistently preparing the way for this, but this was not the case. Writing from the present point of view though there is a certain awkwardness. At the time (2014/5) some in the West were arguing that this was indeed Russia’s strategic plan. Sakwa, writing in 2016, argues against such people, for example ex NATO commander General Philip Breedlove. But, now, in 2023, these people can turn around and say “look; I told you so all along”. The difficulty can be explained: Western actions in continuing to provoke Russia led in the end to the Kremlin deciding it had no choice to do something it had not wanted to do. (It does not help those who want to make this argument that Putin has now started to use the language of the nationalists in Russia who previously were a background noise who did not make policy; but this can be explained perhaps partly by saying that in a time of war the state has to use nationalist motifs to rally people and, also, perhaps, that since the West consistently ignores everything that Russia says they have decided that it really doesn’t matter any more what the West thinks about them). 

Again, I think that Sakwa’s assessment is absolutely balanced and correct:

Russia could have done more to calm the situation in the Donbas, but the early actions of the Maidan government were no less inflammatory, and indeed genuinely threatening to many of Ukraine’s pluralists.

In countering another prevalent view amongst Western “democratizers”, that Putin feared a free, prosperous and democratic Ukraine because it would undermine his on autocratic system Sakwa argues that, in fact, Russia would have preferred a stable and prosperous Ukraine as this would have benefitted Russia, and that the view of Russia as a fragile autocracy is an over-simplification. On the other hand the Russian objective of a Ukraine possibly in the EU (subject to working out the technical implications that would have had for the Russian economy), not in NATO, not used as a base by the US and with a federalised political system which gave autonomy to the Russian-speaking areas and which accepted the annexation of Crimea, was a big ask. As Sakwa points out, EU expansion has increasingly been linked to NATO membership and to accept Putin’s possible vision of a Ukraine in the EU but not categorically not in NATO would have meant a new direction in EU policy – one which they were not ready to take and definitely not at the request of Russia. (Russian diplomacy may have been heavy-handed but it seems likely that even the best diplomacy in the world could not have moved this rock).

Sakwa has an up to date and informed understanding of the Russian political landscape. In this sentence he sums up the limits of Putin’s political model without descending into crass polemics:

Putin’s leadership acted as the regulator of factional and institutional conflict, guaranteeing elite interests while managing relations between the state oligarchy and society. He was the supreme arbitrator, drawing strength from all the factions and society but remaining independent of all. This system satisfied all to some degree, but none to the full. It delivered significant public goods in the short term, but was unable to guarantee a strategy for long-term development, increasing the modernisation blockage and political stalemate.

Putin, for example, has talked about freeing Russia from its dependence on natural resources but has not achieved this. 

Another strength of Sakwa’s commentary is that while he can be said on balance, to find more fault with the US and the EU (the latter through ineptness rather than strategy) than Russia he does not swallow the Russian line (as told by the Foreign Ministry and RT for example) that Russia is simply on the side of International Law against a rogue state (the US) who chooses to apply international law only when it suits them. He understands that Russia uses the language of International Law because it suits them:

Hegemonic powers will always couch their global goals in the language of a civilising mission, and apply selectively the international law that they impose on others. Equally, rising powers will invoke the universalism of international law to constrain the dominant state. 

The greater responsibility for the debaclé (bad enough in 2016) Sakwa lays at the door of an alliance of hawks and liberal interventionists in US political areas of influence; the State Department, but also think tanks and the media, the latter who he excoriates for a severe lack of historical understanding. These people, he says, knew what they were doing. They felt they had won the Cold War and it was for Russia to know their places and kow-tow to the exceptional nation. The fateful collision was that in Russia there was a mood, and as he clearly shows, this was not a nationalist movement and Putin was not a nationalist, though willing to lean into nationalism somewhat for support, that they wanted diplomatic parity of esteem. Ukraine was the ground where this forced conflict was to play out. The reinvigoration of the NATO lobby has not helped. 

Sakwa reads widely and as a true scholar he is not partisan. Here he cites an article in the Guardian. I requote it because I agree with the assessment here that one factor which drives the EU is an un-thought-out fear of “appearing weak”;

It’s not necessary to have any sympathy for Putin’s oligarchic authoritarianism to recognise that Nato and the EU, not Russia, sparked this crisis – and that it’s the Western powers that are resisting the negotiated settlement that is the only way out, for fear of appearing weak. [3]

As I have already mentioned, Sakwa’s wide reading from a diverse range of sources sustains his argument. This is a quote I could not help citing:

If […] one looks at recent Western policy, what is evident is a complete lack of any serious attempt to ‘calculate at least a step ahead’. That an attempt to wrest the whole of Ukraine away from Russia, and incorporate it in ‘the West’ would produce essentially the kind of crisis. (Quoted from an article by David Habakkuk)

As Sakwa himself says; they were not even thinking one step ahead. How could they not have seen that what they were doing was bound to lead to a response? It seems that the hawks and democracy exporters in the State Department may have simply calculated that they had enough power to face Russia down. Either way; this was a confrontational path. Why the EU went along with it is harder to explain; but Sakwa points to the influence of former Communist states in the EU with an explicitly anti-Russia policy as one reason.

Because he actually analyses the situation and never occupies himself with grinding axes Sakwa is able to get to the heart of the matter. I think he does when he writes this:

Ultimately, the Ukraine crisis was about Russia’s refusal to submit itself to Atlanticist hegemony and global dominance. As I argued earlier, the challenge [from Russia] was at most partial, and certainly not intended as a frontal challenge.

This is critical. Because if Russia’s challenge was not “frontal” and was in fact based on trying to find a pragmatic path between adapting to globalisation and sustaining their own ideas of themselves as a Great Power then compromise could have been found. 

Sakwa’s views are in close alignment with those of the International Relations scholar John Mearsheimer. One point Sakwa makes, while discussing Mearsheimer’s view of the situation, that the US was chiefly to blame for the crisis by pushing Ukraine into NATO, is that policy makers in the EU had simply forgotten the logic of “realism”, which Mearsheimer says explains how Great Powers act, and could only think in terms of liberal principles such as “free trade” and democracy. They had no intellectual means of dealing with the geopolitical crisis they had instigated by pushing the EU right up to Russia’s borders without deigning to even discuss the implications with Russia.

Chapter 10 – The Future of Ukraine 

In essence Sakwa sees the crisis as the coming together of two crises; a political failure of the post-Cold War institutions and an internal Ukrainian conflict between the nationalists and those with a more pluralist vision for Ukraine, predominantly in the East.

As I have mentioned several times, one of the strengths of this book is that Sakwa sees fault where fault is, on both sides. I agree with his assessment that Russia has indeed exaggerated the threats from NATO. It is clear to this reviewer that Putin himself understands that NATO is not likely to just up and attack Russia; one suspects that his objections to NATO encroachment per se are more about prestige, (nonetheless prestige has geopolitical bearing, it may not simply be vanity). Putin who, far more than most Western leaders, actually engages in geopolitical analysis correctly, in my view, in his pre-war speech in February 2022 located the threat from Ukraine and NATO as being if, for example, rogue elements in Ukraine took advantage of the NATO umbrella to launch an attempt to retake Crimea thereby drawing NATO and Russia into an open conflict. There may be others in Russian circles of power who object on other grounds and who really see NATO as an objective military threat.


In his afterword Sakwa describes the parlous state of the Ukrainian economy in the period immediately after Maidan, with rising national debt and high inflation. 

Sakwa reviews a theory which analyses Ukraine in terms of postcolonial theory. In this view Ukraine is a country which has to free itself from the baleful cultural influence of the former colonial power – Russia. This explains, and justifies, why Ukraine should focus so strongly on mandating the Ukrainian language. Sakwa, of course, rejects the analysis of “settlers” (Russians) and indigenous Ukrainians. According to him, pluralists would argue that the proximity of Ukrainian and Russian culture in Ukraine means that they are both inheritors of the same state. Sakwa supports this view. 

Sakwa reiterates his view that Maidan started as a genuine movement against the corrupt bureaucratic-oligarchy but was captured by nationalists. 

At the time of writing Sakwa was proposing a solution for Ukraine which finds a way for the two communities, “monists” and “pluralists” to co-exist.  He acknowledges the possibility of a split but still argues for a federalised solution. As of today, October 2023, it seems more likely that the solution will entail some kind of split. 

On the front of freedom of speech and “human rights”, Sakwa catalogues a disturbing series laws banning media outlets, murders and “suicides” of journalists, blacklisting of cultural figures, banning of films, and laws to say what could be expressed in public (for example; it became illegal to say that 20th century fighters for Ukrainian independence had not been figthing a just cause or to propagandize for Soviet Communism) in Ukraine. Needless to say this kind of repressive environment attracts far more vocal criticism in the West when it happens in Russia than in Ukraine. As Sakwa comments there seems to be a belief in Western capitals that these problems will all sort themselves out over time. 


Sakwa’s analysis and attribution of blame for the Ukraine crisis, needless to say, differs wildly from that of the Western media and political classes; an alliance of old-style “hawks” and democracy exporters. In Sakwa’s telling the roots of the crisis lie in a fateful conjunction of, on the one hand, unresolved but resolvable internal political contradictions within Ukraine and, on the other, a stupidly [4] anti-Russia policy from the US, which interpreted any expression of a desire for diplomatic parity and respect for its own interests from Russia as evidence of “aggression”, which had to be put down; that is they sought the final defeat of Russia. The EU contributed by trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit without being willing to discuss the real impact that would have on Russia with Russia. Once the crisis they had created started to unfold they simply failed to produce an adequate response. As we all know, the narrative of the West, and now most of the EU, is that Russia is to blame for the Ukraine crisis by illegally annexing Crimea and trying to infiltrate Donbas, which actions were illegal and a challenge to the “international rules-based world order”. In this version Russia is not a rational actor insisting on its own interests but, rather, a rogue actor which commits acts of aggression simply out of some essence of wrongness or, at best, out of a desire to recreate the USSR or the Russian Empire. Their actions are always “unprovoked” and “unjustified”. The most obvious difference between the two narratives is that Sakwa’s is supported with detailed evidence and coherent, connected, analysis. The official Western narrative is simply asserted. As Sakwa points out, it depends on axiomatic principles. These are core principles which are self-evidently true and thus do not need to be explained. Russia is a rogue actor, inherently aggressive, for example. 

It does emerge from the presentation that Russia had a specific goal in mind (though their views on what to do about Donbas varied over time); the aim was to support autonomy for the rebel republics within Ukraine and maintain influence over Ukraine as a whole, to prevent it drifting Westwards, certainly into NATO and also to the EU, though the attitude towards Ukraine joining the EU is more complicated and Sakwa suggests that ultimately if the problems this created for Russia could have been addressed, the Kremlin would not oppose it. (Even recently in 2023 Putin has indicated he would not block Ukraine joining the EU [5]). Specifically then the Kremlin did not want to annex the LDNR territories; a simple division of Ukraine would have meant them losing any influence over the rest of the country and they had not given up that goal. 

Since independence from the USSR Ukraine had solved the problem of the two rival communities by, in effect, taking turns to occupy the Presidency. But this was not a sustainable solution. The Maidan represented a crisis; from the point of view of those in the East, the other ‘side’ had not played fair. They had seized the centre in some kind of a coup and then turned on the East and sought to deny them their voice. This is certainly Putin’s view. After Maidan, figures in polls for joining NATO were still low, (though rising as the war dragged on and the country became more polarised). Sakwa acknowledges that some of Russian fears around NATO may have been exaggerated though certainly not groundless. I would add there is a possibility that the Kremlin underestimated the extent of feeling in Ukraine that people, (not everyone), wanted to be a separate country and not part of the world of Russian influence. Sakwa cites the veteran US diplomat Henry Kissinger argues that just prior to Maidan when Yanukovych changed his mind about signing the EU Association Agreement, Putin became “over-confident”. “Each side acted sort of rationally based on its misconception of the other, while Ukraine slid into the Maidan uprising.’  From Sakwa’s point of view, the tragedy is that everyone was forced to choose. It was chiefly the EU and US who forced that choice on Ukraine, though Russia could, in his words, have shown more “compassion” towards Ukraine. 

This book is essential reading on the Ukraine crisis. It was written in 2016 but the analysis of the roots of the conflict is not in the least need of revision based on recent events. The author clearly saw at the time that if the path of compromise was not followed then matters would escalate. The work is characterised by wide reading including, unusually, from scholars based in Russia. This is a balanced, responsible, highly moral work of the highest scholarship. As well as being a detailed and thorough analysis of the Ukraine crisis it is also an example of how this kind of scholarship should be done. From a point of view of style we can also commend it; the book is well-organised and well-written. The only fault is perhaps that the final ‘Afterword’ chapter is a little repetitive. On the whole, though, we cannot recommend this book enough.

Sakwa, Richard. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (p. 1). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 


1. Matthews, Owen. Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin and Russia’s War Against Ukraine (p. 52). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

2. Zelensky met Biletsky [Azov] and other militia leaders in an attempt to convince them to surrender their unregistered weapons and accept the peace accord [Minsk]. They refused, and the referendum plan collapsed – and with it any realistic chance of peace in Donbas.

3. Seumas Milne, ‘Far from keeping the peace, Nato is a constant threat to it’, Guardian (4 September 2014).

4. I mean “stupidly” very literally. Sakwa quotes Alexander Lukin who sums up the amazing stupidity very well:

In the West, practically everyone believes its ideology […] This ideology of ‘democratism’ […] is quite simple: Western society, albeit not ideal, is nevertheless more perfect than all the others, it is at the forefront of public progress, and the rest of the world should try to use the Western model as we know it. In principle, this is primitive cultural chauvinism which is characteristic of many nations and countries from small tribes to large civilizations which considered themselves the centre of the universe, and all the others were barbarians. The West’s foreign policy is based on this belief.

Alexander Lukin, professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO),

(Other analysts, of course, emphasise economic rather than ideological factors and point to the need of the US economy to be constantly expanding in order to return profits).