Book review: Richard Sakwa, 'Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands'

Cover - Richard Sakwa - Frontline in Ukraine- I B Taurus.jpg

Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine is both a searing critique of Western policies after the Cold War and a thorough revision of cheerful and monochrome accounts of Ukraine’s latest revolution.  


Serhiy Kudelia
11 February 2015

When in 1989 the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called on European leaders to ‘learn how to make peace together’ rather than ‘prepare for war,’ he argued in favour of a cooperative approach to European security that would lay the foundations of a ‘common European home.’ For some observers, it was the utopian dream of an idealist Soviet leader who misread both the intentions of Western leaders and the attitudes at home. For others, it was a cynical ploy meant to maintain a semblance of Soviet influence on the continent when it was running out of resources to placate satellite nations, and even feed its own people.

For the University of Kent Professor Richard Sakwa, in his new book Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Gorbachev’s vision of ‘Greater Europe’ was a realistic alternative to the strategy of ‘Wider Europe,’ which the West ultimately, and fatefully, pursued. This strategic choice set in motion another gradual divergence of Russia and the West culminating in their clash over the ‘borderland.’ Frontline Ukraine is both a searing critique of Western policies after the Cold War and a thorough revision of cheerful and monochrome accounts of Ukraine’s latest revolution. 

Sakwa, a prolific scholar of Russian politics, traces the origins of renewed East-West conflict to an asymmetric nature of the Cold War’s end. It left Russia excluded from the new international order and made the Kremlin view NATO enlargement as part of the master plan to cement the country’s marginal and inferior position. Meanwhile, the EU couched its integration agenda with post-Soviet states in the rhetoric of ‘choice’ implying a mutual incompatibility of European and Eurasian projects. On top of that, the rise of US-led liberal interventionism in the form of aggressive democracy promotion programmes became, in the Kremlin’s eyes, a covert attempt to further limit its influence in the ‘near abroad’ by changing those governments sympathetic to Moscow. As a result, Russia emerges in the book as a ‘defensive’ power seeking to reclaim its status as an equal partner and protect its interests in the neighbouring states with Ukraine being at the top of the list. 

Irreconcilable platforms

While external crisis around Ukraine resulted from the mixture of Western myopia and Russian insecurity, its internal crisis was triggered by a clash of two irreconcilable ideological platforms. Sakwa characterises them broadly as a monist and a pluralist view of the country’s future. The former is rooted in the tradition of integral nationalism, and seeks to re-establish Ukraine as a homogeneous nation united around a single language, shared view of the past and unitary model of statehood. Pluralists, by contrast, pursue the recognition of Ukraine’s ethno-linguistic and historical diversity and seek regional empowerment. The Anti-Yanukovych uprising under the EU banners turned this ideological debate into a fierce and increasingly violent battle.

Ukraine’s internal crisis was triggered by a clash of two irreconcilable ideological platforms

Sakwa makes the utmost attempt to demonstrate the complexity of causal chains and inherent ambiguity of the events central to his story. Each new chapter offers a different level of analysis challenging his reader to understand how the combinations on separate ‘chessboards’ interacted to produce a meta-game between all players involved. He is also careful in laying out different interpretations of the most contested episodes. For example, his discussion of the massacre of protesters on Maidan details both the official version blaming President Yanukovych and the alternative investigations pointing to the culpability of the opposition’s far-Right groups. Overall, the author carefully avoids presenting unverified journalistic reports as facts, conscious that the media itself has been a party to the conflict. In fact, as he points out, it was the ‘unholy alliance of opportunistic politicians and subservient media’ spinning this conflict out of control. 

Yet, this book is not an attempt to present a detailed blow-by-blow account of last year’s turmoil in Ukraine. Rather, Sakwa offers a new approach to understanding the sudden eruption of a new violent hotspot on the world map. Fundamentally, it rests on the recognition of the power of collective ideas and individual perceptions in moving history. In doing so, he makes several important contributions.

Sakwa offers a new approach to understanding the sudden eruption of a new violent hotspot on the world map 

New approach

Firstly, Sakwa reveals interconnections between the popular uprising against Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation in Crimea, pro-Russia counter-mobilisation in eastern Ukraine, and the armed conflict in Donbas. He presents them as standard stages of the revolutionary process through which Ukraine moved in ‘an almost farcical, certainly tragic’ manner. While the Euromaidan protest started as a movement for accountability and good governance, its ‘militarised agenda of national liberation’ gradually came to dominate the movement. This resulted in the narrowing of the middle ground between competing ideological visions of Ukraine and the strengthening of their extremes. As Sakwa notes, Ukraine’s disintegration began in response to the rising militancy of Maidan, but it was then used by the militant part of the coalition to trump the civic-minded aspirations of the pluralists.

Secondly, the book shows how two types of confrontations – international and domestic – reinforced each other with disastrous consequences. Hence, Russia’s policy on Ukraine can be understood only in the context of Putin’s bitterness towards the West, while Ukraine’s internal ideological battles gained intensity with the heightening of East-West tensions. Interestingly, Russia is characterised in the book as a conservative power willing to maintain status quo rather than a revisionist state bent on destroying world order.  

Thirdly, Sakwa attempts to show the ‘subjectivity’ of the rebellion and legitimacy of the rebels’ initial demands. Initial self-defence units in Donbas were composed largely of locals harbouring genuine animosity to the nationalist programme of the new Ukrainian government. The government’s ill-fated attempt to subdue them by force and the use of dehumanising terms, however, further radicalised Kyiv’s opponents, expanded their local base of support and left little ground for a compromise. While Moscow assisted the nascent insurgency and exploited it to pressure Kyiv for policy concessions, it did not manufacture the rebellion. However, the swift demonisation of Putin as a new Hitler, which ‘entered the bloodstream of discourse in the Western world,’ meant that the local preferences were no longer relevant for designing the Western response to the conflict. As a result, the West, along with Ukrainian authorities, concentrated on dealing with the symptoms of the crisis – Russia’s aggressive moves towards Ukraine -– without addressing its causes. 

While Moscow assisted the nascent insurgency and exploited it to pressure Kyiv, it did not manufacture the rebellion.


Despite its clear strengths, the book has its own shortcomings. Sakwa takes a pointedly neutral view on the evolution of Russia’s political regime, putting the blame for its exclusion from Europe primarily on Western leaders. Their policies, however, were designed partially in response to the transformation of Putin’s rule. Russia’s swift authoritarian regression in the early 2000s, and rejection of Europe’s conditionality policies ruled out any integrative projects with the EU. The subsequent spillover of Putin’s internal crackdown against the Russian opposition, into EU member-states, precluded even substantive bilateral dialogue with some European capitals. In his prior books – The Crisis of Russian Democracy (2010) and The Quality of Freedom: Putin, Khodorkovsky and the Yukos Affair (2009) – Sakwa deals extensively with the ‘democratic deficit’ of Russia’s institutional order, weakened by the arbitrary and extra-judicial practices of its ruling factions. It would seem no less relevant to discuss this when searching for causes of Russia’s estrangement from the West. 

The book’s account of Russia’s motives is also, at times, contradictory. The author explains the Crimean annexation as driven by strategic needs to maintain military presence in the Black Sea. At the same time, he implies that Putin’s decision resulted from his rage ‘at the coming to power of Russophobic nationalists’ in Kyiv. Rational calculations and emotional outbursts are ascribed to Putin with equal ease, and seem to carry equal weight in the story. 

The book’s account of Russia’s motives is also, at times, contradictory.

Sakwa also argues, rather incredulously, that the Ukrainian government could have prevented the loss of Crimea with ‘timely concessions’ on Russian language, federalism and ‘other long-term demands.’ It is difficult to imagine that Putin could have trusted the policies of the very government he refused to recognise as legitimate, and which he characterised as Western puppets. His hurry with the removal of the Kyiv-appointed prime minister, and the imposition of Moscow’s loyalist, or the rush to the Crimean referendum, with no concern for formalities indicate that Putin was set on the peninsula’s capture. 

Similarly, the author thinks that the ‘deal’ between Yanukovych and the opposition could have worked had ‘Western powers and Russia served as guarantors’ and the opposition was ‘less populist.’ This also seems unrealistic – after a public massacre on Maidan neither the opposition nor Western leaders could restraint protesters on the streets. It was the fear of the crowd seeking accountability for the fallen ‘heavenly hundred’ that drove Yanukovych and his cronies out of Kyiv on the night of February 21 

While being prescient in describing Russia’s views of excessive Western meddling in Ukraine, Sakwa also seems to suggest that Putin’s policy was almost exclusively about standing up to American hegemony. He describes the takeover of Crimea as Putin’s ‘bold stroke’ – a strange accolade to a blatant violation of international law – and interprets it as a conscious ‘challenge to the US right to draw red lines.’ This overlooks the inherent value Putin has attached to maintaining Ukraine within Moscow’s political orbit, and the threat he associates with the precedents of irregular power transfers in neighbouring states. Instead of serving as a model for the Russian opposition, Ukraine now stands as a sad reminder of the tragic consequences often associated with revolutionary oustings.

Finally, the book ascribes a pluralist ideology to the separatist movement in Donbas, but it also later recognises that ‘its ultimate goals were probably unclear even to its participants.’ The insurgency, driven, among other things, by the rejection of all things Ukrainian, was anything but pluralist. It was, as Sakwa correctly argues, a response to the perceived political domination of Ukrainian ‘monists.’ Still, its leaders and many foot soldiers supported the same ‘monist’ slogans only under a different flag and with a different nation in mind. Their anti-fascist rhetoric served as the same ‘empty signifier’ as the pro-EU rhetoric of the right-wing militants on Maidan. 

A thoughtful corrective

On balance, Frontline Ukraine stands tall on its merits. It offers a thoughtful and vividly written corrective to numerous existing ideological accounts of the Ukrainian upheaval. It also makes a compelling case that the dual crises in and around Ukraine are as much a doing of the political elites in Kyiv and the West as they are of Russia.

The consequences of the two ‘crises’ for Ukraine and the world have already proven disastrous. A ‘reconfigured form of bureaucratic-oligarchic power’ continues ruling the country with little if any serious reforms implemented during the year since Yanukovych’s removal. Decentralisation remains as much of a shallow promise now as it was last March. Ukrainian society has been mired in mutual recriminations, infused with militant and hateful rhetoric, and stripped bare by the economic debacle. The uncompromising rhetoric of Ukrainian rulers, emboldened by hawkish US policy-makers, means that ‘anti-terrorist operations’ will remain their preferred policy.

Meanwhile, the devastation of the region, and destroyed livelihood of its residents, become just so much collateral damage in the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the US. Sakwa predicts that it will not be a brief face-off, but rather turn into a prolonged showdown, albeit less intense than the Cold War. If true, the ‘wild fields’ of Donbas will become the final burying ground for the idea of ‘Europe whole and free.’

Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands is published by I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd on 18 Dec 2014.

Standfirst image: Cover of Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands by I.B. Tauris.

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