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The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History by Serhii Plokhy – A Recent Book by an Elite Historian on the Current Situation in Ukraine and How we got Here

By Manoel Chavanne

Map of Ukraine taken from Wikipedia

With the full scale invasion entering its third year and the war its second decade I decided to refresh my memory by reading a recent publication about it and a bit of research made me pick “The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History” by Serhii Plokhy.

Serhii Plokhy is a Ukrainian historian who grew up in Zaporizhzhia. He currently teaches Ukrainian history and has been the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University since 2013. He is the author of numerous books on, of course, Ukrainian history but also the end of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the Cuban missile crisis.

His latest work was published in May last year and was written between the beginning of the full scale invasion on February 24th, 2002 and February 2023 so for a history book it's pretty much as current as it can get. Roughly the first half of the book is spent covering the history of Ukraine, its relationship with its giant neighbor, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the annexation of Crimea. Although I already knew a lot of the developments covered in this part of the book it was my favorite as Plokhy has clearly done extensive research and uses a wide range of amazing facts, quotes and anecdotes to explain the chain of events to his readers.

For example, he highlights the fact that Ukraine and its people suffered more than Russians when the Soviet Union collapsed yet democracy prevailed here and not there. “Sixty-two percent of Ukrainians found themselves below the poverty line of US $21.00 per month in 1995, as compared to less than 50 percent of Russians in 1993. But democracy survived in Ukraine despite numerous difficulties common to the post-Soviet states, societies, and economies.”

Another anecdote I appreciated from this part of the book was a point we've all heard in the past couple of years “What if Ukraine had kept its nukes?” but hindsight is 20/20 and to read that this exact point was made in 1993 and to none other than the president of the US is quite interesting. “A few months into the Clinton presidency, the renowned political scientist and international relations expert John Mearsheimer published an article in Foreign Affairs arguing that Ukraine should be encouraged to keep its nuclear weapons, not pressured to give them up. In Mearsheimer’s view that was the most effective way to prevent a Russo-Ukrainian war, which he characterized as a “disaster” that could lead to the reconquest of Ukraine and “injure prospects for peace throughout Europe.” He argued: “Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression. If the U.S. aim is to enhance stability in Europe, the case against a nuclear-armed Ukraine is unpersuasive.””

One last example were the prescient words of the president of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, who told Bill Clinton “After decades of Soviet domination, we are all afraid of Russia,” adding “If Russia again adopts an aggressive foreign policy, this aggression will be directed against Ukraine and Poland. We need America to prevent this.”

In the second part of the book Plokhy covers the first year of the full scale invasion in great details, discussing battle plans, Russian advances and war crimes, the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the reactions of Western leaders, weapons and financial help given to Ukraine and much more. This part of this essay has also been thoroughly investigated and documented by the author and the following quotes highlight better times for Ukrainian foreign aid and weapons deliveries. This was said shortly after the Ukrainian Armed Forces had won the battle of Kharkiv, taken Kupiansk and entered Izium in the first half of September 2022. “You won’t really hear anyone talking against more weapons now, just a chorus of supporters and one or two staying silent,” a senior European diplomat told the Financial Times, commenting on a meeting of Western defense ministers discussing future arms deliveries to Ukraine. “It is 100 per cent true that more weapons mean more Ukrainian territory. And less blood, less tears,” said another official. Sadly I'm sure everyone reading this will be all too aware of how different the situation is as I am typing this sentence up on February 24th, 2024.

The last couple of chapters of the book review the reactions of other countries, what their leaders did and their relationships to Ukraine. Here the author covers Western nations led by the US as expected and followed by the UK, Germany, France, Italy and the Baltic countries but he also examines what China, Turkey, Iran and India did, how they might benefit from this war and what this means for Ukraine.

Overall this was an authoritative read from a reliable author and if you want a refresher course on the history of Ukraine, how we got where we are and a quick geopolitical tour at the end then this is the book for you.


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