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When an academic ignores inconvenient facts

A review of Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands. Published by I. B. Tauris, London, 2015.

June 21, 2016 - Taras Kuzio - Books and Reviews

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Richard Sakwa is a long-time Russia expert who has little expertise on Ukraine. This is particularly evident from the poor analysis, numerous mistakes and weak sources in his latest book titled Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. These problems are coupled with his Russo-centric and Putin-centric biases and apologia as well as his left-wing anti-Americanism. Sakwa has a penchant for pursuing conspiracy theories, such as believing that the sniper killings of the EuroMaidan protesters were undertaken by Ukrainian nationalists as a false flag operation. This thesis is shared by far-left and right-wing isolationists and realists alike, and such views would appeal as much to UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as it does to the US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – both of whom have indicated they believe that the Russia-Ukraine crisis was a product of two factors.

The first factor, according to this belief, is NATO and EU enlargement and democracy promotion in Russia’s sphere of influence. In his book, Sakwa writes “Ultimately, the Ukraine crisis was about Russia’s refusal to submit itself to Atlanticist hegemony and global dominance”. Although NATO defence spending had been declining and Russia’s increasing, it is NATO that is the “war party”. The European Union, as Sakwa writes, follows the US script on sanctions and threats against Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia is described as a conservative, status quo defensive power that has not challenged international law. It is Sakwa’s belief that Moscow was provoked into reacting to “the threat of NATO enlargement” in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. Sakwa cannot be so naïve as to claim that Russia would accept a neutral Ukraine that is “committed to good governance and a competitive market economy”. It can be easily argued that a democratic Ukraine would represent a threat to the contagion of Putin’s authoritarian regime.

Instead, Sakwa is apologetic and ignores inconvenient facts. The reader is led to believe that the only pressure put on Ukraine was by the EU (not Russia) to join integration projects and that Sevastopol should have been included in the Russian state in 1991. In Crimea, as in Georgia in 2008, he views Russia’s intervention as an “opportunistic reaction to the developments and installation of an anti-Russian nationalistic government in Kiev” and “an angry and ad hoc response to Yanukovych’s overthrow”. On top of this is the racist view of Crimea as “the heartland of Russian nationhood” which assumes its history began in the 1780s. If such an argument were used in the Americas, it would mean their history began when European colonists arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Downplaying Russian military support (despite massive evidence to the contrary) is connected with his downplaying of Putin’s nationalism. Sakwa writes that he “is not an ideologue” and “remains rational and pragmatic”. Yet, there is no mention of the Budapest Memorandum signed by Russia, which guaranteed Ukraine’s borders in return for its nuclear disarmament (Russia also recognised them in its 1997 treaty with Ukraine). In the aftermath of the conflicts in Crimea and Donbas, he makes the astonishing claim that Russia “has become the most consistent defender of Ukraine’s sovereignty within its new borders”. Blaming only Ukraine for violating the Minsk accords flies in the face of evidence that Russia, between Minsk 1 and 2, built the separatists into a 35-40,000-strong force larger than 14 out of 28 NATO armies and established a shadow government over the separatist enclaves whose budgets are 70-90 per cent funded by Moscow. Instead of dismantling and reintegrating the separatist enclaves, Moscow has helped them transform into pseudo-states.

In April 2016, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe described Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine as “hybrid annexation”. Sakwa, on the other hand, writes that “the extent of Moscow’s material and personnel support is far from clear” and compares Russian “advisers” to those “in the early stages of US interventions”. He also downplays Putin’s plans to detach Novorossiya’s (“New Russia”) eight regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, first outlined by Putin in a speech at the 2008 NATO Summit and defeated not by Putin’s pragmatism, but by Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots.

The second factor for the crisis, as seen from this point of view, is Ukrainian nationalism, its intolerance of Russian speakers and Russophobia. Sakwa has created a mythical dichotomy of a Ukraine divided between “monism” and “pluralism”, with nationalists backing the monism refusing to recognise Ukraine’s diversity. While deriding “monists” with ideological roots in inter-war integral nationalism, he praises the Party of Regions for its “comprehensive vision” of Ukraine. By doing so, Sakwa idealises a mafia, authoritarian and Russophile political party. This party had no interest in Ukrainian-Russian equality in language, history or religion, but rather imposed the views of the Sovietophile Donbas upon the remainder of Ukraine (which ultimately led to the EuroMaidan uprising).

Of Ukraine’s six presidents, only one was from western Ukraine. Eastern Ukrainian political forces have won pluralities in five out of seven parliamentary elections. Hence, it is unclear as to why eastern Ukrainian presidents and political parties would implement “nationalising” Russophobic policies with its inspiration in western Ukrainian nationalism. Negative depictions of the “monist” nationalists who seek a future for their country in Europe outside the Russian World lie in Soviet and contemporary Russian denigrations of them as “bourgeois nationalists” and “Nazi hirelings”. Sakwa appears to be even more naïve in his belief that Russian as a state language in Belarus “is not perceived as a threat to Belarusian identity”, a claim he makes in support of Russian becoming a state language in Ukraine. In supporting a long-standing Russian position, Sakwa is at odds with all western experts and shows his lack of understanding of the relationship between language, identity and power.

On the contrary, Donbas and Crimean separatists do not seek equality of Russian and Ukrainian languages, but a return to a Soviet hierarchy where Russian is dominant and defined as the language of progress, and Ukrainian is derided as uncouth and a peasant tongue. Russian speakers in Ukraine can be divided into those who accept Ukrainian as a language and those who view it as a dialect. The latter clings to a Soviet identity and continues to view Russian as the language to be used by the three branches of the Russkii narod (Russian people) – Great, Little and White Russians. They are vehemently opposed to seeing the Russian language as a language of a national minority in Ukraine. In his backing of this view, Sakwa is at odds with the Council of Europe, the OSCE and other bodies that gave Ukraine high marks for its treatment of national minorities and the peaceful resolution of Crimean separatism in the 1990s. They did not find the threats to Russian speakers in Crimea that Putin used to justify his annexation.

In fact, the majority of Ukraine’s Russian speakers are patriots of their country. They represent two-thirds of the soldiers on the front lines (which this reviewer visited in March and May of this year) and even higher proportions in nationalist battalions like Right Sector and Azov. Sakwa, and Russian leaders, cannot comprehend how and why Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots defeated Putin’s imperialist plans in Donbas and Novorossiya. The Russian-speaking Jewish population of Ukraine supported the EuroMaidan and Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, and Jews have fled the separatist enclaves. As any Ukrainian kiosk will show, the majority of print media and books published in Ukraine are in the Russian language.

Moreover, Ukrainian nationalist parties have the lowest support in any European country, and have only come to power in one out of seven elections. In 2014, they received a combined six per cent but neither of the two parties won seats. While claiming “radicalised Ukrainian nationalist elites” control the parliament, Sakwa completely ignores the impact of Russian nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia on the crisis and conflict. Russian fascists, Cossacks, Orthodox zealots and Eurasianist-imperialists have flocked to fight alongside Donbas separatists. Influential Eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, who called for genocide against Ukrainians in the spring of 2014, is mentioned in passing on two pages of Sakwa’s book.

The repression of Crimean Tatars is never mentioned and instead we read the incredible claim that they “welcomed the reunification with Russia” and that “Crimean Tatars are ready to be loyal citizens of Russia”. Sakwa’s choice of “reunification” rather than “annexation” is consistent with his condemnation of the term “land grab”. Sakwa ignores the wide prevalence of Russian chauvinism and repression against Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar language, education, media and religious institutions and the illegal detention of over 30 Ukrainian and Tatar political prisoners. Religious intolerance is only mentioned against the Russian Orthodox Church; as a non-Ukrainian expert he does not know that the majority of the parishes of Ukraine’s three Orthodox confessions are not to be found in eastern Ukraine, but in the western and central regions. When discussing crimes only those allegedly committed by Ukrainian forces are highlighted, ignoring reports by the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and human rights organisations that lay most blame for human rights abuses and war crimes (including executions and massacres of Ukrainian soldiers) on Russian and separatist forces.

Sakwa’s greatest biases and weak expertise on Ukraine is reflected in his sources. He never undertook field research in Ukraine except for a guest lecture in Kyiv and a visit to Odesa to confirm his pre-judged views of Ukrainian nationalists killing pro-Russian patriots (he only uses the term “nationalists” in relation to the Ukrainian side) on May 2nd 2014. The book has barely any interviews with Ukrainian experts and politicians, never once cites President Petro Poroshenko and his 16 Ukrainian sources are mainly from the Kyiv Post. President Putin, whose views are considered more important, is referenced 31 times while Russian sources receive 75 entries, including the highly-biased Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “White Book” on the alleged discrimination of Russian speakers and the Odesa riots.

Sakwa’s book is an example of ideologically driven political science where the “facts” are selectively collected to fit a pre-determined conclusion. If I received a student essay with such a blatant bias, poor use of sources and no attempt at being objective it would be returned with low grades or failed. Over a decade ago President Leonid Kuchma wrote a book entitled Ukraine is not Russia, which I thoroughly recommend Sakwa reads. A second edition could be retitled as Ukraine is not Russia or Belarus.

Taras Kuzio has a PhD in political science from the University of Birmingham, UK, and was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. His latest book Ukraine. Democratization, Corruption and the New Russian Imperialism (2015) is a modern political history of Ukraine from 1953 to the present.

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