hat is oddÂ is how much rubbish people believe, disregarding what they must know from their own experiences or those of their families,â€ť Tim Judah writes in his new book about Ukraine, In Wartime. Judah, who covered the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia for the Times of London and now works for the Economist, disputes the determinist view of history that asserts conflicts like the Balkan conflagration are inevitable. Where some analysts see â€śancient ethnic hatreds,â€ť Judah detects elite manipulation of public opinion that arouses animosity where it previously did not exist. Struggles that are thought of as primordial are often of recent vintage and have been cynically orchestrated by political opportunists to serve their own ends. That was true in the Balkans, and, as Judah ably argues, it is true when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.
The origins of Russiaâ€™s determination to swallow up at least part of the latter country lie in the 2013 decision by Ukraineâ€™s corrupt former president, Viktor Yanukovych, to abandon a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow. After a popular pro-Western civic movement known as the Maidan (named after Kyivâ€™s central square) took to the streets in protest, Yanukovychâ€™s security forces fired on the crowd and he fled the country for Russia. Recognizing that a Russian-speaking modernized democracy represented the greatest threat to his kleptocratic rule, President Vladimir Putin decided to act. Weeks after Yanukovych absconded, Russian special forcesâ€”disguised as â€ślittle green menâ€ťâ€”seized control of the Crimean peninsula (which Moscow later annexed in the first forced territorial revision of Europe since the Second World War). Russian military units have since deployed to the Donbass, the easternmost region of Ukraine, where their presence is officially denied by Moscow and conveniently ignored by much of the West.
Putinâ€™s rationale for his military intervention in Ukraine is the need to protect ethnic Russians from â€śfascistsâ€ť and â€śneo-Nazisâ€ť in Kyiv. To explain how this lie was devised and spread, Judah highlights the role played by â€śpolitical technologists,â€ť a group peculiar to post-Soviet Russia whose mĂ©tier is akin to that of â€śturbo-spin doctors.â€ť Imagine a Russified Karl Rove or James Carville but even more cynical and with a media almost entirely under state control as his palette, and you only begin to comprehend the dark arts of Russian political technology.
In Ukraine as elsewhere, â€śwhat you believe today depends on what you believe about the past,â€ť Judah observes. And this is where the political technologists ply their trade. â€śRussians need a triumph to give them historical inspiration,â€ť a university professor who moonlights as a chief ideologist for the Donetsk Peopleâ€™s Republicâ€”one of the two pro-Russian rump states established in Donbassâ€”tells Judah. â€śThey need something to believe in for their own future and that of their children.â€ť For todayâ€™s Russian nationalists and their sympathizers abroad, that â€śsomethingâ€ť is Russiaâ€™s struggle against â€śfascism.â€ť
Though the Kyiv protests reflected a broad representation of Ukrainian society and stood for democratic aspirations, Moscow alleged that Yanukovychâ€™s ouster had been effected by a â€śfascist coup dâ€™Ă©tatâ€ť perpetrated by Banderovski, admirers of the late Ukrainian independence leader Stepan Bandera. (A controversial figure, Bandera opportunistically collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviets, though he also spent a spell in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.) While far-right elements were indeed present on the Maidan, the Kremlin has absurdly exaggerated their role in Ukraine, where fascists are far less influential than in Western Europe, never mind Moscow itself.
Visualizing themselves as a redoubt of â€śanti-fascismâ€ť against the new government in Kyiv, pro-Russian elements in Donbass have constructed a society that is a mĂ©lange of nostalgic Soviet kitsch and a more parochial Russian neo-imperialism. An inquisitive and sympathetic reporter who resists the urge to patronize his subjects, Judah introduces us to a wide assortment of colorful individuals, from babushka poets to a Russian Oliver Northâ€“cumâ€“Forrest Gump character who has been involved in seemingly every off-the-books military operation Moscow has conducted across the vast expanse of the former Soviet Union.
A French ex-military intelligence officer who journeyed to Eastern Ukraine to fight on the Russian side against the â€śNew World Orderâ€ť repeats the standard litany of U.S. and EU collusion in the instantiation of a â€śneo-Nazi junta,â€ť whose ultimate purpose is the construction of Ukrainian NATO bases primed to serve as launching pads for an attack on Russia. Despite the Kremlinâ€™s best efforts to portray the conflict as an internal matter, the war in Eastern Ukraine is a conflict of global concern where vital questions of the postwar liberal order and European political settlement are being contested. Indeed, Donbass has become something like a 21st-century Spanish Civil Warâ€”but one in which the main belligerents are states, with Fascists and Communists fighting on the same side.
Owing to local participation in czarist-era pogroms, the Holocaust, and Soviet anti-Semitism, Ukraine has a bad reputation with many Jews. Much has changed, however, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The minimal anti-Semitism Judah encounters is passive, characterized by the 91-year-old man who, when asked what happened to the Jews of his village, matter-of-factly states that the Germans â€śtook care of them.â€ť This impression accords with my own travels in Ukraine; individual Jews and community leaders are generally fierce Ukranian patriots, strong advocates for their countryâ€™s territorial integrity and pro-Western path. Itâ€™s telling that, in the current conflict, rival accusations of anti-Semitism, and not anti-Semitism itself, compete for world attention, with Putin insisting that â€śnationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semitesâ€ť took power in Kyiv while pro-Western Ukrainians level their own charges of anti-Semitism against separatists. Meanwhile, the parliament of Kyivâ€™s supposedly anti-Semitic government voted in a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, in April 2016.
In Wartime is structured geographically, with a panoramic series of vignettes (many of which originated as blog posts and essays for the New York Review of Books) assembled by region. Though this narrative instrument offers a wide survey of contemporary Ukraine, the resulting book is disjointed and occasionally unsatisfying. The limits of Judahâ€™s approach are displayed when a chapter that ends by introducing the flamboyant former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who made an unlikely political comeback as governor of the Odessa region, is followed not by a chapter on this tantalizing subject but rather by one about an Albanian village in Ukrainian Bessarabia. Judah makes up for the organizational muddle with his inviting prose. For instance, resisting the journalistic tendency to write about this complex country in bifurcated terms, Judah observes that various Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs are not so much â€śpro-Russianâ€ť as â€śpro themselves.â€ť
Explaining what happened in the Balkans two decades previously, a Serbian journalist once told Judah that â€śpeople had TV sets for heads.â€ť With the advent of the Internet, Judah observes, â€śthere are even more ways to spread poison, lies, and conspiracy theories.â€ť As Russia suborns disruptive and illiberal forces across Europe and even in our own country, the tactics and narratives it deployed in Ukraine might be a preview of conflicts to come.