Reviews On the frontlines of disinformation. Academic packaging of old stereotypes
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 103-106.
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 23, 2016
On November 30, 2015, two years had passed since a peaceful student demonstration at the Maidan in Kyiv was dispersed by the police, and the process referred to in Ukraine as “the revolution of dignity” began. Ukraine once again became a hot topic after an extended period of “Ukraine fatigue” among Western politicians and media. As the events escalated into street fighting in Kyiv and other cities, and with the Russian occupation of Crimea and armed intervention in Donbas, a host of writers offered their interpretations of the events.
Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European history at Kent University in the UK, has been writing about the Soviet Union and Russia since the 1980s. His fifth book in as many years, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, was first published in the UK in the winter of 2014—2015. In September, it was released in Sweden in translation.
Sakwa takes great pains to present an alternative view to the established image of Russia as a belligerent and revisionist power that encroaches on the sovereignty of nonaligned neighbors, and that routinely threatens all neighboring countries, with the possible exception of the rather compliant Belarus. Ukraine is depicted as a failed state from the perspective of nation- and state-building. Although it is a conglomerate of cultures and traditions, the country has, Sakwa maintains, been run as an ethno-culturally homogeneous state since gaining independence in 1991. This supposed process has resulted in much damage and bitterness. The “February Revolution”, which is what Sakwa calls the take-over of power by the opposition, was hijacked by the extreme right. Groups on the extreme right constituted an important element of the motley street opposition in Kyiv to President Yanukovych from the very first days of the protests.
This radicalized the people in Crimea and Donbas. It also compelled Russia to take steps — in accordance with its defense doctrine — to rescue the Russian and Russian-speaking population in Ukraine from the ill-treatment by the Ukrainian government set in motion by these dark forces. In Sakwa’s interpretation, the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea, as well as its aid to the separatists in Donbas, were improvised as the events unfolded, and were nothing more than a reasonable reaction to the events in Kyiv.
The author identifies two main causes of the Ukrainian drama. The enlargement of the EU, and especially the expansion of NATO, together constitute the first cause. The European Union had been increasingly viewed by Russia as too bound up with transatlantic structures. These structures (above all NATO) have expanded right up to the borders of Russia, provoking much anxiety among its ruling class. A more equitable new security arrangement should have been on offer at the end of the Cold War, rather than one rooted in, as Sakwa sees it, Western triumphalism. Therefore, he writes, Russia was compelled to put its foot down in the case of Ukraine. The development of a Ukraine on a path towards the EU (Sakwa is not, however, talking about the country’s prospects of becoming an actual member in the foreseeable future), and then towards NATO (an even more uncertain prospect) is depicted as inevitable. Ultimately, it is the US that stands behind these negative developments. Since the 1990s, it has enjoyed the comforts of a unipolar world order, celebrating it with a series of misguided armed interventions around the world. The other force, or perhaps culprit, behind the Ukrainian drama is the ethnic nationalism present in the country. According to Sakwa, it has exerted a disproportionate influence on Ukrainian politics and society, although its geographic and demographic core is confined to the country’s western regions. Unless the West and the Kyiv government come to their senses, Europe may drift into war just as it did in 1914. In this fatal year, war rhetoric was whipped up by states already preprogrammed for war, as Sakwa worrisomely suggests in the book’s dramatic opening.
Most of the information Sakwa presents strikes me as derived from the East, and reflects the Russian perspective as canalized by its media and the ruling class. There are a number of Russian stereotypes about Ukraine. The strongest of those is the view of the Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians as potential extremists, Ukrainian culture as systemically inferior to Russian culture, and Ukraine as predestined to failure as a state. In this interpretation, the terms “monistic” and “pluralistic” symbolize the two main political orientations in Ukrainian politics. The former is based on ethnic nationalism, while the latter is more ethnically all-embracing. In Sakwa’s book, “monists” are dubbed “orangists”, while the “pluralists” are referred to as the “blues”. The names refer to the two political camps that arose in connection with the Orange Revolution of 2004—2005 and became dormant more or less as soon as the revolution ended. The former presidents Yushchenko and Yanukovych represent the two camps: Yushchenko the orange; Yanukovych the blue. Those terms are a part of a Russian landscape of media and political language. In Ukraine, “the orange” died politically even before Yushchenko was pushed out of politics in the presidential election of autumn 2009.
Yanukovych and the former Party of Regions can by no means be depicted as defenders of pluralistic values with a sensitivity for cultural differences, I would argue. Few groups in power in post-independence Ukraine have been less interested in channeling cultural and regional differences through politics than the exiled former president and his closest allies. Instead, they cynically exploited the image of such sensitivity, as indicated by their very name, as well as by numerous official statements. They have also been depicted as heralds of freedom and cultural diversity by Russian media. Ukrainian nationalism is described as being ethnic and exclusive over a period of some eighty years. In the book, Ukrainian nationalism seems to have kept the same steady course since the interwar period, as Sakwa refuses to take into account the multi-ethnic Ukrainian state and the complicated language situation.
civic nationalism grew in strength during the fighting in Independence Square, and its was further accelerated by the war conducted against Ukraine by Russia. However, just like most Russian observers and authorities, along with many European leftist intellectuals, he exaggerates right-wing extremism in Ukraine. Sakwa admits that both elections were legitimate but still claims the presidential election in May 2014 did not really reflect the will of the people because voting did not take place in all of the electoral constituencies in Donbas. To Sakwa, the Ukrainian extreme right seems to be an ideologically homogeneous creation. However, Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher and refugee from Crimea and an ethnic Russian, talks about ideologically heterogeneous extreme right-wing movements. Of these, only Svoboda1 — no longer in the Ukrainian parliament since autumn of 2014 — can be said to represent traditional ethnic nationalism. Right Sector represents a kind of nationalism open to Ukrainians of different ethnic backgrounds. Some right-wing militants are involved in the volunteer battalion Azov, which seems be ideologically close to contemporary European neo-Nazism. Unlike Svoboda, the Right Sector and Azov contain a strong Russophone element. All three did disastrously in both the presidential and parliamentary elections. Those who exaggerate the influence of right-wing extremism on Ukrainian politics must be able to explain the parliamentary result.
Sakwa claims the concept “New Russia” (Novorossiia) entered the popular discourse in 2014. But the name was implanted by Russian media and especially Vladimir Putin. However, the actual historical province of New Russia did not exist for 150 years, as Putin had claimed, but for a total of about twenty years spread out over a period of some 150 years. Its boundaries also shifted considerably over time and were never fixed, and in particular not to the territory claimed by Putin in his speech that Sakwa cites on page 194. The Russian president mentions Kharkiv as part of the province (which it never was), but “forgets” to mention the region and town of Dnipropetrovsk, probably because of its Russian-speaking population’s general embrace of Ukrainian statehood, and its active part in the defense against Russian aggression in the east. Like several other historical concepts, New Russia is a term exhumed in order to be used in a campaign of revisionism. As proof of New Russia being on everyone’s lips in 2014, Sakwa employs the work “New Russia — resurrected from the ashes”, one of many pamphlets that, as if by coincidence, flooded the Russian book market in 2014, caricaturing Ukrainian state formation and culture.
Russian perceptions of neighboring countries, and the securitization thereof, are taken as objective, and are used as evidence of Western and Ukrainian politicians’ lack of responsibility. States between Russia and Germany are treated as a gray mass with limited sovereignty. Without question, we are led to believe, the right to choose political and economic unions, or military alliances, does not apply to the countries such as Poland or the Baltic states.
“Frontline Ukraine” appears to be a new front of information warfare on the situation in Ukraine. It has garnered good reviews in the leftist press, and was recently used by a Marxist author who claimed connections between European liberals and right-wing extremism. The claim that Ukraine is “a country that is in many respects a different side of Russia itself, while Russia is inevitably a part of the Ukrainian identity” has lost its meaning since the book’s publication. The new Ukrainian defense doctrine includes — not surprisingly — Russia as a central part of the threat against the Ukrainian state. If Russia is part of Ukrainian identity, as Sakwa claims, it is increasingly so as an enemy state — due to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Unfortunately, Ukraine is also a part of Russian identity. Only when Ukraine is viewed as a real state by the Russian political class and Russian citizens, and its culture and people are respected, will normalization be possible. As long as the phantom pains of the lost parts of the empire make themselves felt in Russia, Ukraine will need strong backing from the West to become a modern and democratic European state.
Lamentable consequences of careless handling of sources and footnotes in Sakwa’s book have already appeared. In a recent article in Baltic Worlds, Don Kalb presents a supposed alliance of bourgeoisie and rightist extremists in Ukraine. His knowledge of the recent developments in the country is largely shaped by Sakwa’s book, to which he makes eight references. Two references are ultimately to an article by Keith Giessen, who speculates as to the bloodthirstiness of Ukrainians from the western parts of the country and the capital. When writing about the Odessa “massacre” (Kalb), Sakwa refers to official Russian government material. Giessen draws a conclusion (the famous “Why not kill them all”) after encounters with persons who are never mentioned by name. Employing the works of both gentlemen, Kalb spells out the well-known repertoire of statements about the Maidan and subsequent Ukrainian politics. Thus one finds omnipotent extreme nationalists, either Svoboda (out of parliament since October 2014) or the Right Sector (whose leader failed utterly in the presidential race), which is thoroughly outside mainstream politics. “They are the Jobbik of Western Ukraine”, one learns. They snatched the Maidan from the people, eliminating other forces. Still, Kalb suggests, echoing Sakwa’s difficulties in explaining the lack of right-wing electoral success throughout 2014, it was a people’s uprising.2 However, Kyiv’s “middle classes and intelligentsia” allied themselves with the extremists, who, once the victory was snatched from other Maidan groups, “pointed their fists” against Russian speakers and Russia. This process was supposedly illustrated by the events in Odessa on May 2, 2014 (again, Russian speakers against Russian speakers).3 Kalb does not dwell on why those urban “middle classes”, overwhelmingly Russian — speaking, would ally themselves with groups he describes as national-socialist, only to attack Russophones in other parts of Ukraine.
Sakwa’s work and Kalb’s article suggest there is not much that might influence the minds of those uncomfortable with the prevailing geopolitical, political, and financial order in Europe. Those self-fashioned freethinkers constitute a motley group. There are those who view themselves as alternative voices, and are frequently found among several Green, leftist, and populist parties of Western Europe. Then there are the scholars engaged in Eurasian and/or Slavic studies who nourish emotional and professional ties to Russia that often predate its re-creation in 1991.4 Finally, there are various right-wing forces in Europe, with Marine Le Pen’s Front National or the Hungarian Jobbik at the forefront. With those parties the Kremlin is only too happy to retain cordial ties, a fact frequently missed by the critics of Maidan and post-Maidan developments in Ukraine. In addition, there are mainstream political parties and politicians who, although critical of Russia for its actions over the last years, look for ways to reestablish the lucrative relations of former times.5
I would like to emphasize the basic principles of historical enquiry. These include careful evaluation of source material, along with assigning it importance according to its analytic and explanatory value. This process, in turn, is determined by the spatial and chronological proximity of the documents to the events, and their dependence on other sources and agents outside the processes studied. Are the documents in front of me produced by deeply partisan groups or people? If so, how can they be used — if at all? These are a few of many questions that face a historian during the research process.
One is also, I presume, supposed to present the position of one’s adversaries, and not in a slipshod or parodic way, before presenting one’s own position. If the abovementioned principles are not followed, what is portrayed as an academic work will turn into a polemical endeavor at best, and disinformation at worst.≈
1 Sometimes refered to in English as “Freedom”, or “The Freedom Party”.
2 Don Kalb, “Theory from the Past? Double Polarization versus Democratic Transitions”, Baltic Worlds v8, no. 3—4, 27.
3 Kalb, “Theory from the Past?” 28.
4 Serhii Plokhy, Ukraine and Russia: Representations of the Past (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2008), 249, 296—299.
5 Van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine, 99—112; 199—211; 241—258.