Russia & Ukraine: Background to Conflict
The war between Russia and Ukraine is happening on the opposite side of the world and between countries that have different histories and political cultures from our own. Where is there a guide through all this complexity for journalists; policy staff in the U.S. government’s legislative and executive branches; college students at the graduate and undergraduate levels; and civically-minded members of the general public? I’ve sought to provide such a guide in this annotated set of recommended readings. You can read the list here.
The books and articles listed in the bibliography do not take a uniform stance, but they do cluster around the themes of geopolitics, liberty, and state power.
How did the war come to pass? Putin presides over a mafia state. Is the Russian invasion simply an empire-building mafioso Putin on the march?
Ukraine also has had its own dominance of oligarchs. Fortunately, some political freedom and freedom of speech was a by-product of oligarchical rivalry. Putin suppressed and tamed the Yeltsin-era oligarchs–and has since suppressed civil liberties. In contrast, oligarchical rivalry persisted in Ukraine and so did considerable liberty.
How much weight should be given to the geostrategic situation of Russia, vulnerable to invasion across the North European Plain? How important are what political scientists call “security dilemmas,” in which national leaders mistake each other’s intentions? Numerous Russian rulers have sought a buffer on the country’s western front. What weight should be given to NATO expansion? Promises (never put down formally) were made to Russian leaders of “not one inch” of expansion eastward. Encroachment of this sort has historically been seen by Russian decision makers as a strategic threat.
What weight should be placed on widespread Russian beliefs that Ukraine is culturally and linguistically part of Russia? Despite such affinities, Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia have been shaped by such matters as Stalin’s terror-famine of the 1930s and the more recent handling of the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl.
Ukrainian political life after Communism has been a seesaw between pro-Western and pro-Russian leaders. Is the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine a continuation of conflict between Western Europe and Eastern Europe? Is the Russo-Ukrainian clash a clash of civilizations? How influential in Russian ruling circles is the anti-Western ideology of Eurasianism?
Ukraine, especially western Ukraine, has been strongly influenced by Poland. Poland in turn has been influenced by Western European culture. Poland has its own history of “Golden Liberty,” which Ukrainians have known of, even when they didn’t fully enjoy it. Russia turned against the West under Ivan the Terrible, and despite efforts to import or copy Western technology, Russia has never embraced Western values and constitutionalism. Russian nationalism is now highly influential in the country, and Putin has adopted it. Nonetheless, we can hope Russia has the potential to become a nonauthoritarian country. Other countries have surprised historians and political scientists in the past.
If you can read only three items from the annotated bibliography, I suggest that you choose Everyone Loses, by Samuel Charap and Timothy J. Colton; Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall; and “Medieval Geopolitics Help Explain Modern Russia and Ukraine,” by Cathy Young.
Everybody Loses, by Charap and Colton, is an excellent realist analysis of the Russia-Ukraine conflict up to 2014. Decision makers in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere have made zero-sum moves with negative-sum results–hence the major countries involved are worse off.
Marshall’s book, Prisoners of Geography, includes a compact account of geo-strategic aspects of Russo-Ukrainian relations. He points out that the North European Plain (which includes Ukraine) has “repeatedly” been “an encouraging territory from which to attack Russia.” During the past five hundred years, Russia has been fighting “in or around” the North European Plain “once every thirty-five years.”
Young points out in her short article on “Medieval Geopolitics” that the history of Russia and Ukraine shows that going back to the Middle Ages, the political cultures in the two nations have placed different emphases on liberty and state power.