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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave

Monday, 6 January 2020

Frontline Ukraine

Any mention of Ukraine at present inevitably focuses on President Trump's impeachment for withholding military aid until Ukraine's President Zelenskiy announced an investigation into the former US vice-president Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter. However, this masks the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the separatist conflict in the east of the country. 

While the recent prisoner exchange may point to some progress in resolving the conflict, I was interested to understand it in greater detail. Richard Sakwa's book 'Frontline Ukraine' has been sitting on my to-read shelf for some time. The reviews indicated that this was a balanced view of the conflict, all be it challenging some of the assumptions we might make based on western media presentations.


Ukraine as a nation-state is a fairly new creation, but the author gives a brief overview of what he fairly describes as borderlands. Winston Churchill once said that the Balkans produces more history than it can absorb, and the author argues the same is true of Ukraine. If you want a proper history then I would recommend 'Ukraine- The Gates of Europe' by Serhii Plokhy. 

This title introduces one of the author's key themes - that Ukraine reflects two Europes. A struggle between Russia in the east and a wider Europe to the west. The West focuses on what it sees as Russian aggression, without recognising that EU enlargement, linked to NATO expansion, has aggravated the conditions that provoked the conflict. The basis for this conflict is the asymmetric Cold War settlement, which has consolidated the EU Wider Europe policy. This would not have been a problem until the EU allowed enlargement to be a harbinger of NATO enlargement, with understandable security concerns for Russia.

There are two primary divisions of approach within Ukraine. The Monists who support a single view of Ukraine with a distinctive history and culture, and the Pluralists who argue that post-Communist Ukraine is home to many disparate peoples. This division has played out in democratic elections and less democratic revolutions. Attempts to find federalist solutions, as other countries have done, foundered on this division.

The borders of Ukraine have changed considerably over the years. The Crimea with its Russian speaking majority was only added in 1954 because of water links. It includes the main base of the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, a crucial security concern for Russia, who could not afford to allow NATO into its backyard. There is some polling evidence that people in the Crimea would have supported a federal approach to remaining within Ukraine, retaining the Russian base lease, but a Monist Ukraine egged on by the USA, blocked that option. 

There is no doubt that Putin annexed Crimea using Russian troops (Little Green Men) rather than the fictional internal revolt. The subsequent referendum clearly did not meet international standards, although there is unlikely to be a majority in favour of returning to Ukraine in the current circumstances. David Owen has suggested a sensible compromise of international status for the Crimea, a long lease for the base (Like Guantanamo in Cuba), followed by a referendum under international supervision after five years.

The subsequent conflict in the Donbas region is often seen as the next stage of Russian expansionism. However, this is a more complex dispute that has grassroots in the region. There has been Russian support, but Putin does not exercise the same degree of local control over the protest and subsequent militarisation. The inability to understand that this was a genuine revolt against a specific form of government has undermined subsequent efforts to resolve the conflict.  

Sakwa's main argument is that the crisis in Ukraine is a manifestation of the failure to establish an adequate structure of international politics since the end of the Cold War, coupled with the failure to address the domestic contradictions in Ukraine that have deep historical foundations. 

As with any book on current affairs, events have moved on since this book was published. However, sadly, the underlying problems have not been addressed, although there are some more recent signs that progress might be possible.

For the wargamer, this book is not a military history, it is a political and diplomatic study. For that, I would recommend Mark Galeotti's 'Armies of Russia's War in Ukraine'. This book is a useful companion and provides a well written and balanced view of the conflict that could have global implications for us all.

There are plenty of figure ranges for this conflict. These are my 20mm generic east European irregulars.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that analysis. While definitely not a Putin fan, I can see why many Russians might view all the NATO expansion of letting former Warsaw Pact nations join NATO as an eventual threat.

    We can only hope some day the Ukrainians and Russians can reach compromise agreements.

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