Are historians, as Serhii Plokhy suggests, really the worst interpreters of current events, except for everyone else?
As a historian myself, I would like to believe so. It’s a comforting thought at a time of extreme pressure on scholars to pick a side in the Russo-Ukrainian war — to jettison objectivity, pluralism, fairness, and fidelity to evidence.
Professor Plokhy — a world-renowned Ukrainian-American historian and the author of many notable books about Russian, Ukrainian and international history — makes no secret of his sympathies. His new book, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History, is dedicated to “the many thousands of Ukrainians who sacrificed their lives defending their country,” among them his cousin, Andriy, who fell at Bakhmut.
Plokhy characterizes the Russo-Ukrainian conflict as an imperial war in which Russian elites are attempting to crush Ukraine’s independence as part of their overall project to restore a Soviet or Russian empire.
Plokhy’s bias toward Ukraine’s cause is obvious in his narrative about the course of the war in which readers will find a chronicle of Ukrainian triumph in the face of adversity; the dramatic failure of Putin’s attempted blitzkrieg conquest of Ukraine; the halting of the enemy at the very gates of Kyiv; the defiant defense of Mariupol; the Russians’ summer advance in the Donbass; and the great table-turning Ukrainian counter-offensives of autumn 2022. It’s a compelling story that Plokhy tells very well, sometimes excitingly so.
But Plokhy has no privileged access to sources or material evidence. Like all outside observers of these ongoing events, he must rely on information emerging from a very murky pool fed into by media reports, unsourced anonymous intelligence briefings, uninterrogated witness statements, participants’ post hoc memoirs, internet sources and an incessant stream of propaganda claims.
Arguably, the most vital contribution historians can make to public discourse about the war is to be consistently critical of dubious evidence being used to underpin contentious claims. Yet nowhere in this book does Plokhy proffer an evaluation of his sources or even suggest his audience should take care to avoid uncritically accepting the torrent of misinformation released through the war’s intense propaganda battles.
Plokhy’s book was written during the first year of the war. Its narrative ends in early 2023 when, having survived and turned back the initial Russian onslaught, Ukraine appeared on course to achieve new victories, and the idea that Russia was now losing the war seemed credible. Ukraine’s infrastructure was being bombarded by Russian rockets, but its civil society remained functional, and its citizens persisted in their resistance to Putin’s invasion. Ukraine’s armed forces were being NATO-trained and equipped in new formations. Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valerii Zaluzhny, was confident he could beat the Russians, provided that his Western allies supplied him with the tanks, airplanes, artillery and armored vehicles he needed.
Today, Ukraine’s supporters continue to claim victory is possible, even if it is no longer just around the corner. But post-Bakhmut, and in the midst of Ukraine’s ailing counteroffensive, Kyiv’s situation does not look so rosy. The Ukrainians’ recapture of large tracts of territory in Kharkiv and Kherson did not change the strategic situation in their favor. In a sense, it may even have benefited the Russians by forcing Moscow to shorten its defensive lines.
Russia’s armed forces have proven to be neither brittle nor demoralized. Putin has successfully mobilized hundreds of thousands of additional troops, and Russian armaments have been highly effective. Western military experts who lauded the superior abilities and capacities of Ukraine’s armed forces now write reports about the adaptability, versatility and creativity of Russia’s soldiers and technicians.
Buttressed by considerable Western help, Ukraine may be able to prosecute a grueling war of attrition with Russia, but the cost is already approaching tragically Pyrrhic proportions.
It would be unfair to criticize Plokhy for failing to accurately predict a still-unfolding future. But had he adopted a more skeptical and detached view of evidence and sources, he might have reined in his over-optimistic narrative of Ukraine’s battlefield successes.
The longer-term perspective — what Plokhy calls la longue durée — is another important contribution historians can bring to discussions of current affairs. About half this book is devoted to the war’s historical background, including a masterly account of the triangular relationship between Russia, Ukraine and the West during the post-Soviet decades. However, it is Plokhy’s analysis of independent Ukraine’s adroit cultivation and deployment of its particular identity as a non-nuclear state that I found the most fascinating.
When the USSR imploded in 1991, thousands of Soviet nuclear missiles remained on Ukraine’s territory. Ukraine had physical control of the weapons but lacked the launch codes to make use of them. Its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation was made both before and after its formal declaration of independence, as was its insistence that it should supervise the destruction of Soviet-era nuclear missiles. By doing so, Ukraine asserted its sovereignty while also securing a beneficial package of financial compensation from both Russia and the United States.
Ukraine’s denuclearization paved the way to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances that guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and then the 1997 friendship treaty between Ukraine and Russia. But, as Plokhy points out, the absence of any practical commitments to protect Ukraine was a problem. Having divested itself of the security provided by possession of nuclear weapons, Ukraine faced a choice between aligning with Russia or seeking NATO membership.
Had Ukraine and the United States followed U.S. political scientist John Mearsheimer’s advice that Kyiv should retain nuclear weapons to deter the potential disaster of a Russo-Ukrainian war, the outcome may have been surprisingly benign compared with the current situation.
Ironically, this strand of the story was completed when Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky implied at the Munich Security Conference in February 2022 that because it had not been given substantial enough security guarantees, Ukraine might someday renounce its non-nuclear status. Putin interpreted Zelensky’s statement as a threat to re-arm with nuclear weapons – a "threat" that may have factored into Putin's decision to invade a few days later.
The grand theme of Plokhy’s account of Russo-Ukrainian relations in the post-Soviet era is how Russia’s domestic politics became increasingly authoritarian while Ukraine continued on the perilous path of democracy. Ukraine’s democratic choice, he points out, was the result of necessity, not inherent virtue, since it was the only way to contain the country’s deep-seated politico-ethnic divisions.
Plokhy claims that Putin feared the contagion of Russia by Ukrainian democracy. But my personal experience of the view from Moscow was that most Russians were aghast at Ukraine’s anarchic democracy and much preferred their home-grown, managed form of government.
No book on the war would be complete without consideration of Putin’s views and motivations. Plokhy skillfully deconstructs the mythology underpinning Putin’s now notorious 2021 claim that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, though he omits mention of the contemporary opinion poll (before the invasion) that showed 40 percent of Ukraine’s citizens (two-thirds of them from Eastern Ukraine) broadly agreed with him. (To be fair, some people claim the question asked was skewed in Putin’s favor.)
Plokhy pieces together the different elements of Putin’s diffuse worldview but chooses to skate over his public statements vocalizing a resistance to Russian ethnic nationalism and his commitment to a Soviet-style multinationalism in which Russians are the leading but not overly dominant group.
Whatever the final outcome of the war, the most enduring parts of Plokhy’s book will be the pre-war sections based on solid documentary evidence. While his account of the war itself provides a good snapshot of the pro-Ukraine point of view, its problematic sources will leave many readers wondering if that is the whole story.