Hear more from author and former international observer, Samir Puri as we ask him 7 questions on the lead up to and future of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

What has been the most shocking event you have witnessed?

I lived in the Donbas for a year as a ceasefire monitor during Russia’s first invasion. Undoubtedly the single most disturbing experience I had in eastern Ukraine was seeing the MH17 crash site in 2014. This was the Malaysian airliner that had been shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile. I will never forget the sight of cabin baggage, airline seats and worse strewn out over that obscure patch of the Donbas. Long before the current Russian invasion, the shooting down of flight MH17 was a stark warning of the wanton devastation that can be inflicted by the modern weapons of war.

Did the West handle its dealings with Russia and Ukraine prudently? Or did it inflame the tensions left amidst the ruins of the Soviet Union?

This is a complex question, and one that I wrestle with in my book. No, the West did not handle its relations with parts of the former Soviet Union prudently.

The USA succumbed to two fallacies.

  1. The first was the fallacy of triumphalism, interpreting its victory in the Cold War as an everlasting licence to expand its influence in eastern Europe.
  2. The second fallacy was failing to properly reassess the assumptions it had made about Russia in the 1990s. It is not the USA’s fault: some politicians in eastern Europe were asking for their countries to join NATO. But we cannot then cast the USA as a passive actor in what ensued: countries were encouraged to pursue NATO membership with little or no consideration of Russia’s ability to respond with brutal violence.

What is the most common misconception about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and its history?

I cannot speak for Ukrainians and Russians, but I can make an observation relevant to the rest of us. As an outsider with a long history of working in Ukraine, dating back to 2004 when I was an election observer in the Orange Revolution, I noticed the following.

  • The tragedy of Russia’s murderous invasion this year can create an impression that events were always heading in this direction and that Vladimir Putin’s brutal attempt to subjugate Ukraine was a long time in the making.
    • This simply isn’t the case: over the years, Russia tried to influence Ukraine in all manner of ways. It tried especially hard to manipulate its politics. When we look at this contemporary history, we should be asking when and why Putin settled on a policy of massive military intervention in Ukraine.

Why does Vladimir Putin believe Ukraine is the natural property of Russia? Is this interpretation of the relationship between the two countries causing history to repeat itself?

Imperial hangover: Putin’s view of Russia–Ukraine relations is conditioned by the Russian elite’s inheritance of a history as eastern Europe’s imperial overlords. I’m always annoyed when I read about ‘Putin recreating the USSR’ – this is too simplistic, since Russia’s imperial inheritance stretches into the era of the Romanov Tsars which began in 1613 and to Ivan the Terrible in the 1540s. We should be paying attention to the legacy of Peter the Great and the inspiration this has given Putin to style himself as a conqueror destined to reunite Russia’s ancestral lands (I challenge these narratives in my earlier chapters). Did you know there’s a statue of Peter the Great standing resplendent in Greenwich? It commemorates Peter’s visit to London to learn about shipbuilding. Putin sees himself as a conquering emperor in this mould.

Which previous conflicts can we draw the most similarities with?

Obviously, there are the wars waged by Russia in the recent past, namely in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine from 2014.

More worryingly, however, we must also start to think about wars from much further afield that have resulted in protracted partitions.

  • I discuss Cyprus and the Turkish invasion of 1974 in my book.
  • I was also recently discussing the alarming precedent of divided Kashmir.

What has this got to do with Ukraine? Unless the Ukrainian armed forces retake all of their occupied territory, some form of partition beckons, de facto if not de jure. Ukraine’s Donbas region was already partitioned in Russia’s 2014 intervention – the partition resulting from the 2022 invasion could be even worse. But there’s still much fighting to be done before then.

Were there any missed opportunities to avert the war?

Yes, there were missed opportunities after 2004 for Ukraine to better straddle its Western and Eastern-leaning proclivities. Instead, the gravitational pull of Russian influence and the contending pull of Western influence ended up tearing the country apart – not because of anything the Ukrainians did to themselves, but because Ukraine in the form and shape it took in 1991 could never exist entirely in the Western or Eastern world.

I wrestle with this issue in my book.

What could President Zelensky’s place in history ultimately be?

Heroes can become anti-heroes all too quickly. To be fair to Zelensky, he has admitted in interviews that it is too early to say what his place in history will be. I fear that as the months and years of war wear on, it may become harder to find unambiguous stories of Ukrainian military triumph. Even if Ukraine’s army fights its way back into Kherson in southern Ukraine this year, there is still the prospect of having to pause the fighting at some unspecified point in the future. Ukraine and Russia cannot fight each other with this intensity indefinitely. If Zelensky ever has to admit to these realities, hard-line critics within Ukraine will be out to get him. We have to wait and see, and I hope my book will help readers to assess the events to come from a more informed basis. 

 

Russia’s Road to War with Ukraine: Invasion amidst the ashes of empires 

Released 25th August 2022

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