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The War in Ukraine, one year on. What to read?

On the 24th February 2022, the Armed Forces of Russia invaded Ukraine.  This escalated the conflict which had been sparked by the Russian occupation of Crimea on the 22nd February 2014 into a full-blown war.  Over the last year the war has played out and, similar to most wars of the 21st Century, it has been broadcast and commented on in near or real time.  So, what books should you read to understand the war?  For those wishing to try and make sense of what is occurring, or for those wishing to control and generate a narrative, this has provided an unparalleled degree of access and quantity of information.

Numerous books have begun to be published about the war.  Some have clearly been long in the making, and the war was no more than an addendum to the authors argument.  Others, however, have tried to capture information as we understand it today; it is safe to say that many of these will not stand the passage of time, but nevertheless will be useful in the future.  Others, are personal ‘hot-takes’ – how did people feel, what were they thinking – from the President of Ukraine, to Babushkis, to the Ukrainian soldier in a trench.  These books have been accompanied by hundreds of think-tank and journal articles (some better than others) all useful to demonstrate the far reaching impact of this war, and the disparate views that are generated about it.

This combined book review seeks to cover some of the more impactful and useful of the recent releases.  This review is not an in-depth assessment of the arguments.  Assessing a war in detail whilst it is still raging appears to be a fool’s errand, albeit an interesting one.  The books selected below are the ones that I found most useful and/or memorable for a variety of reasons, with other notable contributions found at the end.

A Message from Ukraine. By Volodoymer Zelensky, forward by Arkady Ostrosky.

It is perhaps not surprising that Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, was voted as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2022.  In a country that has so often had illegitimate or conflicting leaders, it was a surprise to many, not just that Ukraine managed to withstand a comprehensive assault from the Armed Forces of Russia, but that their leader truly rose to the challenge of leading a shocked nation.  Accused of being naive and ignoring the warnings of Russia’s impending invasion, Zelensky has subsequently been described as ‘Churchill with an iPhone’.  In response to an offer from the US Government that he could lead in exile, he was reported to have responded: “I need ammo, not a ride’.  In a war that is fought via social media as much as it is on the battlefields, this soundbite reverberated not just within Ukraine, but around the world.  And it is from this point where this books takes off.

President Zelensky, whilst he has left his Armed Forces to fight, has taken up the very public challenge of raising awareness and support for Ukraine.  Speaking to governments globally, almost always in his distinct green sweatshirt, he has given hundreds of speeches, both aimed internally and externally to Ukraine.  This book publishes in one place the key speeches Zelensky has made, all selected by him, and all translated into English.  Whilst all these are published online for free, they are packaged well; lots of yellow and blue, and bounded with an excellent overview from the Economist, and concluded with some words from Zelensky.  The speeches, written by Dmytro Lytvyn (@dmtrltvn), Zelensky’s speech writer, at times read like poems.  Delivered by Zelensky, an actor in a previous life, the dramatic pauses, cadence and vivid imagery throughout these speeches create evocative and emotive feelings which have resonated across the globe.

There is nothing new in this book, but it is hard not to feel impressed by the use of language and the speeches which have been crafted, sometimes rather critically, for the audience they are delivered to.  It is a master class of communications in times of stress and distress, and one that I expect will be studied for generations.  Verdict – Highly rated, a must read.

War in Ukraine. Making sense of a senseless conflict. By Medea Benjamin & Nicolas J.S Davies.

Offered as a primer, and described as a ‘alternative view’, the authors both have a background in left wing peace organisations, and both are highly critical of western wars since 9/11.  With this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the broad conclusions they offer are that: although Russia has acted illegally, Ukraine and other Western partners have been  provocative and bear partial responsibility for what has occurred.

There are some substantial issues with the arguments presented in this book.  Yes, as a primer it is not likely to explore things in any great detail, but broad and sweeping statements should be grounded in facts presented.  So often cause and effect are muddled at the expense of what could be an interesting argument.  There are also some odd and confusing arguments presented.  For example, the widespread support in America for Ukrainian refugees is as a direct result, the authors would have you believe, of them being the right ‘colour’.  The authors fail to mention that over a million Ukrainians lived in the US before the war, or the high proportion of English speakers amongst young Ukrainians, as reasons for their ease of inclusion.  Instead the argument is a simple one of colour, and strips out much of the nuance and detail that is critical for understanding legal and illegal migrations and refugee status.  This chapter in particular feels like the authors have an axe to grind and as a result have confused cause and effect .

Whilst critical views should be explored and understood this, I’m afraid, is not that.  What both authors fail to acknowledge is that the approach that they advocate – one of talking and negotiations – has been explored before.  VerdictMark and avoid.

 Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival. By Luke Harding.

Even for those of us who have been keen to understand what has happened in Ukraine, it can be very hard to keep track.  Factual information is often mis-reported.  Narratives by both sides are repeated as if they are fact, and that’s before you get to the battle of the narratives on Twitter.  This is where Invasion, written by Luke Harding, the Guardian’s Foreign editor, has found an excellent early niche to fill.  It should be of no surprise that a book on Russia by Luke Harding is both highly readable and highly authoritative.  Harding has not only has lived in Russia, but has published several books about the Russian government and wider Russian corruption.

This book is a master class in storytelling.  Whilst the key events of the war are well known, the individual tales that make up these events are not.  What was it like to live in Bucha when over 1000 civilians were murdered?  What motivates Russian and Ukrainian soldiers to fight?  Through their eyes, the story of the first 10 months of this war is told, at times, in heart breaking detail.  Whilst the author probably won’t consider that he’s written a history book, he has in many ways written an early account of the first 10 months of the war.  It is not academic in its nature, and reads much like any of the popular histories of any part of the Second World War.  It does not generalise, but its tone and content is more commentary than hard detailed analysis and this is not to the book’s detriment.  It tells the reader enough to understand, with side notes included in the narrative to build peoples’ wider understanding.  Of all the books I’ve read on this conflict in the past 2 weeks, this is the most memorable.  For those who have seen it, this book has very similar vibes to Episode 9 of Band of Brothers, simply titled, Why we fightVerdict – buy it now.

Putin’s Wars. From Chechnya to Ukraine. By Mark Galeotti.

Amongst the day to day, blow by blow account of the war in Ukraine, it can be hard for some to place this war into a wider context of Russian aggression, both in their ‘near abroad’, and further afield.  This book covers Putin’s tenure at the head of Russia and how he has used his military to progress both his view on what modern Russia is, and how it should be perceived around the world.  From the challenges of Chechnya, through the extensive military modernisation that followed, the book culminates with the war in Ukraine, but much is focused on Putin’s quest to make his armed forces more useful.  Understanding the use of mercenaries, ‘little green men’ and wider political and information warfare are where this book adds value.  Whilst many are quick to subsequently comment that the Russian Armed forces have failed in Ukraine, it’s worth noting (as Galeotti does) that so often Putin, with the use of his armed force’s soft and hard power, ends up with a preferential situation.

This timely and well written work is accessible to all, and whilst one can’t escape its obvious military focus, it’s pitched well and sets a sound understanding for the reader, whilst also framing this conflict within a much wider lens.  It is a fascinating insight, offering a frame of reference rarely introduced for Western audiences.  Verdict – Highly recommended.

Overreach. The inside story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine. By Owen Matthews.

A master of suspense and timing, this book by Matthews, a Russian speaker and long term conflict reporter, begins like an edge of your seat thriller.  It would be a brilliant work of fiction, if it wasn’t so tragically true.  Matthew’s builds the story with key snippets from everyone to Putin, down to the guy opening the gate on the border.  The story is built brilliantly, and is full of detail.  The days and weeks leading up to the invasion  fill in a lot of the blanks that readers may have missed from just reading the mainstream news.  It is clear that the author has very good access, and reports on what was going on behind the scenes; particularly some of the key conversations that were going on between world leaders, and in the Kremlin.  Most useful for me was the background and detail about some of the Kremlin’s inner circle: Kovalchuk, Shoigu, Bortnikov, Patrushev.  You might not recognise their names, but you will probably recognise their faces as they have been on all the key Kremlin announcements recently.  Most useful are the detailed relationships that Mathews outlines and why they are central, for bad and good, to Putin’s plans.  Verdict – buy it now.

The Death of a Soldier. Told by his Sister. By Olesya Khromeychuk.

A historian by profession, sometimes a journalist, but most importantly for this book, a sister.  In 2017 Khromeychuk’s brother, a soldier in the Ukrainian Army, was killed in combat with Russian backed separatist in the Luhansk region.  The book is as compelling as much as it is moving.  The death of Volodymyr Pavliv, as you would expect, had a profound impact on the author.  In a war where the nameless death statistics rapidly rise, it is all too easy to forget that every number is a person, with a family, and friends who care for them.

Most compelling for me was what is means for the author to be Ukrainian and how it has felt, ever since the Russian invasion of Crimea, to see how the world interacts with Russia.  As the author sought to come to terms with her loss, the conflict has expanded considerably and the author manages to explain much about how the civilian networks, often which started with the Maidan revolution in 2014, have continued to support those on the frontline. Verdict – Highly recommended.

Russia’s War on Everyone. And what it means for you. By Keir Giles.

Almost completed prior to Russia’s invasion, this book was attempting to explain not what Russia does but why it does it and, critically, the effects of how it operates.  Taking stories from the political, military, civilian and technology areas, the books is an expansive assessment of pre-war Russia and its wider activities.  The book received a delayed publication and a bit of a rewrite to draw the key links into the wider war which had just begun twelve months ago.  The author, Keir Giles, is the Senior Consulting Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.  With an extensive academic background, including a stint with the UK Defence Academy’s Research and Assessment Branch, Giles is well known across wider academia and particularly those interested in Russia and Eurasia.

The book is well structured, looking at: why Russia is perceived – both by Russia and others – as ‘different’; warfare by other means; peace and war; what the Russian army is for; and critically for most readers, why would Russia be interested in you?  This is a highly detailed and readable book.  Referenced to a high standard, the reader can really dig into the sources of information, and it is academic in its framing and development of arguments without compromising its readability.  Taking a completely different approach to most books, it really digs into why Russia acts as it does, and what it hopes to achieve.  This is an important distinction and adds significant value compared to a lot of more recent narrative assessments of wider Russian malign activity.  Verdict – the best on the list. If you read one book out of the recent releases, make it this one.

Other notable contributions.

The Great Awakening vs The Great Reset. By Alexander Dugin.

It’s too easy to say that what has happened is as a result of a dictator who has lost his mind.  The views espoused by many Russians, and others across the world, are linked to history and real events.  We may have very different interpretations of this history, but this book offers some background as to how Putin and many Russians have come to the conclusions that they have.  It is worth noting that Dugin, head of the Department of Sociology at Moscow State University, is also a Kremlin advisor.  It’s also worth noting that his daughter, Darya Dugina, a Russian journalist and Kremlin advocate, was assassinated at the start of this war in Moscow.  This book was written 24 months ago, but adds a lot of useful context.

Russia’s Road to War with Ukraine. Invasion amidst the Ashes of Empire. By Samir Puri.

A wide ranging assessment of the Ukrainian and Russian relationship since the collapse of the USSR.  Started before the invasion, it concludes with some hints as to what the future might look like.  Excellent context from a well regarded author and commentator on Ukraine and wider Russia.

Blowing Up Ukraine. The Return of Russian Terror and the Threat of World War 3. By Yuri Felshtinsky and Michael Stanchev.

For those that remember the name Litvinenko – the ex-KGB agent poisoned in London in 2006 – it was a similarly titled book, co-authored with Felshtinsky, that really got him into bother with his former employer, the KGBBlowing Up Ukraine is a detailed account of the past 20 years, outlining the efforts Putin and Russia have made to subvert, destroy and ultimately invade Ukraine.  It’s a great read, much of the detail is already known, much is new, and ends with the question,  ‘Do Russians want war?’.

Diary of an Invasion. By Andrew Kurkov.

Kurkov is a Russian, who has spent most of his life in Ukraine.  He is an author who has published numerous works, and has been described as ‘Ukraine’s most famous novelist’.  The title of this book aptly describes its content; it is sometimes daily and often weekly entries focusing on what it was like living in Ukraine throughout the weeks before the invasion, and the invasion itself.  A very real and first-hand account of what could be considered ‘normal’ life in Ukraine.

How the West Brought War to Ukraine. By Benjamin Abelow.

The premise of this long essay is that the war in Ukraine was almost entirely caused by 30 years of Western provocations against Russia.  There is nothing new in this essay, and it is wrapped up in the narrative of the day, offering you a ‘I told you so punch line’.  The author, another ‘progressive’ think tanker type appears to have wrapped previously written articles into this for a rapid publication.  Many of the assertions and assessments made in this book are neither substantiated nor balanced.  All have a heavy reliance on ‘I think the Russians thought this about x y or z’ – noting the author is not Russian, nor has he interviewed any Russians to come to these conclusions.  Verdict – Mark and avoid. Go and spend some time on Twitter for some more imaginative and thought provoking arguments.

James Burton

Nom de plume. Fanboy of the real James Burton, author of the Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard - played by Cary Elwes in HBO's 1998 production The Pentagon Wars. 

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