There is no doubt that The Russo-Ukrainian War is the best-informed and most-deeply-thought-through book available on the war. It may even be the most grippingly readable book out now on this subject.
Unfortunately, The Russo-Ukrainian War also leaves out or distorts crucial information, meaning that it is also a work of pro-war, pro-NATO, anti-Russian propaganda that makes it more difficult for the reader to come to a rational appreciation of the conflict.
Serhii Plokhy is the world’s top expert on Ukraine and its history and this is his ninth book about some aspect of his country. Now a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, Serhii Plokhy (pronounced ‘sir-he plŏh-he’, I believe) was raised in Zaporizhzhya and went to university in both Ukraine and Russia.
Some readers may remember Plokhy from our review a couple of years ago of his eye-opening book, Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (PN 2656).
The Russo-Ukrainian War is a magisterial book, packed with information and giving valuable background to the current war. It starts by examining the widespread myth that the Russian state and nation sprang many centuries ago from the state of Kiyvan Rus’, whose capital was the fortress-city of Kyiv, which is today the capital of Ukraine. This is very much a book about ‘Ukraine in the context of Russian imperialism’.
That is an appropriate framework because the Russian invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 were criminal acts of imperialist aggression, unjustified and immoral as well as illegal.
However.... what makes this book dangerous pro-NATO, anti-Russian propaganda is that Plokhy tells this story without mentioning all the warnings – from so many establishment figures in the US, including the current director of the CIA – against NATO expansion to Ukraine.
Before we come to that problem, a more dangerous feature of The Russo-Ukrainian War is Plokhy’s distortions and self-censorship around Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations during this war.
As regular readers will know, Ukraine and Russia came to the brink of a peace agreement in late March/early April 2022, during talks in Istanbul, Turkey. There are three brief, slightly contradictory mentions of these talks.
In a section on Britain, Plokhy writes: ‘According to well-informed Ukrainian journalists, [then British prime minister Boris] Johnson’s visit to Kyiv [on 9 April 2022] and the discovery of Russian war crimes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha ten days earlier convinced [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky and his team that negotiations with Russia at that stage of the war were impossible’ (p254).
Firstly, this wording gives the impression that no negotiations had taken place between Ukraine and Russia; it is the idea of negotiations that is ruled out.
Secondly, Plokhy is deliberately leaving out details of the peace agreement that the negotiations in Istanbul had produced.
Thirdly, this wording hints at, but effectively covers up, the fact that Boris Johnson actively lobbied against, and refused to co-operate with, the draft peace agreement that Zelenskyy had reached with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Let’s turn to the English version of the 28 July 2022 article in Ukrainska Pravda that Plokhy gives as a reference for this paragraph:
‘Briefly, the Ukrainian proposals suggested creating a new security guarantees agreement for Ukraine with key world countries, including the Russian Federation; non-aligned status [for Ukraine, meaning no NATO membership – ed]; and the withdrawal of Russian troops from most of the captured territories.
‘It was proposed that the issue of the future of Donbas and Crimea be discussed in direct talks between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin [in other words, kicked into the long grass – ed]....
‘At the beginning of April, the framework of the peace agreement was essentially agreed upon in this format.’
Let’s repeat that final phrase: ‘the framework of the peace agreement was essentially agreed upon’.
None of these details are mentioned by Plokhy here.
When Boris Johnson suddenly appeared in Kyiv on 9 April, he made it very clear that the UK would not sign a security guarantee for Ukraine where Russia was also a signatory. This is explained in yet another Ukrainska Pravda article (which is linked to in the 28 July piece that Plokhy refers to).
One of Zelenskyy’s ‘close associates’ told Ukrainska Pravda: ‘Johnson brought two simple messages to Kyiv. The first is that Putin is a war criminal; he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they [the UK] are not.’
According to this ‘close associate’, Johnson’s position was that the West as a whole now thought Putin was not as powerful as previously believed: ‘there is a chance to “press” him. And the West wants to use it.’
Plokhy’s two other mentions of the Istanbul agreement give a few more details of the draft peace agreement with Russia; they also cover up Boris Johnson’s role in destroying the deal.
In a section on Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian forces, Plokhy says that news of the massacre ‘put an end to the Russo-Ukrainian negotiations’ (no mention of Johnson).
Before this, Plokhy writes: ‘Disheartened, Kyiv was preparing to make a deal abandoning its plans to join NATO and accepting neutrality in return for the security guarantees provided by a number of countries, including the United States and Turkey’ (p172).
In a section on Turkey, Plokhy writes about the Istanbul peace talks, once again removing Boris Johnson from the picture: ‘The Ukrainian delegation showed readiness to abandon the country’s efforts to join NATO in exchange for a collective agreement in which eight countries would guarantee its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Subsequent talks were stalled by the revelations of Russian war crimes in Bucha and other towns’ (p285).
This is dishonest history-writing.
Going back to the question of US establishment warnings in relation to NATO expansion, let’s just take one example which is not mentioned by Plokhy.
Bill Burns, the current head of the CIA, used to be a US diplomat in Moscow. In his 2019 memoir, The Back Channel, Burns quotes a memo he wrote in 1995 while serving as counsellor for political affairs at the US embassy in Moscow: ‘Hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.’
In 2008, Burns, who had become US ambassador to Russia, wrote a warning to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice: ‘Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.
‘At this stage, a MAP [membership action plan] offer [to Ukraine] would be seen not as a technical step along a long road to [NATO] membership, but as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today’s Russia will respond.... It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.’
The Russian invasion was definitely ‘unjustified’, but it was also not ‘unprovoked’, a point made by Noam Chomsky back in May 2022.
I could understand a historian saying something like: ‘Many respected mainstream political figures in the US, including George Kennan, Henry Kissinger and Bill Burns, did warn against NATO expansion in Eastern Europe in general, and to Ukraine in particular, over many years. NATO expansion to Ukraine was provocative and did deliberately ignore Russia’s warnings about how it might react. However, that doesn’t matter because Russia would have invaded Ukraine even if there hadn’t been NATO expansion, because Russian president Vladimir Putin is driven by his dream of restoring the Russian empire, and this is the evidence.... Also, bringing Ukraine into NATO was not only justifiable but essential, despite the risks, for the following reasons....’
That would be history-writing – with a certain bias. We could then argue about whether the evidence really supported this version of events.
What makes The Russo-Ukrainian War not history, but propaganda, is the fact that Plokhy just leaves out all the warnings from Kennan, Kissinger, Burns and other significant US political and diplomatic leaders, and he leaves out the way that the Ukrainian military was being absorbed into NATO informally in the run-up to the Russian invasion.
Instead of acknowledging these things and then putting these events into what he might argue is the proper, corrective context, Plokhy clearly thinks these facts are too dangerous for Western readers to know about: they must be censored out of the history books.
Going back to the Istanbul draft peace agreement, maybe it never had a chance of success; maybe Boris Johnson’s intervention was irrelevant to Zelenskyy’s decision to break off talks; maybe there is now no chance of returning to anything like the Istanbul compromise.
Nevertheless, we all know that this war will end either in negotiations or disaster.
Plokhy’s distortions and self-censorship around the Istanbul negotiations undermine public support for a negotiated solution. The Russo-Ukrainian War therefore increases the chances of a catastrophic end to the war for Ukraine.