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Review by Dr. John H. Brown

Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order by Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: A Boston Review Book, The MIT Press, ISBN: 978-0-262- 02904-9 2015, 240 pp., Hardcover $24.95.

The book under review “represents a first cut at explaining the context, causes, and consequences of Ukraine 2014,” according to its authors, a professor of political science (Menon) and a Russia/Eurasia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment (Rumer).

Policymakers and their staff might find the volume of interest. It should also stimulate debate among experts. The study’s appeal to the general U.S. reading public, however, most likely will be limited; after all, only one in six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, according to The Washington Post.1

Conflict in Ukraine has 46 pages of endnotes, mostly from English-language sources, both journalistic and scholarly. Its quite detailed index lacks citations on important items such as glasnost’ and the Cold War. It does not have a bibliography.

Menon and Rumer modestly and correctly note that their work “will not be the last, let alone the definitive one” on the topic they attempt to cover in their succinct, balanced way.

Below are some of the study’s main points:

1. Ukraine is a real nation with a long history. “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.” So said Vladimir Putin to the 43rd president of the United States at a 2008 NATO meeting in Bucharest. Menon and Rumer strongly disagree with the Russian leader. In the longest chapter of their study, “The Making of Ukraine,” they argue that it is a country with its own history, and Ukrainians a people with a distinctive identity.

They argue that the destruction of Ukraine’s “statehood” by various invaders/empires did not lead to a disappearance of Ukrainian national identity, which in the nineteenth century was “kindled by an intellectual and cultural symbiosis between Ukrainians living under Polish and Russian rule and Ukrainian intellectuals from the Russian Empire.”

Menon and Rumer stress that

[I]t would be uncharitable as well as inaccurate to say that Ukraine’s independence (and that of the other thirteen non-Russian post-Soviet states) was delivered from above rather than won from below; if it was helped by the dissolution of the USSR, it was helped as well by intrepid individuals, mass demonstrations, numerous and variegated civic organizations, patriotically inclined local communists, and intellectuals animated by wide-ranging discussions of once-banned topics.

But the authors also note that, after the collapse of the USSR, Ukrainians found the meaning of “national” ambiguous: was it “a state for the Ukrainian nation or for the people of Ukraine?” Perhaps in a slip of the pen, they write that Ukraine was included among “new nations” (p. 26), despite their contention that its nationhood has existed for centuries. And, to this reader at least, they don’t adequately distinguish between “nation” and “state.” To add to this terminological fuzziness, on p. 75 they refer to Ukraine as “a former Soviet state,” although strictly speaking it was a republic of the USSR.

Despite their approval of Ukrainian independence, the authors—who stress they are not historians—don’t glorify Ukraine’s tempestuous past and its desultory present. They argue that the various political groups (among them the sinister oligarchs) in power today represent an incompetent, corrupt leadership that can’t handle economic problems and can’t bridge their nation’s many regional, ethnic, and linguistic divides.

2. The current crisis in Ukraine was an “unexpected event” with no “single cause.” According to Menon and Rumer, all parties involved in the current Ukraine crisis—Kyiv, Brussels, Washington, and Moscow—failed to foresee its tragic development.

America had lost interest in this former Soviet space after Kyiv transferred its nuclear arsenal to Russia under pressure from the Clinton administration in the early 90s. The EU, with its many members, had concerns that were too diverse to focus on Ukraine. The collapse of the Yanukovych government, a “surprise” to the West, came as a “shock” to Russia.

In discussing the fate of the deposed Ukrainian head of state, Menon and Rumer claim, in what could be considered something of a generalization that “Contempt was perhaps the only thing that the Russian president shared with his European and U.S. counterparts with respect to Ukraine.”

The authors argue that Russia should not take all the blame for what is happening in Ukraine. That is a “single cause” fallacy. The Ukrainian situation cannot be reduced to a villain vs. hero scenario.

On the issue of Crimea, however, these foreign policy experts don’t seem to make up their minds. On p. 83, they suggest it’s “unlikely” that the Crimean annexation was part of “a carefully constructed plan.” But on p. 98, they say the Russian takeover of the Black Sea peninsula could have been “a panicky response to an unexpected crisis.”2

3. NATO’s purpose and unity will not be solidified by its response to Ukrainian events. Menon and Rumer argue that after the Cold War NATO lost its sense of mission, which was based on being a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. Despite NATO nearly doubling its membership between 1999 and 2009 and the geographical expansion of its engagement, it continues to search for its raison d’être.

The crisis in Ukraine is unlikely to make NATO more relevant: its members continue to disagree on how to deal with Russia; given the complications caused by the Ukrainian crisis, its major players will not be enthusiastic about offering protection to other countries in the Russian sphere of influence; and the Alliance’s inner tensions about burden-sharing will not cease.

4. Talk of a new Cold War as a result of the Ukrainian crisis is “facile” and comparisons of the situation in Ukraine with pre-World War Europe are “hyperbolic.” The authors pooh-pooh the notion that a new Cold War is upon the world, despite the severity of events in Ukraine.

As regards World War I, they argue that its really important lesson was not what caused its outbreak, but the post-war period when the victorious allies failed to include Germany in a new security order—a situation comparable to what Russia considered its exclusion from the post-Cold War international framework due to what it perceived as threatening NATO military expansionism.

5. Events in Ukraine are not just about Ukraine. The most likely outcome of the Ukrainian crisis is a long-term “frozen conflict.” What is happening in Ukraine is critical for Europe, but the core problem in the coming years for the transatlantic community is how to deal with Russia. This “monumental task” requires a strategy based “on a realistic understanding of Russia rather than on what the West hopes it will be and one day become.”End.

1. Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff, “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2015
2. See “Putin reveals secrets of Russia’s Crimea takeover plot,” BBC News, March 9, 2015

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

imageDr. John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic. He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).

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