The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History

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The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History

The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History

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In 1259AD, after a Mongolian civil war, the Mongol Empire broke up into eight Khanates, each representing a different area of control. The area of modern Ukraine became part of the Crimean Khanate and it remained under Mongol control until Ivan the Great drove the Mongols out of "All Rus'" in 1480. In dit licht bezien was het besluit van Boris Jeltsin in 1993 om met militaire middelen een einde te maken aan de onafhankelijke positie van het Russische parlement van grote betekenis voor de toekomstige verhoudingen tussen Rusland en Oekraïne. Hij voerde daarna een nieuwe grondwet in die de macht verplaatste naar de president. De presidentiële verkiezingen van 1996, die Jeltsin slechts met grote moeite van de Communisten wist te winnen door zich te verbinden aan de nieuwe ‘oligarchen’-klasse, zetten de ontwikkeling van Rusland naar een “‘managed’ or ‘sovereign’ democracy” kracht bij. (48) Aldus werd de weg geplaveid voor een terugkeer naar een autoritaire regeringsvorm. Intelligence failure’ of ‘error of judgment’? Of allebei? Poetin had in ieder geval beter kunnen weten als hij had geluisterd naar kolonel-generaal b.d. Leonid Ivashov, die hem als voorzitter van de Russische officieren vereniging in januari 2021, enkele weken vóór de inval, een open brief schreef: “The use of military force against Ukraine will, in the first place, put into question the existence of Russia itself as a state. Secondly, it will make Russians and Ukrainians mortal enemies for ever. Thirdly, thousands (tens of thousands) of healthy young men will perish on both sides, and that will unquestionably affect the future demographic situation in our countries, which are dying out.” (149)

In 1240AD Batu Khan's Mongolian "Golden Horde" invaded the Byzantine Empire centered at Constantinople. The disruption Constantinople's ability to serve as the Kyivan Rus' protector and regional power shifted toward the Duchy of Muscovy, which would expand to incorporate much of the Kievan 'Rus territory. While it is not entirely clear from Plokhy’s account why this war broke out when it did, his narrative demolishes the popular notion that somehow NATO was to blame. At least, not in the way this thesis is usually understood.It is a cruel game to ask a historian to look into the future. But here we are and, as Plokhy himself says, rephrasing Churchill, historians are probably “the worst commentators on contemporary events except for all the others”. So what about the Ukrainians’ spring counteroffensive, I ask – which, when we speak in the last days of April, is expected any day. In short, Plohky claims that Putin's success on today's battlefield would not restore Russia to its former self; rather, it would create a new entity – a Ukraine once again subservient to the Federation of Russia. Plokhy maakt in opeenvolgende hoofdstukken duidelijk hoe vanaf 1991 de politieke ontwikkeling van Rusland en Oekraïne steeds verder uiteenliep, een divergente ontwikkeling die de dynamiek tussen Moskou en Kiev diepgaand zou gaan beïnvloeden. Terwijl het democratische experiment in Rusland een kort leven was beschoren, schoot deze in Oekraïne geleidelijk aan wortel (in weerwil van de wijdverbreide corruptie en van Russische beïnvloeding). There were further errors. They included Germany’s addiction to Russian gas, and Angela Merkel’s axiom that trade might be pursued and growing repression inside Russia ignored. In London, the Conservatives accepted millions from Moscow-linked donors. Johnson made Evgeny Lebedev a peer. And Emmanuel Macron tried to play peacemaker with Putin – an impossible and naive mission.

History is normally written from the calm, distant purview that a scholar attains when chaotic events have resolved themselves into some recognisable shape or pattern. It is not usually interrupted by grief for a family member killed as a result of those still-unfolding events. At first, he says, he resisted the idea of a book about the invasion, produced during the invasion. To write such a volume would be “to go against the basic principles of the profession”. “Our wisdom as historians comes from the fact that we already know how things turned out,” he says. I wonder whether he can foresee the disintegration of the Russian Federation as it is currently constituted – especially in a context where Russia is seemingly recruiting its military disproportionately from its Muslim peoples and peripheral autonomous republics. “The process of disintegration has already started,” he replies. “Already Russia doesn’t control its constitutional territory” – by which he means that some parts of Ukraine that were formally adopted as part of the Russian Federation last autumn in the wake of the full-scale invasion, such as Kherson, have already been liberated and restored to Ukrainian hands. But yes, he says, republics on the edges of the federation – such as Tuva, Buryatia and Sakha, not to mention Chechnya, are vulnerable. “The longer the war goes on, the stronger the narrative that Russia is using them as cannon fodder.”

On the other hand, however, Russia’s aggression did help arm and train Ukraine, which built a formidable, if still inadequately armed, army. When all-out war came in 2022, Ukraine was in a much stronger position to defend itself, particularly once NATO and the European Union overcame their reluctance to adequately support one of the few democracies in the former Soviet space. Plokhy’s betoog begint bij het uiteenvallen van de Sovjet-Unie. Meer dan welke andere gebeurtenis ook, bezegelde de onafhankelijkheidsverklaring van de Oekraïense Sovjetrepubliek in 1991 het lot van de Sovjet-Unie. Een ruime meerderheid van de kiezers, ook in de Russischtalige gebieden in de Donbas-regio en op het Krim-schiereiland, stemde destijds in een referendum voor de onafhankelijkheid van Oekraïne. De president van Rusland, Boris Jeltsin, besloot zich hierbij neer te leggen, waarna Rusland, dat zich onder leiding van Jeltsin op vergelijkbare wijze losmaakte van de Sovjet-Unie, de Oekraïense onafhankelijkheid erkende. Desondanks is de onafhankelijkheid van Oekraïne in Moskou altijd omstreden gebleven. Russische elites bleven aanspraak maken op de geopolitieke nalatenschap van de Sovjet-Unie en daarmee op Oekraïne als onderdeel van de Russische invloedssfeer. Poetin staat daarin dus bepaald niet alleen. To soften the blow of the “concession to their former master” and hide the embarrassing victory of Russia over the US, NATO asserted that both countries did have the right to eventually join the alliance.

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