Reading Tips - Expanding our understanding of the conflict in Ukraine

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Mate Subašić @matesuba

In light of the current events in Ukraine, I have looked at the literature that could help us understand the underlying narratives about the conflict. While my research focuses on transborder ethnic communities, I have never explicitly looked at the cases of people in Ukraine who identify with Russia and the implication for relations between Russia and Ukraine. However, by following online discussions and discussions within several organisations focusing on East Europe, I have compiled a list of books and articles that might contribute to a better understanding of the current events. University Library was kind to order several titles, and they should be made available in the coming days.

However, please do bear in mind that I have not personally read most of the books, but the list presented here is only a suggestion, based on a literature search I initiated to understand the events relying on the scholars who work in a field.

Currently, the Library has available ‘Ukraine and Russia. From Civilised Divorce to Uncivil War’ book published in 2019 by Paul D’Anieri. He looks specifically at the conflict which erupted back in 2014, and in explaining it, he looks at the sources of disagreements and traces the dynamics of the relation between Russia and Ukraine through several phases of the post-1989 world. 

Paul D’Anieri also edited a special issue on Ukraine for Eurasian Geography and Economics journal in 2019. Together with other authors, they trace the impact events in 2014 had on the competing statehoods of Ukraine and territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. More broadly and independently from the special issue, Erika Harris looks at the same issues in her paper ‘What is the Role of Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Russia–Ukraine Crisis?’ through the lenses of post-communist nationalism and the disintegration of the post-Soviet space.

Another book currently available in the Library, even if focused on the pre-2014 period, before the events in Crimea unfolded, is Taras Kuzio’s and Andreas Umland’s ‘Ukraine – Crimea – Russia: Triangle of Conflict’. Kuzio’s work, in general, is significant for the understanding of triangular relations between minority communities across East Europe and the respective states where minorities reside and to which they maintain transborder ethnic attachments. As the title unveils, the book focuses on the policies dynamics between Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea. In several other articles, Kuzio (who grew up in the Ukrainian community of Halifax, Yorkshire) looks specifically at the role of the EU, memory politics in Ukraine and Putin’s views on Ukraine (which Kuzio thought at the time of writing could not be utilised by Russia to claim parts of Ukraine).

The memory politics across all of East Europe has been a fascinating field of research, and considering the historical re-interpretations Putin recently used to justify the invasion of Ukraine, some might be interested in reading a ‘The Burden of the Past. History, Memory and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine’, a book published by Anna Wylegała and Małgorzata Głowacka-Grajper, commended by Taras Kuzio. Volodymyr Kulyk also focuses on memory politics and he tries to explain the reasons behind different approaches the authorities in Ukraine took in developing memory and language policies, two commonly interrelated sets of policies. Barbara Törnquist-Plewa and Yuliya Yurchuk, on the other hand, applied the postcolonial perspective in seeking to explain the divergence in understanding of the use of the past between external observers and the local population in Ukraine. 

Several authors focused on the issue of war per se by analysing events in Donbas in 2014. Besides providing a chronology of an event, Ilmari Käihkö looks at the normative frameworks in explaining conflict’s escalating dynamics, Tor Bukkvoll analyses how the pro-government militia’s degree of autonomy impacts the post-conflict politics, and Ivan Katchanovski traces the role of multiple actors, including external actors, in shaping conflict dynamics. 

Other books suggested here are in the acquisition process. The Library has already ordered them, and they should arrive soon. Andrew Wilson published ‘Ukraine Crisis. What it means for the West’ in 2014, and the book was well-received (LSE Book Reviews, The Guardian). Reviewers suggested that alongside focusing on the Ukraine events of 2014, Wilson also looks at Russia’s new forms of politics and the implications Russia’s engagement with the ‘post-Soviet’ space has on its relations with the West.

Another group of scholars focused on identity considerations, especially in the aftermath of conflict in 2014. Interestingly, some of them compare different regions in Ukraine to trace the factors that impact the identity considerations (Ihor Stebelsky, Silviya Nitsova). In contrast, others have utilised surveys and qualitative analysis to understand how ordinary people reconcile with unfolding events (Gwendolyn Sasse &Alice Lackner, Olexiy Haran, Maksym Yakovlyev &Maria Zolkina, Igor Mitchnik). Sergei A. Mudrov applies qualitative analysis to look at how ordinary people in Belarus looked at the conflict in Ukraine, while Eleanor Knott explains the transborder ethnic ties that Russians in Ukraine maintain with Russia, either in the form of quasi-citizenship or only as an identification reference.

Almost a unanimous agreement among scholars exists that Serhii Plokhy, Professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, offers the most comprehensive understanding of the history of Ukraine and the issues pertaining to the current situation. The Library has already acquired his ‘The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present’, and two other titles should be made available very soon. ‘The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine’ is a comprehensive historical portrait of Ukraine, starting with the ‘Advent of Slavs’ and eventually arriving at 20th-century history.

In the ‘Lost Kingdom: The Quest for the Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation’, Plokhy looks at Russian Nationalism specifically. Alongside, ‘Plokhy reveals the central role Ukraine plays in Russia’s identity, both as an “other” to distinguish Russia and as part of a pan-Slavic conceptualisation used to legitimise territorial expansion and political control’. Discussion on the latter book, including Plohky’s presentation, is available on Youtube. Marlene Laruelle too focuses on Russia alone and traces the reasons for Russian engagement with Ukraine in domestic politics. She looks specifically at the Russian nationalist mythmaking and the Russian illiberalism.

Finally, the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) has organised a Webinar, ‘The Russian Attach of Ukraine’, that some might be interested in attending. You can find more information, including speakers and register here.

The list presented here is not comprehensive, and it certainly lacks some crucial perspectives, such as the core IR perspective (even if I looked at one book Chapter by Liang Tuang Nah that analyses the nuclear arm narratives in Ukraine back in 1994). However, it was compiled as a starting point for those interested. I hope it can help, and, of course, I reserve the right not to support or agree with the arguments different authors present in their work.