Eclectic Affinities: New book breaks down the Ukrainian tug of war

Illustration by Niusha Derakhshan, Design Director
Illustration by Niusha Derakhshan, Design Director

There was a Polish meme making the rounds during the Crimean status referendum in 2014 that captioned a glum-looking politician, proclaiming, “If Russia gets Crimea because of the large Russian population, when does Poland annex Chicago?”

It does seem comedic, the idea that a state could protect minorities or speakers of its dominant language by violating the sovereignty of a foreign polity. However, such a situation also leads to the displacement of people, generating injury, destruction, and death, as it has in Ukraine since protestors flooded the Maidan square in Kyiv. That protest triggered a confusing and complicated series of events leading to the current stalemate. Serhy Yekelchyk’s newest publication, The Conflict in Ukraine, meets the challenge of explaining the geopolitical hostilities in this now troubled region.


Yekelchyk’s 2015 effort is illuminating, and it’s a perfect starting place for the beginner.


Yekelchyk, a University of Victoria professor of History and Slavic Studies whose 2015 book is subtitled What Everyone Needs to Know, succinctly runs through thousands of years of the relevant history, highlighting the strands that lead to the current clash in the Donbas. The lean book, only 166 pages, reads like an FAQ rather than a jargonistic academic tome. It strives for straightforwardness in both its uncomplicated prose and its structure. Its seven chapters are divided into questions that Yekelchyk answers, like “Why did the armed conflict with the new Ukrainian authorities start in the Donbas and not in other eastern regions in the spring of 2014,” and “What sanctions did the West introduce against Russia, and did they work?” Although skeptical readers may demand more than a couple footnotes per chapter, The Conflict in Ukraine is designed to be a quick read.

Yekelchyk brought up an attentive observation about Ukraine and its connection to Syria during his Oct. 27 campus presentation that didn’t make it into print due to timing: notice how the Ukrainian conflict died down — in other words, the ceasefires were observed — as soon as Putin moved into Syria to prop up the regime of the Ba’athist murderer Bashar Assad. Putin hid his Ukrainian imbroglio by highlighting his American rivals’ foreign policy snafu.

It’s too easy to just blame Putin — although this conflict wouldn’t exist without him — and ignore the kleptomaniac Ukrainian oligarchs who have ignored much-needed economic reforms, stuffed ballot boxes, decapitated journalists, and initiated a dangerous triangulation gamble.

Yekelchyk writes: “[The 2012 European soccer cup was a] huge hole left in the budget . . . the government was hoping for a bailout from either the West or Russia. The Yanukovych administration assumed that both these geopolitical rivals would be happy to spend US$15 billion and possibly more for the privilege of having Ukraine in their sphere of influence.”

Yekelchyk’s 2015 effort is illuminating, and it’s a perfect starting place for the beginner. For readers craving more, watch the Munk Debate on the resolution that “the West should engage not isolate Russia.” Or, explore VICE News’s video series “Russian Roulette” by the brave polyglot journalist Simon Ostrovsky, who departs from the press corps flock to report actively from all parts of the fight. His is easily the best journalism of the conflict.

In spite of a heavy-handed shirt-averse strong man sending soldiers in unmarked uniforms to die in the Donbas, a corrupt political class defiling the state, and war-ready populism, Ukraine’s hopes of democracy remain untarnished because of that categorical spark: the protesters who occupied the Maidan square, some never to leave, expressing hopes for a more democratic future after a long and terrible past. They should not be written off so easily.

Serhy Yekelchyk’s The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know, published by the Oxford University Press, is available
from the UVic Bookstore and Amazon.