The drawbacks of real-time historical reporting

The drawbacks of real-time historical reporting

Is it true that, as Serhii Plokhy claims, historians are no better at making sense of the present than the rest of us?


Personally, as a historian, I’d like to think so. At a time when academics are under intense pressure to take a stance on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, this is reassuring.


Ukrainian-American historian and author of several acclaimed works on Russian, Ukrainian, and global history Professor Plokhy doesn’t hide his political leanings. The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History is his latest book, and he has dedicated it to “the many thousands of Ukrainians who sacrificed their lives defending their country,” including his cousin Andriy, who was killed in the Battle of Bakhmut.


According to Plokhy, the war between Russia and Ukraine is an imperialist battle in which Russian elites try to reestablish a Soviet or Russian empire by stifling Ukrainian freedom.


Readers will find a narrative about the war’s progression that is biased in favor of Ukraine’s cause, with details about the country’s triumph over adversity, the dramatic failure of Putin’s attempted blitzkrieg conquest of Ukraine, the stopping of the enemy at the very gates of Kyiv, the defiant defense of Mariupol, the Russians’ summer advance in the Donbas, and the great table-turning Ukrainian counteroffensives of autumn 2022. Plokhy does a great job of narrating a fascinating tale that is sometimes very thrilling.


Plokhy, however, does not have special access to documents or data. Media reports, anonymous intelligence briefings, uninterrogated witness statements, post hoc memoirs, internet sources, and endless propaganda claims all contribute to the chaotic information pool he must draw from.


Regularly criticizing questionable evidence used to support disputed assertions is perhaps the most important contribution historians can make to the public conversation about the war. But does Plokhy not evaluate his sources or hint that his readers should be wary of blindly swallowing the flood of disinformation spread by the war’s fierce propaganda campaigns?


The first year of the battle is depicted in Plokhy’s book. The story concludes in the early years of 2023 when Ukraine has survived and beaten back the first Russian invasion and seems to be on track to gain fresh triumphs, leading some to believe that Russia is really losing the war. Even while Russian missiles pounded Ukraine’s infrastructure, the country’s civil society remained operational, and its people continued to fight back against Putin’s invasion. Ukraine’s military was reorganizing and receiving training from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. General Valerii Zaluzhny, leader of the Ukrainian armed forces, was convinced he could defeat the Russians if given the tanks, aircraft, artillery, and armored vehicles he requested from the West.


Even while success for Ukraine is no longer imminent, its supporters insist they will not give up hope. The situation in Kyiv is not looking good after the Battle of Bakhmut and during the faltering counteroffensive being waged by Ukraine. The strategic position did not improve for the Ukrainians despite their successful recovery of significant territory in Kharkiv and Kherson. Maybe it was good for the Russians since it made Moscow cut down on its defensive lines.


The Russian military has shown itself to be neither fragile nor demoralized. As a result of Putin’s efforts, hundreds of thousands of more soldiers have been deployed, and Russian arms have shown to be incredibly effective. Western military analysts who formerly praised Ukraine’s armed forces have switched to praising Russia’s troops and specialists for their agility, ingenuity, and adaptability.


While Ukraine, with support from the West, may be able to fight a long, hard battle of attrition against Russia, the price it is paying is already nearing tragically Pyrrhic proportions.


It would be unjust to hold Plokhy responsible for an uncertain future. A more cautious and dispassionate approach to facts and sources would have helped him avoid embellishing the story of Ukraine’s military accomplishments.


Historians have a unique perspective on contemporary events because of their ability to see the big picture, or la longue durée, as Plokhy puts it. Approximately half of this book is dedicated to the historical context of the conflict, including a masterful analysis of the triangle interaction between Russia, Ukraine, and the West in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. Plokhy’s examination of how the newly independent Ukraine has skillfully nurtured and used its unique identity as a non-nuclear state is very interesting to me.


The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Ukraine with hundreds of Soviet nuclear weapons. The weapons were in Ukraine’s possession, but they couldn’t be fired since they didn’t have the launch codes. Before and after declaring independence, it announced a commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and insisted on being the supervising power for the destruction of Soviet-era nuclear missiles. By doing so, Ukraine was able to declare its independence and get a generous compensation package from both Russia and the United States.


The disarmament of Ukraine cleared the stage for the friendship treaty between Ukraine and Russia in 1997 and the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in 1994, both of which protected Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But, as Plokhy notes, there were no concrete promises made to safeguard Ukraine. After abandoning the nuclear weapons that had created a false sense of security, Ukraine could either ally with Russia or apply to join NATO.


If Ukraine and the United States had taken U.S. political scientist John Mearsheimer’s recommendation that Kyiv keep its nuclear weapons to prevent a catastrophic catastrophe with Russia, things may be quite different now.


Ironically, this thread of the plot was wrapped up in February 2022 at the Munich Security Conference when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hinted that his country would surrender its non-nuclear status if it was not provided sufficient security assurances. The “threat” of nuclear rearmament may have influenced Putin’s decision to invade a few days after Zelensky’s comment was made.


Plokhy’s narrative of Russo-Ukrainian ties in the post-Soviet period centers on the rising authoritarianism of Russia’s internal politics and the continuous precariousness of Ukraine’s democratic path. He argues that Ukraine’s decision to adopt a democratic system was motivated less by principle than by the fact that it was the only option for containing the country’s entrenched politico-ethnic tensions.


According to Plokhy, Putin was worried that democracy in Ukraine might spread to Russia. However, in my own observations made in Moscow, the vast majority of Russians were appalled by Ukraine’s chaotic democracy and fondly favored their own regulated system of governance.


Putin’s perspectives and intentions must be taken into account in any comprehensive study of the conflict. Though Plokhy deftly dismantles the mythology supporting Putin’s now-famous 2021 claim that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, he fails to mention the contemporary opinion poll (before the invasion), which showed that 40% of Ukraine’s citizens (two-thirds of them from Eastern Ukraine) broadly agreed with him. (It’s true that detractors of Putin have said the question posed was biased.)


While Putin’s public utterances have shown a hostility to Russian ethnic nationalism and a dedication to a Soviet-style multinationalism in which Russians are the leading but not too dominating group, Plokhy chooses to gloss over these aspects in his reconstruction of Putin’s amorphous worldview.


The pre-war elements of Plokhy’s book, based on reliable documented evidence, will be the most lasting no matter the result of the conflict. His overview of the conflict is informative from the pro-Ukraine perspective, but many readers will be left wondering whether his sources are reliable.


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