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Book Talk: Understanding the War Before the War in Ukraine

April 14, 2023
Jesse Driscoll

Talking Policy Podcast

The Ukraine war has dragged on for well over 400 days, cost billions of dollars and many thousands of lives, and continues to threaten global stability. To understand how and why the war began, Talking Policy host Lindsay Morgan talks with political scientist Jesse Driscoll about his new book, Ukraine’s Unnamed War: Before the Russian Invasion of 2022 (with Dominique Arel). Driscoll is an associate professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. This interview was recorded on April 7, 2023. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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Before we go into your book, can you bring us up to speed on the conflict? Where are we today in this war?

If you’re not paying attention to the day-to-day of the war, I can’t blame you because it is a fatiguing slog of horror stories. My brief summary would be that we are waiting to see how the Ukrainian counter-offensive goes. Russia had a winter offensive; it didn’t really go anywhere and a lot of people ignored it. But for those watching closely, the big question for the next few months is whether or not the Ukrainian ability to absorb new Western technology and training is going to allow them to fight battles that look more like the unexpected route in Kharkiv or more like the bloody attritional slog in Kherson. By this fall, which of those two worlds we’re in will be a little bit clearer and that will allow people to have a better sense of what is reasonable to think about in terms of diplomatic solutions.

Your book is actually not about the current war, it’s about the war that went on in Ukraine between 2013 and 2021 or so. You and your co-author, Dominique Arel, began work on this book more than seven years ago, long before you could have predicted that this was where things were headed. Your book suggests that the current conflict is inextricably linked to events that took place a decade ago in 2013 and 2014. So, what happened in 2013?

The one-sentence answer is: there was a social revolution in Ukraine that continues to be remembered differently in the Russian-speaking world and in the English-speaking world. The government of Ukraine was going to continue either to explore membership in the European Union or join the Eurasian Economic Union, which was a geopolitical/geoeconomic trade bloc centered on Russia. This escalated in terms of social mobilization and it became violent. And because of the violence, there are certain people who interpret what happened next [the ouster of Ukraine’s then-Russia-aligned president, Yanukovych] as a coup. And those people were given a lot of evidence for that claim by the Russian media. The Russian media amplified disinformation in an effort to de-legitimize the new Ukrainian government. The transition was legal, but it was irregular. But this event really is where it all begins.

The Western and Russian narratives don’t agree on much, but they do agree that this war goes back to Maidan Square. Maidan is the name of the square in Central Kyiv, Independence Square. We have a table in the book which basically lays out the core components of the differing interpretations of what took place there. If you are a Russian speaker—and there are a lot of Russian speakers who live in Eastern Ukraine—you were handed a script by the Russian state that essentially de-legitimized the power transition and gave you moral permission to opt out of the Ukrainian state because, if it’s a coup by fascists, then you ought to arm yourselves and seek the protection of Mother Russia. That was the script. You could call it information warfare. That was the narrative that was handed to people who speak Russian in Odesa, in Kharkiv, in Kherson, and in Donbas. The only place it really took off in a viral way was Crimea and the eastern part of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Russia continues to hold to the core premises of the narrative, which is that the government in Ukraine is really just a thin layer of CIA-backed fascists and if they could just brush those CIA-backed fascists away, you would be left with the “real” Ukraine, which is, of course, Russophone in its heart and wants to be reincorporated into the Russian world.

In November of 2013, mass street protests broke out in the Maidan, as you said. This was in response to then-President Yanukovych breaking from the EU, leaving an EU association agreement, which was a framework for closer economic ties, and moving towards a Russian Customs Union. Some of the population then took to the streets to protest this. What unfolded next in 2014 is really astonishing. Yanukovych was deposed and fled to Russia. The following month, Russia takes Crimea. The war in the eastern part of Ukraine begins. Can you walk us through this series of events?

The first thing that happens after the Maidan events, which by the way, rocks the whole country—there are demonstrations in every major city, except Crimea, that are both pro and anti, clashing with each other. Then there is a cascade of really unexpected things. The first unexpected thing is Yanukovych fleeing in the middle of the night and the implosion of the Party of Regions [a pro-Russian political party] between February 20 and 23 of 2014.

The second unexpected thing is, all of a sudden there are Russian little green men in Crimea. Before you know it, Crimea has voted to join Russia. Obama says on the telephone [to Putin]: we will never recognize Crimea. Most countries have taken the United States’ lead on that, but Russia says Crimea’s matter of self-determination is case closed and uses its UN veto to slam the door.

The third unexpected thing, which is where the core of the argument in our book takes off, is that Russian speakers all across the country—many of whom did not really see Yanukovych as a criminal thug, or even if he was a criminal thug, they saw him as the lesser of two evils, they had voted for the guy; he did in some ways represent their interests—they’re suddenly disenfranchised and there’s a new government that they did not vote for in Kyiv. They are given a choice, because Russian media is providing them with a script, that if they want, they can opt out of the Ukrainian state.

This where we use a little bit of math [in the book]. We treat it like a domino game. Are the dominoes gonna fall or not? There’s a lot of uncertainty. The dominoes fall really quickly in Crimea and Russia shows up and says, okay, welcome back. That makes it not just an abstract possibility, but a real possibility that you could rejoin the Russian motherland if you, for instance, organized a bunch of your friends, grab the capital city’s downtown buildings, put Russian flags on them and try to secede. And that is something that a lot of people tried in a lot of different cities. But it didn’t really take off anywhere except for the far east areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. There, interestingly, it’s not led by the old institutionalized elite. It’s led by new actors that come out of the woodwork.

One of the most surprising things to come out of our research was how little Russian military presence we could get good evidence of. Now, of course it would be hard to find, because these are people acting in secret. But, in our reading, it seems like Putin was actually quite conservative about not sending conventional military forces further than Crimea because he wanted to see how much resistance he would face. And I believe that he believed—there’s of course, a psychological claim here; you kind of have to make psychological claims about these people at some point because there’s no alternative—we believe he believed that Ukraine was gonna collapse on its own and that he would eventually be able to pick up the pieces and control maybe the entire north shore of the Black Sea. When those dominoes didn’t fall, however, because of indigenous Ukrainian resistance, often pro-Ukrainian politically, but Russian-speaking resistance, then we’re in a different world.

Then things freeze. And a lot of analysts, like myself and Dominique, didn’t expect this to unfreeze in February 2022. We thought that the frozen conflict would probably suit Russia’s long-term interests as a kind of sand in the gears of [Ukraine] ever getting into NATO and eventually the West will tire of subsidizing a Ukrainian state that’s limping towards democracy. It turns out we were wrong. It turns out that Vladimir Putin really did not believe that the status quo was sustainable because adaptations by Ukrainians to the Russian presence were causing Ukraine to leave Russia’s orbit too fast. Our interpretation of his decision to go to war in February of 2022 is that he decided to break Ukraine rather than watch Ukraine continue to drift towards the Western sphere.

Competition between pro-Russian parties on the one hand and Western-oriented parties on the other was not new in 2013. In 2004, there were huge street protests, known as the Orange Revolution, that led to the overturning of a rigged election and ushered in a pro-western President, Viktor Yushchenko. Why didn’t this trigger a response from Russia?

There are two or three different ways to answer the question. The first is that violence is what sets Maidan apart from the Orange Revolution.

Second, we discuss the Orange Revolution extensively in the book, and it’s quite interesting to look back and see the Orange Revolution as almost a dress rehearsal for what might have been but wasn’t after Maidan, which was the organized power of the pro-Russia party actually getting together and threatening to secede in an organized way. Not very many people know that they actually met at a party caucus and were flirting during a high-stakes moment of confusion, inviting Russia to recognize a seditious movement that was serious about trying to break up the state. Then they backed down because of an offer to essentially change the makeup and the power of the presidency. That’s something that I don’t think most of our listeners know about. It’s kind of opaque history.

The third thing I’d say is that between the Orange Revolution and the Maidan event, Vladimir Putin comes to see the United States as a far more sinister international actor, and comes to have the linkage of not just the Orange Revolution, but the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. The idea was that the United States really is running around the world fomenting revolutions and weaponizing the promotion of democracy. These are things that Putin does not believe are benign. And that metastasizes for around 10 years before you have the Maidan events and he interprets it through the lens of CIA machinations.

How is your view about how we got to where things are today different from most conventional views?

The main difference in our approach is that we try to take Ukrainian agency very seriously, rather than reducing it to the oversimplified, top-down, familiar, comfortable geopolitical narrative that international relations provides, which is push and pull between a Russian block and a Western block. Russia versus the West is the natural starting point for many analysts in this conflict. It’s not necessarily wrong and there is a great deal of truth to it. Our approach is different because we take a bottom-up approach, which has many advantages, but also some disadvantages.

One of the main disadvantages of telling a story where you have Ukrainian heroes and Ukrainian villains is that you demand that the reader learn a bunch of proper nouns that many people just don’t want to learn. It’s much easier to just treat this like “Putin bad.” A second disadvantage is that the more you describe correctly, factually what’s going on [and what went on] in Ukraine, the more you can be accused of blaming the victim. That’s part of why we took so long to write the book, because we want to be careful to not reproduce Russian misinformation or disinformation while also telling a story where most of the protagonists are [Ukrainian] Russian-speakers and many of the protagonists and antagonists of our book would not appreciate the story being told for them.

You and Dominique look at this conflict as a civil war as opposed to thinking about it as a Russian backed insurgency—is that right?

Russia shows up only parasitically after they see where locals have coordinated to invite them in and that’s the most controversial claim, probably, if you look carefully at the sequencing of what happened. The reason that the civil war framing is useful is because it points out that a lot of the people who were doing the initial mobilization—that was seditious by the way, from the perspective of the legitimate Ukrainian state—that seditious activity was done by people who had Ukrainian passports at the beginning of the conflict. That’s the simple claim. That’s what makes it a civil war.

If it’s a civil war, who’s fighting who?

After Crimea, Russian-speaking Ukrainians especially are fighting other Russian-speaking Ukrainians over the future borders of Ukraine. That’s the nutshell. There are a couple of months, between essentially March of 2014 and August of 2014, when it is clear that there are going to be changes to actual interstate borders between Ukraine and Russia. De facto, possibly de jure. Young men understand that now is the time, if they care, to get on the street and get involved. And so street clashes take place, social mobilizations take place, oftentimes backboned by groups that we would call far right. They’re football hooligans. They are often engaging in behaviors that we would consider deeply antisocial. But that violent milieu is not actually where you see this big spike in deaths. The big spike in deaths then comes in the second stage after the election of Petro Poroshenko. (In an election, by the way, where the far right does terribly at the ballot box and all of the street stuff doesn’t actually percolate to the electoral outcome.) Poroshenko is elected and feels he has a mandate to cow the east with conventional military force and starts dropping bombs that are a propaganda weapon for the Russians, obviously, but from the Ukrainian perspective, this is putting down a seditious insurgency. Until August, until the Battle of Ilovaisk, the Russian military doesn’t show up. By the time Russia intervenes, it’s clear that they don’t have what U.S. counterinsurgency specialists would call an oil spot that goes any further than small territory in Donetsk and Luhansk.

You and Dominique argue that ignoring the local roots of the conflict led to the wrong policy responses. How so?

There are some missed opportunities. I don’t know if they were the wrong policy responses because policies are a result of complicated trade-offs. But the larger point that Dominique and I were trying to make is that the grievances of people who feel disempowered by Maidan were never really taken seriously by most of the West who were just celebrating that the government of Ukraine was now more pro-Western and not going to drag the entire population of Ukraine into a Russian trade zone. It was still a pretty bruising status reversal for a lot of people who live in company towns in the Ukrainian east who speak Russian at home and felt like Yanukovych was a legitimately elected president. They were forced into a situation that was disorienting to them.

Barricade with the protesters at Hrushevskogo street on January 26, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. The protesters have a sign reading, "Spring will come" in Russian.

Barricade with the protesters at Hrushevskogo street on January 26, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Sasha Maksymenko.

The good news is that when Zelensky came into power, they had someone they could vote for. From my perspective and Dominique’s perspective, that’s when we could actually write the book to be like, look, Ukraine is now strong enough that it’s not having something forced on it that it can’t absorb. As a social scientist, I could put Minsk in a family of comparative cases that look a lot like Aila Matanock’s (at Berkeley) work, where we can say: look this is always pretty ugly. Nobody’s happy with elections that end civil wars, but the deaths stop. It’s not magical. It doesn’t solve anything about Crimea. It doesn’t fix U.S.-Russia relations. There are a lot of things it doesn’t fix, but this would save some lives. That was basically our worldview when we were writing the book.

That point of view was completely overtaken by events. That world I just described is totally gone. And we would’ve felt so naïve if we were in print with the book that we had written in 2019, being pro-Minsk, because in retrospect it turns out that everything we were excited about, about that post-Zelensky coalition, was what Vladimir Putin decided he couldn’t live with because he wanted to use the Minsk Accords as a lever to get inside Ukrainian politics and make the entire country flip east. And Zelensky showed that that was just not going to happen, that what you were actually going to get was a new equilibrium in Ukrainian politics, which is anti-Putin with a comedian at the head. And that’s what was not sustainable to Putin.

One of the striking things in the period between 2014 and 2021, but also certainly in terms of the current war, is how strategically costly and just terrible Putin’s strategy towards Ukraine has been—backing separatists, annexing Crimea, fomenting war in the Donbas. All of these things have had the opposite of the intended effect. They have actually reduced Russian influence in domestic politics and forged a stronger Ukrainian identity. Why is Russia doing this given the cost?

That’s a great question and none of the answers are fully satisfying, but I’ll give a couple. I think part of it is that Russia’s sphere of influence is shrinking, and Russia is communicating to future generations of Russians and the West what it will fight for as its sphere of influence shrinks. Russia really cares about Ukraine. And communicating in the international arena may require costly signals. And so viewing all of the costs as a signaling feature, not a bug, is one kind of answer to your question.

Another answer is that Russia does really care about Ukraine and this stems from a set of myths and narratives that are contestable. I recommend strongly to anyone who has a lot of time on their hands that you listen to Timothy Snyder’s lectures. He will complicate simplifications of the Russian narrative for you. A simplified Russian narrative says: those of you in the West who don’t know anything about history need to butt out of this. This is fundamentally a family matter. And Ukrainians understand that we are actually family. They’re pretending not to. But that’s them pretending not to understand what is actually true. And what is actually true is that we are family. And I can give you a long list of the people who aren’t family. The Germans aren’t family. The Kazakhs aren’t family. The gypsies [Romani] were never family. The Americans are certainly not family, but the Ukrainians are. And all of the rest of you need to go home and stay out of what is fundamentally a family dispute.

The third reason for all of this is that Vladimir Putin has vastly miseducated himself about the changes taking place in Ukraine and about his own military capacity and ability to do things on the cheap. They thought that the invasion of Ukraine would look a lot like Crimea and that’s just absurd. But I believe that they believed they were going to be greeted as liberators, and that is an intelligence failure of a colossal scale. That’s not just like the United States invading Iraq. That’s like the United States invading Canada and getting it wrong. Some of it is that it turns out Zelensky is a brilliant war leader. Who would’ve ever thought?

How durable are the governments, on the Ukraine side and on the Russian side? Who will outlast the other—Putin or Zelensky?

This is getting into the tea leaves and beyond the scope of our book. So that means I can answer very quickly and say, I don’t know or I don’t know better than anyone else. The Zelensky government could not look as rosy three years from now as it looks right now, but I’ve been extremely impressed with what they have managed to hold together. I see this as an example of war bringing out the necessity of the strength of a nation. Ukraine has inspired a lot of support from different constituencies in the West, and I think that support is going to continue. That doesn’t magically solve problems of corruption or oligarchs, but hey, we can’t solve those problems in Chicago either so let’s not put the bar in an unrealistic place. And let’s remember that Ukrainians are doing a lot of dying and I think the Western policy of saying we want to make sure they don’t run out of ammo is a very worthy one.

With Russia and the survival of Putin, I mean, we’re just making stuff up here, and I think that it is actually not fair to lean on Russian-speaking experts to predict something that is fundamentally not knowable with the tools of social science. The only thing we know for certain is that Vladimir Putin won’t be there forever. Because people die. But who comes after him? What does that process look like? How might he be pushed out of power? Even if Vladimir Putin is removed the first thing the guy who comes after him will do will not be to apologize, reject all the premises of the Putin narrative, and start from scratch at the negotiating table with a clean slate. The Russian narrative on this is now very, very deep in the Russian psyche. Whoever comes next is going to come into this conflict with premises about the war that are going to be, I think, fairly similar to Putin’s. And that means that removing him doesn’t magically solve a war of attrition. What we learned from [similar wars of attrition] in Korea, in the Israel-Egypt wars, [is that] sometimes these things just keep going and going and going and going.

Is there anything that the United States and Europe should be doing, if not to end the war, then to reduce suffering?

I think it’s important to think about U.S. policy as a kind of a triangle, and I’m stealing this from Mike Kofman, but we have three goals in Ukraine. They’re in some ways complementary and in other ways they’re in tension. One goal is that we want Russia to stay in the war as long as possible because every year they spend in the war, they get weaker and they lose the capability to do this sort of thing again to Georgia, to Kazakhstan, to somewhere else that would be harder to resupply logistically.

The second goal is that we want Ukraine to win, and that’s not exactly the same thing as Russia losing. Ukrainians themselves define what victory looks like.

The third goal, which is easy to lose track of, is escalation control. We have so far managed to keep this war contained to Ukraine and to the land domain. And if we can continue that, that would be nice.

Figuring out how to balance across those three things is what the coalition [is trying to do]. I think it’s a pretty proud moment for American foreign policy, to be honest with you. We are not only communicating the resolve of the United States and the strength of the NATO alliance to Russia, but we’re also communicating things to other adversaries or potential adversaries about the West not being a pushover, to say nothing of the heroism of the Ukrainians and what they are demonstrating to future generations and to Russia.

Given that your job is to study a phenomenon that is actually very active, where there are real consequences in people’s lives right now, do you feel empowered as a social scientist in terms of your contribution, or does it make you feel resigned about the limits of what social scientists can do?

That’s a wonderful, rich question, and I have to honestly say: a little bit of both at different times. During the time that Dominique and I wrote this book, I thought of myself much more as a disengaged academic and what that allows you to do. One of the benefits of the discipline of IR [international relations] is it allows you to take a position outside of that of your government. So, the idea that the United States might be causing problems in the world, even in a well-meaning way—that’s not an idea that you would ever expect anyone in the Department of Defense to publicly endorse, even if privately they understand it. I wrote the first draft of this book at a time when I was imagining myself as someone who was capable of sorting the grains of truth in the Russian narrative in an effort to create a synthesized narrative of this war that might facilitate conflict resolution. Now that the war has broken out and there are millions of broken families, rapes, and atrocities that don’t belong on a podcast that are actually keeping me awake at night, I feel much less interested in an evenhanded approach to the conflict. I am partisan and I’m less apologetic for it.

And so the good news and the bad news of that is that being an engaged academic at one stage of your life makes you critical of being a disengaged academic at another stage of your life.

Jesse Driscoll Ukraine’s Unnamed War: Before the Russian Invasion of 2022 with co-author Dominique Arel. It’s so good to talk with you. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Thumbnail credit: Sasha Maksymenko