Vladimir Putin looms large over these ‘Stories From Ukraine’

Chuck Twardy

Four stars

In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine By Tim Judah, $27.

Almost lost in the cataract of gaffes, lies and lies about gaffes pounding our heads for the past year and a half was Donald Trump’s assertion this summer, on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, that his pal Vladimir Putin would not go into Ukraine. When the bemused host, recalling Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea in 2014, suggested Putin was already there, Trump backtracked: “Okay, well, he’s there in a certain way.”

It would be easy, given what we know, to infer that Trump simply did not know what he was talking about. But later in the same broadcast he said that, “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

As war reporter Tim Judah notes in his In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine, the peninsula’s population is 58 percent Russian and 14 percent Ukrainian, so it would not be surprising if a majority approved rejoining the Motherland. But the referendum was held with 25,000 Russian troops occupying Crimea, and if the reported 80 percent approval was correct, it’s probably because ethnic Ukrainians had either fled or feared going outside, Judah says.

So Putin was there, all right, avenging NATO’s 1999 bombing of ally Serbia in the Kosovo conflict, Judah speculates: “It was a forceful way of saying, ‘Russia is back.’” A more proximate cause was the Maidan Square uprising of 2013 and 2014, which tossed the East-leaning and deeply corrupt Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich from office. But Judah also makes it clear in his lively blend of research and personal narratives that nationality and history are fungible. Poland, Romania, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Nazi Germany have ruled parts of Ukraine, moving or eliminating whole ethnic enclaves at times. To the east, a separatist war rages over the industrial Donbass, where sympathies lie with bordering Russia. Kiev and western Ukraine look to the West, but not without complications. For several of Judah’s sources, both the Holocaust and the Holodomor—the famine under Stalin’s forced collectivization—are in living memory, along with some Ukrainians’ complicity in both.

In Wartime resonates in our polyglot nation’s presidential race because Trump admires the strongman Putin and because he has financial ties to Russia. Both in Ukraine and now in Syria, Putin’s legions of what Judah calls “sofa warriors” fold new layers of spin and denial into history’s volatile mix. Putin is here, too, in a certain way.

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