Andrew Wilson’s earlier publications on Ukraine won him a reputation as a serious historian.footnote1 His first books—notably Ukrainian Nationalism in the 1990s (1997), The Ukrainians (2002) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2005)—were distinguished by three signal features. Firstly, Wilson argued strongly that while Ukrainian nationalism was a force in the west of the country—where, bred under Austrian and Polish rule, it had mostly possessed a strong right-wing bent—it had only limited appeal in the country as a whole, due to the existence of deep regional, linguistic and ethnic historical divisions. Ukrainian ‘national identity’, Wilson insisted in The Ukrainians, was essentially a product of the Soviet era. Second, he made no bones about the fact that since 1990, the country had had a sorry economic and political record; the state was thoroughly colonized by oligarchy, thuggery and corruption; civil society remained very weak. It was a myth, Wilson argued, that Ukrainian political culture was more tolerant, democratic and pluralist than Russia’s. Third, Wilson provided detailed analysis of the various oligarchic bosses and clans, and of their rivalries. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution offered praise for the protests of 2004 and was cautiously optimistic about the Yushchenko–Timoshenko regime that emerged from them.
His latest book, the ill-titled Ukraine Crisis, constitutes a sharp break from this earlier work in direction, tone and genre. This may in part be the product of the author’s transformation from historian to foreign-policy agitator: Wilson is now a Senior Fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a lavishly funded think-tank modelled on its American homonym, which has grown since its birth in 2007 to become a large octopus in the eu aquarium. The position has allowed him a back-room role in eu diplomacy—there is a casual reference to his presence at the November 2013 Vilnius summit—and indeed Ukraine Crisis was part-funded by eu Commission money. The book bears the marks of this shift. Readers should not expect to find in its pages a balanced assessment of contending arguments or a systematic analysis of the available sources, followed by well-grounded conclusions. For the most part, this is a one-sided, tendentious account of Ukraine’s Maidan protests of 2013–14, the Russian intervention and the civil war, heavily reliant on web-sourced information, anonymous interviews and hectic prose, pieced together to bolster a very specific political agenda. It is driven not by a desire to investigate what actually happened and why, but rather to rebut critics—from all sides—of a Western neoliberal line. The nature of Russian policy, the legitimacy of the Yanukovych government and the character of the Maidan protests are all grist to this mill.
In his introduction, Wilson insists that Ukraine Crisis is not ‘an anti-Russian book’, before proceeding to deliver exactly that. The anti-Putin message is expressed in the crudest of terms: ‘The key to understanding modern Russia is to realize that it is run by some very weird people.’ Wilson asserts that Russia’s rulers believe their country has been ‘constantly humiliated’ since 1991; this externally imposed ‘humiliation’ must now be avenged by restoring its Great Power status. He denies that Russia is in any way ‘encircled or threatened’ by nato’s expansion. His argument is that Russia was brought down by its own oligarchs, the social layer who benefited most from the fall of Communism through their capture of state power and property. Some of the oligarchic groups were wealthier and luckier than others; ‘Putin’s friends’ and the siloviki were able to monopolize power by removing dangerous competitors, marginalizing opponents and manipulating the population with a complex dramaturgy scripted by ‘political technologists’. The latest example of this is the ‘conservative values’ project of 2014, an attempt to shore up a Putin majority after the opposition protests of 2011–12. For Wilson, a similar monopolization of power by Yanukovych and his allies was blocked by the Maidan protests.
Wilson devotes a good few pages to countering the argument—widely propounded by Ukrainian opponents of the Maidan—that Yanukovych was a legitimately elected president, overthrown by a violent ‘coup’. He argues that Yanukovych himself was the first to break the formal rules of the game after beating Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election. Reputedly by bribery or threat, he secured the majority vote in parliament needed to remove Tymoshenko from the prime minister’s office. Within a year of Yanukovych taking office, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court revised the elite compromise agreed after the Orange Revolution of 2004, restoring the old Ukrainian Constitution of 1996 and shifting the balance of power in favour of the President. The prosecution of Tymoshenko for ‘abuse of office’ began in May 2011. Wilson is right that this was a case of political persecution, when considered alongside other steps to monopolize power. But from a strictly legal perspective, it is questionable to brand Yanukovych an ‘illegitimate’ ruler. His actions were within the bounds of legal procedure, on the surface at any rate, and Tymoshenko was not innocent of the charges brought against her. The fact that her supporters called for the ‘decriminalization’ of the article under which Tymoshenko was sentenced was a tacit acknowledgment that she had indeed broken the law.
Yanukovych went on to monopolize political power for his own benefit and that of his ‘Family’—in Wilson’s telling, a Don Corleone-style clan of close relatives and confidants—while gradually pushing other oligarchs away from the trough. The author quotes a Ukrainian journalist explaining that the President ‘wanted to be the richest man in Eastern Europe’, and devotes many pages to corruption and extravagant lifestyles among the ruling clique. The sloppiness of his research is evident in his treatment of the alleged figures. In the space of three sentences, Wilson’s estimate of the depredations of the Family soars from $8–10bn annually to $100bn overall, the latter figure attributed to post-Maidan Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Wilson doesn’t bother to investigate the facts, but $100bn is surely a wild exaggeration. Total state revenues in 2014 were less than $40 billion; if this figure were accurate, the departure of Yanukovych alone should have given a huge boost to the Ukrainian economy. The fact that exactly the opposite happened should have given Wilson cause to doubt Yatsenyuk’s claim—and the idea that Yanukovych’s corruption, though obviously present, was the greatest problem facing Ukraine.