Book Review: Why Ukraine Matters
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A helpful geopolitical exploration of the near- and long-term history behind the invasion of Ukraine
For twenty years, Fazle Chowdhury, a professor of business management who previously worked for the UN Development Program, has studied Ukraine. He has discussed the topic with retired diplomats and former UN colleagues, all of whom feel “genuine love for Kyiv and Moscow” alike.
With the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chowdhury reassembled his essays into this book, Why Ukraine Matters. It presents a background narrative to give context for today’s war, and it helps explain how “2022 Putin is a very different Putin from the 2000 Putin.” Chowdhury dedicates the book to the future triumph of the Ukrainians. His own longstanding concern for the region is evident.
In the early 1920s, Lenin took the grain grown in Ukraine and exported it for profit while the Ukrainians starved. Stalin continued this in the 1930s and tried to cover up the famine. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union began industrializing, and, in 1962, acquired nuclear weapons. Energy independence, too, has long been a theme for Ukraine, as it has depended on Russian oil and nuclear reactors.
Based on the long history, it is evident to the rest of the world that Ukraine is not part of Russia. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, however, always wanted to invade and conquer it, and so his war was a question of when, not if. Ukraine’s vulnerabilities today have been determined by 21st-century instabilities like its corrupt oligarchy, its disputed election in 2004, the effects of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis on neighboring countries like Hungary, and Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is “essentially Cold War 2.0,” Chowdhury writes, but it’s also an attempt to colonize the area under a nationalist myth that the country is already inherently Russian.
Chowdhury’s essays raise probing questions, the answers to some of which we are already receiving in real time. Will Europe send troops to Ukraine? Who will be in charge of NATO decisions? Will the US military remember to plan an exit strategy, which it “usually does not”? Consider that, even in World War II, “Europe’s heavyweights” couldn’t “save Poland and its fabric from being conquered and later occupied by the Soviets.” Financially squeezing Russia might deter its aggression, but this would bring indirect economic consequences for other countries too. Academics and policymakers who “game” potential outcomes can find a wealth of relevant factors here.
A lot of the world depends on Russian oil, so the outcome of Russia’s war is connected to everyone’s broader choices about energy. “If sticking it to Putin is what some people need to move away from fossil fuels, then so be it,” Chowdhury says, while also pointing out that efforts “to preserve a habitable planet” (in the sense of averting climate change) are self-justifying.
Ukrainians have a historical connection to Poland that helps explain why they are fleeing there today as refugees. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was created in 1573 and partitioned in 1795. The part given to Russia eventually became Ukraine. In 1918, a newly independent Ukraine declared four official languages: Polish along with Ukrainian, Russian, and Yiddish. Ukraine declared independence again in 1991.
For the casual reader, all this encyclopedic information might obscure the answer to the central question, Why Ukraine Matters. Of course, it’s important that no country anywhere becomes a failed state. For a reader to develop their own more robust answer about Ukraine’s geopolitical importance, it probably helps if they bring a bit of their own background knowledge when they read this book. Chowdhury lets dedicated readers—political scientists, business consultants, history buffs—level-up their knowledge base about Ukraine by delivering a large amount of important information with precise historical detail.
Genre: Nonfiction / Eastern European Studies
Print Length: 421 pages
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