How Putin Won Crimea, and Lost Ukraine

The Russian leader reclaimed some territory, and made an enemy of millions.

Ukraine servicemen missing
Relatives ask for help searching for Ukrainian servicemen believed captured by separatists during the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in Kiev, Ukraine, Sept. 14, 2016.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine is not Tim Judah’s first experience writing about a conflict region. Two decades ago, he wrote The Serbs, now considered a classic account of the ethnic conflicts that sundered Yugoslavia. Unlike the Balkans, Judah makes clear in his new book, Ukraine is not threatened by genocide or, at the moment, complete fracture. But after the Maidan Revolution of 2014, which was followed by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, the country remains contested ground: between the West and Vladimir Putin, between genuine reformers and oligarchs in Kiev, and between different conceptions of what it means to be Ukrainian.

Judah’s book is full of detailed reporting from both Western and Eastern Ukraine—he covered the conflict with Russia for the New York Review of Books—and although he sympathizes with the attempts to strengthen the government in Kiev and repel Russian aggression, his book offers a nuanced portrait of people on all sides of the conflict. During the course of a phone conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the surprising strength of Ukraine’s military, Russia’s possible miscalculations, and the looming question of Vladimir Putin’s ultimate ambitions.

How would you describe the divisions in Ukraine? From a distance it seems like an unusually divided country, in terms of politics, language, etc.

It is and it isn’t. A large number of Ukrainians, probably the majority of Ukrainians, are bilingual, so they would speak Russian and Ukrainian. Especially in the villages and the countryside, there’s a mishmash language which is a combination of the two. Often what happens is that you’ve got people who identify themselves as Ukrainian and speak Ukrainian, and then people who identify themselves as Russian and speak Russian.

Then you also have quite a large, hard-to-quantify group in the middle who speak Russian but also identify themselves as Ukrainian. Unlike in many other countries, language doesn’t make you of that nation.

That leads to my question of whether you feel like what has happened was in some sense inevitable, or whether you think it was the result of specific actors, or perhaps one actor?

No, I don’t think anything was inevitable at all. I think it was basically the political opportunism of Vladimir Putin which led to the situation that we’re in now. It’s as simple as that. There was no inevitability about it whatsoever.

Nobody in Ukraine, or just a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of people in Ukraine were agitating to become a part of Russia. When the revolution came, Putin decided that this was the time to activate these people and to use them to seize Crimea, which he could easily do because he had a large amount of troops in Crimea anyway. Then, because Crimea was taken in the wake of the revolution and there was no government in Kiev, I think that he was so buoyed by it being so easy that he decided: Let’s try this again in the East.

The Ukrainians made various mistakes. There was one point after the revolution that they wanted to downgrade the status of the Russian language, which never happened of course. All these things, plus an intense barrage of Russian propaganda, managed to whip up enough people in the East that they could start a kind of rebellion, and begin to seize territory, which they began to do.

I think that where it went wrong for Putin was that he hadn’t anticipated that the Ukrainians would gradually begin to basically get their act together and to resist militarily, and send large amounts of Russian soldiers home in coffins, which is why the Russian advance stopped where it did. That was not intended. That was not part of his plan. Basically, he used propaganda, and he used various groups that existed to try and divide, if not completely destroy, Ukraine. But in that he failed. He got Crimea. He’s got this twilight zone in the East, but not a glorious destruction of Ukraine by any means.

How do people in the East feel about the Russians?

I think that there was a certain class element in the struggle, in the sense that a lot of the East was an area where people came from all over the Soviet Union. A lot of these places were these working-class cities which didn’t have deep historical roots. They were cities which were built up, especially in the 20th century, and became Soviet working-class cities, and Russian-speaking, and without deep Ukrainian historical roots. I think that what happened, especially in the last 20 or 25 years, was that you had this growing middle class, which was very pro-Ukrainian, and I think after the conflict began a lot of that middle class fled. Vast amounts of people have left. Many people went to Russia, but especially middle-class people went to other parts of Ukraine. I think what you’ve got left is a lot of people who are quite embittered, really.

It was quite an urban war in the sense that you had fighting for these cities like Donetsk, and you had these untrained rebels with Russian backing, and then you had a completely chaotic Ukrainian army and militias, who were firing back at them in the city. A lot of civilians were being killed, which generated in places like Donetsk a kind of anti-Ukrainian feeling. So the pro-Ukrainian element left, and then the people who remained became quite embittered by the war. They had been whipped up to believe that the Ukrainians were the new Nazis, that they were playing some heroic role in fighting the new Nazis, and that sooner or later they were all going to be incorporated into Russia like Crimea had been and then live happily ever after. Then they were going to get quadruple salaries and quadruple pensions and such, none of which happened. What you’ve got is quite an embittered population that remains there.

Is your sense that the separatists have loyalty to Russia, or if not to Russia, that they have a different clear-cut sense of what they want?

I think at the beginning on the rebel side it was very unclear what they were fighting for. They had these referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk. Were they for full independence or were they going to join Russia, or were they for some sort of federal Ukraine? It was really very unclear. I think, actually, probably most wanted to join Russia. I don’t think they really wanted to be an independent country.

Did the fighters know who was arming them?

I don’t think they did initially. Not only that, but I think a lot of people would never have taken up arms if they had known that there was a war coming. I remember meeting the ordinary, middle-aged men at a barricade at the beginning of the conflict who said, “Oh, it’s fine. It’s all going to be like Crimea, and the Russians are going to come in and save us, and that’s that.” They would never have destroyed their own economy, and destroyed their livelihoods, if they had known there was going to be a war and they were going to be stuck in this twilight zone, or have to leave. No, I don’t think that they knew it at all, really. They were used.

What about the people fighting for the central government? How much sense of national cohesion and purpose do you think there was, and has that changed over time?

The first thing I’d say is something which I think is not really appreciated very much: The Ukrainian government came to power in a chaotic fashion and they had no proper military. I think the people fighting for Ukraine, be it for the militia side or for the army, were pretty clear that they were fighting to defend Ukraine, but Ukraine is historically a chaotic place, in all sorts of respects. The point was that in terms of defense, initially you had these militias who were going off doing their own thing, then you had the army, which as I said, was underfunded and unprepared. What they managed to do was they managed to weld together a kind of workable defense system which has stopped the Russians.

The military had been starved of resources ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. It had not really done anything. The vast majority of the defense budget had gone to pay salaries, or had been stolen, so it was this completely unprepared force, but together with militias they did this amazing job of stopping the rebel and Russian advance and saved 90 percent of Ukraine from being taken over. I think that you have to give them credit for that, and I think that’s why the line has stopped, or stopped two years ago. I think that’s why the struggle for Ukraine has shifted to Kiev, and what I mean by that is that the struggle for Ukraine is a struggle between reformers and …

Oligarchs? I’m kidding.

Sorry, but it is oligarchs. That’s really where the struggle is today, and I think, yes, they could have done more. It’s a kind of up-and-down process, but they haven’t done that badly.

But time is running against them, and unless they can really rebuild Ukraine and make it into a proper, functioning country, not the most perfect country, by any means, then they will lose the war of Ukraine.

Is there any part of the Russian narrative of this conflict that you think people in the West should pay more heed to?

A lot of people did get taken in by this neo-Nazi narrative. A lot of people think there must be something to it. Some Ukrainians collaborated during the Second World War with the Nazis, therefore they must still be there. The fact is that Ukrainians in the election have voted much less for far-right parties than in many other countries in Europe. Yes, there are some neo-Nazis like there are in other places in Europe, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that millions of Ukrainians also died fighting the Nazis during the Second World War. The fact is that the vast majority of Ukrainians are not of that ilk. A lot of people say, “Yes, of course, Putin may have done bad things but on the other hand Ukrainians aren’t all that great, either. Their leadership is full of neo-Nazis,” which is just basically not true.

Even if they were bad people, it doesn’t mean they deserve to get invaded.

The fact is that the prime minister of Ukraine is Jewish and out and proud of being Jewish. If that neo-Nazi theory was true, it would have been inconceivable. Really what’s happened in the last year is a sort of development of the idea of a civic Ukraine where it is possible now to be proud, Jewish, and Ukrainian, or proud and Russian-speaking and Ukrainian. That’s one of these seismic shifts which has taken place in Ukraine.

How much concern do you have that this is not the end of Russian involvement?

In the beginning of August there was an upsurge of concern. It was never really clear what happened, but the Russians said that the Ukrainians had sent a special sort of unit in to cause trouble in Crimea and that they had caught them. The Ukrainians denied it, and said that it was a completely different story. Then Putin said that this was not going to go unpunished, so there was a lot of concern that the war was about to start again, and that the Russians were going to try and seize another chunk of territory. Guess what happened? Really, nothing happened after that. I think it’s because the Ukrainians, every day their military gets stronger. It gets stronger because they’re more organized. Don’t forget, also, that Ukraine was the 10th largest arms exporter in the world. It was not a country that didn’t have an arms industry. A lot of it, it’s true, went to Russia, but not all of it by any means. A lot of that now goes to its own armed forces, which couldn’t afford that stuff before. That’s why I think what’s important is the battle for Kiev, and who wins it, and whether real reformers win it, and whether a modern, relatively noncorrupt government can emerge and run Ukraine.

What many people in Ukraine say is that what Putin did was that he actually solidified for many people who were indifferent or uncertain a sense of Ukrainian identity, and in that sense, it’s a kind of cliché, but it’s true, he won Crimea, but lost Ukraine. This was not a very good bargain because there were tens of millions of people who always regarded Russia as this brotherly state, and to whom Russia and Ukraine were always so close and tied together. He made millions of people into enemies.