Roots of the Ukraine crisis go back 80 years

Review: Archie Henderson

Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, by Kevin Shillington (Viking)

Ten years after the end of World War 1, Leonard Woolf, a British economist and political theorist, more famous today for being married to Virginia, predicted that the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires would lead to the fall of the others: British, French, Italian and Japanese.

The only question, he wondered, was whether “it will be buried peacefully or in blood and ruins”.

Fortunately for Richard Overy (if not the millions who suffered) it was the latter: it made for a better title.

A good title to go with a good book, but not the “work of genius” as a military website called it. It’s also hard work: almost 1,000 pages, if you include the footnotes, and printed in a small font. But it is often rewarding and even topical; near the end is a bit of background on the current Ukraine war where the end of Soviet imperialism and current Russian revanchism are leading to more blood and ruin.

When World War 2 ended it was indeed the end of empire as the world had then understood it. Colonised lands in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Oceania were granted independence, albeit reluctantly in some instances, and often bloodily, especially in Algeria. Other terrible wars, the results of decolonisation, were fought in Korea and Vietnam and, it is often forgotten, Ukraine.

The hypocrisy of the Soviet empire was revealed in November 1960 when the USSR’s representative in the UN Security Council, Valerian Zorin, denounced colonialism as “the most shameful phenomenon in the life of mankind”, demanding independence for all colonised peoples within a year. Yet 15 years earlier the Soviets had begun colonising the countries of Eastern and Central Europe which its troops had occupied between 1944 and 1945.

There the Red Army fought a protracted war against nationalist movements in Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic states and, yes, Ukraine.

The roots of today’s war between Russia and Ukraine lie almost 80 years in the past when Soviet soldiers and their odious sidekicks, the NKVD secret police, showed the same disdain for legality as earlier imperial forces in conducting anti-guerrilla operations against local fighters.

The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, whose hands were hardly clean, fought a liberation war against the Soviet Union, which did not want to give up territory won from the Germans. Similar battles were waged elsewhere in Soviet-occupied territory until the Red Army, with extreme cruelty, prevailed.

For a long while those battles were almost forgotten, revived only after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the rallying of former Soviet satellite states to the side of the Ukrainians.

Overy finished his book before the latest act of imperial aggression and it might take a new epilogue now, but the world will have to first wait to see how the most recent convulsion of empire turns out.










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