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History's First Draft

History's First Draft

A new book by Michael Kimmage envisions the Ukraine-Russia conflict as a collision of world views.

Eric S. Edelman
Collisions: The Origins of the War in Ukraine and the New Global Instability
by Michael Kimmage (Oxford University Press, 296 pp., $29.99)

Vladimir Putin’s premeditated, unprovoked, and seemingly personal war against Ukraine has prompted an outpouring of quite good journalistic accounts, frequently touted as the first draft of history. These include Owen Matthews’ Overreach: The Insider Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine, Christopher Miller’s The War Came to Us: Life and Death in Ukraine, Yaroslav Trofimov’s Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence, and Illia Ponomarenko’s forthcoming I Will Show You How It Was: The Story of Wartime Kyiv. In addition, historian Serhii Plokhy and well-connected Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar have produced “instant histories” that seek to provide historical context to explain the war’s origins and debunk the imperialist narrative with which Putin has dressed up his squalid war of aggression.

To this growing literature historian and former U.S. government official Michael Kimmage has now added Collisions: The Origins of the War in Ukraine and the New Global Instability. The book is replete with literary and historical allusions that assert the conflict is a result of three collisions collectively shaking the global order and producing an international situation that the author suggests is more “combustible” than the Cold War or even World War II. Specifically, he argues Russia’s war on Ukraine has resulted from the simultaneous collisions between a Westernizing Ukraine and a pan-Slavic Russia, between Russia and Europe, and, finally, between Russia and the United States. The war, he argues, marks the “start of a new era, newly dangerous and newly bloody.” It is difficult to take issue with that judgment.

Having said that, Professor Kimmage—whose position in the Obama Administration’s State Department Policy Planning Staff during the first round of war between Russia and Ukraine from 2014 to 2016 gave him a ringside seat to U.S. policymaking—has produced a book that is frequently illuminating but more often frustrating and ultimately disappointing, perhaps because its ambitions exceed the ability of the author to meet them as he writes about a war in media res.

Kimmage acknowledges at the outset that writing a history at this short distance is deeply problematic given the singular role of Russia’s president in telling this story. “Putin’s mind and motivations,” he writes, “are a black box as far as empirical evidence goes. His thinking can be inferred from his speeches and from his actions: it can be the object of educated guesswork, a very imprecise science.” 

Collisions ultimately is less a book about the diplomatic and military origins of the war on Ukraine than it is a history of the ideas that both Western and Russian leaders expressed about one another during the post-Cold War era that ended abruptly with Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. This is not surprising since Kimmage’s body of scholarly work has largely been in the field of intellectual history. 

His account of NATO enlargement draws on the standard literature on the subject but his judgment of it seems ambivalent at best. He acknowledges that, “Enlargement came in the 1990s of Eastern European countries that very much wanted to join NATO,” but goes on to suggest that fear of nuclear proliferation and democratic backsliding were the main motivations for U.S. policymakers. As someone who was directly involved in the diplomacy of the period, however, it was the case that nuclear proliferation was solely a concern with regard to Ukraine in 1992–94; that was laid to rest by the successful negotiation of the Budapest Memorandum well before the first round of enlargement in 1997. 

The potential for democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe was indeed also a concern at the time, but Kimmage leaves out two overriding issues for policymakers: fear of leaving a security vacuum in Central Europe, and a desire to hedge against the potential for future Russian revanchism. Moreover, membership in the alliance of their choosing was a fundamental right of these states under the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris, and other international agreements to which Russia formally adhered. 

Kimmage suggests that NATO enlargement was “a project far more demanding and dangerous than what NATO had set out to do when it was created in 1949” and that “NATO was unifying Europe by dividing it, and dividing it by unifying it.” This purported paradox clearly casts doubt on the wisdom of enlargement (and will no doubt seem to concede Putin’s neo-imperial reading of history to many readers), but in light of events since 2008 enlargement seems like a reasonably prudent act of statesmanship by President Bill Clinton. 

Kimmage’s account of the George W. Bush Administration’s policy sees Putin’s invasion of Georgia and maintenance of a frozen conflict in Transnistria as a “sideshow” in Bush’s “tumultuous Presidency” that was dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, however, began to corrode the relationship that Bush and Putin had struck up in the aftermath of 9/11. 

Kimmage quotes Putin as saying during the Orange Revolution, “They are stealing Ukraine from under me.” In the wake of Putin’s invasion of Georgia, the exhausted Bush Administration gave way to a successor whose team hoped to “reset” the relationship with Russia, although it was not clear that Putin was in any mood for such a recalibration himself. 

It is natural enough for writers to provide a generally positive assessment of the policies of an administration in which they have served, and Kimmage, although not without some criticisms, generally has a positive assessment of the Obama Administration’s engagement with Europe and Russia. He contrasts that engagement with the fraught relationships of his predecessor (and for that matter his successor) with European leaders, although many officials in the chancelleries of Europe would privately note that Obama had limited interest in or time for Europe. He notes without irony what was perhaps Barack Obama’s most ill-considered statement about Russia, his presidential debate taunt of candidate Mitt Romney that the “1980’s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for twenty years.” 

Although Kimmage suggests that the Obama Administration was confused and willing to allow the Europeans to take the lead when Putin seized Crimea and destabilized the Donbas, he sees that as largely a result of Putin and Obama looking at the problem through “entirely different lenses.” But rather than a misprision of the situation, it would seem that Obama was content to allow Putin to dominate Ukraine. As he told a group of seasoned outsiders who met with him at the time, Putin would always have escalation dominance in Ukraine, since he cared more about it than the United States did; moreover, Obama was not willing to run the risk of nuclear war over the issue. It seems not to have occurred to him that this diffidence would undermine the credibility of U.S. deterrence in Europe and that another round of fighting was inevitable.

As to Obama’s successor, although “Trump was the most extravagant and the most outspoken Russophile ever to occupy the White House,” his rhetoric was “far more extreme than his administration’s actual policies toward Russia, which were fairly conventional.” Indeed, “the reality of Trump Administration policy was close to being boring.” This assessment would have been news, I believe, to Trump’s penultimate national security advisor John Bolton, who believes that Trump was close to pulling the United States out of NATO and still believes that he will try to accomplish that objective if he is elected again in November. 

Biden fares reasonably well in Kimmage’s telling. In the aftermath of the chaotic and disorderly Trump years, he and his team upon assuming office attempted to establish guardrails to keep the relationship with Russia from running into a ditch. Hence Biden’s unconditional rollover of the New START agreement (not START 2, as the author erringly states), which was extended (not signed) for five years despite advice from both the State and Defense departments that the administration should attempt a shorter extension conditional on Russia’s negotiating in good faith on arms control in the future. In addition, Biden granted Putin a summit with no real requirement for agreements or deliverables of any kind. 

These efforts at putting guardrails up failed, but the plot is not fully conveyed by the author. The Biden team was transparently attempting to “park” the U.S.-Russia relationship so it could focus on the “pacing challenge” presented by the People’s Republic of China. By conveying this so directly to Putin, they ceded him the whip hand in managing the bilateral relationship.

A notable analytical failing of the book is that it treats Putin as a “statist” and Russia as a normal state operating in the international order, rather than—as the late Alexei Navalny, his widow Yulia, and Edward Lucas have argued—a criminal enterprise in which corruption is not a bug of the regime but a feature of it. This is not the first time that Europe has faced such a challenge. As historian Paul Schroeder pointed out more than thirty years ago, Napoleon’s foreign policy was, in essence, a criminal enterprise and it was several years before all of Europe could be united against it. One could make a similar case with regard to Nazi Germany. 

Kimmage’s conclusions that the war in Ukraine has shattered assumptions about a peaceful Europe, has proven to be a failure of U.S. deterrence, has cemented Ukraine’s Western orientation, and has had a baleful impact on the global order but reinforced America’s role (at least for the moment) as a master of alliance management seem largely correct. Despite the moments in which he displays keen insights into the geopolitical developments of the post-Cold War period, this book verges on moral equivalence at times and struggles to convince the reader of many of its arguments—unsurprisingly so, since true evidence is largely unknown and we have yet to attain the time and distance that true wisdom about conflict requires. 

Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (2005–09) during the George W. Bush administration.

Image: A Ukrainian paratrooper during the Saber Junction military exercises, 2018, Ubensdorf, Germany. (Flickr: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeRussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyBook Reviews