by Yaroslav Trofimov (Penguin Press, 400 pp., $32) Release Date: January 9, 2024
In Our Enemies Will Vanish, Yaroslav Trofimov, the chief foreign-affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, illuminates two already much-covered events. The first is Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the second is Ukrainian’s valiant response to this invasion, including the response of the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Forty-one years old when he became the president of Ukraine in 2019, Zelensky’s prior career in entertainment and comedy did not necessarily foreshadow his prowess as a wartime leader. Trofimov does not shy away from retracing the familiar in his book, ably sketching the path to war and the war’s major turning points thus far. What most distinguishes his book, however, is his eye for detail.
Trofimov has spent much of the war on the ground in Ukraine. Our Enemies Will Vanish is very much an eyewitness account, which alone would make it an important book. Ukrainian born himself, Trofimov is not the kind of foreign correspondent who drops into a country and only interacts with a few English-speaking elites. Since Russia’s initial February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, he has immersed himself in the experiences of everyday people. Through image and anecdote, he conveys the astounding transformations wrought by Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade in the winter of 2022. These transformations have manifested themselves in high politics, in a geopolitical duel between Putin, Zelensky and many other actors, but they have also left their mark on every Ukrainian family.
Trofimov’s narrative goes back and forth between the big picture—a global conflict encompassing Russia, Europe, and the United States—and the little details. The book’s value lies primarily in its aggregation of details, which Trofimov amassed through extensive reporting and through enduring the risks of being a wartime correspondent. Trofimov’s writing in Our Enemies Will Vanish is lucid, vivid, and memorable. As explanation, his book is less persuasive, suffering somewhat from being the depiction of a war that is not yet over. He characterizes the war as Ukraine’s triumph and as Russia’s self-defeat. And yet, the war, now entering its second winter, may not be destined to validate either of these two descriptions. Russia keeps finding ways to advance its terrible war, while Ukraine, having fallen short with its summer counter-offensive, is currently struggling to retain Western support. This remains the most unpredictable of wars.
Two stories reveal Trofimov’s expertise in capturing the war’s tenor and texture. One comes from the war’s first moments, when nobody knew what was happening in Kyiv. A CNN reporter makes his way to Hostomel airport (on the city’s outskirts) to find the line between Russia and Ukraine’s militaries. The reporter approaches a soldier and asks, “‘Where are the Russians?’ ‘We are the Russians,’ the men replied. Stunned, he [the reporter] noticed the St. George’s colors,” Trofiomov writes. “The Russians shooed him away as gunfire erupted.” The battle for Hostomel airport, which the CNN reporter was in the middle of, would eventually be a pivotal Ukrainian victory. Had it gone the other way, Russia might have been able to take Kyiv (and perhaps the entire country) by force.
Hostomel airport is a constant in just about every account of the Russian invasion. Trofimov adds no new analysis to the setback Ukraine handed Russia at Hostomel. Instead, he provides impressionistic insight into the speed of events in February 2022—of Russian soldiers in Kyiv immediately after the start of the invasion; of the unpreparedness of the Ukrainian residents, whom the war took mostly by surprise; but also, of the unreadiness outside of Ukraine to intuit the enormity of Putin’s war. Many, both from within the halls of power in Kyiv and across European capitals, thought that Russia’s invasion would not happen or that, if it did, it would be a minor incursion into eastern Ukraine. With a few sentences about the startled CNN reporter at Hostomel, Trofimov provides a perfect portrait of this confusion.
Another rendering of war, seemingly trivial in nature but not trivial at all in implication, comes later in Trofimov’s account. Months into the war, Ukrainian forces capture several Russian soldiers. They can speak with one another. The Russian soldiers are asked where they are from, to which they answer Belgorod, a town on the Ukrainian border. “‘Ah, neighbors!’” the Ukrainian soldiers exclaim. “‘Have you been to Kharkiv before the war?’” (Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city not far from Belgorod.) “‘Of course,’ the Russian soldiers say. ‘Did you see any Nazis there?’ a Ukrainian asked, squinting. ‘No,’ the Russians mumbled. ‘Then why… did you come here to fight?’”
“There was no reply,” Trofimov recounts.
Much of the war is contained within this telegraphic exchange. These soldiers can communicate with each other, underscoring the ironic reference to Russians and Ukrainians as neighbors. This is a literal truth. Given the war, it is also acutely absurd. The question about Nazis is ironic as well: it nods to Putin’s war aim of “de-nazifying” Ukraine. Perhaps Putin felt such a war aim was necessary. Prior to Putin’s decision to invade, Ukraine had not attacked Russia in 2022: it was Russia that attacked Ukraine. By invoking the “de-nazification” of Ukraine, the turning back of another generation of Nazis, Russia was attempting to relitigate the Second World War rhetorically. Yet the Russian soldiers in question had grown up close enough to Ukraine to be actual neighbors and therefore to know that Ukrainians were not Nazis—and thus, that Putin had to have based his war on a lie. To the embarrassment of the Russian soldiers, the war they are fighting is not one that they can explain in a language more sincere than propaganda.
Our Enemies Will Vanish—the title is taken from the Ukrainian national anthem—is a book about Ukraine during the ongoing war. It is not a book about Russia, about the Kremlin’s take on foreign policy, or about the reasons for the war’s popularity (such as it is) in Russia. At times, Trofimov applies simple formulations to matters of great complexity. “Putin’s war plan to capture Kyiv in a lightning blitzkrieg was premised on an obsessive idea,” he writes, “fueled by reading the wrong history books during months of self-isolation during the COVID pandemic.” Putin’s pandemic reading may have given him his war plans. There is not enough hard evidence of Kremlin policy making to refute this claim; there is also none to support it. But Trofimov’s formulation is very likely a reduction of long-term strategic calculations to Putin’s unknown and unknowable psychology.
Throughout his book, Trofimov fashions an argument tinged more with advocacy than with persuasive analysis. This argument consists of three points. One is about Ukraine, which has turned out “to be much stronger” than expected. The other is about Russia, which has turned out to be “much weaker” than predicted. The first point is unambiguously true. The second point is also true, though it is possible to exaggerate it, as Trofimov does when writing about Yevgeny Prigozhin's June 2023 mutiny. “The war that was meant to implement regime change in Ukraine was eroding Russia’s own regime instead,” Trofimov contends about the uprising of Putin’s all-purpose mercenary. This was how it seemed—to many—on the day of Prigozhin’s mutiny. Since then, Putin’s hold on power has revealed this judgment to be wishful thinking.
Trofimov’s third point is about the United States, which he argues had the capacity to win the war for Ukraine, if only if it could have elevated the pitch of its military aid. “Since the first days of the war,” Trofimov writes, “the White House’s overriding priority had been not to overstep Russia’s ‘red lines’ and provoke a direct confrontation between Moscow and NATO.” Had Washington and its European partners not been so hesitant, he argues, they could have rushed support to Ukraine in August 2022, “when Russia’s military was stretched thin, [and] they could have ensured a strategic Ukrainian victory and possibly ended the war.” This too might be wishful thinking. One could invert Trofimov’s thesis. In Ukraine, the United States is more directly confronting Russia than it ever had the Soviet Union, passing to Kyiv tens of billions of dollars of financial and military assistance, pushing its capacities to the limit. No country has done more to enable Ukraine’s battlefield successes—and Ukraine’s survival as a nation.
The war will end when Russia chooses not to wage it. Though Kyiv and its backers should do all they can to expedite this choice, Ukraine’s enemy is unlikely simply to vanish, and so far Putin’s regime is not on the cusp of eroding. It is a war best conceived of in decades rather than in years, which makes it a conundrum for Western policy makers and for electorates, though one they can manage with patience, planning and perseverance.
For journalists, the most pressing task is to tell the day-to-day story of the war. To date, very few journalists have done this as well as Yaroslav Trofimov—given the deftness of his pen, his knowledge of the region, and his empathy for the people of Ukraine. His book puts a human face on news that can, in its raw brutality, often feel dehumanizing. Notwithstanding its tacit optimism about Western military technology, about a Russian defeat, and about a Ukrainian victory, Our Enemies Will Vanish has the potential to be the first volume of a series,. Whatever Trofimov shares beyond this present volume will be sure to be essential reading in the future. In the meantime, he has already written an indispensable book on the war.
Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His book, Collisions: The Wa in Ukraine and the Origins of the New Global Instability, is due out with Oxford University Press in March 2024.
Image: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the frontline command post near Kupyansk, Kharkiv region. (Flickr: President of Ukraine)
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