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Collisions by Michael Kimmage: The ripple effects of war in Ukraine

Author examines growing global instability in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022

Collisions: The Origins of the War in Ukraine and the New Global Instability
Collisions: The Origins of the War in Ukraine and the New Global Instability
Author: Michael Kimmage
ISBN-13: 978-0197751794
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £ 22.99

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 brought about not one war but several simultaneous conflicts. The three “collisions” that give the book its title, the author writes, were: the direct and open war between Ukraine and Russia; the more indirect but still important clashes between Russia and Europe; and Russia and the United States. By sending his forces into Ukraine across a wide range of territory, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin ended up with battles on three fronts.

Several commentators have posited reasons why Putin acted as he did but Michael Kimmage wisely notes that while “Putin’s thinking can be inferred from his speeches and his actions: it can be the object of educated guess work, a very imprecise science”.

Professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, Kimmage handled the Ukraine/Russia portfolio at the US state department in 2014-2016 and dealt personally with political leaders ranging from the former prime minister and western Ukrainian nationalist Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the mayor of Kyiv and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and the former president Leonid Kuchma.

Yatsenyuk comes across as a young, committed politician who speaks English almost perfectly, Klitschko as “gracious and irreverent” and Kuchma as a cagey politician and one of Ukraine’s founding fathers.

Kuchma is dealt with fairly positively by Kimmage for his relatively pro-western stance but as a journalist I should admit my bias here. During his presidency Kuchma and his associates were subjected to serious allegations of corruption by the campaigning journalist Yuri Gongadze. On the night of September 16th, 2000 Gongadze disappeared. His headless body was found two months later some distance from Kyiv. Tape recordings that suggested Kuchma spoke of wanting rid of Gongadze were released. In 2005 the former interior minister Yuri Kravchenko was due to give evidence on the case but died of two gunshot wounds to the head.

The events leading to the initial Russo-Ukrainian conflict in 2014 are dealt with even-handedly throughout. The role of right-wing forces in the Maidan Revolution is not ignored but the role of ordinary Ukrainians looking for a European future is rightly stressed. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s role in provoking the 2008 Russian invasion of his country is also mentioned.

The annexation of Crimea is condemned but the pro-Russian views of a section of the peninsula’s population are not ignored. A weakness, however, is the author’s propensity to indulge in asides that do not stand up to scrutiny. The annexation of Crimea, for example, is described as “the most dramatic revision of Europe’s borders since 1945″, ignoring the departure of 15 republics, including Ukraine itself, from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the bloody breakdown of Yugoslavia into its internal components, the divorce of Czechia and Slovakia and the reunification of Germany. On that latter subject Kimmage muses: “Perhaps Helmut Kohl imagined that he had unified Germany and transformed Europe. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher imagined it had been her doing ...”

Thatcher would have needed a very strong imagination in this case as she fought tooth and nail to prevent German reunification.

Though minor in comparison to the big picture, these and other asides could cause readers to stop in their tracks and question the book’s accuracy in general.

Most of the commentary on the February 2022 invasion rings true. Especially striking to me is Kimmage’s description of the corruption and ineffectiveness of Russia’s army, with Putin hoodwinked by sycophantic apparatchiks into believing victory would be swift and decisive. It brought back memories of Chechnya where raw, untrained conscripts told me of being towed into battle by beat-up trucks after their armoured personnel carriers broke down.

In the early stages of the 2022 invasion there were no unwilling conscripts involved and appalling atrocities took place. The horrific events in Bucha are well documented elsewhere and repeated here. There is strong evidence that Wagner mercenaries played a leading role in these atrocities and it is surprising that Wagner does not receive a single mention in the book.

Kimmage believes that the default position in Europe is war, punctuated by stretches of peace; that Ukraine has suffered more than most countries; and that there is more to come.

And if that’s not enough, there’s another warlike threat lurking in the background and it’s as American as they come. Kimmage believes Putin’s 2022 invasion was encouraged by a view that the West was becoming chaotically divided by that master of chaos and division, Donald J Trump. A divided West was a weakened enemy and the seeds of a possible military victory were sown in Putin’s mind.

There are strong signs that chaos and division are on the horizon once more with Trump’s party delaying military aid. Will Putin take advantage of this too?

Seamus Martin is a former Moscow Correspondent of The Irish Times and has worked extensively in Ukraine as an observer for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe

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