Russia’s War Against Ukraine by Mark Edele

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has led to a media frenzy that sometimes overwhelms us with deluges of content. We have daily updates, analysis, propaganda and predictions that add up to an incoherent and often conflicting narrative. No single voice speaks with authenticity and predictions are frequently proven wrong.

Into this congested space comes Mark Edele’s book, ambitiously subtitled The Whole Story.  In the preface, he suggests that it is one of many, so why select this one?  He replies that it possesses a scholar’s eye for patterns and processes and the long-term perspective of an historian [p(ix)].

The book begins at the end, with the current war. The introduction is a useful overview of the invasion in 2022 and how it went off script for Russia. The main chapters then travel back in time to provide the historical and geographical context, that allow us to make sense of Putin’s fateful decision.

Chapters 1 and 2 are brief histories of Ukraine and Russia prior to 1991 when Ukraine became formally independent. Chapter 3 narrates Ukraine’s stuttering journey towards democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Chapter 4 is a key to understanding recent events because it forensically examines Russia’s failure to let go of its former empire, despite those countries being newly independent.  Chapter 5 is an analysis of the events from around the time of Russia’s Crimean annexation (2014) and the decision to invade the entire country just prior to Putin’s 70th birthday. Chapter 6 is a brief rendition of some possible scenarios for the war’s outcome – sensibly, without making outright predictions.

It is a lot to fit in 158 pages of text, yet the final book (if not the actual process of writing it) effortlessly makes sense of the long and complex histories of the two countries and their relationships. Some of the historical material is intricate, nuanced and difficult to analyse. Professor Edele writes with clarity and brevity, even if the events described were not. Nor does he shirk the responsibility of an outsider writing for outsiders to examine the evidence and present it objectively (though some Russians may not agree).

The formation of a recognisable nation state of Ukraine is not straightforward, but Edele places it firmly in the revolution of 1917 that took place soon after the Bolsheviks had prevailed in Russia: This moment, not medieval Kyiv or the early modern Cossack state, is the real origin of modern Ukraine as a nation-state [p42]. Authorial intervention on the topic of Ukrainian identity is welcome, given how inextricably linked the two countries have been through most of recorded history and how contested are the stories of origin.

The fluidity and chaos of this period is extraordinary as the old Tsarist Empire disintegrated (resonating with  the Soviet Union’s disintegration 70 years later), By the middle of 1918, no fewer than thirty governments were in existence on the territory of the shattered Russian Empire [p43].

If nothing else, Putin is a student of history and his interpretations often filter into the mass media without qualification. Fortunately, Edele is willing to put things right: When Russia illegally occupied Crimea in 2014, its propagandists claimed that it had ‘always been Russian’ …..This is historical nonsense [p47].  Assertions like this are invariably backed up with reasoned argument drawn from authoritative sources.

Edele points out that after both the 1917 and 1991 revolutions, Ukrainian people initially preferred to stay close to Russia. But in both cases, events in Russia pushed them away. Time and again we are reminded that Putin’s intent to drag a recalcitrant Ukraine back into its rightful place within a Russian empire is based on a flawed reading of history and of the desires of Ukrainians.

Russia certainly has form when it comes to violent squabbles with neighbours. The inventory of wars is astonishing and in just one hundred year period around the 16th century, it fought Lithuania five times, Sweden four, not to mention, the 25 year Livonian War. In Peter the Great’s 43 year reign, 40 of those years saw major wars.

One of the revelations of this book is that the events of the past have direct resonance for the events we are all witnessing now. But those same events have driven a wedge between the two nations that is of historic moment: Ukraine and Russia had developed both together and apart since the middle ages;…Now the rift is wider than ever [p158].

Mark Edele’s densely packed information meticulously weaves  the many threads of history into the events that inhabit our news feeds every day. It should be compulsory reading for anyone wanting to make sense of the forces at play. It is an important book whose relevance is unlikely to be diminished by the passage of events.

Mark Edele is Hansen Professor in History and Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of six books on the history of the Soviet Union, most recently Stalinism at War: The Soviet Union in World War II (2021). He has worked in archives in Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany and the United States. He teaches the histories of the Soviet Union, of World War II, and of dictatorship and democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Russia’s War Against Ukraine

(August 2023)

by Mark Edele


ISBN: 978 052287 983 4

$32.00; 216pp

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top