Category Archives: Book Reviews

Why Richard Sakwa’s ‘Frontline Ukraine’ is a must-read


“Those who see Putin as the cause of the problem refuse to concede that he might also be a part of the solution” was perhaps my favourite line in Frontline Ukraine; an intelligent and beautifully-written summary of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013/14.

In 250 pages, Professor Richard Sakwa (lecturer at the University of Kent and probably Britain’s most interesting and articulate voice on European politics) managed to contextualise, rationalise and even simplify one of the most interesting and misrepresented conflicts of our time.

As noted in the title of the post, anybody interested in Russia, Crimea, Ukraine or foreign policy in general would benefit from reading this book. Such a well-researched and thoughtful account deserves the eyes of both the west and its misguided politicians.

Drawing on conveniently forgotten historical foundations, ruthlessly sourced statistical evidence and political meddling, sensible conclusions are arrived at relating to the causes, belligerents and development of the crisis. Yet more striking is Sakwa’s neutrality and ability to provide us with a healthily balanced and unbiased view of events which are often twisted through selective foreign media coverage.

What I found most startling about reading Frontline Ukraine was discovering the extent to which both Brussels and Washington managed, often with shocking subtlety, to significantly influence domestic Ukrainian affairs, laying the groundwork for a crisis I now know to have been an inevitable one.

Sakwa explains in rigorous and thought-provoking detail just how Russia came to annex the Crimean peninsula, how they can justify doing so, and why it was a mistake all along to externalise Ukraine’s internal demons, and frame the country’s problems as evidence of a new Cold War.

Rooted at the very core of the book is the rather accurate notion that the events of 2013 and 2014 can be explained by separating the Ukraine crisis and the Ukrainian crisis; one related to ethnic and culture divisions, the other characterised by political pointscoring and international intervention.

European Union and NATO expansion, driven by a desire to create a ‘Wider Europe’ based on western ideals and political institutions, played a huge role in the exacerbating of Ukraine’s problems. Fundamental too is the now glaring fact that through the tabling of the European Association Agreement in November 2013, the EU displayed astounding ignorance towards Russian economic interests, as well as the prominence of the existing Eurasian Customs Union.

Frontline Ukraine directly challenges the lazy argument that the European Union is a bastion of international peace and stability. It outlines crucially just how taken aback Russia was by the events of the Ukrainian revolution, and provides a powerfully contrasting case against the idea that the conflict can be frame in terms of Russian imperialism.

Furthermore, I was impressed by how acutely the inner workings of the Maidan revolution were documented. Vital distinctions were made between the two competing ideologies surrounding Ukrainian statehood; monist and pluralist. It was interesting to see just how deeply rooted social friction and tribalism were across Ukraine, and why internal sects must be diluted and managed responsibly if the country is to rebuild itself as a prosperous and productive nation.

Naive is the argument that Russia’s invasion of the Crimea is emblematic of a country seeking to re-establish the construct of the Soviet Union, and lazy too are those fronting it. For a thorough understanding of the political climate across Eurasia, Sakwa educates those reading by encompassing multiple perspectives of events throughout the book.

His summaries of American geopolitical objectives are sensible, his explanation of Russia’s annexation is rationally-argued and represents a refreshingly open-minded outlook, and his description of Ukraine’s more internal challenges (both in terms of its societal structure and its ethnic segmentation) make this book such a fascinating read.

Please do give it a go.



Book review: The Rise of Islamic State

img_2987If you read one book on Middle Eastern affairs in 2016, make it Patrick Cockburn’s ‘The Rise of Islamic State’.

‘Patrick spotted the emergence of ISIS much earlier than anybody else and wrote about it with a depth of understanding in a league of its own’ reads one of the book’s more sparkling, and may I say, understated reviews.

Not only does his book bring everything into a context both concise and easy to understand, (by no means an easy feat when one considers the complexity of Middle Eastern struggles in the twenty first century) Patrick also sheds fascinating light on just who is responsible for the group’s growth, how they have achieved what they have achieved, and whom ISIS can thank for their success.

Not lacking in controversy, Cockburn rightly calls out the gulf monarchies (particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) for their ill-judged, menacing and deliberately destabilising foreign policies (evident primarily in their funding of radicalisation), as well as the west’s laughable attempts at ‘intervention’ in previous years which have created such hospitable conditions for the Levant’s Islamic State.

Filled with credible sources, eye-witness accounts and the interesting analysis of various informants, the book manages to do what, it seems, no other media outlet, nor any government has been able to do: pinpoint and describe causation of ISIS’ rise, attribute it to the right actions and events, and (even more crucially) convey these explanations in a manner that is coherent, even to somebody with only a minute understanding of the region’s problems.

Throughout the book, which took me scarcely three hours to read and left me with a huge increase in the breadth of my knowledge, startling comparisons are made between the Iraqi regimes of Mr Hussain and Mr Maliki, and stories from within Iraqi towns and armies reveal just how ISIS were able to take such a large portion of land from Iraq during assaults on both Mosul and Fallujah.

Also revealed in Cockburn’s wonderfully informative and authoritative book is the importance of both national and social media in terms of its galvanisation of jihad in, particularly, Syria, where the beheading group took full advantage of the bloody civil war which erupted during the latter periods of the so-called Arab Spring.

The author manages to explain why our ‘war on terror’ failed in its attempts to encourage solidarity and peace in the Arab world, the importance of the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam and how it has contributed to events in both Iraq and Syria, and perhaps most intriguingly, includes day-by-day accounts of ISIS-operated military endeavours in the Middle East.

Combining the pace and intrigue of a spy novel, articulation of an encyclopedia and controversy of an Alex Jones radio show, Patrick Cockburn’s ‘The Rise of Islamic State’ is everything you need to read on the Levant’s frightening new jihadi mould, in only 140 pages.

“The Middle East is entering a long period of ferment in which counterrevolution may prove as difficult to consolidate as revolution itself”, reads Patrick’s beautifully accurate final sentence, in a book which I couldn’t recommend to readers strongly enough.