– One year of war has given the world a new, cold war. In the east, China has become the new great power, while Russia has become an economic mini-pot, but with an arsenal of nuclear weapons, says Ukrainian history professor Serhii Plokhy (65) to Dagbladet Bok.
– Russia’s full-scale war has not become what Putin hoped for. It is no longer Washington and Moscow that are the two great powers, as during the previous Cold War. Today it is about Washington and Beijing. Russia’s China strategy of a friendship “without borders” instead turned the two countries into two non-equal partners.
Serhii Plokhy was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, and is now a professor at Harvard University. He is the author behind the key novel about Ukraine’s history, “The Gates of Europe” from 2015, and now comes with a new book about the ongoing war: “The Russo-Ukrainian War”.
Plokhy believes that history will be decided more on the battlefield than via negotiations, and believes that there are two main questions here: the outcome of the Russian winter offensive – and what will happen with the announced Ukrainian spring offensive.
– We have the answer to the first question: Nothing came of the Russian offensive this winter, he says and adds:
– I am very optimistic on behalf of Ukraine in the long term, but worried in the short term. Vladimir Putin’s legacy will be that he has completely destroyed the dream of restoring empire.
History as a weapon
The 65-year-old historian and author has written a number of books about Ukraine and the Cold War, but did not see Russia’s war of aggression coming.
– I received an email about the war, and immediately called my sister who lives in Zaporizhzhya. The bombs were all over Ukraine, but it took some time before I was able to take the war into my head, and it became personal, says Plokhy.
Journalists and publishers contacted him late and early to hear that historian’s view of the war.
– I hesitated. A historian must sit quietly, far away, and have an academic, objective and professional approach to the material. Our advantage is that we know how the story ended before we analyze. But slowly I changed my mind.
He points out that precisely “history is a weapon in war and conflict”, and quotes President Putin’s essay from July 2021, in which Putin explains why “Russians and Ukrainians are one people – one unit”, and that “Ukrainians will forever be part of Russia, whether they want it or not”.
– Putin’s misleading storytelling had to be countered, he says and says that he ended up in the same situation as other Ukrainians.
– After the worst shock is over, you ask yourself what you can do to help. Whether you are a musician, driver, doctor or engineer… We are all part of war history – and I am a historian. The shock, pain, frustration and anger did something to me, so I started doing what I could: Writing.
Serhii Plokhy says that his new book is a long story.
– Not only a book about Ukraine’s struggle for independence, but also about the collapse of the Russian Empire. It started around the same time as the fall of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The Ukrainians have tried to free themselves from the empire five times since 1914, says Plokhy.
He emphasizes that he cannot predict what will happen tomorrow, or six months from now.
– But I try to see this war as one of many wars where empires collapse. If we go through history from 1945, all great powers have lost the wars they have started. From Korea to Vietnam and Afghanistan, he says and continues:
– I don’t know if this is the very last chapter of the Russian Empire, but it is an important one.
– The soldiers take “crocodile baptism”
The BBC’s long-time world correspondent John Simpson has read the book: “This impressive and valuable book cannot tell us the outcome of the war. But it is a clear, credible and remarkably calm account of how we ended up here,” he writes in The Guardian.
Plokhy grew up in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, which houses Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. In addition, he has written about the world’s six biggest nuclear disasters, in the book “Atoms and Ashes”. Now the historian is particularly concerned about the lack of safeguarding of the world’s nuclear power plants.
– Already on the first day of the war, the Chernobyl power plant was taken over by the Russians. A few days later, the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya was also taken over. Now we are waiting or expecting a major Ukrainian counter-offensive to start exactly in the area of Zaporizhzhya where the power plant is, says Plokhy and continues:
– It has turned out that the world was completely unprepared when it came to these crises. The Atomic Energy Agency IAEA has no protocols for what should happen during war.
Plokhy points out that the Ukrainian guards at Chernobyl did not fight the Russians, but laid down their weapons. At Zaporizhzhya, the Ukrainian guards tried to fight, and there were battles at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
– None of the 440 nuclear reactors that exist in the world today are designed to withstand war situations. We are not prepared to know what needs to be done. So I worry a lot about that, he says.
Putin is rallying the Ukrainians
Harvard professor Plokhy will not say anything about how big the cost of the war of aggression will be – neither for Russia, Ukraine or the world at large.
– But Russia and Vladimir Putin have lost. Finland and Sweden want membership in NATO. Most Ukrainians were a divided people until Russia entered Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. With one group facing east – while the rest would move west. Now Ukrainians are one people, more united than ever. Putin gathered them, says Plokhy.
Although Ukraine is not part of NATO, the historian believes that the Ukrainians “are on many levels the most integrated member of the defense alliance”.
– Ukraine is now fighting with German tanks, French, British and Norwegian weapons – and much more. Putin has made Ukraine an increasingly integrated part of Europe’s structure, he says.