Tim Judah is a man who understands war.
As the Economist’s Balkans correspondent, he covered the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s, as well as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, from the front lines. Last year, he returned to the field to report on the Ukraine conflict—again from the front lines.
His new book opens with a description of a “bloated corpse of a man, hanging folded over…high power cables.” The man, it turns out, is a Ukrainian soldier, killed along with two of his comrades (who lie charred and blackened amongst wreckage nearby in the road) when a Russian missile hit their armoured vehicle, igniting the ammunition inside and sending him spiraling onto the cables overhead.
As an image, it captures perfectly the perennial duality of war: brutality and bitter farce, bathos and pathos, always present and almost always distant in equal measure.
Nowhere are these elements more visible than in Russia’s assault on Ukraine, which from its beginnings, when unidentified men wearing uniforms without insignias marched into Crimea and annexed it to the Russian Federation, had an air of the surreal that only intensified as the violence increased.
Judah captures these elements of the bizarre perfectly as he travels throughout Ukraine’s battlefields, meeting with rebels in the occupied cities of Donetsk and Sloviansk, and hearing from the great masses of civilians caught in the middle. From the dead-eyed rebel leader Pavel Gubarev (“Fascism! It is coming for us again!”) to the pro-Russian ‘Fridgers of the World’, a group of people “in the refrigeration business across the former Soviet Union who have an online forum to discuss issues relating to fridges and their maintenance,” everyone, he tells us, has something to say.
The result is, on one level, a deeply impressionistic work of non-fiction as vignette after vignette relays to the reader—viscerally—the sights, sounds and smells of Ukraine in wartime. On a second level, the book is a work of analysis and history, as Judah delves into the post-WWII past of Western Ukraine, the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, as well as that of Donetsk, the key rebel stronghold, which has always had closer ties to Russia.
The combination of the two makes for powerful reading and allows Judah to understand the arguably fundamental issue at stake in the Ukraine conflict: the deep cognitive dissonance present within the country that allowed the violence to take root. Rebels and pro-Russian sympathizers in the occupied east repeatedly talk of a “fascist junta” in Kiev lead by Banderovtsi—the term given to followers of Stepan Bandera, the controversial Ukrainian leader who allied with the Nazis during World War II. These people, they claim, are determined to trample upon the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Kiev is totally bilingual and the speaking of Russian could never be stamped out even if there were appetite to do such a thing—so the remove from reality is striking. That there were far-right elements present in the Maidan revolution that overthrew ex-President Viktor Yanukovych is undoubted. That they were a significant force is absurd (as their showing in successive presidential and parliamentary elections has proved). But this belief, which I experienced first hand over and over again during the seven months I spent covering Ukraine, was simply impossible to dislodge.
The question is how does this sort of mentality—tantamount at times to a mass psychosis—take hold? And this is where Judah’s achievement is so clear to see. He understands that timeless elements of conflict (death, blood, hate) have fused with something greater to produce, in Ukraine, perhaps the first example of a truly “21st century war.”
As with all conflicts, the Ukraine crisis could not exist without the ‘weaponizing’ of history: That is to say, the ability of each respective side to mobilize its people through getting them to believe “horrendously garbled versions” of it.
So on the one hand the pro-Russians believe they are fighting fascism once more—Donetsk is Stalingrad and the Ukrainian Army is the Wehrmacht. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, see themselves (correctly) as once again battling the imperial ambitions of a Russian dictator while conveniently forgetting the nastier elements of their own side and parts of its history.
Propaganda has always been war’s unsmiling attendant, but in Ukraine the term has become replaced by ‘information war’—with good reason. The battleground, Judah understands early on, is no longer confined to the physical spaces in which soldiers fight. Rather, it has spread to Facebook and Twitter and all the various social media platforms used to disseminate information or, more correctly, narratives.
When Russian forces occupied Eastern Ukraine they switched off Ukrainian TV channels and replaced them with Russian ones. The Ukrainians, for their part, switched off Russian channels and removed them from cable packages. From the beginning each side was fed a narrative. What gave these narratives real traction, however, was their promulgation online. Armies of (often paid) users took to Twitter and Facebook to justify every Russian action and—equally if not more importantly—to create confusion and sow doubt: anything to prevent the spread of facts.
Judah often views Ukraine through the prism of his Yugoslavia experience and in this instance it proves illuminating. As he observes:
And here is a depressing thought: in 1991 at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars foreigners were at a loss to explain how millions of people appeared to have become crazed, to have turned on their neighbours, and simply suspended their critical faculties. Milos Vasic, the great Serbian journalist, used to explain it like this: if the entire mainstream U.S. media were taken over by the Ku Klux Klan, it would not take long before Americans too would be crazed. People had TV sets for heads, he said. Almost a quarter of a century later, the Internet and every other means of modern communication not only have not made things better but rather, have made them worse. Now there are even more ways to spread poison, lies and conspiracy theories.
If nothing else, the Ukraine crisis has taught us that on social media, reality itself is merely one more narrative waiting to be trolled.
It is a testament to Judah’s exceptional skill as a reporter and a thinker that he is able to depict both the reality of wartime with such intense immediacy and simultaneously analyze the wider issues that have made this war so unique; and it is what makes this the best book to have emerged from Ukraine’s continuing crisis with Russia.