The inside story of Putin’s war against Ukraine
Mudlark, November 10th , 2022
Mudlark (a Harper Collins imprint) is to be congratulated in demonstrating that books can be produced with some urgency in the 21stC! Owen Matthews’ gripping tome includes analysis of the mobilisation on September 21st, and even events this October. He has been writing under the cosh in order to produce something for the Christmas market – not the sort of sugary freeze-fest beloved of German and Nordic states, but the market for readers who wish to gain some comprehension of the why and how of Putin’s senseless and dispiriting invasion of Ukraine.
Having lived in Moscow for more than 25 years, and having a Russian/Ukrainian mother, Matthews speaks with some authority, and at times with understandable vehemence. Like other residents of Moscow (or Hong Kong for that matter), Matthews had become accustomed to living in a surveillance state, but even he was surprised by the degree to which his local contacts clammed up as soon as the war started. This is further evidenced by most of his attributions being simply “Interview…”. Debate, let alone dissent, had ceased to be an option for Matthews’ wide-ranging social circle.
The author convincingly makes the case that “Putin’s war precisely created the very things it was intended to avert. It united Ukraine and gave the country a true state of nationhood. The war also reinvigorated NATO with a new purpose…”. His conclusion is not that Putin has shot himself in the foot, so much as blown his leg off. Matthews points out that it was effectively Lenin who gave Ukraine nationhood, and gives the reader plenty of examples of how closely intertwined are the two nations and races. For further insight into the tortured history of Ukraine I would strongly recommend Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe.
At each turn since this war started, Putin has given the world his own distorted interpretation of Ukraine’s history in justification for his acts. He has clearly never forgiven Ukraine’s voting for independence in 1991 (and its co-creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States), acts which contributed to the disintegration of the USSR, and ended any hope of fulfilling imperialist ambitions. Whilst Putin is a remote figure for Russians, he is obviously even more distant for Europeans. Matthews fills in some gaps: in his view Putin is an “everyman - the kind of soft-spoken , effortlessly commanding man most Russians would like to be”. If that is correct, then Europeans must fear (and loathe) most Russian menfolk, for Putin has demonstrated, not the least in his reaction to a possible coup attempt in 2011, a propensity to use brutality without hesitation. This manifested itself in the Russian-backed reaction to the Maidan protests of 2014. He views Putin’s decision to invade Crimea as having been opportunistic rather than strategic.
Matthews is at his strongest in outlining the social, economic and political shifts in the two countries. With his boots on the ground, he can cite numerous (if usually anonymous) popular opinions. The detail of President Yanukovych’s palace is delicious. Putin’s weaponisation of energy supplies is discussed at length, although I think history will judge Merkel (and Germany’s sloth in delivering military support) even more badly than does Matthews.Syria appears ever more clearly as a proving ground for Russia’s tactics and weapons – bomb and shell cities until they are flat. Matthews produces plenty of evidence that the plotting of the Ukrainian invasion was limited to an extremely small circle (around the extremely small leader); this circle all shared that sense of victimhood (relative to the US and NATO) which became the core of the ideology ‘justifying’ this war. Unfortunately for Putin, all those with the best knowledge of the real world were outside this circle. The author paints a vivid picture of the USA’s attempts to convince Zelensky in January and February that he was about to be invaded.
The huge economic fallout for Russia and its oligarchs is fully explained, but Matthews overstates the degree to which Western companies have left the country. Leroy Merlin is, I believe, still operating in Russia, so too is Auchan, also owned by the French Mulliez family. The mass mobilisation drew dross into the Russian military, yet Matthews notes that 5m men are employed in the bloated FSB and paramilitary security services. Repression of dissent is labour-intensive!
The concluding chapter has a fascinating quote from Mykov “The Putin regime is all about stealing wealth that is buried under the earth. And one of the deepest buried resources is the conservatism of its people.” Putin, in Matthews’ view, has conflated nation and self, in pursuit of eternal rule. The author’s conclusions about possible conclusions to the conflict are all rather depressing, and at the end we are left wondering if the people will rise up against this man who is clearly leading them on a sharply downward trajectory.
A compelling and informed read. If Overreach has a weakness it is that the military aspects of this “special military operation” are relegated to the background. It is quite definitely not the author’s focus, or perhaps his strength – does the Russian Air Force really operate with squadrons of 36 aircraft? The Russian Navy is largely ignored (which seems a fair summation). There are no photos, and, more importantly, no maps.