Sakwa: “Paul Mason wrong on Ukraine”

8 Apr

A few months after the Maidan Coup of 2014, a professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent wrote a book I see as the best single source on the complex history and culture of a country few were interested in at the time, though now virtually everyone has views on; views rarely backed by an iota of actual knowledge, and by that fact highly susceptible – “weak opinions strongly held” – to manipulation by the greatest propaganda machine in history.

I didn’t read Frontline Ukraine until 2016. By then – see perilous days – I’d come to regard Russia’s west and southwest borderlands as, alongside South China Sea and Middle East, one of the three likeliest flashpoints for WW3.

Ominously, Richard Sakwa’s book is no longer available in e-format. I say ominously because, even if its 2022 audience has not been deliberately narrowed as part of the wider information war waged by the US-led west, the fact it is now only available in hardback at thrice the price must have a similar effect, regardless of intent. 1

Frontline Ukraine, whose author, wiki informs us, “has published on Soviet, Russian and post-communist affairs, and has written and edited several books and articles on the subject”, drew instant plaudits. An LSE review of 2016 welcomed its:

 … fine-grained, well-sourced analysis of the background to the 2014 upheavals in Kiev, the violent course of the events in the Maidan, Russian annexation of Crimea, rebellion in the east of Ukraine, the present state of play and the prospects for a resolution of Ukraine’s increasingly perilous division.

“At last”, proclaimed the kicker to a Guardian review a few weeks after the book’s release, “a balanced assessment of the Ukrainian conflict – the problems go far beyond Vladimir Putin”.

Columnist Jonathan Steele continued:

When Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s [then] prime minister, told a German TV station recently that the Soviet Union invaded Germany, was this just blind ignorance? Or a kind of perverted wishful thinking? If the USSR really was the aggressor in 1941, it would suit Yatsenyuk’s narrative of current geopolitics in which Russia is once again the only side that merits blame …

… Even today at this late stage, a declaration of Ukrainian non-alignment as part of an internationally negotiated settlement, and UN Security Council guarantees of that status, would bring instant de-escalation and make a lasting ceasefire possible in eastern Ukraine.

The hawks in the Clinton administration ignored all this, Bush abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty and put rockets close to Russia’s borders, and now a decade later, after Russia’s angry reaction to provocations in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine today, we have what Sakwa rightly calls a “fateful geographical paradox: that Nato exists to manage the risks created by its existence”.

The third crisis, also linked to the Nato issue, is the European Union’s failure to stay true to the conflict resolution imperative that had been its original impetus …

The Guardian can be relied on to speak more or less truthfully before and after the heat is on. It’s the bit in between that merits – if you’ll excuse my harsh language – contempt. 2 Be that as it may, on the final point of the above, we can say with confidence that the EU caved – against the long and short term interests of its constituency – under Washington arm twisting.


I knew Paul Mason long before he achieved celebrity status. In the eighties he and I were in the Trotskyist sect, Workers Power, though unlike me Paul sat on its National Committee, elected by ‘democratic centralism’. Since then he has become one of the best known of today’s crop – alongside such as Baroness Claire Fox, former leading light in the RCP – of ex revolutionaries who embrace reaction. See this WSWS profile. As with other WSWS pieces I cite, I baulk at full endorsement – but it gets more right than wrong.


That’s background enough for this sixteen minute video on what Paul said about Ukraine, and how Richard Sakwa responded. It’s dated February 1, when tensions were high but hostilities had not begun. While I find the interviewer irritating – too full of herself and too wrong on too many important things – that hardly matters. Focus on what the prof is saying. 3

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  1. Happily, a reader emailed to say that the book can be had in e-format after all. Better still, it’s free. Here’s the link.
  2. Not that the Guardian is exceptional in this regard. In a recent post I spoke of media – BBC and NYT as much as Guardian – which had done useful investigative pieces on the power wielded by Ukraine’s Nazi tendencies; now not only in flat denial of what they themselves had uncovered, but ridiculing those with better memories as – wait for it – conspiracy theorists and Putin apologists.
  3. Since I’ve made caveats to other sources in this post, I note that Richard Sakwa voices muted criticism of Russia’s move on Ukraine. This is not a red line  for me but I’ve yet to hear those with whom I broadly agree, yet call Russia’s move “aggressive” and a “war crime” (Media Lens) or “strategically imbecilic” (WSWS), set out an alternative course Russia might have taken given provocations they and I see eye to eye on. (The only attempt I’ve seen – and I do read, view and listen widely on this – was by Paul Street in CounterPunch. It fell lamentably short of convincing since it hinged on Russia applying economic pressure which Washington (with glee) and Europe (with heavy but subservient heart) are prepared to ride out.) My view on this is set out more fully in a March post, Ukraine: the left is almost right.

8 Replies to “Sakwa: “Paul Mason wrong on Ukraine”

  1. Thanks for this article. I now have over 200 pages of evidence backed observations and reporting of the real facts from sources who are in Ukraine or have a deep understanding of the problems that Putin was facing on all sides of his beleaguered country.
    So many people I meet sit in front of the goggle box listening to propaganda in overdrive or read MSM riddled with hypocrisy and outright lies and claim to know what is going on, without any understanding of the reality. It has gotten so bad that I just choose not to engage with brainless fools who are either too lazy to try and flip the one-sided coin or don’t even register that their is an alternative truth that they are not being told – ever.
    With Bungling Boris announcing sanctions against Gazprom bank in an attempt to inculcate Biden so he can have a deal that favours Britain(cat in hells chance)he has left us well and truly in the proverbial.
    We do not have enough reserves of natural gas nor the means to process LNG delivery(not that any country would look favourably on us anyway)which means all those using natural gas as a means of heating their homes and water, will be using electric, which in turn will outstrip supply of that commodity resulting in outages.
    If the EU do not come to their senses, we will not have access to either Russian or Ukrainian gas or their oil reserves.
    I cannot see elements like the Azov battalion, Svoboda or Right Sektor repaying Boris Johnson’s really stupid pronouncement with preferential treatment in our favour. Neo Nazis just don’t think like that.
    What a lethal farce I am witnessing.
    Despite cutting off my own nose to spite my face as Johnson has already done(he has the money and means to ride the storm)I can’t help siding with Russia. I really do not want a country like Ukraine and it’s vast numbers of Nazis to go unchallenged and unchecked, so I hope he gets what he was after all along – security for his country and it’s peoples – and the western haters have to yank their necks in with egg on their faces.
    It remains to be seen how long Putin will hold the line and at what cost to Russia and the rest of the world if he wrong steps, or more to the point, just how stupid the US poodles response ultimately will be to end their own cock up.

    Best wishes


    • Hi Susan. Much food for thought in your comment but let me respond to that final question of “how long Putin will hold the line”. There’s so much we don’t know here. In the fog of war, not only are media explanations of its causes criminally misleading; the balance of power on the ground is reported by media who do little more than dutifully rewrite – if they even do that – US State Department and Nato high level briefings. But if you see my post of the following day, featuring former Swiss Army Colonel, Jacques Baud, you see that the propaganda war is equally bent on painting the Russian advance as faltering and shambolic. We should give such reports as little credence as we should those allegations of war crimes (not to say they never happened but that until proven, they can’t be taken at face value given the deeply mendacious record of the accusers) and wall to wall depiction of the Russian invasion as unprovoked.

      Anyway … I don’t see that Russia, her back to the wall, has any choice but to hold the line. This, and US-led determination to make Ukraine “Putin’s Vietnam”, is what makes the situation so dangerous.

  2. Obviously the US/neo-con strategy has been to use the war to produce regime change. In Russia this seems very unlikely- Putin and his policies are more popular than ever. And the more popular he makes them- by protecting the people from sanctions- the more popular the Kremlin is going to be.
    On the other hand regime change in NATO looks increasingly likely.
    The EU is not going to survive, unscathed, the strengthening that it has, inadvertently(?) provided for the nationalist right.
    Are the national governments going to survive if there are massive fuel increases, job losses and inflation simultaneously? It is unlikely and what do they have to offer as an excuse for the crises? A war for whiners and fools to follow, with no glory except that of putting up with anything that the government throws at you.
    That doesn’t sound very appetising.
    This ought to be the Left’s moment- the turning point after the long neoliberal reaction. The chance to introduce socialism at a time when the right has nothing to offer, except eating excrement made in America.
    Maybe the US will save everyone the trouble by turning the European states into Territories, with the prospect of joining the other 50 states when we’re ready for it.
    But who cares? The Empire Europe so desperately wants to be subject to is declining and it matters very little- in the great scheme of things- who rules a backwater which has no energy, no industry and no military strength either.
    Just as the NATO leaders are telling us:: Europe has become Ukraine, the country nobody wants to rule except the football hooligans.
    And their attention span is notoriously short.

    • Are [Europe’s] national governments going to survive if there are massive fuel increases, job losses and inflation simultaneously?

      That’s a good question. I hope I’m wrong but what I suspect will happen is that heads will roll, to be replaced by more of the same – for instance BoJo by Starmer (or more likely a less discredited face within the tory ranks) – but that a TINA narrative will prevail and people will grumble and scapegoat but, at the end of the day, suck it up.

      • A century or so ago, in the midst of similar media claims of the atrocities committed against civilians in Belgium by “The Beastly Hun” a generation of mainly working class Briton’s volunteered to walk across no mans land to be slaughtered like sheep in a abattoir on an industrial scale.

        The equivalent today looks like being one of voluntarily freezing and going hungry to support what is nothing other than a nurtured and revived Fascism – not just in Ukraine but across what refers to itself as ‘THE International Community.’

        – Last Monday food prices across Germany increased in the space of 24 hours by between 20% – 50%.

        – There are people right now in the UK on low incomes living in sub-standard rented housing in the private rental sector paying for their gas heating on a card in which £20 lasts six days or less.

        – Food banks are asking people not to donate potatoes because people cannot afford the energy to cook them.

        – The UK government is apparently recommending 16 degrees as ‘comfortable’ and urging people to wear sweaters in bed.

        Given that energy, if we can get it, is set to increase further in October (which is now less than six months away) another generation of the British working class – as well as their counterparts across Europe (but not in Hungary) – would seem to have a more than even chance of emulating their fore bearers and sleeping, if not dying, in trenches by Christmas.

        And, having read the post above, no doubt to the cheering on by those more comfortably off from the academic and professional sector who arrogantly and selectively nit pick any analysis which contradicts The Official Narrative (TON) they have chosen other people to die in a ditch for.


  3. Why do you believe the wsws is unreliable? I find their stuff solid enough. But I have to say, their coverage of the Ukraine conflict has been strange.

    They seem, like the stwc and the SWP, to morally condemn, demand a ceasefire yet are against NATO and call Putin’s intervention as disastrous etc. I’m neither one nor the other – but at this stage at least, whilst there has been no obvs, immediate magical victory for the Russians and they have lost a ship, the war isn’t going that badly for them. Yet all the groupuscles on the left seem to be revelling in Moscow’s ‘imminent’ defeat. I tentatively mentioned this point in their message section but it got binned lol.

    It’s as if they want to stamp their anti-Russian credentials on anyone they come into contact with.

    Anyway – just stumbked upon your site today and have faourited it – see you again…no flinching no sneering…. keep the flag flying

    • Hi Steve and welcome. As best we can call it in the fog of war – where media lie to us not only about the reasons for what is happening, and not only about “war crimes”, but also about how the war is progressing – I agree with your implied assessment; viz, that Russian forces are likely doing rather better than Guardian, Economist, BBC and their equivalents across the Western world would have us believe.

      (Oops, I just saw that I made this point already, in my reply to Susan O’Neill, above.)

      WSWS? I actually find it a very useful site, and often cite it – usually with reservations but rarely in tones of outright condemnation. I often cite, approvingly, sources I may not be in full agreement with. As a matter of fact I find the reductivist ‘red lines’ of the many zealots and psychological sectarians, among currents of thought I broadly share, quite depressing. When someone says to me – and they do – “you [or some other source] have The Wrong Take on” [take your pick] – 9/11, Covid or whatever ‘acid test’ they are currently applying to determine whose views on pretty much any subject under the sun may safely be ignored, I wonder whether they are actually interested in change, or are simply drawing lines in the sands of club membership.

      I wouldn’t say WSWS is not reliable. I find them at times monotonously so. Though they don’t do this to the same degree as other vanguard sects – SWP for instance, and my old outfit, Workers Power – they have a habit of tucking into the final or penultimate paragraph of articles which have a good deal of merit, that rabbit from a hat call for the workers of the world to rise up and overthrow capitalism everywhere. (Worthy cause, but about as distant a prospect as Arthur Scargill walking across the Black Sea.) That habit is often no more than mildly irksome, and WSWS hosts, the Socialist Equality Party, have a better record than most left sects when it comes to backing, for all its flaws, nationalist resistance to the US Empire. They certainly have done far better on the middle east than SWP and WP!

      Yet still they speak of Ukraine as a struggle between rival imperialisms – to which their magical solution is a call to workers everywhere to throw off their chains (again, worthy cause but …) while failing to offer the empirical evidence – as is incumbent on Marxists – that Russia is in fact imperialist. I find the implied moral equivalence not only specious but a shade craven: evoking, albeit faintly and in a semi transformed context, the shabby opportunism of that SWP strapline from the old cold war; “neither Washington nor Moscow”.

      (RCP, as I recall, dodged the entire issue and said virtually nothing about the Soviet Union even as the “evil empire” rhetoric from Reagan and Thatcher grew more toxic and frightening by the hour.)

      That’s my beef. It’s similar with China too. Along with most of the left, WSWS makes little of the facts that (a) China’s capitalism is subordinate to the state, when in the west the reverse applies; (b) it exists precisely because the western left’s failure to make its own revolutions obliged China to adapt to neoliberal hegemony; (c) that state directed capitalism has – as even the US led World Bank acknowledges – lifted 780 million people from extreme poverty. To ignore that last, as virtually every revolutionary I know does, bespeaks a staggering level of cold-hearted zealotry of a kind so infatuated with the Beauty of the Goal as to lose its humanity.

      Hope this clarifies my thinking. I’m rushed and am likely trying to cram too much into too short a space. I do that often. All the best.

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