A Tale of Two Cities

Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine
Owen Matthews
Mudlark, 2022
448 pp
By Benjamin Cunningham

In late 2007 and early 2008, I lived for six months in a mid-sized town of about 50,000 people in southern Serbia. About 10 kilometers from the disputed border with Kosovo, Vranje’s largest employer was the British-American Tobacco Company. I worked for an international NGO, and we would smoke cigarettes at our office desks. It was our duty to support the local economy after all.

Vranje was also home to a large military base. That base had played a major role in the second round of Yugoslav wars, pitting what was still called Yugoslavia (by then just Serbia and Montenegro) against an independence movement in Kosovo. As part of the efforts to end that war, NATO bombed Serbia for 78 consecutive days in 1999. Vranje, a key Yugoslav command center, took its fair share of direct hits.

By the time I got to Vranje the war was long over, but things were not exactly normal. There was still a refugee camp on the outskirts of town, and Kosovo would formally declare independence in February 2008. There were rumors of unexploded NATO ordinance in the surrounding hills, and every so often somebody’s wandering dog was said to trigger an explosion. Still, for the most part, there were no obvious signs of the old violence. There were, however, plenty of stories.

Most of the local friends I made in Vranje were close to my age. So Serbia had been engaged in wars for a good portion of their teen years and early 20s. International sanctions targeted Slobodan Milosević’s regime, but also deprived the general population of key goods. During the war years, one friend used to sneak into the Yugoslav army base at night, siphon gas out of military vehicles, and then sell it to people in town the next day.

The people I was hanging out with were not, nor had they ever been, bloodthirsty nationalists enthralled with Milosević. They were regular people who had been caught up in madness, and their memories of the NATO bombing campaign were a little strange. On the one hand, they were frightened as air raid sirens wailed and bombs fell in and around their city. On the other hand, everyday activities had been so disrupted by war that life took on a nihilistic character. No one knew when the nightly air raids might cease. So after a few days, to maintain their sanity, people adapted. Instead of cowering in fear at home each night, they went out to pubs, locked themselves in and partied until dawn. As my friends told it, everything was horrible and wonderful at the same time. Or as Charles Dickens once put it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

There is no direct parallel between the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s and today’s war in Ukraine. And so far as there are comparisons, Serbia would probably play the role of Russia. But the point of the story is that in all —complicated, multilayered and unpredictably destructive — wars, the best and worst of the human condition is on display.

Few who have lost loved ones or homes during the current war in Ukraine see a silver lining in those experiences. And yet, it’s easy to find examples of brave leadership, be impressed by the capacity of average people to stand up to bullies, and feel good about the willingness  — thus far — of the international community to aid a moral cause. I now live in Spain, far from the front, and people in my town have taken Ukrainian war refugees into their homes. So far as anyone might have doubted Ukrainians enthusiasm for sustaining an independent Ukraine, those doubts are long gone (Vladimir Putin learned this the hard way). Sometime in the future, Ukrainians will likely see this as a formative —perhaps even the most formative — event in Ukraine’s recent history. 

In his book Overreach, journalist Owen Matthews recounts Ukraine’s story through the first six months of the war — the best and the worst of those times. As Dickens once did, he trains his narrative gaze on two cities: in this case Moscow and Kyiv. Matthews psychologically probes the paranoia that led Putin to launch his botched invasion. He also examines the political edge apparent in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s comedy back in his show business days. While Matthews spends a good amount of time focused on the big players in the war — Putin, Shoigu, Patrushev, Zelensky, Yermak, Zaluzhnyi — he saves some pages for the regular people caught in the madness. 

Overreach has a personal spin. Matthews’s mother hails from Ukraine. His ancestors were once part of the Russian Imperial elite, including Dmitry Gavilovich Bibikov, governor of Kyiv for Tsar Nicholas I. All told, there were 11 generals in Matthews’s immediate family between the years 1760 and 1942. His grandfather, Boris, joined the Communist party in 1924, and was appointed the head of a new tractor factory in Kharkiv that was part of Vladimir Lenin’s first five year plan. In the wake of the Holomodor, Josef Stalin’s orchestrated famine in Ukraine that starved between 4 and 7 million people to death, Grandpa Boris attended the 17th Party Congress in 1934. At that meeting he backed Sergei Kirov, a Stalin rival, to become Lenin’s successor as head of the Communist party. As a result, Boris was arrested and killed in a Stalinist purge in 1937. Matthews’s grandmother was then sent to an insane asylum and his mother, Lyudmila, raised in an orphanage.      

A Master of the Topic

Matthews opens the book with some vignettes about the war, and stories about the kind of regular people I referred to earlier. He then takes the reader back to Medieval times, and reviews Ukrainian history up through the twentieth century. Several chapters focus on recounting more recent political events, the Maidan uprising of 2013-2014 for example. He delves into the backstory of late-stage Putinism’s spiritual roots, profiling  — among others — the Fascist philosopher Alexandr Dugin, the oligarch media mogul Konstantin Malofeev and Metropolitan Tikhon, a charismatic monk. He also paints compelling portraits of key Ukrainian protagonists, with an appropriate focus on Zelensky. Some two-thirds of the book is dedicated to this background. Amid still changing conditions on the ground, these will remain the portions most re-readable in the coming months and years. Matthews then moves on to a nearly day-by-day account of the events that preceded Russia’s 2022 full scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Very little of this book feels revelatory in terms of producing new information, but Matthews does present it all in exquisite, interesting detail. I have read plenty about this war, but there are so many facts I did not know throughout this book that I learned something every few pages. Ukraine, as an independent state not part of the Soviet Union, was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. Throughout the first decade of Soviet rule, Ukrainian remained the language of education and administration in Ukraine. The Ukrainian language is as similar to Russian as Dutch is to English — with about 35 percent linguistic divergence. In December 1991, 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence in a referendum that had 84 percent voter turnout. Some 78 percent of Ukraine’s Jewish population emigrated in the years immediately following independence, including the co-founders of PayPal (Max Levchin) and WhatsApp (Jan Koum). Putin has not set foot in Ukraine since June 2013. Indeed, it is clear that Matthews had more trouble deciding what to leave out of the book than what to put in it. This is the sign of an author who has mastered his subject.

As the title, Overreach, indicates, Putin is the main character in this book. Its thesis is that Putin misinterpreted history, miscalculated Russia’s contemporary capacities and misjudged Ukrainian desire to be more closely bonded with Russia.

Matthews is not wrong, and there is little indication that Putin has thus far recognized these errors. In July 2022, a few months into the war, Putin gave a speech to leaders of the Duma. “This is the beginning of the transition from a liberal-globalist American egocentrism to a truly multipolar world,” he said. The international system may well be in a period of transition, but whenever the war in Ukraine ends it is difficult to imagine Russia playing the role of a pole in that system. As Matthews notes, Europe is lessening its dependence on Russian energy. Russia faces budget deficits as people’s disposable income evaporates. The country’s long term demographic decline is made worse by the desire of many young, bright people to leave for better opportunities abroad.

Matthews once reported from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and worked for The Moscow Times. He consequently spent years working for Newsweek magazine — including as Moscow bureau chief. He is a native Russian speaker, and has written several previous books on Russia, along with a trilogy of historical fiction thrillers. In Overreach, his reporting skills are on full display. He recounts events in a precise, chronological way, and has a knack for humanizing otherwise abstract events. Matthews walked the wreckage site of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, shot down by Russian allied troops in July 2014, calling it “one of the most horrifying experiences of my twenty-five-year career spent in war zones”. So far as Matthews is attempting the first draft of the history of this war — a proverbial claim frequently made by journalists — he is up to the task. If you do not know much about the war in Ukraine, this book tells you a great deal. If you already know a lot, you still learn new things. All that said, I do have some questions about the shelf life of a book like this, and the way Matthews places his skilled reporting in a grander historical context.

Out of Place in History

Matthews calls, for example, the war in Ukraine “the most serious geopolitical crisis in Europe since the Second World War”. Phrasing like this is common these days, but with full respect for Ukraine and its people, I am fairly sure it’s not even the most consequential geopolitical crisis in Europe this decade (the global COVID-19 pandemic). I can think of a good many other geopolitical events that had major implications for Europe as well (the 2008 collapse of the global economy, the 1989 collapse of Communism, etc.). The idea that the war in Ukraine will remake Europe or the world more than the end of the Cold War is patently absurd. I do not even believe that Matthews believes that it will, and a line like the one above reads like something written by a publishing house marketing department. 

Granted, it would be odd for Matthews to write a book about the war in Ukraine while arguing that it is not that important. Hyperbole like this does, however, detract from the author’s attempt to anchor this war in the larger sweep of history — an ambition he clearly has. Matthews has an expert’s grasp on the history of the people and places he is writing about, but the way that history is framed made me pause. It is not that he takes an unusual approach per se. Rather, it’s that his framing is entirely representative of the myopic way people tend to speak of the war in Ukraine today.        

Early in the book, Matthews does a fine job squeezing several thousand years of Ukrainian history into a single chapter. This portion of the text doubles as a way for him to introduce his family ties to the region. At the same time, as is the case in many books about the war in Ukraine, he looks to instrumentalize this historical background to point out the delusional nature of Putin’s ethno-nationalist mission to reunite Russia and Ukraine. The founding of Kyiv predates Moscow, Matthews notes.

The founders of the medieval Kyvian Rus kingdom were Vikings not Slavs. From Tatars to Poles to Cossacks to Ottomans, there has never been anything ethnically pure about the peoples that have populated Ukraine.

These things are all true, but to emphasize them is to almost present Putinesque thinking as logical. I am not saying that Matthews is pro-Putin (he is not), but responding to Putin’s preposterous ethno-nationalist reasoning point by point is to act as if it is worthy of response. Without intending to, this signals that the problem with Putin’s rationale for war is that it was based on historical inaccuracies — not that ethno-nationalist wars in 2023 are morally unjustifiable by definition. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not unjust because Putin read the wrong history books and got some names and dates mixed up. 

Let us, just for sake of argument, imagine that Putin had his history correct (he does not). Let us pretend we live in a world where a kingdom founded 1000 years ago in Kyiv was created by people whose bloodline can be traced directly to the people running the Kremlin today. Let us pretend that the history and traditions of people in Kyiv and Moscow have remained wholly the same and unchanged for that entire millennium. If these were the conditions in today’s reality, would Putin’s war be justified?

If Putin were reuniting two actually synonymous cultures, but against the will of people in Ukraine, would we be okay with the invasion? Of course not. The argument against Putin’s war requires exactly zero details about the eleventh century.

As the US President Joe Biden, rightly, put it in September 2022: “[Putin] can’t seize his neighbor’s territory and get away with it, simple as that.”

There is no doubt that Putin has deluded himself into believing his cause is righteous. That is what people who start wars do. You might have spent pandemic lockdowns rewatching The Sopranos and suffering through disorganized Zoom calls, but Putin spent the time developing a messiah complex and constructing a bullshit story to justify invading Ukraine. Pointing out the flaws in that story is irrelevant in the face of a flawed premise. To repeat for emphasis, twisting narratives into some grievance that justifies violence is just what people who start wars do. It’s what they do every time, what they have always done, and what they always will. In The Iliad, the Greeks attacked the Trojans because King Menelaus’s wife fell in love with Prince Paris. In 1941, Japan convinced itself that the United States was holding them back from greatness in Asia, so they bombed Pearl Harbor. A few decades later, the United States napalmed Vietnamese villages because they were worried about the Soviet Union. In fact, it’s what Matthews himself argues that Putin did when he annexed Crimea in 2014, writing: “The decision came first, the justification later.” A few hundred pages later, Matthews writes: “Nations start wars because they believe they can win them.” Right again, no reference to Saints Cyril or Methodius necessary. 

Someday, there will be plenty of lessons derived from the current war in Ukraine. A few might even be the correct lessons. But, in a situation where the cessation of active hostilities is likely to come via an inconclusive, negotiated end, one thing is certain. At some point in the future someone, somewhere, will take everything that happened, twist it around, manufacture a grievance and then use that grievance to justify some new act of aggression. In that future act of aggression, more regular people will be caught in the middle. Some will be killed. After that, people of the future spend time dissecting how flawed that new aggressor’s reasoning was, only to find their motives were the same as they ever were: a perverse drive for status and belonging.

Benjamin Cunningham

Benjamin Cunningham is the author of “The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man”. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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