This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
“A better future for Ukraine and Europe is possible,” writes Timothy Garton Ash in the Review’s February 23 issue, summing up a sentiment he draws out in an essay that he filed after visiting Ukraine at the end of 2022. Taking in European history, interviews with Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, and recent work by historians and political scientists, Garton Ash argues that the devastating war with Russia has both thrown Ukraine into chaos and raised the possibility of “the effective end of the Russian empire.” In that event, he writes, “for the first time in European history, we would have a fully postimperial Europe—that is, a Europe with neither overseas nor land empires. It would mean another great advance, comparable in scale to that after 1989, toward the goal memorably formulated at that time as ‘Europe whole and free.’”
A historian and professor of European studies at Oxford, Garton Ash has been a long-standing contributor to The New York Review. Since 1984, he has written dozens of essays for the magazine about the Soviet Union, twentieth-century European history, Isaiah Berlin, and much more besides. His book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe will be published by Yale University Press this spring.
Last week I e-mailed with Garton Ash while he was on another reporting trip in Ukraine.
Daniel Drake: In your essay we meet “the academic-turned-soldier Yevhen,” who was twice injured and twice returned to the front. On your Substack recently, you wrote that you learned he was killed in action on New Year’s Eve. Could you tell us a little more about him?
Timothy Garton Ash: Such a terrible tragedy. I keep thinking about it, especially because I’m now in Kyiv. He was a very thoughtful, quiet, extremely well-read person. And what was so striking to me was that it was like meeting a New York Review reader, or indeed writer, who had suddenly become a soldier and was now risking his life every day, spending months living in muddy foxholes that he had dug in the ground. The conversation was so memorable, I think, because he was someone from a cultural and intellectual world so much like my own, who through his own very brave choice was catapulted into something most of us only read about in All Quiet on the Western Front.
In your travels in Ukraine, have you heard much about what life has been like on the front?
I recently talked to a soldier from the Azov Regiment who was known as Commander Savior. He described to me some of his experiences in the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, the absolutely desperate positions he and his comrades found themselves in, dead and dying people lying around them. He described in graphic terms the smell of gangrene from the people near him. And then he was captured by the Russians after the battalion had to surrender. He was tortured for months. The Russians were trying to get him and his comrades to confess to, for example, the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol, which produced one of the famous images of the war, the pregnant mother being carried out on a stretcher. They were trying to get the Ukrainian soldiers to confess that it was actually they who had blown up their own hospital.
I’m just about to publish a book called Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, which begins in 1945 with stories from the last months of the Second World War. In the book I wanted to bring home to a new generation what that hell was like. But before the book is published, Europe has gone back to it. And we have experiences here which recall nothing so much as the devastation of our continent in 1945.
The war has of course been at the forefront of the news in the United States, but its effects here seem to be blunted by the distance. What has the day-to-day experience of the conflict been like in the United Kingdom and Europe? Is it much closer to the surface?
I think so, and for one simple reason: fourteen million homeless Ukrainians, of whom some eight million are now outside the country. Almost every other friend of ours in Britain and continental Europe has a Ukrainian staying with them. In Poland there have been close to two million Ukrainian refugees. Germany has taken in about one million. The direct, personal experience of this wave of refugees does make a difference. That said, what really worries me is that we will see a recurrence of what happened during the Bosnian war. In Bosnia, and I remember it vividly, after the war had gone on for about a year—and fantastic, brave journalists had written every story you could find—people got used to it. In a way they got bored with it. It started to slide down the news agenda. I’m awfully afraid that after the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, on February 24, that may happen to Ukraine, too, and it just becomes another forever war.
What would it take to prevent a forever war, and to bring the fighting to an end?
It’s very difficult to see the end because you have two sides that are determined to go on fighting over the same land and, for different reasons, have the resources to do so. The only way this war can end well is if the Ukrainians recover most of their territory, which in turn means they must be supplied with all the military equipment and training they need. And when Putin sees that he is losing badly, he would face a choice between further escalation and suing for peace. But what does that mean? Does escalation mean using a tactical nuclear weapon, which would lose him the support of China and India? Does it mean going to war with NATO, which would be suicidal? If he sues for peace, he will want to hang onto some of the territory that he has gained, and which most Ukrainians will refuse to give up. So let’s be honest, there is no end in sight.
It is in that sense like the First World War, right down to the trench warfare in Bakhmut. There is a bad way this war could end, which is that the Ukrainians, for all their extraordinary courage and skill and spirit, their volya, are exhausted. Their economy is utterly battered, their energy infrastructure is battered. And if, God forbid, Donald Trump gets reelected president of the United States in 2024 and decides to pull the plug on American aid, and then European support fades there’s a very bad scenario in which Russia hangs onto a great deal of territory. (At the moment they’re occupying about one fifth of Ukraine.) Then it could become a semifrozen conflict in which Vladimir Putin could claim victory at home. He could say, I have reconquered part of what Catherine the Great called Novorossiya, “New Russia,” and won this back forever for Russia. And that, of course, would be a terrible outcome, not just for Ukraine and Europe but for the future of international order.
In your estimation, what responsibility do Europe and the United States bear? How much deeper should they be involved at this stage?
There’s no question that it’s a particularly challenging judgment to make. But my fear is that at the moment, partly because of the reluctance of Germany and some other European powers, we’re in a halfway house. We’re giving the Ukrainians enough to defend the territory they still control, but not enough to make the kind of combined arms operation that can recapture territory behind trenches and major defensive obstacles. So what I think NATO and the American military should be doing is sitting down and asking, What would the Ukrainian armed forces actually need in order to make successful combined arms counteroffensives to win back a very large part of the territory that Russia has taken since February 24? And what we’ve promised so far, enormous as it is, particularly from the United States, doesn’t look like quite enough. For example, there are just not enough tanks and long-range missiles.
I understand you got your start after university working in East Germany and Eastern Europe, but when did you first go to Ukraine?
I first went to Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, in the 1980s, and first went to newly independent Ukraine in the early 1990s. And then I had a formative experience in 2004 witnessing the Orange Revolution, which I wrote about for The New York Review. At the time we thought of it as part of the forward march of the velvet revolutions of 1989—which of course I wrote about in The New York Review, too. I’ve gone back several times subsequently and witnessed this extraordinary story: Ukraine becoming a self-conscious, independent country increasingly united in wanting to be part of Europe. And now one of the great things about going there is that this young generation of Ukrainians, say those under thirty-five, just takes it completely for granted that Ukraine is another European country that has its own independent identity and destiny. Many of them have studied in the West, speak excellent English, and are deeply committed to the future of their country. They’re fantastic.
There are doubtless some Russia sympathizers still living in Ukraine. If the Ukrainian army manages to hold Russia off and reclaim most of its territory, how might Ukrainian society reconcile with those who supported Russia, or who feel drawn to Russian culture?
I don’t think there are many left now. Commander Savior, the soldier from the Azov Regiment, was finally released from a Russian prison as part of an exchange for Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who was a close ally of Putin’s. So Russia’s guys, in that sense, mostly left. I think there are two remaining issues that will be very difficult. One is in the occupied territories. In Crimea and some of the easternmost provinces, the patriotic Ukrainians have largely left; part of the population was already quite pro-Russian, and now after years of Russification and pro-Russia propaganda they are quite plausibly very hostile to Ukraine.
For years, many Ukrainians, including President Zelensky, whose Russian is better than his Ukrainian, oscillated between Russian and Ukrainian with complete fluidity, and a place like Kiev was simply bilingual. And there was something rather great about that cultural fluidity. It was a multicultural society. And I think one danger now may lie in an overwhelming, and entirely understandable, revulsion against all things Russian. Later today I’m visiting a bookshop here in Kyiv where Russian books are being trashed, actually physically pulped, as a way of supporting the troops. Pushkin Street has been renamed after a leading figure in early-twentieth-century Ukrainian cultural life. Ukraine is almost going to define itself as the Non-Russia. I was talking the other day with people from PEN Ukraine who say very clearly, This is a war of decolonization, and Russian language and culture were part of the colonial enterprise.
It has been hard not to hear the echoes of this crisis with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Or indeed 1991. Sergey Surovikin, the man who was—until his recent demotion—the supreme commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, was actually a putschist in August 1991. So what’s happening now is what would have started to happen then if the putsch against Gorbachev had succeeded. The empire striking back. In Homelands I argue that that is one of the reasons we could now be said to be seeing, since February 24, 2022, the end of what I call the “post-Wall era.” There was an unbearable lightness at the end of the Soviet Empire, as it seemed in 1991. It’s almost the opposite of Karl Marx’s famous comment about “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” This time it’s the tragedy that’s coming the second time around.