Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine's War of Independence

Image of Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine's War of Independence
Release Date: 
January 9, 2024
Penguin Press
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If you want a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the fighting from 2014 in the Donbas region located along Ukraine’s western border with Russia, into the full-blown war in 2022–2023, this book should fit.

Born in Kyiv but with an M.A. from New York University, Yaroslav Trofimov is the chief foreign affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. His partner Manu Brabo is a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist based in Spain, who has reported from Ukraine since 2014. Fifteen of his photos are in the book, in color.

Not only does Trofimov know the country’s language as one born and raised there, but he has personal contacts everywhere and knows the terrain from repeated visits. His partner Brabo once spent a night in Uman, a town where Trofimov’s grandmother was born more than a century ago in 1914.

Trofimov seems to know the relevant history but passes over crucial background so briefly that many readers may not grasp their import. For example, on one page, he mentions five events in 2021 that that helped explain the origins of the war: President Zelensky’s renewed call for Ukraine to join NATO; his refusal to implement constitutional reforms that Moscow believed were required by the Minsk accords; his appointment of a well informed and tough defense minister; publication of a long article by Putin claiming that Ukraine had to be one with Russia; statements by Putin to CIA director William Burns that the time was ripe for Russia to absorb Ukraine. Putin’s article and his comments to Burns exposed the tip of a long-standing myth that Russia has the right and the duty to reunite Russia with the vasal states on its periphery, the near-abroad, most important of which is Ukraine.

Trofimov devotes a chapter (all 48 chapters are short) to a press conference where Putin urged Zelensky to go with the punch line of a song “Love It or Not, Endure It, My Beauty”—the words of a man who leaps into a casket to rape a dead woman. Putin’s message was directed at Zelensky so he would implement the Minsk accords, like them or not. Trofimov does not use this incident to reflect on the moral values of the street tough who became Russia’s president.

Trofimov excels at detailing what happened but is nearly silent on why. He also gives outsiders little information on policy options for the United States and Europe. To what extent should NATO members help Ukraine to fight? To rebuild? To take part constructively in an interdependent Western community?

Most readers will need more information to form an opinion: Why did Putin order his so-called special military operation? Was it justified, for example, by NATO expansion? Did Zelensky, Putin, and others quoted in the book believe what they said or were their remarks parts of broad propaganda campaigns? For solid answers to such questions, consult Serhii Plokhy, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History and the frequent blogs of Alexander J, Motyl such as “When Will Russia Finally Collapse?” The National Interest, January 9, 2024.

Though short on answers to big questions, practically every page of Trofimov’s book conveys details that illustrate what has been happening. For example, having met with the proud and defiant governor of Mykolaiv, Trofimov and Brabo went to the nearby morgue where ambulances marked “Cargo 200” kept bringing disfigured corpses from the front line, with chunks of flesh sheared off by artillery. One attendant noted that he and his neighbors can now go to a shop full of goods or buy a cup of tea because ”our guys have managed to shove the Russian away.”

Another chapter describes how, shortly before war began, a delegation of Ukrainians headed to Belarus for potential negotiations with Russian officials. It was riddled with potential traitors. The head of Ukraine’s counterintelligence services was thought to be pro-Russian. He fled to Serbia just before the fighting began.

The book’s title is a line from Ukraine’s national anthem: “Our enemies will vanish/Like dew at sunrise.” Trofimov’s book, however, presents little or no evidence that this will happen.