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Author Yaroslav Trofimov.Sebastian Böttcher/Handout

  • Title: Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence
  • Author: Yaroslav Trofimov
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Pages: 400

Two years into Russia’s war with Ukraine, the “special military operation” that Vladimir Putin expected to win within days shows no end in sight. The two sides have traded territory back and forth through advances and retreats. Cities have been levelled. Peace talks, a sham, have failed. Troop deaths and injury numbers are obscured by the fog of war – that is to say, imperfect information, underestimates and withheld counts – but Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky says his side has lost 31,000 fighters, although that is almost certainly an undercount. He also says 180,000 Russian troops have died in the war, far more than Moscow acknowledges. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine, many of whom were children, with nearly another 20,000 injured.

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When Putin launched the invasion in 2022, he cited “de-nazification” of the country as his motivation. Few bought that justification, which strained to obscure his ethnonationalist and geopolitical-strategic reasons. Putin doesn’t hide the fact that he believes Ukraine is a fake country. Nor does the Kremlin rush to deny the effort to erase Ukrainian identity and restore what many in Moscow believe was Russia’s lost patrimony in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The grand historical sweep and story of the war and its global implications is unwritten and will remain so for years. For one, the fighting isn’t over. But there’s more to it than that. Even once the battles are decided and the borderlines settled, many of the war’s secrets will remain deliberately hidden or obscured by the chaos of conflict. Historians, pundits, journalists, politicians and others will nonetheless set out to make sense of it all.

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Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence, by Yaroslav Trofimov.Handout

For now, we are left with early drafts of the war’s history. In Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence, Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign-affairs correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, offers one such version. The book is a blow-by-blow account of the conflict from its beginning in February, 2022, up to the summer of 2023, when the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin – Russian mercenary, leader of the private military organization Wagner and erstwhile Putin ally – and domestic squabbles in the United States over funding the Ukrainian defence effort dominated headlines around the world.

Trofimov’s effort is comprehensive, a first-hand account of the war as he covered it from the ground, worked sources and interviewed everyone from soldiers and civilians to Zelensky himself. The book covers personal stories, military manoeuvres, tactics, strategies and combat hardware with ease – indeed, perhaps too much ease when it comes to the hardware, as one gets lost trying to decipher acronyms and keep track of the various armaments.

There is no secret about which side Trofimov favours, nor should there be. Our Enemies Will Vanish isn’t a dispassionate story of war at a distance. It’s an account of the effects, human and geopolitical, from the local to the international, of an invasion that seeks to erase a country. It is grounded in a belief that Russia’s war is, to say the least, brutal and unnecessary.

As you’d expect, the book is a heavy, sad read. At a distance, from a place of safety, headlines about the war may blend in with the churn of daily news. Beyond them are the stories Trofimov tells – of children slaughtered, of families erased from the face of the earth, of soldiers blown to bits in the service of irredentism and its attendant myths.

Page after page, Trofimov carefully documents the war in meticulous detail, including the lies and deceptions and half-truths that accompany such times. But he doesn’t miss the forest for the trees. For instance, he notes that Zelensky’s “I need ammo, not a ride” reply to offers to evacuate him from Ukraine early in the war was misreported. “Zelensky didn’t utter these words at the time,” Trofimov writes, “but it was the mindset in Kyiv.”

In other parts, Trofimov breezes through topics that beg for deeper consideration. Ukraine’s Azov brigade is a far-right unit home to neo-Nazis and accused of war crimes dating to 2015-2016. There have been efforts in the U.S. to designate it as a terrorist organization. But Our Enemies Will Vanish waves this away, with Trofimov arguing the current makeup is “very different from its earlier version.” At the very least, especially given that Azov features prominently, the reader deserves a deeper treatment of the allegations and the unit’s history. Nonetheless, the book doesn’t stand or fall with its coverage of Azov.

Beyond assessing the back and forth of the war itself, part of the value of Trofimov’s book lies in its broader assessment of recent geopolitical shifts and broader consequences. In early March, Sweden joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after decades of neutrality. Its accession is a direct consequence of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

What the Russian leader predicated as a fast, blitzkrieg victory has become a quagmire that is reshaping alliances and the global security order. As Trofimov frequently points out, beyond a quick win Russian leaders also expected – or at least claimed to expect – to be greeted as liberators and for considerable elements within the Ukrainian army to join them. While some did, particularly in Russian-speaking regions in the east, there was no groundswell of support.

In a note to readers at the end of the book, Trofimov writes that his effort is “the second draft of the history of the full-out Russian war against Ukraine, spanning the first decisive year of the conflict.” As such, the book does justice to the realities of war while remaining accessible to both those who’ve been following the news and those who haven’t. It’s a fine second draft – a building and reflection upon the initial reporting that comprises the first – that will shape future accounts of the war, just as it will shape our understanding of the war in the present.

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