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What to read to understand the fight for Crimea

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If you’ve been following the crisis in Ukraine and the fight for Crimea, do you have unanswered questions about why Russia is so invested? We do, and we wanted to get a better understanding of the historical context of the conflict. Kathryn Stoner, a political scientist who is a Senior Fellow at the Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, has prepared a reading list that she says go a long way in explaining the Russian perspective.

Continue reading to find her reading list and descriptions of the books and their authors.

The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century by Angela Stent

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014)

This is a terrific book, hot off the press, that takes the reader through the post cold war relationship between Russia and the United States. Stent worked in government during some of the period covered in the book, and is also a Professor of Government at Georgetown. She argues, appropriately, that Russia and the US really don't understand one another's interests and motivations particularly well, and that this lack of fundamental understanding leads to hard limits in the extent to which the two powers can cooperate. There are lots of original interviews in this book with both US and Russian policy makers who have played key roles in the past 20 years. Among the topics covered here are Russia's war with Georgia in 2008 and Russia's reaction to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. 

Russian Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity (Second edition) by Andrei Tsygankov

(Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010)

This is an interesting overview that might be the right book to start with on this list of four. It is really the only one of the four that I list here that provides a quick and dirty background read on Cold War relations in 30 or so pages. It also examines issues of enduring importance to both the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia. It helps us to understand, for example, why Russia cares so much about keeping Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other post-Soviet states within its "natural sphere of  influence." Tsygankov is decidedly more "pro-Kremlin" than the other authors in my list, but that perspective is really important for Americans to read and understand. As the title suggests, while Russia is no longer the Soviet Union in ideology, it is a blend of the Russian empire of the Tsars with a Soviet mentality and general suspicion of Western intentions.

Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (Second edition) by Jeffrey Mankoff

(Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, and Council on Foreign Relations, 2012)

Mankoff's book is really a long essay on the sources of Russian behavior in the last 2 years in particular. I find the book a particularly useful reminder of the various grievances that Russia holds against the West -- from the expansion of NATO (right up to "Russian" borders in the Baltics and what is really Ukraine, not Russia); the NATO bombing of Serbia in the late 1990's, another Slavic brotherly nation; the attempt to install anti-ballistic missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic; the NATO bombing of Libya which Russian leaders think far exceeded the mandate NATO was given to intervene in the UN; and Russia's suspicions regarding US involvement in Ukraine's first and "Orange" Revolution in 2004. It is a quicker read than the Stent book, but covers the main issues. It helps to explain why Russia feels it should be able to do what it wants in its "legitimate and historical zone of concern," which we now know includes Crimea!

Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story by Dmitri Trenin

(Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011)

Trenin is a former Soviet Defense Ministry official, who speaks and writes fluently in English and is now a leading researcher at the Carnegie Center for International Peace in Moscow. One of the interesting things about this book is that it is written from a very personal perspective. Trenin describes his own professional transition as a defense policy expert through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and weaves this story into the changes in Russian foreign policy through the 1990's and then the last decade under President Putin. Trenin is very politically progressive by Russian standards, and is a sharp analyst and observer of Russian politics. He knows personally many of the key players in the defense and foreign policy establishment in Moscow, and this relatively short book provides some really useful insights into again understanding how Russia has risen from the ashes of the Soviet Union and the "bad times" of President Yeltsin in the 1990's, to again being a "player" in global politics. Trenin is well aware of his country's limitations, however. He gives the reader some useful insights into Russia's internal problems like its demographic challenges, as well as the economy's dependence on oil and gas exports in particular.   Trenin covers Russia's post-Soviet wars in Chechnya (within Russia's own borders) and also in Georgia, which is a useful reminder to the casual observer that Russia has been using its military a fair amount since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Crimea is just the most recent example. The book ends with a useful discussion of what Russia is culturally and ideologically, and touches on Putin's tendency to appropriate historical symbols from the imperial and Soviet periods of Russian history in order to foster and promote national pride. The message is: "Russia is back."