Reposted from Russian Dissent, August 31, 2022.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has not only destroyed the lives of many thousands in both states, but also dealt a heavy blow to left and left-liberal political discourse in the West. Over the course of many years, ideological clichés have developed and worked successfully, allowing a more or less predictable response to any conflict and crisis in the modern world. We knew for sure that the main source of problems is the policy of the conservative elites of the West, aimed at oppressing the peoples of the global South. That is why pacifists and socialists should criticize the NATO bloc, sympathize with states that are under pressure from the West, even if the political regimes existing there are very far from any ideas of democracy. The events of February 24, when pro-Western Ukraine was subjected to aggression by the rulers of Russia, who declared themselves fighters against Western influence, confused and disoriented many. Of course, the condemnation of aggression was almost universal, except for a number of marginal groups and individuals who opposed not only the left mainstream, but also reality. However, a moralistic condemnation of war and aggression turns out to be insufficient to not only formulate political positions, or even to give a general assessment of what is happening, but also to answer the question of what exactly should be fought for, and what should be achieved in the current situation.
The fact that the events of the Russian-Ukrainian war do not fit into the usual story of Western imperialism asserting its dominance over other countries and peoples does not mean that we should forgo criticism of the existing global system. Here, the danger is different: we risk becoming hostages of the usual ready-made formulas, and we refuse to analyze reality, which shows a more complex, and most importantly, a real picture with all its contradictions.
Let’s try to understand what is happening specifically, without succumbing to the ideological clichés of one side or the other.
Who is responsible?
Of course, it is the Russian oligarchy and Putin’s regime that bear the greatest responsibility for the current war. We can and should talk about the violation of human rights in Ukraine, about the fact that in 2014 the new government in Kyiv and its supporters used force against protesting citizens in the South-East (not only in Donetsk and Lugansk, but also in Kharkov and Odessa). One can and should be mindful of the ridiculous attempts to ban or suppress the Russian language (“the demand is as immoral as it is insane,” as Ukrainian director Serhiy Loznitsa put it). Today, this is openly spoken not only by those who have always criticized the authorities in Kyiv, but even by many of its supporters, such as Alexei Arestovich, an adviser to President Zelensky. But remembering all this makes sense only after the main culprit is named, and they are the current Kremlin rulers.
To be sure, the regime that has taken shape in Russia over the past years did not fall from the sky, nor is it simply the result of the madness of one person, or the product of the vicious inclinations of the group around him. It quite naturally formed on the basis of an economic policy that reflected the logic of modern neoliberalism, and with the full support of the West.
When discussing sanctions, one should not forget that it was Russia’s integration into global markets - via the export of mineral raw materials - which led to the formation of the typical features of capitalism in the periphery, just the same as occurred in many countries in Africa or Asia, which then gave rise to the corresponding socio-political structures and relations, practices which are now unanimously condemned by the “enlightened West” as “non-European.” In this regard, by the way, sanctions are forced and belated, undermining the existing economic structure and striking at the structure of interests prevailing in Russia, and in the future they may create an objective basis for systemic changes in our country. But these changes can become a reality only after the collapse of the current regime.
The ruling circles of the West and Ukraine share responsibility for the war with the Putin regime, but it is this regime that is today the main factor in the unfolding crisis. Without politically removing him from the scene, we cannot hope for any resolution of this situation. To argue differently means not only to support the Kremlin, but also to contribute to the endless prolongation of the war with all its accompanying disasters. This must be remembered by anyone who dreams of a humane and just world.
To oppose the Putin regime means to resolutely oppose attempts to identify this regime with Russian society and Russian culture generally (which is precisely the central element of the current regime’s official propaganda). During the 20 years of Putin’s rule in Russia, mass protests have broken out many times, whole cities came out in opposition (from the Volokolamsk district or the Khabarovsk regional), months-long campaigns of resistance were organized which did not give up despite severe repression. The only thing that fundamentally distinguished the Russian protest from what happened in Ukraine and many other countries was that the protests here were always peaceful and non-violent. In this sense, the experience of Russia clearly refutes Gene Sharp’s theory, popular among the liberal public, that dictatorships are allegedly afraid of peaceful protest and can be overthrown with its help. To a peaceful protest, regardless of its mass character, the authorities reacted either with indifference or repression.
The current war could radically change the situation. But the development of events will depend on how things go in Ukraine.
What peace initiatives deserve support?
The protracted war inevitably puts the question of a truce on the agenda. The anti-war movement in Russia has fought for this from the very first day of the war. Even official public opinion polls in Russia show that the majority of the population supports an early cessation of hostilities.
But when speaking out for peace, one cannot play into the hands of those who unleashed this war. If the ceasefire does not involve the withdrawal of troops to the positions they occupied on February 23, such an initiative is essentially an encouragement of aggression and recognition of the “right” of one state to seize and hold the territories of another by force. In this case, it doesn’t matter at all how we feel about the authorities that currently exist in Ukraine: the seizure of its territory is a violation not only of state sovereignty, but first of all of the rights and freedoms of the population living there, whose opinion no one even thinks to ask. It is especially striking when something like this is proposed by some liberal political commentators in the West, who believe that it is possible to discuss territorial concessions or the revision of the borders of foreign states without thinking about what the inhabitants of these countries might want. What is this, if not a classic example of colonialist thinking, which does not recognize the right of the natives to make their own choices. And if we are talking about an agreement between Putin and the West, why is it proposed to resolve the issue at the expense of Ukraine? Why, instead of discussing the fate of Kherson, not agree to the return of Alaska “to its native Russian shores?”
It is clear that the withdrawal of the Russian army from the occupied territories will mean an admission of defeat. This is precisely what the Putin regime seeks to avoid at all costs, and not because someone in the Kremlin really needs Kherson or Mariupol turned into ruins. The ruling circles of Russia are well aware that defeat in the war will result in both their own downfall and in the first stirrings of revolutionary changes in the country. That is why they are ready to continue hostilities indefinitely, regardless of the price that will have to be paid by society in the form of human lives or economic damage. And when it comes to a truce, they cling to any option that would allow them to at least take credit for success. But there should be no illusions here: Putin’s regime is a state whose further existence is possible only under conditions of permanent war. It will not be able to establish any stable peace or even a truce, and not at all because, as we are often told, evil imperialists are in power in the Kremlin, who will not rest until they destroy Ukraine. Russia is ruled by unprincipled and corrupt pragmatists. The fate of both Russia and Ukraine are matter of equal indifference to them. However, they have become entangled in their own contradictions and, having warmed up nationalist sentiments in that part of society that is still loyal, they simply will not be able to return to the state of affairs that existed before the start of the Ukrainian crisis.
As we remember, at the beginning of the war the Putin government did not put forward any territorial claims against Ukraine. The Kremlin was generally unable to formulate any intelligible demands, limiting itself to a general insistence that “Nazis” supposedly ruled in Ukraine. The inability to state a specific set of demands or a consistent statement regarding the goals of the war is a consequence of the fact that the real reasons for the outbreak of hostilities did not lie in the sphere of Russian-Ukrainian affairs, or even international relations at all. The causes of the war must be sought in the internal political crisis of the Putin regime. The ruling circles needed a “small, victorious war” to complete the reorganization of power against the background of the deteriorating health of the ruler, and of the growing alienation between the state and society. It is now clear that the prolongation of the war has thwarted the Kremlin’s plans. But admitting a military failure would mean a full-blown political disaster for Putin’s oligarchy. That is why in April 2022, when the Istanbul conference almost came to an agreement to end the war and begin the withdrawal of troops, progress suddenly stalled. After assessing the internal political situation, Putin’s entourage came to the conclusion that peace is more dangerous for them than the continuation of the war.
What will happen to Putin’s regime?
Of course, Putin’s regime did not begin its life as the same form we see before us today. Recriminations and accusations about the fact that this government was “tolerated for so long” (like similar delusional arguments about the alleged collective responsibility of Russians for the current state of affairs) are completely meaningless. The political system in Russia has undergone a gradual evolution, becoming more and more authoritarian, but finally acquired its current form relatively recently, as a result of a “coup from above” carried out under the guise of a 2020 constitutional reform. But even this coup did not happen in a vacuum, and was by no means simply the result of Putin’s lust for power or the intrigues of his inner circle. All of it was the result of prolonged economic stagnation, the growth of mass discontent, and the growing number of conflicts within the ruling class. In such a situation, those in power found no other way out than tightening authoritarian control over society, dismantling the remaining democratic freedoms, blatant repression, and then, when none of this was sufficient, the war, which, by their calculation, was supposed to restore the unity of society.
But the calculation of the Kremlin’s masters regarding the course of the war in Ukraine turned out to be completely false. On the one hand, the events every day demonstrate more and more how incompetent and mediocre the people who dragged the country into the current catastrophe turned out to be; on the other hand, any attempt to get out of this impasse will require them to recognize the very fact of that failure - this inevitably raises the uncomfortable question of responsibility. Therefore, the people who now rule in our state are more comfortable sinking deeper and deeper into the catastrophe than trying to overcome it. It is the internal political crisis in Russia that is the main reason for the start of the war, and the reason why this war cannot end, despite the obvious lack of any prospects for success.
The war will not end until there is a regime change in Russia. This is not an ideological statement, but a fundamental political principle of the Putin regime itself, which cannot survive other than by dragging out the war indefinitely. Unfortunately for the Kremlin rulers, eternal war is impossible, especially as it turns into an endless series of failures and defeats, something which tends not to stabilize a regime.
Apparently the best way out, which both people around the incumbent president and many politicians in the West are inclined towards, is to offer us Putinism without Putin in the very near future, since the current state of the first citizen’s health leaves much to be desired. To shift the responsibility onto one person, somehow come to an agreement with foreign governments, and then continue to rule the country in the old way - this is the strategic perspective towards which the Russian elite is gradually turning. But even if this scenario is realized in the near future, it will not succeed in reviving the status quo. Russia is ripe for deep changes. With the end of the war, they will begin, regardless of whether anyone likes it or not.
Translated by Dan Erdman