Boris Kagarlitsky: The tragedy of war
First published at Canadian Dimension.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has been raging for more than a year. The international left has been debating this war from the start without success in formulating any more or less coherent position on it. Moral condemnation of the Russian invasion was almost universal, save for a small number of Stalinist groups that confuse capitalist Russia with the late Soviet Union and Putin’s oligarchs with anti-imperialists. But adopting a moral position isn’t the same thing as having a political line. And even though the left can hardly influence the events on the ground, we still need to formulate a position, at least to avoid disorientation and confusion in the near term.
Of course I understand that we are entering very shaky ground here. For many years I criticized Western policies towards Ukraine and the media myths about it. We are now in a totally new situation, however, not only in Ukraine but also in Russia where the regime is undergoing a catastrophic evolution from what used to be moderate authoritarian rule to a totalitarian regime. Confusing the analysis of Ukrainian politics with the analysis of this war would be a tremendous mistake. The Ukrainian language legislation is shameful, its policy towards Donbas totally contradicts any democratic principles, and since the conflict of 2014 erupted there both sides have committed human rights violations. However, none of this explains or justifies the massive invasion of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory. And attempts to excuse the decision of the Kremlin by appealing to the imperialist logic of “defending Russia’s sphere of interest” (typical for some commentators pretending to be objective or neutral) do not hold water either.
Ukraine is now a victim of aggression. And no matter what we may think of the Kyiv government, any attempt to deny it amounts to nothing but plain victim blaming. Poland in 1939 was not a nice place either and it really did discriminate against its ethnic minorities, including Germans, but this doesn’t justify or even explain Hitler’s invasion. Donbas was nothing but a pretext; most of the motives for the war in 2022 were purely domestic. It was an attempt to restore the shattered support for the regime in the face of mounting social and economic crisis. Growing popular discontent in Russia forced the regime to resort to massive electoral fraud in 2020 and 2021 and to step up repression. One anti-democratic law after another was passed, thousands of people were imprisoned and many were forced to leave the country. Universities were purged of liberal and leftist teachers, independent print media was shut down and attempts were made to impose Internet censorship. Critics of the regime were officially labeled “foreign agents” and deprived of political rights. This all happened even before the eruption of the war which was only used post factum to justify and intensify these measures.
However, support for the regime continued to erode, partly because of its own ineptitude, and partly because the general crisis of neoliberalism worldwide affected Russia as well as most other countries. The ruling elite was desperately trying to find a magic solution to reconsolidate the society. Rumours of the aging dictator’s health problems also forced the elite to consider a transition scenario that would guarantee effective control of the political process. A “short victorious war” seemed to be a way to solve all the problems at once. They miscalculated. Blitzkrieg failed and instead of a triumphant march to Kyiv we have a protracted war with no chance of victory.
The war led to the eruption of radical nationalism, which has become the sole ideology of the Kremlin’s current rulers. Putin’s entourage and propaganda efforts don’t even try to conceal the aim of eliminating the Ukrainian nation not only politically but also physically. This is what you hear daily on Russian television; this is what you get from official politicians and media figures. And this is a growing threat not so much for Ukraine—which defends itself rather effectively with the help of the West—as for Russian society itself. Unfortunately, the defeat of the Russian army is now the only solution for our country which has been taken over by thieves and obscurantist reactionaries trying to destroy education and abolish remaining human rights, including the most basic ones that were upheld even under Stalin. Putin’s victory would be the worst disaster to befall Russia in modern history. Fortunately for us, his army is going to be defeated and this opens the door to revolutionary change.
Facing the lack of manpower at the front, Putin’s government was forced to draft new conscripts into the army. This decision provoked both passive and active resistance. Hundreds of thousands of young people left the country. Those who stayed and allowed themselves to be drafted into the military forces mostly belonged to the poorest strata of society from the most depressed areas of the country. The growing number of casualties generates increasing social tension which so far remains hidden beneath the veil of censorship and repression.
The current conflict puts the left in Western countries in a very difficult situation, especially when pacifism can mean timid support for the aggressor and since supporting NATO is no good option either. This is a really hard question, both politically and morally. My position is that, yes, there may be and should be a call for a peace settlement, but only on the condition of the retreat of all Putin’s forces from Ukrainian territory occupied after February 24, 2022. This would be a defeat for the regime so serious as to hasten its inevitable demise. This is precisely the reason that current rulers in the Kremlin cannot agree on a status quo ante solution and try to use the negotiations as a tool to retain at least some of the occupied territory and thus avoid acknowledging the defeat.
None of this means we should stop criticizing the government of Ukraine and the hypocrisy of Western leaders (who, by the way, were quite prepared to trade away Ukrainian sovereignty had things not turned out so badly for Putin’s army last spring). Yet another issue is Crimea. Neither side is even considering asking the residents for their opinion. I’m not suggesting that most of them are happy to be Russian subjects, but they were not happy under Ukrainian rule either. It’s a similar story with the residents of Donbas. But we don’t hear much about their rights and interests. What offends me about Western liberal pacifism is that its proponents don’t even consider that Ukrainians, Russians, Crimeans and Donbas residents all have their own interests, opinions and rights. And the issue here is not just the suffering of civilians, which is caused not by “war” in the abstract but by the concrete aggression of Putin’s forces, but that these are people whose interests should be recognized.
We are facing very difficult choices. But whatever decision we make, we should not forget that the real solution to the conflict lies in the success of democratic change both in Russia and in Ukraine.
Boris Kagarlitsky is a professor at the Moscow Higher School for Social and Economic Sciences. He is the editor of the online journal and YouTube channel Rabkor. In 1982 he was imprisoned for dissident activities under Brezhnev and later faced arrests both under Yeltsin in 1993 and under Putin in 2021. In 2023 the authorities declared him a “foreign agent” but refused to leave the country, unlike many other critics of the regime. His books in English translation include Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (Pluto Press 2007), From Empires to Imperialism: the State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation (Routledge 2014), and Between Class and Discourse: Left Intellectuals in Defence of Capitalism (Routledge, 2020).
 The phrase is a reference to a comment reportedly made in 1904 by Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Russian Minister of the Interior, regarding the the Russo-Japanese War, namely that “What this country needs is a short victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.”