Inside the Ukrainian resistance: Interview with Alona Liasheva and Denys Pilash

Stencil street artist C215 in Ukraine 2022

By Tempest

June 24, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Tempest — Tempest interviews Alona Liasheva and Denys Pilash about the Ukrainian Resistance, the state of war, the dynamics of class struggle and popular consciousness, and the tasks of the international Left in building solidarity with Ukraine. Alona Liasheva is a sociologist, researcher of urban political economy, and works at The Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. She is a co-editor of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and member of Ukrainian socialist group Sotsialnyi Rukh (The Social Movement)Denys Pilash is an activist and political scientist at Kyiv National University. He is part of the Ukrainian socialist group Sotsialnyi Rukh (The Social Movement) and member of the editorial board of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism.

Tempest: The Ukrainian resistance repelled the Russian invasion from taking Kyiv, scoring a big victory. Russia has retreated and is now trying to seize Donbas and establish a land bridge to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. What is the war like now? What are the conditions like for people in territories taken over by Russia? What is the balance and trajectory of the fighting?

Denys Pilash: I think the widespread perception that the war has completely changed after the battles to defend Kyiv and Kharkiv were won is incorrect. We still face regular airstrikes throughout the country, including in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Lviv. The main battle has shifted to Donbas though.

There people face brutal mortar shelling, missile bombardment, and airstrikes. Some big cities like Mariupol have been completely destroyed. So have smaller cities and towns. The scale of destruction is hard to convey. Hundreds of schools and hospitals have been damaged or totally obliterated.

Every day we have reports of large numbers of civilians, Ukrainian soldiers, and volunteers in Territorial Defense Forces being killed. So, the focus of the war has mostly shifted to Donbas, but the nature of the war has not changed. It remains a fight for self-determination against Russian imperialist aggression.

The conditions of the occupied territories are deteriorating; the model can be seen in the so-called People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, which Russia controlled for eight years. The Russian overlords have imposed autocratic rule in these parts of Donbas, subordinated them to their economy, established a new educational system, and mandated that all men over eighteen years old be drafted into the military and used as cannon fodder in the war.

There has been resistance to the occupation almost everywhere right from the start. There were lots of peaceful protests, but they were violently dispersed and suppressed. Even now people continue to resist, most recently the firefighters in Enerhodar, the city hosting Europe’s biggest nuclear plant, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station. Like the others it was subject to repression.

There was so much opposition to the occupation that the Russians couldn’t even manage to get some quislings to agree to lead their installed local authorities. In the end, they found some old corrupt politicians and marginal conspiracy theorists to head them up.

In general, people, including Russian speakers who form the majority of the population in the occupied territories are unwilling to collaborate. They do not support their cities and towns being destroyed, soldiers patrolling their streets, and their rights being trampled.

Alona Liasheva: I have been closely following conditions in the occupied territories. I have contacted people despite the interruptions in phone and internet service. They all describe horrific conditions. Some places are completely destroyed like Mariupol. Other places are badly damaged like Kherson but are more or less stable.

The humanitarian crisis is severe. In some places people do not have access to potable water. In others, they face shortages of basic medicine like insulin and pain killers. One of the common problems is lack of access to food for babies who are lactose intolerant. So, the mothers have to choose between their kids dying of hunger or suffering health problems from the breast milk they are allergic to.

Economic conditions are terrible. Prices for basic necessities like food have skyrocketed. The cost of potatoes and pasta have reached completely insane levels. This is true even in agricultural areas of Ukraine. This is truly shocking for people as Ukraine is supposed to be a top notch agricultural country.

The ideological pressure on people in the occupied territories is enormous. Once they are cut off from internet connection to the outside world, they only hear Russian propaganda telling them that no one is going to save them, that Kyiv has been overtaken, and that Ukraine is under Moscow’s control.

Conditions for women in the occupied territories are just terrible. We’ve heard so many stories about rape. Some stories are like those we have all heard from Bucha, where Russian troops used rape as a weapon of war and occupation.

A common story is that women are being “invited” by armed Russian soldiers to come to parties and have sex. While women may go along with this, it is certainly not their choice, but one forced on them by armed men.

Institutions like hospitals and schools seem to be somewhat functional in places that are not destroyed. But they are operating in very difficult conditions without enough supplies and medicine for basic healthcare.

Educational institutions are operating under orders from governments appointed by Russia. They have had to change to instruction in Russian and implement a new Russian curriculum. If teachers refuse, they are fired for disobeying orders. And they still refuse.

Very few people support what Russia is doing, including those who were sympathetic to Russia before the war. Who is going to approve of bombs destroying your house and killing your family and friends? Who is going to support military occupation?

There was a lot of resistance in the occupied territories, but Russia brutally repressed it. Russian forces kidnapped activists and even mayors, threw them in jail, and tortured them. In a common form of torture, they shoot people in the ankles to make them unfit to resist or join the Ukrainian army when it comes to liberate territories.

Nevertheless, people keep trying to resist. They put up posters against the occupation. They spray paint graffiti on buildings against the occupation. There is a subterranean resistance.

Tempest: What impact has the war had on the economy and conditions for working class people in Ukraine today? Have refugees returned? What are conditions like for people displaced by the war?

AL: The number of people driven from their homes by the war has been enormous. The UN Refugee Agency estimates over 5.1 million refugees present across Europe. But we can only estimate the number of internally displaced people (IDP). It must number between six and seven million people. Now both refugees and IDPs are returning to their homes.

This is being celebrated, but often there is nothing to celebrate. A lot of people can’t return because their homes have been destroyed or their cities are now occupied. Of course, it’s good that people who can return are back at home. They want to be home in a liberated Ukraine. I feel that too. I come from Kyiv, but now live in Lviv. So, when Kyiv was successfully defended, I went to see it, just to be there.

But the reality is that many are returning because they could not find housing, jobs, and social services abroad or in Ukraine. For example, housing for the IDP has been a complete disaster. There was temporary housing provided. But almost 99 percent of that was organized by volunteers.

The government had no efficient policy of providing housing for the IDP and did not regulate the rent market. Setting prices was left up to the landlords. While some maintained rents at previous levels, many raised them, and some did so by as much as ten times what they previously charged.

Some people are lucky and keep their jobs when they leave their hometowns. Those working in information technology were able to work from wherever they moved. Most everyone else lost their jobs and have struggled to find work.

Many people who left Ukraine are returning because they couldn’t find enough help to sustain our lives. At least in Ukraine, they have their own house or flat and they are willing to put themselves at great personal risk to come back to them. There are cases of people who moved back only to be killed in missile strikes.

We have all become accustomed to a level of danger that before the war would have been unimaginable. We hear sirens and bombs all the time. War has become a normal part of life.

DP: The economy is deteriorating, and inflation is rising dramatically. Almost half the population has lost their jobs. Those that kept their jobs face cuts in their salaries. Many people have been laid off.

The war has also caused an acute agricultural crisis in Ukraine and a food crisis internationally especially in the Global South. Russia has bombed and seized a lot of the agricultural land. It is also seizing and extracting grain from those lands.

In the rest of Ukraine, farmers are able to function more or less properly, despite the fact that a number of tractor drivers have been killed by Russian missiles. Farmers are producing food, but they are not able to put it on ships for export because of Russian naval blockades in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

So, the food is stuck in Ukraine and some of it is rotting in storage silos at the ports. This is causing food shortages and food inflation throughout the world. In some places in the Global South this can cause famine and an enormous humanitarian crisis.

Rather than do much to address these atrocious conditions for workers and farmers, market enthusiasts from the Ukrainian parliament and government have passed new neoliberal laws that make conditions worse. They make it easier for companies to fire people and deepen the deregulation of the economy.

The government and oligarchs have used the hardships on small businesses as a cover to pass these attacks. They claim these laws will help small businesses, keep workers on the job, and the benefits will trickle down to everyone else. Obviously, this is all untrue.

Faced with these attacks, unions were initially passive. Part of the reason for this is that they, like everyone else, have been focused on doing their part to defend the country, provide humanitarian relief, and save the lives of their members. No one wanted to be seen as undermining the war effort.

But our organization, Social Movement, and our journal Commons tried to publish about the dangers of these anti-labor bills. We helped build awareness at least in some circles of union activists about the urgency of opposing this legislation.

Tempest: How has the war and occupation impacted popular consciousness? What is the mood and confidence of the people particularly those involved in the active military and popular resistance?

AL: As a sociologist, I track surveys all the time. So, I was looking at them in the first weeks of the war to get a sense of popular consciousness. The support of Zelensky is at almost one hundred percent and there is a high level of confidence behind the struggle to defend Ukraine.

But we must remember that opinions change very rapidly in Ukraine. So, I would not be surprised if in a couple of months, people start criticizing Zelensky, and his popularity goes down.

Despite Zelensky’s current popularity, people have been critical of specific government policies. They even raise questions about the government’s military strategy. And people are not scared to speak out even when we’re under martial law.

This will mean that over time debates will reemerge about what to do about Russia’s so-called People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk as well as its annexation of Crimea. There will also be more debates about the country’s language laws.

Of course, there will be both conservative and progressive trends in these debates. All this is to say that politics is very unstable and prone to dramatic shifts. In many ways the war has deepened the politicization of Ukrainian society.

DP: Alona is right. At this point people are very focused and united on defending Ukraine, winning the war, and securing a lasting peace. People extend their positive view of this struggle to Zelensky as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine.

But when it comes to particular decisions made by officials or ministers of parliament, their views can be very critical. There is increased frustration with corruption in the distribution of humanitarian aid. People are more willing to criticize local authorities for their behavior during the war.

Tempest: What is the character of Ukrainian nationalism that has developed during the war in a country that is multiethnic and multilingual in composition? Obviously nationalism can have progressive characteristics because people are fighting for their democratic right to national self-determination. But this nationalism can sometimes have ethnic chauvinist character. What are the dynamics of Ukrainian nationalism you observe?

AL: There is definitely a strain of conservative nationalism. This leads people to call for everyone to speak Ukrainian and stop speaking in Russian. But this is just impossible to enforce. A huge percentage of Ukrainians speak Russian, and that fact has nothing to do with their political views.

Moreover, I do not think people will fall for such calls to restrict the Russian language. Remember, Russian speakers have been at the front lines of resistance to Putin’s invasion in the east. That fact alone destroys Putin’s claim that he’s liberating Russian speakers from oppression. He is the one killing and oppressing them.

There is tremendous sympathy with Russian speakers fighting Putin in the east. Veterans from this struggle will become a strong part of civil society. No one is going to want to restrict their rights.

So, this conservative nationalism will face popular rejection. For example, in Lviv where I live people have put up signs saying, “Please Speak Ukrainian.” But people come in and speak Russian and no one really cares. I don’t think this ethno-nationalist approach to language is going to be mainstreamed.

DP: There are two ideological frameworks in the Ukrainian resistance. One obviously is this very ethno-nationalist one that Alona described. It calls for people to become more Ukrainian, abandon anything perceived as Russian, and become more homogeneous.

But there is another framework that embraces the multitude of people who joined together in their grief and anger, and active resistance too. This one imagines Ukraine as a multi-ethnic Ukrainian nation that includes Russian speaking Ukrainians, whose cities have suffered the most from the war, as well as other communities like the Crimean Tatars, Jewish people, Pontic Greeks, and the Roma.

In some ways, this common resistance has empowered these communities, especially the Roma, who have historically suffered some of the worst discrimination and dispossession. Here in Transcarpathia they have joined in the war effort, especially the military, and are fighting alongside everyone else as equals.

The current government, including Zelensky himself, includes lots of people from Russian speaking backgrounds and Russian speaking cities. They steer clear of ethno-nationalism. We should remember that they won the last election based on a vision of a more inclusive Ukraine.

This vision can foster unity against any discrimination. But which framework predominates is not automatic. The Left must promote this pluralistic and democratic view of the country, its institutions, its culture, its languages.

Tempest: Zelensky is lionized as a hero in much of the world and he has seemed to galvanize Ukraine in the war. At the same time, he represented a faction of the Ukrainian oligarchy and during the war enacted all sorts of curtailments of political rights and implemented neoliberal attacks on unions. How have the Left, the unions, and the working class responded to his policies? How, if at all, has the war changed the political space open to the Left? Has it changed the political character of the Left?

AL: In the current situation, it makes no sense to protest Zelensky. He is immensely popular. But that does not mean that it’s impossible to criticize his policies. We on the Left as well as other forces can do that.

Ukrainian society produces many resistances, not just against the Russian invasion, but also against the problems with Ukrainian society. There is deep dissatisfaction with oligarchic capitalism and its neoliberal policies.

That’s why there is a pattern in Ukrainian history of kicking out presidents in election after election. People throw out the old presidents, elect new ones based on their promise to change the order, and then oppose them when they maintain the existing order.

Zelensky is an example of this dynamic. He was elected based on a promise of unity, change, and peace, but failed to deliver any of this and so his popularity had collapsed before the war. His leadership of the war saved him and made him hugely popular.

But as Denys said, he defends oligarchic capitalism and has expanded neoliberal policies to the benefit of the corporations. So, he will inevitably face problems and the Left will have the space to openly challenge him again and advance our vision of democratic socialism as an alternative.

DP: I agree with that. I think it’s very important not to overestimate Zelensky’s popularity. I was sincerely amazed how the international media made him out to be so brave in staying in Ukraine. They implied that the common sense thing to do is for a state leader to flee.

Actually, it was clear that Russia did not deploy enough force to capture and hold a city of 3 million people. Putin completely misread Ukraine, believing it would not resist and they could topple the government and install a puppet regime. Ukrainians were always going to resist.

So, Zelensky actually just did the rational thing by staying. That said, in the first few weeks his nightly addresses were inspiring and humane. He stayed away from dehumanizing the enemy or promoting hate. Instead, especially at the beginning, he tried to appeal to Russian soldiers and citizens to oppose their unjust war.

These nightly addresses united the people behind Zelensky. But that does not mean that there is satisfaction with the policies of his government, which like Alona said uphold oligarchic capitalism that people are deeply unhappy with.

Zelensky was elected in the hopes of change. He really won as almost an empty signifier. He was the perfect centrist with no clear vision or position on any question. So, he could bend in any direction. Zelensky and his team are petit-bourgeois people who have a very limited understanding of how the economy works, of big industry, the international division of labor and so on.

Their economic experts also have an almost religious faith in the free market. As a result, they made completely unsound decisions even on capitalist terms. They have no other idea where to raise funds for the budget besides legalizing gambling. They even oppose the cancellation of Ukraine’s debt, because they’re afraid it will give the country a negative reputation among investors.

In the end, Zelensky has played the same role as his predecessors—defending the existing order. We as a Left are trying to promote an alternative of democratic socialism. We have faced real challenges in doing this during the war. We have expended a tremendous amount of energy, more than sometimes seems humanly possible, to build the resistance, join the Territorial Defense Forces, provide humanitarian aid, and take care of displaced people and refugees.

This taxed our capacity because the Left remains small in number. But I think that through all this work, especially in the unions and social movements, we will be able to convince people of our democratic socialist vision of a free Ukraine.

Tempest:Let’s turn the debate that has begun to emerge in the U.S. and its NATO allies about the war. The West has increased military and financial support for Ukraine, but there is a growing current in the establishment calling for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement. Germany, France, and Italy have been at the forefront of demanding that. So has Henry Kissinger. Why is it wrong to demand that now? To what extent is the Zelensky government, or Ukrainians generally, prepared to accept a settlement that trades land for peace? Is that even possible?

AL: It’s very strange to hear these calls for a ceasefire and negotiation. We tried this for eight years. During that time, I thought it was necessary and possible to negotiate some agreement, but it did not work. Any attempt at a ceasefire was just a chance for Putin to wait for a couple of months or a couple of years and then renew fighting.

He is determined to conquer Ukraine and subordinate it in his vision of a new Russian empire. That’s why negotiations and ceasefires have failed. That’s why you’re right to ask if it is even possible.

For Ukrainians it is very difficult to imagine sitting down and making a deal to draw a line somewhere in our country separating our people. Will your mother be on the other side of that line? Will your relatives? Who has the right to draw such a fucking line?

That line would divide Russian occupied territory, which will be ruled brutally, and the rest of Ukraine, which with all its problems at least has some kind of democracy and democratic rights to organize and struggle for better conditions.

And we know that if Putin secures any such deal it will be just a matter of time before he tries to take the rest of the country. That’s why a ceasefire and negotiations seem impossible and any deal at this point unacceptable.

DP: First, everyone must understand that Ukrainians do want a proper ceasefire to stop this nightmare. We are being bombed and killed at an unbearable rate. Any region can be hit, any building can be hit, and you can lose your relatives or your own life at any point.

But a ceasefire is very unlikely. Ukraine tried to have proper negotiations with Russia from the start of the war. Russia did not take them seriously. They sent a delegation for public relations purposes. Their representatives were low-profile or retired officials without the diplomatic status to agree to anything.

And even then they rejected appeals for humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians. Even in instances where Russia made agreements for humanitarian corridors, it violated them and repeatedly attacked refugees in the corridors.

We also must remember that when Zelensky was elected he repeatedly pushed for direct negotiations with Putin. But Putin refused the offer, because he does not recognize Ukraine as a country with a right to exist let alone negotiate with Moscow.

He, like other imperialist powers, only recognizes the great powers as having a say in international relations. So, Putin will only negotiate with Washington and Beijing. He wants to redraw the world map with these big imperialist powers.

And in any such talks he wants to negotiate from a position of strength. So, he has been determined to grab more, more Ukrainian territory. After failing to take Kyiv and Kharkiv, he now wants to take all of Donbas.

I don’t think even Putin thinks it is realistic to push his troops further south along the Black Sea coast to Odessa and then on to Moldovan border and Transnistria. Only after he grabs as much land as possible will he be willing to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations.

That’s why we reject the so-called realist foreign policy analysts in the Western elite. They want to force us to trade land for peace. The land is not the issue. It’s the people. If we agree to any partition of the country, it will leave our people, our friends, and relatives, under the Russian authoritarian regime and its even more lawless military occupation.

Such a deal would also create a brutal gray zone between Ukraine and Russia occupied Ukraine—a militarized zone with constant fighting like we have seen in Donbas since 2014. And the deal will not last; Russia would use their conquered territory to launch yet another war to take the rest of Ukraine.

Any such settlement would also destroy international norms and agreements established after the Second World War and reiterated in 1975 Helsinki Accords that state that the borders cannot be changed without the mutual agreement of both sides. It would return to a kind of late 19th century imperialism when great powers invade and annex countries with impunity and international recognition.

That’s why it angers Ukrainians when Western politicians like France’s Emmanuel Macron or Germany’s Olaf Scholz warn against humiliating Putin and instead argue to give him off ramps and concessions so that he does not lose face and can pass off the invasion as an imperial victory.

These politicians still claim to be friends of Ukraine. But they are in fact more concerned about establishing a modus vivendi with Russia than in defending Ukraine’s interests. Indeed, many are afraid they would exclude Ukraine from talks they are having with Russia.

It’s clear they are willing to sell us out. They are imperialist politicians; so is Boris Johnson in Britain who needs his newly acquired image of a statesman defending Ukraine to offset his numerous shortcomings and improve his failing approval ratings. They all follow the same logic of cutting deals behind the backs of oppressed countries to advance the interests of great powers.

People in the global periphery in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia must fight for our own interests in democratizing the world order. We have to eliminate the veto power of the Security Council permanent members, challenge the formal and informal undemocratic privileges great powers possess in international institutions, and reorder the balance of global economic power.

Tempest: What do you think the trajectory of the war is at this point? How are the Ukrainian Left and unions movement positioning themselves for the future? What kind of demands are you putting forward in the current struggle?

DP: It’s very difficult to make any predictions about the course of the war. What we on the Ukrainian Left are doing is building the popular resistance to the aggression of Russian imperialism. This is much larger than the government and official politicians.

Millions of people are engaged in solidarity against the invasion. Essential workers have kept hospitals and schools open, delivered humanitarian aid, took care of the sick and saved people’s lives. Together, we kept the society and economy functioning and provided help to those on the frontline.

We on the Left want to highlight the voices of these workers who are not much celebrated in the war. They have borne the biggest burden and paid the highest price. We as workers need to have a voice both in internal discussions in Ukraine and political representation in the parliament.

We must remember that the class war hasn’t stopped even for a minute. At the start of the invasion, many of the big capitalists fled the country. All of them have pushed anti-labor legislation, protected their profits, and tried to make workers pay for the crisis the war has caused.

The war has only made clearer to us on the Left that we must transform Ukraine’s peripheral capitalism and its oligarchic political system. We need to build a new democratic socialist Left in Ukraine and throughout the world.

To do this, our organization is engaged in a number of projects. We are defending labor rights. We document cases where workers rights have been mistreated during the war and provide them legal support. We are exposing and opposing the government’s neoliberal attacks.

We have initiated a campaign to cancel Ukraine’s external debt. And we are part of an international network of solidarity, which includes leftist parties and unions in Europe, that collects money and supplies to provide humanitarian relief to people in Ukraine.

We are also focused on defending the rights of refugees and migrants, regardless of their citizenship or race. While European countries have accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees, they have discriminated against Middle Eastern and North African migrants. And European capitalists have also exploited migrant workers as cheap labor.

Even with these flaws, we need to use European countries’ admission of Ukrainians as a precedent for new policies that welcome migrants and refugees, provide them the services they need, and treat them humanely. We need to build progressive forces internationally to secure such rights for migrants.

Such demands challenge the way global capitalism and international relations are currently set up. The difficulties in imposing sanctions on Russia is just one example. Russian oligarchs take advantage of all the offshore tax havens set up by world’s ruling classes and accepted by their states. We have to dismantle this system to effectively sanction the Russian oligarchs and use their assets for the reconstruction of war-torn Ukraine.

The same is true of sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas. The most effective thing to do would be to cut off all Russia’s exports, especially to industries in Germany. But German elites refuse to do that, underscoring the international collusion among all ruling classes in the system of fossil fuel capitalism.

The problem is not just Russia or other warmongering oil autocracies like Saudi Arabia, but all the multinational capitalist corporations and the world’s states. They are all directly responsible for climate change and environmental disaster. To transform this system requires an international movement.

That’s why we connect our demands with those of people throughout the world. For example, when we raise debt cancellation we connect it to similar demands from indebted countries throughout the Global South. All their debt must be canceled too.

By connecting our demands across borders, we build international solidarity from below between other liberation struggles and other workers struggles. Doing so builds bridges of solidarity. While every country has its specificity, all our problems are rooted in global capitalism and imperialism.

So, a victory for rulers and aggressors is a defeat not only for workers and oppressed peoples but all workers and oppressed peoples. And the opposite is also true. A victory for workers and the oppressed is a victory for all workers and oppressed people. It can serve as a precedent for a victory elsewhere.

And our common victories can lay the basis for an international challenge to global capitalism and the imperialist powers that enforce it. They can help us advance a more democratic, more egalitarian, more socialist world.

Tempest: Finally, what should the international Left be demanding now? What can we do to aid Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination?

DP: The international Left must take up the demands I was just talking about, especially the cancellation of Ukraine’s external debt and an embargo on Russian fossil fuel. The international Left also has to work with us to demand funding for post-war reconstruction and that reconstruction does not include any neoliberal conditionalities and austerity.

Ukraine must be rebuilt in a socially and economically progressive and inclusive manner. Workers and oppressed people’s interests must come first, not those of Ukrainian and multinational capital.

As regards the big debate on the Left about the war and imperialism, I think the international Left must begin by listening to actual people from Ukraine, whose fate you are debating. You cannot take any positions on the future of millions of people without even trying to understand them.

If you take the time to do that, you will avoid getting trapped in a realist framework that sees the world as a big chess board where great powers make moves against one another. Accepting that framework marginalizes oppressed peoples and denies them their rights, interests, and capacities.

Really this is just a call for the international Left to remember what its project has always been about—the liberation of the working class people, common people, the oppressed, the dispossessed, and the subaltern.

They must speak. They have their own agency. They are not an abstraction, but real people. So, listen to them and only on that basis have debates and engage in common struggle for our collective liberation.