Putin's war in Ukraine: The dialectics of victory and defeat

By Boris Kagarlitsky

June 4, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Russian Dissent — With the US Senate’s approval of the latest “lend-lease” law, and with Ukraine set to receive a bonus offering of modern Western weapons and financial assistance, the question of who will win the war can now be considered resolved. The current Russian government not only lacks the material resources, but also the human resources necessary for a protracted conflict. It has no goal or ideology for which it would be possible to convince its citizens to fight. Mass mobilization is impossible because it would inevitably cause mass protests, and in any case neither the economy nor the military infrastructure is prepared to maintain the existence of a massive army. Aggressive propaganda, whether in the form of appeals to common inhumanity or threats against the whole world, might poison the consciousness of the older generation, but does not work as a motivation for people who will have to be compelled to fight or work for the war effort. On the contrary, discontent and even resistance is growing (as evidenced by the repeated arsons of military registration and enlistment offices). The defense industry, which has been in decline for decades, is unable to make up for the loss of equipment, and sanctions have further hobbled the production of the most important components, without which modern weapons manufacturing is impossible. Of course, occasionally the industry finds ways to circumvent sanctions, but production remains extremely expensive, and most importantly, suffers from supply instability.

As the picture of impending military defeat becomes increasingly clear, the question of the scale and consequences of this failure must be asked. And not only of Russia, but also of Ukraine.

The growing hysteria in the Kremlin demonstrates that they, too, recognize that a catastrophe is at hand, and that, most importantly, the domestic elite has no chance of maintaining their status in post-war Russia. It remains to be seen what the near future will be like. The liberal opposition sincerely hopes that, by punishing the war’s instigators and overcoming corruption, they may create an opportunity to reform the economy on the basis of a free market. But after sanctions, much more ambition will be required, such as strict rationing and redistribution of resources, concentration of strengths and means in priority areas of development, and measures to restore the welfare state, without which society will not be able to survive the crisis. Wars always contribute to the restructuring of the economy. It will be necessary, as it was during the Second World War, to resort to regulation, central planning and nationalization in order to prevent collapse and devastation. The experience of the twentieth century in this sense remains relevant, and not only for Russia. And it should be noted that, by carrying out confiscation measures against Russian oligarchs, the democratic West has already created a magnificent precedent, one that will make it possible to implement reforms that were long overdue before the war.

The most important question is whether, against the background of mobilized, socialist economic organization, the political process can take on a democratic character. It is not so difficult to repeal the repressive laws of recent times or to hold free elections. It’s much harder to make it all work. To what extent does society itself want democratic participation; to what extent is it ready to take responsibility for solving its own problems? The Russian layman is aggressively apathetic, apolitical and unprepared to go beyond the narrow circle of his everyday family and professional issues. However, it is precisely on this possibility that a real, and not just formal, democratization depends. Without self-organization of professional communities freed from control by the bureaucracy and oligarchic capital, without the return of powers usurped from the outer regions of the country during Putin’s rule, without the participation of the mass of people in decision-making, any anti-crisis program will very quickly come to a stall, and will hang suspended in a social vacuum.

Even if a change of leadership occurs in the near future - whether for political or medical reasons - the ruling circles will inevitably try to maintain a Putinism without Putin, which would be even more reluctant to agree to deeper changes. Such an outcome would be very difficult, arduous and dramatic. Nevertheless, this process, even if painful and slow, would create opportunities for the revival of civil society, the formation of a new political class, and the adoption of a new model of development. If this happens, then Russia, not for the first time in its history, will have turned a military defeat into a catalyst for social progress and democratic change.

And what awaits Ukraine in case of victory? By the beginning of the war, the country had been torn apart by numerous contradictions. One need only watch the famous TV series “Servant of the People”, starring then-actor Volodymyr Zelensky, to understand the severity of the conflicts between different parts of the country, between the lower and upper classes of society, and to see how great was the influence of the oligarchs and how weak the rule of law was. And although it was the precision of this criticism that ensured Zelensky’s victory in the elections, his administration has been unable to resolve the accumulated problems at the social, cultural and political levels. The Ukrainian poet Oleksandr Kabanov, while expressing hope for an early victory for his country, castigated the pre-war cultural policy for its “idiotic linguocidal laws, periodic perforations and the desire to Ukrainize everyone as much as possible according to this or that regional model.”

Of course, many in Ukraine today see the military upheavals as a chance to change the country, to unite the nation, to mend the regional, national, cultural, religious and linguistic splits, and to overcome the corruption and arbitrary rule of the oligarchs. On the very front lines, it is the Russian-speaking citizens of the Southeast, for many years considered second-class Ukrainians, who are now making the most important contribution to the defense of the state. It is they who make up the bulk of Territorial Defense Forces and also a significant part of the military fighting on the front lines. Hope is also found in the nightly speeches of the politician and military man Oleksiy Arestovich, who has already become an internet star both in Ukraine and in Russia due to his calm, honest analysis, and to his chivalrous attitude towards the enemy. But not all Ukrainian politicians think the same way. Judging by the fact that threats have already been directed against the same Arestovich not only from Russian state propagandists, but also from his more nationalist-minded countrymen, the struggle is already beginning in Ukrainian society over what the state will become after the war.

It should be noted that, in 2014, dissatisfaction with Kyiv’s policy in the Donbass and Crimea was by no means only the result of “Russian propaganda”, but also of two decades of policy that did not take into account the interests of these regions. And now, on the wave of military successes, more and more Ukrainian politicians are calling for the return of these lands (including Crimea) by force, once again without consideration for the opinion of those people living there. This leads us to believe that the tragedy happening before our eyes has not yet reached the point at which it might inspire reforms to both society and state. In this case, Ukraine runs the risk of winning the war but losing the peace.

Radical democratic changes are needed not only in Russia, but also in Ukraine. It is quite possible that after the end of the war we two countries will have to walk this path together, unlikely though it may seem now, against the present backdrop of hostility and bloodshed.