Zakhar Popovich (Social Movement, Ukraine): A year after invasion, 'Ukraine needs allies, not talk of neutrality'

SM interview

A year ago, Russia launched an aggressive full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is an event that millions of people in both countries still find hard to accept. Most Russians are still trying to distance themselves from what is happening and maintain the illusion of “normality,” despite hundreds of thousands of people having already lost their lives. For Ukrainians, residents of Kyiv and Kharkiv, Odesa and Dnipro, the war has become a terrible reality impossible to forget for even a moment. The editorial collective of Posle is convinced that only an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukraine and a radical change in the political regime within Russia can bring a proper end to this ongoing crime. Obviously, such a change is only possible when Russian society realizes the tremendous suffering that the Russian state has brought to Ukraine. A year after the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine, we are publishing an interview with Zakhar Popovich, a member of Sotsyalnyi Rukh, a Ukrainian leftist organization.

On the eve of February 24, how would you assess the results of the criminal war that Russia unleashed on Ukrainian society? 

The immediate and undeniable result is probably a mass epiphany about modern Russia. Putin has proved to us that there can be no discussions with him. He has convinced us that today’s Russia is a cynical imperialist predator that will not hesitate to kill millions to maintain its power and influence and that all the talk about “brotherly peoples” is only there to justify this murder and violence. 

In practice, Putin’s regime has proven that it is indeed a terrorist regime and must be destroyed. Security and democracy in Ukraine, Europe, and Russia are impossible without this regime’s destruction. Indeed, the Putinists are willing to kill millions of people, including their fellow citizens, to retain power. Their goal seems to be to prevent the democratization of society at any cost, to stop people from determining how they want to live. It is precisely this principle that Ukrainians will never accept. I hope that despite its state of martial law, Ukraine will maintain its utter rejection of authoritarian dictatorship, which, in my opinion, is the basis of Ukrainian patriotism and unity in resistance to Russian aggression today.

Do you think an end to hostilities is possible soon? What is necessary for this to happen?

Ending Russian aggression is a precondition for any peace talks. If the Russian bombings and offensive don’t stop, it is ridiculous to even talk about it. Of course, we need a just and democratic peace. We need public discussion and negotiations about peace. However, as we can see now until the Russian army is destroyed, the Russian authorities are unlikely to realize the necessity of these negotiations. Of course, people must decide how they want to live, which is why Russian troops must leave Ukrainian territory. Only then, after the return of those who were forced to leave the country, would it be possible to talk about beginning peaceful, democratic processes, holding local elections and referendums under the supervision of the OSCE and other international observers. If Russia were ready to discuss withdrawing its troops and deploying international peacekeeping forces in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine and Crimea, such negotiations would make sense. And the sooner the Russian authorities start withdrawing troops, the more lives will be saved, and the less horrible the consequences of the war will be. It is hard to imagine anything worse than what is happening now, but the bloodiest part of the war is likely yet to come. What the Russian government is saying now only convinces Ukrainians once again that there is nothing to talk about with this government.

How have the activities of your movement changed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion? 

Sotsyalnyi Rukh [Social Movement in Ukrainian] has changed along with our country. It became clear that multiple disagreements among the left were insignificant. At the same time, especially after Bucha, it became impossible to tolerate abstract pacifism, idiotic sectarian ideas about completely decentralized resistance to the aggressor, a transition to guerrilla warfare, or rumors that it might be better not to resist the aggressor to avoid casualties. We do not accept this kind of pacifism, and we consider the ideas of exclusively grassroots and decentralized resistance to the aggressor harmful under present conditions. Only the centralized Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) can prevent the complete occupation of Ukraine by the armed forces of the Russian Federation. And as long as we can prevent the country from descending into the chaos of a guerrilla war, we need to support the AFU’s centralized and coordinated efforts at the national level. It is the preservation of the Ukrainian state and its democratic institutions that guarantees the existence and democratic development of grassroots self-organization.

Before the full-scale invasion began, we naively believed there was a chance for peace negotiations. We called for a complete ceasefire, troop disengagement, and the introduction of a UN peacekeeping delegation. 

On February 24, 2022, it became clear that the only way to peace and justice was through the military defeat of the Russian army, and all efforts should now be focused on supporting AFU to defeat it on the battlefield. Sotsyalnyi Rukh now focuses both on the direct support of armed resistance to Russian aggression and ensuring social justice and the sustainability of the home front. Many of our comrades are fighting in AFU, and we help them and other activists with necessary equipment as much as we can. On the home front, we help workers protect their labor rights when unscrupulous employers illegally fire or underpay them. We fight, and often successfully, against the harmful legislative initiatives of neoliberal and conservative right-wing idiots aimed at deregulating the economy and splitting Ukrainian society.

Since the beginning of the war, Sotsіalniy Rukh has been conducting awareness-raising campaigns among the European Left, which could not arrive at a sober assessment of the Russian aggression and its imperialist nature because they fell prey to the campist logic of “the enemy of NATO is our friend.” Did you succeed in changing the opinions of the left?

Unfortunately, sometimes it seems that the left in Europe and the U.S. has almost died out. There is hope that a new left will gradually emerge, but the immediate outlook is rather negative. With rampant supremacism, i.e., a sense of superiority and chauvinism among many Western leftists, the chances of real international solidarity are close to zero. It is not even a question of Ukraine itself but of their complete unwillingness to see the peoples of other countries as equal partners with whom they are ready to fight together as equals for socialism worldwide. It turned out that in the minds of many German leftists, not only Ukrainians but also most nations of Eastern Europe simply do not have any agency. These people only think in terms of big countries. These include Russia, the United States, China, Germany, France, Britain, India, and Brazil (plus a couple of other big players, the list of which may vary). The remaining hundreds of countries and billions of people act solely as objects of inter-imperialist games. For the typical German left, nations with no imperialist ambitions lack subjectivity: they can be objects of pity and sympathy, like the long-suffering Palestinians. Still, they should have no illusion that anything depends on them and that they can decide for themselves what happens to them. This is why Palestinians and Syrians often have a much better understanding of what is happening in Ukraine than Germans. And that is why some Germans are so annoyed with Ukraine, which was supposed to disappear from the face of the earth “in three days” but instead has been demonstrating for a year how much these leftists overestimated the capabilities of Putin’s Russia. Without a change in this paradigm based on this sense of superiority, the left in Europe, and especially in Germany, will continue to lose credibility and support at home and opportunities to develop international socialist politics globally.

Socialist politics implies that people can decide on their future themselves, that a democratic and socially just world is possible, and that the future of humanity does not lie in maintaining a balance between the imperialists but in overcoming the imperialist system of capital as a whole. This overcoming is only possible if the proletariat of all countries—not only the imperialist, but especially peripheral and semi-peripheral ones—unite and lead the international socialist movement. The current thinking and rhetoric of many German (and Western) leftists simply leave no room for such an alliance. Of course, this does not apply to everyone. Many people are trying to make sense of what is going on. That is why we continue to explain what Ukrainian workers think and want to comrades abroad. Comrades often have to speak before unfriendly audiences and are confronted with hideous examples of chauvinism and disregard for the struggles of the Ukrainian people. All this is emotionally exhausting, but we continue our efforts to the best of our ability, and we are sure that this campaign will yet bear fruit.

There are already socialist campaigns of solidarity with Ukraine in many European and American countries. Together with the socialists of these countries, we are mobilizing support for Ukraine and establishing contacts that, we hope will help revive the international socialist movement after the war.

Earlier this year, Europe and the United States decided to send tanks and other weapons to Ukraine. How do you view this move? What is your response to the criticism of militarization coming from within the supplier countries and to concerns about rearmament and the strengthening of NATO?

The supply of tanks, of course, means preparing for a new escalation of hostilities. We are well aware of that. Unfortunately, until the Russian army stops its aggression, the alternative to escalation can only be the more or less rapid destruction of Ukraine by the Russian aggressor. Right now, for Ukraine, that means mass deaths, primarily of civilians. Suppose the Ukrainians do not have the weapons to defend themselves. In that case, the Russian invaders will immediately take advantage of this situation and carry out another bloodbath similar to what we saw in Bucha, Izyum, and other places. At this time, we support the supply of all kinds of weapons to Ukraine and call on everyone to provide as much military assistance to Ukraine as possible, including air defense systems, tanks, aircraft, and more support in training Ukrainian soldiers to use new types of military equipment. We specifically call for increased and accelerated ammunition supplies, indispensable for our comrades at the front to resist the Russian onslaught.

Ukraine has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to use its armed forces outside its territory: the weapons sent to Ukraine do not threaten civilians in Russia or other countries. These weapons are and will be used only against an armed aggressor who has invaded the territory of our country. I beg your pardon, but liberating Russia from Putin’s criminal regime is not a task for the AFU but for the Russians themselves. We can only hope that defeating Putin’s invading army will help Russians deal with Putin himself.

We are not fans of NATO, this bloc has shown itself in a bad light many times, but now we are ready to accept military assistance against Russian aggression from anyone. Moreover, thanks to Putin’s policies, the majority of Ukrainians now consider NATO the only international organization whose membership can potentially guarantee our country’s security. I want Ukraine to remain a strong non-aligned country. Still, we can only start talking about neutral and non-aligned status when the direct and immediate Russian military threat has been eliminated and the Russian war machine on our eastern borders has been dismantled. What Ukraine needs now is allies, not talk of neutrality.

What is your assessment of the Russian opposition? Do you see any prospects for the anti-war movement a year later?

I can’t say that I follow the Russian opposition closely, but now I can say that it has seen better days. It seems that in Russia it is possible to publicly criticize the regime only for its ineffective military campaign and for not killing Ukrainians vigorously enough. It seems like the liberal, anti-Putin opposition does not voice chauvinistic slogans only out of politeness and political correctness. At least for the moment, there is no certainty that they have rethought Russia’s imperial past or overcome its colonial attitude toward its neighbors. In my view, the real alternative to Putin’s regime would be a mass leftist proletarian opposition since it is the poorest and least socially protected Russians that Putin’s regime is sending to die en masse in Ukraine. According to some estimates, more than 200,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed and maimed in Ukraine to preserve Putin’s regime. I hope that ordinary Russians will soon realize who their main mortal enemy is and find a solution that will rid us of Putin and his henchmen. The sooner they do, the fewer casualties there will be in this war, and the closer a stable and just peace will be. Unfortunately, so far this is only wishful thinking, and the only real force and anti-war movement capable of stopping Putin are the Armed Forces of Ukraine.