A Socialist Perspective

Why the Russian Invasion Shouldn’t Have Been a Surprise

[The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a crime and a human tragedy. There are already some 2 million refugees, as bombs and missiles rain down on cities around Ukraine. Early setbacks for the invading forces have often fed the idea that Vladimir Putin’s actions have backfired. Yet Ukrainians face the prospect of a long and drawn-out war, with no end in sight even despite their stiff military resistance.

Volodymyr Artiukh is a Ukrainian anthropologist specialising in labour and migration in the post-Soviet space. Jana Tsoneva asked him about Putin’s imperial agenda, the last eight years of war, and what hopes exist of a viable peace process. Excerpts:]

JT: How is the war related to the post-2014 outbreak of civil war?

VA: Briefly, the Maidan protests of 2013–14, Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, and support of the uprising in Donbas led to a change in the geo-economic and geopolitical orientation of Ukraine. Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union, changed its cultural and political orientation in favour of Euro-Atlantic structures, and abandoned the idea of integration with the Russian project of an economic and political union. Russia reacted to this by consolidating an anti-Western narrative.

The Crimea annexation, which was largely bloodless, led to a boost in Putin’s domestic popularity. Then, he hoped to capitalise on the uprising in Donbas, which was an uprising against the change of government in Kiev. This uprising was construed as self-defense of the “Russian world” against Western-supported Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine was increasingly represented as a failed state with an illegitimate Western-controlled government that terrorises Russian speakers. All these ideological elements are present now as Putin’s justification of the invasion: denazification, demilitarisation and decommunisation.

JT: Did the new government in Kiev do something to them to trigger this uprising in the East?

VA: This was a revolt that started essentially in a similar way to the Maidan—as a grassroots mobilisa-tion, with barricades and takeover of local governments in several eastern cities. Initially it was a purely negative phenomenon—against something rather than for something. But soon, guys with a particular mix of the Russian-imperialist ideology and Soviet nostalgia—hoping for a union with Russia and inspired by the annexation of Crimea—took over this local uprising.

Their idea was to spread the uprising to the rest of south-eastern Ukraine, which they called Novorossiya, referring to the time of the Russian Empire. Russia eventually integrated these semi-independent warlords into the Russian security apparatus. This led to an attempt of the Kiev government to take back Donbas in summer 2014 with the so-called anti-terrorist operation.

It was a war waged against the rebels, who were already quite pro-Russian and fought for an independence from Ukraine and for integration with Russia. Eventually Russian troops entered there on several occasions in 2014 and 2015. These incursions led to very significant defeats of the Ukrainian army with significant loss of life and equipment, which forced the Ukrainian government to sign the Minsk agreements.

Eventually, the spread of the uprising to Ukraine more widely faltered—but it was still mobilised by Russia to redirect the Ukrainian government as a whole, to use the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” as a leverage against Kiev’s pro-Western orientation. The Minsk agreements were essentially a diplomatic expression of the Russian military superiority; Russian military victory was translated into this diplomatic document. These agreements basically complemented the fighting rather than stopping it.

JT: Did the Ukrainian government honour these agreements?

VA: Neither side honoured them—the divergence of interpretations emerged almost instantly. The agreements were not meant, in hindsight, to stop the war but to contain the military action, to dampen the contradictory interests of Ukrainian and Russian elites, to contain the military action so that the parties could regroup and prepare for the next round of fighting.

So, the ceasefire, which was only one part of the agreements, ebbed and flowed. At times, there was almost a full-fledged war; at times almost a real ceasefire, for example for almost half a year since summer 2020. The rhythm of the military action accompanied political negotiations. Ultimately these agreements were just a diplomatic break on the war, not its negation.

JT: Volodymyr Ishchenko writes that only 20 percent of Ukrainians approved of joining NATO in 2007, doubling to 40 percent after the Crimea annexation, but still not the majority. So, what precipitated the geopolitical shift around 2013 and Maidan?

VA: It’s true that prior to the Maidan of 2013, Ukrainian society was quite polarised; there was no majority in favour of either Russian or EU integration, much less in favour of NATO. The cause of the Maidan uprising was internal rather than geopolitical; it started as a popular uprising against an extremely corrupt and authoritarian regime, but eventually these contradictions of Ukrainian society were capitalised on by the oligarchs, also for electoral ends.

The Maidan uprising was quickly hijacked to streamline the popular discontent into this pro-EU pro-NATO straitjacket.

So, the more the conflict progressed along these lines—with Russia also playing its role in amplifying this conflict with its own imperialist ideology—people’s perception was increasingly put in these very narrow confines: either the West or Russia.

Nevertheless, there was still a silent majority in whose common sense these questions were rather superficial. For them, these were not the major concerns, but they didn’t have another way of speaking of their problems publicly. This majority elected Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019. He promised to end the war, to not press the issues of identity and language. He appealed to the good sense of the majority while glossing over these divisive issues.

JT: What was NATO’s role?

VA: Look, there are Russia-NATO relations that stretch back to 1991 and back to the Soviet-NATO confrontation. This is one level. But it is better to separate this from a second layer which is Ukraine-Russia-NATO. One can’t reduce the one thing to the other.

JT: Ukrainian NATO membership wasn’t really on the table, right?

VA: Yes. And in the recent diplomatic talks, before the war, Joe Biden was willing to entertain the possibility for a moratorium on Ukrainian NATO membership. He stressed that NATO would not be involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Among other powerful Western powers, such as France and Germany, nobody seriously considered Ukraine joining.

JT: Did Russia use NATO’s expansion as a fig leaf then?

VA: Definitely. Take, for example, the ultimatum which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued back in December about rolling back NATO’s border to the pre-1997 period. The call to decide literally the next day meant that no one could see this as a good faith negotiation. The idea of going to war in Ukraine, one way or another, was already there and they needed the war itself as a negotiating mechanism. They wanted to use war as a way of getting information from the West, like, what is the highest level of escalation that the West can afford? How far can Russia go?

JT: When the invasion happened on February 24, you wrote that you had seen it coming. How did you do so?

VA: The process that led to the war was already visible in the first war scare of April 2021, when the first Putin-Biden meeting happened after Russia piled up troops on the border with Ukraine. Back then, everyone expected a war to happen at that point.

But instead, Putin and Biden started talks on strategic stability and Putin made some claims regarding Ukraine, especially about the Minsk agreements. Nominally the troops were withdrawn from the borders after this meeting, but everyone knew that a substantial number remained. However, immediately after that Putin talked about the red lines, the asymmetric response if the lines are crossed; then he wrote his Ukraine article, which was essentially an ultimatum directed at Zelensky. This article was the draft of his war declaration speech that people saw in two parts over February 22 and February 24. It was probably recorded in one go.

Only wishful thinkers assumed that Putin would still want to go ahead with the Minsk process.

JT: The West reacted to the war with sanctions which the media called unprecedented. Do you think the sanctions are going to stop Putin or will there be a world war?

VA: The sanctions will not stop the war. Only tanks and guns can stop tanks and guns.

JT: How about the antiwar movement in Russia? Is there any hope that Russians themselves will take down the regime and put an end to the war?

VA: No. The majority of the population in one way or another support the war. That’s clear now.

[Volodymyr Artiukh, PhD, is a Ukrainian anthropologist specializing in labor and migration in the post-Soviet space.
Jana Tsoneva is an assistant professor of sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She works in the fields of political sociology and the sociology of labor and is a member of the Collective for Social Interventions, Sofia.]
(Source: Jacobin)

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Vol 54, No. 39, March 27 - April 2, 2022