Letters from Ukraine: Part 2

by andrew

Can you briefly describe how the situation has evolved since our interview last week? What have you observed that is new?

As the Russian advance stalled all across northeastern Ukraine, a few things became certain. The Ukrainian government is going to rely on volunteers to help the refugees still inside the country, and the lack of accommodations isn’t just due to the surprise of the invasion. With Zelenskyy declaring that a country-wide referendum would decide the fate of Crimea and Donbas, and an intensification of efforts to build an image of a successful war, the possibilities of peace settlement look even bleaker. Russian forces have halted their attempts to take the Ukrainian cities, instead opting for cutting off communications and encircling them. Block-by-block fights in Mariupol are an exception, where horrifying destruction and incalculable civilian deaths, alongside the non-stop shelling in the Kharkiv and Kyiv regions, show the price of a war of attrition.

Putin’s government appears to want to re-establish an imperial vision of Russia’s role and has been trying for a decade to set itself up as a regional gendarme. In your opinion, to what extent are the recent events part of a broader Russian policy towards the countries of the former Soviet zone of influence?

I don’t think there’s been much of a “re-establishment” of Russian imperialism: it has continued along the same vectors, although, of course, with Russia having lost the position of the main Cold War enemy of the West. Rather than seeing the collapse of the USSR as a radical break both economically and politically, I think there has been a surprising continuity. Soviet republics have not only split off from the borders set by the USSR but have maintained their structure, together with their Soviet minority policies. Thus, disputes related to minority languages and political autonomy, previously routed through the central party apparatus (which has often delegated their resolution back to “titular” nationalities), have now lost their mediator and, if the minority in question had a separate state, burst into open war. Once we see the breakup of the USSR as a result of the slow development of existing lines of division, internal to the structure of the union, the lack of “revolutionary” change or nationalist outburst in post-Soviet states is no longer surprising. Autonomy at the level of state and party structures has been mirrored in a growing independence at the level of the enterprise, as each became more and more dependent on the market. Enterprises and forms of exploitation slowly adapted to the rapid change of global structures, with dissent first passing through established Soviet bureaucratic channels and later moving to the streets with the growth of surplus populations, as enterprises threw off labour reserves to reduce production costs.

We are seeing two forms of Russian imperialism in the region. In Belarus and Kazakhstan, for example, Russia has maintained friendly relations with the ruling class, and the police and armed forces can directly conduct counterinsurgency campaigns in the entire region. Russia shows a slightly different face in Ukraine and Georgia, with the former’s inability to find a peaceful settlement with Russia spelling the definite end of the union project and both moving out of the zone of Russian influence since then. Not wanting to lose closely-integrated states whose unity with the new Russian Federation became a key issue for its developing nationalism, it has engaged in open warfare against both countries. Further exacerbating the issue and serving as an excuse for the invasion was the fear that Ukrainian uprisings might translate to unrest at the core. The Russian oligarchy, relying on the state for its monopolies on raw material extraction and energy industries, naturally gravitates towards exploiting the closely-knit post-Soviet region, which must shave off its profits to acquire necessary supplies. Thus, what’s at stake for the Russian ruling class is the indivisible goal of political-militaristic domination and an establishment of a rent-extracting empire.

Sadly, some anti-imperial analyses end here, with Russia seen as the threat to Western freedom. But we shouldn’t let the US off the hook either: without reducing liberalizations of the 90s to the actions of individual politicians, it is clear that it directly contributed to the collapse of the standard of living in every single post-Soviet state and to the region becoming a breeding ground of reactionary politics. The US also contributed to the rise of tensions before the invasion and enjoys having one more excuse to ramp up military budgets. History shows that profit-making has often defied skull-measuring narratives of ‘oriental’ and inherently anti-Western Russia. It is enough to remember France and Britain happily fighting alongside an autocratic Russia in WWI, sending the Russian expeditionary forces to camps once they started forming soldier committees after hearing about the Revolution, with France disappointed there wasn’t a strong Russia afterwards to support the division of Germany. The US didn’t pursue its policy of national self-determination when it came to the Russian Empire, hoping to cooperate with the Bolsheviks, and in more recent history, supported Gorbachev up until the demise of the USSR became certain.

After almost a month of war, what is the relationship between the Ukrainian government and the nationalist factions?

It is clear that Zelenskyy’s government, despite all the talk of “pro-Russian” leanings throughout his presidency, is trying to navigate the dangerous waters of peace talks carefully. Although nationalists and nazis aren’t in charge of the Ukrainian state and have never enjoyed sizable political support, they have established themselves firmly in the regular army and various militias. With the Russian invasion as the greatest populariser of Ukrainian nationalism and new weapons flowing in, militias’ leaders might be willing to test their power if Zelenskyy ever flinches.

The relation of nationalism to the Ukrainian state is more complex, though. Like any nation-state, it tries to reconcile contradictory historical narratives and project all opposition onto the plane of democracy, depoliticising it. This ends up collapsing any historical difference into a story of a united nation that’s finally liberated from the eternal Russian Empire, without any questioning of the radicality of the transition out of it. Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Simon Petliura, and Stepan Bandera1 thus coexist with the image of Ukrainians liberating the concentration camps. Defending only the liberal side of this state is impossible, for its maintenance will necessitate fascist violence whenever order is threatened. To strengthen national unity, democracy will have to be suspended and parties banned. A stagnating economy calls forth parodic violence, and sadism gets mixed in: looters are undressed and taped to telephone poles. Since a nation’s health is at stake, labour rights can be limited, and language is enough to make you a suspect. Against nationalist history, our historical method is not one of empathy. Constructing monuments for the oppressed does not mark the end of the state. Neither are we driven by curiosity or a search for parallels. The only parallel between us and the people buried and forgotten by the state is that we are still fighting for the world to come, against the world that is. Any social movement challenging it will have to explode the contradictions propelling Ukrainian civil society forward.

What could be the means of a politics that refuses Russian authoritarianism as much as the dictatorship of the economy coming from the West? In the years to come, would this be a position that could be heard in Ukraine and shared en masse?

Without abandoning a “no war but class war” position, it might still be hard to envision a larger strategy beyond the immediate relief efforts. The situation we are facing right now is highly complex, and an almost complete absence of revolutionary solidarity networks in Ukraine greatly reduces the number of options on the ground: sometimes volunteering to fight might be a safer option than continuing to hide out. Therefore I appreciate comrades sharing their debates on this issue and collectives understanding the importance of real actions of solidarity.

In formulating a coherent strategy, one might be tempted to postpone social struggle to more peaceful times. Indeed, quite a lot depends on the result of this war, and it’s still hard to predict whether Ukraine has a possibility of becoming a “neutral” state or if we are only at the beginning of a long war of attrition. It’s increasingly clear that the war’s consequences are going to be international, with the Global South set to suffer another major blow to its food security two years after the Covid-19 shock. However, we should not succumb to a peace-war binary that, in the end, only serves to defend governments’ declaration of the state of emergency. The protracted Donbass war being used to justify lack of action against reactionary violence back home and the Ukrainian state being able to suppress any dissent by simply declaring it to be “pro-Russian” have once again proven this. We can’t wait for an appropriately democratic, stable capitalism, we should adapt to the catastrophe and seek ways to expand the possibilities of its non-reproduction here and now.

Beyond just accepting and settling refugees, we should be building long-term solidarity structures to prepare for the food and climate crisis. We have to oppose the militarization of the Global North, perfectly aware that these weapons are going to rain down on refugees so “different,” so “alien” to our civilization. However, sabotaging heavily guarded weapons shipments to Ukraine might not be the best way to undermine the Ukrainian defences and the army's popularity. We should support mass desertions and mutiny on both sides as the only realistic way to stop conscriptions and break the atomicity of draft evasion. We should counter the image of a successful campaign that Ukraine is constructing: this war is unwinnable, and every minute of denying it kills more and more people. Patriotic proclamations do not help the newly drafted soldiers, nor do they help the people that can’t evacuate from the slowly encircled and shelled cities, which, authorities assure, “are never going to fall.” A historical example of the Deutsche Vaterlandspartei suffices to prove that, as long as there exists a chance of winning the war, reactionary forces will mobilise for its continuation.2

We can’t continue analysing the situation just by looking at symbols and slogans, seeing fascism only when it is wearing a swastika and praising militias with black flags. In the former case, some might be motivated by an inability to see fascism as a necessary component of liberal governing techniques, in the latter, by a desire for a pure revolutionary subject. An already-conscious subject can’t form, as much as some might try to circumvent the problem of composition by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah in a demandless struggle, while others still hope for a red democratic hegemony. We should confront our weakness head-on – conscious revolutionaries are just a drop in the ocean of any uprising – and see that it becomes our strength during the insurrection.

Instead of celebrating the formation of a “revolutionary” self-defence sotnia3 in a modern-day re-enactment of Zaporozhian Sich during another Maidan, we should question the fetishism of militancy amongst our comrades. Forming a masculine street gang centred on the myth of violence is not the only way to combat fascism, and fighting in the regular army is definitely not the way to defeat the state. We should oppose anyone trying to turn an insurrection into a “serious” affair and those who perpetuate property and gender divisions in the unsafety of a square occupation. So as not to blindly support movements that present themselves as “anti-political,” we must distinguish the uses to which different tactics are put, because barricades, Molotov cocktails, and occupations aren’t revolutionary in and of themselves. Trying to “convert” reactionary movements and reclaiming nationalist narratives doesn’t help the cause. Whereas Ukrainian cossacks have left their wives and families back home to join a democratic mercenary state, we are interested in constructing universalist communities that fight against the divisions of the present. The success of an anti-war movement in Ukraine depends on our ability to escape the nationalist traps of organisation and to withstand the inevitable repression.

Originally published by Tous Dehors 25/03/2022