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The tragedy of the war in Ukraine: a reply to Kagarlitsky

Even if Ukraine were in some sense to win the war, what sort of sovereignty would the Ukrainian people possess?

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Ukrainian artillery near Bakhmut. Photo by Wojciech Grzedzinski.

The following article is a response to “The tragedy of war” by Boris Kagarlitsky, published in Canadian Dimension on March 21, 2023.

On March 1, 2023 Canadian Dimension published a remarkably shallow analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although one that resonates even with some sections of the Western left. The article’s subheading describes the author, Boris Kagarlitsky, as a “clear-eyed veteran Russian leftist dissident [who] offers a courageous and politically indispensable take on the Russia-Ukraine war.” Boris is, indeed, a long-standing and courageous left-wing dissident. That makes his simple-minded overview, apparently endorsed by CD, all the more distressing.

To be clear, we would like to think that even people on the left who agree with Kagarlitsky’s political conclusion—that Kyiv, with continued NATO support, should pursue the war and reject diplomacy until future military gains allow a more acceptable outcome—would be embarrassed by the superficiality of the argument.

He argues, in essence, that Putin decided to invade as a response to a growing domestic challenge to his regime, one rooted in a declining economic situation and in rumours of the leader’s failing health. Under this claimed rise in popular discontent—for which no significant signs are adduced—Putin and the ruling élite have sought a magic solution in a “small victorious war” (the formula of the last Tsar’s Minister of Internal Affairs, von Plehve, who proposed war with Japan in 1904 as the answer to growing popular unrest).

Though Kagarlitsky cannot completely ignore the existence of geopolitical issues that might have been of some concern to Putin, including domestic developments within Ukraine itself, these are cavalierly dismissed as irrelevant to an understanding of the war. As for the war’s outcome, along with some NATO leaders, he projects Russia’s defeat. And in Kagarlitsky’s analysis, this defeat will open the door to progressive change in Russia.

Precious little evidence is offered to support this argument. In fact, there has been no significant rise in popular protest in Russia in recent years. The regime disposed of Navalny, the main opposition figure, without much difficulty. And there has been no noticeable upsurge in labour unrest (unlike Macron’s pension reform, Putin’s, despite some public protest, never faced serious challenge).

It is true that Putin’s approval rating in domestic opinion polls (which Western media regularly cite as very approximate indicators of his support) has risen since the war began. But it already stood at 65-70 percent in the months before the invasion. This hardly indicates mass discontent of an extent that would justify the risk of invading Ukraine (meanwhile, Biden’s rating has fallen to majority disapproval. Could that play some role in his refusal to consider any diplomatic halt to the war?).

Kagarlitsky writes that “Putin’s entourage and propaganda efforts don’t even try to conceal the aim of eliminating the Ukrainian nation, not only politically but also physically.” At a minimum, this would appear to contradict Kagarlitsky’s earlier claim that Putin aimed at “a small victorious war,” certainly not the destruction of the Ukrainian people and state, since even in the most optimistic Kremlin estimate that would clearly require a major and prolonged military effort.

Kagarlitsky’s claim that Putin desires the elimination of Ukraine and of Ukrainians as a country and people is decisively refuted by historian Geoffry Robert’s careful study of Putin’s writing and speeches between 2017 and the invasion. Roberts convincingly shows that Putin’s overriding concern, repeatedly expressed, was Russian security. Speaking to the Russian Security Council in May 2021, nine months before the invasion, Putin decried that Ukraine, whose army was being equipped and trained by NATO, was “being turned, slowly but steadily, into an antipode of Russia, an anti-Russia, a territory from which, judging by all appearances, we will never stop receiving news that requires special attention in regard to protecting the national security of the Russian Federation.”

He termed this “highly regrettable” and continued:

As you are well aware, they are purging their political environment… Clearly politically-laden and selective decisions have one goal: to cleanse the political environment of forces that call for a peaceful settlement of the crisis in south-eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas, and for good-neighbourly relations with Russia. This is definitely an issue we must never lose sight of, an issue to which we must respond promptly and with due regard to the threats that are being created for us.

There is no hint here, or indeed anywhere in Putin’s speeches or writing, of a denial of the right of the Ukrainian state or people to exist, nor expression of scorn for Ukrainian culture or language. Nowhere can one find the expression of a desire to restore the Soviet Union or Russian empire or Soviet Union. In Putin’s one often-cited public utterance of regret of the latter’s demise—“Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart”—he was, in fact, lamenting the fact that so many ethnic and cultural Russians, scattered around the former Soviet Union, suddenly found themselves cut off from their motherland. But he added in the very next phrase: “Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”

Kagarlitsky’s article avoids three obvious issues.

For someone so concerned with sovereignty and democracy, he gives Crimea and Donbas short shrift. While he does lament Ukraine’s criminal treatment of its Russian-speaking minority, he has nothing to say about the long-standing war in the Donbas, which was, in fact, a civil war, with foreign intervention on both sides (we leave it to Kagarlitsky to explain his reported support for the annexation of Crimea back in 2014. That did, in fact, significantly boost Putin’s popular support).

He also fails to address the failed attempts, with Russia’s willing participation, to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict in Donbas—the Minsk accords—and Putin’s repeated urgings over the years that they be carried out. Or of the recent admission’s by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, who negotiated the accords, that they never intended them to produce a peaceful resolution of the conflict; they were only to buy time for NATO to arm and train the Ukrainian army so that Kyiv could achieve its later declared goal, enshrined in law, to retake militarily all of Donbas and Crimea.

For someone so concerned with sovereignty, it is striking that Kagarlitsky refuses to take seriously Putin’s often expressed, existential concern for Russian sovereignty in face of NATO expansion right up to Russia’s borders, this despite the US commitment not to expand NATO. A series of prominent American statesmen, including the present head of the CIA, predicted that Russia would react with profound hostility to NATO’s expansion. Could that not have played some role in the decision to invade?

And what of the US and NATO? Their responsibility for the outbreak and prolongation of the war escapes any mention. Russia, of course, did invade. But in the months leading up to the invasion Putin offered NATO and Ukraine a compromise that would have offered each side acceptable security guarantees. And Moscow had already accepted Ukraine’s economic choice to join the European Union and for its army to be trained and armed by NATO.

For all the high-minded NATO rhetoric about defending Ukrainian sovereignty, how much Ukrainian sovereignty had already been extinguished in 2014, when the US played an active role in the Maidan coup, this despite an agreement reached between the Ukrainian president and the opposition, sponsored by France and Germany, that would have allowed a peaceful resolution of the conflict through the formation of a coalition government and early presidential elections?

And surely it is worth at least a passing mention that prominent NATO figures have admitted, sometimes quite candidly, that Ukraine is fighting a proxy war for their states with the goal of “weakening” Russia—not of defending Ukraine’s sovereignty. And the peace negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv in March 2022 that were reported to be proceeding positively, until they were cut short by Washington’s and London’s interventions? Or the recent Chinese proposals for a ceasefire and negotiations, rejected out of hand—by Washington, not Kyiv!

How can one avoid asking what sort of Ukrainian sovereignty NATO is claiming to defend in urging the continuation of the war?

And even if Ukraine were in some sense to win the war—something Washington clearly does not believe possible, although Kagarlitsky apparently wishes this—what sort of sovereignty would the Ukrainian people, its working class, possess? What social forces would be dominant in this victorious Ukrainian state, where all opposition parties and media have been banned and whose reconstruction would depend entirely on American and European generosity?

As for the Russian state, Kagarlitsky apparently believes that its defeat would lead to its democratic regeneration, and perhaps even the rise of socialist forces.

This faith in possible imminent revolution is shared by some parts of the left outside of Russia. It clouds their analysis and perverts their politics. Continued war, they believe, will bring not only “justice,” but Putin’s defeat, and in its wake, progressive change—soon even socialism—in both Russia and Ukraine. Such wishful thinking is based on a fanciful assessment of the real correlation of class forces globally, and in Russia and Ukraine in particular.

These sections of the left lament the distant horrors of war suffered by others but they support, in fact, pursuit of war by NATO and Ukraine and—at least “for now”—the rejection of diplomacy. They blithely refuse to face reality (obvious to all except mainstream, pro-NATO media and some of its politicians) while others just don’t care, since their professed goal is to weaken Russia, and to hell with the people of Ukraine—that there is no sense in which Kyiv can win this war, or even fight itself into a better bargaining position.

We are witnessing an historic disgrace of these alleged fighters for sanity, justice, and socialism.

David Mandel is the author of The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution, February 1917-June 1918 (Haymarket, 2018). He is a professor of political science at Université du Québec à Montréal and a long-time socialist and trade union activist in Canada.

Sam Gindin was research director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974–2000. He is co-author (with Leo Panitch) of The Making of Global Capitalism (Verso), and co-author with Leo Panitch and Steve Maher of The Socialist Challenge Today, the expanded and updated American edition (Haymarket).

It is shocking to read the false claim in the article by Mandel and Gindin that “There is no hint here, or indeed anywhere in Putin’s speeches or writing, of a denial of the right of the Ukrainian state or people to exist, nor expression of scorn for Ukrainian culture or language.” CD readers should note the following lines from a 2022 joint statement by the Russian Socialist Movement and the Ukrainian socialist group Social Movement:

After 2012, Putin and his establishment moved from a civic concept of the nation (as rossiysky, “related to Russia”) to an exclusive, ethnically based concept of Russianness (as russkiy, “ethnically/culturally Russian”). His aggression in 2014 and in 2022 was legitimized by the return of “originally” Russian lands. Moreover, this concept of (ethnic) “Russianness” revives the nineteenth-century imperial concept of the Russian nation, which reduces Ukrainian and Belarusian identity to regional identities. According to this view, Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians are a single people. Employing this concept in official rhetoric implies the negation of independent Ukrainian statehood. That is why we cannot say with any degree of certainty that Putin only wants the recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea and the Donbas. Putin may desire to either annex or subdue the whole of Ukraine, threats which appear in his article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and in his speech on February 21, 2022.

More broadly, Mandel and Gindin’s analysis of the war in their reply to Kagarlitsky (whose analysis is not above criticism) amounts to an apology for Russian imperialism. It’s not a defensible socialist alternative to the outlook of Western imperialist ruling classes that dominates the mainstream media.

—David Camfield, April 5, 2023


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