onderwerpen: voorgeschiedenis; maidan 2013-2014; situatie in oost Oekraïne, oekraïns en russisch optreden; russische narratief; russische vs EU / NAVO oriëntatie Oekraïne
A Ukrainian socialist explains why the Russian invasion shouldn’t have been a surprise
Jana Tsoneva – An interview with Volodymyr Artiukh | Jacobin 9 maart 2022
Vladimir Putin uses the language of “demilitarization” to pursue an aggressive imperial policy against Ukraine. In an interview for Jacobin, a Ukrainian socialist explains the falseness of the Kremlin’s pretexts — and why the war could drag on for years.
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 specializing in labor 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.
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 favor 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 capitalize 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 terrorizes Russian speakers. All these ideological elements are present now as Putin’s justification of the invasion: denazification, demilitarization, decommunization.
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 mobilization, 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 mobilized 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 honor these agreements?
VA: Neither side honored 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 polarized; there was no majority in favor of either Russian or EU integration, much less in favor 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 capitalized on by the oligarchs, also for electoral ends.
So, the Maidan uprising was quickly hijacked by one of these fractions to streamline the popular discontent into this pro-EU pro-NATO straitjacket. A whole stratum of self-organized volunteers, paramilitary groups, NGOs, political adventurers, and intellectuals emerged after Maidan, who combined nationalism, neofascism, economic liberalism, and “Occidentalism” — a loose idea of the Western civilization. This was amplified by Western soft power and a network of NGOs — the familiar story.
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 But he also constitutionalized the new geopolitical orientation of Ukraine.
VA: Yes, a year into his tenure as a president, he changed direction. Initially he was accused of being pro-Russian, accused of preparing to capitulate to Russia. But as essentially every president of Ukraine does, he tried to concentrate as much power as he could. He had to defeat his nationalist enemies, attract their constituency, and became this Napoleonic figure that balanced the Right and Left, pro-Russians and pro-Europeans, and at one of the turns he got stuck in the pro-Western nationalist corner. And at this point, everything collapsed.
JT And now the war has only radicalized this position?
VA: Yes, the war changed everything.