Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine one year ago today hoping to capture it in a few days — then spent the last year turning its southeast into a bloodbath. Even if the current military stalemate is broken, the divides created by the war won’t heal soon.
Two Ukrainian men visit the grave of a Ukrainian soldier at the cemetery of fallen soldiers in Kharkiv, Ukraine on February 20, 2023. (Andres Gutierrez / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
War is bad. Almost every single human being agrees with this general principle. Aside from a handful of absolute pacifists, everyone also agrees that there are exceptions to this rule. If war is bad, defensive war is surely a regrettable necessity; if oppression is bad, revolutionary wars of liberation are practically obligatory. But if defensive wars are universally regarded as legitimate, it is practically impossible to find an aggressive interstate war that has not been presented as defensive in some form. Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war against Poland cited its refusal to accept a peaceful settlement, even as the bullets were flying. It can easily be understood that Hitler was not really trying for peace.
A claim of preventive war, like that employed by Japan in its 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, by the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq, or Russia in its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, is one way of avoiding this problem. Any aggression can be justified by the claim that it was launched to forestall a future act of aggression by the target; if the war is successful, the aggressor can claim the preventive war worked; if not, defeat retrospectively confirms the need for a preemptive strike. Preventive war has a bad reputation, for obvious reasons, but it is easy to imagine circumstances in which it may be justified: the use of this argument by a Native American calling for an uprising to drive out settlers before they have the chance to exterminate the local population is easier to credit than its use by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Another type of war that falls into a similar gray area is proxy war, or other conflicts in which one or both sides are supported by allies who keep their own hands relatively clean. After all, shipping a few containers is hardly an act of violence, yet facilitating a war effort by a country that would otherwise be quickly defeated tends to extend and intensify a conflict. For instance, the United States supplied weapons to anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan, which undoubtedly had the effect of deepening and prolonging the conflict, even if not necessarily determining its final outcome.
Yet other examples are less straightforward. Were the Soviet Union and China not right to supply North Vietnam, which played a significant role in preventing its defeat by the United States and its South Vietnamese proxy? Was the United States not right to supply the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program in World War II, which was vital for sustaining its war effort? After all, this support ultimately enabled it to defeat Nazi Germany, to occupy Eastern Europe, and to draw the borders of modern Ukraine largely at the expense of occupied Poland (which itself received territorial compensation to the detriment of occupied Germany).
There is no way to derive a position on the Russian war in Ukraine from socialist first principles, including from putatively ‘antiwar’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ commitments.
I make these apparently obvious generalizations in order to make one point clear. There is no way to derive a position on the Russian war in Ukraine from socialist first principles, including from putatively “antiwar” or “anti-imperialist” commitments. Every actor involved claims to be acting based on abhorrence of military aggression, and every actor has committed itself to the conflict in ways that go far beyond the requirements of immediate self-defense; every actor is acting in the name of prevention, and every actor aims to redraw political boundaries in ways that conflict with the wishes of their inhabitants.
The upshot of this is not that we should stand back from the war and throw up our hands, calling a pox on both houses. If ever there was a war of choice, Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is certainly it, and it is he who bears the responsibility for all its disastrous consequences not just for Ukraine, but also for Russia and the world. The only difference between this war and the war in Iraq is that NATO expansion is real and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were not — but even if they had been, this could hardly have justified the brutal US invasion and the decade-long occupation that followed. The total casualties from one of the most violent battles of that war, the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, amount to a few days’ worth of the current fighting around Bakhmut. At some abstract level, the belief that Ukraine was preparing to join NATO explains some of the motives for Russia’s war; what it cannot do is justify this slaughter.
But one tragedy of war is that the lives it destroys rarely have any connection to the high-level stakes of the conflict. For all but the oldest inhabitants of eastern and southern Ukraine, whatever political entity they belong to, the ongoing conflict is a catastrophe unequalled in living memory; for everyone else in the world, from Tunisian fruit sellers to Taiwanese factory workers, it has brought waves of disruptive and unforeseen change. February 24, 2022, has marked a historical watershed.
Two days before Russia’s full-scale invasion — the eighth anniversary of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s removal from power by a decree of the Ukrainian Rada — Russia’s president Vladimir Putin convened a meeting of Russia’s Federation Council to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR, respectively). Once recognized, the republics formally requested Russian “assistance in repulsing the military aggression of the Ukrainian regime.” On February 24, Russian troops stormed across the border and the “special military operation” began.
One tragedy of war is that the lives it destroys rarely have any connection to the high-level stakes of the conflict.
While the deliberations were a formality and troops had been massing on the Ukrainian border for months, the decision marked a decisive turn away from the indirect Russo-Ukrainian conflict that had raged in the Donbas since 2014. After Yanukovych’s US-supported ouster in what had become known as the Maidan uprising, the DPR and LPR had been formed based on anti-Maidan protests in eastern Ukraine, with the participation and later control of Russian intelligence agencies. Russia had formally recognized the new republics as Ukrainian while providing the essential military support they needed to maintain their de facto independence. This had been part of a twofold strategy: seizing Crimea as a form of reparations for the loss of political influence over Kiev while using the contested status of the Donbas republics to gain effective veto power over Ukraine’s geopolitical commitments. Recognizing their independence meant that Russia was abandoning the Minsk agreements, which were the diplomatic manifestation of this strategy, and shifting to a more direct military solution.
The agreements were never a satisfactory compromise. Ukraine stood only to lose in relation to the pre-Maidan status quo, while Russia’s Donbas clients regarded them as illegitimately trading away their own sovereignty. As a result, they were widely violated by both sides. Putin hoped that ongoing low-grade war would lead Ukrainian society to gradually accept the loss of Crimea and its geopolitical freedom to maneuver, which even Yanukovych had successfully exploited to gain beneficial offers for economic cooperation from both Russia and the European Union. With the 2019 election of the “peace candidate” Volodymyr Zelensky, widely seen as representing the interests of the influential eastern Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, this hope seemed to be realized. But Zelensky quickly found that the combination of internal pressure from nationalists and external pressure from the United States imposed significant constraints on the pursuit of a Russian-dictated peace, and by 2021 Putin no longer believed his strategy was working.
Both Putin and Kremlin propaganda insisted that Russia had not come to occupy Ukraine, but they justified the invasion in a variety of ways: preventing Ukraine’s entry into NATO and subsequent NATO aggression, “denazifying” Ukraine, reuniting the “fraternal” Russian and Ukrainian peoples, preventing a “genocide” in the Donbas, and so forth. As indicated by the initial Russian strategy of a blitzkrieg directed toward Kiv and other major cities, the thinking was probably that the speed of the onslaught would paralyze the Ukrainian government and allow Russia to quickly install a new regime led by a quisling like Yuri Boiko, thus permitting the rapid withdrawal of Russian troops or their retention in the country in the guise of “military assistance” rather than outright occupation.
Instead of crumbling in panic, Zelensky proved to be a remarkably effective wartime president, while NATO intelligence (and soon military supplies, too) allowed the Ukrainians rapidly to exploit the weakness of Russian command and logistics structures. Far from acquiescing to a Russian triumph, Ukrainian society quickly consolidated behind Zelensky. By fall 2022, Putin had come to accept the failure of his initial plan. Russia withdrew from all military positions that directly threatened the Ukrainian leadership and held hasty referenda formalizing the annexation of those territories it still occupied. With its retreat from the indefensible city of Kherson in November — despite promising just weeks earlier that it would be there “forever” — the only important city Russia can claim from a year of fighting is Mariupol, strategically positioned on the Azov coast between Crimea and the Donbas.
Mariupol, a city roughly the size of Omaha located in Donetsk oblast just west of the line of contact with the DPR, had become Ukraine’s showpiece for non-Russian, European-oriented development after the conflict with Russia began in 2014. Investments poured in to make it a glittering jewel of seaside malls and well-funded industrial enterprises. Today, it is a smoking ruin, conquered at enormous human cost, whose rebuilding by Russian occupation authorities has barely begun. Its Dramatic Theater, an urban landmark where hundreds of civilians seeking shelter were killed by a Russian airstrike last March, has been deemed too badly damaged to save. It will be years before the city will be anything but a drain on the Russian reconstruction budget, but Ukraine has no immediate prospects of winning it back either. Meanwhile, the fascist Azov Battalion’s desperate defense of the city has made martyrs of its armed wing and substantially rehabilitated the reputation of its civilian members, further normalizing far-right influence on Ukrainian politics.
Russia’s reputation as an authoritative regional power and military threat is in ruins.
Mariupol is a microcosm of the military, political, economic, and moral failure of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A year on, NATO is stronger than it has been since the Ronald Reagan era and its threat to Russia is greater. Russia’s reputation as an authoritative regional power and military threat is in ruins. The Ukrainian government and population is more anti-Russian and more nationalist than ever before. The only metric by which Russia can claim victory is the human catastrophe its invasion has produced in Ukraine — an economic collapse and a refugee crisis of unfathomable proportions, which Russia continually worsens by targeting civilian infrastructure in a doomed effort to wear down the population’s will to fight.
While the escalatory dynamic of a few months ago carried the immediate risk of a nuclear catastrophe, today the war appears to be evolving into a bloody but static war of attrition, with nuclear escalation still a distinct possibility. Upcoming Russian or Ukrainian offensives may reverse this process, but with both sides stripped of the advantage of surprise and deploying most of their available military resources, a radical shift currently seems doubtful. At immense cost on both sides, Russian troops are gaining ground in Donbas, but slowly enough that fully conquering both Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will take years and yield little but a bombed-out “lunar landscape.”
Western tank shipments to Ukraine won’t be fully deployed for months and are unlikely to fundamentally alter this stalemate. For both Putin and Zelensky, this turn in the nature of the fighting is unwelcome. On one hand, long wars of aggression that fail to achieve real victories may rebound against their initiator, though the political cost can take years to become apparent. On the other, if Ukraine is to win the war rather than merely not lose it — and according to Zelensky, that would require recapturing Crimea and the Donbas — it will have to redouble the superhuman exertions of 2022 against an enemy who has had time to entrench and consolidate, amidst an accelerating socioeconomic downward spiral. Meanwhile, all over the post-Soviet space, the war is revealing unpredictable new contradictions and widening familiar old ones.
Below the geopolitical level, Putin believes he is waging war on behalf of “ethnic Russians” in Ukraine. Traditional distinctions between Russian ethnicity (russkii) and citizenship (rossiiskii) have faded away on both sides, but it is clear that Russian decision-makers imagined a more or less cohesive group of supporters roughly coterminous with 2010 Yanukovych voters. These are the people whose “genocide” they claim to be preventing, whose right to learn and use the Russian language they defend as imperiled, the victims of Lenin’s allegedly illicit fabrication of a Ukrainian state — and potential collaborators in any favorable political transformation Russia may want to engineer.
For this community, Putin’s solicitude has become an apocalyptic disaster. To the extent that they exist as a coherent group at all, Russian speakers have been the war’s greatest victims. The overwhelming majority of the fighting, and the attendant destruction of homes and refugee displacement, has taken place in historically Russian-speaking regions. Western Ukraine — the region with the shortest history of Russian control and the least sympathetic to Russian culture — has suffered less, though it is far from unscathed.
To the extent that they exist as a coherent group at all, Russian speakers have been the war’s greatest victims.
As a result, Ukraine’s political geography, especially the famous east-west split, is rapidly homogenizing. Twelve years ago, most eastern and southern Ukrainians saw the future of Ukraine as a sovereign and geopolitically independent state with close economic and cultural ties to Russia as well as Europe, which would retain some degree of official recognition for the Russian language and maintain its traditional ambivalence toward the Soviet legacy. The series of escalations that began after the Maidan uprising in 2013–14 has left little space for this position, which has come to seem tantamount to Putinism.
In the wartime context, the political parties representing it, such as For Life, the second-place finisher in the 2019 parliamentary elections, have all been banned, even when they opposed the invasion. Putin’s failed attempt to impose a pro-Russian choice on Ukrainians has instead produced the opposite effect. There is no longer any organized opposition to a cultural agenda that promotes the removal of the Russian language from government and education, the repudiation of the Soviet Union, and the celebration of right-wing national heroes like Stepan Bandera and the Nazi captain and pogromist Roman Shukhevych. Ukrainian society has consolidated around a vision of its identity created in the unrussified west of the country, though its exact contours are still being determined.
Still, Russian speakers in Ukraine at least retain some agency within the formal political system. In Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories, they have none at all. Since 2014, referenda carried out effectively at gunpoint have authorized far-reaching political changes, with barely any semblance even of the pseudodemocratic system in Russia itself. From Donetsk to Melitopol, any attempt to protest or modify the terms of Russian control is met with police surveillance, repression, abduction, and torture.
The results are evident. Moscow has long since sidelined or eliminated the local activist core that provided the initial impetus for the LPR and DPR, replacing them with corrupt but subservient functionaries. Donetsk’s current leader, Denis Pushilin (locally nicknamed “Penis Dushilin” from the Russian for “strangler”), is far more interested in demonstrating his usefulness to superiors in Moscow than advocating for his own compatriots. By conservative estimates, some twenty thousand Russian troops had been killed in action by late 2022, while the DPR and LPR together lost about five thousand. This means that Donetsk and Luhansk have a per capita casualty rate ten times higher than Russia as a whole. Approximately one out of every three hundred male DPR residents has been killed in action, a figure that begins to approach the rate of Iranian casualties in the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted eight years.
The bulk of these are not volunteers, not even in the sense of having signed an enlistment contract. They are ordinary residents plucked from their workplaces or off the street and sent to the front, where they are seen by Russian generals as expendable cannon fodder in comparison to more valuable Russian “professional” troops — themselves largely drawn from impoverished regions like Buryatia and Tuva (recently mobilized Russian conscripts have found themselves even lower on the pecking order due to their lack of training and equipment, and former prison camp inmates are lower still). All over the People’s Republics, men of conscription age are hiding in their apartments for months in a desperate effort to avoid dying for a country they never wanted.
Yet there is little prospect of smooth reintegration into Ukraine even if the Russian front collapses entirely. Residents of recently occupied territories in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson face a terrifying choice: either resist the occupation and risk immediate repression from Russia, or collaborate and face reprisals if Ukrainian forces return. In Donetsk and Luhansk, the calculus is starker. Residents of these territories believe that Ukrainians already see them as de facto collaborators simply by virtue of not having left after 2014.
Their fears are well-founded: current Ukrainian legislation and pending cases imply that virtually anyone who — for instance — continues to run a business in occupied territory may be subject to prosecution for collaboration, and conscripts from occupied territories who surrender to Ukrainian forces are receiving fifteen-year sentences for treason. While Russian propaganda certainly fans the flames of the fear of reprisals, the Ukrainian right’s racialized depictions of Russians and Russian-speakers as “orcs” too barbaric and Sovietized to fit into a modern European Ukraine certainly do not help. In Crimea, where a third of the population consists of post-2014 transplants from Russia and elsewhere, the perceived danger is greater still.
As in any civil war, a process of collective forgetting must take place before people who spent a decade shelling each other’s schools and hospitals can once again live side by side.
At the same time, nobody seriously thinks there is an independent future for the occupied territories, large parts of which will remain uninhabitable for a long time. In May 2022, a pseudonymous author on the now-defunct Russian opposition forum TJournal posted a twenty-thousand-word essay (written while in hiding from military conscription) summarizing this predicament and describing the fear and devastation in his hometown. In his view, the most realistic positive scenario was a Ukrainian reoccupation complete with widespread reprisals and a reintegration process which would last decades, as a result of Ukraine’s indifference to the people of Donbas.
By way of encouragement, he predicted that “by the time they reach adulthood, those born after 2022 will practically not sense a difference (between Donbas residents and other Ukrainians) anymore.” The other likely alternative, a Russian victory, would be even worse, with intensified repression and terminal social decline. This poster offers a rare uncensored glimpse of what people in Donetsk are thinking, though he is hardly authoritative and almost certainly more pro-Ukrainian than most of his compatriots (though he offers unofficial Telegram polls suggesting otherwise).
As in any civil war, a process of collective forgetting must take place before people who spent a decade shelling each other’s schools and hospitals can once again live side by side. The longer the war continues, the more difficult this will be in the occupied territories. For now, it has not even begun.
In the non-occupied regions of Ukraine, the war has unleashed two powerful currents, which will together define the next decade of its history against the backdrop of wartime collapse and recovery. The first is an expansion of social responsibility, mutual aid, collective action, and civic pride unparalleled in the post-Soviet space. The second is the effort by the state and the forces of capital to channel this energy into the creation of a “European” Ukraine supposedly without corruption but also without Soviet-era social welfare institutions, restrictions on the movement of capital, or constraints on the exploitation of workers. For now, both currents are united in their shared goal of pursuing a military victory defined as returning Ukraine to its 1991 borders. If the war becomes increasingly stalemated, however, the contradictions between them will become increasingly apparent.
In the eyes of much of the world, Ukraine has become identified with Zelensky, who is certainly its most widely appealing leader since independence. This is in part because, like Angela Merkel in Germany, he is seen to transcend the country’s historic geographic divisions. Zelensky’s success as a mediagenic resistance leader has obscured the ideological positions that he and his party represent, which are decidedly right-wing. Though they are hardly the Nazi drug addicts depicted in Putin’s tirades, the president and his party, Servant of the People, represent the right wing of the European neoliberal consensus; their affiliation with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament signals their affinities with Emmanuel Macron and other European rightists.
Zelensky’s party has pushed through laws that have effectively destroyed the right to collective bargaining as well as other labor protections in Ukraine. It has also implemented pension law reforms billed as “decommunizing” the social welfare system but in fact amounting to radical cutbacks. Both plans were drafted well before the Russian invasion, but the wartime state of emergency has greatly aided the party’s ability to implement its agenda — whose anti-labor animus has even run afoul of the normally moderate International Labour Organization. Instead of labor rights and social welfare, Zelensky and his advisors promote “smartphone courts” (a joint venture with Amazon) and other public-private partnerships. In effect, they see postwar Ukraine as a gigantic special economic zone on the fringes of Europe, where weak labor protections and lack of tariff barriers will incentivize investment from European multinationals.
The firm linkage between pro-Russian (or pro-peace) views and welfarist politics has meant that when the Russian invasion discredited the former, the latter lost out, too.
There is no longer any credible parliamentary opposition to this agenda, in part because every party on Ukraine’s political left has been banned based on largely unproven claims of collaboration with Russia. Zelensky was able to secure overwhelming majorities for his reforms because deputies from these parties remain in parliament, now especially vulnerable to political pressure. It is true that these parties were in fact pro-Russian and their politics were often incoherent. For instance, the leader of the Socialist Party from 2017 to 2019 began as a regional boss in the neo-Nazi and anti-Russian Right Sector organization, but now lives outside of Moscow and has called on Putin to nuke Ukraine.
The vision of society they represented was, at best, socially conservative and nostalgic rather than progressive or left-wing in any meaningful sense. In the Ukrainian context, however, the firm linkage between pro-Russian (or pro-peace) views and welfarist politics has meant that when the Russian invasion discredited the former, the latter lost out, too. The banned parties were the main electoral force defending welfare state institutions inherited from the Soviet era, and their disappearance has facilitated far-reaching neoliberal restructuring.
Ironically, however, Zelensky has also presided over one of the most extensive programs of nationalization in the post-Soviet world. Since November, the Ukrainian state has taken control of a vast range of large enterprises belonging to Ukraine’s oligarchs, including Zelensky’s former patron Kolomoysky. Assessments of this project differ. Some believe it is being orchestrated by the oligarchs themselves in an effort to force the state to shoulder the extensive debts these companies have accumulated in the wartime context; if they become profitable again, the argument goes, the former owners can easily manipulate the court system to regain control (such a scheme would not be unprecedented in Kolomoysky’s case).
A more optimistic observer could instead see this as Zelensky’s effort to use the military emergency to restructure the terms on which political power is wielded, breaking Ukrainian oligarchs’ political influence. While the current campaign against corruption, launched in part to satisfy the policy demands of foreign donors, seems to point in this direction, the mooted replacement of civilian figures with veterans of the security forces is not entirely reassuring, even if the latter may be somewhat “cleaner.”
If MPs are unwilling to oppose right-wing economic reforms, Ukrainian society is no more eager to do so. Above all, it is united in its overwhelming support for continuing the war, a goal to which all internal political and economic questions have been subordinated. A survey in May showed that 82 percent of Ukrainians oppose any territorial concessions in exchange for peace. By December, that number was 85 percent. Now, 77 percent of Ukrainians support NATO membership, as against 40 percent ten years ago.
While there are some geographic and linguistic gradations in these figures, they are not decisive. Only 14 percent of Russian speakers are willing to offer any concessions, for instance, though it is also important to account for the unreliability of polling under conditions of total war — a problem that affects surveys in both Ukraine and Russia. In part because of constant Russian missile attacks on civilian areas far from the line of contact, no compartmentalization of the country into “front” and “rear” has emerged that would permit the formation of a meaningful peace coalition — a marked contrast to the 2014–22 period. Zelensky’s bellicose nationalist rhetoric today differs so strongly from his 2019 electoral platform largely because he is responding to the demands of his electorate.
Yet this appearance of overwhelming social consensus is heavily mediated by local and international NGOs as well as mass media, both of which are constrained by significant pressure to hew to a common line. Even without the instant blacklisting experienced by critics of the invasion in Russia, in Ukraine the expression of any view that dissents from the pro-war, pro-Zelensky, pro-reform, and anti-Russian mainstream faces an uphill climb strewn with economic and reputational hazards. Grant funding in one form or another — with its opaque and nonuniversal methods of resource allocation — is now a lifeline for so much of the Ukrainian population that taking a public heterodox position can be fraught with literally life or death consequences. Websites like Myrotvorets systematize the doxxing of suspected Russian war criminals and Ukrainian dissenters alike, encouraging acts of vigilante justice against them.
The recent resignation of Zelensky advisor and unofficial presidential spokesman Aleksei Arestovich is a case in point. For millions of Ukrainians, Arestovich’s broadcasts were a vital way of keeping abreast of the war, and his ability to frame even discouraging news in an optimistic and accessible style made him a national celebrity in the spring and summer of 2022. But the knives were out for him before the war even started. His Myrotvorets page, as Russian propagandists have gleefully reported, accuses him of being a “professional provocateur” who “organizes public acts of informational sabotage benefiting the Russian invaders.”
The immediate “provocation” triggering his departure was an apparently mistaken claim that it was Ukrainian air defense that shot down a Russian missile that killed forty-five civilians in Dnipro on January 14, rather than the missile itself being mistargeted. Moral responsibility in that case would obviously have still lain with Russia, but such is the level of public anxiety about admitting any level of ambiguity that Arestovich himself could not navigate it — or decided not to, in light of recent reports about his own independent political ambitions.
Ukrainian society is united in its overwhelming support for continuing the war, a goal to which all internal political and economic questions have been subordinated.
In this context, ordinary Ukrainians’ behavior may be beginning to diverge from public opinion as expressed in polls and media reports. A network of Telegram chats has burgeoned to offer help with evading conscription, which provides the bulk of the Ukrainian army’s manpower. Entire units of newly conscripted Ukrainian soldiers have begun deserting to avoid being thrown into the meat grinder of the Donbas front without adequate training or equipment.
The Ukrainian state has responded by adopting a controversial law that forbids courts from reducing legally required penalties for desertion and related acts, in effect imposing a five-year minimum prison sentence for those convicted. In a broader sense, a successful invasion of Crimea or Donetsk would require an even larger share of Ukraine’s dwindling social and economic resources than the war is currently consuming. Every mobilized soldier means a pensioner whose heating bills go unpaid, an internal refugee who remains unhoused. But after a year of war almost all Ukrainians, pensioners and refugees included, still say they are willing to pay that cost.
These contradictions offer a spectrum of future possibilities for the Left in Ukraine. In the most optimistic view, there is no reason to fear that Zelensky’s political monopoly will be transmuted into a durable postwar dictatorship. Despite the tightening of restrictions on speech, assembly, and media autonomy, Ukrainians remain highly politicized and willing to engage in protest around certain issues (notably not including Zelensky’s economic reforms), while the state is mostly unwilling to deploy its limited coercive capacity to repress them. So much has had to be done at the grassroots level that millions of ordinary Ukrainians have acquired skills of self-organization and self-advocacy. The very shallowness of Zelensky’s neoliberal utopia, from this perspective, will eventually generate the second arc of a Polanyian double movement to defend collective rights, this time without the baggage of the Russian question.
From a more pessimistic perspective, the war will tend to concentrate power in the NGO complex and in the courts of foreign backers to such an extent that it will ultimately lead to the depoliticization and perhaps even the de-democratization of Ukrainian society. If the Zelensky government can credibly argue that any electoral shift in a welfarist or pro-peace direction will threaten the foreign aid spigots on which the economy is already dependent — after all, EU aid is subject to a long list of policy conditions — the political risks of building a coalition around an alternative economic agenda will rise to the point where formal opposition becomes pointless or impossible. In such a situation, cultural nationalism will become even more important as a means of holding Ukrainian society together.
A third, utopian and unlikely, possibility would entail a mutual recognition by Ukrainian and Russian deserters and draft evaders, along with other groups rendered politically and economically marginal by the maelstrom of war, that their shared material interest in ending both the war and the Russian occupation trumps their individual investment in Russian imperialism or Ukrainian nationalism. If these interests could be organized and made to articulate with one another at the level of a mass social movement, they could provide a meaningful alternative to the military crisis. The political structure that would emerge would be unlikely to look like either the Russian or Ukrainian post-Soviet political configuration, let alone the “People’s Republics” — but this vision remains as remote as ever.
In the meantime, the majority of Ukrainians are justified in believing that as long as a serious Russian military threat remains — no matter what cease-fire agreements are signed — no real postwar reconstruction is possible and no social scores can really be settled. They may find themselves waiting a long time.
Amidst the most violent military conflict in the country’s post–World War II history, one of the surprise bestsellers on the Russian book market was the novel Summer in a Pioneer Tie, featuring a tame, ambiguous gay romance in a pastoral late-Soviet setting. Meanwhile, in November, the State Duma busied itself with passing a new law effectively criminalizing public discussion of homosexuality and trans issues. This is a remarkable illustration of the gulf that has emerged between Russia’s state and society in the wake of February 24.
Most ordinary Russians do not have the means to escape the war’s consequences physically, but they still want to forget that it is happening. None of the top-grossing Russian films on view during the January holidays dealt with military concerns, and the most popular movie in Russian history is now a Paddington-esque CGI remake of the Soviet cartoon Cheburashka (the right-wing Eurasianist philosopher Alexander Dugin has complained that “we will not win with Cheburashka” and referred to one of its main characters as a Trojan horse for Atlanticist ideology). There is no sense of the comprehensive social mobilization for total war that is taking place in Ukraine.
On the other hand, the new “gay propaganda” law is a reminder of what is at stake for Putin in this war. “NATO expansion” was never a question of national security narrowly defined, with clear parameters and straightforward diplomatic solutions leading to a mutually satisfying peace. It was always a stage in an existential conflict between competing civilizational blocs. In this framework, NATO and the EU stand in for the “Euro-Atlantic” worldview and the socially, politically, and economically liberal civilization it represents. Russia’s role, in this view, is to be the standard-bearer of a conservative alternative, consolidate its own civilizational bloc, and forge alliances with others that are ideologically aligned — including NATO’s own conservative dissidents.
In this year’s annual address to the Valdai Discussion Club, traditionally the forum where Putin expounds on his geopolitical beliefs, he put forth a vision of Russia’s place in the world straight out of nineteenth-century Slavophilism. His explicit points of reference were Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Pan-Slavist philosopher Nikolai Danilevskii, who believed that world history was built through a ceaseless struggle between a limited number of “cultural-historical types.” What appears at first glance to be a bizarre obsession with “cancel culture,” also given prominent billing in the speech, comes from Putin’s belief that it is the latest manifestation of Atlanticism’s aggression toward other civilizations.
Like its nineteenth-century forerunner, Putin’s remodeled Pan-Slavism (melded, in this version, with a less ethnicized Eurasianism) continually runs aground on the fact that the society he has built does not line up with its precepts. Despite the excision of LGBTQ people from the media and the concentration of economic assets in the hands of state-linked power elites, Russia is no more a civilizational alternative to neoliberal Western capitalism than Poland, which has comparable levels of religiosity and social conservatism. On issues like abortion, Russia has more liberal legislation and public opinion than most US states. The minority of Russians who are most invested in an anti-liberal civilizational vision — for instance, some segments of the far right and the red-brown followers of the late Eduard Limonov — are continually subjected to police repression by the Russian state, which fears any political activism not channeled through top-down institutions.
Like its nineteenth-century forerunner, Putin’s remodeled Pan-Slavism continually runs aground on the fact that the society he has built does not line up with its precepts.
As for the rest of the population, there may be plenty of YouTube interviews where people on the street dutifully recite the propaganda clichés they hear on television, but for most Russians the important conflicts in their lives take place at home and in the workplace rather than in the assembly halls of world governing bodies. Russia’s capitalist economic order and escalating climate of political repression has only served to encourage this tendency to turn toward private life and leave public affairs to those who monopolize them. This is why opinion polls about support for the war are misleading, and comparisons to Stalin’s role in World War II and invocations of “totalitarianism” are even more baseless. Stalinism was rooted in its ability to mobilize enormous masses of the population, while Putinism demobilizes them. As a result, even after a year of war, Putin has failed to convince his people that victory in the conflict is a matter of life and death. He would have had to be a different kind of ruler.
This has forced the state to tread carefully in calibrating wartime demands to the expectations of its population. Until January, thousands were being prosecuted for referring to the “special military operation” as a war. Though this may still be illegal, Putin has now started using the word himself. While Russia’s partial mobilization in the fall seemed at first to represent a watershed moment, the situation has largely reverted to the mean — except for the emigration of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them educated professionals, who are forming yet another generation of Russian exiles who may never return to their homeland.
Those Russians who remain are watching fewer political talk shows, and no flood of volunteers for the front has appeared at recruiting stations. Civil-society support for the troops mostly amounts to donation campaigns. The situation is reminiscent of the United States after the Iraq invasion, but with much weightier emotional consequences, owing to the heavier casualty toll and the rupture of long-standing social and familial ties. Literal or metaphorical escapism is one solution, psychiatry another. Spending on antidepressants grew massively in 2022. Those who actively oppose the war remain as much of a minority as active supporters, however, and police crackdowns mean that they are either already exceptionally skilled at evading arrest or are politically unorganized. Someone who throws a Molotov cocktail at a recruiting station may be a neo-Nazi, an anarchist, or simply a random, fed-up pensioner.
For elites, everything is different. Those of Putinism’s beneficiaries who have expressed anything short of full-throated support for the war have become alarmingly accident-prone. After safely offshoring their wealth, others have renounced all ties to the regime and attempted to integrate into new societies in Europe or Israel, cleansed of the moral stain of Russianness. As in the reign of Peter the Great or the Stalinist Great Terror, places among the elite left vacant one way or another seldom remain so for long. For every aspiring minister or oligarch, the war offers an opportunity to climb a treacherous career ladder.
Above all, this applies to the two political winners of the last year, the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and the military entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin, who have staked their future on the growing appeal of belligerent imperial militarism. Both have taken this to the point of mustache-twirling comedy. After a video in which an operative of Prigozhin’s mercenary outfit Wagner Group was shown being brutally executed with a sledgehammer for surrendering to the Ukrainians, Prigozhin demonstratively mailed a similar sledgehammer, complete with fake blood, to the offices of the European Parliament.
More substantively, Prigozhin’s enlistment of prisoners as Wagner Group troops in exchange for amnesty, now being emulated by the official military, leverages Russia’s vast carceral system (with its 99.8 percent conviction rate) to replenish its army’s reserves without having to expand conscription from the general population, a goal that Wagner is also serving by actively recruiting mercenaries abroad. Such strategies demonstrate why Prigozhin’s influence is growing, but they also testify to Putin’s hesitation about asking too much from the Russian people.
This inter-elite competition helps to explain why external pressure from the West in the form of a historically unprecedented campaign of economic warfare has thus far failed to threaten the foundations of the regime. Shortages of key goods have been largely remedied through a $15 billion “parallel import” program (half the total amount of non-Chinese imports for 2020), while global economic fluctuations have resulted in export revenues in 2022 being even higher than they were before the war. While there is some debate about whether sanctions are indeed “working” to undermine the Russian economy, there is no evidence that they have as yet produced any meaningful political pressure on the regime.
Instead, like previous rounds of sanctions on Russia, they have driven out those segments of the cultural and economic elite with the deepest ties to the West while allowing domestic elites like Prigozhin to move in and seize the assets of departing multinationals — thus ultimately consolidating the ruling class behind Putin. There is one important way in which the sanctions have contributed to Russia’s failure to win the war: by restricting supplies of military and dual-use technologies Russia is unable to produce or import itself. The extent to which Russia will be able to remedy this disadvantage is one of the greatest open questions of the coming year.
If the war as a whole is moving toward a stalemate, the specifics remain unpredictable. Western analysts who essentialize Russia’s apparent military incompetence as rooted in its culture miss the fact that many of the same criticisms could have been levied at the Ukrainian army during the initial phase of its “anti-terrorist operation” to reconquer the Donbas in 2014. Since then, the Ukrainians have matured both on the level of strategy and organization and in terms of the competence and cohesion of individual units. There is every reason to expect that Russian performance will improve as its military adapts to a protracted conflict, though by that point broader factors like ammunition supplies or society-wide war weariness may come to play a larger role. The current situation gives little reason to hope for drastic changes in the military landscape, for either side.
The current situation gives little reason to hope for drastic changes in the military landscape, for either side.
Internationally, the situation is no more favorable for either side. Russia is not succeeding in consolidating its regional allies into a united front, with Armenia — once one of its closest allies in the Caucasus — starting to distance itself from Russia’s regional security bloc after its supposed partner’s failure to assist in its conflict with Azerbaijan. On the other hand, the Biden administration’s intensive efforts to maintain the cohesion of its anti-Russian coalition are not sustainable indefinitely, although the unexpectedly warm winter has blunted the impact of sanctions on their European backers. Zelensky himself is increasingly perceived in Washington and Brussels as overly uncompromising. While the Ukrainian people may be wholly in support of a continued war to restore the 1991 borders, this effort would depend on the domestic calculations of a US administration that now has to reckon with a Republican-controlled House.
There is little cause for rejoicing here, even for those on the Left who oppose continued military aid to Ukraine. Setting aside the moral and political questions surrounding Ukrainian self-determination, the case for continued military support is too strong in mainstream US politics. Ukraine remains popular, Russia is a long-standing geopolitical enemy, and the whole enterprise offers a wonderfully clean way of whitewashing the reputation of the US military-industrial complex after the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, Ukraine is a fantastic real-world showroom and testing ground for the high-tech battle systems US taxpayers have been funding for decades in anticipation of a great-power conflict. These can then be exported to other, less media-friendly regimes. The $22 billion in military aid Joe Biden sent to Ukraine in 2022 — a pittance compared to the financial and political cost of direct military deployments — has been partially offset by a $15 billion year-over-year rise in foreign military sales compared to 2021, which are anticipated to increase even further in the coming years. Inevitably, military contractors either way.
Over the past year, Zelensky, Putin, Western leaders, and left-wing critics have each for their own reasons produced a narrative of the war that hinges on the weapons the West has sent to Ukraine. While this narrative is not exactly inaccurate — certainly Ukraine would have lost the war without them — it is also misleading in the same sense that focusing on the role of Lend-Lease in the Soviet fight against the Nazis would be. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) are not fighting the war: ordinary Ukrainian conscripts are, whether motivated by patriotism or fear of imprisonment, and it is primarily their contribution and the capacity of the Ukrainian state to mobilize support for them that will shape the outcome of the conflict.
This is why the important political debate in the United States over the coming years will involve the question of civilian aid, which Republicans are determined to oppose. The Ukrainian economy is now half of what it was at the start of the war, and sequestered Russian assets will not suffice for its reconstruction needs. Even the slightest interruption in the flow of foreign funding could now mean the dispossession of thousands of Ukrainian civilians, whether or not there is a cease-fire. Will NATO and the EU be as generous in peace as they are in war, and what will their generosity cost Ukrainians?
These are long-term questions, and any hope of the war ending quickly has now faded. While all predictions in this context may well prove embarrassingly flawed, it appears increasingly likely that the war has become unwinnable for both sides. Russia cannot win in terms of the goals Putin identified at the outset, because any democratic regime that remains in power in Kiev will continue to pursue military support from NATO, greater integration with the EU, and eventual revanche in the east and south or face the certainty of losing the next election.
Moreover, as long as he retains roughly today’s level of Western military support, Zelensky will not be overthrown by force of Russian arms. Even if he is eliminated in some sort of decapitation strike, no puppet regime will be able to consolidate power enough in the face of a hostile, mobilized population to grant Russia durable concessions. For all their waffling and stern warnings, Western leaders are unlikely to reduce their military support enough to allow Russia to remove Zelensky, anticipating the domestic political consequences of being blamed for Ukraine’s subjugation and the paroxysms of repression that will accompany it.
This outcome will not be a draw but a defeat: the failure of Putin’s effort to resist the growth of US power by means of militarized great-power nationalism.
Ukraine in its current form will not win the war, either. Fantasies of Putin being overthrown and Russia fragmenting into independent states in the face of military setbacks are unsubstantiated by concrete developments on the ground. More modestly, even if it retakes regions lost since February, the practical obstacles to regaining control of Crimea and the Donbas are too great. Beyond the military considerations, the radical nationalism that has become the dominant political orientation of Ukrainian society is unprepared for the task of harmoniously reintegrating the regions lost in 2014. By current legal standards, they contain millions of presumptive collaborators, each of whom has a vested interest in preventing a Ukrainian takeover even if they might not be opposed to Ukrainian control in principle.
Historically, the principal treatment that nationalism in this region has offered for such problems are the waves of mass violence and displacement known euphemistically as “population transfers,” but these will be no more effective in preventing war in the long term than Partition was in South Asia. Neither will referenda be a solution, because they require that most ordinary people and ruling elites on both sides agree to accept the result. That is a compromise that Russia’s forced referenda of the last decade have taken off the table for the foreseeable future.
Yet a cease-fire based on some version of the current line of contact will probably not work either, even if it is backed up by pressure from Biden. Putin’s fear of NATO power and Euro-Atlantic civilizational dominance will grow, and so will Ukrainian revanchism and the Western appetite for a final settlement. The fundamental antagonisms produced and fed by the war since 2014 will be left unresolved; each side will suspect the other of using the cease-fire as an opportunity to rearm and hence will itself rearm preventively.
Having come to power by falling in step with Putinist militarism, Russia’s emerging elite will hardly turn dovish overnight, while politicians in Ukraine are unlikely to shun the electoral advantages of nationalist agitation. The outcome of a cease-fire would then resemble the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh between 1994 and 2020 — a frozen conflict that can melt whenever one side senses an advantage, leading to catastrophic results. The deployment of Chinese peacekeepers in a Korean-style demilitarized zone along the lower Dnipro may seem like an appealing solution, but at this juncture it appears rather remote: the peace plan suggested by China on the one-year anniversary of the invasion offers a tepid combination of vague “principles” and exceedingly modest concrete proposals.
In the long run, the war will end only after both societies have become too exhausted to fight any further, when immediate peace and reconstruction become more urgent than the more exalted ideological ambitions of the combatants. If Ukraine does manage to recover its lost territories, it will have to develop a more inclusive vision of its nationhood that offers collaborators forgiveness and reconciliation rather than punishment — a way to win back its citizens and not just the land they happen to live on.
If it does not regain them, it will have to learn to redefine itself to accommodate their loss. Putin is likely too old to change his mind about the threat of Euro-Atlantic expansion and the future of Russian great-power nationalism, but his successors, whether they are his venal and bloodthirsty henchmen or the avatars of a hypothetical future wave of mass anti-Putin politicization, will have to accept the diminution of Russia’s standing even in its own former empire. This outcome will not be a draw but a defeat: the failure of Putin’s effort to resist the growth of US power by means of militarized great-power nationalism. Russia’s loss will not change the fact that its principal victims are millions of innocent Ukrainians. This is why war is so bad — for everyone, so far, except Lockheed Martin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the ghost of Roman Shukhevych.Original post