News | War / Peace - Eastern Europe - Ukraine (en) “Stopping the War Is the Absolute Priority”

Volodymyr Ishchenko on his country’s future and the responsibility of the Left in East and West


Residents leave the badly damaged residential building that was hit by a Russian shell in Kyiv, Ukraine, 14 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance / | SOPA Images

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown that country, and indeed the entire post-1989 order, into chaos. As Russian tanks and guns continue to assault Ukrainian cities in the face of surprisingly stiff resistance, a renewed sense of unity and purpose has emerged among Ukrainians — and among Western elites. Many erstwhile supporters of Putin in the EU have turned against him, while politicians from across the political spectrum unite in gestures of solidarity with Ukraine both material and symbolic.

At the same time, new divisions are cropping up on the Left. Although those on the Left actively supporting the Russian invasion remain a small minority, voices from Eastern Europe and elsewhere have faulted leftists in the West for underestimating Putin’s imperial ambitions and downplaying the threat he posed to Ukraine and other Eastern European neighbours — a threat that has now become all too real for the people of Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other parts of Ukrainian under Russian assault.

Regardless of whether the war ends in total Russian occupation, a victory for Ukraine, or some kind of negotiated settlement in the middle, the repercussions of the war will be felt in both countries — and around the world —for years to come. What will it mean for the future of Ukraine? How will it impact the Left in Eastern and Western Europe? To get answers to these and other questions, Jerko Bakotin of the Croatian weekly Novosti spoke with Volodymyr Ishchenko, one of the most prominent intellectuals on the Ukrainian Left and a co-founder of Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, a partner organization of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine surprised analysts, many of whom had argued that it would not happen given how greatly it would harm Russia’s interests. What is your take on the matter?

There were numerous reasons for scepticism concerning the possibility of an attack, primarily due to the enormous military, economic, political, and geopolitical risks of the move. There was a real possibility that Moscow underestimated the Ukrainian army and that there were mistakes in planning the military operation — some soldiers believed they were going to exercises in Belarus and received orders just before the attack began.

Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist and researcher at the Center for Eastern European Studies at the Freie Universität in Berlin. His work has appeared in a number of prominent publications such as the Guardian, Jacobin, New Left Review, and LeftEast.

This article first appeared in Novosti.

Furthermore, although France and Germany pursued a slightly different policy than the United States before the invasion, the European Union is now imposing tougher sanctions than the US. The invasion will greatly affect Russia’s position in the world and the domestic political situation. Vladimir Putin has risked everything, so a defeat in Ukraine would probably cost him his ruling position, most likely ending in a coup within the existing elite and perhaps even his life. A revolution cannot be ruled out either, although the chances for it are lower.

Due to all these risks, many social scientists and international relations analysts believed that Putin wanted to intimidate Ukraine and NATO, but that there would be no attack.

There are several theories about Putin’s motivation: questions about his mental health, imperialist messianism, the threat posed by NATO, or the theory that democratic Ukraine threatens autocracy in Russia itself. What do you think?

I still haven’t seen a convincing interpretation. The thesis that Putin went crazy does not stand, because, in my eyes, he does not exhibit symptoms of madness. As far as the explanation that he turned into an ideological fanatic with a messianic mission of rebuilding the Russian Empire is concerned, one must say that leaders with sincere ideological beliefs are very, very atypical in post-Soviet politics. All post-Soviet leaders were cynical pragmatists who built kleptocratic regimes bereft of ideological vision. Even if it is true that Putin has become an ideological fanatic, it remains a mystery how this came about, and further explanations are needed.

But Putin set out clear imperialist and chauvinistic reasons in his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” last year, and even more so in his speech announcing the war, where he spoke of “denazification” of Ukraine. He denied Ukraine’s right to independent statehood, and last week mentioned the possibility of its disappearance. The ideological motives seem to be very clear, don’t you think?

The question is whether this is just rhetoric to legitimize moves driven by other reasons. Today, many interpret his essay in the way you mentioned. However, that text does not deny Ukrainian independence, but rather a specific form of Ukrainian identity, which is not the only possible one. Putin argues against Ukraine based on anti-Russian identity. In his vision, Ukraine and Russia could be two states for “one and the same people”.

Here, Putin returns to the interpretation from the time of the Russian Empire, when Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians were seen as three branches of the same people. This concept was suppressed during the Soviet Union, when the official position was that these were three different peoples and languages, even though they were fraternal peoples of common origin.

Many Ukrainians view such interpretations as a negation of their existence because they have built their identity in opposition to Russia, which for them is a “big other”. For many others, especially those socialized in the USSR, Ukrainians are not necessarily defined as opposed to Russians. Even after Euromaidan and the outbreak of the war in the Donbas region, most Ukrainians thought they were fraternal peoples, and for 15–20 percent of the population it was normal to feel both Ukrainian and Russian. That said, the current war may erase such ambiguous identities.

In an article published at LeftEast, you argued that the notion that Ukrainians would fiercely resist the Russian invasion were exaggerated. But isn’t that precisely what is happening now?

I was talking about a situation in which Russia destroyed the Ukrainian army and occupied a large part of the territory, which hasn’t happened yet. The resistance is perhaps stronger than Russia expected, but it would probably be different if Kyiv had been occupied within 96 hours, as the Pentagon predicted. Many Ukrainians are joining the Territorial Defence and the military, but about 2 million people have already fled, and there could be up to 10 million refugees according to some estimates.

At the same time, in the occupied cities such as Kherson or Melitopol, the scenario I have described is happening — there are significant pro-Ukrainian protests, but there is no strong armed resistance. If Russia occupies a large swathe of Ukrainian territory, the majority of the population will likely be initially passive. The armed resistance will not be strong enough to overthrow the occupation, but it will be significant if Moscow tries to establish a very repressive regime in the occupied territories. The result would be a stronger unarmed resistance that would be a source of permanent instability not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia.

The West reacted decisively with a strategy based on harsh sanctions against Moscow and the delivery of weapons to Kyiv. The destruction of the Russian economy and the strengthening of the Ukrainian resistance have the same goal: to force Moscow to stop the attack. How do you view the response and what do you make of calls for NATO to establish a no-fly zone?

I fear that if sanctions and arms deliveries remain the dominant response, it means that the West is actually interested in this war. Putin cannot afford to lose, so he will wage war for as long as possible. That will mean a huge number of dead and the complete destruction of Ukrainian cities. Just as it destroyed Grozny in Chechnya, the Russian army could destroy Kyiv and Kharkiv. If left without other options, Putin could threaten with nuclear weapons.

I think NATO elites understand that the no-fly zone over Ukraine would mean a war between NATO and Russia. I don’t think we can afford to take our chances when it comes to risking a nuclear apocalypse.

Stopping the war is the absolute priority. This might be possible by immediately giving Ukraine a clear perspective on joining the EU, at least a concrete membership plan. At the same time, an agreement on military neutrality could be reached. This is easier now, because President Volodymyr Zelensky and the rest of the political elite are disappointed that NATO will not help Ukraine or establish a no-fly zone.

Zelensky will be forced to accept painful compromises over Crimea and Donbas. But thanks to EU membership, Zelensky could present the agreement with Russia as a victory and claim that the Ukrainians won what they have been fighting for since the revolution on Maidan Square. At the same time, Putin could also claim that he was not defeated, but that the invasion met its goals. The EU and the US should negotiate something like this if they want to prevent the loss of Ukrainian lives and the destruction of the economy.

What do you mean by the West being interested in this war?

Some commentators enthusiastically say that the long-lasting resistance in Ukraine will exhaust Russia in the way the war in Afghanistan contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, that war did a lot of damage to the USSR, but it meant disaster for the Afghan people. Afghanistan was devastated for decades and became a failed state, where eventually an extremist movement took over.

If the West is satisfied with such a future for Ukraine, it means that they needed this war. The current attitude of the West will be justified only if Russia is really so fragile that it collapses in a very near future. However, if the invasion can continue for months or even years, the West will be complicit in prolonging the war.

Ukraine is thus not only a victim of Russia, but also of Western geopolitical games?

US and British intelligence had been announcing the invasion for months. If London and Washington were so sure of the invasion, why didn’t they prevent it, why didn’t they negotiate with Putin more actively? Certainly Putin is most responsible for the war. But the West knew about the invasion and didn’t do enough to prevent it.

The West nurtured Ukraine’s hopes for NATO membership, although it was clear that it wouldn’t defend Ukraine. In that sense, were Ukrainians deceived?

Ukraine has never received a Membership Action Plan, only the theoretical possibility of joining sometime in the future. Despite promises regarding membership, NATO never had any desire to fight for Ukraine. Now Ukrainians are dying. At the very least, such promises were extremely irresponsible towards Ukraine.

Under President Petro Poroshenko, NATO membership was included as a goal in the 2019 constitution. How did NATO become such an important issue in Ukrainian politics?

Politicians have never been interested in what Ukrainians really think about NATO. The membership application was submitted by President Viktor Yushchenko after the so-called “Orange Revolution” in 2004. This was supported by George W. Bush, and in 2008 it was decided at the Bucharest Summit that Georgia and Ukraine would join the alliance.

At the time, about 20 percent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO. After Euromaidan, Russia annexed Crimea and the war broke out in Donbas, leading part of the population to see NATO as protection from Russia. At the same time, polls were no longer being conducted in Crimea and Donbas, the most pro-Russian parts of the country. Last year, thanks to the fear of Russian troops massing along the border, support for NATO membership exceeded 50 percent. The current invasion has changed attitudes even in the pro-Russian southern and eastern parts of the country. However, disappointment with NATO is growing at the same time.

Possible outcomes of the war include partitioning the country, i.e. imposing a repressive pro-Russian regime in the East while the West becomes a nationalist NATO external base, Russian occupation of all of Ukraine, or Russia’s complete defeat. Could a multinational, multi-ethnic Ukraine will survive?

You have described a likely scenario in the event of a division of the country, but it all depends on the course of the war. Putin’s defeat would probably mean destabilization and the collapse of the ruling Russian regime, which Ukraine could take advantage of and regain even Donbass and Crimea.

As a result of the attack and destruction, there is great hatred towards the Russians. I am afraid that the Russian language will be even more suppressed in the public sphere than was the case after the laws passed by Poroshenko. The multicultural country I was born in is probably lost forever.

It is possible that one day reconciliation will take place. After all, Poland and France work closely with Germany within the EU, even though Germany caused enormous suffering to the whole of Europe in World War II. But that would require very serious political changes in Russia itself.

Even before the invasion, you wrote that it could destabilize Russia itself. What will be the consequences of the war and sanctions for Putin’s regime?

If the regime wants to adapt to military, economic, and political challenges, radical changes in the social and political order will be needed. The Russian state currently operates on the principle of kleptocratic patronage capitalism, in which a small elite enriches itself. However, it will not be possible to maintain the pro-Russian regime in parts of Ukraine only through repression, and the resistance of Ukrainians could encourage opposition in Belarus and Russia — especially if Russian soldiers continue to die — and even in Kazakhstan and the entire Russian sphere of interest.

Because instability will not be mitigated by orthodox neoliberal policies, economic historian Adam Tooze has speculated whether the regime will try to pursue some kind of neo-Keynesian policy to improve the lives of citizens and thus buy their support. After both world wars we saw a significant expansion of workers’ rights to prevent uprisings by the masses who suffered great sacrifices in the war.

Russia’s reorientation towards non-Western countries will also be a problem. Moscow is less isolated than it appears in the West, but other than depending on a more developed China, such a reorientation will not be easy to reconcile with the European identities of Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. Russia will also need a much more coherent ideological project that would explain to the population the purpose of all this suffering. The fact that a large part of Russian society does not understand Putin’s invasion is a symptom of the absence of such a project, a project which none of the post-Soviet elites have had.

The invasion also confused the intellectual Left, accustomed to blaming the West for almost all the world’s problems. Ukrainian leftists Taras Bilous and Volodymyr Artyukh have criticized what they call the Western Left’s “anti-imperialism for idiots” in open letters. What do you think would be the correct left-wing perspective?

I personally have written against simplistic interpretations of Euromaidan, which part of the Western Left mistakenly saw as a coup supported by the West, just as the separatist republics in Donbas were seen as proto-socialist states, while in reality they are puppets of a very non-socialist Russian regime. But discussing the guilt of Western leftists as Putin’s useful idiots in this moment is very damaging to the Left. The debate over underestimating Russian imperialism is important, but it should not be conducted in moments of high emotions and using moral blackmail.

The invasion is going to facilitate a strong right-wing wave, which will greatly narrow the space for the Left in both Eastern and Western Europe. We shouldn’t disarm ourselves and open ourselves up to right-wing attacks. The vast majority of the European Left condemns Russian imperialism and understands that the invasion is leading to disaster, just like the American invasion of Iraq.

The Left needs offensive arguments. We must not agree to a ban on discussions about the complicity of NATO and the post-Maidan regime in Ukraine, about the reasons for not implementing the Minsk Agreement, or on NATO–Russia relations. That would mean capitulation — especially in Eastern Europe, where in the coming era of neo-McCarthyism, it might no longer be possible to put forward even basic left-wing arguments without being accused of being a Russian spy.