Guest Post by Tushar Dhara
Part 1: “The Russian invasion is a unilateral decision of the leadership which reflects the internal dynamics of Russian imperialism”: A Ukrainian political scientist explains the War, Ukrainian nationhood, Maidan, NATO and neo-Nazis.
In February Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in a televised address that Ukraine is an illegitimate country that exists on a land that’s “historically” and “rightfully” Russian. Putin further claimed that a “genocide” was being perpetrated on “millions” of Russian supporters in the Donbas by Ukrainian far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis. Putin used this as an excuse to launch what he called “special military operations” in Ukraine, thus triggering the war.
One month into the Russian invasion, what is the situation in Ukraine? How does one understand the historicity of Ukraine’s nationhood, including its culture, language, status within the Soviet Union and its evolution since independence in 1991. How does one situate events like the maidan protests that rocked Ukrainian society, the role of far right formations like Azov and the aspirations of Ukrainians?
To understand these issues I spoke to Denys Pilash, a political scientist teaching at Kyiv National University. Pilash is on the editorial board of Commons magazine, a left of centre intellectual magazine. Pilash is currently in Transcarpathia in Western Ukraine, where he is helping deliver humanitarian aid. The interview is in two parts.
Tushar Dhara: You mentioned earlier that you were helping with humanitarian aid. Can you start by telling me what is happening on the ground in Ukraine?
Denys Pilash: The war has already caused enormous destruction in the eastern, northern and southern parts of Ukraine. It has forced millions of people to flee and three days ago we had 3 million people who had become refugees in the neighbouring countries of Poland, Hungary and Slovak republic. Many millions more are internally displaced and have had to relocate to safer locations in Ukraine. I am now in a relatively safe place in Uzhgorod, which is in western Ukraine, near Slovakia and Hungary. There have been several air alerts, but no strikes yet. Uzhgorod is operating as a big hub for refugees trying to leave Ukraine and for the influx of humanitarian packages from the West. That’s why I am involved in transportation, packing, unloading of medicine, food and clothes and some stuff for people in the frontline areas as well as the territorial defense units. Given the situation, we didn’t experience much panic. The necessity of essential workers, especially the transport and rail workers who keep the trains running, is important. Some of them were killed, but they managed to evacuate millions of people from Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities shelled by the Russians. The other heroes are the healthcare workers.
In military terms, it seems that the Russian imperial power expected a fast and smooth blitzkrieg, like in Georgia. But their plans failed because of poor logistics and readiness for conflict and enormous resistance from the Ukrainian army. They met with total rejection from the military and civilian population. In some cities like Kherson and Melitopol they have become occupying forces and thousands of people are on the streets standing upto the armed Russian soldiers and armoured vehicles. The people are openly defying them, calling them fascists and demanding that they go home. In some smaller places like Koryukivka, a small town that was the place for one of the most horrible Nazi atrocities during WW2, ordinary people pushed back Russian tanks with their bare hands. There was much of this inspiring non-violent resistance. But at the same time Russia became more aggressive in shelling cities and some of the towns have seen intense clashes like Volnovakha or Shakhtyorsk in Donbas, or some of Kyiv’s suburbs, they have been completely destroyed. One of the worst tragedies was that our friends, with whom we’ve had no connection for 10 days or two weeks, we don’t know if they are alive. Again, the Russians were sabotaging the humanitarian corridors. They were even shooting at people who were trying to evacuate. But the majority of people in these towns have been able to evacuate. Mariupol has been besieged and it’s a complete humanitarian disaster there. We cannot estimate how high the death toll is, but the consensus is that thousands of civilians are dead. People have also died due to starvation or lack of medicine. It’s something like the second world war, like the siege of Leningrad. That’s the situation roughly.
In times when you have horror everyday you’re trying to track if your friends are safe, and you start to get notifications that some friends of friends have been killed. Everyday you’re afraid that someone close will be on the list. Thousands of people are no more. None of us were expecting this, we all thought this was a tactic to get concessions while negotiating with the West. But the Russian leadership started something that is completely crazy and will bring enormous suffering to their people as well.
Tushar Dhara: There are negotiations taking place between the Ukrainians and Russians. How do you see that playing out in the coming days?
Denys Pilash: It’s a big question. The negotiations took place first in Belarus then Turkey and also online. Firstly, from the Russian side they sent “almost nobodies”, some former minister of culture and some others who are not even officials. The top Russian leadership including Putin are denying agency for Ukrainians and avoiding any contact at the Presidential level to have direct talks with Zelenskyy.
Tushar Dhara: I thought the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was part of the talks?
Denys Pilash: Yes, they had negotiations on the level of the ministry of foreign affairs, Lavrov and Kuleba, but they weren’t conceding any of the initial demands and those were formulated in way such that no one can tell what they mean by it. For instance, it was cynical to invade with the claim that we need to demilitarize Ukraine and that we are now in the worst conflict in Europe since WW2 and the Yugoslav wars. But now they are trying to continue some very weird claims, similar to what happened with the Iraq war, which was unilateral aggression on a fake pretext. Now Russia is trying to find a pretext that Ukraine was involved with weapons of mass destruction, but it’s even more pathetic than the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had such weapons. They are not just trying to solidify their grip on Crimea and Donbas, but they are trying to grab a bigger chunk of Ukraine, though not succeeding yet. It brings us to a situation where we may have some very disastrous outcomes. The worst one is some kind of full scale nuclear war. But there are other scary scenarios. For instance, if we are stalled in a prolonged war, the Russian command doesn’t have much pity for lives, Ukrainian as well as their own. They are not very concerned with heavy losses in the Russian army. Earlier they had Chechens, now they claim to have thousands of middle-eastern fighters from Assad’s Syria. This is broadening the geography and context of the conflict. It seems the war machine failed, but they are trying to get it running. It means more unnecessary deaths for a delusion.
Tushar Dhara: Do you see the war ending in the next few days or weeks or dragging on for months and years like the Chechen wars or the Syrian civil war?
Denys Pilash: Obviously we are hoping that this war ends in the next several days, but it depends on a number of pre requisites. The big danger is that it will be prolonged. It’s a situation where we cannot predict the next moves of the Russian leadership because they are living in a parallel reality. The Russians lied to their soldiers that they will be greeted as liberators, but they met with fierce resistance, and it took them a week to find some local quislings who would agree to work for the Russians. But it seems that 99% of the population rejects them.
Tushar Dhara: Can you tell me a little bit about where you come from?
Denys Pilash: I am from Trans-Carpathia, and it’s an example of how diverse Ukraine can be. We have been a multicultural crossroads community for a millennium. Trans-Carpathia is in the Western part and used to be a part of the Hungarian kingdom, the Transylvanian principality, the Austrian empire and then the Austro-Hungarian empire, Czechoslovakia, the Hungarian-Soviet republic, Carpathian-Ukraine, then occupied by Hungarians and then later part of Soviet Ukraine in the USSR. It also meant that we have lots of ethnic and religious communities co-existing for centuries. We have Hungarians in the low lands, and Romanians near the border. Trans-Carpathia used to be a major home to the Jewish community, which unfortunately got wiped out in the Holocaust by the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators. The majority of the Romani people in Ukraine were here. But even the local Slavic population has a unique identity and there is a debate whether they have unique roots or are part of the larger Ukrainian identity. We have orthodox Christians, Greek-Catholics, Roman-Catholics, some Protestants and Judaism when Jews were here. There was almost no inter-ethnic animosity.
Tushar Dhara: Can you tell me a little bit about Commons magazine?
Denys Pilash: Commons is a Left wing intellectual magazine. It was established more than a decade ago from people in several universities in Kyiv who tried to apply a critical Marxist perspective on Ukrainian society. Ukraine has a complicated history, with a criminal and Oligarchic Capitalism of the 1990s, but also a legacy of Stalinism. Commons magazine saw itself as a way of communication between academics – social scientists, historians – and grassroots activists, trade unions and a broader set of people who can analyze Ukrainian society. We had more than 10 printed issues and now we are online. I am on the editorial board and I am a political scientist by training. I am teaching at Kyiv National University.
Tushar Dhara: How would you characterize the invasion by Russia and the conflict since 2014?
Denys Pilash: This specific invasion and escalation is the result of a unilateral decision made by the Russian leadership which reflects primarily the internal dynamics of Russian imperialism. There is a global level of power struggles. But we have a different level of involvement. When we describe the Saudis’ criminal war in Yemen, you can mention that it is part of a proxy war with Iran, but you cannot say there are two sides to blame in equal proportion. The notion that this was about NATO expansion is a pretext. Inside NATO they have important players that don’t want Ukraine, though they claim an ‘open door’ policy. All the Central European states joining NATO wasn’t so much about an aggressive push from Washington or Berlin, it was about the internal logic of the political classes of those countries. Many of them were driven by the fear of being pushed back to the Russian sphere of influence. The 1990s made the existence of such military blocs obsolete and there was a need for a completely new security architecture for Europe. At that point it seems Russia was also ok with becoming a member or partner, and on their side NATO was turning a blind eye to Yeltsin’s and Putin’s wars, in Chechnya for instance. The Iraq war showed that you could take unilateral action without consequence.
Many people from the so-called anti-imperialist camp see Russia as a counter-balance, blah, blah, blah. But actually, it is trying to become an integral part of the ‘White empires’ that control everything. Their view of how the world order has to be reshaped is to have grand powers like the United States, Russia, China, probably India, maybe Europe, that need to make decisions for the rest of the world, so let’s divide the world into spheres of influence. This is not about security concerns, it’s about security ambitions. When we concentrate exclusively on these big players we lose the existence of the dozens of smaller countries and peoples who are denied agency or subjectivity or self determination. This case is a result of imperial ambitions, and if you listen to the war mongering speeches that Putin made, he was constantly pushing the narrative of the continuation of Tsarist imperialism and grand Russian chauvinism that denies the existence of Ukraine as a separate entity. He blames the Bolsheviks and Lenin for the mere existence of Ukraine as a separate republic. It is about the reconstruction of the old Tsarist empire, also using some Soviet symbols, invoking Stalinist nostalgia. But it’s something completely counter-revolutionary, something monarchical. In the 19th century Tsar Nicholas the first was called the gendarme of Europe because he was suppressing revolutions, for instance in Hungary. And now Putin is acting like the gendarme of the post-Soviet space, suppressing protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Tushar Dhara: How did Ukraine evolve as a nation after gaining independence in 1991?
Denys Pilash: In the 1990s, throughout the former Soviet Union the market reforms brought misery. While we had a constant economic crisis, it is interesting what emerged from this. The first Ukrainian President after 1991, Leonid Kravchuk was a former functionary of the local communist party. He represented a generation of opportunists who grabbed hold of the situation to remain in power. A majority of Ukrainian politicians had no clear ideology or stance. Under the Presidency of Leonid Kuchma, the second incumbent, Ukraine constituted its economic system which is based on the enormous influence of oligarchs. Kuchma was very conscious that he wanted to create a national oligarchic class and this distinguishes Ukraine from other post socialist states. We didn’t, and still don’t, have the presence of much foreign capital, but we have our economy squeezed by a number of local oligarchic capitalists. Our more high-tech industries, Ukraine still has the potential, we have a lot of universities and institutes and Ukraine was an important cog in the Soviet space programme and aircraft engineering. We have the remnants of the legacy of Soviet Ukrainian industry. But it was neglected because of the oligarchic system. They flourished on selling raw materials primarily in metal works and agriculture. We have a number of Oligarchs like [Rinat] Akhmetov, [Ihor] Kolomoyskyi, [Victor] Pinchuk and so on. All the major political players and parties were linked to these financial interests. So this was the architecture of Ukraine since Kuchma.
There was a brief power struggle between President and Parliament under Kuchma, as he tried to grab more presidential power. One of the outcomes of this struggle was the passing of the Constitution of Ukraine in 1996, which was a compromise between different groups. But it’s actually not that bad. It guarantees that Ukraine is a democratic, social state and we have lots of rights in the spheres of healthcare and education, like free healthcare and so on. It defined Ukrainian as the only state language, but it guaranteed the rights of all other languages. Russian is named separately, so Russian and all other languages. However, how the language issue came to the forefront is linked to the political struggles because for Kuchma to get re-elected he needed an easy contender in the second stage of elections. So he used the playbook that Boris Yeltsin used in Russia, who used heavy anti-communist rhetoric to get re-elected in 1996.
This election was not shaped by the vision of how to build Ukraine, but more about political technologies and artificial divisions that could provide an easy way to rally the electorate. The next election was the 2004 ones that led to the first Maidan, the so-called orange revolution, which was contested between Yanukovich, who was pro-Russian, and Yushenko, who was perceived as pro-Western. They started to divide the country on language, foreign political orientation and questions of national identity. The maidan protests were a result of grievances among the general population and they led to mass protests, especially after it was revealed that he may have had a hand in the murder of opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze. The protests were joined by people across the political spectrum from socialists to nationalists.
The roots of the problems of Ukrainian society – starting from poverty and inequality and lack of political representation and brutality – remained unresolved because it was within the system of oligarchic capitalism. We had massive protests every several years: people mobilized, protested, but there were just some changes at the top. In the last presidential elections Poroshenko was running on an increasingly national conservative nationalist platform. He was easily defeated by Zelenskyy who had an inclusive, non-nationalist platform, and won almost all the regions in Ukraine. People wanted reconciliation rather than confrontation.