The Belligerati

The defenestration of dignity and common sense may be among the lesser tragedies of war. But in late capitalism the cynical, the sinister and the stupid tend to be enfolded in the same apocalyptic drive. Consider, for a moment, recent gestures of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, currently suffering under Russia’s increasingly brutal assault. As Western states have imposed vigorous sanctions on Russia, though not as severe as those imposed on Iran or Iraq, others have taken their own initiatives. In the United Kingdom, some supermarkets have taken Russian vodka off the shelves. Netflix has put its adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, among other Russian-language dramas, on hold. Throwing its own small yet heroic spanner into the wheels of Russian militarism, the Journal of Molecular Structures has banned papers from Russian academic institutions. Finally, a string of multinationals like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have suspended commercial operations in Russia. McDonald’s cited ‘our values’ in justification.

Like the sanctions themselves, a form of economic warfare that hurts ordinary Russians, these actions make little material difference to Putin’s ability to wage war. Rather, they are expressions of a kind of identity-formation. On the one hand, we hear from the Wall Street Journal that Russia under Putin is returning to its ‘Asian past’, even though its methods of urban assault are comparable to those deployed by the United States and its allies in Fallujah and Tal Afar. And, similarly, from Joe Biden and neoconservatives like Niall Ferguson that Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union, even though he declares ‘decommunization’ to be among his aims in Ukraine. Though most politicians and journalists would be too sensible to make this logic overt, hysteria about all things Russian entered warp speed on day one of the invasion, especially in the UK. Labour MP Chris Bryant set the tone by demanding, in a tweet he has now deleted, that UK–Russian dual nationals should be forced to choose nationalities. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat suggested that ‘we can expel Russian citizens, all of them’. He later claimed to mean only Russian diplomats and oligarchs, but that isn’t what he said.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian leadership is conveniently airbrushed and lionised, so that it can be identified as an outpost of an idealised ‘Europe’. Daniel Hannan, writing in the Telegraph, declared: ‘They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.’ Charlie D’Agata of CBS, reporting from Ukraine’s capital, was struck by the same cognitive dissonance: ‘This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.’ On ITV News, a journalist underlined that ‘this is not a developing, Third World nation. This is Europe.’ Tabloid journalist Matthew Wright, on ITV’s This Morning, lamented Putin’s alleged use of thermobaric weapons in Ukraine. ‘To be fair,’ he acknowledged, the US had used it before in Afghanistan: ‘but the idea of it being used in Europe is stomach churning’.

This provincializes sympathy with Ukrainians under siege, reducing what might have become a dangerously universalist impulse – raising standards that could apply in Palestine or Cameroon – to narcissistic solidarity with ‘people like us’. The attachment to Europe is meanwhile libidinized through the figure of Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky, ubiquitously declared a ‘hero’ on the front pages as he channels the Churchill myth. Caitlin Moran of The Times confesses a ‘crush’ on Zelensky. The New York Post reports that women on TikTok are going ‘wild’ for the Ukrainian premiere. In the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker eulogises him as a modern ‘warrior-artist’.

There has been scarcely any realistic reflection on Zelensky’s record as a leader. One of the puzzles about Ukraine’s president is the counterintuitive relationship between his funding source and his election promises. His major donor was the brutal oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who owns the 1+1 Media Group that broadcast Zelensky’s popular comedy vehicle, Servant of the People. Kolomoisky was an active proponent of war with Russia in Donbass who bankrolled the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and other militias responsible for war crimes. Yet Zelensky was elected on a platform of opposing oligarch corruption, ending the war in Donbass and making peace with Russia.

Since 2019, the president has made little progress on this agenda. Although he talked up his commitment to de-oligarchization, in practice this has meant pursuing those with alleged connections to Russia: sanctioning opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk – accused of having financial ties to Donbass separatists – and abruptly shutting down three TV stations for broadcasting Russian ‘misinformation’. Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, had his assets seized on as yet unevidenced claims that he funded separatist rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk; and last weekend Zelensky banned 11 Russia-aligned political parties.

Indeed, anti-corruption activities appear to have been assiduously recast as an effort to root out Russian influence, consolidating Zelensky’s grip on power while protecting Kolomoisky. In early 2020, the president sacked prosecutor-general Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who had launched an anti-corruption drive whose targets included Kolomoisky. She was replaced by a former Zelensky adviser. Zelensky also appointed his old school friend, Ivan Bakanov, to head the Security Service of Ukraine; hired Kolomoisky’s lawyer as his administration’s chief of staff; and embarked on a sweeping reform of the security services which Human Rights Watch condemned as a power-grab. Zelensky has also beefed up his alliances within the state by appointing dozens of former colleagues from his TV production company to prominent positions.

What became of peace with Russia? The basis for this would have been Minsk II, signed in February 2015 after the collapse of the initial Minsk Protocol. The accords reflected the armed leverage that separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk achieved with Russian military backing. As a result, Ukrainian governments have always resented their terms while claiming to respect them. Whereas Russia insisted on upholding Minsk II’s commitment to ‘local self-governance’ and elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Ukraine sought to delay the implementation of such provisions, at least until the withdrawal of Russian forces. To negotiate a peace with his larger neighbour, Zelensky would have needed to accommodate the latter’s priorities, which would have been extremely difficult given the disposition of Ukraine’s parliament. (He faced fierce criticism for simply agreeing to negotiate with Russia while its forces continued to occupy Crimea.) Thus, caving to both domestic and international pressure, Zelensky stuck to Ukraine’s traditional position – refusing to negotiate with Donbass leaders, rejecting federalization and opposing the Russian occupation of Crimea. Not only that; he also increased military cooperation with the US and UK, building new naval bases near the Black Sea which Russia viewed as hostile Western outposts.

In all likelihood, neither Russia nor Ukraine wanted to fully implement Minsk II. Russia could temporise over withdrawing its forces while increasing its influence in Donetsk and Luhansk, converting them into ever more surreally authoritarian enclaves. Ukraine was reluctant to pass the political provisions for as long as Russian military and political power in the region would turn ‘local self-governance’ into de facto autonomy. More fundamentally, as Volodymyr Ishchenko has argued, the Minsk dilemma reflected the broader failure of nationalist projects in post-Soviet Ukraine. In part because of the fragmentation of the capitalist class, no single project has been able to secure the assent of more than half the population. The liberal-nationalist wing that took power after Maidan, with the involvement of a small but influential far-right, was never accepted by the majority in Donetsk and Luhansk, historically the most prosperous, industrially-advanced and pro-Russian areas. While Russia’s actions since 2014 have drained support for it within Ukraine, and the invasion has likely destroyed it for good, this doesn’t mean that Zelensky ever had a chance of mediating the contradictions even if he wanted to. This failure caused his popularity to tank. Though elected with an extraordinary 73% of the vote, by June 2021 over half of the electorate didn’t want him to run again, and only 21% said they would vote for him.

Liberated from informed thinking by official forgetting, however, journalists may still partake of the romance of resistance. The lay priest of liberalism Ian Dunt suggests that passionate Europeanists should send money to the Ukrainian army, while hymning Ukraine as ‘the ideals of Europe, made flesh and blood’. That being the fantasy, there is considerable sympathy for those volunteers who, beseeched by Ukrainian foreign secretary Dmytro Kuleba and egged on by his UK counterpart Liz Truss, have gone to fight Vlad. ITV News treats us to an uncritical interview with British volunteers training with the ‘Georgian Legion’ in Ukraine, initially set up by ethnic Georgians to fight the Russians before being integrated into the Ukrainian army, to fight ‘a war of the West’.

Such sentiments have been canalised into demands for a ‘no-fly zone’ – that is, aerial warfare – in Ukraine, as well as increased military expenditures. The usual journalistic galaxy-brains complain that opposition to a no-fly zone is ‘appeasement’, raising folk memories of World War II as though they were the first to think of it, or demanding that Western powers call Russia’s nuclear bluff. It is clear, though, that the bureaucracies responsible for waging war in NATO do not currently want a no-fly zone, because it implies direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed power. The Pentagon even vetoed a Polish proposal to send Soviet-made MiG-29s to Ukraine on the grounds that it would be close to an act of war. Not for the first time, the punditry, in out-hawking the Pentagon, has become more royalist than the king. The only military assistance that NATO countries plan to offer Ukraine is intended to stimulate a protracted insurgency. As Hillary Clinton gleefully suggested, citing the example of Afghanistan in the 1980s without any hint of regret over two million lives lost and the birthing of a violent global jihadist movement, this would bleed Russia. It would also destroy Ukraine.

The belligerati have a surer bet with the demand for more military spending. In the UK, both Conservatives and Labour front-benchers are on board. In The Times, John Kampfner celebrates Germany’s hard turn to armament as bad news for Putin. In Sweden, where public opinion has for the moment swung behind NATO membership, the Social Democratic government has announced a surge in the military budget. The Economist notes, with some cheer, that European armament is driving European defence stocks sky-high.

This has little to do with rescuing the people of Ukraine from Russian incursions. The most likely endgame is, of course, a negotiated settlement. Zelensky, who may not welcome the devastation of an Afghanistan-style insurgency, is currently giving himself room for a diplomatic retreat, while Russia’s negotiating position is far from maximalist. It seems likely that Putin will have to acknowledge a diminished Ukrainian sovereignty, while Zelensky will have to accept that Crimea belongs to Russia and concede some special status for the eastern ‘republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk. Given that Ukraine can’t win, NATO won’t directly intervene, and Russia can only triumph at great cost to its own position (and Putin’s standing with a spooked military leadership), there is no advantage to prolonging the war.

Though the current cultural ferment will not deliver Ukraine from Russian cluster-bombs and shelling, it has in part been harnessed to Britain’s culture war. A typical example is provided by Nick Cohen, who appears to write the same three or four columns on repeat. In The Observer, he claims that a new vital centre has seen off an historically pro-Putin far-left and far-right. This is, naturally, politically illiterate. Putin’s champions in the early days when he was pulverising Chechnya were those paragons of nineties centrism, Clinton and Blair. Putin was an active participant in the war on terror, of which Cohen was an especially mindless enthusiast. As late as 2014, Blair was calling for common cause with Putin. But the claim that the anti-war left is pro-Putin has been integral to recent moves at the top of British politics, particularly Starmer’s attempt to witch-hunt the Stop the War Coalition and crackdown on Young Labour for criticising NATO. The Telegraph, taking the gambit a step further, accuses the RMT union of being the ‘enemy underground’ and ‘Putin apologists’ for launching strike action on the London Underground.

To this extent, the culture war over Russia and Ukraine is more about the moral rearmament of ‘the West’ after Iraq and Afghanistan under the ensign of a new Cold War which declares Putin a legatee of Stalin, the resuscitation of a dying Atlanticism, the revitalisation of a moralistic Europeanism after the collapse of the Remain cause, and the stigmatisation of the left after the shock of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, than it is about Russia or Ukraine. More broadly, it revives in a new landscape the apocalyptic civilizational identities that were such a motivating force during the ‘war on terror’, and which have lately fallen into disarray.

Read on: Mary Kaldor, ‘After the Cold War’, NLR I/180.