Ukraine: The Politics of Dying
How the West’s political dynamics are changing
It’s Day Two of the Ukraine invasion and so far we have only maps and episodes. The 13 Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island telling a Russian naval commander to “go fuck yourself” before going heroically to their deaths. The Ukrainian aircraft shot down over Kiev. A bridge blown. Some captured Russian paratroopers claiming they thought they were on an exercise…
This morning it looks like the Russian armoured and airmobile advances have made progress on all fronts. Toward Kyiv, through Sumy and in particluar north-west out of Crimea towards Odessa. A Ukrainian summary at 05:37 today suggests Ukraine has deployed elite units to stop two large armoured columns driving down the right bank of the Dnepr, between Dimer and Yankiv about 35km north of Kyiv.
However, what we don’t know are how many soldiers and vehicles the Russians have lost; what their supply status is; and importantly what their morale is, given large public demonstrations in many Russian cities, and mass arrests. Nor is it clear how badly the Ukrainian army is suffering. Nor is it clear what level of civil control the Rosgvardia units are exerting along the supply lines.
National security experts studying the intel believe this is a major Russian invasion attempt, along four axes. The speculative map of Russian intent drawn by Micheal Kofman last night (with the usual caveats) accords with what Ukrainian sources suggested in Kyiv on Monday.
But lines on a map tell you nothing. War — especially wars of conquest — are social events, not just military ones. Russia could achieve freedom of movement along every red line on this map and yet still not “occupy” Ukraine — and indeed be left negotating with a Lviv-based government with no access to the Black Sea at the endgame.
Overnight I’ve had the official Ukrainian government account of the situation. It calls on its Western allies to break diplomatic contact with Russia (they haven’t), to impose SWIFT sanctions (they haven’t) and — as on yesterday’s Downing Street demonstration — their underlying demand is for a no-fly zone, which the West will not impose.
The sanctions story, meanwhile, remains one of tough talking, targeted action but no Western agreement on the “nuclear option” of collapsing Russia’s banks through exclusion from the SWIFT payment system.
To understand where this goes next we need to watch three dynamics: the politics of Ukrainian resistance, the Russian anti-war movement, and the depth of Western rethinking about global security and democracy.
Yesterday was the moment even sceptics finally understood that Russia and China have abandoned the rules-based global order for a mercurial chaos based on armed force. They understood that Putin and Xi are no longer issuing calls for a more equitable global arrangement, but imposing it by killing people. The rules based order has been replaced with systemic conflict.
Most ordinary people have no idea that this will impact their lives — so the diplomatic grandstanding and the fireworks take on the aspect of a spectacle for now. But oil prices are above $100, the Russian stock market has collapsed (it’ll go lower), Taiwan has pulled its chip exports to Russia and we should soon expect disruptions to the European gas supply.
Once they do understand they are going to face hardship, disruption, threats to their personal security and a permanently insecure world, where there are no universal concepts of truth and human rights, the battle is on between three political forces to shape their response….
The first force is Russian and Chinese proxy ideologies: Fox News in America, Socialist Action in the UK, whose Twitter feed — three hours after Russia declared war on Ukraine — hailed the Russian troops as “defenders and peacekeepers”, pluse the combined forces of the AfD and left-wing maverick Sara Wagenknecht in Germany.
Their message will be: American imperialism is as bad as Russia; the Russians felt justifiably threatened; the Ukrainians are all Nazis and — as the impact bites — it’s not worth the cost to you in gas prices, food prices and cancelled holiday flights. For the really dedicated, like Kent academic Richard Sakwa, they will insist China’s vision of the new order is actually better than the old one.
This is the classic appeasement agenda of the 1930s tailored to the TikTok generation. So far, Russia’s sheer brutality and Putin’s deranged narcissism is neutralising this ideology. But it will proliferate, especially among far-right inclined people already trapped in a mesh of conspiracy theories and chagrin at their own powerlessness.
The second force is “liberalism” — which should really be called neoliberal conservatism. David Brooks summarised the moral collapse of neoliberalism in the face of Xi and Putin well, in the New York Times (writing before Putin’s attack). In the 1990s everything was going our way, now it’s going to shit. The reason? The classic conservative view of human nature was forgotten. We presumed people were good, but they’re basically evil and will follow dictators unless we teach them not to. The result:
Today, across left and right, millions of Americans see U.S. efforts abroad as little more than imperialism, “endless wars” and domination. They don’t believe in the postwar project and refuse to provide popular support for it.
In Brooks’ account of the sudden collapse of consent for liberal democracy, social injustice plays no role: wage stagnation, perpetual humiliation, the shattered coherence of freemarket ideology, the gross and expanding inequalities arising from central bank money creation… not worth talking about. It’s human nature that’s the problem.
The third force is what I’ve called since 2015 revolutionary reformism, or radical social democracy. There is a clear agenda in the world, pre-existing this war crisis, that says: for the ecosystem to survive we have to decarbonise, redistribute wealth, take collective (state, common or mutual) control of the economy — and guarantee every citizen maximum individual freedom. We protect democracy by deepening it, clearing out our own oligarchs and not just the Russian and Chinese billionaires, putting the deep state under control and breaking up the tech monopolies.
The critical question, for the fate Western democratic culture, is how this third, progressive faction within society reacts. I place myself in this tradition, so I am well aware of its basic weakness: the liberal assumption that all people are good, and will take rational decisions if they are only informed and self-organised.
Its’ other weakness is to detest and distrust the state. To see Boris Johnson, the recipient of £2m of Russian oligarchic cash, posing as some kind of David to Putin’s Goliath is truly sick-making to all of us. How can we trust the state that launched the Gulf War — in defiance of international law — to combat Putin’s attempt to destroy international law? How can we trust the nepotistic cabal in Downing Street that partied while we suffered?
The answer is, we’re going to have to transform everything. The activists of Sotsialny Rukh in Kyiv, who I met earlier this week, understood this within hours of the Russian invasion of Donbas. Their statement read:
Only a socialist and democratic Ukraine can resist the oligarchic authoritarianism of the Russian Federation. Preserving the independence of our country depends on abandoning the model of oligarchic capitalism. These include the nationalization of the financial system and strategic enterprises, the confiscation of luxuries, and a ban on capital outflows. Without these measures, the burden of military spending will fall on the poor labor majority of Ukraine. Democratization and the unification of society require the rejection of scandalous decommunization laws.
This, in reality, is the call to turn Ukraine’s war of resistance, triggered by the overreach and unreality of the Zelensky regime, into a people’s war across Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
This, of course, is the one outcome liberalism can’t imagine. Johnson and Biden both stressed their proposed sanctions would “hobble the regime over time”. But what we needed was sanctions that would collapse the Russian state overnight. Liberalism never wants to outline the end-point to sanctions — but it can only be either an oligarchic coup, staged by other mafiosi keen to keep their diamonds and furs, or the Russian people.
How much the executives of Citibank and BP would like a Russia under the control of its people — or indeed Ukraine — I leave you to guess.
The conflict that just broke out is not an extension of the 8-year Donbas war. It is the first phase of global, systemic conflict — between democracies and dictatorships, between the rule of law and anarchy, and between truth and disinformation.
No matter how much Western liberals and the left despise each other, it requires them to come together and defend the system in which they can operate.
That’s what I think the Donbas miners meant when, on Tuesday, they were phoning the HQ of their independent union saying — we’ve run away once, this time we’re fighting. Deeply critical of the Zelensky government, and of the EU-backed privatisation agenda, and mainly Russian speakers, they understood from bitter experience there is no space for social justice or workers rights in Putin’s world.
Framing this as a systemic conflict allows us to calibrate the issues of democracy and social justice against the interests of working people, minorities and youth.
- We should support Ukraine against Russia because it is fighting both a war of self-determination, and a systemic conflict between a flawed democracy and a militarist dictatorship.
- NATO cannot and should not fight Russia; nor should the USA seek military confrontation with China over Taiwan.
- We need to turn NATO into a truly defensive alliance, capable of conventional deterrence, with its militaries democratised and its state machine under democratic control.
The US-EU bloc is still — if you want to use the term — an imperialism. Look at the armful of railway contracts Macron walked away with after his visit to Kyiv, even as Ukraine’s railway managers are at war with their own unions. No working class or young person has an interest in fighting and dying for Alstom.
But the defence and deepening of democracy is different. To survive this systemic conflict, Western democracies will have to do something that people like David Brooks think is impossible: they will have to become socially just, transparently democratic and non-oligarchic.
This is going to be a long, people’s war against dictatorship, militarism and oligarchic power. Count yourself lucky you are fighting it in London or Athens — not Dimer and Yankiv.
I got out of Kyiv Tuesday night and am in London. Thanks for all the good wishes. On Saturday at 12 noon I’ll be speaking at a demo outside the Russian Embassy. Please join us.