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Four historico-ideological theories about the origin of the current war in Ukraine
The first and the most popular theory sees the war as a war between democracy and autocracy. It is based on a premise that Russia is run by a dictator and that Ukraine is run by a president who is popularly elected. That view however neglects a number of facts including that the governmental change in Ukraine in 2004 was the result of a social revolt against the unfair elections while the 2014 change was a coup against a legitimately elected government.
Moreover Ukraine was, before the war and even before 2014, the most unsuccessful state in the former Soviet Union. Not only was the level of corruption extremely high, the parliament largely dysfunctional, various oligarchs, including the one who helped to bring Zelensky to power, rampant and out of control, but Ukraine’s economic performance was probably the worst of all the republics of the former Soviet Union. While in 1990 the GDP per capita of Russia and Ukraine were quite similar, on the eve of Russia's invasion, Russia’s GDP per capita was more than twice as high as Ukraine’s. The view that somehow Ukraine represents, or represented, in Russians’ own view a desired alternative to Russia’s autocracy is belied by the facts: the movement of population was in the “wrong” direction: Ukrainians moved to Russia and worked in Russia because the wages in Russia were about three times as high as in Ukraine, rather than Russians moving to Ukraine.
This naïve theory fails to address the fact that all conflicts in post-communist space took place in the former federal states that were dissolved along the ethically-based republican borders. And that 11 out of 12 such conflicts were the old-fashioned conflicts about the control of the territory. They had nothing to do with democracy or autocracy. The naive theory also disregards the fact that the autocratic states are not neatly aligned: for every Belarus that is aligned with Russia there is an equally autocratic Azerbaijan that is aligned with Ukraine.
The naive theory is popular in the first place because of its simplicity. It does not require any knowledge of history, neither of Russia nor Ukraine, it does not require any knowledge about communism, it does not even require any view (or even knowledge) of the reasons for the break-up of communist federations. It is a theory based on ignorance, and supported by ignorance. Secondly, such a naïve theory is in the interests of the more bellicose liberal and right-wing circles in the West who see the current conflict as a precursor to a much larger conflict pitting the United States against China. That potential conflict becomes much more acceptable if it is seen as a conflict of values, and not as a conflict about the geopolitical primacy.
The second explanation of the current conflict takes the position that the war is the result of Russian imperialism. According to that theory, the Putin regime is the inheritor of the Tsarist regime that sought to subdue and control the areas around Russia, from Romania (Moldova) to Poland, the Baltics and Finland. That theory is supported to a large extent by Putin's own remarks made just before the war that tried to provide a justification for it. Russia underwent, in Putin’s view, “the century of betrayals” where its historical territories (including the Novorossiya, conquered by Catherine the Great that Putin openly revendicates today) were frittered away by communists. Putin thus attacks first Lenin for having given to Ukraine the Donbas, then Stalin for giving the eastern part of Poland to Ukraine, and finally Khrushchev for transferring Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. The implication, often made by nationalist Greater Russian authors, is that the communist regime was an anti Russian “conspiracy” that dispersed left and right the traditional historical territories of Russia and gave them to other nationalities in order to assuage their feeling of grievance against Great Russian chauvinism.
The theory thus interestingly unites those who argue that Russian imperialism is somehow innate to the Russian psyche, and Putin’s propagandists. The theory has some relationship to reality but the problem is that it does not address the origin of the current wave of Russian nationalism and imperialism. It might explain Russian nationalism of the nineteenth century but not Russian nationalism today, whose roots are much more plausibly explained by what happened since 1917. We move to them next.