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A Russian Invasion of Ukraine Could Destabilize Russia’s Political Order

Polls suggest that a large-scale war with Ukraine would not be popular among Russians.

Members of Ukaraine's State Border Guard Service stand at the border crossing between Ukraine and Belarus on February 13, 2022, in Vilcha, Ukraine.

The U.S. and U.K. officials and media have long been warning against the “imminent” Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whatever the prospects of such an invasion are, it also raises an important question about the character of the Russian political regime and how the invasion may change it.

Let us hypothetically assume, as many have, that Russia can defeat the Ukrainian army and occupy a large part of Ukraine (especially the southeastern and central regions). The question is what to do with this part of Ukraine. The problem is not the unlikely massive Ukrainian guerrilla war against the Russian army. The problem is that the Russian state, such as it is now, has little to offer Ukrainians as well as to the world.

Whatever one thinks is lying behind the current escalation — resurgent Russian imperialism exploiting a window of opportunity, Ukraine’s alleged attempts to solve the Donbass question by force, the expansion of NATO, attempts to undermine the Nord Stream 2 (a gas pipeline connecting Germany and Russia), domestic politics in the U.S. and U.K., or any combination of the above — Russia is currently doing very little to convince us that the media campaign about the “imminent invasion” has no real grounds, aside from simply saying so.

Installing a pro-Russian government in Ukraine would certainly solve some of these issues for Russia. However, we should not assume that Russia is ready to bear the costs of a military invasion (some of them discussed below), or that the ongoing escalation is a part of such an attempt. Yet we can recognize that Russia seems interested in promoting the belief that it is capable of launching an invasion, regardless of what it actually plans to do within the strategy of its coercive diplomacy.

Why Guerrilla War in Ukraine Seems Unlikely

According to a recent poll, 33 percent of Ukrainians are ready for armed resistance in the event of Russian intervention in their city, while another 22 percent are in favor of nonviolent resistance. Yet both figures should be viewed with skepticism.

First, other polls show that there are not so many Ukrainians who are ready to sacrifice their quality of life to prevent the Russian invasion. For example, at the end of November, only 33 percent of citizens supported the imposition of martial law in response to a possible Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s borders, while 58 percent opposed it.

Second, the results of such polls only show citizens’ professed intentions, but do not predict their actual behavior. Many people tend to give answers that are socially expected from patriots and “real men” (“of course, I’ll fight, I’m not a sissy!”). For example, according to a poll conducted in April 2014, 21 percent of residents of the southeastern regions (more pro-Russian than the western regions) answered that they are ready for armed resistance in the event of an invasion by Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine. Yet only a very small part of these several million people went into battle when the war in Donbass began shortly afterward.

The Anglosphere media publications currently depicting Ukrainians (including women and children) as prepared to fight the Russian army poorly represent the reality of most Ukrainians. Only a small number of people would really fight. These would be the remnants of the army and police, some of the veterans and volunteers who have already fought in Donbass, and right-wing radicals (such as the notorious Azov movement). Their resistance to the Russian troops would, of course, not be as strong as in Afghanistan, but not as weak as in separatist Donbass since 2014. However, the resistance would be enough to make the established political regime in pro-Russian Ukraine one of the most repressive in the entire former USSR.

What Would Happen in Pro-Russian Ukraine?

Add to this the low legitimacy of a hypothetical pro-Russian government among the Ukrainian population. Since the government will immediately fall under Western sanctions, it will have to be formed from people who do not have much property in the West. There is not much choice in the Ukrainian political elite. Therefore, the new government would consist of some old officials dismissed during the Euromaidan revolution (some left for Russia but many remained in Ukraine) and representatives of marginal political parties. The list of a possible pro-Russian government published recently by the U.K. Foreign Office hardly represents any serious plan but it shows which problems Russia would meet in forming a loyal government in Ukraine.

The initially passive population would likely meet with ever more repression, and additional difficulties due to the Western sanctions. Add here the new government with little legitimacy. The main resistance to the pro-Russian government would most likely not be armed, but unarmed. Its base would be the middle class in the big cities, whose situation would likely deteriorate most steeply.

At the same time, Ukraine would fall now into the same political space as Russia and Belarus and would actually strengthen internal opposition to the governments of those countries (instead of alienating, as happened during the earlier violent and nationalist Euromaidan protests). By occupying Ukraine, Russia would increase the risk of destabilization from within and weaken itself. The polls suggest that a large-scale war with Ukraine would not be popular among Russians.

It is not clear which social group would benefit from the occupation and on whom the pro-Russian government could rely. Russia’s ability to offset the impact of sanctions and repression by improving the living standards of the tens of millions of Ukrainians is very limited. Although wages and pensions are being increased in annexed Crimea and Russia is investing heavily in the peninsula, its general economic situation is still comparable to the poorest regions of Russia. The mobilization and radical redistribution of resources that would be necessary to ensure any semblance of social legitimacy in hypothetical pro-Russian Ukraine would be incompatible with the patronage capitalism of post-Soviet Russia.

Some U.S. government officials are concerned that Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union. They generally ignore that such a restoration would require far more than military expansion — it would require a radical transformation of contemporary Russia.

Passive Revolution?

Some left-wing authors have tried to explain the post-Soviet transformation as a case of passive revolution. This term was made famous by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci used it for various processes, but foremost for the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in the 19th century from a patchwork of small states and territories under the foreign dynasties’ control. As we know, it did not take place as a popular revolution under the hegemony of the progressive bourgeoisie, but through the military and diplomatic actions of the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. Could it be that Putin is now performing a “function of Piedmont” in the post-Soviet space, using military power to compensate for the political weakness of the patronage bourgeoisie and the left movement whose members dreamed of reuniting the Soviet Union?

There are fundamental differences. In Italy, passive revolution produced a stronger, modern and independent state. A transition to bourgeois order and a nation-state took place. The revolutionary transformations were carried out “from above” to prevent the Jacobin revolutionary threat to the feudal aristocracy “from below” (as during the French Revolution).

The problem is that there is no post-Soviet passive revolution, in the sense of forced modernization under threat of a new “Jacobin” social revolution. The post-Soviet transformations are an ongoing crisis that actually began long before the collapse of the Soviet Union. These transformations actually signal stagnation and de-modernization instead of modernization. No post-Soviet maidan revolutions threatened the post-Soviet ruling class of patronage capitalists; they merely helped one faction of that class to replace another faction.

“Civilizational” Identity Politics

The problem with Russia today is not that it is supposedly restoring the “Soviet Empire.” The problem is that Russia is trying to conduct a Great Power foreign policy but is no longer the Soviet Union.

Today’s Russia does not offer anything like the universal progressive project that once attracted Third World countries and mass movements to its side, even when fewer and fewer people believed in the Soviet Union itself, and whose modernization successes still evoke massive nostalgia even in countries where it was imposed by force (as in Eastern Europe). Now Russia compensates for a lack of “soft power” appeal with the “hard power” of coercive diplomacy.

This is related to the notorious Russian “whataboutism.” When one has difficulty articulating advantages one has over their opponent, one tends to rely on the normalization of negative characteristics and actions to which one supposedly has the same “right” as everyone else in the club. For example, justifying Crimea annexation because, earlier, NATO bombed Yugoslavia and recognized Kosovo independence. This is a symptom and consequence of the still unresolved post-Soviet crisis of hegemony — incapacity of the ruling class for leadership in pursuing common interests with subaltern classes and other nations. For a truly hegemonic rule, it is not enough to say that “they are no better than us”. It is crucially important to convince that “we are indeed better than they are.”

After the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva, which followed the Russian-Ukrainian escalation in the spring of 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov published an article criticizing the selective application of “international rules” by Western powers. According to Lavrov, the “rules” are arbitrary and established by a small circle of nations. They are not based on international law and are not deliberated in established platforms such as the United Nations. Lavrov formulates this criticism in the language of “democracy.” He argued that the West is sensitive to violations of “internal” democracy but does not want an “external,” international democracy that would recognize the right of Russia and other non-Western powers to their own sovereignty and national ideology. The West does not recognize the reality of the multipolar world, he wrote. The recent joint statement signed by Putin and Xi Jinping begins with essentially the same argument.

What Lavrov claims here, however, is not democracy but a kind of “civilizational” identity politics. The demand for recognition of the multipolar world — in contrast to the world under Western hegemony — isn’t grounded in any positive project for the good of humankind, which Russia would represent better. Instead, Lavrov simply calls for the right of the self-assigned representatives appealing to civilizational identities to be accepted and treated as equals on the international level based exclusively on their distinct identity claims.

What Can Russia Offer to Ukraine and the World?

Last summer, Putin published the famous article on Ukrainian-Russian history and relations where he claimed that Ukrainians and Russians are “one and the same people.” In Russian and Ukrainian languages, the word “people” means both a culturally distinct ethnic group as well as a political nation. This article has been often interpreted as Putin’s refusal to accept Ukraine’s sovereignty and justifying the invasion threat. However, this is a misleading and simplistic interpretation. Putin suggests that the desirable relations between Russia and Ukraine could be as between Germany and Austria. In Putin’s vision, Ukraine and Russia could be two states for “the same people,” allowing different versions of regional cultural identities to be expressed and to peacefully coexist, albeit separately due to complicated historical developments.

However, this is not the only possible model of two states for “one and the same people” and perhaps not even the most obvious one for Putin himself, considering how long he worked in East Germany. Remarkably, he does not articulate the relationship between Russia and Ukraine as something like that between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which also offered two states for the divided German people but with fundamentally different models (and where an analog of the lost GDR would not necessarily be Russia). In Putin’s narrative, Ukrainians and Russians are “one and the same people” artificially divided by foreign powers. He says “A,” but he does not say “B”: “Our state is better than yours for the same people. We offer a better model and let the strongest survive.” Putin does not say this, not because he recognizes Ukraine’s sovereignty, but because he cannot offer a fundamentally better model for Ukraine than Ukraine’s predatory oligarchic elite and nationalist civil society.

Many accuse Russia of revising the international order. In reality, Russian revanchism is not revisionist, but a conservative defense of the status quo: an attempt to hold on to Great Power status. Here lie the limits of the international appeal of current Russian rhetoric. The world needs change and solutions to major global problems rather than the conservation of the status quo.

In a much-discussed speech at the Valdai Club last year, Putin articulated his vision as “healthy conservatism,” with his primary concern being to prevent “us from regressing and sinking into chaos.” However, when asked about universal values, not only for Russian “civilization” but for all humanity, he remained very brief and unspecific.

An attempt to take over Ukraine would present the Russian ruling class with the choice of either taking the high risk of destabilizing its rule or radically revising its foundations. So far, there are no signs that they are now ready for the second scenario. Yet, however this crisis ends — short of escalating toward nuclear world war — it will increase the tensions between Russia’s Great Power claims and its backward political and social order.

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