As calls grow for an end to the war in Ukraine, a number of recent developments indicate the war could instead be expanding beyond Ukraine’s borders. Russia has signed an agreement with Belarus to begin deploying tactical nuclear weapons there, and a group of pro-Ukrainian fighters from Russia has attacked sites in the Russian region of Belgorod using what appears to be U.S.-made armored vehicles and Humvees. This cross-border raid was carried out in part by the Russian Volunteer Corps, a group that includes self-avowed neo-Nazis. For more, we speak to Gregory Afinogenov, a professor of Russian history at Georgetown University, and Denis Pilash, a Ukrainian political scientist, historian and member of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organization Sotsialnyi Rukh.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Nermeen Shaikh.
We turn now to the war in Ukraine. As calls grow for Russia’s war on Ukraine to end, a number of recent developments indicate the war could be expanding beyond the borders of Ukraine. Earlier today, Russia signed an agreement with Belarus to begin deploying tactical nuclear weapons in the former Soviet state. The Kremlin said the move was a response to what it called the, quote, “sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus.”
Earlier this week, a group of pro-Ukrainian fighters from Russia attacked sites in the Russian region of Belgorod using what appears to be U.S.-made armored vehicles and Humvees. The Biden administration has denied any U.S. involvement in the cross-border raid. On Wednesday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said, quote, “We don’t support the use of U.S.-made equipment for attacks inside Russia.” The cross-border raid was carried out in part by a group called the Russian Volunteer Corps. According to the Financial Times, the group includes self-avowed neo-Nazis.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports U.S. intelligence agencies believe the recent drone attack on the Kremlin was likely carried out by a Ukrainian special military or intelligence unit. The Times says it remains unclear if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or his top officials were aware of the operation.
This comes as a top Ukrainian military intelligence official has admitted to the German publication Die Welt that Ukraine is seeking to assassinate both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Fighting continues around the devastated Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been largely seized by Russia after a brutal fight. Russia is also continuing to attack other Ukrainian cities. On Wednesday, Russian aircraft destroyed a kindergarten in the Sumy region.
We’re joined now by two guests. Gregory Afinogenov is a professor of Russian history at Georgetown University. His recent piece for Jacobin is headlined “Peace in Ukraine Isn’t Coming Soon.” He joins us from Stamford, New York. And in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv is Denis Pilash. He’s a Ukrainian political scientist and historian. He’s a member of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organization Sotsialnyi Rukh and also an editor at Commons: Journal of Social Criticism.
Welcome both to Democracy Now! Denis Pilash, I’d like to begin with you. You’re in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, which has recently witnessed a spate of attacks from Russia. If you could describe what the scene is on the ground in Kyiv?
DENIS PILASH: Well, hello.
And I should start with everyone living in Ukraine can witness and experience the sheer amount of devastation that was inflicted by the Russian invasion on our country. And actually, we have been living here for more than a year in a situation of constant air raid alerts and shellings and missile strikes on major cities, with entire cities in the eastern part of Ukraine razed to the ground. So, Bakhmut has been the last on the list, as this infamous grinder that has been going since from last summer.
But as — well, it seems that the army of invasion failed to complete its tasks, and the Ukrainian resistance did overcome the Russian plans, so Russia is unleashing both in these committed acts on the civilian population inside the residential areas, and it was also their major strategy this winter when they targeted specifically civilian infrastructure. So, they tried to freeze Ukrainians to death by destroying power plants, energy grids, water supplies, heating, but ultimately didn’t succeed, as workers and engineers of Ukraine, they almost did miracles in restoring the infrastructure.
And also the air defense has become more efficient, so most of Russian missiles and drones are being intercepted. So, contrary to some talking point popular in some Western circles, foreign military aid can save civilian lives. But recently, these resumed waves of missile attacks, they claimed many dozens of lives when they hit multistory apartment buildings in places like Uman and Dnipro. But, for instance, in Kyiv, almost we have — always we have every day multiple air raids, but the vast majority of these missiles and drones are intercepted, so people are — got accustomed to some kind of this living under constant attacks. So, for instance, in our university, we have already conducted our classes like in the basement, in the bomb shelters.
So, it becomes some very frightening, but part of this so-called new normality. And this very thin veil that actually hides this brutality of war, it can be just overcome when you open your social media news feed, and you’ll see this continuation of obituaries. So, almost everyone has already friends or relatives whose lives have been lost, and many of these are civilians.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Denis, could you also respond to the latest news, which we read in our introduction, namely that Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, has said that they will start withdrawing from Bakhmut? He also said that 20,000 of his fighters, of Wagner fighters, had been killed in the battle for the city. He also said, the head of — half of whom — half of the 20,000 who were killed were former prisoners recruited by Wagner. You’ve said that Wagner is like Blackwater on steroids. So, if you could respond to the news and also explain what you mean by that? What has Wagner been responsible for?
DENIS PILASH: So, Wagner Group is probably one of the most notorious units inside the Russian war machine. And it has its level, its degree of autonomy, thus all these conflicts with the official Russian army and the Ministry of Defense. But, actually, it has been used extensively by the Russian regime to do all the black, very nasty things, not just in Ukraine, but in many regions of the world, in Syria, in Africa.
We actually had recently a call of solidarity with activists from different African countries, from Sudan to South Africa and Mauritius. And, well, we learned a lot about this presence of the Wagner Group there. And actually, Sudan was the first country that was targeted by Wagner mercenaries, when the now-ousted dictator, Omar al-Bashir, let them into his country and, in a very neocolonial or even classical 19th century colonialism way of doing things, they started looting the natural resources, namely the gold, of the country. And they were very heavily involved into all the conflicts there. And now we are inside another conflict in Sudan where both sides have links to Russia and have links to the Wagner Group. And specifically, like, the head of the Janjaweed, who is now — who was responsible for the Darfur genocide and who is now waging this war against other generals in Sudan, he was in Moscow on the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and assured Putin his full support. So, this was only the starting point. And ultimately, Wagner became some backbone for many military dictatorships in several African countries.
So, it seems that they are very ruthless. They include people who are also coming from a far-right, white supremacist background. They are usually linked to lots of war crimes, both in the Middle East, in Africa and in Ukraine. And it seems that Prigozhin tries to grab every opportunity, every publicity to probably make his appearance even more notorious, because he wants to use this in some possible future power struggle inside Russia. So it seems that he tries to underline, like, his importance both in internal and foreign policy of Russia. And this makes him an even more notorious figure for many people in the post-Soviet space who are afraid that even if Putin’s regime is gone, it may be replaced with something like this kind of even more outright ultranationalist and militarist regime like Prigozhin.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, and only to add that a recent U.N. report accused Wagner mercenaries of involvement in a March 2022 massacre in a village in Mali, where nearly 500 people were killed.
I’d like to go now to professor Gregory Afinogenov. You’re a professor of Russian history. Your recent piece for Jacobin is headlined “Peace in Ukraine Isn’t Coming Soon.” Could you explain why you believe peace negotiations are not possible at the moment and, indeed, why you make the argument that the question is not so much of the U.S. pushing Ukraine to negotiate, but that whatever agreement is reached would result in a very long-standing standoff between Ukraine and Russia akin to what happened in Korea or Nagorno-Karabakh?
GREGORY AFINOGENOV: Yeah. I think if you look at the context of what’s happening in both Ukrainian and Russian societies as a result of the invasion, both societies are becoming highly polarized, in which, obviously, in Russia, liberals have been not only imprisoned, but effectively exiled or threatened with conscription, massive fines and so on, but even passive supporters of the invasion are held to a particular standard in terms of — even high-profile supporters have had their private phone calls leaked in what appears to be, you know, an attempt by the state to threaten them. And, of course, this has also affected the way that the elite competition plays out, as Denis mentioned with Prigozhin, right? The Russian elite that is competing now for the spot of designated heir to Putin wants to be seen as more militaristic, wants to be seen as more patriotic, more aggressive than its rivals. And any of the sort of soft, technocratic liberals that you might have seen 10 years ago have largely been cowed into submission or disappeared, not to say that they would be any better necessarily.
And, of course, in Ukrainian society, positions that were more or less socially consensus, or at least a solid middle ground, 10, 15 years ago have now become symptomatic of dedication to Putinism or support of Russia that is now grounds for, essentially, removal from Ukrainian political life. And so, the sole legitimate contenders for political power in Ukraine are highly nationalist and highly bent on recovering the territories lost to Russia, which, of course, is completely understandable, considering the awful, horrendous nature of this invasion and the true scope of all the lives and the land that’s been lost.
So, as a result, you know, this is not something that the U.S. has caused. It’s not something that the U.S. is — of course, the U.S. is perpetuating it, in the sense that it’s preventing Ukraine from losing, but the underlying social tensions here are not something that the U.S. can remove by asking for negotiations. These societies are now deeply at odds, in a way that’s going to persist for many, many years.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you’ve said — as against recent speculations, you’ve said that Russia has been preparing politically for this war for at least a decade. Could you explain what you mean by that, and how so?
GREGORY AFINOGENOV: I think the sequence of events that started with the U.S. invasion of Libya and also with the opposition Bolotnaya protests in Russia right around the same moment in 2011, I think this was a moment of reckoning for Putin, in the sense that he believed that unless he changed things very radically, he would be at risk of some kind of regime change internal operation. Now, whether that’s justified or not, I can’t say, but — and that’s not to say that this wasn’t based on a paranoid fantasy, and it is. Of course, it’s linked to an idea of the West not too distant from DeSantis’s — right? — as something that is a force for — that is a kind of woke virus that seeks to implant liberalism everywhere around the world and, you know, remove respect for traditional values and so on, right?
So, the invasion of Ukraine was the sort of foreign policy version of that initiative. And when Maidan took place, Putin realized that he could not do to Ukraine what he had previously done to Belarus, which is to make it a highly politically authoritarian and highly politically subservient puppet state, and which has gotten even worse, of course, since 2020, when the pro-democracy protests were brutally suppressed. So, the military route here is an attempt by Putin to ensure that there is no sort of visible post-Soviet challenge to the Russian world order, or the Russian image of the world order.
Now, the failure of this invasion, of course, is good news for Ukrainians, but it’s not necessarily good news for Russian foreign policy. I think it reflects that — it kind of reflects a sense, at least for me, that the regime is entering a kind of spiral of aggression and internal dysfunction that is not at risk of ending anytime soon.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Denis Pilash, could you respond to what Professor Afinogenov said? And also, you know, you’re a socialist activist. If you could explain where the left in Ukraine now stands on this war? You’ve mentioned that the left in Ukraine describes the situation as, quote, “surviving between Russian tanks and Western banks.” Could you elaborate?
DENIS PILASH: OK. So, yes, I would just add probably that this type of thinking that is now manifested by the Kremlin elite and Putin himself, it’s very akin to some kind of Western far-right conspiracy theories, and it’s deeply rooted in the persuasion that no kind of inner change, no kind of revolution, no kind of popular revolt is possible without any foreign meddling. So, they consider any kind of popular unrest as something that is somehow manufactured by the foreign enemies and competitors of your state.
So, actually, this is a deeply conservative worldview. And, of course, it’s based on, first of all, this very deep fear of their own people, that ultimately some kind of new revolution is possible also in the Russian Federation. So, this makes Russia some kind of — like in 19th century, Tsar Nicholas I was called the “gendarme of Europe” as he was suppressing the revolutionary movements, like in Hungary. So, in this way, they also have tried to act in the post-Soviet space as these conservative safeguards, helping the authoritarian regimes to keep their populations in cages, essentially.
But to speak about, to address the situation of the Ukrainian left, so, yes, we are in this challenge that together with the entire population of Ukraine, we are — we need to do this existential fight, essentially, for the survival of Ukraine as a separate entity, as a separate republic. But also we also need to preserve the space for democratic action and to preserve the space for social change.
And this is very deeply connected with the issues of already wartime economy and postwar reconstruction. As what has been exposed at international forums, like the Lugano conference, and now there will be another conference in London, dedicated to the postwar reconstruction of Ukraine, both the Ukrainian and Western ruling classes, they tend to apply mostly very pro-market, very business-friendly and business-oriented approaches in this reconstruction, and, essentially, they will try also to use the situation that was created by this Russian war of aggression to further, like, make more offensive on the social state and the public sector in Ukraine. While we, as Ukrainian leftists, socialists, trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists and other activists, we feel that, on the contrary, the country that has been so heavily torn by the war, it needs a expansion of the welfare state. It needs expansion of the public sectors, as we will have — we already have a huge need in social housing. This shouldn’t be left to corrupt private contractors that have been already destroying our cities from inside.
We will have a enormous number of people who were injured in the war, people with disabilities, with PTSD. And this means that we need more hospitals. We need more medical and psychological help. And we also need to create protection for those who have been affected by the war, for the veterans and for the civilians alike. And actually, this is a kind of reconstruction that was in many European countries after the victory over the fascist Axis in the Second World War, when actually the working classes and organized labor, trade unions, in many places, they were empowered by this anti-fascist victory enthusiasm, and they could pressure their governments to more concessions and to a more socially oriented, more socially just way of reconstructing the economy and the country in general.
So, I think this is also a point where an international left and international progressive movements also can make a difference by pressuring their governments to a more socially, genderly, ecologically just reconstruction of Ukraine, and also taking the issue of Ukraine into the bigger picture of the countries of the periphery. And we actually, at our journal, Commons, now launched a project called Dialogue with the Peripheries, because we feel that people in Ukraine and the Central Eastern Europe in general, they need to build more bridges with the so-called Global South, with the peoples of Latin America, Africa, Asia, because we face different — we have different histories and different colonial and imperialist oppressors, but, actually, we face very similar patterns of dependency. And we actually need to counter them together, in solidarity for, for instance, such cases as debt cancellation. Again, you cannot have a running war economy and postwar economy, when your country is obliged to this vicious circle of death. And Ukraine isn’t the first one that was trapped inside. So, we need to build this more internationalist and more global front for change, that would defy any kind of imperialists in any forms, be it the Russian tanks, yes, the direct brute force that is espoused by Russia, not just in Ukraine but in many other places, or more sneaky kinds of other forms of dependencies that can be, for instance, imposed by the international financial organizations.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Professor Afinogenov, if you could respond what Denis said? You have also pointed out that the war has been a kind of shock doctrine for rapidly accelerating the new liberalization of Ukrainian society. If you could elaborate on that and also respond to what kinds of reconstruction aid is required now in Ukraine and where that might come from?
GREGORY AFINOGENOV: Yeah, the shock doctrine, I mean, it’s very clear. It’s almost a textbook case, right? So, Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, originally proposed a slate of reforms to the pension law and to labor law in Ukraine that were highly radical. In fact, it would eliminate the ability for public — for labor unions to collectively bargain before the war. And they were unable to do so. They didn’t have enough support in the Rada. After the war, there was, of course, a rally-around-the-flag effect, and many of the leading opposition parties — in fact, all of them — were banned, although their deputies remained in the Rada. And they were able to pass these reforms, which, you know, even the ILO has criticized.
These are not middle-of-the-road reforms. They are the far right of the neoliberal European consensus, essentially. And they made use of it by the fact that the regime counts — the Zelensky government counts on not having any social mobilization against it, because everyone is so focused on saving their loved ones from the Russian invasion and in allowing the state to do what it needs to do to protect the country. And so, it’s become this — and I want to point out here that it’s not just Zelensky doing this himself, right? This is, EU aid comes with a slate of conditions that strongly encourage this neoliberal turn. And, of course, it’s all framed as, you know, getting rid of inefficient Soviet-era institutions and so on, but it amounts to a massive reduction in social welfare spending, all of this reform.
So, it really is a question of what kind of Ukraine survives this conflict. Is it going to be a Ukraine that, effectively, as I put it in my piece — right? — is a gigantic special economic zone that has certain trade privileges in relation to Europe, but has much weaker labor protections? Or is it going to be a country that’s just and actually offers a place to live for its millions of people that is better than the Russian alternative? Which I think can easily happen, but the EU is bent on imposing its neoliberal ideology on the recipients of its aid.
And I think it’s really important to address the second part of your question here. I think it’s really important to take the spotlight away from the question of military aid, which, yes, is essential for Ukraine’s survival, but the much greater needs of civilian reconstruction right now are barely being discussed, because the weapons have taken up so much of the space. But it’s the civilian reconstruction, debt cancellation, in particular, as I think is very essential, and the removal of conditionalities on this kind of aid so as to remove the Zelensky government’s ability to wield those conditions to force out left-wing political forces in Ukrainian society, and, you know, perhaps even use some of the levers of that aid to pressure Zelensky to withdraw some of his attempts to monopolize public space. You know, there have been documented instances, for example, of protesters on all kinds of issues, not even strongly political ones, being drafted or threatened with conscription, then being sent to the front as a result of their political activities. This is extremely troubling, because it’s directly threatening protesters with violence, right? And the state currently has not a lot of coercive resources left, but if the war ends and it still has the same degree of intervention in street politics, that’s not going to be good news for Ukrainian democracy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, could you also talk about how the war appears to be spreading beyond the borders of Ukraine? There was the recent drone attack on the Kremlin and, just this week, the cross-border raids by pro-Ukrainian Russian forces attacking the Belgorod region of Russia. So, I mean, what are your concerns about this potentially escalating to the point, you know, that is potentially devastating for the area, but also potentially the world? And even though you have reservations about a possible ceasefire ending in something like the Nagorno-Karabakh situation or Korea, wouldn’t a ceasefire nevertheless result in fewer, and possibly no, lives lost on the Ukrainian side?
GREGORY AFINOGENOV: I mean, I would like to think that, yes. I think a ceasefire certainly would be better than most of the available options at this point.
The difficulty with these current cross-border attacks and the other terrorist — well, and the other, you know, acts of sabotage and so on, which, from a military point of view, are totally defensible, but it’s important to understand that these are not volunteer groups in any meaningful sense. These are clients of the Ukrainian Security Services, right? And what they appear to be doing is they appear to be registering that Western governments are starting to weary of their open-ended commitment to Ukrainian military defense, and, I think, are trying to provoke Russia into some kind of radical course of action that’s going to force the U.S. and NATO to take a more radical position. And in doing — and so, they’re trying to stage these kinds of attacks as more and more obvious in an attempt to get something like this to happen.
Obviously, that is extremely risky as a strategy, right? The risks of this war spiraling out into a nuclear or even a larger-scale conventional conflict are not great. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that because of the way that these forces are established within Ukrainian society — right? — a ceasefire would not prevent this kind of thing from happening. There would be people both in Ukraine and in Russia interested in an immediate resumption of the conflict on any premises. And they would work to constantly sabotage this peace, and they would be able to say, “Look, these are just volunteers. These are just partisans.” And both within Ukraine and within Russia, you have to remember, for example, that Wagner began as a plausibly deniable nonstate organization. So, it’s really important to remember the broader stakes of this conflict and work towards a long-term resolution, rather than just trying to stop the bleeding and hoping for the best.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Denis Pilash, your final comments? We just have 30 seconds.
DENIS PILASH: Sorry, sorry. I would say that it’s quite important now to keep solidarity with the people of Ukraine. And this means that, yes, it needs — we need all kinds of support. This includes, actually, military support, but it also includes this kind of humanitarian aid and resuming the political questions, like cancellation of the Ukrainian debt.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you so much, Denis Pilash, Ukrainian political scientist and historian. And thank you, too, to Gregory Afinogenov, a professor of Russian history at Georgetown University. We’ll link to your recent piece in Jacobin headlined “Peace in Ukraine Isn’t Coming Soon.”
Coming up next, a new report from Oxfam finds G7 countries collectively owe poor nations in the Global South more than $13 trillion in development and climate assistance. Back in 30 seconds.
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