Behind Russia’s Ukraine Disaster

an interview with Boris Karagarlitsky

BORIS KAGARLITSKY IS a sociology professor at the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences and the former director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements and an editor of Rabkor (Workers’ Correspondence). As a longtime activist, he is the author of many books, including Russia from Yeltsin to Putin, Empire of the Periphery, Russia in the World System and The Revolt of the Middle Class. In 1988 he won the Deutscher Prize for his book, The Thinking Read: Intellectuals in the Soviet State. On March 22 Suzi Weissman spoke with Kagarlitsky for Jacobin Radio. The transcript is excerpted here. You can listen to the full interview at Jacobin Radio.

Suzi Weissman: What do you think were Putin’s objectives in going to the war? What were the domestic pressures and economic constraints? Almost all of us who study Russia that he was massing troops but that something would happen and he would back down. It was an unthinkable shock that he did this.

Boris Kagarlitsky: I have to confess, I also didn’t believe that he was going to invade, but I did expect a kind of simulated war where there would be some fighting. I thought it would just be a little on the border of Donetsk and then an announcement of victory. That would have been the solution for him. The war can only be explained through Russian domestic politics. It has no international meaning.

From the very beginning everybody was certain he was not going to start the war. Russia doesn’t have the resources: it doesn’t have enough troops, enough weapons and even enough supplies, including enough food to feed the soldiers. The army was totally unprepared for the war. The military budget was enormous, but it was all stolen.

Just to give you an example, when some Russian soldiers were taken prisoner in Ukraine, they confessed that they had food rations, but these expired in 2015. For eight years, every single ration was stolen. That gives you the level of understanding Russian corruption.

I expected Ukrainian corruption to be more or less at the same level. But interestingly enough, the Russian government proved to be even more corrupt. And that’s one of the reasons why Ukrainians are winning. And they are winning.

SW: For the thirty years since it became independent, Ukraine has been considered a basket case governed by a rotating group of very corrupt people.

BK: In Russia it’s not just corruption. I think the election last September made war inevitable; it became absolutely clear that Russia is turning against Putin. In reality, Putin’s party lost every single constituency; the popularity of the ruling party collapsed. They had massive fraud because we know what the opinion polls revealed. We know that people in the government also knew what was the real situation on the ground.

SW: Everyone talks about how the pension “reform” was a key moment that turned the population against Putin.

BK: The state has stolen people’s resources. The pension savings were actually stolen. People now have to work five years longer to receive their pensions, which amount to less. It was a major theft — and everybody in the country understood it was theft. It’s very important that it was unpopular.

Putin tried to play a simple trick: it was the government which was responsible and he was outside of the process. Pretending he was like a British queen who had nothing to do with it, he had to intervene personally. As a result, his popularity collapsed. It’s finished and there is no way to rebuild it.

But these people are going to stay in power. They don’t even think of any rotation of personnel, let alone imagine political change. They are expecting to be in power for another at least another 12-15 years.

They needed some kind of legitimization because they totally lost legitimacy. So the war is about returning the domestic legitimacy of the regime. That’s what the war is about. Everything else is bullshit, everything else is just a fig leaf.

I think they miscalculated. First of all, they didn’t have any clear goal for the war. Even when you ask officials what’s the goal, they can’t explain it. Is it to conquer the whole of Ukraine and put in their puppet government? Is it to expand the territory of Donetsk and Lugansk, turning them into Russian territory, or forcing Ukraine to recognize the annexation of Crimea? They change the explanations time and again.

Restoration of Empire?

SW: I thought Putin’s speech was completely deranged when, in leading up to the war, he talked about restoring Russian greatness. This is the same speech where he denied that Ukrainians are any different from Russians and in any case, Ukraine was an invention of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A lot of people are saying that what Putin is trying to accomplish is the restoration of Russian power in the world.

BK: Well to some extent that’s the kind of ideology they have. But what does that mean? Well, it seems that Russian politicians were greatly impressed by Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

So it’s very much like “Make Russia Great Again.” But at least Trump had some idea of the great ‘60s and ‘70s, the times of American domination, when it was prosperous and producing something industrial. It’s a kind of utopia moment of industrial welfare capitalism, but without the welfare.

Putin is doing to try to do the same thing with the memories of the Soviet Union. And to some extent in the Russian empire. But it doesn’t work because these are very different societies. These are very different countries and very different collective psyches.

In a certain way, this moment is very similar to the First World War, which was also part of the crisis of the liberal capitalist imperialist system. So in that sense, it’s a war of capitalism. But even before Putin’s war failed militarily, it failed as a public relations operation.

With 100% certainty it was supposedly going to last three to five, maybe ten days. Ten days was the worst case scenario — ten days was considered to be the nightmare because the army didn’t have resources for ten days.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, it was extremely popular and not just because the Russians were nostalgic for the empire. Not at all. Crimea always considered itself to be part of Russia. Crimean people were always hostile to Ukrainian state. There were always attempts to separate. And then in 2014 there was no legitimate government in Kiev.

In Kiev, with its mixture of coup d’état and rebellion, the government had no longer had legitimacy. At that point, Crimea revolted. There was a rebellion, a people’s revolt. Then the Russians intervened and annexed the territory, but with tremendous popular support on the ground.

Then Donetsk and Lugansk tried to do the same and didn’t get enough support from Russia. Russia supported them politically and to some extent, militarily, but they weren’t annexed. People expected and wanted to be annexed.

SW: There was a team in eastern Ukraine last the summer and they asked people in the Donbass what they wanted. They replied they didn’t want independence because they thought their leaders were corrupt. They didn’t want to be with Ukraine because they said Ukrainian leaders were corrupt. But they said they’d prefer to be part of Russia.

BK: Some people ask me, why did you support Crimea and Donetsk in 2014? Why don’t you support the invasion into Ukraine?

But people in Ukraine don’t want to be part of Russia. Ukrainian citizens have shown that they don’t want to be part of Russia. We support self-determination — we support democratic decisions. We support people in their right to decide where they belong.

But the eight years of Russian indirect rule in Donbas was a tremendous failure. And people in Donbas became very confused and frustrated. Quite a lot of them are very unhappy with what Russia is doing, given the situation inside Ukraine, even in the Western Donbas regions which are under Ukrainian control.

We see that people there are now either silent or they’re fighting back when Russian troops invade. There is total disillusionment with the Russian government.

I know quite a few people who were active in Donbas and in Odessa in 2014. Now they’re either peacefully opposing the war or joining their so-called territorial defense, a kind of militia. Quite a few leftists and anarchists joined the militias. Why? Not because they were happy with what was happening in Ukraine, but because somebody was invading their country.

Putin wanted to do a remake of the so-called Crimean Consensus, to return back to the situation of 2014, restore his popularity, and reproduce the same kind of enthusiasm. It didn’t work out this way.

Actually he is doing a remake of the 19th century Crimean War, which was a major defeat of Russian empire. Usually with a remake of a film, it’s very rare that you do it well. In politics, it’s even worse.

People in Russia were also extremely impressed by (the democratic and labor uprising) in Kazakhstan. Now Kazakhstan is undergoing a slow but serious process of democratization. For the first time in many years, the labor movement is becoming a major force, the driving force for the democratization process in Kazakhstan. It’s very interesting and very exciting.

My point is that the situation in Russia is very mixed. The country is incredibly divided, while Ukraine has become united. There are some who are very dependent on TV propaganda, especially the elderly. But younger people are Internet folks with a totally different view. These reflect two different realities.

SW: Are the divisions based on class or is it really just access to information?

BK: There is no sign that the working class supports the war. But the Russian working class is weak, defeated by enormous deindustrialization. The Russian bureaucracy is huge; they side with the government no matter what it does. If tomorrow we have a different government, these people will immediately side with the new government. All these people were communists. Then they became liberals, then they became good patriots.

If necessary, they will become communists again or whatever. Liberals or fascists, it doesn’t matter. But what really makes quite a few people scared is the trend, especially outside of Moscow, which can be described as a sort of fascist political practice.

It’s not just about repression. It’s about organizing people, making them march in support of the government. They are forced to participate in rallies when they don’t want to go. They face punishment if they don’t go, they face punishment if they don’t raise their hands in favor of the resolution supporting the war.

This kind of propaganda is much worse than what we get on television. You get all these local enthusiasts who are actually promoting Russian fascism. It’s very much Mussolini-style fascism, a very strange racism because it’s about Russians against Ukrainians. They say that Ukrainians are biologically different from us.

SW: But at the same time they deny that that Ukrainians are a nation. Isn’t that pretty contradictory?

BK: It’s full of contradictions with very single line contradicting the other line. But the important thing is the kind of emotion they are promoting.  It’s hatred, it’s confusion and subordination.

Some people say, oh, it was like that in the Soviet Union. It was not like that in the Soviet Union because in the Soviet Union at least there was some kind of ideology, some kind of social and political practice.

I don’t know. I didn’t live under Stalin. The Soviet Union, which I remember, was cynical in a sane way. That is, they followed some rituals but were cynical about them; they were religious rituals that are just part of life. Now they want people to be enthusiastic. If you are not enthusiastic, you’re going to be severely punished.

A kind of dictatorship over emotions is being imposed. I know quite a few people who live in Moscow because it doesn’t work this way there. But in Moscow, in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), in Irkutsk, in Krasnoyarsk, in Yakutia the consolidation against protest is intense. You feel it on the street.

But in small towns and medium-sized cities, it’s very different. And there are people who are sort of against the war. They’re very much isolated and they’re afraid. They’re really afraid because they’re living under permanent pressure that something is going to happen to them.

SW: Do the elderly people who only know the war through television, have Ukrainian relatives they talk to or sons or brothers or grandchildren who are fighting? Will the charade about this just being a “military operation” and not an all-out war, last? At some point reality intrudes, doesn’t it?

BK: I think we’re very close to this moment when reality intrudes even into the world of television. But unfortunately, I hate to say it, very much depends on the defeat of troops on the ground. I don’t want Russian soldiers to be killed, but unfortunately, defeat on the ground is forcing public opinion to change. That’s what’s happening.

Quite a few soldiers didn’t even know that they were going to war. They were told it was a military exercise. When Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine tried to call their wives or their mothers and report what’s happening, their relatives were afraid to tell others what they learned.

Russian troops come from small towns and provincial cities. Although we have the draft, in practice younger people in Moscow or Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) don’t usually don’t serve. Soldiers are from poorer families, from places that are less developed. The morale of the Russian troops is very low as far as we know. But most of the reports come from the Ukrainian side.

We do know the troops are not properly supplied and they are not motivated. Further, it seems that command and control structures are in disarray. They’re trying to fight the war in the same way as it was fought in 1914 or at least 1945.

There is the massing of infantry tanks, while the Ukrainians are fighting a high tech war with drones and anti-tank missiles. That’s why they suffer fewer losses. The Russian army also has these weapons but doesn’t know now to use them.

Economic Crisis and the Future

SW: What’s the impact sanctions will have? Putin’s miscalculation was so large that almost everything that he asked for, the reverse came true. Now he’s been defeated militarily as well as his political project. What does this mean? Will Putin be forced to resign? What’s the end game here?

BK: The Russian economy is more dependent on imports than it was ten years ago. Putin said we are not going to say buy foreign cars anymore; we are going to build our own.

What did they do? They established an assembly line which builds cars made of components which are sent from abroad. Once the components stop coming, the industry immediately stops. Only 15% of the necessary components for manufacturing are produced in Russia.

So the economy is slumping. It’s absolutely terrible. Some things can be made locally, but in general we are facing enormous economic collapse, and it will affect every area of life, every family, very flat.

It will hit those people who are now supporting Putin in smaller towns. In bigger cities like Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Irkutsk or Krasnoyarsk there are better chances of survival.

I think the military already understands what kind of mess we are in. So what’s the endgame? We definitely have to face some sort of political change. How is it going to happen? I don’t know, because it’s not going to happen from the bottom up. If it starts with some kind of coup d’état or somebody forcing Putin to resign, they will have to open up the system.

We would need radical measures to clean up the mess. Some liberal economists started panicking, saying that the kind of economic situation we’re facing is creating the possibility or even the necessity for the left to come to power, that only the left has ideas about what to do as the market economy collapses.

Is the left is ready? We don’t have any kind of party, not even a proper Socialist Party. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation backs the war. But at least there are some dissidents or semi-dissidents.

At the same time, we have a lot of movements. We have a lot of leftists, anarchists, and social democratic and radical communist movements. We have a very good intellectual milieu for the left.

We really have these people and these currents. So what happens if we have a political opening? We have to unite these forces and form some kind of coalition and try to contest power.

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