None of us had seen this war coming, above all because we did not understand what its objectives might be. It appeared counterintuitive and illogical, as it still does even several days into the invasion.
Instead, today we are seeing the explosion of different factors operating across the most diverse timescales. The long-term factor is the definitive crisis of a nineteenth-century imperial-national idea that — “put in the attic” throughout the twentieth century by the Soviet experiment — is today anachronistically reasserted in the present by a government that cannot find any other identitarian glue. In the medium term, there is the chaotic and traumatic exit from the multinational, unitary experience of the USSR; the various state formations that emerged from this collapse share a substantial inability to reorganize the relations between countries linked by a thousand threads of history, ethnicity and identity. Then, in the here and now, there is Vladimir Putin’s attempt to “overturn the table” of a landscape of international relations in which time is working against him. If it still seems possible to Putin now to render Ukraine marginal and harmless to him, in five or ten years’ time this would have become patently impossible.
But, like it or not, to do imperialism you need the means, the ideas, and the allies to pull it off. And anyone who knows Eastern Europe is well aware that Moscow’s battle for hegemony in this region is already lost. Its Western borders are dotted with neighbors — from Tallinn to Bucharest, from Warsaw to Kiev — who want nothing more to do with it. When it comes to everything else, they may hate each other and step on each other’s toes, but on one thing they are unanimous: never again with Moscow.
This war is a last desperate blow thrown by a government on the ropes and definitively precipitates the long crisis of Russian hegemony. Putin has made a series of choices. But each of them has reduced the room for the subsequent choices, until there is nothing left.
The war will end soon, and it will end in disaster for Russia itself. It is in fact governed by a worn-out, senile system of power, an increasingly fragile balance between lobbies and corporations with conflicting interests; it is institutionally fragile, based on the clientelistic and paternalistic management of a complex federal architecture (many of whose ethnically non-Russian subjects can hardly look favorably on Putin’s imperial-national turn); it is economically interconnected with the West, in a subaltern position on all fronts except the gas supply; it has a demoralized and disillusioned public opinion, which will certainly react with anger to the inevitable, enormous costs of an unpopular war (a great many Russians have ties of origin and/or kinship in Ukraine).
What will happen in the next few hours? At the time of writing, negotiations at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border are just getting underway, so it’s too early to talk about developments on the ground. However, we can say what Putin has already “achieved” so far (here I paraphrase historian Francesco Dall’Aglio’s analysis):
- Putin has provided Ukraine with a powerful national mythology. He claimed that Ukraine did not exist; well, there’s little denying it does now.
- He has provided a striking legitimacy for the far-right, not to say Nazi, elements of Ukrainian society, who will claim full credit for the resistance against the invader (as they are already doing).
- This has cleared the way for fascists in Russia as well. The official propaganda formally says that “we went there to liberate them,” but the tone of public discourse is set by nationalists, militarists, and fascists of all stripes.
- It has destroyed any semblance of soft power that Russia had still just about managed to preserve in Eastern Europe.
- It has enlarged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or made it attractive to countries that previously were not interested in joining (like Finland).
- It has greatly complicated life for Russian minorities in former Soviet Union countries.
- It has greatly complicated the lives of Russian citizens.
- It has soured relations with Beijing, which, even apart from its own major interests in Ukraine, upholds the inviolability of state borders as its primary national doctrine and has no desire to hang itself from Putin’s rope.
All this in just four days — well, it’s quite an achievement.
The result, if the current power system in Russia does succeed in maintaining itself, will be a Russia driven into the corner of the “rogue states” — impoverished, perhaps forced into a subordinate reliance on China, in the face of a hardened NATO in the West. Putin’s war will give Ukraine itself unprecedented centrality to this region: from this conflict, it will acquire prestige, newfound patriotic cohesion, and — we may well predict — long-term political hegemony for the most intransigent nationalist right. Such a Ukraine will be the keystone of US policy (let alone “European” policy) in the Slavic-Eastern area, meaning a substantial rebalancing — or even reversal — of its role with what remains of Russia’s.
How can Russia find its way out of this? There are several possibilities: 1) continuity with the current system of power, with the consequences just described and an inevitable long-term decline; 2) with a coup d’état and the removal of Putin to preserve the lobbies and corporate interests that he no longer protects; 3) with a real change of political leadership; 4) with the collapse of the state. The possible consequences of each of these scenarios are too clear for it to be worth my illustrating further.
The best outcome, at the moment, would certainly be for Putin to be removed, with a process allowing the at least partially free election of a provisional government (just like 105 years ago!). But who in today’s Russia could oversee such a process?
Not the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, whose latest statements [supporting the war, albeit hypocritically calling for civilian lives to be spared] have discredited himself and the church; not the members of the government and Parliament, nor those of the Constitutional Court. These are all Putin’s creatures. Decades of drift have brought the country to a point where it is not possible to point to any figure or institution who could serve as a guarantor of the democratization process.
Those of us — like the present writer, a professor of Russian literature — bound by a thousand threads to that country and its people cannot help feeling terrible anguish in this moment. What can we do? Not much — but let us do that, at least.
Let’s help “thinking” Russians (those not blinded by propaganda and resentment, and they are many!) not to feel alone. Help them to express the tragedy that is above all hurting their Ukrainian brothers and sisters but also Russians insofar as they are complicit in this war, with all that comes with it in shame, humiliation, and fear for the future. Let’s support them in their attempt to develop the tools to think about “what’s next,” to bring together the largest possible part of public opinion around new ideas, for a regeneration of their country, of their state, of their identity.
Currents of Thought
Indeed, it’s worth talking about Russian public opinion on the war. Russians, in their great majority, are dazed. Nobody thought that this outcome was possible: Ukraine is “almost home,” they speak Russian. For Russians, what is happening is beyond belief and reason.
In addition, the Russian “on the street” does not realize what will happen tomorrow: he thinks he will continue to live as before; he has been told for years that the Russian currency fund, gold reserve, and so on will allow the country to be totally self-sufficient. But in reality, with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) blockade being extended to the national bank, too, currency funds (mostly deposited in foreign banks) will be frozen, and gold is of little use for making current payments. Even if they were thinking of selling the gold at this point, it is unclear to which accounts they would have the proceeds paid into. Given all this, the ruble will plummet and import channels (which cover practically everything) will begin to seize up; prices for consumer goods will skyrocket, and goods will also become scarce, in a country with already vast inequality of incomes and without effective welfare protections. Outside Moscow, Russians’ average income ranges from €300 to €600 a month.
The Russian economy is more fragile than people think, marked by decades of theft at all levels. Even the main airlines don’t own their planes, for they are almost all leased from foreign companies: soon, you will not be able to fly in Russia anymore.
One further thing needs to be understood. Probably, in percentage terms, a majority of Russians today believe the propaganda. But what does this propaganda say? It tells them that this is not a war; it is not violence against the Ukrainian people, but an operation made necessary to save the Ukrainian people themselves from militarism, Nazism, and subjugation to American imperialism by a clique of sellouts. This is all false, yes; but those who believe in it are not driven by selfish motives, they do not want war and oppression, they do not like violence for violence’s sake. Once the war is over, it is possible and necessary that people collectively become conscious of what has really happened.
The problem is that in Russian public opinion there is also a strong, actively nationalist and authoritarian element. Perhaps it is not very large in terms of absolute numbers, but it is also determined, influential, and reasonably wealthy. There are corporations of soldiers and veterans, policemen and former cops, those gravitating around the galaxy of secret services, groups linked in various ways to the arms trade, a whole undergrowth of “patriotic” associations made up of people with good military training and devoted to militarized sports. . . . The risk is a bloody civil war — and that in a country with atomic bombs. With an outcome that may well be a fascist dictatorship.
So that’s why I’ll conclude saying this: Europe must now calm down, stop sending weapons, and offer a diplomatic way out to Russia. Then, we will see.