VII / Theses on the Situation in Ukraine

by Dylan Riley

History appears again to be running in reverse and, as it were, in negative, with dark and light having switched places. The Russians now deploy the same land war tactics that inspired the Austrian corporal and that, as Adorno pointed out, were already obsolete in the forties. On the grey dawn of 24 February 2022, the strike came from the East towards an oligarchic Republic that, while drenched in corruption, allows for considerable personal freedoms, not, as on the on the morning of 21 June 1941, from the fascist West towards an authoritarian workers’ state. As armoured columns crawl forward amid artillery barrages, the language of the Second World War has suddenly acquired a weird actuality: kesselschlacht, trench warfare, blitzkrieg, front. We had thought that mobile warfare and counterinsurgency had rendered all this terminology obsolete – the stuff of uncles who like to dabble in history. 

How are we to understand this disorienting re-emergence of mass land war on the periphery of the Russian Federation? Our literary resources are wanting. The experience of the war among the troops and civilian populations on the front seems to demand the powers of a Grossman or a Malaparte; but all we have are Wolf Blitzer and Telegram. The reporting seems to have been lost in the lingering fog of war. Our analytical and political writing is equally weak, its answers forming mostly a thin gruel spiced with stale platitudes. From the neo-Cold-War ‘centre’, we learn that Putin is a new Hitler; the exponents of this view can thereby intone against the dangers of ‘appeasement’ and put on Churchillian airs. From the ‘official left’, meanwhile, only pavlovian responses: NATO! Encirclement! Iraq! Climate Change! In the void between these positions falls the thing we need: an explanation. Is one even possible? 

The contributions to this dossier by Volodmyr Ishchenko, Ilya Matveev, Olena Lyubchenko, and Oleg Zhuravlev demonstrate that explanation is indeed possible. The following theses, then, are aimed at complementing the articles of these regional experts in pursuit of a more strategic understanding of the war.

Thesis 1

The fundamental condition for Putin’s rise, and the context in which all his decisions are made, is Russia’s adoption of a particularly radical form of neoliberalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This structure of accumulation was pioneered in the West, but was then exported to Russia just as occurred in an earlier period with Dutch shipping technology, German and British Engineering, and of course Marxism. Neoliberalism, however, was never a developmental project. Quite the reverse: it accelerated de-development, producing a devastating drop in living standards, with millions of premature deaths; average life expectancy for Russian males dropped from 65 to 58 in seven years and the national suicide rate skyrocketed amid the collapse of the formal economy and hyperinflation. Neoliberalism is everywhere a technique of political accumulation based on privatisation, tax-cuts, and monetary manipulation. But in Russia it developed unalloyed with any pre-existing remnants of social democracy, to apply the term generically and loosely. The result was, predictably, the chaos of the Yeltsin system, which it was Putin’s historical task to rationalise and stabilise. As Lyubchenko argues, even the ‘communitarian’ and pro-natalist social policy of the Putin era has served to reinforce neoliberalism.

Thesis 2

Russia’s adoption of neoliberalism was a poison pill because it offered no developmental path forward. Productive capacity was partially restored in the early 2000s. But, after 2008, growth stagnated, and has shown no signs of returning. The 100-odd billionaires who form the core of Russia’s dominant class – those Ishchenko refers to as political capitalists – are a parasitic rent-seeking stratum utterly dependent on political connections, and with zero orientation to investment in productive capacity as a means of making a profit.

Thesis 3

The geoeconomic results of Russian neoliberalism are thus absolutely clear; the adoption of this model implies the abandonment of the secular project, stretching back at least to Peter the Great, of catching up to the West. The dream of the 1990s that Russia would become a ‘Western capitalist country’ is definitively over.

Thesis 4

Paradoxically, however, Russia’s economic decline, particularly since 2008, has not been accompanied by a corresponding loss of throw-weight on the geopolitical stage. On the contrary, it was precisely in the years after 2008 as the Russian economy descended into a tailspin that a number of spectacular foreign policy coups were achieved: South Ossetia, Transnistria, Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea, Syria, and, in the West, election interference on a rather substantial scale. All of these were of course low-cost, low-risk affairs which yielded large geopolitical rewards. But these adventures also sowed the fatal seeds of hubris and self-delusion among Putin and his inner circle the poisoned fruit of which was the project to invade Ukraine. For the illusion could be maintained that the Russian Federation really was a great power; this just so long as it didn’t bite off more than it could chew. But having gathered the crumbs, the temptation to go for the whole cake, which is turning out to be quite indigestible, proved too great to resist.

Thesis 5

One of the major reasons for the extraordinary purity of Russian neoliberalism is the Stalinist destruction of the Bolshevik party in its initial form; this, together with the closely related assault on the countryside meant that the turn towards capitalism in Russia, unlike the case of China, could not occur within an institutional framework oriented toward developmental goals. The structure of incentives within the nomenklatura also played a role in producing a parasitic class of political capitalists. In this way, Russia’s transition to capitalism accelerated the collapse of state capacity.

Thesis 6

With no plausible economic path toward parity with the West, buthigh confidence in the military, which actually is riven with corruption, poor leadership, low morale and supply problems, Putin pursued the logical choice: geopolitical expansion. Since the easy pickings had already been taken, the clear next step was Ukraine itself. He believed that the country might have fallen almost as easily as Crimea was annexed. 

Thesis 7

Putin’s geopolitics stand in a relationship of complete discontinuity to the Soviet past. In the first place the domestic tensions that drive it forward derive not from ‘economic nationalism’, but rather from the legitimacy crises caused by neoliberalism. In the second, this is a war which is being explicitly framed in ethno-national and anti-Leninist terms; on occasion, Putin has attacked Lenin for ‘creating Ukraine’.

Thesis 8

Even if Russia’s military weaknesses have been displayed for all the world to see, it appears as if Russian nationalist sentiment has hardened behind the war effort, even as those that oversee the war effort flounder and squabble in public. For now, at least, it does not appear as if the Putin regime faces an internal threat.

Thesis 9

The war will create an extraordinarily powerful sense of Ukrainian nationalism for the first time in history. This is one of its greatest ironies.

Thesis 10

In general, the irrationality of Putin’s actions reflects the legitimacy problems created by an economic system that offers its underlying population nothing. The current situation in Russia today exemplifies this general crisis in a crystalline form. As Oleg Zhuravlev argues, the Russian state has itself been politicised in the context of mass protest movements in Ukraine and Russia responding to this crisis. 

Thesis 11

Up until know political commentary has been content to recycle the phraseology and positions of the past. The point, however, is to think, and then to construct the analytic tools of the future. 


Dylan Riley

Dylan John Riley is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and is on the editorial committee of the New Left Review.


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