Must Ukraine really exist?
By JONATHAN GORVETT.
THE QUESTION OF Ukrainian existence may seem surprising right now, given that thousands of people are currently fighting and dying for just such a place, while some five million people carrying Ukrainian passports, often speaking Ukrainian and saying they are from Ukraine are currently refugees in other countries.1 Meanwhile, seven million more Ukrainians have been internally displaced by nearly four months of brutal fighting, according to the UNCHR.
Astonishingly, though, despite all that has happened since February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his tanks, troops, secret and not-so-secret police,2 artillery, aircraft, drones, missile forces and navy to attack their neighbours — killing thousands of people3 and levelling entire cities on the way — it is a question some still seem to be seriously asking.
Astonishingly, too, this question is also apparently sometimes still being prevaricated over — or even answered in the negative — and not just by Putin and his close associates.4
Many of those giving that negative answer would not ordinarily be described as pro-war, or pro-imperialist, either. Many of them protested (quite rightly, in the view of this writer) against the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 and have been strongly against other imperial power grabs, over the years. They have often even described themselves as ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘anti-colonialist’ — or even Marxist.
Yet, such folk also still ask whether or not the entity referred to as ‘Ukraine’ (rather than ‘the Ukraine’, a southern province of Russia) is in the hands of a motley crew of Nazis, drug addicts and prostitutes5 whose strings are being pulled by fat, cigar-smoking Americans.6
Indeed, their argument seems to go, in effect — or even ‘objectively’ — it is Russia and the US that are really fighting here, with no real ‘Ukrainians’ in this essentially empty, terra nullius. In classic colonialist self-contradiction,7 however, this empty land is also teeming with those savages. The Azov battalion has been inflated into a vast, Barbarossa-sized8 army, even though the Ukrainian fascist party, Svoboda, had received just 2.15% of the vote in the 2019 elections — far less than fascist parties in Russia itself tend to receive.9
The current conflict is also even sometimes described as a ‘proxy war’ between Russia and the US — even though the former country is directly involved and indeed, is actually the invading, war-starting party.10 Yet, however self-evidently bogus this ‘proxy’ definition may be, it is nonetheless absolutely vital to those condoning the invasion, as acceptance of this salvo of rhetorical chaff allows several key things to happen.
First — and most importantly — the ‘proxy’ argument allows for the complete removal of the Ukrainians themselves from the violence now being committed against them.11 With the real victims removed, every horror the US has ever inflicted on anybody else can then be used to stand in for the missing victim. Indeed, with the US the apparent inheritor of the entire Western imperialist tradition (and from a pro-Kremlin perspective, it is vital that no other imperialist tradition should ever be referenced), events as apparently disparate as French colonialism in Mali and British massacres in India can also be raised as reasons for condoning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, as Ukraine itself can’t be accused of much in the way of imperial aggrandizement,12 this substitution of ‘the US/West’ for ‘Ukraine’ is vital for the consequent festival of whataboutism. This giant carnival of bogus comparisons-as-justifications allows a focus on the hypocrisy of Western actions as if that were the real issue here, rather than bullet-riddled bodies in Bucha, or mass graves in Mariupol.
A good, if unusually historical, example of this is the Monroe Doctrine comparison recently used by another writer in this publication and also deployed in a recent New York Times opinion piece.13 In this argument, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is justified by saying that Russia is exercising its ‘right’ to control its ‘sphere of influence’, just as the US did under this US policy towards Latin America first put forward in 1823, or roughly 200 years ago.
One could make a strong argument that US policy and attitudes towards Latin America have in many ways not fundamentally shifted since then, so let us allow this continuity and merely update with a more recent example.
In December 1989, during their invasion of Panama — a place well within the assumed US ‘sphere of influence’ — US troops largely destroyed the entire Chorillo neighbourhood of Panama City, killing many hundreds and possibly even thousands of its inhabitants.14 Therefore, the argument goes, the US — and by extension the entire West — can’t complain when Russian troops treat Mariupol, or Grozny, or Aleppo in the same way. To do so would be hypocritical.
Of course, one only needs to see George W. Bush’s recent gaff mixing up Iraq and Ukraine to be reminded of the nauseous self-righteousness of certain Western leaders, themselves guilty of the most horrific war crimes.15 However, what is then said to ‘follow’ from this is the belief that no complaint coming from the West about what happened in Mariupol (or Grozny, or Aleppo) is therefore justified.
Yet, ‘spheres of influence’ have always been bogus — merely violent impositions of ‘might is right’. All of these horrors were clearly wrong and it should be straightforward and easy to say so.
So, why is there this reluctance to condemn all these atrocities, rather than just some? Why do so many intelligent and cultured people end up supporting such predatory and imperialist behaviour when it is ordered by the Kremlin? Why the ‘Russian exceptionalism’?
This essay will try to address that question: what might account for this mysterious phenomenon — a view that seems to excuse any behaviour by any regime in Moscow, seemingly regardless?
WHILE ‘RUSSIAN EXCEPTIONALISM’ has recently been a feature of discussion pieces all around those parts of the world where discussion is still relatively possible, it is hardly new — but it does have a particularly complex history on the political left.
While Marx — who was something of a Russophobe — saw Russian imperialism as even worse than the other imperialisms of nineteenth-century Europe,16 and Lenin called the Russian Empire ‘a prison house of peoples,’17 the 1917 revolution changed perceptions dramatically, worldwide.
Rallying to the cause, socialists and communists around the globe began a policy of defending the Soviet Union known as ‘defencism’.
Yet, the idea of ‘defencism’ proposed that however bad the Soviet Union might get — and by the 1920s and 1930s it was already pretty clear how bad that could be18 — the USSR was still a workers’ state — a new kind of entity altogether that was humanity’s best hope against capitalism, the real enemy and driving force of imperialism. That the Soviet state had come into being via the brutal supression of other revolutionary movements – such as (with current geographical resonance) the anarchist Makhnovshchina movement that controlled southeastern Ukraine from 1917-1923 – was ignored or ‘airbrushed’ out of the theory.
Thus, even when the Soviet Union invaded other countries,19 or massacred its own citizens, 20 or was incapable of feeding them,21 or blatantly supressed working class movements,22 it was still the Soviet flag that had to be rallied round. A further version of this perhaps suicidal belief was ‘campism’ — a with-us-or-against-us view of the globe popular on the left during the Cold War, which reduced the entire planet to a violent binary of ‘progressive’ and ‘imperialist’ camps.
I mention this here because I can’t be the only person seeing an echo of all this in some people’s current support for the invasion: that however bad Putin’s Russia might be, the most important thing is that it is challenging and fighting Western, capitalist hegemony — the real global enemy — and thus should be supported.
Regardless of how this argument could also lead to support for every dictatorship from the junta in Myanmar to the Iranian mullahs, via Xi’s China and Kim Yong-un’s North Korea, modern Russia is also an entirely different beast from the old Soviet Union (although it seems quite bizarre that this still seems necessary to point out).
If there is any doubt about that, ask yourself if Lenin — or any Soviet leader — would have stood in front of a Russian flag bearing the imperial double-headed eagle to talk of the spiritual supremacy of the Russkiy Mir?23 Or would any Soviet leader have allowed Russian real estate companies to sell luxury apartments in Moscow to any ruling class speculator able to meet their multi-million dollar price tags?24 Under which Soviet leader would working class Russians have gone to work in factories owned by billionaire oligarchs, backed by international capitalist investment funds? Would Gosplan or the GUM department store have ever owned Chelsea football club?25
Modern Russia is thus not remotely a ‘workers’ state’, or even a vaguely socialist one, while it is also far from being a democracy, as Anthony Howell claimed in his recent piece for this publication.26
Putin himself rose to power thanks to a false flag bombing campaign carried out during his time as director of the FSB,27 which created the atmosphere of fear against Islamist extremism necessary to push the hopeless Yeltsin regime into greenlighting the 1999 invasion of then-independent Chechnya.28
That ended in a three-month, annihilation-by-creeping-barrage of the Chechen capital Grozny, prefiguring Russian ‘tactics’ in Syria29 and now Ukraine,30 with mass artillery barrages and rocket strikes eventually bulldozing popular resistance.
Putin was then appointed (not elected) prime minister by Yeltsin, whom he then succeeded as president when Yeltsin himself quit. Again, there was no election on that occasion — it was merely constitutional precedent that the first prime minister took over if the president resigned. Putin then did subsequently win the 2000 presidential election, with 53% of the vote, but amidst widespread allegations of fraud.31 In 2004, he awarded himself a higher margin — 71.9% of the presidential vote this time, in an election heralded by rights groups as the end of Russia’s post-Soviet ‘experiment’ with democracy, given the degree of harassment of opposition candidates and Putin’s control of the media.32 If any more evidence was necessary to back up this claim, then the next 10 years provided ample proof. The contempt with which Putin himself holds democracy (and the Russian people) was laid bare by the merry-go-round ‘tandemocracy’ of alternating premierships and presidential terms he organised between himself and his faithful acolyte, Dmitry Medvedev, as they took it in turns to hold each office — and while everyone and their dog knew Putin himself was in charge the whole time.33
Now in his fourth presidential term, Putin has successfully eliminated independent media34 and physically ‘eliminated’ — i.e. had murdered — many of his opponents and critics. Dissidents have been hunted down and killed abroad, too, delivering the message that nowhere is safe if you go up against the Russian president. Denis Voronenkov, Boris Nemtsov, Boris Berezovsky, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Sergie Magnitsky, Natalia Estimirova, Ana Politkovskaya, Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Aleksandr Litvinenko are just some of the more famous journalists, politicians, business leaders and lawyers killed by Putin’s thugs.35 Post-invasion, the latest evidence of Russia’s ‘democracy’ can be seen on Youtube in the arrest of anti-war protestors simply for standing still, or holding up blank pieces of paper.36
None of this is to say that Putin does not have his supporters — or that indeed, he was not particularly popular in the ‘00s, when he brought an end to much of the hyper-corruption and chaos of the Yeltsin years. He is, however, an autocrat, never a democrat — and an autocrat whose beliefs are deeply reactionary and revanchist.
Indeed, despite decrying the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’ in 2005,37 he had earlier described communism as ‘a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilization’, in 1999.38 That earlier view seems to have come more to the fore in recent years, particularly as the Russian Communist Party itself has grown both more critical of him and more irrelevant, politically.39 Instead, Putin has courted more openly nationalist and fascist groups. His recent attendance at the funeral for Vladimir Zhironovsky, the most infamous of all recent Russian fascists in the Duma, should speak volumes to anyone still considering Putin in any way ‘progressive’.40
THAT FUNERAL WAS officiated by Patriarch Kirill, too — the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy is a key force for Putin, as it both lends a theological/ideological authority to his regime and enables him to reach out to Orthodox communities abroad on the basis of a shared and — very importantly — non-Western Christian religious community. Russia, the Kremlin argument goes, represents a quite different power in the world to the materialist and decadent West and its enlightenment ideas of human rights — a concept repeatedly condemned by Kirill and Putin and his close associates for leading to both Bolshevism and liberalism.41 Putin’s alliance with the Patriarch enabled an early annexing of God, in other words, on his way to annexing parts of Ukraine.
It is, of course, ironic that it was Western, mainly US evangelicals who had poured money and recruits into Russia around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union to re-start church activity after years of suppression.42 This evangelical connection is still important in explaining the sympathy many right-wing politicians in the US have for Putin, who stands for ‘family values’ — in this case, homophobia and the reduction of women to home- and baby-makers. Indeed, restoring the birth rate in Russia has been particularly important to Putin, as armies need soldiers, making the Russian Orthodox Church’s traditional stance forbidding abortion and gay marriage politically useful.43
The Russian Orthodox Church has repaid Putin for his support generously, too — sometimes even over-generously. It was only a last-minute intervention from the Kremlin in 2020 that prevented the giant, newly-consecrated Resurrection of Christ Cathedral outside Moscow from holding mosaics commemorating the ‘achievements’ of Putin and Stalin.44 Cathedral and church-building has been a major part of the church’s global outreach, indeed, with new places of worship springing up in areas of geopolitical interest to the Russian state.45 This has been particularly so in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Putin has sent troops and seeks to expand Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’.
Yet, while such building boosts Kirill’s ambition to be the global leader of Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy is not a monolith. Indeed, it is famously decentralised and while the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul is its ‘first among equals’, there is no equivalent of the Catholic church’s centring on Rome and the Pope.
This continues to pose problems for Moscow, with the Hellenic world, for example, also often seeing itself as the natural leadership of Orthodoxy, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople nowadays represents more Orthodox faithful living in the West than the precious few remaining in Istanbul — leading to charges from Moscow that it is now a US puppet.46
Thus, when the Patriarchate recognised the independence — or autocephaly — of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,47 back in 2018, this was seen by Moscow as a further Western attack on Russia — and, indeed, on Orthodoxy itself.48 It was not only the loss of many believers that hurt, too (they had previously all come under Moscow’s patriarchate), but also the lie that it gave to the idea of Russian leadership of Orthodoxy and thus in turn to the theological/ideological basis of ‘Russian exceptionalism’ — its spiritual uniqueness and difference from Western ‘human rights’ based culture. Many Orthodox, too, it seems, don’t want to come under Moscow’s heel.
Since the invasion, the schism has deepened, too, with Kirill himself openly supporting the Russian attack and describing those who oppose it as ‘forces of evil’.49 The Ecumenical Patriarch and other Orthodox churches have meanwhile condemned the invasion.50 — as have, to their great credit, some Russian Orthodox priests, who have risked confronting their own spiritual leadership, as well as Putin’s thugs.51
The gimcrack ‘philosophy’ and — nowadays — theology of Russian exceptionalism now looks particularly creaky, then. By early June 2022, when this was being written — nearly four months since the invasion began – Putin himself seemed to be sensing this too, increasingly resorting to a much more basic fantasy narrative. After a recent visit to an exhibition on Peter the Great, he told the young people selected for a TV presentation that it ‘seems it has fallen to us to take back and strengthen’ territories around Russia, just as the seventeeth- and eighteenth-century Russian Czars had done.52 His audience’s blood may also soon be spilt for this fantasy, then — this historical destiny that apparently ‘falls’ on them as naturally and unavoidably as the rain, as Russian casualties in the invasion spiral and new cohorts are called up.53
Indeed, comprehensively lied to by the self-deluded leaders of their autocratic petro-state, Russia is now a country whose sacrificial youth were originally told they would simply drive to Kyiv, walk through the Donbass and free Ukraine’s basically Russian inhabitants from the oppression of a few Nazis. When reality hit hard, however, in the form of bullets and missiles, there were precious few Nazis to fight and instead whole communities hitting back, with even native Russian-speaking Ukrainians often deeply hostile. Beaten in their drive for full annexation of the country, Putin has now returned to the original scene of the crime, in 1999, it seems, and the grinding, steamrollering of Ukrainian cities, one by one, a la Grozny.
Perhaps then, we should stop here and simply recognise Putin’s pathology for what it is. It’s time we talked about Vladimir, indeed — and time too, surely, to stop enabling him with the nonsensical excuses of ‘Russian exceptionalism’.
JONATHAN GORVETT is a journalist and writer who has spent many years as an international correspondent, with a particular focus on the Middle and Near East. His Fortnightly archive is here. He currently resides on Cyprus.
- See the BBC report ‘How many Ukranian refugees are there and where have they gone?’
- The Rosgvardiya, or ‘Russian Guard’, a notorious protest-dispersing and demonstrator-bashing riot police unit officially charged with ‘providing public safety’ and ‘maintaining order’ were also among the invading forces in February 2022. See this Center for European Policy Analysis report, for example.
- Casualty figures are notoriously difficult to verify during any hostilities, but few would dispute the ‘thousands’ figure, which may now even be in the tens of thousands. See, for example, The Moscow Times article ‘Russian Army Death Toll in Ukraine Tops 3,000 – Investigation’.
- Including Donald Trump, who claimed in 2017 that Ukraine was not ‘a real country’ and had always been part of Russia.
- On the latter racist slur, see the Asia Times article ‘Ukraine is the hollow man of Europe’ For equally racist slurs see more or less anything said by President Putin on Ukraine since February 2022.
- A particularly extreme version of this is the ‘Trotskyist’ ICFI’s response which not only describes the Ukrainians in general as ‘neo-fascist’ but denies even Russia itself any agency in the conflict, suggesting it, too, is the innocent victim of a Western/NATO plot.
- Classic nineteenth-century colonial examples of this contradictory rationale for invasion include the terra nullius argument justifying colonisation of Australia (see the National Library of Australia, for example), or the ‘empty land’ myth used by the British in South Africa (see South Africa History Online, for example).
- ‘Barbarossa’ was the code word for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which saw Hitler amass the largest invasion force in the history of warfare, at around 3.8 million troops.
- See Fact Check.Org for Russian fascist votes; Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ‘Liberal Democratic Party’ for example, received 5.65% of the vote in the 2018 presidential election. Zhirinovsky, who infamously ordered two of his henchmen on live TV to rape a pregnant journalist who had asked him a difficult question, reported The Washington Post), and also advocated Russia expand to the Indian Ocean. After the Duma elections in 2003, he said, rather presciently, ‘There will be no democracy in Russia. No independent courts. No press freedom. Either accept it or leave,’ according to The Age. Putin was one of the mourners at Zhirinovsky’s recent funeral and spoke warmly of this ‘patriot’.
- As of June 2022, the ‘special military operation’ was still the official Kremlin description of its invasion.
- An example of the kind of thinking of some of the left prior to the invasion is Branco Marcetic’s piece in the US magazine Jacobin. Ukraine and its agency/ability to act is a concept entirely absent.
- Although some 7,000 Ukrainian soldiers served in Iraq from 2003-2011. This is not an insignificant number – they were the third largest contingent after the US and UK – although its usefulness in either side’s arguments is complicated by the fact that their presence was supported by Ukrainian leaders who have, over the years, been both ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-Russian’.
- See Anthony Howell’s Fortnightly Review article, ‘Martyrdom’ and that in the New York Times for more.
- See the late (and great) Martha Gelhorn’s account of this event on Granta.com.
- See IraqBodyCount.org for the continuing and horrific death toll of the war he unleashed.
- Just as an example, in reference to Russian history and Ivan the Terrible, Marx wrote in his Revelations on Russia, ‘Ivan seems to have wrested from the Mongols the chains which crushed Moscovy only to impose them upon the Russian republics.’
- See Lenin’s work on Marxist.org
- See, for example, Antony Beevor’s recent work on this, Russia, Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1922, Orion, 2022.
- For example, Poland in 1920, 1939, 1944-45; Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1940 and 1944-45; Finland in 1940; Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia in 1944-45; Hungary in 1956; Czechoslovakia in 1968; and Afghanistan in 1979. Ukraine itself, of course, had also been the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic from 1917 to 1920, when the Red Army invaded and took over, turning it into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the founding entities of the USSR.
- See this wikipedia article for a general list.
- See the above list, which also includes famines. On the Ukrainian Holodomor, while recognising its controversies, it is worth digging out and reading Raphael Lemkin’s original speech to the UN on this, delivered in 1946. Lemkin coined the phrase ‘genocide’ and contributed greatly to current understanding of the crime. While Russians also starved, evidence suggests that when Stalin became aware of the famine, caused by collectivisation, he scaled this back in Southern Russia, but intensified it in Ukraine.
- No end of examples of this, but perhaps the most well-known was Moscow’s support for the supression of the Solidarnosc movement in Poland by Marshall Jaruzelski in 1981.
- The ‘Russian World’. For a good dissection of this concept, see Samuel McIlhagga’s ‘History Stokes Putin’s Dream of a ‘Greater Russia’.
- This listing of real estate in Moscow provides a taste of the real estate opportunities available to the hyper-rich in modern Russia.
- Gosplan was the central Soviet state planning authority, GUM the Soviet state department store chain. Chelsea FC was owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich until the UK’s sanctions against Russia forced his divestment in March 2022. See an account in The New Yorker’s ‘The Endgame of the Oligarch Who Owns Chelsea’.)
- Here, in the Fortnightly Review. He also neglects to mention that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected, in 2019, with 30.24% of the vote in the first round and 73% in the second (as reported by Wikipedia.org).
- The successor to the KGB, which Putin had originally worked for in East Germany and – weirdly – in Wellington, New Zealand, reportedly.
- Blowing the whistle on the false flag operations got former FSB operative Aleksandr Litvinenko poisoned with polonium on a trip to London in 2006.
- See The destruction of east Aleppo reported by al-Jazeera.
- See Russia’s treatment of Mariupol, reported by Reuters.
- See the BBC Article ‘Putin won ‘rigged elections”.
- See The New York Times article ‘As Expected, Putin Easily Wins a Second Term in Russia’.
- See this Wikipedia article on ‘Tandemocracy’.
- See the report in The Conversation.
- The New York Times helpfully presents ‘Here are 10 critics of Vladimir Putin who died violently or in suspicious ways’. This is just the most well known up to 2017.
- See this piece from the Irish Times.
- Found in the NBC article ‘Putin: Soviet collapse a ‘genuine tragedy’.
- Found in the New Yorker’s article ‘Watching the Eclipse’.
- One of those mentioned in the list of people murdered, Denis Voronenkov, was a Communist Party deputy in the Duma who had criticised Putin and fled to Kyiv in 2017, where he was murdered.
- Watchable here. for example. Putin has also courted Russian Nazi groups such as Russkii Obraz and actively encouraged the fascist Nashi group. See, for example, this piece from The Conversation or Euro Political Report for Putin’s support for Nazi groups in Russia and Europe.
- See this piece from Foreign Policy Obviously, rejection of human rights has also been useful in Moscow’s relations with other regimes that have a problem with such ideas, from Saudi Arabia to China, and with far-right movements, from Trump to Orban.
- On this fascinating topic, see the work of Peter Mandaville at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and Kristina Stoeckl in her The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights (2014) and Moralist International: Russia in the Global Culture Wars (forthcoming 2022).
- The 2020 constitution pushed through by Putin not only secured him the presidency until 2036, but also introduced a reference to ‘faith in God’ for the first time and to marriage being only between ‘a man and a woman’.
- See this piece from Reuters. In hindsight, Putin’s rationale for having the murals removed – that it was ‘too soon’ to celebrate his achievements – takes on a much more sinister meaning nowadays. Was he anticipating much greater conquests than the Crimea to come – a mural even grander?
- See Eurasianet’s ‘Paper Examines Russian Orthodoxy’s Influence on Kremlin Foreign Policy’
- Wikipedia discusses the Patriarchate of Constantinople here and the Middle East Institute’s ‘Biden’s White House meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch offers a unique opportunity’ for an example of US/Russian tensions over the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which includes in its jurisdiction churches in Western Europe, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand.
- See Radio Free Europe‘s ‘Ecumenical Patriarchate Agrees To Recognize Independence Of Ukrainian Church’.
- See Emerging Europe‘s ‘Christianity’s next Great Schism?’.
- See the article ‘Ukraine war: The role of Russia’s Patriarch Kirill ‘.
- See this piece from The Independent.
- See this piece from The Washington Post.
- See the Guardian’s ‘Putin compares himself to Peter the Great in quest to take back Russian lands’.
- See this piece from the Washington Post.