The Seeds of War

The Seeds of War

Putin sees Russian statehood and Russian national and linguistic identity as inextricably connected, and he is willing to spill Russian and Ukrainian blood to protect this nationalist vision.

An anti-war protester in Saint Petersburg, Russia on February 27, 2022. (Sergei Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Nothing the U.S. left can do or say will change the course of the war in Ukraine, but it was still embarrassing to find DSA’s International Committee obsessing over “NATO’s militarization” in the lead up to the invasion. (A subsequent statement by the National Political Committee rightly condemns the Russian invasion but implies that NATO expansionism “set the stage” for the conflict.) There are excellent reasons to criticize NATO, and U.S. intervention abroad, both generally and in this specific context—and, of course, our primary duty as socialists is to critique the actions of our own government rather than provide left-wing versions of its own propaganda against hostile states. But it is all too easy for this kind of reasoning to turn into a form of provincialism that sees only the United States and its allies as primary actors; other countries, in this view, only act in response to U.S. aggression and not for reasons of their own. This is what happened here.

The truth is, NATO has no more devoted accomplice than Vladimir Putin. No other traditional enemy of U.S. imperialism has done more to validate the fever dreams of the most extreme hawks. Twenty years ago the alliance was a Cold War relic whose relentless expansion at Russia’s expense was a transparent U.S. attempt to cement unipolarity while its rivals were weak. More recently, it has been riven by internal crises, from Turkish aggression in Syria and Armenia to Donald Trump’s clear contempt for the organization. Yet each time Putin has escalated a political conflict into a military one, or a local military conflict into a larger one, both leaders and citizens of NATO states have been reminded that there are, after all, some benefits to living under the Article 5 umbrella. In Ukraine, only a small minority supported NATO accession a decade ago; today, after years of Russian-instigated conflict and territorial losses, a clear majority does. Traditionally, the alternative favored by NATO opponents has been “Finlandization,” in which smaller states agree to a neutral role in great-power politics in exchange for guarantees of sovereignty and internal noninterference. Thanks to Putin’s actions, this option is now evaporating: Finland itself now supports hardline sanctions on Russia and has joined other European states in sending military shipments to Ukraine.

So if Putin’s principal motivation is to resist uncompromising NATO expansionism, why has he behaved in a way that guarantees that his neighbors will see him as a growing security threat? His own speeches and writings offer an answer to this question. For Putin, resisting NATO is in fact secondary to the larger goal of reuniting Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians under Russian rule—or, failing that, at least ensuring that Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union are either in a secure alliance bloc with Russia (as in the case of Belarus and Kazakhstan, which have significant Russian-speaking populations) or are governed by it directly. Putin sees Russian statehood and Russian national and linguistic identity as inextricably connected, and he is willing to spill Russian and Ukrainian blood to protect this nationalist vision. He also seems to believe that the clock is ticking—younger generations of people in the post-Soviet world are less likely to see the region’s political boundaries as a problem in need of fixing. Hence the desperate, fatal urgency of Putin’s moves in 2013–14 and again in 2022.

This explains Putin’s particular vitriol toward Ukraine—not just its pro-Western government, but to the nature of Ukrainian statehood itself, which he sees as being artificially constructed by Lenin during the 1920s. Putin does not deny the existence of a Ukrainian national identity or movement prior to the Revolution; instead, what he objects to is the Soviet predilection for attaching primarily Russian-speaking regions like Crimea, the Donbass, and Kharkiv to a republic he sees as vulnerable to control by nationalist Ukrainians who reject Russia’s imperial reach.

Putin describes his objectives in Ukraine as “demilitarization and denazification,” but the practical implications of this remain unclear. An essay by the columnist Petr Akopov published briefly on the website of the official news agency, RIA Novosti, and then immediately retracted—having apparently been drafted in anticipation of a quick victory—gives some insight into what those goals might entail. The question of national security, it argues, is only of “secondary significance.” More significant is resolving the “complex of a divided people, the complex of national humiliation” by reuniting Russia with Ukraine. If Putin had not taken decisive action, it argues, “returning Ukraine” would have become more difficult with each passing decade. The essay shows that Russia will not be content with a few annexations in the Donbass—the goal is to “reconstruct, reestablish, and return [Ukraine] to its natural condition as a part of the Russian world.” Though the essay claims that “this will not mean the liquidation of its statehood,” this formula clearly implies the creation of a loyal satellite in Ukraine against the wishes of its population. Far from preventing a new Cold War, such a move would guarantee it.

The current Russian invasion has much in common with the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both conflicts derive indirectly from Bolshevik policy on nationalities, which sought to give nondominant nationalities nested structures for local self-governance and cultural autonomy while ensuring political cohesion through firm Communist Party rule. When the party began to weaken, these political structures created space for nationalist elites to take power and engage in violent conflicts. In former Yugoslavia, a similar set of policies collapsed into a rapid and catastrophic civil war as the socialist state unraveled. The former Soviet Union seemed to have done better, despite smaller conflicts in places like Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s (the latter of which formed the first round of the 2020 war). Yet, as we are discovering, the seeds of war may prove more long-lasting than anyone initially thought, especially when they are fertilized by nationalist revanchism.

Like other post-Soviet states, Ukraine has certainly engaged in nationalist posturing both internally and externally. Neo-Nazi groups, while not influential in the government apparatus, have often been able to operate with impunity or with the tacit encouragement of some government officials. Yet to draw an equivalence or to see a possible justification here would be profoundly mistaken. Despite Putin’s unsubstantiated claims of ethnic cleansing or “genocide” in the Donbass, Russia has consistently driven the violent escalation of conflict, beginning in 2013–14 when Russian agents like Igor Girkin helped convert protests in the Donbass against the newly established Maidan regime into a militarized insurgency supported directly by Russian forces. Both sides have since shown a willingness to violate ceasefire agreements and target civilian populations, but Ukraine ultimately seeks a restoration of the status quo ante; only Russia has larger imperial goals in mind, precluding a genuine peace. As for the neo-Nazis, the ongoing struggle has given them resources and legitimacy they would never have otherwise had—and despite their neo-Stalinist paraphernalia, many of the Russian-speaking nationalists Russia supports in the Donbass are just as right-wing as their counterparts from the Azov Battalion. This is not the Second World War, and more war cannot and will not curb the process of nationalist radicalization.

In this context a genuine socialist internationalism has an important role to play. In solidarity with ordinary Russians, we should oppose sanctions, which do nothing to help Ukrainians. These fall into three categories: sanctions on Putin personally, on Russia’s oligarchic and business elite, and on the economic system more broadly. The first are ineffective, because despite his vast wealth Putin is not primarily motivated by material gain. The second are mistargeted, because the Russian economic elite no longer functions as a source of pressure on the regime—indeed, the sanctions of 2013–14 helped Putin make that elite more compliant and loyal by disrupting its foreign connections. Broad economic sanctions like cutting Russia off from SWIFT and freezing central bank assets are the worst, because they lead to hyperinflation and shortages of key imports that millions of vulnerable Russians depend on. Putin has already anticipated the likely effects of all three types of sanctions and therefore will not be deterred by them; neither have sanctions ever worked to catalyze effective political opposition to the regime (or to other regimes targeted by Western sanctions). Despite these failures, sanctions are being imposed because they help cover up the West’s actual inability to help Ukraine in any meaningful way by appearing to satisfy a longing for retribution.

Yet NATO military action (which does not seem to be on the table for the moment) would be even worse, leading the world directly to global thermonuclear war. Those in the West who sympathize with the plight of Ukraine have no choice but to trust in Ukrainian and Russian resistance to Putin’s war. Thousands of Russians have already been arrested for protesting against the war, a number that is sure to grow significantly as the war expands. Millions of Ukrainians don’t want to die in bombings, live under imperial rule, or be forced into emigration; millions of Russians don’t want to be immiserated by sanctions or be conscripted into an invasion that gains them nothing. In our response to the war, we should be careful not to simply echo Russia’s nationalist elites—they think blaming NATO will shift attention away from their increasingly repressive, kleptocratic, and militarist rule at home. Our loyalties must lie with the people of both Ukraine and Russia, and with the cause of peace.

Gregory Afinogenov is an assistant professor of Russian history at Georgetown University.