Did Putin’s Russia go to war, because the Moscow elites believed a conflict would serve their material interest? Or was it an ideological decision of Putin and his close collaborators, a small group detached from society and reality? Is Russia heading towards more social tensions, as the expected quick victory is nowhere in sight? These – and other – questions were asked during an event hosted by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin.
The event took place as part of the “Lonely Russia” discussion series organised by the telegram channel “About the Country and the World” (O Strane i Mire). Online and offline participants had the chance to listen to four speakers: sociologists Volodymyr Ischenko and Oleg Zhuravlov and political scientists Ilya Matveev and Alona Epifanova.
Has Putin decided on the invasion, because he thought it was necessary to consolidate the weakening authoritarian post-Soviet system? Or rather he took an ideologically motivated decision at a moment when his grip on Russia was totally unchallenged? During the debate, Volodymyr Ischenko and Ilya Matveev presented two alternate interpretations of why Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.
For Volodymyr Ischenko, the current escalation must be seen in the historical context of post-Soviet capitalist development and the rise of political capitalists. Unlike other capitalists, he explained, this very particular genre of capitalists does not profit from extremely cheap labour, nor benefits from innovation. Their power is linked to the state, from which they extort their wealth in multiple ways, starting from the transformation period just after the fall of Soviet Union and coming to modern times when they still get all kinds of benefits from the state. That is why they stand for state’s sovereignty and that is why they are afraid of pro-Western revolutions in the post-Soviet space, as they inevitably bring anti-corruption slogans into political life.
Volodymyr Ischenko explained the concept of political capitalists and his interpretation of why they went to war in an interview he gave to Cross-Border Talks in June:
As Ischenko put it, the uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, even though both suppressed, made Russian political capitalists feel endangered, as the wave of political dissent seemed to be on the rise in all post-Soviet space (including Russia itself). The war could be a move aiming at strengthening the post-Soviet authoritarian model, offering new narratives and also building a layer of society which is actually satisfied with Moscow’s actions. However, all these calculations can be questioned, as Russia is not winning the war as it intended, the Ukrainians are resisting, and the Western world was unequivocal in its support for Kyiv.
Ilya Matveev expressed a disagreement with such interpretation, claiming that Putin had no reason to feel uncertain before 24 February.
He argued that the Russian president had already crushed the opposition, imprisoned key rivals, subordinated the media, and had not faced any significant criticism even within the elite.
Matveev underlined that the Russian economy was in a very good state before the war, so there was no reason to look for armed conflict as a way of solving internal problems. In addition, it was the war that led to the loss of international markets, and Russian capitalists, even if called political capitalists, need transnational connections and clients – only part of them can be really happy, replacing the Western companies on the domestic market.
For Matveev, Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine was motivated by genuine belief that that Ukrainian state would not be able to respond to aggression, and that there was no Ukrainian nation. Putin did not acknowledge the existence of national or post-colonial movements. Therefore, his image of Ukrainian society and its capacity of mobilisation was absolutely wrong.
Alona Epifanova offered a comment on Russia’s economy and
how the idea of modernization was abandoned
– in her view, precisely because of the ‘danger’ of a modern society emerging from a modern economy. Putin, she explained, eliminated business from the genuine power circles and did not want it ever to be back. His intention was to control the technologies through the state and to decouple from the West, to reduce dependency on Western technologies. This, however, Epifanova emphasized, has never happened.
Interesting remarks on Russian society, its depolitization and attitudes were shared by Oleg Zhuravlov.
It is true, he said, that Russian elites are making their decisions without seeking legitimization from wide masses, but on the other hands, the Russian society had also expressed a will to be separated from power and the elites.
He pointed out that 2011-2012 Russian protesters often called the state leaders ‘thieves’, and then added: we are not like them! However, this feeling of moral superiority was not accompanied by willingness to take power from the ‘thieves’.
Only the most recent wave of protests, led by Navalny and his co-workers, had a slightly different flavour. People, especially the younger, started to stand against bad behaviour of the state official, but also against material exploitation. Navalny, as Zhuravlov noticed, started to use left-leaning rhetorics in his calls to fight those who make Russians poor and exploit them. In this new wave, even local protests, which are traditionally strong in Russia, started to express new feelings: people did not only want to save, for instance, a local park or forest, but wanted to defend it as a common good which is unjustly taken from them. There is a chance, then, to see more Russians actively seeking for an actual influence over what is going on in their country. And, for a politics totally different of what they experience now.
Is a revolution coming to Russia?
The speakers were anxious to predict a quick fall of the regime, even though Volodymyr Ishchenko claimed that in the long term even a new 1917 year cannot be excluded. He added, however, that the war builds not only anti-Putin sentiments, but also a huge layer of society which is actually profiting from it. This includes soldiers, who are very well-paid, and their families, receiving different benefits from the state, but also small and medium business, who suddenly got rid of transnational rivals on the domestic market. Therefore, while the images of thousands of men escaping from mobilisation show one trend, there is also another, less clear to those who try to observe Russia from abroad.
So far, anti-war protest in Russia was quickly suppressed, and the number of engaged citizens did not hint at broad masses being involved. At the same time, Putin and his collaborators are determined to defy the West and force Ukrainians to surrender – which they are not going to do. What Russia and what Ukraine would emerge from the war? We still can only imagine.