Ilya Matveev is a Russian socialist, political economist and editorial collective member of Posle, a new Russian anti-war website. Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to Matveev about the background and motivations behind Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
Few predicted Russia would invade Ukraine, yet many quickly came up with explanations for Putin’s actions. How do you account for the invasion and current war?
We need to understand this conflict from a longer-term perspective. There was already a war going on between Russia and Ukraine, which can be traced back to 2014–15 when Russia started supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
The Russian invasion is just the latest phase of the war. Yes, the previous phase was on a smaller scale, but we are still talking about no less than 10,000 Russian troops that participated in that first phase.
It is important to understand this and separate out the history of Russia and Ukraine before and after 2014–15.
Prior to this, Ukraine had signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, whereby it handed over its nuclear weapons to Russia in return for security assurances that Russia would not attack Ukraine. Putin trampled on those assurances by occupying parts of Ukraine.
Ever since then, with almost 200,000 Russian soldiers stationed along the Ukrainian border since March–April 2021, a large-scale invasion became possible, though I would say not inevitable: it was still Putin’s choice to launch this invasion.
It is often said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion in February were primarily driven by security concerns. Do you agree that this is the case?
We do not know with 100% certainty why Putin did what he did. But we can make an educated guess.
Russian leaders clearly saw that Ukraine was moving decisively away from Russia’s sphere of influence and aligning itself with the West. For the Kremlin, a Ukraine that is independent of Russia is unacceptable.
Ever since the Maidan uprising in 2014, the Kremlin has demonstrated that it is prepared to do whatever it takes to subjugate Ukraine and force it back into its sphere of influence.
The annexation of Crimea was probably specifically dictated by Russia’s fear of losing its Black Sea Fleet and its naval base in Sevastopol. For some, this served as a justification for Russia’s annexation. Now, Russia is in the process of annexing even more territories from another sovereign country. But this kind of preventive imperialist intervention is neither acceptable nor justifiable.
Official Russian discourse tries to conflate Russian security with Russian imperialist interests. They talk about Ukraine somehow being an existential threat to Russia.
But if this war is not an existential threat — with the whole of the West against Russia — because of the nuclear weapons that Russia possesses, then how can Ukraine moving away from Russia’s sphere of influence represent an existential threat?
In my opinion, this is ultimately not about security; it is about imperialist interests. The Russian regime has an imperial vision towards the post-soviet space, and specifically towards Ukraine. It cannot tolerate Ukraine being a sovereign country.
At the turn of the century, Russia, like Ukraine, was attempting to integrate itself into the West. Yet Russia has demonstrated — in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere — that it is not afraid to confront the West. How do you explain this contradiction?
I agree that it’s a paradox and it is difficult to explain using existing theories of imperialism. But one concept we can use to better understand Russia is that of uneven and combined development.
We can see features of uneven and combined development in Russia. Going back more than 100 years, the former Russian tsarist empire was economically weak but had a disproportionately large military and influence on global politics. Russia has been characterised by this strange combination of economic weakness and military strength for some time.
So we have this strange imbalance of, on the one hand, a ruling class that is orientated towards closer ties with the West and, on the other hand, a military, foreign policy and national security elite — along with the military itself which in sheer numbers is the world's second largest — with interests that diverge from those of the ruling class, or where some kind of disconnect exists between the two.
This is the reality we have. We cannot deny the existence of Russian imperialism just because this reality does not fit into our theory of imperialism. Instead, what we need to do is develop a genuine analysis of what Russia is and what Russia does.
Why do you insist that it's important for the international left to understand Russian imperialism?
Let’s start with a counterfactual. Let’s imagine that we deny that Russia is imperialist. How do we explain Russian aggression while denying Russia's imperialist status?
Inevitably, we end up coming to the conclusion that Russia’s actions are not aggression but rather some kind of defence against Western or US imperialism. But this is patently false, because Russia is not defending itself; right now it is clearly attacking.
What Russia is attempting to do is consolidate its influence within the post-soviet space in the region, and in Ukraine specifically, because Russia cannot tolerate an independent Ukraine.
The ideas articulated by Russian leaders are openly imperialist. They say Ukraine is not a real country, Ukrainians are not a real nation, Ukraine should be part of Russia. They are essentially saying that Ukrainians are basically Russians and that therefore Russia should enforce its control over the Ukrainian state or even make Ukraine part of Russia.
It is important to recognise Russian imperialism, alongside Western imperialism, as it enables us to clearly see who is the culprit and who is the victim. Ukraine is the victim in all this. We need an analysis of Russian imperialism to differentiate between imperialist ambitions and struggles for national liberation.
But even if we accept that Russia is imperialist, it is clearly not the main imperialist power in the world today. Given this, some argue that any weakening or defeat of Russia would ultimately strengthen US imperialism, and that therefore the best solution is a ceasefire and negotiated settlement.
This is a tactical question, but of course it is a crucial one.
Let's start again with a counterfactual: let’s say we call for a ceasefire. How would we guarantee this ceasefire if, somehow, Russia agreed to it? A ceasefire in the current situation would only mean giving Russia time to regroup, mobilise more forces and then restart the war.
The Russian government has never indicated that it is ready to stop this war. In fact, there are indications that it still holds on to its maximalist goal of conquering all of Ukraine, including Kyiv. A ceasefire would just play into Russian hands and prolong the war.
Yes, [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] will be strengthened as a result of this war; in fact this is already happening on a huge scale. The problem is that the trigger for this was not anything NATO did, the trigger was Putin's decision to invade. Arguing that we need a Ukrainian surrender in order to weaken NATO is very poor logic.
If we allow Russia to continue annexing more and more of Ukraine, then everything that is Ukrainian in those territories will simply be erased.
I don't think that Russia will even tolerate the Ukrainian language in those territories. For example, Ukrainian teachers in the occupied territories are being forced to study Russian in order to be integrated into the Russian education system.
It is faulty logic for the left internationally to think it can fight NATO via Russia. It is not Russia's job to weaken NATO. It is the job of the Western left to weaken NATO and replace it with a new system of international relations.
NATO is an imperialist alliance, it is not a defensive alliance. We have seen NATO go on the offensive several times in various countries. NATO is a belligerent entity, but we should not fight NATO by wishing for a Russian victory. This is not some kind of zero sum game in which Western leftists should cheer for the other team.
What leftists need to do is think through what kind of new global security architecture could replace NATO and fight for governmental power in order to bring about this new security architecture. That is the job of the international left.
And the job of the Russian left is to halt the imperialist aggression that Russia is waging. There is no other option. It is impossible for Russian leftists to in any way tolerate or justify this kind of aggression.
This invasion makes no sense, it has made the situation worse for everyone — Ukrainians, the people in the Donbas and the Russian population too. Tens of thousands of civilians and Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have already died in Ukraine. It is a catastrophe from any perspective that you look at it.
The best thing that could happen is an immediate end to this war through the withdrawal of Russian troops and a return to the status quo that existed prior to February 24.
[This is an abridged version of a longer interview published at links.org.au.]