Ukraine: ‘Two years after the invasion, normalisation of war has led to a return of politics’

February 16, 2024
protesters, woman's face
Ukrainian refugees in Poland protesting against Russia's invasion. Inset: Viiktoria Pihul

Green Left’s Federico Fuentes interviewed Viktoriia Pihul, a council member of Ukrainian democratic socialist organisation Social Movement, regarding the situation in Ukraine two years after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

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What have been the main impacts on Ukrainian society of two years of war?

The most important impact has been the normalisation of full-scale war. In two years, people have gotten used to war and made it a part of their everyday life. War is seen as one of the most important social problems, but one among many other problems.

As a result of this, political confrontation has returned, as have discussions on problems such as corruption, inequality, economic problems and so on.

Of course, most discussions are still conducted through the prism of war and opposition to Russia. All political forces seek to justify decisions or proposals on the grounds they are “useful for the front and for victory”.

But it is not the case that Ukrainian society is tired of war: the level of support for the army has been stable for a long time.

Our impression from outside Ukraine is that criticism of Zelensky is on the rise, with protests over various issues. Do you see this as weakening the war effort?

This is simply a consequence of the normalisation of the war and the return of public politics.

In an ideal world, society would be completely united, as it was at the start of the invasion. But this is impossible. The main reason is that different social groups are prepared to compromise their interests to varying degrees to win the war.

More privileged sectors may have much to lose from the country’s defeat. But they know they can at least go abroad easily. On the other hand, the working class and lower middle class, for the most part, cannot see a future without Ukraine and are therefore prepared to make great compromises for the sake of victory.

The return of politics means that every problem, every criticism, every mood of protest will be used by one or another political group. This of course has an impact on the war.

For example, the delay in adopting the law on mobilisation has held up the prompt replenishment of exhausted troops at the front. But it is significant to note that the main reason for this delay, and Zelensky’s unwillingness to carry out a new large-scale mobilisation, is financial.

The costs of mobilisation cannot be covered without raising taxes. This is what scares the government, not just that there are fewer people willing to fight.

The government’s desire to protect privileged groups from the burden of war will increasingly come into conflict with the war effort.

In a recent interview, Commons editorial team member Oksana Dutchak said “there is the feeling of injustice in relation to the process of mobilisation, where wealth and/or corruption lead to predominantly (but not exclusively) working-class people being mobilised, which goes against the ideal image of ‘people’s war’ in which all the society participates.” How serious is this trend?

Mobilisation to repel external aggression is necessary, but it is unfair under current conditions.

Ukrainian society is divided along social lines. Endowed with power, the privileged classes will try at any cost to reduce the number of victims from their class. In contrast, workers are virtually voiceless and much more likely to pay with their lives. The burden of suffering borne by working people is disproportionately greater.

For the war to become popular, it is necessary to establish social equality — starting with the confiscation of wealth that exceeds the norm necessary for a decent life, progressive taxation to better financially support the families of workers killed at the front, and a complete moratorium on reforms that increase poverty.

While Western governments were quick to come to Ukraine's aid in the weeks after the invasion, the military aid being provided today falls well short of what is needed. What can this tell us about how Western governments view the war? And what can Ukraine’s supporters in other countries do to help reverse this state of affairs and aid leftists in Ukraine?

We are feeling the direct effects of the decline in Western support. More Russian missiles are not being shot down, which means more civilian deaths. And Russian troops are advancing faster as the Ukrainian army runs out of ammunition.

But we are far from believing that the West has had enough of Ukraine. Rather, we see a process of normalisation of the war and a shift away from the emergency situation of the first months of the invasion. All this has led to a considerable slow down of aid.

It has also allowed small but influential groups — such as the far right, agribusiness, oil traders and certain members of military circles — to use Ukraine as a means of political blackmail.

For example, [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán was able to squeeze €10 billion from the European Union in return for its vote on the Ukraine aid package. And many European armies have made quite lucrative equipment upgrades, using aid to Ukraine as an excuse.

As for the Australian Department of Defence, it decided for internal reasons to destroy helicopters rather than allow Ukraine to use them to evacuate wounded Ukrainian fighters.

Helping Ukraine depends on the extent to which the West is prepared to resist the blackmail of these small but well-organised groups.

This is particularly true when it comes to countering the far right. Almost everywhere, it is the far right that is blocking support for Ukraine. After the Russian army, they are Enemy Number 2 for the Ukrainian state.

The best way for the left abroad to support the left in Ukraine is by supporting Ukraine and its resistance. As someone who has repeatedly seen Western anti-aircraft missiles shoot down Russian drones and missiles from the window of my house, I can say with confidence that Western military aid saves Ukrainian lives.

Ukrainians will never forget who in the West supported them and who opposed them. Given the fact that most right-wing movements pursue anti-Ukrainian policies, leftists defending Ukraine abroad will help raise the profile of the left inside Ukraine.

So if you want to support us, support Ukraine. Go to actions, ask your representatives to support Ukraine, write about us in the media.

Moreover, supporting left Ukrainian organisations, such as Ukrainian trade unions (for example the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine and Federation of Trade Unions of Ukrainee), Solidarity Collectives, FemSolution, Social Movement and Commons will also help raise our profile inside the country.

The Zelensky government has sided with Israel in its occupation of Gaza, while Social Movement recently issued a statement denouncing the occupation as a crime. What is the balance of opinion in Ukraine about this conflict? In which way is it shifting?

To say the Ukrainian government is fully supportive of Israel is not entirely accurate. Ukraine has voted in favour of virtually all pro-Palestine resolutions at the United Nations. Zelensky himself publicly supports a two-state policy and Palestinian independence.

The words of support for Israel were largely opportunistic, misguided and out of context. They were said shortly after October 7, which was a terrible crime regardless of how we judge Israel’s subsequent actions.

Ukrainian foreign policy suffers from opportunism but, on the issue of Palestine, Ukraine has a much better position than most developed countries.

Most Ukrainians know little about the Middle East and its conflicts. But the full-scale war has tended to normalise a pro-Palestinian position in society.

First, most Ukrainians have a very low opinion of Israeli authorities due to their friendship with Russian leaders. Even now, as the Russian Federation supplies anti-Israel groups with arms, Israel refuses to lift its blockade on the supply of weapons made with Israeli technology from Europe to Ukraine.

Second, more Ukrainians are starting to familiarise themselves with post-colonial knowledge and see parallels between Israel’s and Russia’s actions: indiscriminate attacks on residential areas, settlement in occupied territories, etc.

The main difference between our conflicts is that the Ukrainian people have a fully functioning state, while the Palestinian people are deprived of that.

Certainly, Russia would like to see the same for Ukraine, as it would be easier for them to kill Ukrainians if we did not have our own state.

That is why Ukrainians need to know more about Palestine — not only for moral reasons, but as a warning of what our enemy wants to achieve and the methods they may use.

[Read the full interview at Pihul also features in the book, Ukraine Resists: Left Voices on Putin’s War, NATO and the Future of Ukraine, which can be purchased from Resistance Books.]

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