In this interview with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes, Kagarlitsky discusses the domestic factors behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and the role of the left in anti-war organising.
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Discussions in the West regarding Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine largely focus on NATO expansionism, the Kremlin’s imperialist ambitions or Putin’s mental health. But you argue these were not the key driving force behind the invasion. Why?
When a huge event occurs, such as the war on Ukraine, there are generally various factors at play. But you have to put these factors into the context of real political and social processes.
In that sense, all these factors, along with the long-term conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the conflict within Ukraine and between Ukrainian elites, were all present. But, these factors do not explain much; they're very superficial.
The real question is: why did this war erupt now, despite these factors existing for many years.
So why did Putin invade on February 24?
I think there were two major causes.
The first one is global and long-term, the Great Recession of 2007‒08, which changed the global economy and Russia’s situation within it.
When the Great Recession erupted, Russia’s economy declined at a much faster rate than any other major economy in the world and then recovered faster than any economy in the world. Why? Because Russia’s economy was dependent, in particular, on oil.
To deal with the Great Recession, the US Federal Reserve began printing money, much of which ended up in financial markets and, ultimately, as speculative investments. Oil is a perfect commodity for speculative investment, as it is deeply connected to financial markets.
The Federal Reserve’s policy led to an enormous increase in oil prices, which in turn created a situation where, while the Russian economy continued to deteriorate, Russia was showered in petrodollars, with more and more income going into the pockets of the oligarchs and the state.
Russian elites were faced with an incredible crisis of over-accumulation. One solution was to channel this extra money towards military expansion and producing a lot of military hardware. But, then you have to use this military hardware somehow, if you want to continue investing more money into this sector.
But that’s just one side of the story because, at the same time, the domestic situation was drastically deteriorating. Healthcare, social services, welfare — sectors that were already tremendously underfunded — underwent further cuts. One example of this was the pension reform of 2018, which faced stiff opposition.
People could see all this money flowing into the pockets of Putin’s friends, while the material situation of the great majority got dramatically worse as real income declined and prices rose. All this generated tremendous discontent.
So how do you deal with all this? Well, the best solution is to come up with some kind of extreme and extraordinary situation that justifies a state of emergency, whereby those in power can override any institutional or constitutional hurdle and make whatever decisions they want.
A war is perhaps the best way to create such a situation.
Is there any sense as to what Putin’s aims are in Ukraine and whether they are interested in negotiations with Ukraine to obtain them?
The invasion was very much improvised and did not have any long-term strategy behind it. Once the regime’s improvised strategy failed, they started inventing new causes and goals for the war post-facto.
We are dealing with a very rare case in which a country wages an aggressive war but struggles to define what its goals are or to explain them to the public.
No matter how this ends, it’s going to generate a massive moral, political, ideological crisis and, even perhaps, upheaval in the country…
From what you are saying, continuation of the war is therefore preferable for Putin than negotiations?
It’s not because they cannot or do not want to compromise; it’s because they cannot sell this to the public domestically — especially as the invasion did generate a strong sense of jingoism and enthusiasm for the war among a section of society. They managed to consolidate the most reactionary, most aggressive, the most evil elements of Russian society behind the war.
The problem now is that these elements have become dangerous even for the regime itself, because at the very moment the regime achieves any kind of settlement, it will immediately become the target of these reactionary forces.
This was already visible in April, when a meeting between Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Istanbul agreed to a settlement that included a Ukrainian declaration that it would not join NATO. But Russia did not sign because the same day that they announced this preliminary agreement, there was a real eruption of anger and hatred in the pro-government media, a real rebellion by the pro-war party, that included threats to kill negotiators.
In response, Russia pulled back from the agreement. Faced with the forces from hell they had unleashed, Putin’s people became scared.
Then consider that, on the other side, you have a strong anti-war sentiment: the Putin administration is very much stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The worst case scenario for Putin — and it is certainly not excluded that this might happen, particularly if Russia is defeated militarily — is that these forces attack the regime simultaneously from opposite sides.
This is what happened in Russia in 1917, when the tsarist regime collapsed not just because of the anti-war forces, but also because of the anger of those within the military and the regime who were not happy with the way the war was being fought.
Let’s turn to the anti-war movement in Russia. What is the current state of anti-war organising?
When the war started, there were initially quite a lot of protests in Russia, but the government’s repression machine managed to early on win control of the streets.
People can now be sent to jail just for making a public anti-war statement. They sentenced a municipal deputy in Moscow to seven years jail just for saying something critical of the war during a session of the municipal council.
When I publish something in Russian, I never use the word "war", because just using the word war means I could receive a fine or jail. So you can imagine what the atmosphere is like.
Nevertheless, if you look on Russian social media networks, where you can post anonymously, the atmosphere is very negative towards the war. People are very critical and publish a lot of very angry texts against the war.
So the anti-war movement is very weak, but it has tremendous potential.
What role has the left played in anti-war organising?
The official parties within the Duma support the war and the regime, including the two parties that pretend to be “left-wing”: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and the so-called social democrats of A Just Russia.
But if you look deeper, you can see that rank-and-file activists are usually very anti-war. Quite a lot are now leaving these parties.
Some have declared their opposition publicly, such as Yevgeny Stupin, a very charismatic and well-known [CPRF] deputy in the Moscow City Duma, or Anna Ochkina, who was one of the major voices of the left within A Just Russia but who left the party over the war.
In that sense, while party leaders speak out in favour of the war, they are not supported by any serious forces on the ground. On the ground, the left is, I shouldn’t say it is “well” but it is definitely alive, and it is definitely active and growing.
One thing to note is that a lot of people from the liberal opposition have left the country. The government publicly labelled a number of them “foreign agents”. Everyone knows that the next step after being labelled a foreign agent is that you are put in jail, which is why many have left.
They have labelled me a foreign agent, I imagine with the intention of wanting me to leave, but I’m not going to leave.
An interesting by-product of this policy has been that, while most of the leaders of the liberal opposition have left, those that have stayed are mostly from the left. So, interestingly, the left is now becoming a kind of hegemonic force within the anti-war movement.
Segments of the liberal opposition that used to be very suspicious of anything left-wing, are now moving leftward. So there is definitely a shift to the left within the movement.
The anti-war movement is real, even if it’s been forced underground. And it is radicalising, because people are beginning to understand that it is not just about the war: it’s about the political and social system.
This regime will collapse sooner or later — and probably sooner rather than later. Much depends on the Ukrainian offensive. I cannot say this will happen for sure, but it may if the Ukrainian offensive succeeds. The important thing is that there is no going back to the status quo ante.
As a Belarusian comrade recently said to me, we — meaning Russians, Belarusians, all of us ex-Soviet Union and ex-Russian imperial subjects — have a good tradition: Every time we lose a war, we either start radical reforms or revolutions.
[Abridged from a much longer version of this interview published at links.org.au.]