Personal reflections on the war in Ukraine
Ignore what you read in the newspapers; war is always everybody's fault.
This author has spent the last weeks studying, preparing, travelling and talking, with people caught up in the war in southern Ukraine. This has been his focus: not Kyiv, not L'viv and not the far east of the country. The first personal thought that the author wishes to emphasise about the war in Ukraine is that Ukraine being an enormous country, indeed the biggest country in Europe, it would be naive to assume that there is only one war in Ukraine. There are several, each being fought out in its own way between different protagonists; and each having its own motives. Hence it should not surprise the reader that each of the various wars in Ukraine - and we will come to identify them by reference to different oligarchs - is one in which the various culpabilities of the multiple actors - and there are not just two such actors (Russia, and Ukraine), but many - are different. No reasonable person can take a tabula rasa position upon "the war of Ukraine", because there are many of them. That will lead into an insight that the conflict in Ukraine is going to prove extremely difficult to stop, because there are many different things to stop and reaching a compromise between them will not prove easy.
It is straightforward and intellectually lazy to associate Russia's President Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler, and ascribe to him, as an unblemished autocrat, limitless responsibility for a brutal war. But as any Kremlinologist knows (and there are very few true experts left anymore; they were all sidelined when the Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago and replaced with corrupt western businessmen looking to get rich quick), it's not that simple. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, was close to right when he famously said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. By agreeing with his sentiment one does not have to think that the Soviet Union was an ideal way of living. It was far from that. Nevertheless its peremptory collapse was a catastrophe not just for Soviet people but for the world. It was the method of collapse, rather than the collapse itself, that was so disastrous. One may remember the saying of Winston Churchill about the Soviets, "their worst misfortune was [Lenin's birth], their next worse - his death". The collapse of the Soviet Union might be considered in analogy with Churchill's logic. The worst misfortune for the people of the Soviet Union was its creation; the next worse was its dissolution in the circumstances it collapsed.
Those circumstances were bad western-induced ideas for privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The Soviet Union had companies, as did the west; its legal models were not altogether alien to western legal systems. However the ownership of the companies and enterprises was either invested in a public entity (for example the federal government or one of the country's many sub-federal units; the Soviet Union had a complex multi-layered system of federal government) or held as a socially owned company, i.e. owned by the public "at large" for the public good. There was little if any competition between companies in the sense understood in western liberal democracies. Many of these companies were gigantic behemoths, controlling things such as all the gas pipes in the Soviet Union or all the railway lines. In both cases these shareholding structures (the difference between which in practice meant only different lines of reporting within the Communist Party) were torn down with great speed. Clinton-era American economic advisors to the Yeltsin government recommended that the shares in public companies be distributed amongst the workers in the companies.
Because the Soviet ruble had not been floated against foreign currencies and the exchange rate had been fixed by government decree rather than by the market, once the currency was liberalised everyone's savings and income collapsed in real terms and people went hungry. There was no food in the shops in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990's. As a result, people sold or exchanged the shares they had been given in apparently useless companies for food. The oligarchs were a breed of exploiter, who gathered up the shares in public companies distributed to workers in large quantities, thereby acquiring control of those companies. In this way they became the owners of vast empires of former government assets and infrastructure, that they then asset-stripped by selling them off abroad backed in large part by western credit. In this way, a handful of oligarchs became fabulously rich; western banks loaned money into Russia against worthless assets, causing the 1998 Russian banking crisis; and the general population continued to starve and to go without, barely getting by. The collapse in living standards, associated with electoral procedures suddenly imposed upon people with no lifetime experience of elections, caused a series of nationalists to come to power and this created civil wars between regions within the former Soviet Union. Pridnestrovia was the outcome of one such conflict. The people fought while they starved.
This was the catastrophe involved in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we in the West forget that it was our economists and experts who caused it. This so-called "voucher" model of privatisation, connected with the sudden floating on the international markets of a previously fixed currency, has proven a catastrophe everywhere it was tried. And the two countries in which it was tried more than any others are Russia and Ukraine.
The net result was that the former Soviet Union of the 1990's was a dangerous, gangland place full of wealthy criminals who had amassed state assets and sold them off illegitimately; these criminals, the oligarchs, would fight one another; they would also fund the sporadic violence and conflict from which the Soviet Union suffered in the 1990's; and ultimately the entire Russian (and other post-Soviet states') banking systems collapsed under the weight of corrupt loans. This led to a seizure of power by the nomenklatura, that is to say by the internal security services, the successors to the KGB and her associated organisations, who became determined to restore order both to Russia and to the other former-Soviet states. In substantial part the internal borders of the Soviet Union never really broke down, and this is particularly the case as regards the various internal state security successors to the KGB. Law and stability would be reinstated where it had been lost, particularly in Russia and in Ukraine, using the complex internal connections of the KGB.
Thus rose to power a KGB official named Vladimir Putin, and he would ensure that both Russia and Ukraine were run more as normal countries, not corrupted by warring criminals. The oligarchs would henceforth answer to him; or they would be dealt with using KGB methods: they would be warned, with unhealthy accidents; and then if they still did not comply with KGB dictates, they would be killed, imprisoned or exiled. President Putin made examples of several of the oligarchs, after which the residue willingly complied. The successor organisations to the KGB used the power they had seized in societies unused to democracy or private ownership of the means of production, to impose order on violent, corrupt societies. That was the premise of Putin's authority. He was entirely ruthless; but for 14 years, from 2000 until 2014, his methods were successful in growing the Russian economy in a quasi-capitalist fashion. Grimy Moscow became cool and fashionable, The ruble became a stable currency floated on the market at about 30 to the US Dollar. Political relations with the West warmed, although Putin was never a democrat save in his own sense of "managed democracy", a Russian amendment of western democratic traditions appropriate to a country used to authoritarianism. In managed democracy, democratic procedures are followed scrupulously although democratic ideals, in which there is a competition of political ideas in a society with a free media used as a tool of social progress, was not. Russians and Ukrainians being an unruly bunch, competition in ideas would result in the chaos of the 1990's. Authoritarian control of ideas was, to an extent, maintained in both countries.
Ukraine's historical trajectory during the 1990's involved her emergence as a buffer state between East and West. One of the principal reasons why the Soviet Union dissolved as an empire - and this is never remembered by the West although it should be because it has direct consequences for us - is that Ukraine, a huge country, has always required a massive element of subsidy and has never been self-sufficient. Russians view Ukrainians as regressive in educational and working terms, and for those reasons even more anarchic and undisciplined. The number of oligarchs who divided up Ukraine between them was a mere five, and they were each one of them boors and ruffians. They each controlled an area of the country, and they fought between one-another for influence in the capital Kyiv although Kyiv was always a weak city-state with virtually no federal control over the rest of the country. The European Union, undeniably an eastward-creeping organisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, placed Ukraine in her sights for the expansion of liberal democracy and social democratic capitalism.
What the European Union forgot was that influence in Ukraine, as a buffer state between East and West, had to be bought, just as it had been bought by Moscow in order to maintain the integrity of the Soviet Union and it had been lost once the Soviet economy ground to a halt in the late 1980's and was no longer able to pay the subsidies. In any event the European Union poured ever more money into Ukraine in the course of the 2000's, seeking permanently to place Ukraine in her orbit. Nevertheless because the true governmental system was not federalised democracy but private ownership of distinct territorial units by the Ukrainian oligarchs, all the subsidies the European Union and, for a period, the US Government under President Barack Obama (whose Vice President's son immersed himself in Ukrainian business dealings) were stolen by a new Kyiv elite rather than being distributed to the provinces of Ukraine who remained under-subsidised and ergo impoverished in the extreme. Ukraine remained up until the beginning of the February 2022 war the poorest country in Europe on a GDP per capita scale, despite receiving the largest subsidies in absolute terms. That is because those subsidies were stolen, and increasingly exacerbated the distinction between the wealthy elites and the rest of country who lived in poverty.
In the midst of this negative interaction with the European Union, Ukraine had a series of elections. They were in the style of managed democracy, albeit altogether more corrupt as the Ukrainians learned of the benefits of carousel voting, a system of electoral fraud in which local officials in each region pay voters honoraria (i.e. bribes) to vote in a particular way; ballot box privacy is denied by officials giving voters pre-marked ballot papers, and the voters receive their honoraria in cash in exchange for returning from the booth with a blank ballot paper that can then be pre-marked for the next member of the carousel. Each oligarch, in control of one of Ukraine's regions, would serve as a sort "super-voter" and impose electoral fraud upon the members of the public living in their region. At some point, one of the Ukrainian oligarchs, Victor Pinchuk, persuaded the West (he was the most palatable of the Ukrainian oligarchs to the Europeans) that all this carousel voting, which was approximately creating an outcome in which power in Kyiv see-sawed each electoral term between a western-looking President and an eastern-looking one, was really the exclusive provenance of the Russians.
Hence the European Union paid for the Maidan Revolution against a Russian-looking Ukrainian President who was about to lose the next set of elections anyway. The alternating cycle of Kyiv politics, representing a buffer state compromise between Moscow and Berlin, thereby broke down and never recovered. Putin then decided to punish Mr Pinchuk for his wrongdoings in interfering with the stability of Ukraine and the region by Pinchuk's interrupting the balance of power in Kyiv. Mr Pinchuk's fortune had been made in Crimea, with the pipe-making business. So Mr Putin annexed Crimea. The other Ukrainian oligarchs were expected to fall in line immediately. Unfortunately two of them decided otherwise, placing their financial horses behind Europe and seeking to escape the orbit of the unrelentingly ruthless Mr Putin. So Mr Putin annexed swathes of their private territory: that of Mr Rinat Akhmetov (thereby creating the Donetsk People's Republic); and that of Mr Igor Kolomoisky (thereby creating the Luhansk People's Republic). The industrial assets of those two oligarchs were thereby denuded from them. When Mr Kolomoisky kept kicking, Mr Putin advised the new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who had a much more acute understanding of Mr Putin's methods and capabilities, to nationalise Mr Kolomoisky's airline (Ukraine International Airlines); his bank (Privatbank) and to place him under corruption investigations. Mr Kolomoisky fled to Israel.
Nevertheless Mr Kolomoisky thought he'd carry on, deposing Mr Poroshenko through an increasingly sophisticated system of carousel voting in which the various Ukrainian oligarchs sought to cooperate with one-another because they realised that against Mr Putin their fates hung in the balance together. He arranged for the election of a comedian to be President; just to rub Mr Putin's nose in it, he arranged for a television show in which a comedian becomes President to be the springboard for Mr Zelenskiy's election. Mr Putin is not a man who appreciates having his nose rubbed in anything. So he progressively built up the largest land army in history to surround Ukraine, over the course of several months. Mr Putin's message was not one to the Ukrainian people; it was to the oligarchs. And his message was: I will destroy all of you unless you submit to my writ. This is the way the nomenklatura have dealt with the oligarchs historically; and no doubt their current view is that their confrontation with the Ukrainian oligarchs is long overdue.
Hence in the current war, when one supports the Ukrainian national government of President Zelenskiy against the Russian army, the political position one is actually adopting is one in favour of a series of corrupt, rough, violent and dangerous thieves and robbers, and against their ruthless suppression by the KGB and her various affiliates. Once one starts to see the war through this lens, all the moral certainties the western media urge us to adopt suddenly become more blurred. It is far from clear that supporting criminals against against secret service agents is the moral thing to do. That is all the more the case when one realises that the Ukrainian oligarchs have not been paying their debts. One of the conditions that the nomenklatura applied to the Ukrainian oligarchs was that they would be suffered to remain in power in Ukraine provided that they paid for the Russian gas they were using and that hitherto had been subsidised. If you didn't obey the writ of the subsidising party, then you didn't get the subsidy. And for all the European Union's complex web of subsidies, they count for little in comparison with Russian energy subsidies to Ukraine which are the only thing that keeps the impoverished greater majority of Ukrainians alive and well amidst the grim and cruel Ukrainian winters.
In the meantime President Zelenskiy, whose writ does not extend out of central Kyiv, has pretended to be a soldier - a profession he has no experience of - pretending to put together a Ukrainian army of enthusiastic volunteers learning on the job and circulating videos as they practise with pieces of equipment provided to them by NATO powers. But they are not an army. They have no discipline. They do not know how to fight a modern army, and they take on battles, as in Mariupol and Nikolaev, that they cannot win. Hence they die, and the Ukrainian civilians they have a responsibility to protect die too in greater numbers than they need to. In wars you need to learn the art of negotiation with your enemy; they have no experience of this and no experience of tactics. They think Kyiv has not fallen in the face of the greatest armoured column in the history of war, because they have fought off the superior invader. That is not the reason. The reason is that Moscow has decided that it is in her tactical advantage not to invade Kyiv but simply to encircle it. The Russians don't want the city of Kyiv. The Ukrainian army misses this obvious point, because it has few to none serious and credible generals. Hence the war is fought by the Ukrainians as if by a bunch of irregulars, more interested in PR victories than ones on the battlefield. Because they are unprofessional, they think it glorious to fight to the death. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. They are wrong, and they do not have the right to make that decision on behalf of Ukraine's civilians.
The impoverished Ukrainian people have got in the way of this conflict in which disciplining the errant oligarchs, who everyone acknowledges have run Ukraine into the ground and in large part are responsible for the continued poverty of the Ukrainian people and the atrocious institutional quality from which the country suffers. Given that the Kremlin has decided that the only method remaining in its toolbox to discipline the rogue Ukrainian oligarchs is the Red Army, what should the West now do?
The short answer is that I don't know. But I will offer a few ideas.
1. The idea that Ukraine return to rule by the oligarchs, dividing Ukrainian territory between them as private fiefdoms with private armies and police, splitting European Union subsidies to Kyiv between them in a haphazard way while permitting the corrupt Kyiv elite to take their share, all the while permitting Ukraine's appalling institutional corruption to continue and without money funding programmes to live the majority of Ukrainian people out of being the poorest nation in Europe, is surely off the table. Nobody can actually want this outcome, except the oligarchs and their elites. If the European Union and the United States are spending so much upon the war in Ukraine and associated refugee relief, then they must aim their goals higher.
2. That is not least because unless the oligarchs are dispensed with, Russia is going to keep on attacking Ukraine - and attacking those oligarchs - using whatever means are available at its disposal. Hence even if one fights Moscow to a halt, a return to the political status quo ante is inconceivable. The West is simply allowing its money to be stolen; Russia can almost be seen as having a point, which is removing a horrendously corrupt and anti-democratic form of government by a band of autocratic thieves.
3. On the other hand, the war is taking a substantial civilian and military toll. This author's view is that civilian and military deaths are both equally regrettable and they should not be distinguished for the purpose of moral counting. In the words of the metaphysical poet John Donne, every man's death is a tragedy. With that spirit in mind, it is regrettably necessary to undertake an approximate body count of this war, looking past the swathes of inaccurate propaganda, false flag operations, fake news items and other illustrations of the old adage that truth is first casualty of war. Both sides in this war are acting reprehensibly in the amount of overt lying and propaganda that are creating and feeding tho their respectively sympathetic news organisations.
4. This author's approximations of the number deaths in the war in Ukraine as of the date of writing is 2,500 Ukrainians and 1,500 Russians: so about 4,000 people in total. For a war that has been going for about a month, in a country the size of Ukraine, this is relatively low, although that is scant consolation to the families of the dead. In the Bosnian war, the paradigm by which modern European wars are measured, the average death rate was about 12,000 people per month for the first six months. (The beginnings of modern wars are typically much more bloody than later stages, as the parties fight their way to their respective front lines which later tend not to move as much.) The population of Bosnia was about 9% of that of Ukraine now, so for the Ukrainian war to be equally bloody as the Bosnian war proportionate to population we would have expected perhaps some 130,000 people to have died by now.
5. Unless peace talks are successful, deaths may be expected to continue at this sort of rate (say 4,000 per month) for the next several months, before shallowing out to a lower steady monthly rate. The front loading of deaths in war is why it is important to start peace negotiations at the earliest opportunity, something that to be fair to both sides they appear to understand. There have already been several rounds of negotiations in various fora, the most recent of which have been in Istanbul on Tuesday 29 March 2022.
6. Did Russia need to invade at all, thereby placing at stake all the inevitable deaths? The issue of Westphalian sovereignty, that Russia is asserted to have breached in the invasion, is a peculiarly western concept and works only really between Western European democracies each of which can be said to have representative and responsive governments that can resolve disputes within their populations and between one-another using nonviolent means. Russia says that it had to invade, because the extent of Ukrainian criminality associating itself with European funding was placing her own security structures, and in particular a concern that she might be subject to invasion by the NATO alliance, at risk. It is hard to evaluate this proposition without being able to view future hypotheticals: a luxury we do not have. Once one understands that Ukraine is a profoundly corrupt and undemocratic society seized by criminal billionaires, the Russian argument that invasion was essential to prevent Ukraine spinning out of control in a manner prejudicial to Russian interests acquires somewhat more force, but not a huge amount given the substantial death toll as well as the damage to infrastructure that will cause Ukrainians to suffer even further.
7. Now the war has begun, there is an argument that Russian objectives do have some weight and ought to be given some credence. The removal of the oligarchs as power-brokers and private owners of a country, effectively reducing the greater population to serfdom, is surely an imperative. However Russian methods ought to adopt greater caution to minimise deaths. Indiscriminate Russian shelling of civilian buildings in some cities needs greater justification. Why are the specific public buildings being shelled? Russian public relations operations are shockingly bad, so in many cases it is not possible to tell why they are doing what they are. In some cases it seems more justified than others. For example, the shelling of buildings outside L'vov, a western city apparently away from the fighting, has been averred to be because the buildings were being used as army training camps. By international legal standards, that makes them legitimate targets. However a school or hospital is unlikely to be a legitimate target under international law unless it is being used for an ancillary military purpose. Russia appears good neither at making these discriminations nor at explaining what distinctions she is drawing.
8. On the other hand, there is evidence of Ukrainian special forces committing war crimes against Russian Prisoners of War in eastern Ukraine; and statements against the exchange of Prisoners of War, acts which may turn out to be clear breaches of international law later warranting war crimes investigations.
9. However war crimes investigations are, if at all appropriate, matters for after the war. Accusations of war crimes tend not to assist the overwhelming imperative for a peace settlement process to begin as soon as possible, in order to minimise the number of deaths.
10. A future properly democratic government structure for Ukraine ought to be the goal of a final armistice and peace settlement. A genuinely federal system of government should be organised, in which both Russia and the West have appropriate consultation roles at least for an initial period until Ukraine can get back on her feet. Attention must also be given to Ukraine's horrendous and chronic insolvency. The country has never been solvent for as long as she has existed. A proper debate between the parties must take place as to how the burdens of the need constantly to subsidise Ukraine in one way or another are to be divided; and the consequent role that each of the subsidisers (the European Union and Russia) has to play in overseeing Ukraine's government. In one sense this has been a war by Russia to reclaim unpaid hydrocarbon debts. But the debtor is insolvent, and Russia will have to accept from Ukraine something less than full satisfaction - probably a great deal less. This will prove hard to negotiate. Given that the European Union has sanctioned Russia for starting the war, it seems hard to understand how the European Union can now buy from Russia her interest in her neighbouring itinerant debtor. Hence the European Union will have to come to learn that cooperation with Russia is the only way of managing a future Ukrainian state.
11. Russia will have to come to terms with the idea of a free press and free elections in Ukraine. The European Union by contrast will have to acknowledge its abject failure to wrench political power away from the oligarchs and the horrendous sub-democratic mess that European Union neglect and misunderstanding of Ukraine has caused.
12. The continued tenure of President Zelenskiy is hard to imagine if Ukraine is to remain a single country, given the caustic nature of his diatribe about Ukrainian nationalism and the visceral enemy he seems to have made in the Russian President, who is one person likely to outlive in office all the other political actors. A choice may face the Ukrainians between a rump Ukraine with President Zelenskiy remaining at its head; and a change of Presidents in exchange for Russia abandoning her territorial gains. This author states now as a long-standing peacekeeper: nations rarely give up territorial gains achieved in war voluntarily. So the West can apply all the sanctions it likes; Ukrainian territorial integrity appears to have been compromised to at least some significant degree. The way to prevent that would have been to negotiate with Russia before the war started. But, as Carl von Clausewitz notably observed, war is a continuation of politics by other means. The political methods failed, because nobody was prepared to act in response to the warning signs (that really go back as far as 2014) and open sensible negotiations earlier. Hence war followed as surely as night follows day. The initiation and settlement of wars does not follow legal principle, but instead shadows the balance of power. Russia, with the largest land army in Europe, cannot be ignored if she is unhappy with her Ukrainian neighbour into which she perceives herself as pouring limitless money in exchange for nothing but partisan corrupt government by oligarchs that Moscow so detests. So a different outcome for Ukraine needs to be traced.
I have taken to wearing blue and yellow, to support the people of Ukraine. But I am making a point not of supporting her government or her President, who remains in my mind a comedian. Nor are my feelings with the Kyiv elites, most of whom have long ago fled with their money. I wear blue and yellow in sympathy for the ordinary people of Ukraine.