Another perspective from a writer within Ukraine

Charles Keener

Behind Russia’s War Is Thirty Years of Post-Soviet Class Conflict

The invasion of Ukraine is not simply a product of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist mindset. It corresponds to a project for Russian capitalism that he and his allies have pursued since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine earlier this year, analysts across the political spectrum have struggled to identify exactly what — or who — led us to this point. Phrases like “Russia,” “Ukraine,” “the West,” or “the Global South” have been thrown around as if they denoted unified political actors. Even on the Left, the utterances of Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky, Joe Biden, and other world leaders about “security concerns,” “self-determination,” “civilizational choice,” “sovereignty,” “imperialism,” or “anti-imperialism” are often taken at face value, as if they represented coherent national interests.

Specifically, the debate over Russian — or, more precisely, the Russian ruling clique’s — interests in launching the war tends to be polarized around questionable extremes. Many take what Putin says literally, failing to even question whether his obsession with NATO expansion or his insistence that Ukrainians and Russians constitute “one people” represent Russian national interests or are shared by Russian society as a whole. On the other side, many dismiss his remarks as bold-faced lies and strategic communication lacking any relation to his “real” goals in Ukraine.

In their own ways, both of these positions serve to mystify the Kremlin’s motivations rather than clarify them. Today’s discussions of Russian ideology often feel like a return to the times of The German Ideology, penned by young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels some 175 years ago. To some, the dominant ideology in Russian society is a true representation of the social and political order. Others believe that simply proclaiming the emperor has no clothes will be enough to pierce the free-floating bubble of ideology.

Unfortunately, the real world is more complicated. The key to understanding “what Putin really wants” is not cherry-picking obscure phrases from his speeches and articles that fit observers’ preconceived biases, but rather conducting a systematic analysis of the structurally determined material interests, political organization, and ideological legitimation of the social class he represents.

In the following, I try to identify some basic elements of such an analysis for the Russian context. That does not mean a similar analysis of the Western or Ukrainian ruling classes’ interests in this conflict is irrelevant or inappropriate, but I focus on Russia partially for practical reasons, partially because it is the most controversial question at the moment, and partially because the Russian ruling class bears the primary responsibility for the war. By understanding their material interests, we can move beyond flimsy explanations that take rulers’ claims at face value and move toward a more coherent picture of how the war is rooted in the economic and political vacuum opened up by the Soviet collapse in 1991.

Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist based in Kyiv. He has published articles and interviews in the Guardian and New Left Review.