What caused the Russian-Ukraine conflict. The answer is to be found in history and economics.
Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”
The first and the most popular theory sees the war as a war between democracy and autocracy. It is based on a premise that Russia is run by a dictator and that Ukraine is run by a president who is popularly elected. That view however neglects a number of facts including that the governmental change in Ukraine in 2004 was the result of a social revolt against the unfair elections while the 2014 change was a coup against a legitimately elected government. Moreover Ukraine was, before the war and even before 2014, the most unsuccessful state in the former Soviet Union. Not only was the level of corruption extremely high, the parliament largely dysfunctional, various oligarchs, including the one who helped bring Zelensky to power, rampant, but Ukraine’s economic performance was probably the worst of all the republics of the former Soviet Union. While in 1990 the GDP per capita of Russia and Ukraine were quite similar, on the eve of Russia’s invasion, Russia’s GDP per capita was more than twice as high as Ukraine’s. The view that somehow Ukraine represents, or represented, in Russians’ own view a desired alternative to Russia’s autocracy is belied by the facts: the movement of population was in the “wrong” direction: Ukrainians moved to Russia and worked in Russia because the wages in Russia were about three times as high as in Ukraine, rather than Russians moving to Ukraine.
This naïve theory fails to address the fact that all conflicts in post-communist space took place in the former federal states that were dissolved along the ethically-based republican borders. And that 11 out of 12 such conflicts were the old-fashioned conflicts about the control of the territory. They had nothing to do with democracy or autocracy. The naive theory also disregards the fact that the autocratic states are not neatly aligned: for every Belarus that is aligned with Russia there is an equally autocratic Azerbaijan that is aligned with Ukraine.
The naive theory is popular in the first place because of its simplicity. It does not require any knowledge of history, neither of Russia nor Ukraine, it does not require any knowledge about communism, it does not even require any view (or even knowledge) of the reasons for the break-up of communist federations. It is a theory based on ignorance, and supported by ignorance. Secondly, such a naïve theory is in the interests of the more bellicose liberal and right-wing circles in the West who see the current conflict as a precursor to a much larger conflict pitting the United States against China. That potential conflict becomes much more acceptable if it is seen as a conflict of values, and not as a conflict about the geopolitical primacy.
The second explanation of the current conflict takes the position that the war is the result of Russian imperialism. According to that theory, the Putin regime is the inheritor of the Tsarist regime that sought to subdue and control the areas around Russia, from Romania (Moldova) to Poland, the Baltics and Finland. That theory is supported to a large extent by Putin’s own remarks made just before the war that tried to provide a justification for it. Russia underwent, in Putin’s view, “the century of betrayals” where its historical territories (including the Novorossiya, conquered by Catherine the Great that Putin openly revendicates today) were frittered away by communists. Putin thus attacks first Lenin for having given to Ukraine the Donbas, Stalin for giving the eastern part of Poland to Ukraine, and Khrushchev for transferring Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. The implication, often made by nationalist Greater Russian authors, is that the communist regime was an anti Russian “conspiracy” that dispersed left and right the traditional historical territories of Russia and gave them to other nationalities in order to assuage their feeling of grievance against Great Russian chauvinism. The theory thus interestingly unites those who argue that Russian imperialism is somehow innate to the Russian psyche, and Putin’s propagandists. The theory has some relationship to reality but the problem is that it does not address the origin of the current wave of Russian nationalism and imperialism. It might explain Russian nationalism of the nineteenth century but not Russian nationalism today, whose roots are much more plausibly explained by what happened since 1917.
The third view about the origins of the conflict looks at the roots of the current nationalism. It starts from the historical events of 1989-1992 which led to the fall of communism. The fall of communism was not precipitated by democratic revolutions as is often claimed in the popular narrative in the West. These were in reality revolutions of national liberation from the indirect rule by the Soviet Union. They took the seemingly democratic form because of a broad agreement on national self-determination among many sections of the population in 1989. Thus nationalism and democracy were fused and it was difficult to distinguish them. This was especially so in countries that were ethnically homogeneous like Poland or Hungary: nationalism and democracy were the same, and it is understandable that both domestic revolutionaries and the Western observers preferred to emphasize the latter and to downplay the former (nationalism). We can distinguish the two only when we look at what happened in multi-ethnic federations. No theory which sees democracy as being the guiding light of the 1989 revolutions can explain the fact that all communist ethnic federations broke up. For if democracy was the main concern of the revolutionaries there was no reason for such federations to break up once they became democratic. Moreover the break-up does not make sense at all within the broader liberal narrative which takes multiculturalism in addition to democracy (or even as a part of democracy) as a desideratum. If democracy and multiculturalism were the guiding forces of the 1989 revolutions then the communist federations of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia should have survived. The fact that they did not clearly indicates that the leading forces behind the revolution were those of nationalism and self determination.
Further, as I mentioned, the theory of the democratic nature of the revolutions of 1989 cannot explain why all conflicts and wars have taken place in the dissolved communist federations, and why 11 out of 12, including the current war in Ukraine, are the ethnic conflicts about the borders. Such conflicts have nothing to do with the type of internal arrangement or government (democracy vs autocracy), but they have a lot to do with conquest of territory, nationalism, and desire of minorities which happen to be in the “wrong” states to have their own states or to join a neighboring state. These elementary facts are almost never mentioned in the mainstream story-telling. There is a good reason for it: they run against the simplistic “democratic narrative.”
The fourth theory takes its starting point from the third but goes a step further. It does ask the crucial question, ignored by all other theories: whence did nationalism that led to the break-up of ethnic federations come from? The answer has to be sought in the constitutional set-up of communist federations and in economics. As is well-known, communists tried not only to solve the economic problems linked with capitalism, but also the ethnic problem which has bedeviled Eastern Europe for several centuries. They followed broadly speaking the Austro-Marxist approach that evolved from arguing for personal autonomy to favoring national self-determination. This is why the Soviet Union was created as a federation of ethnically based states. The Soviet Union should have transcended the ethnic issue by giving each ethnicity its own republic, a homeland. The Soviet Union, in this view, provided the blueprint for a future global federal state that would also be composed of nationally-based states that fulfilled two functions: provision of national security to its members and fast economic development thanks to the abolishment of capitalism. The same approach was adopted by two other ethnic federations: Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
That approach made lots of sense on paper and would have probably solved the ethnic problem had communism delivered on its promise of fast economic growth.
The reason why communist federations failed to solve the ethnic problem became much more obvious in the 1970s. The principal reason lay in the economic failure to catch up with the developed West. As that failure became more apparent, under the condition of a single party system the only legitimacy that different Communist party elites could seek was to represent themselves as the standard bearers of national interests of their own republics. In the absence of market relations and with arbitrary pricing, every republic could claim to have been exploited by the others. The republican elites latched on that to become more popular at home (in their republics), and, in the absence of elections, to garner some legitimacy. They were helped by the fact that the republican political structures were considered legitimate structures within the one party state. The republican elites did not thus have to go outside the existing political system (which would have rendered them liable for repression) to obtain the mantle of legitimacy and popular support. Ironically had these republican structures not existed, that is, were the multinational states simple unitary states, then the local communist elites would not have had the tools nor the political basis from which to challenge the other elites and project themselves as defenders of national interests. By doing so, however, they also created the basis for the spread and acceptance of nationalist ideologies that eventually broke up the countries.
Thus to get a better understanding of the current war it is important to go back into history. What we observe today is caused by two factors: first, the unsuccessful economic development of the formerly communist countries, and second, the structural political setup that enabled republican elites to cover-up the economic failure by defending the nationalist interests of their constituents. The latter was both an easy solution, and was permitted by the way the regime was organized. If one argued for the return to capitalism, he was likely to end up dismissed from his job, or in jail. But if one argued that his republic was unequally treated, he was likely to climb up the ladders of power.
Legitimation of the national interest as such provied then for the legitimation of nationalist ideologies and ultimately for the desire for national independence, and the wave of nationalism that motivated and followed the revolutions in 1989. The moving force of these revolutions was the same in both ethnically homogeneous and ethically heterogeneous countries: it was nationalism. But nationalism in the first group of countries coalesced with democracy, and nationalism in the latter group of countries, because of unresolved territorial issues, led to wars. Russia was slow to move to a strong nationalist posture, and its reaction can be seen as delayed. But because of its size, large population and enormous military, it represents a much greater threat to peace once nationalism is dominant. For obviously a very small state with the same nationalist ideology is much less of a threat to the world peace than a state with 6,000 nuclear missiles.
Without seeing that the roots of the current conflict are historical and are lodged in the initial setup of communist federations and in the economic failure of the communist model of development, we are unlikely to understand the current conflict, all the unresolved one, and possibly even those that may come.
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