Russia’s war or Putin’s war? Behind the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’ of the invasion of Ukraine
By Dr. Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a professor of Russian politics, the director of King’s Russia Institute, and the author of “The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity”
The titles of two recent books on the war in Ukraine by Jade McGlynn and Mark Galeotti confront readers with the choice: is this war Putin’s or Russia’s? This differentiation has turned into a serious watershed among people otherwise united against the invasion. Both positions need to be heard and explained. The reference to “Russia’s war” posits a colonial war. The Russian masses have not risen up to stop the invasion; to the contrary, many have volunteered for combat. This perspective on the war emphasizes Russia’s imperialism and calls on the Russian population to confront its widespread chauvinism and implicit arrogance. When other experts or Russia’s own anti-Kremlin opposition refer to “Putin’s war,” however, they highlight the need for political pragmatism and for supporting political leaders like jailed oppositionist Alexey Navalny, who condemn and would end the war, if they were in power. According to this latter view, blaming all of Russian society or culture ultimately marginalizes the Russian people and plays into the hands of the current Russian leadership.
The entanglement of politics, culture, and imperialism in the context of the war in Ukraine is hard to deny. Russian imperial heritage is crucial in the formation of collective identities in Russia. It is also in many ways taken for granted and invisible. A few scholars have explored Russia’s “internal colonialism” and “sub-altern imperial condition,” while more have focused on Russian xenophobia, racism and nationalism over the past decade or so. When discussing Russian imperialism as a cultural and structural phenomenon, we must not forget that addressing such societal challenges is slow, arduous work.
Russia has never been a nation-state. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, it has always existed as an imperial state. The post-Soviet Russia that emerged in 1991 could have gone in a different, non-imperial, direction, especially with the asymmetrical and contractual federal arrangements that enabled a high degree of regionalization and autonomy. But Russia’s second president did not tolerate the political pluralism associated with the weak state, and his state-rebuilding agenda quickly turned toward authoritarianism and political centralization. A strong state and authoritarian regime, in turn, evolved in the direction of reviving Russia’s imperial agenda.
While diagnosing the problem might be easy, treating it is much harder. Cultural phenomena like imperialism or racism are the result of long-term structural and ideological factors that shape societies. Problems with racism in the United States and imperial legacies in Great Britain are good examples of issues that to some degree constitute these countries’ histories and societies in the same way that imperialism permeates Russian history, society, and culture. The term “culture” itself is problematic and anthropologists (who study cultures professionally) typically reject attempts to essentialize and aggregate the concept. Instead of culture, we might refer to “shared mental models” and “schematas” that become historically entrenched and potentially mobilized at specific moments by political leaders. Scholars have shown that the debates over the 2016 Brexit decision in the U.K. still convey imperial modes of thinking on both sides of the dispute. In the U.S., especially under the Trump presidency, the issue of racism has continued to be one of the most painful and long-lasting challenges in American culture and society.
The intractability of these issues in other contexts suggests that shared mental models will be difficult to address in Russia too. In the midst of an ongoing war, moreover, Moscow’s neighbors who have suffered Russian imperialism for centuries will understandably seek to “undo” Russia as a country (as Russia is now trying to destroy Ukraine).
The Russia of the future needs to have a serious discussion about imperialism. It’s important for the nation’s leaders and intellectual elites to address the issue and create conditions for a broad debate while building institutions that promote ethnic equality inside Russia’s diverse communities and recognize the sovereign choices made by peoples previously under Russian domination. Such a discussion is impossible while Russia is neither democratic, prosperous, nor governed by the rule of law. In fact, the transformation required to bring about such conditions in Russia would be so radical and, at the moment, unachievable that the issue itself might be dismissed as superfluous, at least while the war continues.
Nonetheless, Russia urgently needs responsible leadership that will create a democratic environment for decentralized governance and a free press that enable atonement and repentance, offer space for collective responsibility, and provide fresh momentum for addressing deep national issues, including ethnic hierarchies within and outside Russia.
The phrase “Putin’s Russia” reflects faith in that “other,” potential Russia. Speaking of “Russia’s war,” on the other hand, confronts the ethics of “daring” to imagine an alternative future for the country during the genocidal war waged by today’s Russia. Ukrainians’ pain and outrage are a response to the lives lost now, and this anger forces us to confront and keep our eyes on the real instead of falling onto the imaginary.