Volodymyr Ishchenko, Towards the Abyss: Ukraine from Maidan to War (Verso 2024), 192pp. Volodymyr Ishchenko, Towards the Abyss: Ukraine from Maidan to War (Verso 2024), 192pp.

Ukrainian Marxist, Volodymyr Ishchenko’s Towards the Abyss reveals the distortions and falsehoods of the Western narrative over Ukraine, finds Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Volodymyr Ishchenko’s book is a collection of essays focusing on Ukraine during the Maidan revolt in 2013-4 (part 1, ‘2014’) and the immediate events surrounding the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022 (part 2, ‘2022’). It is a rare, but necessary, corrective to the currently dominant explanation of the roots of these events in the West.

Indeed, Ishchenko offers a socialist view of a Ukraine as a country that could have remained independent of both Russia and the West. Contrary to Western accounts, though, he blames not only the Kremlin for this not coming to pass, but critically also Ukrainian elites and Western imperialism.

For doing so, and standing firmly on the left, Ishchenko has faced the kind of hostile environment, at home and abroad, that many of us on the socialist and anti-war left will find familiar. In a preface aptly entitled ‘A Wrong Ukrainian’, Ishchenko, who left Ukraine for exile in Germany in 2019, gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be a leftist in Kyiv in the 2000s and 2010s. He writes that ‘there was no rational engagement, only denial, silence, rejection, cancelling. One could write a thousand words against Russian imperialism and yet still be called a “troubadour of the empire”’ (p.xxiv).

The post-Soviet condition

By contrast, Ishchenko is keen to understand why Russia invaded Ukraine. He situates the invasion firmly in what he and Oleg Zhuravlev refer to as the ‘post-Soviet vicious circle’ (chapter 5). Their argument in a nutshell is that, rather than resulting in a dynamic capitalist modernisation, the post-Soviet transformation is best understood as a period of decline. The precipitous collapse of the post-Soviet economies led to the rise of authoritarian, paternalistic regimes like the one of Vladimir Putin in Russia.

However, several post-Soviet states, namely, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, never saw the consolidation of autocratic regimes. Rather, they experienced repeated uprisings that reconfigured relations within the state, without ever democratising it. For this reason, Ishchenko and Zhuravlev are reluctant to name these uprisings democratic revolutions, seeing them instead as ‘deficient revolutions’. Post-revolutionary leaders and parties in these countries rarely consolidated their rule (pp.59-61).

Each country added its own peculiarities to these ‘deficient revolutions’. In Ukraine, the Maidan revolt was accompanied by a multiplicity of more or less spontaneous anti-Maidan revolts in the south and east of the country. Since the Maidan revolt had extremely weak and dispersed leadership, nationalist and extreme-right forces, which tended to be better organised, punched above their weight. That in turn sent a chill down the spine of many ethnic Russians in the ethnically more mixed south and east of Ukraine.

Consequently, as Ishchenko puts it earlier in the book, ‘the anti-Maidan movement in the east was the mirror image of the Maidans of the west. Both protests were driven by a mixture of just causes and irrational fears, and both were ultimately channelled into a confrontation between competing (and mutually reinforcing) imperialisms, Western and Russian, and nationalisms, Russian and Ukrainian’ (p.33).

We now know that the US embassy in Kyiv was helping shape the new government in Ukraine in 2014, though, even at the time, Washington made no secret of its approval of the ouster of Yanukovych. Similarly, Moscow showed it was increasingly incapable of relying on soft power to counter Western encroachment in its desired sphere of influence, annexing Crimea and backing separatist rebels in parts of Ukraine’s Donbass.

This East-West rivalry continued, but in an apparent cold war. The negotiation of a ceasefire and the promise of a constitutional reform of Ukraine that would grant more autonomy to the separatist parts of the Donbas at the Minsk agreements in 2014-5 froze the conflict, but the deal was never fully implemented. Even the election to the presidency of an apparent outsider, Volodymyr Zelensky, saw Ukraine enter the same spiral as under the post-Maidan government, as Zelensky’s very outsider status raised expectations of change that was not forthcoming.

It was in this context that Russia decided to invade. Ishchenko is keen to emphasise that this was not just a geopolitical question surrounding Nato expansion. It had to do more broadly with the fundamental interests of the Russian ruling class and its state. The expansion of Euro-Atlantic capitalism westward increasingly appealed to the professional middle classes and sections of the ruling class excluded from the dominant form of ‘political capitalism’ represented by the regime in Moscow and many post-Soviet states. The former had deep potential for mobilising via (nationalist and liberal) middle-class networks of associations, NGOs, and parties. By contrast, the dominant ‘political’ capitalists, relying more on patronage networks, most often in industry, traditionally counted on the relative passivity of their working-class base.

Capitalism and war

While this account is overall convincing, Ishchenko’s nomenclature (as opposed to the nomenklatura!), especially reference to ‘political capitalism’, as in chapter 8, can detract from the overall argument. The term ‘political capitalism’ derives from Max Weber, and is often used to denote an inferior form of capitalism when compared with Western, ‘rational capitalism’. This is indeed how the term is most often used in studies of the post-Soviet space.

The argument is that ‘political capitalism’ is a stagnant form of capitalism. Since profit in this system derives ultimately from privileged access to political power, ‘political capitalism’ sets distinct limits to accumulation. ‘Political capitalists’ rely on an expensive, but subsidised workforce, via the post-Soviet welfare state, which is politically difficult to dismantle, and are comparatively reluctant to invest, since they operate in a context where their property rights and privileges derive from specific, changeable people at the top. ‘Political capitalism’ therefore compares unfavourably with the supposedly more dynamic, impersonal, market model of the mythical Anglo-American variant.

That underestimates the degree to which state and capital are intertwined in the most advanced centres of world capitalism. Moreover, literatures that emphasise ‘varieties of capitalism’ tend towards a methodological nationalism, which leads them to overestimate domestic institutional configurations, and underestimate international inequalities of economic, political and military power. Here, we may end up with the argument that Russian imperialism invaded Ukraine on account of specifically or inherently Russian peculiarities and weaknesses, ultimately because it was over-reliant on the state and under-reliant on the market.

Nevertheless, it has historically been the case that countries playing catch-up rely more overtly on the state to enable their competition with the advanced capitalist core in an uneven global capitalist system. If Euro-Atlantic capitalism is a threat to Russian ‘political capitalists’ (p.103), as Ishchenko correctly argues, this is less because the latter are ‘political capitalists’, and has more to do with capitalism being a system of competitive capital accumulation, where capitals compete with other capitals with the eventual goal of defeating and potentially absorbing them. That rivalry spills over into non-economic means of competition, including ultimately warfare. In this case, the expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions, especially Nato, put geopolitical, economic and political pressures on a declining Russian imperialism in its near abroad and at home. Russian imperialism had fewer soft power tools at its disposal and ultimately relied on hard power to assert itself.

Thus, while Ishchenko is undoubtedly right that a concrete analysis of class interests and how they translate into geopolitical competition sets aside Marxist understandings of international relations from other bourgeois accounts, nonetheless, placing the Nato-Russia rivalry at the centre of the discussion of what happened in the post-Soviet space is vital. It allows us to focus on global capitalist competition as such, and to emphasise the ultimate instability that inter-imperialist competition breeds, rather than the particularities of domestic institutional arrangements. That in turn allows us to escape an overly narrow explanation of the origins of the Russia-Ukraine War, which might lead us to emphasising local factors and actors. This is because the war clearly has wider, global dynamics. To understand the totality of relations in this war, as well as their specificity, we need to interrogate the motivations and actions of all the actors in the drama, not least that of Western imperialism.

War and revolution

With this caveat in mind, Ishchenko’s work is nevertheless a major contribution to our understanding of the origins, course and potential conclusions to this war. Ishchenko poses major questions that can help us unravel the dynamics behind Russian, Ukrainian and Western ruling class actions, and, critically from a Marxist standpoint, to identify their weaknesses.

In the sixth and eighth chapters, Ishchenko asks the question: whither Russian imperialism after the invasion of Ukraine? If there are a myriad of reasons why Putin went to war at this specific moment, including ‘Russia’s temporary advantage in hypersonic weapons, Europe’s dependency on Russian energy, the repression of the so-called pro-Russian opposition in Ukraine, the stagnation of the 2015 Minsk Accords following the war in the Donbass and the failure of Russian intelligence in Ukraine’ (p.105), it is also clear that the Russian state and Russian capitalism have had to adapt to take up the challenge of fighting what has become a proxy war with Nato in Ukraine.

Here, Ishchenko argues that the Russian state has developed a form of military Keynesianism to ensure buy-in from, and to mobilise sections of, the working population that it has tried to maintain in relative passivity in the past. It has also deepened attempts at constructing a conservative, nationalist ruling ideology to fit a renewed imperial project aimed at refashioning the unipolar into a multipolar world, restoring Russia’s place as a Great Power. But this is not a fully coherent programme without major contradictions at its core. Citing Dylan John Riley, Ishchenko contends that, ironically, ‘stronger hegemonic politics from above may help to foster the growth of a stronger counter-hegemonic politics from below’ (p.107).

Similarly, in the seventh and ninth chapters, Ishchenko provides arguments that directly go against the West’s ‘Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine’ mantra. In this context, ‘NATO through Ukrainian eyes’ (chapter 7), is particularly noteworthy. A key propaganda element in mobilising support for Western involvement in Ukraine has been that it respects the aspirations of the Ukrainian people themselves for closer ties with Western institutions like the European Union and Nato.

Yet it is not at all clear that Ukrainians had such aspirations before the full-scale Russian invasion. Moreover, the drive to include Ukraine in Nato did not come from significant support from within Ukraine. Back in 2008, when Nato’s Bucharest Summit announced that Ukraine’s future was in the alliance, public support for Nato membership was low. Even as late as 2012-3, support for joining Nato stood as low as 13% (p.89).

It was only after the Maidan events that led to the ouster of Yanukovych, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and Russian support for separatists in the Donbass in 2014-5 that support for Nato began to grow. Even so, non-alignment still commanded a plurality of around 45% in December 2021, on the eve of the Russian invasion (p. 91). Furthermore, there have been regional and class asymmetries in support for joining the Western military alliance, with working-class people, and the south and east of the country, consistently much less supportive. This asymmetry persisted even after support increased overall after February 2022 (pp.92-4).

That leads us explicitly on to which Ukrainian voices we listen to – or can even get to hear. In ‘Ukrainian voices?’ (chapter 9), Ishchenko blasts the use of catchwords and slogans lifted from postcolonial theory, like ‘decolonisation’ and ‘agency’, to mask fundamentally reactionary politics within Ukraine. The essentialising narratives of Ukrainian nationalists have tended to obfuscate the real complexities of modern Ukrainian identity, which has helped to cloak the oppression of diverse populations by the liberal nationalist bloc within Ukraine, and even legitimise the rehabilitation of fascist figures like Stepan Bandera.

Ishchenko notes, moreover, that the politics of liberation, of which decolonisation was historically a part, underwent a shift in the 1970s and 1980s, away from universal emancipation, and towards the recognition of particular oppressed identities and agencies by still oppressive institutions, the very persistence of which was no longer questioned. Ironically, though, the drive for the decolonisation of Ukraine has been aimed at dismantling Russian imperialism, while remaining blind to its main rival, Euro-Atlantic imperialism, whose recognition is the one that is sought. We therefore get decolonisation aimed at liberation from one, particular imperialism, the Russian, but not from imperialism as such (p.112). It should be unsurprising that talk of decolonisation for Ukraine has been met with greater enthusiasm from populations in the Euro-Atlantic heartlands of global capitalism, but not the Global South.

For any leftist, Ishchenko’s book is useful reading to help understand a key question affecting today’s world. It serves as a warning against taking the word of the ruling class in any state involved in the war in Ukraine at face value. For leftists in the West, his work and wider opus should reinforce our demand for the end of Nato expansion and caution us against championing the cause of sending arms to Ukraine until ‘final victory’. Rather, it should encourage examination of the concrete interests of the Western imperialist states intervening indirectly on Ukraine’s side, as well as of the claims of the Ukrainian government to representativeness in relation to its population as a whole.

That should not mean we drop our condemnation of the Russian invasion, or our insistence on the right of Ukraine to self-determination, but it should mean we push for means consonant with our goals. Ultimately, we need to ensure that, in approaching the war in Ukraine, we take positions in a way that allow us to build resistance to our capitalist rulers at home. Pushing for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution which respects the right to self-determination, but also recognises the diversity of Ukraine, as well as the right to self-determination of its minorities, is critical to this endeavour.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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