“A War of Imperial Aggression”: How Russia’s Invasion One Year Ago Changed Ukraine & the World
Written by GRB on 24/02/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Friday marks one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Over the past year, at least 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations, describing that figure as only the tip of the iceberg, with the true death toll believed to be much higher. The U.N. refugee agency said this week more than 8 million refugees have fled the fighting in Ukraine. On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres repeated his call for the war to end.
SECRETARY–GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: War is not the solution. War is the problem. People in Ukraine are suffering enormously. Ukrainians, Russians and people far beyond need peace. And while prospects may look bleak today, we must all work knowing that genuine, lasting peace must be based on the U.N. Charter and international law. The longer the fighting continues, the more difficult this work will be. We don’t have a moment to lose. And I thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. secretary-general spoke as the U.N. General Assembly debates a motion to demand Russia, quote, “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine.” During the debate at the U.N., Russia accused the United States and other Western nations of trying to, quote, “plunge the entire world into the abyss of war,” unquote, by sending military arms to Ukraine. On Wednesday, President Biden met with leaders from NATO’s nine easternmost countries, the so-called Bucharest Nine.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As NATO’s eastern flank, you are the frontlines of our collective defense, and you know better than anyone what’s at stake in this conflict, not just for Ukraine but for the freedom of democracies throughout Europe and around the world. You know, when — that’s what President Zelensky and I spoke about when I was in Kyiv two days ago. And the leaders around this table have repeatedly stepped up to reaffirm our shared commitment to all these values.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin hosted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wednesday. This comes as the Biden administration is warning China against arming Russia. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says China would be crossing a, quote, “red line” if it provides lethal military aid to Russia.
Well, today we spend the hour looking at the war in Ukraine and its impact around the world. We begin with two guests. In New York, Nina Khrushcheva is joining us, professor of international affairs at The New School. She’s the great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. And Hanna Perekhoda is a Ukrainian Ph.D. student in history at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, where she’s joining us from, as well. She’s a member of the democratic socialist organization Sotsialnyi Rukh. She’s also part of the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine, born and raised in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Hanna Perekhoda, let’s begin with you. It has been a year. Friday marks the one year, February 24th, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Can you talk about what has happened since?
HANNA PEREKHODA: Thank you for having me. Yeah, there is a lot of things to say today.
A year ago, major powers assumed that Ukraine will fall within three weeks, but one year passed already, and Ukraine resists. And it is not just Putin who was surprised by this massive resistance, but also most of the observers from outside Ukraine. And I tend to think that it was indeed the lack of expertise, the lack of knowledge in Ukraine, which is the largest European country, and that prevented us from understanding that this is a war of imperial aggression and that Ukrainians will resist against it. And unfortunately, this lack of knowledge and this denial of Ukrainian agency still prevents some of us from understanding the nature of this war and from acting in a responsible manner.
And, yeah, this morning, Russian missiles were raining down upon Ukrainian cities again. And the systematic bombings of the residential areas and of civil infrastructure showed us, showed Ukrainians, that the massive terror against civilians is a deliberate strategy of the Russian army. And this year, what we saw in Bucha, in Izium, in Kherson and in other cities from where the Russian troops were kicked out, all these atrocities showed to Ukrainians what actually awaits any territory if it is seized by Russia. And this is the reason why, after one year of full-scale invasion, Ukrainians still reject firmly the idea of a partition of their country. They refuse to leave their families, their friends under the occupation, where they face murder, rape and constant terror. And it’s why they actually persist to ask for military support, not just Ukrainian government but Ukrainian people, in order to be able to defend themselves against the regime that expresses openly its genocidal intent.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Elaborate on that, Russia expressing its genocidal intent. And also speak — you’re joining us from Lausanne, but you were in Lviv in May with a group of activists from Europe, where you went and met members of — left-wing activists in Lviv. If you could talk about that visit, too, but first elaborate on what you said about Russia’s genocidal intent in Ukraine?
HANNA PEREKHODA: Yeah, I will try in a few words. I mean, to understand the extent of the threat that Russian aggression presents for Ukrainians, it is necessary to know, to realize what Ukraine means for the Russian political elite’s identity, because by analyzing this war for a strictly geopolitical perspective, we often fail to see that the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is marked by a very long history of imperial domination and aggression. And Russian nationalists — Putin is a Russian nationalist — they see the separate existence of Ukrainians as something which will lead to the destruction not only of the so-called Russian civilizational space, like post-Soviet space, but also of the body of the Russian nation itself. So Ukraine is seen by them as an existential threat to their national identity. And as archaic as it may seem to us, to some of us, national ideologies still have a very great performative potential, performative power. They can incite people to perpetrate wars and genocide. And this conflict has a genocidal potential, because we have an ideology, and this ideology denies the right of the other, the right of Ukrainians, to simply exist as a separate entity. We really have to take it seriously and to be aware of what the Russian occupation means for Ukrainians. There was a lot of specialists who were already alarming and saying against the — talking about this genocidal threat. So, yeah.
And about the trip in Lviv, yes, with the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine, we formed a delegation of political activists, civic activists, trade unionists, deputies, journalists from more than 12 European countries, and we went to Ukraine to meet the representatives of local grassroots communities, initiatives, feminists, trade unionists, LGBTQ community, Roma community, ecologists. And actually, we needed to know better the perspectives, their perspectives on war, their revindications, their needs. They are organizing themselves, actually, to help each other. And they are doing it on a huge scale. And for the Ukrainian population, this kind of direct solidarity, which comes from ordinary activists, ordinary people, and not from big international organizations, this is something very important, because they are not — they do not want to be perceived as huge victims who expect charity, because Ukrainians, this is a society which is resisting and self-organizing, and we decided that we must show that we recognize and we support the agency of Ukrainians, and because we want that after the victory, the reconstruction of Ukraine is not done at the expense of its population. And we don’t want, you know, external actors to decide what is good for Ukrainians. We want the decision to belong to the population. So we made this delegation to help their voices to be heard, the voices of local activists, and not the voices of, you know, some self-proclaimed experts who have never set foot in Ukraine.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Hanna, you’ve also said that activists in Ukraine, while simultaneously opposing the war, of course, they’ve also systematically been opposing the neoliberal policies of the Ukrainian government. Could you elaborate on that, how long that’s been going on, and how it connects to this opposition to this war and, simultaneously, support for the government resisting the occupation?
HANNA PEREKHODA: Yeah, it’s an important question, because before, even before the invasion, Ukraine was already one of the poorest and most indebted countries in Europe. It had been at war already for eight years, at war in the eastern part of Ukraine. But this year, the country’s GDP has fallen by a third, and many people has not — has lost their jobs, but not only jobs. Also they lost their homes, their relatives. And unfortunately, they are not 8,000, as you said before, but probably tens of thousands civilians are killed, and military casualties probably exceeded already 100,000 men.
So, the Ukrainians actually defend their country in extremely difficult conditions. But while they are doing it, the Ukrainian authorities have undertaken anti-social reforms and more than that, under these difficult wartime conditions. They are continuing to liberalize and privatize the economy. And they’re actually undermining the economic and political sovereignty of Ukraine that Ukrainians are actually fighting for and giving their lives for. So, Ukrainians want to regain their independence from the Russian aggression — Ukrainian people and Ukrainian government — but Ukrainian people do not want to fall into neoliberal dependence. And they need allies all over the world, first of all, in their struggle against the Russian occupation, but also in their struggle against the anti-social policies of their own government. That’s why, for example, Ukrainian activists on the left ask us, ask European and Western countries to cancel the Ukrainians’ foreign debt, to confiscate the Russian assets, to use them for the reconstruction of Ukraine, because Ukraine will really need it. And they ask us to make pressure on our governments to make the Ukrainian government respect social and labor rights of its population, because these are the preconditions to rebuild a sustainable economy and to make a Ukraine that millions are fighting for, to make this kind of Ukraine a reality.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Nina Khrushcheva into the conversation, joining our guest Hanna Perekhoda. Nina Khrushcheva, again, professor of international affairs at New School. But you go back and forth to Moscow. Your reflections on this last year since Russia invaded Ukraine, both inside Russia — and the total number of soldiers it’s believed have died or wounded, about 200,000 — about the same number of people who were in the stadium yesterday as President Putin addressed them?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, thank you, Amy.
Well, first of all, I just want to say that many of us, thousands of us, millions of us, are tremendously sorry for what Russia did, is doing to Ukraine. Deeply embarrassing. But, you know, there have been mea culpa all the time, so I just don’t want to — don’t want to revel in that, but want to move forward towards the question. And we don’t know exactly. I mean, the Russian casualties are very deeply hidden secret. We don’t know that.
Putin did speak at that celebration in the Luzhniki, the main stadium in Moscow, 200,000. In fact, I was quite surprised. I thought it was a very meager number comparing to what the importance of this sort of propaganda performance was, so they should have bussed more people into this. And it wasn’t really — I mean, it was such a Soviet propaganda staged formula, that very few people actually kind of may believe in it.
Well, in the last year, look, we can’t even start to discuss it in the presence of Ukrainians, but when I got to Moscow in June last year, it seemed like it’s still — you know, Putin, in his speech he just spoke on the 21st, he had his address to his government, kind of talking about the war and Western existential threat and whatnot. So, in June, it seemed like that Western existential threat didn’t exist. It was more in terms of conversation. So, there’s still Western signs and restaurants, and, you know, people were living absolutely separate lives. And by the time I left in January, you really feel that that existential threat is not only in a conversation, not only in a conversation from the Kremlin, but everybody feels that Russia is behind the Iron Curtain, the self-imposed Iron Curtain from the West. But there’s really very little protest that one can do, unfortunately. We’ve seen the protests from the mothers. We saw Yevgeny Prigozhin — you just quoted him saying that the government doesn’t give him enough ammunition so he can fight and whatnot. So, there’s a lot of cracks in the last year, although Putin’s speech on the 21st seemed very firm.
It is an existential threat, not just in Ukraine but also against the whole West. So, it’s a repetition of what communism versus capitalism was during the Cold War in the 20th century, although it’s quite unclear what exactly Putin is oppositioning. But never mind. That’s an easy way of basically bringing society into your kind of geopolitical idea that it’s Russia versus everybody else, because everybody else wants the end for Russia. But there is a lot of cracks in it, and we see the separate voices. And so, it’s really not entirely a very safe position of the war for Putin to be in. Especially in that speech on the 21st, it was a lot about the war. It was a lot about the West. But it was really very little promise of how it is going to be in the future. So, Russia is fighting, not clear for what and not clear how. So, that has been the outcome of the year. The outcome of the year is that the victory is not coming, but the fight will continue eternally.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you how you see this ending, Professor Khrushcheva, and also put the question to Hanna. I mean, you explained what happened with the Soviet Union pulling out of Afghanistan. What could happen here?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, it’s really impossible to predict, but, you know, I think you and I spoke about this at the beginning, when it all started. And I was in conversation with somebody very close, up top, an important person next to Putin, who said it’s going to be an Afghanistan disaster. So, that was two days into this. And it seemed — I mean, it seemed plausible, but it also seemed impossible at the same time. And why would one get into this situation that is so obviously going to be a losing proposition?
And so, today we see that it is [inaudible] Afghanistan, because Afghanistan was like that. It’s 1979, was late Leonid Brezhnev. He was — not that he was losing power, but he needed to, you know, strengthening the Soviet project. And in some ways, Putin needed to strengthen the Russian imperial project. And as Hanna said, Ukraine is existential, is important to that imperial project. So, you go in, but you’re absolutely so wrong about going in, because you lose perspective after 22 years in power. And Brezhnev was for — I don’t know — 15 years in power at that time. So you lose perspective, and you start a war that has no solution.
So, we don’t know how it’s going to end, because for Putin now — and that’s what we heard on the 21st — for Putin now, the victory is if the West stops being in opposition to Russia. That means — and that’s what you mentioned Joe Biden being in Kyiv and being in Poland — for Joe Biden, it is the West is not going to retreat. The West is going to stay firm. So, for both of them, they both announced that it is something that another side cannot win. So, for Putin, the West to step off; for Ukraine, it’s not going to give up its territory. So, I think we are in for a protracted battle, until either Russia or Ukraine — and I hate to say that, but it’s possible — either Russia or Ukraine can no longer fight. And so, then the negotiations would come. But that can take a really very, very long time. And that can be victory for Ukraine before that. I don’t see exactly how it’s going to be victory for Putin, but I don’t think we can predict in the near future how it’s going to resolve. I do think it’s a long — it’s a long, long fight, as long as Putin stands firm. And that’s what he actually said in his speech. He’s going to stand firm. He’s going to wear it out. He’s going to wear the West out. He’s going to wear Ukraine out by destroying its infrastructure. So, he is going to take everything, or he is going to put everything on his victory, or at least not his defeat. And that’s, once again, as I said, we don’t know where it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, and how long it will take.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nina, could you also talk about the extent to which, or if at all, perceptions within Russia have changed of the war?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, at the beginning, as you know, there was really very strong opposition. And in a week, the free media was gone. Independent organizations were gone. People were arrested in the streets. I think, even when I was leaving in January, there were about at least one-third of people in the street in Moscow were police. So, police is walking around, essentially giving you a message that you are not going to be protesting. Every turnstile on the subway had a police standing next to it. So, there are many, many subway stops. And they are not there to arrest, but they’re warning you if something happens.
So, that is kind of the domination of the state, and also with a message, because Putin’s message also changed over the year, over this year. At the beginning, it was the demilitarization, the preventing the destruction of the eastern parts of Ukraine, and so on and so forth, the defend the Donbas region. And then the sort of the shrieking message would become more and more existential: “We’re there against the West.” And so, in the speech on the 21st, it was — also for the people, it was, “Look, that’s how we’re looking at it — we as a country. And don’t you dare to think any differently about this.”
So, it’s not that people started supporting the war more, but they are much more afraid now. They’re terrified now to say that they are not supporting, because, I mean, I did my own polling a little bit in January and December, and I would say that over 50% of — 60-plus of the Russian population absolutely do not support this. But because it’s framed is that the West wants to strategically demolish Russia, to defeat it strategically, of course — and Hanna also mentioned that — the imperial psyche cannot take it. So, what? We’re not going to be existing as a country of 11 time zones? And so, there’s a very kind of split reaction to — split reaction to all of this.
The war wants to be over, but very — I mean, Russians do not want — many Russians, not all Russians — many Russians do not want to be defeated. And I think the Kremlin uses this cracks in people psyche quite well. On the other hand, as I mentioned, there is a lot of cracks in Putin’s own entourage, although he doesn’t seem to be noticing it. But if you look at the audience on the 21st — it’s all the elites and all the government — you could see that some of them were really, really pained by these pronouncements. They really clearly want it to be over. They just haven’t decided how they can go about it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Hanna, final thoughts? We just have 30 seconds. How do you see this unfolding now?
HANNA PEREKHODA: I am a historian, so I cannot make predictions, but I can explain some tendencies that I see. I think — I’m sure that a compromise with Putin would set a deadly precedent, given all the wannabe imperialist drives to wage the war of aggression and the nuclear blackmail, and it would literally restore the system of international relations that existed before the World War I and II. So, I think history should have taught us that the most terrible wars actually happen when we forget that peace and democracy are not just empty words. They are the achievements of our past struggles, the achievements that must be constantly preserved, in the face of authoritarian and obscurantist forces. And Ukrainians haven’t forgot that yet, but a lot of people in the Western countries seem to have forgot this simple truth.
AMY GOODMAN: Hanna Perekhoda, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Ukrainian Ph.D. student at University of Lausanne in Switzerland, part of the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine, and Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School here in New York.
Coming up, we look at how Russia and Chinese relations have changed since Russia invaded Ukraine, and then a view from the Global South, particularly Africa, how the continent is affected by the Ukraine war. Stay with us.