Behind the Frontlines: An Interview with Andrew After the Ukrainian Counteroffensive

The following interview was recorded as part of an event on the conflict in Ukraine held by the Friends of the Classless Society in Berlin on October 1.

Kosmoprolet: You took a very clear position against going to war on behalf of Ukraine, quite early on. In your “Letters from Ukraine,” you stated:

We should support mass desertions and mutiny on both sides as the only realistic way to stop conscription and break the atomicity of draft evasion. We should counter the image of a successful campaign that Ukraine is constructing: this war is unwinnable, and every minute spent denying it kills more and more people.

Following the latest [September 2022] military successes, we are witnessing a further escalation over the last few weeks. Many, including leftists, still hold out hope that the war could be won by Ukraine after all and thus that Putin’s regime will collapse. Do you stick to your social-revolutionary defeatist position? If so, why?

Andrew: I do indeed stick to my position. And I have reservations regarding this newfound optimism. Two reservations, essentially:

The first is that I don’t think the full-scale invasion represents something completely new, and it is naïve to think that measures adopted recently will just end. Looking at the past eight years in Ukraine, a state of emergency is the rule.1 Since 2014 the conflict in the Donbas has been used to silence any sort of dissent, any sort of revolt, any sort of critique of the Ukrainian state. Even among leftists, cost-of-living protests were labeled “pro-Russian.” The refrain was that certain things had to be sacrificed right now for the bright future of European prosperity. Organizers of and participants in these protests were said to be supporting Russian interests. And these accusations were made by politically-active rightwing nationalists and assorted Nazis, who often worked together orchestrating campaigns of harassment. Just mentioning the existence of Ukrainian Nazis was seen as potentially harmful to the national cause. A lot of anarchists prioritized painting a nice picture of their own state, wanting to speed up accession to the European Union in the hope that things would improve once this eventually happened. So in my view, the invasion in February wasn’t such a break from what was already going on. It merely expanded the pool of people who would label things they didn’t like “pro-Russian” and intensified these earlier dynamics. Personally, I think it would be pretty foolish to believe that after the crackdown on labor rights, the centralization of power would somehow go away once stable political conditions are restored. It’s hard to imagine a world where the Ukrainian government simply gives up the legal framework it has built since the beginning of the war to suppress protest and participation in civil society, where anyone who dissents can be instantly tarred as an agent of Putin or whatever.

The second reservation I have with regard to this optimism has to do with how the war is actually being fought. Now I’m not a military strategist or expert, but even those who are most optimistic about recent developments—people like Zelensky, his generals, various nationalists—don’t really have a single, defined goal of what would count as victory. This is understandable, of course, as it’s impossible to say what it might look like. Do we go back to the pre-February [2022] borders? Russia could continue to shell Ukraine from the other side, even from the Belgorod Oblast. Do we reconquer or “liberate” Crimea? This would be very difficult, since there’s a narrow land bridge that connects the peninsula to the continent which has been used for centuries as a kind of natural military fortress. Trying to storm a geographic obstacle such as this, or a city like Mariupol, would involve the sacrifice of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of soldiers in order to result in any kind of success. Not to mention the civilian casualties. When we talk about these wargame scenarios, we forget that the Ukrainian army is not made up of volunteers. It consists almost entirely of conscripts. An offensive of this sort would require the state to draft more soldiers, to lift the restrictions it’s imposed on conscription. The government refuses to admit how many are dying weekly or monthly in the meatgrinder. Having lived in a country with closed borders, and having barely escaped it, I’ve seen all sorts of people try to get out or otherwise evade the draft. So I’d like to dispel the illusion that there exists a mass willingness to die for the sake of this murky, undefined victory.

Kosmoprolet: As you just said, you’ve now fled Ukraine yourself after witnessing the first months of the invasion. I imagine you still have many contacts there, and so probably have a better overview than we do of what things are like on the ground. What would you say is the mood in Ukraine after more than half a year of conflict? Has there been a shift in recent months? Here in Germany there is always this image of high morale. There are reports that all these thousands of people are volunteering for military service. Has this enthusiasm diminished since the war began? Moreover, which class segments support the war effort? For what reasons? Are they purely nationalistic? Is the fear of the Russian regime so great? Or is there also a monetary incentive to enlist as a soldier? That is to say, are there people from the poorer segments of Ukrainian society now going to the Donbas region who see their chance to earn a comparatively “good” wage? Or at least an alternative to being unemployed? Lots of lefties here said early on they were going to defend Kyiv or whatnot. Are these people going to the Donbas region now and riding around in tanks? Or is it different segments of the class?

Andrew: It’s really hard to get a complete picture of this, so I’ll try to focus on just a couple things. The picture is far from the one painted by the Ukrainian, and especially the Western, media. Belligerence has definitely receded over the past few months. There have been no more mass waves of volunteering for the army since roughly March. Generally, the closer you and your family members are to the army the less nationalist you are. Once you see the harassment during the drills, once you see the soldiers’ lack of equipment, once you hear scary stories about the officers and their lack of training, or about crazy orders to take some town in just a few days with barely any weapons and so on, you are unlikely to believe the optimistic stories Zelensky feeds you daily about rapidly retaking “our lost lands”… Yes, as you mentioned, a large number initially volunteered for the territorial defense units, which are essentially local militias. But the excitement has faded among those who were redirected to the actual frontlines in Donbas, in the south of Ukraine. People who’d been working around Kyiv checking documents, patrolling the streets, standing at checkpoints with little training and minimal weaponry were sent to the frontlines. Maybe some rode tanks, sure, if they were given any tanks at all.

So there is definitely not as much excitement around the war anymore. Exposure to the realities of the war is of course dependent on class. You are much more likely to be conscripted into the army if you don’t have the money for a bribe.2 Before the war you could pay maybe a thousand dollars to get yourself off the lists of military conscription officers. Today it’s probably much, much more than that. And if you didn’t have the money before, then you probably don’t have it right now either. If you were a dropout or didn’t go to university at all, you’d be more likely to be conscripted as well. Furthermore, if you want to get formal employment documents you’re forced to go through the draft offices. So not being willing to go into the army might also keep you on the informal side of the economy; it might keep you in poverty, in other words, with fewer options than you would have otherwise. Another thing that ought to be mentioned is that Ukrainian universities are slightly more popular than Western universities. There are still quite a few leftovers of the Soviet system where education is either cheap or completely free, paid for by the state. But nearly every single university in Ukraine requires that you pass a military preparedness course, so you are basically on the books as having prior experience under arms already.

Regarding social or class struggle currently in Ukraine, there aren’t any particularly visible examples to highlight here, sadly. But there is quite a lot of resistance, which is of course not going to make headlines or be covered in the New York Times. Unfortunately, it’s almost all isolated. A ton of Ukrainians are individually trying to hide away, unknown, from the military conscription officers, the police, the draft. People try to cross the border using documents of dubious legality. Some pay to get registered as a caretaker for a disabled person, which allows you to leave the country. Others attempt to obtain documents saying they have some sort of illness. Still others apply to foreign universities to get out of Ukraine, a practice which has been made illegal only in the last few weeks. But in terms of collective action, there has been less success. Ever since a state of emergency was proclaimed during the February invasion the police have suppressed almost all protest that’s not completely peaceful or in line with the positions of the Ukrainian government. Moreover, they’ve used conscription notices given out to men on the streets as a tool to suppress demonstrations. If you are a male and show up to a demo you’ll simply be handed a notice by a policeman. You are then mandated to show up at the draft office the next day or the next week. Obviously, that limits the number of people who are willing to show up to a street protest. Public demonstrations have therefore mostly been carried out by women lately, primarily as a promotional bid to attract international attention. They’ve not gathered more than a hundred people or so at a time.3 With regard to workplace actions, labor rights have been greatly curtailed over the last few months. And it’s not like there is a burgeoning workers’ movement in Ukraine. There’ve only been a few strikes, mostly in the few industrial areas left in Ukraine around Lviv or Kryvyi Rih where the miners have declared several walkouts and stoppages. But even these are mostly seen as defending the state against corrupt local oligarchs or officials, so they don’t occasion much hope.

Kosmoprolet: Some people claim this conflict is a proxy war. While this is certainly true (at least to some extent) regarding the role of the Western countries, it’s not clear that this is the case at all when it comes to the other side. Russia isn’t using an intermediary but is sending its own soldiers. Furthermore, there are strong indications that its leaders are driven by a revanchist ideology aiming to “gather the lands” of the old empire. Senior Russian government officials—including Putin himself—have issued statements that declare Ukraine to be an artificial, unnatural entity undeserving of sovereignty or an independent culture. Some publications even call for the “de-Ukrainization” of the country, meaning to eradicate its cultural identity. All of this suggests deeper ideological stakes than can be grasped by the simple proxy war narrative. What is your view of this narrative, and what consequences would you infer from the question of taking sides in the conflict? The view that this is an interimperialist conflict implies a strictly neutral position. However, such a position might be seen as cynical. Can we dismiss Ukrainians’ right to defend themselves against wanton Russian aggression so easily?

Andrew: In response to your last question, the accusation of “neutrality”—that one is denying the Ukrainian people their right to self-defense—honestly strikes me as uninterested in meaningful radical politics. Those who typically accuse you of these things prefer to yell empty slogans of solidarity rather than think about what it would take to form a truly emancipatory movement. Such slogans are empty because the power of the ultraleft (and that of the left, too) is nonexistent, especially in Russia and Ukraine. Our task should be to determine what the conditions of liberation might be, and identify those class fractions which have the potential to push into the real world. Questions like: “As a revolutionary defeatist, are you asking that Ukrainians simply walk into certain death?” For me, such questions appear just as stupid and misguided as the retort: “As a communist, are you asking me to give up my job and all the riches of European civilization? Are you asking me to walk into a police line on my own?” With both lines of inquiry, there’s the problem of composition underlying them. This issue is unresolved, and can only be resolved historically. But our task as communists is not to dismiss the prospect of communism as silly or utopian; it is to expose the illusory grounds of these accusations.

So to begin with, revolutionary defeatism does not call for Ukrainians to give up their weapons and surrender. Rather, it aims to discern those elements of resistance that could break the genocidal Russian nationalist machine. And elements can indeed be seen among draft evaders and strikers in Ukraine, Russia, and the Donbas. It doesn’t really matter whether these antiwar actions are undertaken consciously or not; they still contribute to a sense of dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of affairs. Just as fossil fuels have once again proved necessary for the preservation and distribution of private property—for transportation, logistics, food, heating one’s house, etc.—the war machine in Russia and Ukraine feeds on suffering behind the frontlines. The specificities of this war demand that we rethink certain positions and old strategies. Both of the warring nations presently have more police than military forces, or are roughly equal if you count all the policemen in the National Guard not engaged in warfare (the border patrols and so on). There are more of them behind the frontlines ensuring that everybody toes the line of supposedly natural patriotism. Coming up with ways to halt this suffering of endless capital accumulation would entail overpowering and undercutting the police forces, rather than simply fighting them in street skirmishes.

I think this would lead to a ton of questions about the viability of conventional warfare, which is so dependent on financial streams and the fragile flow of fossil fuels and weapons shipments. To me it’s difficult to imagine any kind of movement that doesn’t try to integrate the different theaters of the war, the frontlines and the home front, in a liberating way. One must combat the illusions that frontlines often breed. Any organization that wants to threaten the status quo in Ukraine would have to come up with ways to expand and defend themselves against the police and various nationalists. If we, as communists, accept the possibility of a social movement arising in Ukraine, we should accept the possibility of a similar movement arising in Russia to disrupt its war machine. Especially now, as draftees are going to constitute a larger part of the Russian army. We should look beyond national borders as well, as I don’t think all the potentialities for a movement are contained solely within Ukraine, especially with the country’s budget now dependent on monthly tranches and loans. For example, a movement might begin somewhere in the Third World which then influences actions in Europe, Russia, and Ukraine. They could then develop simultaneously, inspiring one another in their revolutionary gestures or forms. And this would finally lead soldiers on the frontlines to give up their arms and fraternize.

  1. Volodymyr Zelensky formally declared a state of emergency on February 24, 2022, but extraordinary conditions clearly existed since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the civil war in Donetsk and Luhansk that same year.↩︎
  2. After martial law was declared, Ukraine passed a law preventing males aged 18–60 from leaving the country’s borders.↩︎
  3. Note by Andrew, 13 December 2022: It should be mentioned that since this interview was recorded, the sailors, mostly concentrated in Odessa, conducted several protests because the closure of borders has put them out of work. Zelensky has pushed through an amendment allowing them to leave the country in order to work on international ships, but it only works in theory. Protestors report that the system doesn’t work in practice at all: they were still required to pay a bribe or were harassed on the border. Once the law was passed and the stories about Zelensky saving the working class were published, however, little attention was devoted to the still unsolved issue, and the protests were once again broken up with conscription notices handed out.↩︎

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