The war in Ukraine: no choice but to resist

  • March 8, 2022

Imperialism & Insurgency

For many Ukrainians, Russia’s invasion has made talks of neutrality and negotiations redundant. Right now, their focus is on survival and resistance.

Civilians in Kyiv are preparing to join the territorial defense units to fight against the Russian invasion. February 28, 2022. Credit: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

This interview was originally published by the Transnational Social Strike Platform.

Oksana Dutchak is a researcher based in Ukraine and an activist of E.A.S.T. – Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational. In this interview with the Transnational Social Strike Platform, she talks about the current situation in Ukraine and local attempts of self-organization to cope with the war. The question of how to create a transnational politics of peace has no easy answer. Continuing to mobilize and communicate across the borders is crucial but it should go hand in hand with radically rethinking the transnational itself, she argues.

Transnational Social Strike Platform: What is the situation in Ukraine right now and what has been the reaction of the local population to the outbreak of the war?

Oksana Dutchak: The situation is very complicated. During the first days it seemed that Russian military forces were trying not to target civilians. They were trying to destroy the military infrastructure of the country supposing that the government and society would just give up. But this didn’t work.

I’m wondering how stupid the intelligence was: their calculation was a total mistake. It didn’t work because the Ukrainian army and people on the ground started to act. It gives some hope, but it definitely changed the Russian army’s tactics dramatically.

Now they are attacking civilians. Today [March 2, 2022], the city of Kharkiv was heavily bombed, targeting the residential districts and the city center specifically. We don’t know how it will gox from now on. This change in tactics means both that they feel like they made a huge mistake at the beginning with this calculation, and that it is now very dangerous for civilians.

Many Western leftists are blaming NATO, but nobody did more to rally local support for NATO and the idea of joining NATO than Russia is doing now. Just now there is a poll, according to which a record of 76 percent support the idea, mostly because of skyrocketing figures in regions in the south and in the east that are usually in opposition to NATO. By trying to bring Ukraine under its total influence, they have achieved the opposite because the majority of people are now strongly against Russia.

There are people who are not radically anti-Russia. But it is hard when you see what is happening. Take the bombing of Kharkiv — which is one of the biggest cities in Ukraine and a predominantly Russian-speaking city. The level of hate is very high now. It is explainable. It is hard in these circumstances to perceive Russia differently.

When all these warnings that Russia was going to attack were issued by the US military and officials, not so many people believed that. I didn’t believe that until the last moment. Now it seems that Russia has been actively preparing for a full-scale invasion at least for some months.

Ukrainian leftists were talking about it for a while already, but usually it was in vain and nobody paid attention. Now we see how Russia is trying to restore its imperial power with terrible consequences for us, for Russians, for the world’s stability and all that.

I have friends who stayed in cities under attack and relatives who could not get out or did not want to. Many of them are preparing for a guerrilla war. That was also a huge miscalculation by the Russian government, because — I don’t know if they really believed it or not — their belief was that all the Ukrainian people would greet them on the ground. Instead, we see footage of unarmed civilians blocking tanks in their way. It is also probably one of the reasons why the Russian army changed tactics and decided to start air strikes on civilian targets to demoralize them, because you cannot stop airplanes by peacefully blocking the roads.

There have also been cases where people attacked tanks with Molotov cocktails. Kyiv is preparing for guerrilla war and many other cities are doing so too. Even if their calculation would somehow work out and they would be able to install the puppet government here, the occupational government won’t last long because the situation would spiral out of control, involving the civilian population. Not all people are doing that [preparing for war, eds.], but it is hard not to do it when such things are happening. I think that in many settlements, people would try to resist peacefully. If the airstrikes destroy towns, it will be hard to resist in any form.

The outbreak of a full-blown war in Ukraine has been prepared by weeks of war rhetoric on both the US and Russian side. How do feminist and workers organizations in Ukraine position themselves in the ongoing situation?

Different organizations reacted differently. People are trying to volunteer and organize some support for civilians. There is a lot of self-organization going on on the ground to support the evacuation of people, to help them reach a safe place, but also to support the people who remain in the cities who cannot go or do not want to go but are lacking medicine or food. Some grassroots initiatives are also preparing for guerrilla war, both in organized and unorganized ways.

Many use their connections with people abroad to help those who are crossing the border, because they need transport, they need a place to stay in Poland, Romania or Moldova. This kind of networking is also intensively involved. This is what anarchists, feminists and left organizations are also doing. There is a lot of self-organization happening, both in terms of helping civilians and in preparing for the upcoming invasions of the cities.

We are seeing people stuck at the borders and often discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Do you have any news about that?

This problem exists — but I don’t know how systematic it is, though. Human rights activists are trying to raise this question and speak publicly about it. And just recently there was an official reaction from the government which explicitly stated that there must be no discrimination [at the border], with a separate online form for foreign students being distributed to assist their route across the border.

I see how differently Europe reacts. Poland opened the borders for Ukrainian refugees — it was one of the first countries to do so. Compare it to their reaction when there was the Polish-Belarusian border crisis [which started in July 2021, eds.]. I see it totally and perceive it from a critical perspective. This is racism, of course. It is not about these countries being too good to Ukrainians. It is about them being bad to other people. It tells a lot about racism and about how different countries are perceived.

Do you have any news from the border? Are there people you know who have been able to cross the borders?

There are huge, huge rows of people, crossing by car and on foot — the situation is hard. A friend of mine was fleeing the country. She spent two days on the border. She and her three kids. Luckily, they have already crossed to the other side. The problem is that the amount of people who are trying to leave is huge and volunteers on both sides of the borders are trying to help because people do not have enough clothes and the nights are cold. So they are trying to put them up somewhere, or at least try to help them in some way. From the Polish side, Moldovan side, people are trying to organize transfers for Ukrainians, for free mostly, and take them to places where they can stay, or to take them to cities where they have relatives.

Is it possible to build an opposition against this war without falling into the alternative between NATO and Russia? Is it possible to build a women’s, migrants’ and workers’ transnational initiative that escapes nationalistic logics and the geopolitical perspective?

I had discussions with leftist people from other countries and I am sometimes surprised how they are afraid of putting too little blame on NATO and they are trying to put in every phrase that “It is also NATO to blame.” Sure, NATO can be blamed to some point in time, but when the bombs start falling from the sky only Russia can be blamed for the bombing. From here on the ground the situation looks different because we see how the Russian government behaves. They are not willing to give up their plans. We can hardly say let’s keep Russia and NATO away from here, because it is only Russia who invaded Ukraine. Because it is not NATO who is bombing the cities, it is very obvious here.

You cannot say: “Let’s not take sides.” You cannot avoid taking sides, especially when you are here. I don’t advise people from the Western or Eastern European left to say that they are not taking sides. Not taking sides here would mean washing their hands.

A friend told me that it is also NATO’s fault and after everything will be over we will have a strongly nationalist and very xenophobic country, among other problems. So I answered him: Sure, we probably will, but I will think about it later when there will be no shelling of cities and when there will be no Russian army here. Now we cannot solve these problems. We can talk about them, but we cannot ignore the elephant in the room.

Some leftists are saying that the way out is to negotiate and agree on the neutrality of Ukraine. It is hard for me to support this point at the moment. This position is a little bit colonial, because it denies the sovereignty of a country. It is up to the people in the country to decide what they want to do and in order for them to be able to decide, there should be no war. As I’ve said, this war made decisions for many Ukrainians. People say there is always a choice, but most Ukrainians don’t have a choice now.

We are not denying our agency. Some Western leftists are denying our agency, telling us what Ukrainians should do.

It sounds very nice to say that Ukraine should not take any side, should not be in any block, and should keep a neutral status. But we see from history that a neutral status is reserved for strong states, for rich states, for states that can defend themselves. Ukraine could not stop Russia from attacking and now it is trying to defend itself, but I don’t know how long we can continue.

After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, talk about a neutrality status for Ukraine is very hard. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons [in the 1990s, eds.] and it got a guarantee of security, that its territory would be integral and would not be attacked by any state. This guarantee was signed by several countries, including the US, Britain and Russia. This security guarantee was violated in 2014 by Russia. After that I don’t think it would be easy for society to trust guarantees any longer. We saw how the guarantee is not working. It doesn’t have any legal or any kind of consequences. It can be violated at any point.

So I don’t know how we can escape the alternative between Russia and NATO now. I don’t have an answer at the moment.

Probably you have seen the different statements against Russia’s invasion and in support of the Ukrainian population. In a call by Russian feminists to stand against Putin’s regime and the war, they say that this war is the continuation of the everyday war waged against women, LGBTQI+ people and all those who are not supporting or rebelling against Putin’s regime. There have been several demonstrations and mobilizations against this war to denounce Putin’s responsibilities in Europe and beyond. What do you think about these initiatives? What can a transnational politics of peace do at this moment?

A lot of pressure should be put on Russia. There is no other way out. They went too far.

I am very grateful to all the mobilizations happening around the world. I have some hope for them because we see how the mobilizations are putting pressure on the governments of these countries. They are helping in humanitarian ways, not only in terms of military supplies, which are also important at this point. It is hard to keep an anti-militaristic position when you’re in a country which was invaded by another country.

I am very grateful to the people who mobilize in Russia. Some, whether in Russia or abroad, are taking a very active part in organizing protests there and also in supporting people who are fleeing Ukraine. In other countries also, mobilizing resources, providing information support, infrastructural support…

In Ukraine there is now a lot of talk that one of the possible ways out of this war is a rebellion inside Russia. I don’t believe it will happen. Unfortunately, because the civil society and self-organization in Russia and many countries of the post-Soviet state — and possibly in Ukraine too — are quite weak and you cannot build them immediately in a situation like this. I don’t believe anything will happen in Russian society that will stop Putin. Again, however sad it sounds, I would rather look for elite rebellion in Russia — this may change the situation substantially in the short-term.

What are some of the most urgent issues that women, workers and migrants, people in Ukraine as a whole, are facing now?

The most urgent issue is humanitarian support. Political pressure, even if it doesn’t make a big change, is still one of the things which could be definitely done. Unfortunately, not in Russia because they’re trying to block all the channels of information for people in Russia to see this, which is also a huge problem. But we cannot do anything about it. Sometimes I have a feeling that there is some kind of wall built inside Europe.

I would like to also raise one thing which some leftist initiatives started to talk about. If we look to the future — whatever it would be — one of the most important things is to give up on Ukrainian external debt, that the IMF should write off Ukraine’s sovereign debt, because we will now need a lot of resources to rebuild the country. And this would offer a possibility to make Ukrainian socio-economic policies more independent. This is also probably a demand which I hope — I know some people are already voicing it — will be more visible soon.

How to escape the geopolitical view according to which there are just states with their own interests at play while there are actually people who are suffering the direct consequences of political choices?

I totally agree that it would be good to escape this logic, but we cannot force people in government to escape it unfortunately. That’s where the choices are made, especially if you’re talking about autocratic states. It’s important, especially if we are reflecting on the current situation, to see how differently it can be. But it’s the logic which is imposed now. You cannot escape this level of analysis because it looks like that’s the level on which Putin is making decisions. His decisions and the decisions of people around him are the most important factor in this situation now.

This logic can be escaped when you have a society with quite a high level of civil society engagement and independence in a general sense, like trade unions, but when you have a very hierarchical society with a top-down power structure and people have almost no influence on what is happening, which way they are moving and which decisions are being made, this level of analysis then is the only one which at least explains something. Unfortunately.

I don’t feel comfortable with thinking in these terms, but I don’t know in which terms to think now. Some people now are trying to avoid this. They’re trying to get into some optimism regarding how Ukrainians are self-organized, how they’re doing so much in recent days and building some networks of solidarity support. It’s very important, but I also understand that all this can be very easily destroyed because you deal with a country [Russia, eds.] that is not trying to convince anyone anymore. Someone says that, unlike Western hegemonies, the Russian state is not trying to build soft power. I don’t know whether they even tried in the past, but at this point it’s obvious they just don’t give a shit about it and they just rely on brute force very explicitly.

Apart from the practical and humanitarian solidarity initiatives with the refugees we see around the world — sending food and medicine and so on — how do you see the role of transnational movements for peace or against this war? What can we do from a feminist, anti-exploitation, anti-racist point of view, apart from the concrete initiatives what can we do to initiate a type of popular mobilization that can turn this situation around?

Now it is a very hard time for this international grassroots or self-organized movement that is trying to build peace, because the war happened so suddenly not for everybody, but for most and it has become clear that the world has changed. Some of us leftists have grown used to living in a unipolar world, and now it’s no longer like that.

In the best-case scenario, the movement will need some time to rethink the conceptual framework of how we are thinking about this world; how we are thinking about the threats which are out there; how these threats are changing; how they are developing; and how the configuration of reality is already a little bit different. Without this kind of reflection, there will be no move forward at this moment. If everything will be done correctly, if the lesson of the current moment will be understood correctly, and if the movement will listen to the people on the ground, it will rethink this world and the threats to peace we have here because they are definitely changing.

If this lesson will not be taken into account by part of this movement, then, unfortunately, their rhetoric, actions and mobilizations, will not have any meaningful contribution to the task they want to achieve.

The transnational social strike platform wrote a statement against the war that was signed by many organizations in Europe. The perspective is to form a common transnational voice. Do you think that initiatives like these are a step in the right direction?

This kind of initiative is already a part of that rethinking I was talking about. That’s why it’s important for the movement itself and to develop a vision of how to act in the near future. But there is also a danger of talking about peace at all costs. If we say we should restore peace at all cost there is a dangerous trap: then let’s do whatever Russia is saying and they will stop the war, to save the lives of people.

This approach only offers a way out in the very short-term, because if Russia comes here, they will put their government here conservative, reactionary, oppressive, as it is now in Russia, or even worse. For example, for people like me and for many activists, feminists, leftists, LGBTQ+ activists, trade unionists, for journalists and opposition it would mean repressions, and it would also mean that, as I see it, from now, that the real partisan war would start. I’m afraid that the country will fall apart with a lot of death and suffering. It’s not that Russia will come and stop doing everything that they have been doing in recent days in Ukraine and for many years in their own country so that’s also a very dangerous trap which some people don’t seem to understand.

Transnational Social Strike statement on the war in Ukraine: “No to War. For a Transnational Politics of Peace”

Oksana Dutchak

Oksana Dutchak holds a PhD in social sciences, and is Deputy Director of the Center for Social and Labor Research. Her research interests include: protests, workers’ protests, gender inequality, Marxism, Marxist feminism.

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