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Acts of Human Will

Indeterminacy, bombast, and the war in Ukraine

Kherson, November 14, 2022.

A year and a half ago, in the hours and days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, it was hard to feel anything other than rage and despair. The invasion was at once unimaginable and foreordained, and this torturous paradox had its mirror in the uncertainty that followed: in those first few weeks, it seemed that now that the worst had happened, anything could happen (including the worst).1

Uncertainty remains the war’s dominant quality. After the initial shock, the Ukrainian defense proved unexpectedly formidable, culminating in the fall 2022 counteroffensive, which succeeded far beyond most observers’ expectations. But in the year that has passed, both sides can at best claim to have broken even, territorially, at immense human cost. The ongoing violenceand the sense of grinding stasisis increasingly at odds with the rhetoric we hear from the overcaffeinated pundit cheerleaders who preside over the discourse, as if emphasizing the stakes of the war would magically win it. We believe Ukraine will prevail for the same reason we believe socialism will prevail: because the alternative is barbaric. But that emphatic belief must coexist with the recognition of this war’s tragic indeterminacy.

There are historians, journalists, and activists whose certainty about uncertainty is key to their methodology and their outlook. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. In an Atlantic story on this summer’s counteroffensive and Volodymyr Zelensky’s charismatic leadership, Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “this is a war over a fundamental definition of not just democracy but civilization... The civilization that Ukraine defends has been profoundly shaped by American ideas not just about democracy, but about entrepreneurship, liberty, civil society, and the rule of law.” The authors concluded their article this way:

Europeans, East and West, are waiting for the counteroffensive. Central Asians are waiting for the counteroffensive. Belarusians, Venezuelans, Iranians, and others around the world whose dictatorships are propped up by the Russiansthey are all waiting for the counteroffensive too. This spring, this summer, this autumn, Ukraine gets a chance to alter geopolitics for a generation. And so does the United States.

This is the favored rhetoric: a bombastic, boosterish, essentialist style that carries the sickening aftertaste of Iraq war enthusiasm (in part because its biggest practitioners were Iraq war enthusiasts). Much has changed in two decadesfor one thing, the US lost that warbut pro-war frenzy and triumphalism on the part of the most influential US media elites has not.

The essentialist style conceives of nations in sweeping, almost mystical terms, and geopolitical conflicts in plainly teleological ones. In its pernicious vacuity it owes a great deal to the political scientist Samuel Huntington, author of Clash of Civilizations and the intellectual guru of American interventionism in the early 21st century. (Writing in 1981 (!), George Scialabba noted that Huntington’s book American Politics “nicely illustrates the theological function of the policy-oriented intelligentsia.”) As a method, the essentialist style is both under- and oversensitive to events, so obsessed with conflict at the level of civilizations that it transforms every incident into proof of concept. The short interregnum provided by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny-adjacent challenge to Putin earlier this year condensed the entire hermeneutic of Western commentary into thirty-six riveting hours: “Russia Slides into Civil War,” “The Coup Is Over, but Putin Is in Trouble,” “Putin Is Caught in His Own Trap,” “The Mutiny Could Be a Gift to Putin,” “The Power of a Failed Revolt,” “Yesterday’s Putin Is Gone,” “Putin’s Beast That Would Now Devour Him,” “Prigozhin’s Mutiny against Putin’s Reign of Lies,” “Wagner Uprising Is Reckoning for Putin’s Rule,” “Putin Looked into the Abyss Saturdayand Blinked.” The race to interpret the grand significance of each and every moment leaves very little room for subtlety.

Surely it’s possible to say two things at the same time— to dwell in the uncertainty.

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If the patron saints of the Iraq war were Huntington and Bernard Lewis, whose commitment to Islamophobia in the guise of cultural diagnosis has been instrumental to the US imperialist worldview in its 21st-century incarnation, the war in Ukraine has Yale’s Timothy Snyder. As Sophie Pinkham argued in the Nation in 2018, Snyder has always been an idiosyncratic historian, his books on state violence and World War II full of both straightforward errors and contortions in service of strange theses. But in the Trump era Snyder became “unwilling to make the slightest effort to imagine that Russia might have any strategic concerns that go beyond its plot against freedom,” Pinkham wrote. Snyder is driven simultaneously by the need to essentialize and the need to analogize: the small nations of Eastern Europe have always been distinct and free, and Russia has always been despotic and evil. But also, Russia is Nazi Germany and Putin is Hitler and 2022 is 1938. Unlike Hitler, however, Putin is evil not because of genocide, but because he is an agent of Trump, who is also evil (and had no influence on Hitler) (that we are aware of).

Snyder has continued to distort Russia into a cartoon of itself. At a recent lunch with the Financial Times in Vienna, Snyder mused (the FT’s word) that

Russia can’t have a domestic policy... The elite have stolen all the money, all the laws are corrupted, and there’s almost no social mobility or possibility of change in most Russians’ lives, so foreign policy has to compensate and provide the raw materialthe scenographyfor governance.

If only it were that simple! But the Russian soul didn’t invade Ukraine. Vladimir Putin did, together with his military and the better part of the Russian political and business elite. Like every authoritarian, Putin is a conspiracist with a terrifying amount of latitude to pursue his objectives and to punish, imprison, and kill those he decides are standing in his way, such as the people of Ukraine and the brave Russian critics of the war, leftist and otherwise.

And yet there is no effort made at transcending the alleged authoritarian mentalityonly the strident belief that history and action can be reduced to national disposition. That the war is horrific, destabilizing, and illegal is no pretext for flattening simplification.2 Surely it’s possible to say two things at the same time—to dwell in the uncertainty.


In the second chapter of his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes presents three chronologies of the life of the great novelist. The first is a traditional highlights reel of literary and personal accomplishments, the kind of thing one would find in an Everyman’s Library edition of Madame Bovary. The second is a mirror image of the first, with one instance of despair and disappointment after another (1850: “In Egypt, Gustave catches syphilis. Much of his hair falls out; he grows stout”). The third is a collection of quotations from Flaubert’s lettersthe novelist in his own pained, inspired, horny words. All three accounts seem complete enough on their own (the career, the tragedy, the first person), but Barnes’s juxtaposition shows how truth lies in the synchrony.

What would a synchronous account of the war in Ukraine look like? Georgi M. Derluguian’s Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus, about the fall of the USSR and the emergence of nationalist violence in the North Caucasus, points to one possible approachor to the possibility of multiple approaches in place of one mind-numbing story of good and evil. Eighteen years after its publication, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer seems to be having a moment: we’ve heard from numerous friends and comrades reading and rereading it this year. The titular secret admirer, Musa Shanib (sometimes Yuri Shanibov), is a radical intellectual and aspiring revolutionary from Kabardino-Balkaria whose idiosyncratic, uniquely post-Soviet trajectory stands in for larger fractures and continuities in the region. Why, the biographer wonders, was his subject defeated by an emergent capitalist patronage regime composed of people who had been in power since the Brezhnev era, while the neighboring republic of Chechnya erupted into ethnic conflict and open war with the Russian state?

Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer features many great anecdotes, like Derluguian’s discovery that “the headquarters of the Islamic battalion are now located at Rosa Luxemburg Street, 12,” in Grozny. But no oneexcept grad studentsreads a two-decade-old work of historical sociology for the details. What is most impressive and resonant about Derluguian is his methodological approach to the real political, economic, and military complexities and contingencies that “civilizations” are composed of. “Let us be more precise,” he writes,

when trying to identify the historical moments and institutional locations in which human agency might liberate itself from structural constraints to shape the course of history. Evidently, this becomes more likely in moments of historical transition, when structural constraints are overloaded, eroded, battered, and imploding. But it is always a relative situation. Structures rarely fall apart completely, and besides, complete chaos would deny human agency the structural basis for exercising its plans or might undo that agency itself. The two sides of the equation are surely relational. Furthermore, let me add that the impression we gain may depend on our instruments. The greater the magnification, the more important do acts of human will appear.

Derluguian doesn’t write much about Ukrainehe is admirably entrenched in Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnyabut his methodology is seductive, and his emphasis on “relative situations” especially bracing at a moment when so much of the mainstream commentary on the war opts for platitudes and moralism.

A synchronous account of the war in Ukraine, then, would begin on February 24, 2022, with the invasion, and in 2014, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine. It would take in Ukraine’s tumultuous post-Soviet transition, the Maidan protests, and the NATO summit in Romania, when George W. Bush pressed for NATO expansion in Ukraine and Georgiaand also NATO’s earlier absorption of the Visegrád Group and intervention in Yugoslavia. Here, too, is a place for Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, and along with it the Georgian Civil War of the early 1990s and the bloody history of ethnic cleansing and revanchism on all sides that precipitated the Russian military presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to begin with. As it described the awful shock of the first few days, the synchronous account would (in Derluguian’s terms) increase its magnification and focus on the extraordinary resilience and ingenuity of Ukraine’s soldiers and volunteers and civilians, compelled to reorient their lives in order to defend their country. And this spontaneous and determined self-organization, working uneasily in tandem with the state and the military, would not be characterized as unique to the front in 2022, but traced back to the streets of Kyivand Donetskin 2014, or those of Moscow in 1991, 1993, and 2013.

After the Russian atrocities in Bucha, in March 2022, we would inevitably extend our gaze to the devastated cities, towns, and villages left behind by retreating Russian forces, and to the lives of those still under occupation in Mariupol and the Donbas. An accounting of the wildly successful summer Ukrainian counteroffensive would take in the economic dimension of the war for both countries, the complex entanglement of the world economy in both aid and sanctions, and their rippling effects on markets across the globe. The emphasis on paradox would continue: on one hand, the violent stalemate of the winter and the spring as Ukraine and Russia sparred over villages and city blocks; on the other, the truly massive scale of US financial, military, and humanitarian support, which has already cost nearly half as much as the entire Marshall Plan, adjusted for inflation. Prigozhin’s march through Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh in June 2023, the initial success of which surprised everyone, including Prigozhin himself, would open up to an assessment of the strength of Russian institutions and, concurrently, Putin’s responsibility for the war: at once ultimate and constrained by history and geopolitics.

To be anything other than starkly opposed to a war supported by the US government feels, for the left, surreal and destabilizing.

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Perhaps above all its obligations, an anti-essentialist account of the war in Ukraine would have to situate the conflict in the longue durée of Russian imperialism, a depressing constant amid several centuries of internal upheaval. (“The genetic code of imperial states does not change so easily,” Derluguian wrote in 2001.) This is not to say, as it is said so often, that Putinism or Russian imperialism is transhistorical to the point of useless transcendence, or that it is unmodified by the actions of the people it subjects and the other empires with whom it competesnamely, ours. In this sense both the October Revolution and the modern Ukrainian nation-state shifted, and sometimes fundamentally transformed from within, the dynamic of Russian regional hegemony, itself subject to the pressure of imperial competition on the world stage. A truly anti-essentialist history of the war in Ukraine might therefore begin as easily in 1917 as in 2022, in 1721 as in 1991.

But to properly consider the war’s structural causes is not to strip it of its visceral, urgent, unremitting horror. And so our imagined account of the war would, accordingly, make a hard stop in the present, with a tentative assessment of the summer and fall counteroffensive; with Russia’s reconstitution of its economy, a largely successful “sanctions-proofing” effort that only seems to entrench the battle lines economic and literal; with the dramatic reshuffling of Ukrainian military command; and with the ominous horizon of the 2024 US presidential election, an event with obvious and unspeakable implications for the war. And it would end where it began: with awful uncertainty about what comes next.


For all its durable success in the terrain of domestic policy and politics over the past decade and more, the American left has little traction in foreign affairs.3 Last fall’s furor over a letter the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent calling for direct diplomacy with Putin was symptomatic. The letter forcefully denounced Russia’s “war of aggression” and acknowledged Ukraine as an “independent, sovereign, and democratic state” engaged in a “legitimate struggle.” It approached the issue of negotiations sensitively. And immediately, it provoked uproar across the blob and was retracted. Here was a significant assertion immediately foreclosed by disorganization, pushback, and misalignment. A rare certainty: however the violence ends, the US left will have played only a marginal role.

To believe that one can shape world events of this magnitude is surely a form of imperial entitlement, but it is also the case that the United States’ role in this war is enormousand ongoing. If much of the media commentary on the war in Ukraine calls to mind the arrogance and jingoism of the Iraq war era, the Biden Administration’s rhetoric has felt distinctly more minor key than George W. Bush’s bloodlust. Joe Bidenenthusiastic Iraq war supporter and coercive state apparatus superfanhas been relatively subdued in his arguments for the war (though some of this may have to do with the fact that, at 80, “subdued” may be the only mode he has). Instead of fabricating intelligence and showing it off at the United Nations, the US proved itself uncharacteristically clear-eyed in the months leading up to the attack, presenting evidence of Putin’s imminent invasion when few others could see what was coming. 4 Of course, the bar is low: Biden and Congress have also dutifully supplied Ukraine with internationally banned cluster munitions that will certainly kill its own citizens.

To be anything other than starkly opposed to a war supported by the US government feels, for the left, surreal and destabilizing. But this strange new position cannot serve as a license for blanket support. The American pro-war coalition, after all, is dominated by war fetishists, lobbyists, munitions dealers, and neoconservatives who have learned nothing about the folly of American intervention in their long careers of unquestioned support for it. Even the coalition’s less unseemly members take for granted that any future without the American imperium at the head of the so-called rules-based international order is a future that must be avoided at all costs. And still this is a war that we can only hope Russia will lose.

Is the left’s lack of impact on foreign policy merely a question of powerlessness, or is it also somehow dispositional? Has our reflexive anti-imperialism, which has offered immense clarity for so long, reached a point of diminishing returns in an emergent multipolar world? Few figures are more emblematic of this dilemma than Noam Chomsky, whose insistence that the war be understood first and foremost as US blowback has provoked intense denunciation on the Ukrainian left. Abstractly contextualizing regional Russian imperialism within global American imperialism is cold comfort for the Ukrainians being bombed, shot, and displaced. And yet, in the last instance, can we on the left afford to do without such abstraction?

It’s true that no one on the left is being asked to serve as deputy national security adviser, and thank god for that. But, as we already know, Ukraine is not the last war. Many of the war’s strongest advocates in government and in the media have their eyes on war with China, as do some of its nominal Republican opponents in Congress. (The Pentagon has proposed a 10 percent cut to Green Beret troops in favor of “large conventional ground forces needed in a potential fight in Asia.”) And Republicans don’t want to stop there: during the recent debates, everyone onstage enthusiastically supported bombing Mexicoa position that sounds like a joke until one realizes that, for a party still in thrall to Trump, the journey from joke to policy is a short one. Perhaps Republicans will keep losing elections, and some reason will continue to prevail. But that’s not enough.


And then there are the places and people the US doesn’t care about. One of the catastrophic effects of the war in Ukraine is its contribution to destabilization and right-wing entrenchment across the former Soviet Union. In Belarus, Putin-vassal Aleksandr Lukashenko continues to viciously suppress even the mildest expressions of dissent. The NATO- and EU-member Baltic states have recommitted with gusto to forcing their sizable Russian minorities to choose between cultural assimilation and expulsion from public life. In Georgia, the influx of Russian and Ukrainian refugees has supercharged a cost-of-living crisis that is making the government’s geopolitical balancing act increasingly likely to tip over into chaos. Maybe the starkest effect is in Nagorno-Karabakh, where an Azerbaijani blitzkrieg, supported by Turkey and Israel and helped along by complete inaction on the part of Russian peacekeepers, has forced the exodus of practically the entire local Armenian population. For this brazen act of ethnic cleansing, oil-rich Azerbaijan has hardly received a slap on the wrist. In the grimmest of twists, Zelensky himself has come out in support of Azerbaijani dictator Aliyev, affirming the two countries’ shared commitment to “sovereignty and [the] territorial integrity of states.”

War offers two sides, but many possible outcomes. That the war has been marked by both a spontaneous burst of brave, determined self-organization on the part of Ukrainians—in the American context we might call it mutual aid—and the simultaneous gutting of labor protections and implementation of draconian anti-collaborator laws by Zelensky’s government indicates the extent to which the nature of postwar Ukraine is yet to be determined.5 So, too, for the country’s multiethnic social fabric: contrary to Putin’s hopes and expectations, Russian-speaking Ukrainians have overwhelmingly rallied to their country’s defense, even as the invasion has depressingly, if unsurprisingly, accelerated the expunging of Russian and Surzhyk language from the Ukrainian public sphere. The invasion has also provided carte blanche for the banning of communist and socialist parties and the increased repression of organizers and dissidents.

The future of Ukraine is located in an unsettled zone. On the table are a neoliberal reconstruction of the Brussels or shock therapy varieties, a more promising crisis-born tradition of social self-organization, emboldened right-wing ethnonationalism, and a fragile culture of ethnolinguistic pluralism. (For its part, the Ukrainian leftunderground and otherwiseis as divided in its postwar imaginary as its counterparts abroad.) Russia’s own fate may be even more dire. A true collapse of the Russian state seems unthinkable, if dangerously possible. More comprehensible, and more likely, is a near future of isolation and retrenchment. Some suggest North Korea as the paradigm, but one can find a more obvious example in the puppet states of Donetsk and Luhansk. As the sociologist Jeremy Morris has noted, these “people’s republics” resemble nothing so much as miniature, exaggerated Russias, evacuated of any trace of civil society by external warfare and internal repression, without even the pretense of rule of law that, until quite recently, made life in Moscow or Saint Petersburg more akin to Western Europe than not. Putin’s largely successful sanctions-proofing of the economyexpropriating fleeing Western businesses and handing off their assets to longtime cronies, Chechen nepochildren, and rappers (Busta Rhymes collaborator Timati recently became the public face of Stars Coffee, the former Russian franchise of Starbucks) and betting the house on dramatically increased military spendingindicates that Russia can maintain its siege posture for the foreseeable future, even after its troops leave the Ukrainian battlefields.

Such detail is superfluous in the American essentialist style. In another Atlantic article, Applebaum reveals the recklessness of her position: “Given the growing popularity of the word restraint, we must consider how that concept might not only prolong the war but lead to a nuclear catastrophe.” This is obscene. The very real risk of nuclear escalationand the total war that civilizational conflict demandscannot be reduced to contorted paradoxes.

This month, Putin indicated that he sees the nuclear question differently. “Theoretically, we may revoke ratification,” he said of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. There’s no reason to think that restraint has led him to this reevaluation. Then again, Putin’s option has a clear precedent: Russia could, he said, “mirror the stand taken by the US,” which signed the treaty but never ratified it. Applebaum might call this “whataboutism,” a term invoked to deflect substantive and trollish assessments in equal measure, but to us it is a key point. That the US has never ratified the treaty is an outrageand exactly the kind of issue where the left can intervene, even if our influence is limited. For inspiration, we can look back to the major efforts of the past (like the 1980s antinuclear movement, which transcended borders and existing political coalitions) and, for that matter, the failed efforts of the present, like the letter from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. As Stephen Wertheim wrote recently in the Guardian, in the first few months of the war “officials spoke of dealing Russia a ‘strategic failure’ rather than a total territorial defeat, and envisioned the conflict ending in a negotiated settlement. Since then, official rhetoric has escalated and domestic support has eroded.” Despite the left’s relative powerlessness, insistence on geopolitical restraint and diplomacy seems like a bare minimum.

The hope for an end to the horrific violence, for Ukrainian self-determination, for a world without American hegemony, for the defeat of authoritarians around the worldthese aspirations should not be in contradiction. Whether they are or not is the ultimate uncertainty.

  1. Then as now. As this issue goes to press, American elites and officials have backed — without reservation—Israel’s siege on Gaza in response to Hamas’s attack on October 7. “We are fighting human animals,” Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant declared as he announced that Gaza and its 2.2 million residents would be deprived of food, water, electricity, and fuel and subjected to a relentless bombing campaign in preparation for a ground invasion. As of October 23, Israeli air strikes have killed over 5,000 Gazans, injured more than 15,000, and destroyed or damaged 40 percent of Gaza’s housing. 

  2. Would that this were a problem unique to the pro-war camp. A reactive, mirror-image campism has taken hold in some corners of the left, as supposedly anti-imperialist publications like the Grayzone blame American machinations to the extent that Russia becomes the victim. These discussions tend to focus on NATO as key to the entire saga. But as Greg Afinogenov wrote in Jacobin earlier this year, “at some abstract level, the belief that Ukraine was preparing to join NATO explains some of the motives for Russia’s war; what it cannot do is justify this slaughter.” 

  3. The recent delegation led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Brazil, Chile, and Colombia — an encouraging sign of life and engagement—was conceived in response to the absence of left solidarity between North and South Americans. An internationalist revival along these lines is exciting, and sorely needed, but the road ahead is long. 

  4. All this, of course, is in stark contrast to the Biden Administration’s emphatic support for Israel’s brutal siege and bombing of Gaza—and the deceptive information war Israel has waged on its own behalf. Rhetorical restraint, too, has been jettisoned in recent weeks: “We’re the United States of America, for God’s sake,” Biden told 60 Minutes, “the most powerful nation in the history—not in the world, in the history of the world. The history of the world. We can take care of both of these [Israel and Ukraine] and still maintain our overall international defense.” 

  5. Law 5371, signed by Zelensky last August, removes all workplaces with fewer than 250 employees from the jurisdiction of national labor law, voiding existing collective bargaining agreements and stripping legal protection from 70 percent of Ukrainian workers. The law has been described as an emergency measure and only in effect under martial law—a concession to Ukraine’s trade unions—but a similar bill was introduced and failed in 2020. Another law has legalized zero-hour contracts, and a full overhaul of the labor code is underway, which includes a proposed twelve-hour workday. Law 2108-IX threatens “collaborators”—including virtually all public employees who continue to work under occupation—with up to fifteen years in prison. The law’s enforcement has been predictably haphazard: two women in the city of Lyman have been prosecuted for coordinating the distribution of Russian humanitarian aid to their elderly neighbors, with one of them sentenced to five years in prison. 


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