The War in Ukraine Is a Battle of Principles
BISHKEK – To many Western observers, the war in Ukraine is about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to restore Russia’s sphere of influence and ensure its security against Western – and especially NATO – encroachment. In fact, the war is between two opposing value systems: one based on a country’s historical greatness and global influence, and the other on the worth of citizens and their quality of life.
In a sense, the fundamental difference between East and West was never ideological. During the Cold War, the capitalist Nordic countries were more socialist than the Soviet Union ever was. Rather, the difference was always one of principles. Unlike in the Nordic states, equality and equity were never part of the Soviet Union’s governance system. Despite its declarations, the Soviet system did not uphold human dignity in its actual policies.
When I recently asked my students in the international relations department at Kyrgyz State University what makes a country great, their responses centered on military power, economic development, and geopolitical influence. These answers are rooted in the old paradigm that greatness depends on a state’s ability to dictate policy and bend others to its will.
This idea of national greatness reflects the view that a country’s leader, like an emperor or a king, must have absolute power over people. In such a place, human beings are a disposable resource that can easily be sacrificed and replaced for the sake of the state’s greater glory.
The horrors of World War II – the death camps, slave labor, and inhumane experiments on people – produced a global commitment never to permit such crimes to be repeated. This began a transformation of international politics whereby appreciation of the value of every person’s life and dignity ensured that even most authoritarian governments at least paid lip service to human rights.
But the Soviet Union and many of its successor states, particularly Russia, never internalized this change. More than three decades after the USSR collapsed, most post-Soviet countries are still governed according to the old “imperial” paradigm. So, it should come as no surprise that we are now witnessing a clash between fundamentally different sets of values and ultimate goals for statehood.
The alternate view of statehood measures greatness not by military might, but by standards of living and confidence in the future. It emphasizes how safely children can ride a bike to school, how comfortably the elderly can live on an honestly earned pension, and how much freedom of thought, expression, assembly, and mobility residents have.
The terrible legacy of the Soviet value system is still deeply embedded in the political infrastructure of most of the Eurasian region. For example, ordinary people who work and contribute to the state pension fund may be unable to take advantage of it because the state arbitrarily raises the retirement age. Fewer people live to see their pension, and, those who do live miserably on the equivalent of $60 a month in Kyrgyzstan or $180 a month in Russia (where economic and financial sanctions are rapidly diminishing their purchasing power).
This contempt for ordinary citizens manifests itself across government agencies and public services. Bureaucrats serve the state, and think the state must serve the government and the president, not the public. Security services protect the current regime, not the country’s security. Law enforcement officials suppress freedom of speech and civic activism but turn a blind eye to corruption. In this system, a citizen is an expendable pawn.
Ukraine’s struggle with Russia is not just a war between two states. It is a war between two principles of statehood. It is a fight for the greatness and freedom of people against the greatness and freedom of the state. While Ukraine defends the human-centric state model, for Putin, this is a war for the greatness of Russia as defined by the old paradigm: its ability to impose its will on others through fear.
To satisfy his nostalgic longing for the great state, Putin is prepared to sacrifice thousands of Ukrainians and Russians – or more – and ruin the lives of millions of his own people. Their individual fates mean nothing compared to the majesty of an abstraction.
The biggest risk is not that Russia may take over and occupy Ukraine, but that Putin’s rhetoric and strategy will be vindicated. A Russian victory could put millions of Eurasians under the heel of copycat despots in the coming years – rulers who are prepared to do anything for the sake of their state’s greatness. For many post-Soviet countries, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the heel could belong to Putin himself.
But the problem is not limited to Putin. Most Russians support the war and share the sentiment that Russia must prove to the world that it is still powerful. Even if the regime in Russia changes, the demand for a “strong hand” to make Russia great again will remain. And this demand will bring another chauvinist to power.
Post-Soviet countries, including Russia, urgently need to root out the Soviet paradigm and cultivate in their public and private spheres an ethos that reflects a deep appreciation of universal values, above all the dignity and equal rights of individual human beings and the priority of their interests over those of the state. No one should be under any illusion that such a process will be easy to start. But until it does, battles like the one between Ukraine and Russia will be fought again and again.
Shamil Ibragimov is Executive Director of the Soros Foundation Kyrgyzstan.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
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