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Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), IOE


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Beyond Ukraine: The Full Scale of the Russian Invasion

By CEID Blogger, on 28 February 2022

By Alexandra Lewis


In 2009, I was working in Russia on a research project looking at Chechyna. I was threatened (in a roundabout way as these things are done) and shifted my research instead to Somalia and Yemen – two safer places – which I then spent almost a decade looking at as an education and conflict specialist. I have since travelled all over the world, to Afghanistan, Bosnia Herzegovina and beyond. Yet the feeling of something unfinished has never left me. Over the past three years I shifted my focus back to Russia, because the parallels between my ancestral home and the war-torn countries I was studying began screaming to me that they could no longer be ignored. In particular, I saw an extreme securitisation of identity politics emerging, with volatile potential. How countries wage war on domestic populations elsewhere has been informative to me when considering the current assault on Ukraine. However, what we are witnessing today is not Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen either.

It is easy now, when thinking about “War”, to lean on examples from recent history to try to understand what Ukraine must look like today. Running with this comparison, let me state that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is nothing like, for example, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. We are talking here about a highly trained military operation supported by an immensely sophisticated intelligence apparatus. Moreover, since we are now dealing with the potential absorption of Ukraine into Russian territory or into a Russian sphere of influence, we need to plan ahead of time to work within the Russian repressive architecture of foreign agents laws, censorship and totalitarianism, which brings with it significant dangers for aid recipients. This complicates the humanitarian response so aptly described by my colleague, Brad Blitz, below. To truly understand the needs created by this crisis, we therefore have to look at the bigger picture, which takes us beyond simply Ukraine’s borders to Belarus and Russia.

Last week, we were in all probability looking at the end of Ukraine as a country, and at the least at the end of Zelensky’s Government (which may soon be replaced by a Russian puppet state). Though now we see the resilience of the Ukrainian people to invasion and support incoming from the West, this is still a distinct possibility. We are also looking at the end of Belarusian sovereignty, which Russia has simply swallowed on its way to Ukraine. Finally, and not to be forgotten, we are also witnessing the death of any remaining freedom in Russia: under incoming sanctions and the threat of national security, Putin can completely cut Russians off from the wider world and return the country to full totalitarianism, which he is doing. In one move, Putin has this week effectively destroyed three countries.


This is not Afghanistan, these are not the Taliban

In 2021, prominent Kremlin aid, Vladimir Surkov, famously wrote in an essay that Russia has a social entropy problem. Using metaphors rooted in thermodynamics, Surkov explained that chaos always increases, and that social chaos and political instability follow the same principle. According to him, in order to ensure Russia’s future stability, the country’s social entropy must continuously be exported from the centre to the peripheries, and the easiest way to ensure this is through regular military expansion.

I have spent the last year writing a book on Pre-Conflict Imperialism in Russia: a book on the idea that Putin has deliberately been pushing the Russian people to adopt a new identity based around a continual readiness for war, that Putin leaches off the very idea of war to ensure the continuation of his regime. This trend has been active for a long time, and the invasion of Ukraine has been years in the making. From Putin’s testing of the waters in Crimea in 2014, to the Russian involvement in Syria as a military training exercise writ large, Russia has been continuously investing in the professionalisation and expansion of its armed forces, since their embarrassing performance in Georgia in 2008. At the same time, Russia has been destabilising Ukraine and testing Western reactions to this by feeding conflict and insurgency in the Donbas Basin. Commentators will now say “yes, but what about the supply issues that the Russian army is facing? What about the failure to commit sufficient resources to hold cities in Ukraine?” These to me can only be taken as evidence of incompetence on the part of the state if the aim is to occupy Ukraine. I do not believe that is the end game: to me, war itself and the chaos that it produces are the purpose of this invasion.


But why the long preamble to war?

The long preamble to the invasion, with the mobilisation of forces along the Russo-Ukrainian border for months on end in 2021 and 2022 was immensely costly. It led to speculations on all sides, the raising of opposition voices in Russia, not to mention the logistical and morale costs of housing military units far from home in a state of constant readiness. It could be argued that this was done to provoke Ukraine into firing at Russian personnel, so as to provide Russia with a legitimate justification for attack. That this did not happen is an incredible testimony to the sheer fortitude and strength of will of the Ukrainian people and their servicemen and women. In an awesome show of collective national commitment to peace, the likes of which I do not think we have ever seen before, Ukrainians did not fire a single shot across the border at Russia. It made no difference. That Putin chose to invade regardless implies that he had confidence enough that he could sell this war at home without a need for even this pretext for invasion.

This leads me to conclude that the need for a highly visible build up lay elsewhere. Over the past several years, and since the invasion of Crimea, Russia’s actions have led to a loud discussion of possible sanctions among Western powers in particular, and Putin has taken note. By triggering this discussion, Russia has been able to anticipate the sanctions regime that is now being discussed and prepare its economy and reserves for their imposition. The strength of the Russian economy and its ability to weather crisis has routinely been miscalculated: the standard phrase one hears jokingly applied in this field is that “Russia has the GDP of Texas”, a totally meaningless phrase and a meaningless comparison between a state and a country where costs of living are totally different, and where GDP does not reflect funding to the armed forces and active military personnel, whose loyalty is carefully financed. It is also meaningless in a context where the suffering of ordinary people under sanctions – and make no mistake here, it will be ordinary people and not the elites who suffer their impacts – simply does not factor into state decisions.

A long preamble to war allowed Russia to anticipate the international response to their takeover of Ukraine, plan for it, and, importantly, secure relative non-intervention from China.


Sanctions and propaganda

Many commentators are stating that Putin’s popularity will fall when sanctions hit the Russian people and body bags start being sent home from Ukraine. But body bags from distant wars have rarely led societies to turn on their Governments (we can count the cases). Given that Russia has banned non-state media, declared online rigorous and independent journalists to be foreign agents, and imprisoned, murdered or chased out its opposition parties, the full telecommunications apparatus of the state will now be turned towards converting body bags into fuel for budding hatreds between Russians and Ukrainians, and it will have a pretty clear and open field in which to do so. Let us keep in mind here that in the build-up to war, the belief was already spreading across Russia through state news channels that this confrontation has been orchestrated by NATO, not Putin. There are some incredibly brave Russians protesting in cities across the country, despite the arrests, despite the repressions: but the propaganda machine has largely been effective.

Sanctions and counter-sanctions will assist the Kremlin in maintaining its lie about the “special operation in Ukraine”: Putin can now close airports, sever business ties between Russians and the West, prevent travel, move the country from an internet to an intranet if he wants to and ban YouTube, arrest even more dissidents, and bring down the iron curtain, all the while blaming these moves on the cruel international community and its unfair decision to cut off Russia from the world. We are already seeing debates in Latvia, Estonia and Belgium about banning all Russians from travelling to these countries: these are places that have traditionally offered safe harbour to those fleeing Putin’s repressions, who now have fewer and fewer avenues through which to run. Added to this is the reality that Russia is not comprised of ethnic Russians alone – a conveniently unremembered truth in Europe. There are no “pure” Russian families there (indeed I would argue there is no such thing as purity anywhere), and yet there is a long history of targeting ethnic and religious groups for repression on the basis of identity. The borders must stay open, at the very least in the short term for mixed Russo-Ukrainian families to get out.


Three birds with one stone

Even as Russia uses this war to entrench Putin’s totalitarian dictatorship and seize large chunks of Ukraine, it is also finalising its soft annexation of Belarus, whose shell of remaining sovereignty is now crumbling to dust before our eyes. This brings all three territories under Russia’s legal and security frameworks, which means: those receiving assistance from the international community through financing and external support may very soon face accusations under the foreign agents law, which has already been used to shut down everyone from NGOs to newspapers in Russia. Russia’s military campaign has been implemented hand in hand with a large scale information crack down, with restrictions on internet freedom, Twitter and Facebook, alongside threats of closing down Telegram. Russia is working hard to control the narrative at home and will bend its will to doing the same in any Ukrainian territory it takes over, which will mean targeting in the first instances organisations with ties to Western funding.

We must continue to donate to and help these organisations, even as we do so with eyes open, knowing that this danger may be coming. But we must do so while preparing to help colleagues to get out of Ukraine if they need to. The British decision to suspend visas to Ukrainian nationals this week is utterly disgusting in this regard. I must repeat here: this is not Afghanistan, these are not the Taliban. The Russian Government will absolutely have the capacity in place to find and punish threatening institutions that it sees receiving funding from abroad. And yet despite this fact, we must continue to help Ukraine, and we must widen the net of support: we must help Ukrainian colleagues flee for their lives in the immediate moment and finance those humanitarian organisations choosing to stay behind, but we should also prepare to help colleagues do the same in Belarus and Russia tomorrow.

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