Russian “liberals” are no friends to Ukraine, part 1

October 13, 2022

Many Russian opposition members are constantly giving interviews to all sorts of Ukrainian and Western news outlets, which are (naturally) hungry to hear Russians blast the war and Putin’s regime.

What the credulous journalists often do not seem to quite understand (the Ukrainians often do, but even they are tempted to air the segments that sound good as critiques of the Kremlin), is that most, perhaps all, of these Russian liberals are NOT friends of Ukraine. They are opponents of Putin’s regime, but not of its imperial goals. They are opponents of Putin’s specific policies, but not of their aims. They do not like the war because they can see that it is destroying Russia, but not because it is destroying Ukraine. All of this needs to be kept in mind when we confront the reality of a post-Putin Russia. I have written quite a bit about the uber-hawks among the Russian elites, and sometimes have written also about the pseudo-liberals among the Russian opposition elites.

So here are a few examples.

Exhibit 1: Khodorkovskyi

Here’s the guy in 2014, trying hard to distinguish between Crimea and Northern Caucasus. He explains that Ukraine’s borders were fixed by agreement after the fall of the Soviet Union, and no matter how wrong or unpleasant they might be (and he, naturally, says the West broke that agreement multiple times!), trying to revise them by force now would be too costly and destructive for Russia. The borders in the Caucasus, on the other hand, cannot be subject to change because if Russia were to allowed one territory there to go independent, it would start a process that would lead to dissolution of the Federation.

A Russian ethno-nationalist and imperialist through and through.

You can easily find other interviews with him expressing similar sentiments. Note the one he gave right after his release from prison, where he declared himself ready to pick up a gun and go to fight in the Caucasus to preserve Russia even though “war is very bad.”

Exhibit 2: Navalny

This is a long video with a direct debate between Navalny and war criminal Strelkov/Ghirkin from 2017. The link is to 50:11 timestamp where the Donbas section begins. The question is “What are you going to do about Donbas and Crimea — are you going to return them to Ukraine? And also, about Ukraine itself, that there’s a fascist regime there.”

Instead of giving a direct answer, Navalny starts by telling Strelkov that he wants him to understand the essence of Navalny’s presidential program as it pertains to these issues. How do you think this goes? You’d be surprised.

First, he says, yesterday we learned that Russia is now in the top 5 countries for bad quality of life for retirees. Before that, we learned that the net negative population growth is now 3 times worse. The country is dying. And then, he hears every day how Russian citizens must bring their own medicine and supplies when they go to the hospital.

Strelkov, obviously as confused as me, asks, “What does this have to do with Donbas?”

Navalny: “It’s directly related because the war you started is expensive, it is destroying the Russian economy, it is taking the last income of regular Russian citizens, on whose behalf I am running in these elections.” And goes on to accuse Strelkov of wanting him to finance this sort of large expensive war. It’s because of this “Russia cannot afford to conduct this war.” And then, listen to this, “No doubt! The events in Donbas were tragic. They were tragic for everyone involved. Terrible. Ten thousand people have died, and even now they keep dying even though in smaller numbers. So, forgive me for sounding so banal, but a bad peace is better than a good war.”

Did you catch this? “A bad peace” is the one he thinks Russia would have to have with Ukraine. Over Donbas. He says that there are parts of Minsk II agreements that are important: the “special status of Donbas written into the Constitution, language elections, and so on. It would be monstrously difficult to implement all of this, but it’s better to implement it than to fight because Russia has no money for this war, and can’t fight it.”

He then declares himself categorically against the war because of this and because of all the millions of Ukrainian refugees now in Rostov and who can’t get jobs, and so on.

Not a word about Crimea. Not a word about this being an unjust intrusion into Ukraine. Not a word about anything. He can’t even call Strelkov a war criminal because, you know, not enough info. At least he does not like Strelkov’s political positions and it’s not up to him to deal with war criminal charges.

Why? Because he’s yet another Russian imperialist who just regrets that it’s too expensive to get the empire going. So he must bow to necessity and have a “bad peace.”

When the face of the “liberal” Russian opposition is like that, what kind of post-Putin Russian do you all think we’re going to be dealing with?

9 thoughts on “Russian “liberals” are no friends to Ukraine, part 1

  1. Me again. I came to your blog, as I was told you are an expert in “how wars end”. And I appreciate your insights and writing. This post was again valuable background.
    Still, I want this war to end and see ‘my’ Berdyansk liberated, not destroyed. And more Ukrainians alive. Not dead. – Shto delat?
    Fighting for/ insisting on a Russian withdrawal of Crimea seems a recipe not to end this war, ever.
    Even if it should happen, even without major destruction and bloodshed: Ukraine just gets a big bunch of staunchly pro-Russian voters back. I do not want to go back to Ukrainian elections/politics of the 2 decades before 2014! (plus: the Crimean oblast was always a drain on the federal budget – esp. without any Sevastopol-rent.).
    Meanwhile, Russians DO feel different about Yalta than about Melitopol. No one was cheering really this time around – at Putin’s show or on the Red square. 2014 they really did cheer – and a clear majority of Crimeans did on the streets (ofc: it was a sham-referendum on many counts; but even if it all had been done by the UN it would still have been 50%+ pro annexation-by-Russia.)
    A good peace/win seems to me: a) back to 22.2.22. b) some reparations (masked as export-taxes et al. to Russian exports) c) sth. about referenda in the near future and protection of minority-rights/languages now. d) ofc: Ukraine in Nato or other strong alliances.
    Would be great if we could see Putin down and the empire broken up – without the far east being swallowed by China. But that is another game. If Putin sees no exit by peace, this war will not end. Ni tak?

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    1. I’ve always said that the most reasonable time to start negotiations would be with Russian troops out of Donbas and south, with the fate of Crimea to be determined at the peace talks. I continue to think that Crimea is unlikely to return to Ukraine but it also can’t be accepted internationally as Russian without Ukraine agreeing to it. This might mean demilitarizing it, putting under an international condominium and then running a free and fair referendum. However this ends, both sides have to accept it and commit to governing such that the minority that loses on the referendum has its rights fully protected. I don’t see Russia agreeing to this without a military defeat in Ukraine. And I can’t see what else the Ukrainians can be induced to accept without a military defeat either.

      The problem is that Crimea is no longer the biggest obstacle. The annexations upped Russia’s minimal demands considerably. And to this, the Ukrainians cannot agree. And neither can we. Putin crossed the Rubicon with the annexations and it’s very very dangerous now because the options of both sides have shrunk dramatically. I know Putin would have to go for peace to become possible but I’m not sure what successor would agree to give up the territory they annexed unless they are kicked out of it. In that sense, liberating Crimea could be worth it as a bargaining chip. Unfortunately, the attempt to do so might well trigger another round of escalation. It’s too early to tell since the Ukrainians aren’t close to moving in that direction. Maybe they are bluffing about their intent as well.

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    1. Thanks! This makes it easier to substantiate my point since he’s so admirably clear about it. I love how he says Crimea is Russian forever but OK, we will run some referendum, which of course he knows the Ukrainians will not accept. So, he says, no solution! Maybe return it and let the Ukrainians run a real referendum under international supervision rather than guns. Would that work?

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      1. It is impossible to become the president of the Russian empire with the slogan – I will return some Russian lands to other countries (for example: Crimea, etc.). It just sounds funny. The same goes for the referendum. This is a violation of international law – especially now that he has annexed even more territories and so many resources were involved.
        If Ukraine seizes Crimea by military means and keeps it at the time of the change of power in Moscow (what can happen only after the natural death of Putin – +/-10 years), then there is a chance that Crimea will return to Ukraine. But it’s highly unlikely.
        Moreover, I doubt that that the capture of Crimea is the goal of the Ukrainians, and indeed the West. I don’t know what the goals are, I haven’t taught politics for 10 years. But in the news all the time they talk about energy resources/EU, technology/China, NATO expansion, Trump/elections, the future of the EU/NATO, future conflicts between the US and China/Russia, change of power in the Russian Federation.
        In general, it would be strange to think that this is all because of the Crimea only. We are clearly seeing a geopolitical shift in the world. Therefore, what will happen to Crimea becomes a secondary issue.

        P.S. Moreover, I think that the collapse of the Russian Federation is against the interests of the United States. It’s just too dangerous.

        I have no idea what I’m talking about:), but thanks for the info.

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  2. “what can happen only after the natural death of Putin – +/-10 years” – should be read: what might happen after his natural death. I am not sure that he will be removed because of his huge support in the RF.

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  3. This doesn’t fit with…literally every single other Navalny video and statement since 2015 regarding Donbas, in which he said Russia was involved solely and specifically to put pressure on Kyiv because they desired Ukraine to be a “failed state” and that they should immediately withdraw troops. He’s obviously trying to appeal to Girkin’s base here (unsuccessfully in my opinion–you can see him throughout trying to catch Girkin into admitting he’s trying to make money off the war), but it’s not at all accurate to state he thinks Russia should be invading Donbas/sponsoring war but it’s just too expensive. See, for e.g. his interview with Elizaveta Osetinskaya, panel with Nemtsova/Fukuyama, etc.

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    1. Navalny has dodged the issue quite a bit, actually — he generally tends to say that it needs to be resolved peacefully, yes. But he, and that was my point, seems to believe that there’s an “issue” to be resolved where there should not have been one. I do not know whether this belief is genuine or strategic but its prevalence among Russians leads me to think it’s the former. If he’s trying to appeal to Girkin’s base, then he’s a terrible politician. The people who like Girkin will never, ever see Navalny as anything but a liberal fool who works against Russia’s great destiny. It’s the same everywhere, actually — it never pays for a moderate to appeal to extremists because they will always regard you as fake, and there will be a genuine extremist who can always out-appeal you. But politicians never seem to learn that.

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