While the world is entering a major political and economic crisis as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, it may put an end to the long-standing crisis of the post-Soviet condition. The war could end it either by finally dismantling the very post-Soviet space, or by ultimately determining the contours and directions of development towards more stable political, economic and ideological structures in this tumultuous part of the world.
What is the post-Soviet condition? The best answer would be that it is undefinable beyond the prefix “post”, as something that replaced Soviet state socialism. But what exactly is the “something” that replaced it?
Was the post-Soviet condition a halfway station on the way to join the westward development of the former Eastern bloc countries in Central Europe in a series of “postponed” 1989 moments? The proliferating and accelerating post-Soviet maidan revolutions had only replaced one elite faction with another, who exploited the revolutionary legitimacy for interests and agendas quite distant from the aspirations of the revolutions’ participants and brought barely any revolutionary changes. Certainly not – tragically for Ukraine – any real prospects of EU or Nato membership.
The post-Soviet condition is so difficult to define precisely because it was a perpetual crisis of political representation that these revolutions only reproduced and intensified. The post-Soviet elites, who amassed their fortunes in the process of rapid and arbitrary privatisation of state property in the 1990s – actions that lacked any widely acceptable ideological, religious or traditional justification – have struggled to secure a broader legitimacy of their rule. Authoritarian leaders like Putin rose to power serving an important function for this elite. They ensured their assets and opportunities for rent-seeking, stopped the self-damaging centrifugal processes via coercion of some factions of the elite and balanced the interests of others, and provided some popular legitimacy by restoring stability amid post-Soviet chaotic collapse.
The source of that legitimacy was halting the slide into disaster, not any kind of developmental project to lead the way out from the huge grey zone of stagnation and degradation after the Soviet collapse. This only conserved rather than resolved the post-Soviet crisis.
The seemingly “consolidated” authoritarian regimes in Belarus and Kazakhstan would likely not have been able to survive the recent massive protests without Russia’s help. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is ultimately a way to compensate with brutal violence for the fact that the post-Soviet ruling elites have not acquired any power of attraction. Instead, a faction of this elite (consolidated around Putin) acquired strong Great Power aspirations.
At the same time, the abundant problems the Russian army encountered in the first weeks of the war reveal the weakness of “authoritarian modernisation”. The economic consequences of the war for Russia undermine the very source of Putin’s legitimacy: his promise to prevent the country from sliding into a disaster.
Any outcome of the war will lead to fundamental economic, political and ideological transformations in the post-Soviet space. We can already observe how some of the narratives about the “brotherly” Slavic people or related to the victory in the Second World War, which has outlived the Soviet collapse for more than 30 years and had wide appeal even in Ukraine despite post-Euromaidan “decommunisation” policies, are now weakening.
In case the military resistance in Ukraine and the crippling sanctions lead to Russia’s defeat, it would mean the ultimate dissolution of the post-Soviet space. The humiliation from the defeat in Ukraine would accelerate the collapse of Putin’s regime. Whether via the conclusive maidan revolution in Russia or, more probably, a palace coup by a faction of Russian elites, this would likely be paralleled with significant violence. The outcome would be the ultimate failure of a sovereign centre of capital accumulation in the post-Soviet space. The elites in weakened Russia and other post-Soviet states would reorient towards the west or China and would be forced to abandon their competitive advantages in the selective preferences of the state (aka “corruption”).
Removing the sovereigntist pole in the post-Soviet space would reorganise regional politics completely, along with the structure of political alliances in the respective Great Powers. While the US, EU and China would also be reideologising so far as the New Cold War between them develops, the counter-hegemonic responses from the post-Soviet societies to their new hegemons might not necessarily be progressive. The longer the war goes on, and the more casualties and destruction on Ukraine that Russia’s invasion is able to inflict, the greater the chance that Ukrainian state and military institutions are weakened, which would then strengthen the appeal of radical forces – similar to what happened recently in the Middle East.
In case Russia finds a way to withstand the economic blow of intensifying sanctions and internal political destabilisation, it would not be able to rely on escalating dictatorial measures and sheer repression for a long time. The Russian state would need to buy the loyalty of Russians and subjugated nations by less fiscally conservative and more Keynesian economic policies.
The ruling elite would need to explain to society what so many Russian soldiers died for, what they killed so many of their Ukrainian “brothers” for, what the people have been suffering sanctions for. Instead of the empty rhetoric of “denazification” which has clearly been insufficient to inspire enthusiasm for the war within Russian society, this would require a more coherent imperialist-conservative project connecting the interests of the Russian elites to the interests of the subaltern classes and nations. It would also require stronger political institutions to mobilise active consent for the Russian elites’ hegemonic project – a ruling party with massive membership, a popular pro-governmental movement, or their equivalents in the digital age.
At the same time, the unavoidable gap between the elite’s hegemonic claims and actual policies would open an opportunity for a stronger counter-hegemonic project that would address this disparity. It is possible that once again the weakest link in the imperialist chain may offer the world a new model: a socially transformative revolution for the 21 century.
Volodymyr Ishchenko is a research associate at the Institute of East European Studies, Freie Universität Berlin.