Ukraine is Russia’s Iraq
With Ukrainian soldiers finding parade uniforms among the belongings of captured Russian soldiers, it seems that when Russia first began this brutal invasion, it expected Kyiv to be under full Russian occupation, the Ukrainian government to be overthrown and victory parades to be underway by now.
A month on, with Russia facing fierce Ukrainian resistance, as well as almost the entire world united against Putin’s war, you have Russian generals making a series of humiliating climbdowns on their goals, contradicting the original hubristic rhetoric.
Most significantly, Russia has essentially admitted defeat in its attempt to capture Kyiv.
Though it’s too early to say for sure, the ‘catastrophe’ Russia has faced in Ukraine is perhaps symptomatic of what could be the beginning of its unravelling – not just in this specific conflict but also in terms of its status as a major hegemonic pole of illiberalism in the world.
It’s not that this kind of unravelling is without precedent.
''In Iraq, the Bush administration believed that by removing Saddam and dropping a ready-made political and economic model on Iraqis, Iraq would democratise and become a flagship for the erosion of anti-American dictatorships and regimes across the world.''
Following the atrocities of 9/11 and the subsequent declaration by the US of a global war on terror, the US embarked on a similarly hubristic ideological crusade as that of Russia’s, namely the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Though the motives of the US were quite different to those of Russia, where they find common ground is that they were both wars stemming from expansive hegemony. The US believed that it could spread a ‘thin’ form of liberalism, which is to say they envisioned a form of exportable liberal democracy – tied expressly with the unfounded belief that ‘neoliberal’ economics necessarily leads to liberty – that could be imposed on countries regardless of cultures, traditions and pre-existing sociopolitical structures.
In Iraq, the Bush administration believed that by removing Saddam and dropping a ready-made political and economic model on Iraqis, Iraq would democratise and become a flagship for the erosion of anti-American dictatorships and regimes across the world. Of course, this hubris, tied as it was with American chauvinism and exceptionalism, led to catastrophe.
The atrocities of 9/11 led to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, sectarian civil war, as well as an unstable illiberal democracy carved apart by US and Iranian interests. It was only a few years ago that Iraq, far from its place as the flagship of the US’ war on terror, was occupied by the ne plus ultra of Salafi-jihadi terrorism in the form of ISIS and its self-proclaimed ‘Khilafat’.
The US technically suffered no ‘defeat’ during the Iraq war, but by its brutal missteps in Iraq, it revealed its own limitations, weaknesses and deficiencies – its hegemony began to splinter.
Russia seems to have made the same grand ideological misstep as the US. Putin seems to have a very similar ‘thin’ conception of illiberalism, imagining that democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine could be swept aside merely by the right application of power.
Over the past 15 years, beginning with the Putin’s Munich speech in 2007, Russia has built and advertised itself as a hegemon pitted against not simply the West, but against any nascent democratic forces in its zone of influence. The biggest victims of Russia have not been in Paris or London, but in the global south, with its savage military intervention on behalf of the dynastic genocidal tyrant Bashar al-Assad against a revolution that was fighting for the same liberties and sovereignty that Ukraine is now defending.
Along with its will to forge close ties with a host of illiberal regimes, including Sisi in Egypt, the UAE, Saudi and Israel, we’ve also seen Russia invade, at the request of its tyrannical rulers, Kazakhstan all the better to crush a nascent popular democratic uprising against them.
''It's thus necessary for those who claim to believe in liberty, sovereignty and self-determination, to do whatever it takes to make sure Ukraine has what it needs to ensure that the deficiencies of Russian hegemony are exposed.''
Not only has Russia cultivated this ‘hard’ dimension to its hegemonic power, but it has had success in the application of ‘soft’ power – such as by waging disinformation campaigns through cyberwarfare and cultivating a counter-hegemonic illiberal media platforms in the form of RT and Sputnik.
However, it appears that Russia, like the US in Iraq, has overestimated the dimensions of all aspects of its hegemonic power and reach. Not only is its once much-vaunted military underperforming and coming undone against allegedly technologically inferior Ukrainian forces, but its attempts to split the West, considered the main opposition to its designs against Ukraine, have thus far been a dismal failure.
While Russia has devoted much energy to trying to divide Europe, the EU response to the invasion of Ukraine has thus far been almost unanimously supportive of the Ukrainians. Though given the reliance of the EU on Russian energy, this could change, but so far EU states comprise the largest suppliers of arms to Ukraine. Much like the US’ complete lack of intelligence regarding the Iraqi resistance, Russia seems to have crucially underestimated the nature of Ukraine’s defensive response.
Though there are many permutations that could play out, the worst of which is that Russia reverts to sheer brutality, as we’re seeing now as it destroys entire blocks of Ukrainian cities.
In places like Syria, which the west perceives as Islamic backwaters, Putin successfully appealed to the pre-existing Islamophobia of the west, justifying war crimes in the name of ‘fighting terror’.
The same isn’t true of Ukraine, at least in terms of the propaganda narrative. Even the most zealous Russian propagandists have a hard time selling the idea that the Russian-speaking Jewish president of Ukraine is the ruler of a ‘Neo-Nazi’ state. In terms of both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements of Russia’s hegemonic power, it looks increasingly desperate and weak.
It's thus necessary for those who claim to believe in liberty, sovereignty and self-determination, to do whatever it takes to make sure Ukraine has what it needs to ensure that the deficiencies of Russian hegemony are exposed.
If that’s the case, what was supposed to be Russia’s grandest gesture yet in its quest for expansive illiberal hegemony, could end up becoming a major nail in the coffin of these ambitions.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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