The Russo-Ukrainian Conflict

Image: Zachary DeBottis


In the dispute between giants in Ukraine is also a new international political order 

Much is said in the mainstream media about the Russian and Ukrainian conflict, however, in a biased, shallow, immediate and often inaccurate way in the historical and geographical sense. The aim here is to make a brief presentation that, by clarifying some points, will help in the general understanding of the conflict. Thus, an observation should be made: there is a tendency for positioning in the political, militant and journalistic circles. Open positioning, by ideological political choice is one thing, however what you see is a clear confusion between good and bad, right and wrong. In the absolute majority of times, when it comes to political economy and/or geopolitics, there are no such dichotomies, but rather a differentiation of positions and objectives.

Another ignored point is that geopolitics is not done haphazardly, without study, theory and consequent praxis, quite the contrary. In general, we have three bases for any political movement in the global field: the theories of land, sea and air power, which do not necessarily cancel each other out, but may even add to them (as is the case in the United States). Explaining in broad strokes, the theory of terrestrial power, which refers to the geographer Mackinder[I] at the beginning of the XNUMXth century and which was later expanded by Spykman[ii], refers to the notion that all territorial disputes are based on a struggle for resources, whether natural or human, and that there is a conditioning of struggles (diplomatic or military) that is also based on the physical and natural realities of countries.

To this end, he coined the notion of heartland, which would be precisely the Russian position, since it would be autonomous in terms of human and natural resources. For Mackinder, whoever dominated such a region would dominate the world. Spykman goes further, it says that the centrality takes place on the margins of this heartland, or chamado rimland, and carnation: dominate the rimland causes suffocation of heartland. Any resemblance to the cordon sanitaire policy carried out against the USSR is not coincidental.[iii]

We also have the theory of sea power, described by Mahan,[iv] English historian and military, such as that based on maritime power, where the country that controls the sea, controls global functioning. However, alert: it is necessary for such heavy investments by the State in the Navy, in addition to the country having deep and perennial ports, that is, usable all year round. At first both theories were debated as antagonistic, however Haushofer[v], a German geographer, politician and military man, teacher of the Nazi Rudolf Hess, sees both as complementary. He is the first thinker to take into account the idea of ​​dividing the world into spheres of influence, something commonplace in the post-World War II world.

Finally, we have the theory of air power, first proposed by Douhet, an Italian military man who, when analyzing the military development of the First World War, where the navies served for defense, the army was trapped in the trenches, saw only in aircraft the possibility of attack . Douhet at the beginning of the century. XX proposed the indiscriminate attack against the population in order to affect the morale of the attacked country. warden,[vi] US major, studied this theory in the 1970s and later put it into practice in the first Gulf War, where the US attacked strategic points in Iraq from the air, without land invasion, leaving the country destroyed in a short time.

We emphasize that the three theories are mixed in the case of superpowers, which are the basis of all US geopolitical development during the Cold War and today, with Kissinger and later Brzezinski[vii] as masters of understanding these for the construction of the global chessboard that governs US (and NATO) foreign policy.

That said, it is necessary to survey the background that led to the dispute we see today. First of all, what many have treated as Putin's nonsense, is a historical fact: the Russian people, the Russian culture, was born in what is now Ukraine, to be more specific in Kievin Rus' back in the XNUMXth century. Confederation that was born already multiethnic, from a city, Kiev, which was founded by Vikings (Varangians in Latin), where the most diverse Slavs, Varangians, Finno-Ugrics and Baltics met and traded[viii]. A typical and normal hodgepodge until the emergence of nationalism in the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries. This is the first point for understanding the conflict: Putin remembers a remote past and idealized to justify the complex plot of the invasion.

Figure 1 – Kievan RUs' Principalities

Second point is the history of the Ukrainian people. Since the germ of the Russian people is in Ukraine and not on its own borders, it is imperative to note that there is a split between both Slavic groups. In the XNUMXth century there is an accelerated fragmentation of Kievan Rus and the subsequent Mongol invasion and Mongol conquest of East Slavic lands. Later, the Khanate of the Golden Order dominates the steppes of today's Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, staying in power for a century in these lands, producing, however, two strong antagonists: The Duchy of Moscow and the Lithuanian Duchy. Both expand over time and manage to limit the power of the Khanate to Crimea[ix] and destroy the brief moment of "autonomy" of the Ukrainians, given under the Cossack Hetmanate, which lasted between 1649 and 1775.

To this day, Crimea has significant populations of Tatars, direct descendants of the Turkic peoples who formed the Khanate. Here comes the second point: the justification for Russia's annexation of Crimea, that is, to free the Tatars and Russians residing there from the Ukrainian yoke; and also the root of Ukrainian racism towards Russians, since the former would be 'purer' than the latter, since they spent less time under foreign rule. The reflection we can make on this conflict is curious: the president of Ukraine is Jewish, he was elected among other flags as someone who would respect a multiethnic country, however the ultranationalist right continues to rule the game. Another curious element is that several former Soviet republics had a national'nost, a category that cannot be confused with the notion of nationality: the subject is more than his nation and at the same time is less, he is a Soviet subject, a mixture of elements from different nationalities.[X]

Figure 2 – Hetmanate in its maximum territorial expression, at the end of the XNUMXth century. XVII

Figure 3 – Ukraine in 1700, divided between Poland-Lithuania, Russia and Austria

From this point on, the Ukrainian people were divided between the Habsburg Empire, leaving in their hands the Carpathian region, the westernmost part of the country, which at first belonged to the power of Eastern Europe during the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the remainder with the nascent Russian Tsarist Empire. It should be noted that what today is understood as Ukraine was, in general, a great amalgamation of peoples, Slavs who had already acquired cultural elements from the Turkic peoples, exchanged intense relations with Western Slavs from Poland, and converted to Orthodox Catholicism, the great symbol of this are the Cossacks, immortalized in Ukrainian culture in the novel by Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol[xi] or in the poems of Taras Shevchenko[xii]

Figure 4 – Ukraine in 1900, divided between Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Thus, the Ruthenians, as the Ukrainians were then known, are being Germanized on the one hand, “Polonized” on the other and Russified on the other. The banning of the Ukrainian language under the Russian Empire only produced more resistance on the cultural front and the beginning of a more intense rupture. Even though Pan-Slavism was in vogue with maximum force in the XNUMXth century, with Russia placing itself as its protector, the feeling of rivalry is gaining strength in everyday life, even giving birth in this same period to the nickname that today names this people: Ukrainians. The former Ruthenians, Rusyns, Malorussos (Little Russians, differentiating this people from White Russians – Belarusians – and Great Russians), are now unified around the word Ukraine (there is a whole debate about the origin of the term, for most researchers means Frontier, for others Region).

It is only with the Revolution of 1917 that the country becomes, in fact, a republic,[xiii] short-lived, but this is where major battles of the Civil War (1917-1921) were fought, especially between the Red and White Army, but also between the Black Army[xiv] (Anarcho Comunista, by Nestor Makhno) and the counter-revolutionary forces. With that, it becomes one of the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union, with language, culture, history and autonomy, as well as the self-determination of peoples proposed and put into practice by Lenin. It should be noted that the performance of the Ukrainian forces in the Revolution and in the Civil War were essential for their victory.[xv]

The industrial region of Donbass, which was the second most important still in the Russian empire, gains even more importance. The Ukrainian republic becomes the breadbasket of the USSR[xvi] with its extremely fertile chernozion soil and at the same time the country's heavy industry, whose use of the enormous coal reserves precisely in Donetsk boosted its development[xvii]. However, not everything is smooth. Stalin took power after a huge web of internal dispute, reversed Lenin's logic, ended the self-determination of peoples and imposed a forced Russification, which produced enormous resistance precisely in that part of the USSR.

The forced collectivization of the Soviet peasantry is one of the expressions of an internal struggle to completely undermine resistance to the betrayal of the revolution and the massacre of the Holodomor.[xviii] it is one of those faces, where between 2 and 4 million Ukrainian peasants die of starvation. The resistance is annihilated, the Bolshevik, Social Revolutionary and Anarcho-Communist Ukrainian intellectual elite, very important for the revolution, is decimated or silenced, and the Russification of Donbass and the south of the country accelerates.

Until the end of the USSR, Ukraine was the spearhead of its development (map below): it had large industrial centers – the most famous being Antonov, famous for its huge freighters – and the strength of its agriculture, although based on monoculture and productivity weakened by the Kolkozes and Sovkozes instead of high-end peasant agriculture[xx].

It is only in 1991 that the country achieves its independence with the collapse of the USSR and starts to be commanded by several pro-Russian presidents. The unfolding of the end of the century. The 1997th century saw the apotheosis of the US Empire, which from XNUMX began to advance incisively over the former socialist republics of the East, absorbing almost all of them into NATO and later into the European Union. The Wars of the former Yugoslavia are the harshest and bloodiest expression of this process of cutting Russian influence in the flesh in the rest of the European continent.

Figure 5 – Representation of maps of the USSR, showing the importance of Ukraine in the economic sphere of the country.

Putin takes over Russia in 1999 with a country in shambles: broken and dependent on the West and the IMF; losing its influence on its former satellites in Eastern Europe, but still with inseparable arms from its neighbors Belarus and Ukraine, in this case the gas lines to supply Western Europe. It should be noted that when the end of the USSR there was an agreement where Russia and other former republics of the socialist bloc would form, together with Europe, a “common European home” and that NATO would be deactivated since it had lost its meaning, that is , defense of the West from Soviet threat. Both points were not fulfilled, on the contrary, NATO and the European Union advanced, excluding Russia.

Here comes the third point: Spykman's geopolitical theory put into play again, the dominance of the rimland for the suffocation of heartland, that is, from Russia, its political, economic, geographic, in short, total isolation. And this goes hand in hand with the theory of global chess, which states that each geopolitical move must be meticulously thought out, creating problems for distracting or wasting the opponent's energy, the fertilization of problems that Kissinger was already proclaiming in the 1970s and 1980s. This is what NATO does with Russia.

Putin as president and Lavrov as chancellor are fully aware of all this. The War in Ukraine is not a coincidence, a fatality, it is the consequence of everything we mentioned earlier. If for the USA and NATO its advance on Eastern Europe was given with the objective of Russian suffocation, Russia responds by trying to break the bond that is placed around it. It should be remembered that, contrary to what NATO, the UN and the Western media put it, this is not the biggest conflict on European soil since the Second World War and it is not the first aggression against a sovereign country since the same war.

The bloody Yugoslav War (1991-1995) was what? This was indeed the biggest conflict on European soil so far, with approximately 150 dead. What about the 1999 Belgrade bomber? Was this not an unjustifiable NATO attack on a sovereign country? Both conflicts, the first started with the bankruptcy of Yugoslavia through the IMF[xx] and the second, as a consequence of this, were acts of advancement by the EU, NATO and the policy of looting neoliberal capitalism over the East, they were the points that even causing necrosis were given over areas that were not of their influence.

The current conflict is the maximum expression (so far) of the expansion of the US-EU machine, via its military arm NATO. Putin is a representative of the corrupt oligarchy that rose after the end of the USSR and tries, in his own way, to stop this advance. The invasion was the measure found by Russia, cornered and attacked since 1991, seeking to reposition itself in the global chess as an important player and that does so with clear objectives: first is to create a buffer between its territory and the territory of the EU once the defense of a wide plain (see map below) is extremely difficult, remembering that Napoleon and Hitler's attacks on Russia penetrated deep into Russian territory, among other reasons, thanks to its geography; second is to ensure that a country with which it has historical, economic, social and cultural ties does not completely escape it; third and not least, imperialism needs not only raw materials, but also markets, and today the Ukrainian market cannot be disdained, being an important outlet for Russian products. The same goes for the EU, the objectives of both are the same, even if for the antagonistic Russian bloc there is the more weakening your enemy.

Figure 6 in gray plain area in Europe. Note the difference between the area the further you go to Russia

Finally, Pandora's box was opened. The US and the European Union pressured Putin's government to the maximum for decades, which acted precisely to defend its oligarchies, especially those in the energy sector, but also the public machine, which controls the Russian military industrial complex, one of the most developed of the globe. It should be noted that, in the last 30 years, Ukraine has been slowly leaning more and more towards the West, with evidently neo-Nazi elements in power (the right sector, Pravyy sektor, ultranationalist) and/or reactionaries such as the Svoboda party of former President Poroshenko . This is precisely what happens next to Russia, governed by the global banner of the reactionary right, Putin, whose signature is the fight against neoliberalism, but not against the model of capitalist exploitation.

In the dispute between giants, postmodern capital is placed on one side and state capital on the other, decadent US imperialism on the one hand, and the struggle for resurgence/maintenance of Russian power on the other. Both attack the urban workers of Ukraine, the already poor and now suffocated Ukrainian peasantry, which suffers from the war, from the loss of land by the agrarian counter-reform of its president, by the monopolization of its territory. What are the possible consequences? The economic ones are easier to predict, an escalation in the prices of gas, oil and wheat, commodities which Russia plays an important role in the world, but what about politics? It is not possible to do “futurology” here, however there is a possibility that Ukraine will have the fate of Yugoslavia, being dismembered in two, or annexed in the worst and most remote case. Another possibility is also the return to the status quo and neutrality, the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, a chance that would avoid a bloodbath in the steppes. In conclusion, the exploited classes lose, the world's capitalist oligarchies and monopolies win.

Figure 7 – Possible future scenario for Ukraine.

*Gustavo Felipe Olesko He holds a PhD in Human Geography from the University of São Paulo (USP).



[I] BANDEIRA, Luiz Alberto Moniz. Making the American Empire: From the War against Spain to the War in Iraq. Publisher José Olympio, 2017.

[ii] BANDEIRA, Luiz Alberto Moniz. The Second Cold War: Geopolitics and the Strategic Dimension of the United States: From Rebellions in Eurasia to North Africa and the Middle East. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 2015.

[iii] SYDORENKO, Dmytro et al. Heartland as one of the strategic objectives of the Russian State: from the foundation of Russia to the present. 2015. Doctoral Thesis. Higher Institute of Social and Political Sciences.

[iv] VIOLANTE, Alexandre Rocha. Mahan's theory of maritime power: a critical analysis in the light of contemporary authors. naval war college journal, v. 21, no. 1, p. 223-260, 2016.

[v] DE SOUZA ARCASSA, Wesley; MOURÃO, Paulo Fernando Cirino. Karl Haushofer: German Geopolitik and the Third Reich. Geography in Acts (Online), v. 1, no. 11, p. 1-14, 2011.

[vi] MENDES, Flavio Pedroso. Airpower in the XNUMXst Century. Meridian 47, v. 14, no. 138, p. 23, 2013.

[vii] BRZEZINSKI, Zbigniew. Strategic vision: America and the crisis of global power. Basic books, 2012.

[viii] PETROVICH, Michael B. Andrzej Walicki. A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism. Translated by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1979. pp. xvii, 456. $25.00. 1981.

[ix] SEGRILLO, Angelo. the russians. Publisher Context, 2013.

[X] SHANIN, Theodor. Ethnicity in the Soviet Union: analytical perceptions and political strategies. Comparative studies in society and history, v. 31, no. 3, p. 409-424, 1989; SHANIN, Theodor. Soviet theories of ethnicity: The case of a missing term. New Left Review, v. 158, p. 113-122, 1986.

[xi] GOGOL, Nikolai. Taras Bulba. Trans. Francisco Bittencourt, Sao Paulo, Abril Cultura, 1982.

[xii] SHEVCHENKO, Taras. kobzar. Trans. Peter Fedynsky, Glagoslav Plub, Canada, 2013.

[xiii] SZPORLUK, Roman. Lenin,” Great Russia,” and Ukraine. Harvard Ukrainian Studies, v. 28, no. 1/4, p. 611-626, 2006.

[xiv] MAKHNO, Nestor; SKIRDA, Alexandra; BERKMAN, Alexander. Nestor Makhno and the social revolution in Ukraine. Imaginary, 2001.

[xv] There is a vast bibliography on the subject, especially the untranslated books by Teodor Shanin, written after the fall of the USSR, mostly written together with Viktor P. Danilov. These portray the anarchist followers of Makhno, the Antonovchina or Tambov rebellion, both in the territory of today's Ukraine, as vital elements for the survival of the Bolshevik revolution, even though such movements were not part of the party, but anarcho-communists and revolutionary socialists.

[xvi] DANILOV, Viktor P. October and the Party's Agrarian Policy. Soviet Law and Government, v. 27, no. 4, p. 35-51, 1989.

[xvii]  MONIZ BANDEIRA, Luiz Alberto. World Disorder. The spectrum of total domination. Proxy wars, terror, chaos and humanitarian catastrophes. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 2017.

[xviii] DANILOV, Viktor Petrovich. The Commune in the Life of the Soviet Countryside before Collectivization. In: Land Commune and Peasant Community in Russia. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1990. p. 287-302; DANILOV, VIKTOR. The issue of alternatives and history of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Journal of Historical Sociology, v. 2, no. 1, p. 1-13, 1989.

[xx] SHANIN, Theodor. Russia as a Developing Society: Roots of Otherness-Russia's Turn of Century. Springer, 2016;

[xx] COGGIOLA, Osvaldo. Imperialism and war in Yugoslavia: radiography of the conflict in the Balkans. São Paulo: Shaman, 1999.

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