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Did Ukraine need a war? An oligarchical society is being reset

Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms to fight for a better future. Credit: Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms to fight for a better future. Credit: Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


July 1, 2022   5 mins

War has always been the father of innovation: a reset for societies forced to adopt whatever methods work just in order to survive. The outburst of voluntarism that has gripped Ukraine is a striking example: mutual aid groups, local volunteer organisations and local defence militias have cropped up, taking on many of the burdens of the overstretched state. We can almost term this a form of “war anarchism”, analogous to the “war socialism” that overtook industrial capitalism during the World Wars, paving the way for postwar social democracy. The relationship of the people to an often distant and dysfunctional state is being reset; new paths have perhaps opened up for postwar Ukrainian society, politically and socially more inclusive than the outward form of liberal democracy that came before, in which political power was in reality the plaything of rival oligarchs. The war against the invading Russians has many qualities of a revolution.

Bars and restaurants are donating food to refugees and raising money for the army. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts are fundraising for the commercial drones and night vision equipment the troops at the front desperately need. Ukrainian civil society is at the heart of this war, with evidence of the self-sacrifice and creativity of the nation’s embattled people visible at every turn. Pavement billboards display photos of troops grateful for their new night vision goggles above the bank details funds should be directed to; volunteer militias request donations for new vehicles on Telegram; one Ukrainian veteran I met a few years ago has sold his thriving cafĂ© in a Kyiv hipster district to buy a new drone for his unit.

Andriy Lyubka is a critically-acclaimed young novelist from the sleepy western city of Uzhhorod. I met him 800 miles to the east of his Transcarpathian hometown in the now-frontline Donbas city of Sloviansk. He was dropping off new SUVs, food and generators to fighters from Uzhhorod’s Territorial Defence Forces, the volunteer militia now holding vital positions as dug-in infantry.

In perfect English, he spoke with the smooth, slightly bored fluency of someone used to being interviewed by foreigners, at least in better times. “Now I cannot do my regular work because I cannot concentrate, focus on the work, you know,” he told me, as sirens wailed unceasingly in the background. “It is impossible for me to write or translate. And that is why I decided that I will dedicate myself to this very regular physical work.”

His first fundraising appeal on his Facebook page raised twice as much money as he expected, enabling him to buy two SUVs for Uzhhorod’s poorly-equipped TDF forces in the Donbas. Now he makes regular trips, handing over off-road vehicles sourced in Western Europe to his hometown volunteers fighting at the other end of this vast country. A critic of prewar Ukrainian society — his widely-praised novel Carbide, recently translated into English, is a fable about smuggling Ukraine’s entire population into Western Europe through a hidden tunnel — Lyubka sees the war as having brought a divided nation closer together.

“It’s maybe the first time I’ve visited Donbas,” he told me. “But now, we have these mutual steps towards one another, because a lot of people from Donbas are living now in our cities in Western Ukraine, and our friends are fighting here at the eastern edge of the front. And of course, it is a very fast method to create one united Ukrainian nation and it works very well. It is one of the main achievements of this war of Putin’s. It is of course opposite to what he planned.”

For the volunteer Territorials from Uzhhorod, fighting far from home in Sloviansk, the war is a difficult duty they cannot shirk. Sociology Professor Fedir Sandor, a 46-year-old father of four, left his job at Uzhhorod University to fight in Donbas. A photograph of him coaching his students through their end of term exams from his frontline trench recently went viral on Ukrainian social media. Meeting him in Sloviansk — he would not take me to his position, because of the constant casualties his fellow soldiers were taking from Russian shelling — Sandor outlined the difficult circumstances he was living in.

“I used to teach students and now I’m being taught!” says Fedir Sandor.

“So this is a totally new experience for me, because I’ve never served in the Army, never took part in any military activities and now I’m learning — I used to teach students and now I’m being taught!” A bald, burly man with a thick, fair beard, there is little trace of the Sociology professor of four months ago in the assault-vested combat veteran standing before me. “Today was cluster bombs, sometimes it’s chemical weapons,” he told me. “Yesterday the house where soldiers live was hit and three were wounded. That’s why the main weapon of a soldier is a spade!” he laughed.

The heavy casualty rate among TDF fighters is alarming, and social media videos of volunteers refusing to fight because of lack of weapons, or of wives and mothers protesting against their men being sent to the distant Donbas, are regularly shared by pro-Russian social media accounts. I asked Sandor if he felt well-prepared, as a completely untrained volunteer, when the war broke out. “We were training to use machine guns and firing weapons but it’s a totally different situation we’re learning here,” he replied. “It’s a war not of machine guns but of artillery and IT technologies. But I don’t want my wife to be threatened with rape as it was in Bucha. It’s better for us to stop it here.”

As young TDF fighters got to grips with their newly-donated SUV — I could hear the sound of, unexpectedly, Fischerspooner’s “Emerge” blasting out of the windows while they twiddled with the controls — I chatted to Andriy, huddling against the unseasonably cold wind. “I think that now, in three weeks, this is our eleventh car,” he said with satisfaction.

Andriy’s sense of accomplishment was visible. Before the war, many ordinary Ukrainians were profoundly dissatisfied with how the country was run: millions had moved to Western Europe, and to Russia, in search of better alternatives. The Maidan revolution had kept the country out of Russia’s orbit — at great cost — but not enough else had changed. But now, Andriy is using his profile as an ascendant writer to provide the equipment that may preserve the lives of his fellow Uzhhorod volunteers fighting at the front. He is doing his bit for the nation in its time of greatest trial and, as with many Ukrainians, doing so gives him a greater personal stake in the new Ukraine being forged by war.

“It is very deep changes that are now taking place in the consciousness of people,” he told me. “So, I think that maybe we even needed something like this earthquake as a big war, you know, because now we are ready to build a new, good country, and the only things we need now are victory, and peace.”


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Great essay. This is a perspective that will never be found on the msm.
Whether Ukraine reinvents itself after this war seems like a tricky question. Not an exact analogy, but I remember images of people cheering for the NHS in England in the early stages of the pandemic, and Captain Tom raising tons of money with his walks. That spirit of unity dissolved fairly quickly when the initial crisis passed. Hopefully a similar thing won’t occur when the Ukraine war finally ends and the oligarchs and professional politicians extend their tentacles into the new Ukraine.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I don’t think that analogy works at all. Donating money to Captain Tom’s charity requires far less (scarcely more than zero) personal commitment and risk than fighting the Russians. One is “soft” commitment. The other is “hard”.
If we had each had to put anything like the effort and commitment the Ukrainians are showing into the NHS, we would be demanding far better from it – and probably getting it too. As it is, the Captain Tom stuff is just throwing more money at a problem – without demanding or expecting any actual change.

martin logan
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Covid was a danger, but not an existential threat to Britain. But every Ukrainain knows what will happen if Ukraine loses.
Wars usually have profound effects on societies, and barring things like the Black Death, far more than sickness.

Andy E
Andy E
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

Nothing particular interesting is going to happen to Britain. Britain is not an existential threat to Russia and not a real danger from economical side. And of course there are no “ifs” in the whole scenario. Ukraine will not win this war, with all due respect to their fight. If it starts winning by any chance the war becomes different, the bombs bigger, casualties larger, cities wiped out. For Russians it is “another last war” as they were all the last wars. It’s not a war with Ukraine. The anticipation is – this is [again] war with the West and [again] for the country’s existence. N**zi gameplay on the other side helps to form this mass agenda. So. Don’t expect to see Russians on their knees — they just don’t do that. They would rather nuke the planet.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andy E
P Branagan
P Branagan
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy E

Andy, I couldn’t agree more with you. If they start losing the Russians are quite prepared to nuke all of Western Europe into oblivion – yes! and to take any consequences from France or the UK.
It remains to be seen whether the Yanks would risk a nuclear exchange with Russia. On their track record over the past 40 odd yrs they’ll cut and run and be happy to see Europe as a radioactive wasteland – one less competitor for their ailing industrial base.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  P Branagan

You needn’t worry. America is probably likelier to start a war amongst ourselves rather than fight anybody not named the People’s Republic of China. That’s the only enemy that Americans hate *barely* more than each other. To give you an idea, despite record inflation, there was a recent poll showing over 70% of Americans still support the China tariffs. So, yeah, if there’s gonna be a nuclear exchange, it will be with China and not Russia.

Andy E
Andy E
1 year ago
Reply to  P Branagan

I am a Yankee of a sort. Although with Russian roots, ansessory (my grandfather was kicking Wehrmacht asses on the Eastern front) and ability to read the language but looking at the things from the other side of the pond. So a Yankee is telling you : No. This is your “another war in Europe” and we are ready again to help a winning side (coz we need to collect our profit from somebody left). But no way the US risks a nuke war over our dear cousins. Sorry.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andy E
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy E

Andy is unfortunately correct. Russia is, so far, fighting the war with one hand tied behind their backs, not fully mobilized for war. They’re trying to do what the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is fight a war with a small professional army and without greatly disturbing their people. They haven’t even called up their reserve units (which the USA actually did do). As devastating as the Russians have been, they’re playing this game against NATO, not Ukraine. They don’t actually want a war with NATO that might end in WWIII any more than we do, so they’re not going all out, not really. What they want is exactly what they’ve said from the beginning, an assurance that Ukraine will remain politically neutral, a buffer state between Russia and NATO. Russia won’t accept less than that, plus some form of political autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, in any peace agreement. If Ukraine won’t give at least that, it will likely end in a status quo peace without a formal agreement like what happened in Korea (North and South Korea are still technically at war), which probably suits Putin just fine given the territory he’s already taken.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

“But I don’t want my wife to be threatened with rape as it was in Bucha. It’s better for us to stop it here.”
Pretty good motivating factor there.
Something none of us have faced in our lifetimes, nor do we expect to ever face in the West. But that is part of the problem, of course. We have grown fat and lazy, both physically and mentally.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

Strange title but a good article.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago

The article tell you how Ukraine is winning the PR and Twitter war.

Unfortunately for them, on the ground it is Russia who is winning the war and has the Donbass. And the people there remember very well who was shelling their homes and killing innocent civilians for the past eight years.

And as for the title, the answer is a very simple No. Ukraine didn’t need the war, and it was perfectly possible to keep Russia away without the war – accept the Minsk agreements, accept the rights of Russian minorities in the East, accept that Crimea is as Russian as Falkland is British, and commit to being neutral rather than jumping into bed with countries that won’t send a single soldier to defend you.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

The Ukranians have, in so many ways, shown themselves to be the near opposite of the “decadent” and ineffectual inhabitants of my own nation (USA) and so many other Western, post-industrial societies.
We suffered a “corn pone insurgency”, which went nowhere when the revolutionaries stopped to take selfies. Now the defenders of democracy pretend to push back with an endless series of Congressional hearings, which will lead to indictments of a few bit players; nothing more.
We pretend to make “real progress” against gun culture by tweaking the existing, and completely ineffectual rules, while the Supreme Court pretends to the noble endevour of the “original meaning” of our (240year old) Constitution.
Etc, etc…
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians, under true duress, step up and demonstrate the capability, imagination, focus and cooperation that are the real hallmarks of humanity.
It’s a bit humiliating, really.

P Branagan
P Branagan
1 year ago

It’s so sad that good people, like you appear to be, actually believe the unending propaganda spewed out by Western media and miscellaneous apologists.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

If we were threatened by roving bands of gangs raping our wives and children, most American men would turn into Ukrainian fighters over night. At least those of us who understand why we have a 2nd amendment. The rest would grab their NYT and WAPO and run like hell to the nearest Starbucks.

Jon Walmsley
Jon Walmsley
1 year ago

War, especially an existential one as this clearly is for Ukraine, cannot but help change a nation, a people, irrevocably. Whether for good or ill is not always clear, but I think in Ukraine’s case, provided it is able to sustain itself and endure the preponderance of Russian power that is being thrown against it’s so far steadfast wall of resistance, then perhaps some positivity could come out of this otherwise dreadful situation. War forces a people to prioritise what they stand for when faced with death and destruction on a terrible scale, and it is pretty clear so far that the majority of Ukrainians stand for a stronger sense of self-determination than I think most people, both in Russia and the West, gave them credit for.

Still, there is no mistaking the dire nature of the challenge facing them, not at least if you look past the propaganda of Western mainstream media; this is an uphill battle of endurance for Ukraine, a battle neither Russia nor the US-led NATO Western Bloc supporting Ukraine are so far willing to concede or budge on, meaning difficult days are only ahead. Russia has that prepronderance of power in the region that is undeniable, even with all their logistical setbacks and strategic and tactical-level misfires so far, whilst Ukraine maintains an incredibly strong will and motivation to fight to protect its own, but without continued material and political support from the West, a will to fight alone will not be enough to endure Russia’s attritional approach. Winning or losing meanwhile may not be realistic for either side, at least when one looks beyond face value narratives – Ukraine surviving in any even semi-independent form after this war would be a victory of its own, even if Russia equally claims a victory in ‘liberating’ the Donbas and ‘reclaiming’ other ‘historically lost Russian territory’ – but either way, a compromise, a peace settlement, even an armistice is, as far as I can tell, the only way to avoid this war leading to an even worse one. ‘Defeating Russia’ does not seem a realistic military goal on any current level, not without escalating the conflict, even if a settlement can be spinned out politically as this or that ‘victory’.

Still, from a geopolitical and arguably moral standpoint, maintaining support for Ukraine is vital if it is to have a chance at postive transformation in the future, but as noted, such support is a high wire balancing act, as an escalatory war between Russia and NATO would result in Ukraine’s complete devastation, potential wider war across Europe, and an incredible level of uncertainty and chaos the world over. That is not a world anyone wants to live in, European, American, Ukrainian or Russian (to emphasise the main players involved), yet it is a world that could possibly come to be if cooler heads do not prevail. I think neither side wants to risk that however, not deliberately anyway, and so we could instead be looking at an East-West divide in Ukraine, not entirely unlike the current armistice agreement shared between North and South Korea, yet wherever the divide may lie, that unsettling tension will remain and such a peace will be a very uneasy one indeed.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jon Walmsley
martin logan
martin logan
1 year ago

Good analysis of just what makes Ukrainians fight. And why they could never be Muscovite Russians, even if they tried.
Ukrainians are temperamentally unsuited to the top-down mentality of Russians. Moreover, that trait will always make them suspect in the eyes of Muscovites. For any Real Russian, “Nazi” is simply the default term for The Other. This explains why it works so well in Russia–but seems ludicrous to anyone else.
During Soviet times, Muscovite Russians were never able to cajole the other Slavic peoples of eastern Europe into a unified Socialist empire. They all broke away when they could.
Ukraine’s and Belarus’ defection will be the last act in the unravelling of Moscow’s empire. Then it becomes either a unitary Russian state–or collapses

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Yes, sadly they probably did need this war. Without it I doubt they would be able to get some sense of national purpose and direction srtrong enough to free themselves from the decades of corruption under Russian domination. It is not yet certain they can or will achieve this – but the chances are now much better.
If Ukraine survives and rebuilds, it’s probably only a matter of time before Belarus falls.

P Branagan
P Branagan
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

At the end of the Ukraine war all that will be left for them to occupy will be Snake Island which will be almost entirely allocated to their ever burgeoning ministry of propaganda.