WSJ, May 26, 2022
“If the country withstands this conflict, it will remain militarized in anticipation of future aggression from its hostile neighbor.”
“War made the state, and the state made war,” the sociologist Charles Tilly once wrote. Success on the battlefield, he observed, required states to construct the powerful, centralized institutions that would define them in the modern era—institutions with the coercive power to effectively extract taxes and draft soldiers, for example.
Tilly’s theory might seem distant from the current war in Ukraine. But war has profoundly shaped Ukraine’s political institutions at least since the aftermath of World War II, and it now looks certain to do so well into the future.
When Ukraine became independent in 1991, defense was its most advanced industry.
In the early 1950s, the U.S.S.R. sought to revive its devastated cities by means of its defense industry. The Soviet leadership chose the southern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk (today, Dnipro) for the construction of a new satellite and intercontinental ballistic missile plant, known today as Pivdenmash. Dnipropetrovsk’s defense production grew at pace with the Soviet arms race against the West. And while none of its missiles were launched at their intended targets, Dnipropetrovsk became the launching pad for the careers of numerous Soviet statesmen: For three decades, officials affiliated with the city’s military industry rose through the ranks to occupy leading roles in various ministries, the KGB and the Communist Party.
The symbiosis of arms manufacturing and political power brought prosperity to Dnipropetrovsk, promoted the careers of regional elites and helped the U.S.S.R. assert its global status. But it also helped create the conditions for the Soviet state’s eventual undoing. Awash in subsidies and shielded by its strategic importance, the Soviet military sector quickly ossified and became impervious to reform—a conservative force in Soviet society and an obstacle to investment in infrastructure or consumer goods that might have helped fulfill the system’s emancipatory promises.
When Ukraine became independent in 1991, defense was its most advanced industry. But like the rest of the country’s economy, the industry depended on production and distribution chains that connected it to other former Soviet republics. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. plunged Ukraine into a profound economic crisis. Between 1990 and 1999, according to World Bank figures, the Ukrainian GDP contracted by 60%, in constant prices and never recovered.
Leonid Kuchma, a rocket engineer and chief director of the Pivdenmash missile plant since 1986, became the country’s prime minister in 1992 and president in 1994. He promised moderate reforms and technocratic stability. But he had to navigate between one camp—including the “red directors” in charge of Ukraine’s industries at the time—that insisted on the necessity of preserving ties with Russia, and another—nationalists and democrats—that argued for liberalization and Westernization. Under Mr. Kuchma, the country adopted a constitution in 1996 that declared Ukraine “a state with a constantly neutral, nonaligned status.”
During Mr. Kuchma’s two terms, regional business networks in Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk grew into financial-industrial groups that combined control of heavy industrial assets with media power and political influence. Arbitrating among these oligarchic groups, Mr. Kuchma built a system of patronage that gave him vast power. Wary that his successor would inherit it and use it to attack the oligarchs, among whom was his son-in-law, Mr. Kuchma also pushed through constitutional reforms that moved the center of power from the presidency to the parliament.
Oligarchic rivalry became entrenched in the legislature, where the wealthy businessmen in control of these interest groups began to support rival factions. They waged demagogic campaigns that polarized the public: a nationalist, pro-European, neoliberal political camp supported by voters from rural Western Ukraine and the urban middle class was pitted against a Russophone, relatively pro-Russian camp supported by voters from the more industrialized Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Workers and managers of Ukraine’s much diminished defense industry, particularly in Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv, predominantly supported the latter. Ukraine soon found itself in a culture war that helped produce a pro-European revolution in 2014, quickly followed by war with Russia-sponsored separatists.
At independence, Ukraine had inherited approximately 30% of the Soviet defense industry and around 40% of the Soviet Armed Forces, totaling some 700,000 troops in a country of 52 million. But Ukraine couldn’t pay for a military this size. Mr. Kuchma and subsequent presidents cut military spending and decommissioned or sold off military assets to buyers in developing countries. As a result, by the time the country found itself at war in 2014, its military was decimated. Ukraine had no leverage with which to repel the Russian annexation of Crimea or to reach a favorable settlement in Donbas.
The war that began in 2014 permanently transformed Ukrainian politics. Around 4.5 million Ukrainian citizens—roughly 10% of the country’s total prewar population—now lived in territories no longer controlled by the central government, in Donbas and Crimea. These were once the core voters of the pro-Russian political camp. That camp’s purchase on Ukrainian politics began to dwindle, strengthening pro-European political forces.
The two wartime presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, followed similar trajectories. They both entered office as political omnivores, seeking to appeal to all sides of Ukraine’s diverse and divided polity, and campaigning for peace and reconciliation. But the complex task of balancing among corrupt oligarchs, countering Russia’s expansionism, managing Ukraine’s financial dependence on the West and assuaging disaffected voters left both presidents little space to maneuver.
Both eventually came to side with the most organized and vociferous constituency in Ukrainian politics, made more powerful by the war: the Westernizing nationalists. Mr. Poroshenko pushed through changes to the constitution that replaced the neutrality and nonalignment clause with one about Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU and NATO. Mr. Zelensky followed in his footsteps. The similarity between them suggests that the war and the forces it has unleashed have become an independent variable in Ukrainian politics.
The Russian invasion will shape the Ukrainian state and politics in other ways as well. If the country withstands this conflict, it will remain militarized in anticipation of future aggression from its hostile neighbor. Eight years of war have increased the preparedness and prestige of the armed forces, making the army one of the country’s most trusted social institutions. A new generation of mid-ranking officers has emerged, along with publicly recognizable leaders of volunteer militias: These figures may eventually seek to turn their rank and renown into political credentials. And the military itself risks becoming politicized, as there are now army units and militias affiliated with particular parties and movements, mainly on the right.
Rather like the Soviet defense industry, Ukraine’s military will almost certainly become a conservative social force capable of generating its own power elite. As Mr. Zelensky has recently put it, because of the war Ukraine “will become a big Israel”: an embattled country where defense comes before other considerations, and security stands above liberty as the idiom of politics. This Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky said, “will certainly be unlike the one we wanted in the beginning.”
Dr. Fedirko is a social anthropologist at the University of St Andrews, where he researches the political economy of war and media in Ukraine.
Appeared in the May 28, 2022, print edition as ‘The Military Roots of Modern Ukraine’.
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