Why Ukraine resists the challenge of Russia | War between Russia and Ukraine

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Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year sparked a long-running debate about the role of Russia’s opposition in the context of Russian aggression in the post-Soviet space. Russian opposition activists and some observers have argued that Russia’s expansion can only be stopped through regime change and democratization, apparently led by the Russian opposition.

Ukrainians, and many of their supporters from post-Soviet countries who have experienced Russian imperialism firsthand, tend to disagree. They do not see the Russian opposition – and especially the most prominent leader today, Alexey Navalny – as guarantors of peace in the future.

To explain why, I would first like to refer to an exchange I had with members of Navalny’s movement, or “Navalnists” as they are called in Russian, back in 2015.

It happened at a closed event at a British think tank in which my Ukrainian colleague spoke about the transformation of cultural values ​​in Ukraine after the 2014 revolution and the beginning of Russian aggression. Among the attendees were two Russians, who were visiting Britain as representatives of Navalny’s movement. After the speech, my colleague and I had the opportunity to have a short conversation with them.

As expected, we questioned them about Navalny’s comments on Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014. In an interview with the Echo of Moscow radio station in October 2014, Navalny admitted that the to seize the peninsula through “a flagrant violation of all international rules”, but said it would “remain part of Russia” and “will not be part of Ukraine in the future” .

His statement was not just an assessment of the developments around Crimea. When pressed on whether he would return Crimea to Ukraine if he were to become president of Russia, Navalny put his “No” into a strange rhetorical question: “What? Is Crimea a sandwich or something you can take back and take back? ” It was clear that the political position on Crimea was that it should “remain part of Russia”.

It is important to point out that our conversation with the two Navalnists took place less than half a year after the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin. The assassination of Nemtsov, who strongly opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, allowed the Navy to emerge as Russia’s main opposition leader still trying to politicize made in Russia.

The other main opponent of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, lived in exile in London and was not directly involved in Russian politics.

Therefore, it was not unreasonable to think at that time that any change in Russia, if it happened, would be led by the Navy. That’s why we wanted to know what Ukraine should expect from the “wonderful Russia of the future”, as Navalny loves Russia after Putin called it.

The Navalnists responded that Moscow, under a democratically elected government, would keep Crimea despite the illegal annexation. That is because their policies had to reflect the will of the Russian people and the majority of Russians wanted Crimea to be within Russia’s borders.

But there was more to it. We claimed that the West would never recognize the annexation of Crimea and that restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine would not only further improve relations between Russia and the West but would help he also by repairing relations between Russia and Ukraine. The response of the Navalnists was that the “miracle Russia of the future” would find ways to reconcile relations with the West without correcting the injustices done to Ukraine.

Ukraine, in other words, may be the immediate victim of Putin’s regime, and yet – even when he is gone – he would suffer Russian colonialism because he was so popular the latter not only among government supporters but also among “Russian Democrats”. As Volodymyr Vynnychenko, one of the leading figures in the Ukrainian national liberation movement of 1917-1919, perceptively said a century ago, “Russian democracy ends where the Ukrainian question a ‘beginning’.

As Navalny became Russia’s anti-Putin face – a face that was increasingly recognized as such not only in Russia but also in the West – Ukrainians became wary. At that time, the West supported democracy and modernization in Ukraine and offered some support to the country’s struggle against Russian aggression. “But what would come of that if Navalny came to power in Russia?” we asked ourselves.

As Navalny certainly enjoyed, at the very least, moral support from Western leaders, his rise to power in Russia could lead to a reset in Western-Russian relations, leaving Ukraine out in the cold. Many feared that Ukraine would not matter to Western leaders if they had someone better than Putin to talk to.

And there was already a precedent. In August 2008, Russia – then under the leadership of Dmitry Medvedev – attacked Georgia and occupied the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The West broke a peace agreement that was not only very unfavorable to Georgia but was also not honored by Russia.

And yet, half a year later, the Obama administration offered Medvedev – who, at that time, appeared more progressive than Putin – to be “reinstated” in an effort to improve relations between the US and Russia. This move, which was generally welcomed by Western European governments, essentially meant “wiping the slate clean” and, as such, meant that there would be no opposition occupation of Russia in Georgian regions.

Navalny, as Ukrainians and liberal Russians well remember, strongly supported Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and even used insulting, dehumanizing terms to refer to the Georgian people. Several years later, he apologized for the terms he used, but never for his support of the Russian war on Georgia.

Navalny was nominally against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but his “anti-war” position was based on economic rather than moral considerations: “Russia cannot do the war”. That position was not expected to include any sympathy for the Ukrainian people – which was also reflected in his use of ethnic slurs against them.

He saw the Russian people as the victims of injustice under Putin’s rule, not the Ukrainians. In his opinion, there was no wrong done against Ukraine that was worth correcting.

In the years that followed, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned into a frozen conflict, Navalny and his team focused on exposing the corruption of the Putin regime through a series of high-profile investigations. Before the 2018 presidential elections, these interesting revelations began to worry the Kremlin in the worst way.

Navalny and his followers were subjected to regular physical attacks and short-term detention. The Kremlin had clearly come to believe that his political movement was a threat to the regime and decided to destroy it.

It seemed prudent for the Ukrainians to offer support to Navalny’s move, at least tactically if not strategically, as it could topple the Putin regime and turn on their war machine. back But the problems of Navalny and his followers did not please the Ukrainians, because his previous comments, as well as the horror and indifference of the Navalnists, did not give much hope that the “miracle Russia of the time” would respect come” on the sovereignty and territory of Ukraine. integrity

Even after Russian authorities poisoned Navalny with a nerve agent and later imprisoned him on political charges, many Ukrainians did not soften their stance.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, followed by the massive crackdown on what remained of Russia’s anti-Putin opposition, dramatically changed the views of Ukraine held by many -Russian criticism of Putin’s regime, including Navalny’s team.

Since most Navalnists were forced to seek refuge in the West, where many influential people adopted a “Ukraine first” policy in dealing with self-proclaimed “Russian democrats”, it was not The Navalnists can no longer express their disdain for Ukraine because there was a risk that they would lose all sympathy from the West regarding their movement.

In late February 2023, Navalny’s team published a 15-point manifesto that sought to clear up much of the controversy surrounding their views on Ukraine. Importantly, the manifesto acknowledged Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, implying the need to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and all territories Another Ukrainian currently living.

The document also called for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, offering reparations, investigating war crimes in cooperation with international institutions, and ultimately allowing Ukraine to live and develop as Ukrainians want.

For many Ukrainians, however, this change of heart is long overdue. In today’s Ukraine, few people believe that Russia’s aggression can be stopped by an anti-Putin operation, even one that is unquestionably pro-Ukraine.

In this war, Ukrainians rely on their own fighting spirit and Western support. What happens to Russia after its expected military defeat in Ukraine is of little concern. This may appear short, but it is understandable that the war is a more important issue.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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