Viktoriia Pihul (Social Movement, Ukraine): ‘The normalisation of full-scale war has seen the return of political confrontation’

Viktoriia Pihul Federico Fuentes
February 15, 2024

Viktoriia Pihul, a Ukrainian feminist and council member of Ukrainian democratic socialist organisation Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement), spoke with Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal regarding the situation in Ukraine two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion.

What have been the main impacts on Ukrainian society of two years of war? How has this changed over time?

The most important impact has been the normalisation of full-scale war. In two years, people have gotten used to war and made it a part of their everyday life. War is seen as one of the most important social problems, but one among many. As a result, political confrontation has returned, as have discussions on problems such as corruption, inequality, economic problems and so on.

Of course, in one way or another, most discussions are still conducted through the prism of war and opposition to Russia. All political forces seek to appeal to the army and the fight against Russia, with decisions or proposals usually justified on the grounds they are “useful for the front and for victory”. But it is not the case that Ukrainian society is tired of war: the level of support for the army has been stable for a long time. Rather, people have gotten used to war and adapted to current conditions, which they realise are not going to change for a very long time. In a sense, war is a deterrent for many internal conflicts (class/political/ideological, etc.). But with normalisation, these conflicts will return more and more to their pre-war state, though now with the war being used as one of — if not the decisive — argument.

How does Social Movement read the recent replacement of former commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny by General Oleksandr Syrsky?

The main problem with this replacement is its lack of transparency. [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky’s understanding of the sovereignty of presidential power is extremely misleading. Even before the full-scale invasion, he never explained his appointments and dismissals. The full-scale war has only exacerbated this problem. For example, Zelensky’s close friend Ivan Bakanov, who was head of the Ukrainian Security Service, was dismissed without any explanation — although it was obvious that his actions could at least be described as negligent. We have not had any clear explanation to justify the need to replace Zaluzhny. Instead there has only been a vague public statement and a closed briefing for the press. The public has not been told everything. This is partly understandable, as war imposes limits on transparency. However, all we are left with is speculation based on insider information in various media outlets.

Zaluzhny’s situation is rather paradoxical. Society has been increasingly criticising the army. The Ukrainian army inherited many problems from the Soviet army. Those who join are not happy with the bureaucracy, outdated methods, corruption and so on. On the other hand, this negativity had not affected Zaluzhny’s popularity. This is despite Zaluzhny not acting against unpopular leaders in the army (for example the head of the medical corps who failed to supply the army with tactical medicine, or the heads of the Territorial recruitment centres involved in corruption). It is difficult to overestimate Zaluzhny’s role in repelling the Russian invasion: he was a brilliant general whose unconventional and courageous actions saved our country. As a result, his authority became virtually unassailable, in the army and in society. Like any other person, he can make mistakes and has weaknesses. But the legend that has grown up around him inhibits any serious discussion of this.

At the same time, the army’s problems were affecting Zelensky’s support. Zelensky’s dissatisfaction with Zaluzhny was caused by his attempts to speak independently in the media. Zelensky’s team pays a lot of attention to controlling the media narrative and does not like anyone interrupting their agenda. These facts, together with the lack of adequate explanations for this decision, led to the popularisation of simplistic explanations — for example, that Zaluzhny was replaced because he was too pessimistic, while Zelensky demanded more optimistic reports from him (a good example of this narrative is this Politico article).

This is probably an oversimplification: we did not see any serious discrepancies or conflicts within the Ukrainian General Staff or between the military and political leadership during the summer counteroffensive. Many of the decisions now being criticised ex post facto (the defence of Bakhmut and simultaneous offensives along several points) cannot be entrusted to one person. Although many of the problems of the 2023 campaign were caused by the lack and untimeliness of foreign military support, the decision to change the commander-in-chief was probably provoked by these same problems. Obviously, a new strategy is being sought to counter Russia in increasingly difficult conditions. We hope the new strategy will focus on exploiting Ukraine’s strengths — such as occurred with the 2023 Naval Campaign, which was a major victory for Ukraine that reopened the Black Sea for trade.

Our impression from outside Ukraine is that criticism of Zelensky seems to be on the rise more generally. There have been protests over various issues, from the new mobilisation law to budget priorities for local government and the scheme to rationalise university education. Could you give us a sense of the scale of these criticisms and protests? Do you see them as weakening the war effort?

This is simply a consequence of the normalisation of the war and the return of public politics. In an ideal world, society would be completely united, as it was at the start of the invasion. But this is impossible. The main reason is that different social groups are prepared to compromise their interests to varying degrees to win the war. More privileged sectors, who are more distant from the war, may have much to lose from the country’s defeat. But they know they can at least go abroad easily. On the other hand, the working class and lower middle class, for the most part, cannot see a future without Ukraine and are therefore prepared to make great compromises for the sake of victory.

It is significant that the offensive against workers’ rights started this gradual return of public politics. Workers and many other groups are on the defensive here. This return of politics means that every problem, every criticism, every mood of protest will be used by one or another political group. This will inevitably lead to their hyperbolisation, the slowing down of decision-making and so on. This is not just Ukraine — this is a political process characteristic of almost every country in Eastern Europe. The only difference is that we are fighting a full-scale war against a superior enemy.

All this, of course, has an impact on the war. For example, the delay in adopting the law on mobilisation has held up the prompt replenishment of exhausted troops at the front. But it is significant to note that the main reason for this delay, and Zelensky’s unwillingness to carry out a new large-scale mobilisation, is financial. The costs of mobilisation cannot be covered without raising taxes. This is what scares the government, not just that there are fewer people willing to fight. The government’s desire to protect privileged groups from the burden of war will increasingly come into conflict with the war effort. We will continue to highlight this and minimise the damage it does to our country.

In a recent interviewCommons editorial team member Oksana Dutchak said “there is the feeling of injustice in relation to the process of mobilisation, where wealth and/or corruption lead to predominantly (but not exclusively) working-class people being mobilised, which goes against the ideal image of ‘people’s war’ in which all the society participates.” How serious is this trend?

Mobilisation to repel external aggression is necessary, but it is unfair under current conditions. Ukrainian society is divided along social lines. Endowed with power, the privileged classes will try at any cost to reduce the number of victims from their class. The rich have many more opportunities to pay bribes to avoid military service. In contrast, workers are virtually voiceless and much more likely to pay with their lives. Therefore the burden of suffering for working people is disproportionately greater. The risk of sanctions for disobeying the requirements of mobilisation is much higher for the poor, since their access to lawyers is limited. At the same time, innovations are being introduced that allow the rich to legally buy their way out of service, or go abroad. Neoliberal employment policies have also greatly weakened incentives for workers to join the military. Since July 2022, mobilised workers no longer receive the average earnings of their workplaces on top of their remuneration as soldiers, leaving workers and their families more vulnerable. And administratively, it is much easier to distribute summons en masse where workers are concentrated — at mines, railways, agricultural holdings, etc.

For the war to become popular, it is necessary to establish social equality — starting with the confiscation of wealth that exceeds the norm needed for a decent life, progressive taxation to better financially support the families of workers killed at the front, and a complete moratorium on reforms that increase poverty. I would like to add that it is difficult to unequivocally answer the question of the prevalence of “class mobilisation”, because the state is not interested in keeping statistics of the social affiliation of those that are mobilised.

Social Movement comrades have analysed the shortcomings of the proposed new Labour Code, which strengthens the hand of business and weakens organised labour. How can the union movement fight this under martial law?

Unlike the oligarchs, workers try to avoid undermining their country's economy for their own interests. Therefore, the main ways for us to fight anti-worker initiatives are through media coverage inside the country and lobbying against such initiatives with foreign partners. Both measures are proving effective: anti-worker measures are very unpopular and sufficient media coverage has led to serious delays in their implementation. Working with foreign partners has also helped put pressure on authorities by raising the cost for them bringing in such measures.

Ideally, we would like to see social demands (which are appropriate during a full-scale war) on the same level as the fight against corruption. All this should be taken into account with regards to Ukraine’s further integration into the European Union, not least because the EU has more legal protection for workers than Ukraine. One way or another, Ukraine will have to harmonise its legislation with the EU.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we see how economic reality is beginning to dictate a shift away from the neoliberal paradigm. Ukraine is starting to suffer from labour shortages — more than 90% of companies claim to face a shortage of labour. Against this background, the adoption of new anti-labour laws will only lead to a greater exodus from the country. So far, authorities have sought to solve this problem through rather naive administrative steps, such as lobbying to cancel social benefits for displaced Ukrainian citizens in Europe. However, it is obvious that such steps are doomed to failure, as European countries want to integrate displaced Ukrainians into their economies. Sooner or later, the government will have to find ways to bring back those who left and keep those who have stayed. We will continue to report on all this and warn of the consequences of any ill-considered policy.

While Western governments were quick to come to Ukraine's aid in the weeks after the invasion, the military aid being provided today falls well short of what is needed. What can this tell us about how Western governments view the war? And what can Ukraine’s supporters in other countries do to help reverse this state of affairs, and also aid leftists in Ukraine?

We are feeling the direct effects of the decline in Western support. More Russian missiles are not being shot down, which means more civilian deaths. And Russian troops are advancing faster as the Ukrainian army runs out of ammunition. But we are far from believing that the West has had enough of Ukraine. Rather, we see a process of normalisation of the war and a shift away from the emergency situation of the first months of the invasion. All this has led to a considerable slow down of aid due to the usual bureaucracy.

It has also allowed small but influential groups — such as the far right, agribusiness, oil traders and certain members of military circles — to use Ukraine as a means of political blackmail. For example, [Hungarian prime minister Viktor] Orbán was able to squeeze 10 billion euros from the EU in return for its vote on the Ukraine aid package. And European farmers have received more subsidies from the EU thanks to the blockade of Ukrainian trade. Moreover, many European armies have made quite lucrative equipment upgrades, using aid to Ukraine as an excuse to obtain US and German support. As for the Australian Department of Defence, it decided for internal reasons to destroy helicopters rather than allow Ukraine to use them to evacuate wounded fighters.

Helping Ukraine depends not so much on whether the majority of Western society supports Ukraine, but on the extent to which the West is prepared to resist the blackmail of these small but well-organised groups. This is not only about Ukraine, as these groups seek to manipulate society on other issues as well. This is particularly true when it comes to countering the far right. Almost everywhere, it is the far right that is blocking support for Ukraine. After the Russian army, they are Enemy Number 2 for the Ukrainian state. Even those who supported Ukraine at the start of the invasion (such as Poland’s Law and Justice party, PiS) are now using anti-Ukrainian rhetoric to please their voters.

The best way for the left abroad to support the left in Ukraine is by supporting Ukraine and its resistance. As someone who has repeatedly seen Western anti-aircraft missiles shoot down Russian drones and missiles from the window of my house, I can say with confidence that Western military aid saves Ukrainian lives. Ukrainians actively follow politics in Western countries, and in many ways see them as a model to aspire to. Ukrainians will never forget who in the West supported them and who opposed them.

Given the fact that most right-wing movements pursue anti-Ukrainian policies, leftists defending Ukraine abroad will help raise the profile of the left inside Ukraine. So if you want to support us, support Ukraine. Go to actions, ask your representatives to support Ukraine, write about us in the media. Moreover, directly supporting left Ukrainian organisations, such as Ukrainian trade unions (for example the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine and Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine), Solidarity CollectivesFemSolutionSocial Movement and Commons will help raise our profile inside the country.

The Zelensky government has sided with Israel in its occupation of Gaza, while Social Movement recently issued a statement, “From Ukraine to Palestine — Occupation is a crime”. What is the balance of opinion in Ukraine about this conflict? Is it shifting?

To say the Ukrainian government is fully supportive of Israel is not entirely accurate. Ukraine has voted in favour of virtually all pro-Palestine resolutions at the United Nations. Zelensky himself publicly supports a two-state policy and Palestinian independence. The words of support for Israel were largely opportunistic, misguided and out of context. They were said shortly after October 7, which was a terrible crime regardless of how we judge Israel’s subsequent actions. Ukrainian foreign policy suffers from opportunism but, on the issue of Palestine, Ukraine has a much better position than most developed countries.

Most Ukrainians know little about the Middle East and its conflicts. But the full-scale war has tended to normalise a pro-Palestinian position in society. First, most Ukrainians have a very low opinion of Israeli authorities due to their friendship with Russian leaders. Even now, as the Russian Federation supplies anti-Israel groups with arms, Israel refuses to lift its blockade on the supply of weapons made with Israeli technology from Europe to Ukraine. Second, more Ukrainians are starting to familiarise themselves with post-colonial knowledge and see parallels between Israel’s and Russia’s actions: indiscriminate attacks on residential areas, settlement in occupied territories, etc.

The main difference between our conflicts is that the Ukrainian people have a fully functioning state, while the Palestinian people are deprived of that. Certainly, Russia would like to see the same for Ukraine, as it would be easier for them to kill Ukrainians if we did not have our own state. We saw this during the Russian-Ichkerian war. Netanyahu is in many ways simply repeating what Russia did to Ichkeria. That is why Ukrainians need to know more about Palestine — not only for moral reasons, but as a warning of what our enemy wants to achieve and the methods they may use.