At first glance, it may seem like a strange and even a preposterous undertaking. My country is under attack. Thousands of people have already died. Many more may die in the upcoming days, even hours. Ukrainian cities are being shelled, schools and hospitals are being destroyed by bombs and artillery fire, women and children are hiding in bomb shelters and basements. The whole world is watching a gigantic humanitarian catastrophe unfold in front of their eyes at the heart of Europe… And I sit down to write about a seemingly unimportant, even marginal piece of Russian propaganda authored by a certain Piotr Akopov, a “journalist” known for his far-right, conservative-nationalist views. What’s the use of it? Wouldn’t it be better if I abandoned my “intellectual aspirations” for the time being and just took up arms to help defend my country? No, because understanding Russian goals in this war is nearly as important as resisting Russian invasion with military means. I hope to show in this essay that Mr. Akopov’s article can help us achieve just that.
Why this exceptional importance? Piotr Akopov cannot be said to belong to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. He is far from the official mouthpieces of the Russian government such as Sergey Lavrov or Maria Zakharova. Akopov is just a rank-and-file soldier in the Russian propaganda war. It would be going too far to assume that he was entrusted with detailed classified information about the military operation against Ukraine, but he definitely had been briefed and briefed in advance. Both the circumstances of the publication of his article and its content testify to this fact.
Mr Akopov’s article entitled “The Advent of Russia and the New World” was published by RIA Novosti, a state-owned Russian news agency, on the 26th of February 2022. There is nothing unusual about that. There are hundreds, if not thousands of articles which are published and spread by the Russian government’s propaganda machine each day. There is one highly important peculiarity with this however. The article, full of triumphalist claims, is written from such a perspective AS IF Russia has already succeeded in occupying Ukraine within a two-day period as Kremlin’s generals planned to. This, coupled with the fact that the article appeared exactly at 8 am, leads us to one important conclusion: that it was written well before the actual invasion and was scheduled for automatic publication, which was not canceled due to neglect when the Russian attack on Ukraine did not go according to plan. The assumption is further strengthened by the fact that the article was soon removed from RIA Novosti’s website. Unfortunately for the Kremlin’s propaganda team, this happened after a copy of it was saved by the Internet Archive project. The English translation of the article that appeared shortly after the original Russian version on the website of The Frontier Post (an English language daily newspaper founded in Peshawar, Pakistan) is still available as of the time of writing.
This “alternative future” presented in Piotr Akopov’s article allows us to cast an unrestricted glance at Russian neo-imperialist aspirations at the moment when their mask of overt lies and misinformation had finally been removed. In other words, it lets us see what the world would look like on the early morning of February 26 if the Russian blitzkrieg on Ukraine went according to plan. By being written from the perspective of a “victory already achieved,” from the peculiar temporal position of futur antérieur the article unwittingly says too much. This article comes as close as possible to being THE manifesto of Russian neo-imperialism of the XXI century. And what it says has tremendous implications for the future of Ukraine and the whole civilized world. Let’s start with Ukraine.
Piotr Akopov begins with a triumphalist declaration that “a new world is being born before our eyes. Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has ushered in a new era”. Echoing Vladimir Putin who once said that the disintegration of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the XX century, the author rejoices that “the tragedy of 1991, this terrible catastrophe in our history, its unnatural dislocation, has been overcome.” Forget about the officially proclaimed goals of the “special operation:” to protect Russian-speaking civilians in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Once victory appears to have been achieved Russian propaganda warriors do not shy away to stress their real goal: “Russia is restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together – in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians.” Then the author goes on to praise Vladimir Putin for no less than the (final) solution of the Ukrainian question:
Vladimir Putin has assumed, without a drop of exaggeration, a historic responsibility by deciding not to leave the solution of the Ukrainian question to future generations. After all, the need to solve it would always remain the main problem for Russia.
If all this Nazi-style Lebensraum-expansionist talk about “restoring historical fullness” and “final solutions” sends a shudder down the spine of European and American readers it is because it does sound alarmingly familiar. There has already been a period in world history, roughly 80 years ago when another “great leader” dreamt of such “ideals,” and we all know the price that the world had to pay in order to stop him.
There is, however, one point on which Piotr Akopov is right. Ukraine, and the determination of the Ukrainian people to assert their national independence, has always been a problem for Russia. It had been so during the Tsarist times in the XIX century and during the period of Communist Red Russia in the XXth. This continues to be the case for millions of present-day Russian nationalists who dream of historical revenge. Without Ukraine, Russia is and will continue to be a mid-sized regional power. The reason for this is not only mythical (many Russians regard Ukraine, especially Kyiv, as the birthplace of their own statehood), but also quite pragmatic. Despite its vast territory and resources, the Russian Federation currently has a population of only 140 million inhabitants. Around 30 million of these are of non-Russian ethnicity and the population as a whole is rapidly declining. With the de facto occupation of Belarus and the occupation of Ukraine that the article takes for granted, Russia would add another 50+ million people to its total count and would have in its grip (with the exception of Central Asia and some smaller countries like Georgia and the Baltic states) most of the territory of the ex-USSR. Indeed, a Russian imperialist dream come true!
Still one crucial question remains. Even if Russia managed to occupy Ukraine, how is it going to keep under control a nation of 40 million people the vast majority of whom (including those speaking Russian as their first language) do not think of themselves as Russians and will never accept the legitimacy of the Russian rule over Ukraine? There is only one possible answer: through relentless use of violence and terror on a large scale. Over the last 8 years, Russia has continuously accused the democratically elected Ukrainian government, which it calls “a Nazi junta,” of conducting genocide in the Donbas. Not surprisingly, no evidence of anything even close to mass killings of civilians by the Ukrainian armed forces has ever materialized. Now with Russian propaganda talking about the (final) solution of the Ukrainian question, the specter of genocide in the very center of Europe is becoming more real than ever. Only Ukrainians will not be its perpetrators, but its victims. Even before the invasion the US intelligence warned that the Russian forces had compiled a list of Ukrainian citizens to be killed or sent to detention camps in the aftermath of the invasion. Ukrainian intelligence claims that this is precisely why some Chechen units (the so-called Kadyrovtsy) were dispatched to Ukraine – to terrorize the civilian population and suppress any remaining resistance. If they have mostly failed in this task so far it is due only to the unflinching resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces. Of course, what we are dealing with here is not classical fascism. This is rushism. Unlike Hitler with the Jews, Putin is ready to accept and even welcome Ukrainians into his delirious “ideal community,” but only on the condition that they will disavow their national identity and will submit themselves to his “Russian world.” But what about those millions that will not? They will become a “legitimate” target of terror and violence. If Ukraine is defeated, is the world ready to witness concentration camps and mass executions taking place right on the borders of the EU?
So much for the Ukrainian question. But Putin does not intend to stop there. The Russian neo-imperialists have plans for the rest of Europe as well, as Piotr Akopov’s article clearly illustrates. It does not talk about this openly, but enough is said and implied to understand the general contours of the Russian strategy aimed against the West after the successful occupation and incorporation of Ukraine and Belarus: a) weaken liberal democracies in the EU as well as in the United States by fueling internal conflicts and supporting politicians with anti-liberal-democratic agendas; b) undermine the unity and determination of NATO member states by driving a wedge between, first of all, the US and UK on the one hand (the so-called Anglo-Saxons in Russian propaganda newspeak) and the remaining European countries on the other. Let’s give word to Akopov himself:
Did anyone in the old European capitals, in Paris and Berlin, seriously believe that Moscow would give up Kyiv? That the Russians will forever be a divided people? And this at a time when Europe is uniting, when the German and French elites are trying to seize control of European integration from the Anglo-Saxons and assemble a united Europe?
…the world has changed, and this is well understood not only by Europeans, but also by the Anglo-Saxons who rule the West … Europe, as part of the West, wanted autonomy – the German project of European integration does not make strategic sense while maintaining the Anglo-Saxon ideological, military and geopolitical control over the Old World. Moreover, it cannot be successful, because the Anglo-Saxons need a controlled Europe.
The confrontation with Russia, into which the Anglo-Saxons are dragging Europe, deprives the Europeans of even the chances of independence… If now the Atlanticists are happy that the “Russian threat” will unite the Western bloc, then in Berlin and Paris they cannot fail to understand that, having lost hope for autonomy, the European project will simply collapse in the medium term.
Does all this sound too absurd to ever have a chance to become reality? Our common European reality? Who can guarantee that this Russian strategy will never succeed? Here is a simple thought experiment. Imagine that Ukraine falls, France soon elects a president with an anti-NATO agenda, an isolated Germany that has never displayed much determination to oppose Putin continues its appeasement policy, Trump is elected in the US in 2024… Given all this and after having recovered from the war against Ukraine Russia invades the Baltic states or, say, Poland or Finland. Even if NATO pulls together enough courage to stand up to this new Russian aggression as a unified alliance, Putin will again resort to his “red button” diplomacy to deter effective defense. And as the West becomes weaker and weaker and less unified, Russia will continue its encroachment taking one country at a time until half of Europe (or all of it) is again under its control as in the good old days of the USSR. Sounds like bad science fiction? But is it?
The citizens of western liberal democracies must understand one thing. This is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine. This war is only the first step in the overall Russian strategy to establish a new world order and unchallenged dominance over Europe. For, as Piotr Akopov bluntly puts it:
This is a conflict between Russia and the West, this is a response to the geopolitical expansion of the Atlanticists, this is Russia’s return of its historical space and its place in the world. … Russia has not only challenged the West, it has shown that the era of Western global domination can be considered completely and finally over.
Really, can one formulate the goal of Russian neo-imperialism more explicitly?
So what the West (not just the governments, but each and every citizen) can do to counter this Russian strategy? Here are a few most important things:
Support Ukraine with all means possible, without entirely putting the military option off the table. Don’t forget: Russia is threatening to use its nuclear weapons if NATO intervenes militarily, but it will resort to exactly the same tactic when it attacks the Baltic states or Poland. So surrendering to this nuclear blackmail is not an option.
Support liberal democracy in your home country.
Strengthen NATO cooperation, because every European country is too weak to deal with Russia alone. Consequently, any politician who advocates the dissolution of NATO is (willingly or not) playing into Putin’s hand.
Prepare for a military confrontation between the unified West and Russia. Unfortunately, as things stand now, such a confrontation is unavoidable even if NATO does not intervene in the current war in Ukraine.
Put as much economic and financial pressure on Russia as you possibly can. This will not stop Putin immediately, but if enough damage is done to the Russian economy this present-day Reich can collapse before it has a chance to enact its anti-Western strategy.
These 5 points may not be enough to stop the madman from the Kremlin, but they are our best chance. Frankly speaking, they are the best chance the whole world has at the moment. Plus courage and hope. For as they currently say in Ukraine: the good will triumph over evil and light over darkness.
Pavlo Shved is a Ukrainian publisher, translator and essayist from Kyiv, Ukraine.
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