(The Quint brings to you a new column, 'Khairiyat', by award-winning author Tabish Khair, where he talks about the politics of race, the experiences of diasporas, Europe-India dynamics and the interplay of culture, history and society, among other issues of global significance.)
The UN resolution deploring the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s forces was passed by 141 out of 193 member states, with 35 abstaining. Apart from Russia, only four states – Eritrea, North Korea, Belarus and Syria – voted against it. These are countries already beyond the pale of international credibility. Even long-standing allies, like China and Cuba, and nations with historically close ties to Russia, such as India and Iran, not only abstained but also often recommended a cessation of hostilities.
Russia is incredibly isolated today. Even Hitler’s Germany had world powers like Italy and Japan backing it. On the one side, we have what I will call for the sake of convenience the ‘Western liberal democratic alliance’ of 141 nations, and on the other side, we have Putin’s Russia with four small, fringe nations. It appears that one side can possibly have nothing in common with the other.
And yet, I will argue that the two sides share something terrible: a large degree of disdain for the ordinary Russian citizen. It is this that ‘unites’ them.
Whom Do the Sanctions Hurt?
We live in a world where disdain for the ordinary citizenry has been not just naturalised – we have witnessed ‘collateral damage’ in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Yemen for decades now – but actually institutionalised. That, finally, is the pity of this needless war.
The sanctions that the Western alliance has imposed on Russian oligarchs – sanctions that I consider inevitable, too – are unlikely to seriously hurt the oligarchs, who already have an estimated 30 per cent of their wealth parked in untraceable off-shore accounts. Putting Russia off SWIFT, etc., which I consider necessary, too, is also not going to hurt them, as, like all billionaires in the world, whether Indian or American or Russian, they know how to operate both within and without official systems. It is the ordinary Russian, transferring money legally for the education of a child or the treatment of a parent, who will be stymied.
Not just ordinary Ukrainians and Russian soldiers killed in the war, Russian citizens are also being hurt, with the Russian ruble weakening by 30 to 40 per cent, so that currently it is weaker than the Indian rupee. Ordinary Russians are rushing for foreign currency and even foreign goods to park their hard-earned rubles in before it dives any further. I have middle-class Russian friends who are deeply worried about family and friends in Russia – just as they are worried about family and friends in Ukraine. After all, Ukraine is not a separate space: many Russians have friends and even family members living there. The devastation being visited upon Ukraine adds to the suffering of ordinary Russians.
Capital Is Not a Sitting Duck
Interestingly, Boris Johnson, trying his best to be Winston Churchill without shaving off his tangle of straw hair or smoking a foul cigar, has warned that the UK assets of Russian oligarchs will not just be frozen but also seized. Now, we know that much of prime real estate in London is driven by investments from Russia. At least some of this is dirty money made at the cost of ordinary Russians by Russian oligarchs who have sustained Putin and been enabled by him.
But it is unlikely that given the workings of the neoliberal global economy, this money will stay embedded in risky assets in the UK or the US: capital is not a sitting duck, at least not the capital of the top one per cent.
The entire global system is constructed in such a way as to enable capital to evade governmental control. This is the reason why someone like Donald Trump can spawn multiple bankruptcies and get richer, why Indian billionaires can abscond with billions and stay safe and affluent.
This is why I say that disdain for ordinary citizens has been institutionalised in the world – on all sides.
Moreover, one part of me also notes that the Russian oligarchs got rich in tandem with Western companies, who made a profit from their Putin connections, too, usually at the cost of ordinary Russians. In a state with about 12% poverty (2020), which is a low official estimate, the top one per cent owns more than 70% of all wealth.
Not only did Western companies selfishly enable such a system in the past, and make a profit, but now, they sanctimoniously withdraw from their Russian collaborators, and then a Western state seizes Russian assets. It seems to be a win-win option for Western liberal democracies, especially because with Putin or someone like him staying in power, this ‘seized’ money will not be diverted towards welfare for ordinary Russians.
Putin Has Forgotten About the Ordinary Russian
Finally, this has been Putin’s biggest mistake, even bigger than his invasion of Ukraine. By invading Ukraine, he burnt all his legitimate arguments against NATO to ashes: Russia was suddenly revealed as a bullying ex-imperial power, behaving – as UK and France did soon after losing their colonies – as if it can still call the shots in the old colonies. The Ukraine war might be for ex-imperial Russia what the Suez crisis was for ex-imperial England: a necessary bloodied nose.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is making it clear to many why other sovereign nations in East Europe have chosen to join NATO and not sought an alliance with Putin’s Russia. Instead of weakening a somnambulant NATO, Putin has revivified it.
But more than that, Putin revealed how, after decades of manipulating the public will in Russia through complicit oligarchs, a captive media and, when required, brute force, he has essentially forgotten about the ordinary Russian. After all, he has not needed the ordinary Russian to stay in power. In this, he is similar to the leaders of the Western liberal democratic alliance: they do not need ordinary Russians to stay in power either, and hence, they do not care. But Putin was the leader of Russia; they lead other nations. He should have cared more for ordinary Russians than for strategic military interests and his own ego.
(Tabish Khair, PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @tabish_khair. This is an opinion article, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)