By ANDREY MAKARYCHEV
Russia’s war on Ukraine remains a battlefield for different interpretations of basic categories of international politics. Paradoxically, more than a year-and-a-half after the full-scale invasion some scholars, policy experts and think tankers in the West continue to call it “Ukraine war” (as if something is inherently wrong with this country), “the war in Ukraine” (as if geography of the victim is more important than the agency of the perpetrator), “the crisis in Ukraine” (as if something terrible happened in this country domestically), or “the Russian – Ukrainian conflict” (as if both parties bear equal or comparable responsibility for its eruption). This type of language seems to be resembling Russia’s persistent reluctance to name things as they are by using such evasive lexemes as “special military operation” (the Kremlin’s language) or “events in Ukraine” (this is how many ordinary Russians would prefer to refer to the war their country is waging against its sovereign neighbour that wished not to be part of the “Russian world” any longer).
Language matters, since it is through the politics of naming that we construct the reality. In a previous co-authored article, we identified a bunch of Western narratives whose intention is to normalize and rationalize Russia’s aggression (Makarychev and Nizhnikau 2023). By the same token, the war can also be routinized and politically neutralized. The attempts to depoliticize the military intervention may start with using uncertain language that equates the invader with its victims, and then transform in a variety of practices that many of us witnessed in both academic and policy milieus. Many of my Ukrainian colleagues complained that some of their European peers refrain from using a straight language when referring to the war, because they are hesitant to make Russian participants of discussions feel uncomfortable. In other cases, European hosts insisted that personal assessments and emotions are inappropriate in the scholarly debate, thus forgetting about importance of positionality as a key characteristic of the social production of knowledge. I personally attended events – for example, organized by the European Leadership Network – whose philosophy was to integrate Russian scholars into the extant networks and consider their views about what they call “events in Ukraine” as seriously as all other viewpoints.
These strategies might undoubtedly have their merits and rationale (“a bad peace is better than a good war”), yet they also have a price – namely, the blurring – even if unintentionally – of lines between the invading and the invaded countries. Paradoxically, this discourse of illusory reconciliation might have its supporters and sympathizers both among those who valorise geopolitics and Realpolitik over norms, values and ethics, and those who come from the traditions of peace research with the ensuing mediation techniques – a type of Habermasian communicative power – between the parties at war. Ultimately, war is neutralized and routinized, and on behalf of the loosely defined “peace” compromises with – and concessions to – the militarily intervening party are discursively legitimized. What matters at the end of the day is not international law, but “flexibility” of negotiations and political bargaining.
This neutralized and routinized discourse might be convenient, since it allows its producers mechanically and uncritically extrapolating Western concepts onto the Russian politics. As a result of this simplistic projection, the “Russian world” might be portrayed not as a justification for war against Ukraine, but as a Russian version of soft power; Russian journalists might be misperceived as representatives of media community rather than as parts of the Kremlin propaganda machine; and public opinion within Russia might be taken as a serious factor capable of changing Putin’s policies, even in the absence of empirical proves for this assumption.
In a collection of short essays recently published by the Journal of Regional Security (Makarychev et al. 2023) an international group of authors from different countries and with different backgrounds had tackled a plethora of diverse issues stemming from the proliferation of academic discourses that start from understanding and explaining Russia’s foreign policy, and then transform into de-facto justifications for Russian discourses. The narratives promoted by neutralizers and routinizers are not limited to the academic milieu – they often spill over into the policy making domain, and under certain scenarios might become leading voices in some governments. This is why it is so important to keep looking at Russia’s war in Ukraine from an explicitly political perspective that clearly differentiates between the perpetrator and the victims, and politically qualifies attempts to find solutions for the war beyond the international law and principles of justice as appeasement of aggressor.
Makarychev Andrey, Yulia Kurnyshova, Stefano Braghiroli, Aliaksei Kazharski, Sanshiro Hosaka Sanshiro, Radityo Dharmaputra, Clarissa Tabosa. 2023. “Forum: Putin’s Understanders, Russia’s Normalizers: Discursive Palettes Beyond the East–West Divide.” Journal of Regional Security 18 (1): 5–8, DOI: 10.5937/jrs18-43878.
Makarychev, Andrey, and Ryhor Nizhnikau. 2023, online first. „Normalize and rationalize: Intellectuals of statecraft and Russia’s war in Ukraine.“ Journal of International Relations and Development, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-023-00299-x.
Andrey Makarychev is Professor of Regional Political Studies at the University of Tartu Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies. He teaches courses on “Globalization”, “Political Systems in post-Soviet Space”, “EU-Russia Relations”, “Regional Integration in post-Soviet Space”, “Visual Politics”, and “The Essentials of Biopolitics”. He is the author of Popular Biopolitics and Populism at Europe’s Eastern Margins (Brill, 2022), and co-authored three monographs: Celebrating Borderlands in a Wider Europe: Nations and Identities in Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia (Nomos, 2016), Lotman’s Cultural Semiotics and the Political (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), and Critical Biopolitics of the Post-Soviet: from Populations to Nations (Lexington Books, 2020). He co-edited a number of academic volumes: Mega Events in post-Soviet Eurasia: Shifting Borderlines of Inclusion and Exclusion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Vocabularies of International Relations after the Crisis in Ukraine (Routledge, 2017); Borders in the Baltic Sea Region: Suturing the Ruptures (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). His articles have been published in such academic journals as Geopolitics, Problems of Post-Communism, East European Politics and Societies, European Urban and Regional Studies, among others.
You can also read: a special forum on “Putin’s understanders, Russia’s normalizers: Discursive palettes beyond the East-West divide”, edited by Andrey Makarychev, with contributions by Andrey Makarychev, Yulia Kurnyshova, Stefano Braghiroli, Aliaksei Kazharski, Sanshiro Hosaka, Radityo Dharmaputra, and Clarissa Tabosa (in Journal of Regional Security 18 (1): 5–76).
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