Commentary. In short, we find ourselves in a war context which is, simultaneously, the result, mirror and radiating influence of multiple previous wars and temporal contexts.

History, identity and territorial power clash in the Ukrainian meat grinder

“Today, in Bakhmut, we fight building by building, stair by stair, cellar by cellar” (il manifesto, February 9). In Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, about the Battle of Stalingrad, we read about the “fortress house” at number 6/I where Grekov, the “house manager,” leads a heroic resistance against the Nazis. Can we look at Bakhmut as a scaled-down Stalingrad?

In the Battle of Stalingrad, the Ukrainians of the Red Army played a very significant role. The division commanders Batyuk, Denisenko and the front commander Eremenko were Ukrainians, just like hundreds of senior and lower-level officers and thousands of soldiers. An entire division made up of Donbass miners operated on the Donets, and its remnants converged on Stalingrad. They were soldiers who “called each other cowards with typical Ukrainian humor, eating lard, honey, garlic, tomatoes” (Grossman, A Writer at War).

In Bakhmut, on the other hand, the descendants of Grekov and Batyuk are shooting at each other in a horrendous war whose foundations were laid as early as the 1990s, when the issue of instilling nationalism in the masses became a key element in the legitimization of the business oligarchies that came to rule the former Soviet republics.

For Ukraine, a “borderland” of complex and varied ethnic and linguistic composition, the construction of the “nation” involved, and involves, the extensive use of the invention of tradition. The governing oligarchies of the new state needed to legitimize themselves through the construction of Ukrainianness, understood as a natural and ahistorical given. The forced reduction of that heterogeneity to unity inevitably implied forms of conflict.

In this context, Putin’s decision to try to cut such an entangled knot with the sword of invasion could only have tragic, catastrophic outcomes. Regardless of how the war turns out, for decades, Grekov and Batjuk will remain divided by a river of blood (instead of the supposed “natural” border of the Dnieper).

This conflict, however, is one in which nationalist dynamics, while important, are only one component of the violent confrontation between the different plans of the (war)lords of the earth for a new “spatial adjustment” after the end of the USSR.

There is a fundamental relationship between territorial power structures and the goals of controlling value chains and accumulation, which are leading to models of capitalism that can rely on a powerful state-military foundation competing in an other-than-peaceful manner. The “spatial adjustment,” the “spatial fix” analyzed by Harvey, is the inevitable product of a conflict between those who want to remain “the first” and those who want to participate in a non-subordinate manner in the profits guaranteed by participation in the fluidity of continuous change in total capital.

The Ukrainian front, the meat grinder over “a strip of land,” is just one of “other fronts in the future, such as China, the Indo-Pacific (…), the one we will have to fight in Africa (…), where China is silently taking over more and more parts of the real economy and the resources.” With these words, the Italian war minister explicitly confirmed this model (perhaps naively?) with unaccustomed clarity (Minister Crosetto in La Repubblica, January 9).

In short, we find ourselves in a war context which is, simultaneously, the result, mirror and radiating influence of multiple previous wars and temporal contexts. Among the different temporal contexts, I believe we should reflect in particular on the one that appears to be furthest removed: international relations in the imperialist phase that ended in August 1914. The logic that emerges from Crosetto’s statements, as well as from numerous statements by influential figures on the “Western” front, bear striking similarities with those of the “sleepwalkers” who dragged Europe and the world into the catastrophe of the “Great War.”

Then, of course, there is the propaganda rhetoric about the clash of civilizations, another element present then as now. Some have even interpreted the current war as a “philosophy-laden clash” in which “no mediation is possible”: a clash between “Western power,” Western philosophy as the philosophy of freedom, and “Eastern power,” Eastern philosophy as the philosophy of despotism (Biagio de Giovanni, Corriere della Sera, Feb. 7). Here we have an example of someone who, bypassing the concrete and specific analysis of the object under discussion, through miserly use of philosophical abstraction, ends up identifying NATO with the “world spirit on horseback” that Hegel, awestruck, had seen in Napoleon.

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