by Artyom Lukin
In recent weeks there has been much speculation in western capitals that the Russian invasion of Ukraine (apparently eagerly awaited, or at least strongly predicted) will lead to “guerrilla warfare” using US-made weapons. And so he could plunge President Vladimir Putin into a late-stage Soviet Afghanistan campaign-style quagmire.
But should such apocalyptic events ever occur, an anti-Russian uprising seems unlikely for a number of reasons. The most important reason is that in this modern age, fewer and fewer people are generally willing to take up arms.
End of the Hero Age
A year ago I wrote an article, in which I argued that people in modern post-industrial societies increasingly shy away from violence – be it in the USA, in Russia or in Ukraine. While some may play bold and aggressive in some kind of virtual reality, nearly all become surprisingly meek when it comes to real-life exchanges of kinetic energy in the form of valiant violence. One reason for this reluctance is demographics: young, hormone-driven men, easily inflamed by political or religious ideologies, have always been the main driving force behind wars, revolutions and uprisings. However, due to the aging of society, there are fewer and fewer young people in the developed, industrialized countries. And just like the rest of Europe, Ukraine is getting older: middle age, let’s take that Median, is 41 years there.
Recent events in Belarus, Hong Kong, Russia and the United States, where security forces have been able to quickly disperse or quell political protests, have shown that even the relatively few young men left in these countries are unwilling to risk their personal safety when faced with brute force. The police violence with which the government of Alexander Lukashenko acted against the demonstrators in the streets of Minsk was not even particularly brutal by historical standards, let alone bloody. But even this moderate repression was enough to calm down the Belarusian townspeople. And if the young men there were not willing to fight Lukashenko to the end, why expect their neighbors in Ukraine to wage a life-and-death fight against Putin?
Completely naïve is the hope dreamed of by many in the West that Ukraine will become “another Afghanistan or Chechnya” for Russia. Ukraine is not Afghanistan if only because modern Ukrainians, unlike Pashtuns or Chechens, do not belong to such a warrior society. And even recalcitrant Chechnya was successfully pacified by Moscow two decades ago. Ironically, the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, even recently asked his supreme superior Putin for permission to annex Kiev for the Kremlin.
The last major military conflict in Europe was the war in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Back then, NATO, with clearly superior military might, quickly defeated the Serbs and then imposed its will on Belgrade. And despite all Serbian nationalism, there was no Serbian uprising in the Balkans afterwards. It is noteworthy that the Serbs resemble the Ukrainians in many social and cultural aspects. And I wonder if the Russian military planners might have studied NATO’s experience in the Balkans, possibly applying it to Ukraine.
Another vivid recent example in Europe is Catalonia, where all it took for Madrid to use a relatively restrained level of policing in the streets and jail a few Catalan leaders was to defeat the separatist movement in Spain’s wealthiest region. While the Catalans may aspire to their own sovereign state, they are not remotely willing to make the painful sacrifices that a genuine struggle for independence would demand.
Guerrilla warfare and uprisings require heroes – people willing to risk their own lives for a cause. So an entire nation must be willing to pay the literal bloody toll. But the heroic age in Europe is finally and irretrievably over. The situation is the same in other developed, postmodern societies with low birth rates – whether they are in North America or in East Asia.
And unlike the Afghan mujahideen or the Houthis in Yemen, today’s Ukrainians are already part of the postmodern world. Ukraine surrendered within a few months in the civil war in Donbass in 2014/15. And this defeat was not only due to the inferiority of the Ukrainian army. It was also about accepting human losses: it turned out that even a few thousand dead were unbearable for Ukrainian society.
Is an uprising even possible in our digitized world?
Another factor also reduces the risk of an uprising: the degree of digitization of modern life. One of the first moves by Russian forces, once in Ukraine, would likely be to seize control of all cellphone networks and internet providers. And once you have the digital infrastructure under control, you basically also have the people of modern society under control. Should extraterrestrials ever plan to invade a post-industrial country on Earth, they might just need to take over the telecommunications and electronic networks.
A riot in virtual reality might look doable in the movie The Matrix. However, it is much more difficult to organize a large-scale resistance movement in a real post-industrial environment – where every individual is completely dependent on cell phones and Internet access, while at the same time nearly every square meter is covered by surveillance cameras. Just ask the Chinese (or the Americans) how easy it is to protest against their government in a highly connected and monitored society. The Russian government is not far behind when it comes to sophisticated electronic technology for controlling people. And besides, the Chinese could help out where the Russians are still behind.
A country mired in apathy
In a recent poll in Ukraine, around 24 percent of respondents said they would defend themselves against a Russian occupation “with guns in their hands.” With a current total of around 30 million residents this meansevident that quite a few million civilians would fight as combatants against the Russian armed forces. But how credible is that? In such surveys, the respondents tend to give more socially acceptable answers – and in an emergency, defending one’s own country is befitting of everyone. However, the reports from the Ukrainian district military offices speak a different language: Not even in view of the “Russian threat” are the Ukrainian young guys keen to do their duty to their country in compulsory military service. Significantly, they are even less enthusiastic about serving on the “front” in the east of their own country.
Ukrainian society is not being shaken up and mobilized by the Russian threat, but appears largely apathetic. It seems like many Ukrainians just don’t care anymore. Of course, this apathy can be partially explained by the impact of COVID-19 – Ukraine is a society also fatigued and weakened by the pandemic. In this respect, it does not differ much from neighboring Russia and most other European countries. But a more important factor may be the disillusionment and disappointment of many Ukrainians with their country’s policies and leaders. The euphoria of the Maidan era is long gone.
If Putin (and this is a really big question) did invade Ukraine, only a tiny fraction of the population in eastern and southern Ukraine — in the areas with a high proportion of Russian speakers — would actually be willing to actively resist Russian speakers to provide armed forces. And they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Russian army and special forces anyway. Emigration rather than armed resistance would be on the agenda for those who refuse to accept the new reality. A few hundred thousand could then leave the parts of Ukraine now controlled by Russia. The absolute majority of Ukrainians in the Russian-inhabited areas, on the other hand, would remain indifferent and do nothing to defend the cause of Ukrainian nationalist “democracy”. And there will also be quite a few who, on the contrary, would enthusiastically cooperate with the authorities then set up by Russia.
In western Ukraine, on the other hand, where many are far more nationalistic and anti-Russian, things could be very different. But it is unlikely that Russia will invade western Ukraine.
There may well be people sitting in their comfortable offices in Washington, London and Warsaw, dreaming blood-soaked dreams of fighting Russia – gladly going down to the very last Ukrainian. However, those dreams are unlikely to ever come true. Because a military operation on a broad front in Ukraine harbors many serious risks for Moscow – alone, guerrilla warfare and uprisings are not among them.
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more on the subject – Events in Kazakhstan show that US influence is waning
Translated from the English.
Artyom Lukin is a lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations at the Russian Far East Federal State University. Follow him on Twitter @ArtyomLukin