The causes of war in Ukraine: on dialectical method and the role of global political economy

July 29, 2023

On the day that Russia attacked Ukraine, 24 February 2022, I was with my friend and colleague Tuomas Forsberg (TF) at the gym swimming as we do every now and then. We discussed the war and, above all, whether it could have been avoided and how. Over the years, we have had countless similar conversations. Although we have many joint interests, our theoretical research orientations as well as general political orientations are somewhat different. One of our agreements concerns the relevance of the dialectical method. As we both consider that arguments have to be formed in relation to other, alternative interpretations, we thought that perhaps we could try writing a systematic analysis of the causes of the war following the dialogue format. This resulted in a book Debating the War in Ukraine. Counterfactual Histories and Possible Futures published in December 2022 (available open access). The book is now followed by a special forum of Globalizations, “War in Ukraine: Future Possibilities”, published in July 2023, which includes our “The shape of things to come: a further dialogue” (also available open access). [This blog was originally published at the Progress in Political Economy PPE-website in Sydney and can be directly accessed here.]

The dialectical hope is that contradictory claims in a critical dialogue could be genuinely constructive. As argued by Nicholas Rescher in his brilliant small book Dialectics. A Controversy-Oriented Approach to the Theory of Knowledge, the result of a dialectical exchange does not consist of purely negative or contradictory countermoves; it advances the discussion and shifts the issue onto more sophisticated ground. A dialectical synthesis, which develops and qualifies previous positions, is a good example of the achievement of depth in this qualitative sense. The point of a dialogue and debate is not necessarily to achieve a rational consensus, but – to reiterate – to achieve depth and sophistication, to advance the discussion. At the end of our “further dialogue”, we indeed admit that our dialogue has not ended in a rational consensus, although we have both learned many things during the process. Our dialogues cover all the main arguments about the war in Ukraine.

The shared starting point is that causal explanations must be located in real-time and are thus necessarily historical. Hence, we structure our discussions chronologically in terms of decades from the 1990s to the 2020s and beyond. Through dialogue, we traverse some of the key nodal points of contemporary history and consider future possibilities from a broad world-historical perspective. The chronological approach does not mean that our explanations are linear in any sense or that we

would see history as just “one damn thing after another”. On the contrary, as our first methodological chapter indicates, we discuss social scientific explanations and employ technical terms such as causation, contrastive questions, counterfactuals, and minimal rewriting. This emphasis notwithstanding, the text is largely accessible and meant for a wide enlightened audience.

Hence, we start in the 1990s when several causal elements of the war originate involving Russia’s economic (mal)developments and Europe’s security arrangements. Moving on to the next decade, we focus on the Iraq war, colour revolutions, and NATO’s 2008 announcement that Ukraine and Georgia will become members. Finally, we explore the past decade, including the Ukrainian crisis of 2013–2014, the annexation of Crimea, and the consecutive war in east Ukraine. The current war can also be seen as a continuum of that war. We agree that NATO’s 2008 announcement on Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership was an unnecessary provocation and that the implementation of the Minsk agreement could have prevented the current war, but otherwise, our analysis of counterfactual possibilities differs, especially when it comes to the action possibilities

of the West (including diverse actors). These differences are not just dependent on different readings of relevant evidence but, importantly, stem from dissimilar contrast spaces and divergent theoretical understandings of the nature of states and mechanisms of international relations and political economy. A key debate concerns methodological individualism vs. globalism.

Here, I will look at our dialogue as a whole and apply the dialectical method from a different and slightly more metatheoretical angle. In other words, I distance myself from the dialogue and make a dialectical comment on our conversations. In doing so, I simultaneously apply the freedoms that an “outsider” theoretician can have in such a situation and, ironically, continue the debate from the point of view of an unabashed participant. I adopt the concept of dialectical comment from critical realism and especially from Roy Bhaskar’s dialectic (see this and this for a range of discussions with Jamie Morgan on critical realism and its applications). A dialectical comment can situate a position or problematic more adequately and uncover its presuppositions. Such a comment can also bring into light a general lack or invalidity of a theory or a theory/practice inconsistency. To achieve these, a dialectical comment can also assume a Derridean form (deconstruction, revealing the logic of supplementarity); Foucauldian form (revealing the power/knowledge/doxa connections), or Habermasian form (revealing impediments to learning and communication in terms of a contrast to an ideal speech situation).

There is no one unequivocal characterisation of our positions in the dialogue, but what nonetheless can be said is that TF is leaning towards the mainstream neoliberal Western positions, though in a nuanced manner and stressing that there is plenty of variation in that camp. In contrast, I combine critical political economy and peace research perspectives and Cassandra-like futures scenarios (a modern Cassandra anticipates dire futures while hoping to generate change; on combining critical realism and reflexive futurology, see this). A key question concerns the role of political economy. I tend to understand the developments of post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine and the current war in terms of global political economy dynamics. The contrastive viewpoint is that, for example, the Russian economic maldevelopments and internal chaos of the 1990s were largely self-inflicted. Politics and security are thus separated from political economy processes. In this binary opposition, the economy is in a subordinate position, at least insofar as it comes to explaining war and peace or (the absence or presence of) collective violence. Moreover, whereas in the field of state-security, we can identify quasi-essences, mechanisms, and perhaps even some demi-regularities, in the field of political economy things just happen, either accidentally or due to the inherent capabilities of nation-state-based actors (here states are the individual-persons of the liberal theory). Thus, the economic collapse and rising inequalities in Russia can be represented as being on par with Boris Yeltsin being drunk during his state visits – both had similar humiliating effects.

This kind of argumentation exhibits the Derridean logic of supplementarity. While political economy is in a subordinate position, it can suddenly, in some context, emerge as an explanans of some tendencies in the security field, such as Russia trying to reinforce its status as a first-class great power (which is thought to be tragic as Russia is no longer a match to the super-powerness of the US). In this reading, political economy must have some sort of reciprocal connection with security – and yet its inferiority continues to be indicated by the underlying lack of generative mechanisms and structuring processes. The underlying indeterminacy notwithstanding, there appears to be a vague presupposition that (neo)liberal economic policies work well in general, except when they are implemented only half-heartedly or otherwise inadequately. Presuppositions also include the idea that political practices and institutions are largely independent of political economy processes. Much more likely, it is assumed, political practices and institutions reflect the character of the people or nation, a deep-seated cultural tradition, or the prevalence of the ideology of political liberalism in a given country. Thus for example rising inequalities, at least if they are not excessive, can in no way undermine democracy, despite evidence to the contrary.

Much of the prevailing problematic can be explained in terms of specialisation and separation of expert practices along the lines of different “sectors”. The separateness of the field of security expertise reflects the conceptually constituted separateness of the economy, which is in significant part an outcome of the self-insulation of economics from other social sciences, a process linked to the increasing separation of the sphere of “economy” from the rest of society in the 19th century. Things become more complicated when economics imperialism and the development of game theory are taken into account, for much of contemporary security expertise is economistic. This is not the case in our debate, however, yet it can be argued that also security expertise based on some kind of realist social constructivism is liable to reproducing, even if only inadvertantly and with no explicit commitment to neoliberalism as an ideology, the (neo)liberal world-order problematic that tends to generate global insecurity. This is one of the key topics of our dialogues.

The difficulty lies in seeing wider processes and wholes. The point of my dialectical comment is not just to reverse the hierarchy of the binary opposition between economy and security. Rather, the world history of the past two centuries can be better analysed through the intra- and interactions of three dynamic fields, which include also the field of state-reasoning (see this and this). The dynamic whole – the holomovement – creates bursts of actual geohistorical processes through which its forms and parts are transformed and metamorphosed. Through institutional transformations, the dynamics and direction of the whole can become drastically altered.