February 24, 2022

February 24, 2022

Jacques Sapir is an economist who specializes in Europe, the European Union, and especially in post-USSR Russia. Since the 1990s, he has served as an interpreter of the dramatic changes that have occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union; he has also been a severe critic of the West’s policies against the Russian Federation. An academic, he is also a public intellectual both in his accessible books and articles and in television commentary, notably on RT France (Russia Today, the propaganda outlet for the Russian state, which recently closed up shop in France)[1] and Sputnik radio. He quit RT and Sputnik immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, which he strongly condemned. He is generally seen as a critic of the United States and NATO and, because of the places where he publishes, as politically on the Right, though he also was close, for a time, to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on the Far Left.    

His Le Chaos Russe, published 1996, is an extraordinary study of Russia in the 1990s (he was there from 1992 to 1996), based on first-hand observation as well as his economic and social analysis of the period. He describes the breakdown of order, the privatization of national industries and the rise of a corrupt oligarchy, to which Putin succeeded in 2000.  He was in Moscow during part of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency (1991 to 1999), and he witnessed the push for privatization from the United States, the IMF and the World Bank, imposing on Russia a liberal market economy–and in Europe, “liberal” means “neoliberal.” (When Americans read that Yeltsin was a “liberal reformer,” they understood that to mean “democracy” rather than free market fundamentalism.)  

For Russia (and Ukraine as well) those changes meant strict deregulation, a market economy, an opening up to globalization, and so on–and Sapir believes that the West, in the grip of neoliberal orthodoxy, pushed Russia too far and too fast.  (That includes, of course, Bill Clinton’s and Tony Blair’s “DLC” and “3rd way” approach that had the unfortunate effect at home of creating a crisis of conscience and identity on the Left.)

Russia lacked the legal and bureaucratic structure to control these changes, and Communists started to win a few elections.  One  can see the line that runs through anti-neoliberalism, anti-Americanism, opposition to both NATO and the EU that is shared by the Far Left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise and the National Rally of Marine Le Pen.  Sapir is, like them, also a sovereignist–not a unified movement, but composed of believers in separation, including a “Frexit”, from the  European Union.  

On February 24, 2022, at the beginning of the attack against Ukraine, Jacques Sapir gave his impressions of the war that had started just hours before. He stated, in an article published in Front Populaire, that Russia’s invasion was “unjustified and for that reason inadmissible,” and the explanation put forward, the defense of Donetsk and Luhansk, did not justify the escalation. He did note that most of the 381 civilians who had perished in the two “self-Proclaimed” Republics since 2014 had been victims of Ukrainian aggression; but this was not “genocide,” as Putin had stated, and he had discredited himself by saying it. There were  also documented nationalist Neo-Nazi movements in Ukraine, he noted, but they were a minority, and again, this line of argument discredited Putin. He adopted the right-wing line, shared by some in the US, that Ukraine is, “an oligarchy, strongly corrupt, penetrated by foreign private interests, many from the US.”[2]

Sapir also tried to explain (or explain away) Russia’s action by pointing to the violations of international law by both Washington and NATO.  The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 “constituted a true rupture for the Russian government”; Evgeny Primakov, on his way to Washington, had to turn his plane around.  Sapir attacked the NATO claim of a humanitarian war in Kosovo, which represented a violation of international law.  He also points out, as others have, the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq as “aggression,” and as a destabilizing of the entire region.  Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, went to the UN Security Council and laid out the US case for a “weapons of mass destruction” program, which turned out to be non-existent.  In a very revealing 2016 interview on Frontline, Powell revealed his misgivings and regrets about that moment, and his recognition that he was sent to deliver intelligence that was anything but certain.[3] France refused to join NATO forces in that war, the one thing for which the late President Jacques Chirac has been most praised.  But for many Europeans on both Right and Left, this invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and the resulting migration crisis across the Mediterranean, all had a profound effect on Europe and on their own stability.

But Sapir went beyond that to argue that in fact the United States and NATO were to blame for the February 24 attack.  He implied, for example, that the United States had brushed off Putin’s outreach for a new pact in January 2021.  One could say that January 2021 was not really a convenient time for the new President Biden, but neither the White House readout of the call, nor the agreement to extend the START treaty a few weeks later, suggests a brushoff.[4]

Finally Sapir cites the meeting of March 6, 1991, when the foreign ministers of the US, Great Britain, France, and West Germany met to discuss the security concerns of Poland and other states of Eastern Europe.  The most important decision to come out of this meeting, he said, was that the expansion of NATO into the East was “unacceptable”; but there has, in fact, been a great deal of controversy around this issue and what was, or was not, promised.  It should also be noted that the Russian attacks on Moldova, Georgia, Chechnya (twice), all in the 1990s, may well have negated any such “understanding”; and the accession of the former Soviet bloc into the EU and then Nato did not really begin until 2004.

On February 28, 2022, just a few days later, Sapir published a second editorial in the journal Marianne.[5]  In this issue he spoke about the urgent need to end the war quickly, since there was no doubt that Russia would be successful.  He suggested three answers, in these very early days, to the question of what Russia was trying to achieve.  The least likely, he thought, was a military occupation of all of Ukraine and annexation, in a reconstruction of the USSR–”extremely improbable,” he believed.  Or, Putin might wish to impose a friendly government in Kiev–but such a government, especially since the invasion, would lack support and would engage Russia in a constant peacekeeping operation to prop up an unpopular imposed regime.  Or–and this was the solution he favored–Russia should withdraw, allowing for an “independent and neutral”–and smaller–Ukraine.

Before negotiations for this outcome could even begin, Russia would have to recognize the government of Volodymyr Zelensky  as the only legitimate negotiating partner.  Then would come the end of hostilities and a retreat of Russian troops out of Ukraine, “with the exception of the two republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.”  France and Germany could act as guarantors (as they did in Minsk II).  Russia would withdraw its troops, and the government of Kiev would promise not to attack these two “republics” and to enter into immediate negotiations with them over the many border issues that would remain.  Then NATO and the EU would step in to define an independent and neutral Ukraine, also taking into account “the legitimate Russian security concerns,” which would be additionally guaranteed by a disarming of Ukraine’s existing offensive weapons and a strict limit on planes, tanks, and other military equipment, thus reassuring Russia that Ukraine could not become a “platform” for attacks by others; and indeed, Russia’s security concerns would also require some limitations of the nature of armaments deployed in NATO nations.  In return, Russia would guarantee to respect the sovereignty and “democratic choices” of its neighbors.

A non-starter, as Sapir must have realized, because this solution required little of Russia, the attacker, beyond promises, and a great deal not only of Ukraine but also of NATO nations as well.

On April 7, 2022, Sapir sat down for an interview with the financial newspaper La Tribune.  This interview occurred after the discoveries of the war crimes in Bucha, and with the decision to impose new sanctions on Russia by the EU, the US, the UK, and Canada.  Sapir noted that the oil sanctions were not working as the Europeans had assumed.  India, which had been buying crude oil from Saudi Arabia at about 100 dollars a barrel, were now paying between 75 and 80 dollars a barrel for Russian oil; Russia’s exportations had been expected to fall by 30%, but it had fallen by 20% or less.  Sapir suggested that India’s actions were not a reflection of “short term thinking,” but rather reflected a long term strategy already underway in regard to military contracts and the exchange of technologies with Russia. Sapir suggested that the turn toward Asia was already visible in Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Conference (in the YouTube video, one can see John McCain, in the front row, staring intently at him).

Sapir noted that Putin had hoped to reduce his dependence on Europe in particular and the West in general; this idea had only been reinforced by his seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the first set of sanctions, which had led to the construction of the first gas pipeline between Russia and China. The Achilles’ heel of Europe was Germany’s extensive dependence on Russian oil. Asked why the Germans had put themselves in such a position, Sapir provided one of several such reevaluations of Merkel: “The German economic and political elites don’t reason in the long term.  Permeated by neoliberalism (sic), they make short term calculations.  It is also necessary to underline the role of political arbitrages–or rather opportunism–on the part of Chancellor Merkel.  The stopping of nuclear power plants was, after Fukushima, a folly.  The Germans have revealed themselves incapable of planning to even the smallest degree certain sectors of their economy.  Changing the energy mix of a country can take 10 or 15 years!”[6]

In September, 2022, when Putin announced a general mobilization of the male population, Sapir on September 24 tweeted about the students he had taught in Russia in 2008 and 2010, who had  somehow gotten in contact with him: “2 are leaving as reservists; 1 as a volunteer.  Their messages are not ‘enthusiastic’ but are testimony to a cold determination and a full acceptance of the risks.”  Following up, he noted that they are “not ‘nationalists’ but determined to not relive the 1990s.”[7]

In response to some tweets from readers, he added the following explanations: “They tell me that this has become a war of Nato against Russia, and that if they lose, there will be a great risk of a return to the Yeltsin regime [ie, the 1990s], which they don’t want, under any pretext.”  And to another commenter, “Yes, it’s the general attitude.  In fact, people who were anti-war at the end of February have changed, and are now, because of sanctions, very anti-Western.”  One of the responses in agreement with Sapir (an individual who described himself as in favor of Frexit) further added a remark in support: “The risk not only of becoming once again an American colony, but also being dismembered by the forces of the EU and Germany . . . (sic) does not displease certain pro-Ukrainians like Darius Rochebin and GabRobin31 [two television commentators], the Russians sign up to defend their fatherland against the possibility of disappearing.  It’s patriotism.”[8]

Sapir went to Moscow from 20-27 November 2022 to attend a meeting of the Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Economic Forecasts (he flew by way of Turkey), and returned with a column of “Things Seen” (Choses vues)–not obviously a scientific observation, as he noted.  He had been able to speak to about 50 economists as well as 100 or so students and his former students, as well as journalists and former government officials.  He noted that “the war is not visible,” that Moscow seemed normal, except for signs (one every half kilometer, he estimated), in memory of the soldiers who had died “against fascism” in Ukraine; consumer goods, including luxury cars, seemed plentiful.  “The sentiment of the colleagues [economists] ranges from resignation to the war to a reasoned patriotism.  Certain of them do not hesitate to criticize the decision to begin the war and said that to me without hiding it.   But practically all of them support it and say that Russia will go “to the end’ (jusqu’au bout).”  What did the “end” look like?  Those willing to set such goals (instead of leaving it to the government) said they wanted all of the Ukrainian coastline, thus Nikolaev and Odessa.  They all believed that “the seizure of the four oblasts (Luhansk, Donetsk, Zporizhe, Kherson) was a settled fact.  None were willing to go back to the position of 24 February.  His colleagues, between 40 to 70 years old, had  different ideas from the students, 25-35, who were more “patriotic” than their elders, and some of whom wished they had been called up, or who were planning to sign up voluntarily.  All saw it as a war between Russia and NATO rather than Russia and Ukraine.  The students, he said, openly criticized the government and Putin because of how badly the war had been waged; they felt “humiliated.”  All supported the nomination of Sergey Surovikin, “General Armaggedon,” to the command of the Ukraine invasion force, in large part because of his reputation for ruthlessness.  Surovikin, introduced with much fanfare, was removed in January, 2023. [9]

He noted that his colleagues believed that commerce would eventually resume with Europe, but on a reduced basis: “They know that something is broken between Russia and Europe.  They regret it but they consider that it is essentially our fault.” He concluded, ruefully, that “If the Russians are often very badly informed about the French situation, it is dramatically clear that the French are also about the Russian situation.  The propaganda of the two sides, ours like that of Russia, are neither better than the other; and [the propaganda] is in the process of digging a trench between our two countries.” [10]

But no. The problem is not a misunderstanding, whether now or in 1991.  The problem is the brutal invasion that began on February 24, 2022, and that continues today.


Header Image: Shutterstock.com.

[1] The French government froze their accounts. Laura Kayali, “RT France to shut down after accounts frozen,” Politico, January 21, 2023. 

[2] Jacques Sapir, “Guerre en Ukraine: l’analyse de Jacques Sapir,” Front Populaire, February 24, 2022.   https://frontpopulaire.fr/o/Content/co782664/guerre-en-ukraine-l-analyse-de-jacques-sapir

[3] Sapir, “Guerre en Ukraine’; Jason M. Breslow, “Colin Powell: U.N. Speech ‘Was a Great Intelligence Failure,” Frontline, May 17, 2016.  https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/colin-powell-u-n-speech-was-a-great-intelligence-failure/

[4] Sapir, “Guerre en Ukraine”; White House call readout, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/26/readout-of-president-joseph-r-biden-jr-call-with-president-vladimir-putin-of-russia/; David E. Sanger and Anton Troianovski, “Biden and Putin agree to Extend Nuclear Treaty,” The New York Times, January 26, 2021, updated March 18, 2021.

[5] Jacques Sapir, “Pour sortir de la guerre, il faut une Ukraine indépendante et neutre,” Marianne, February 28, 2022.  https://www.marianne.net/agora/tribunes-libres/jacques-sapir-pour-sortir-de-la-guerre-il-faut-une-ukraine-independante-et-neutre

[6] Maxime Hanssen and Robert Jules, “Pour la Russie se tourner vers l’Asie est devenu primordial pour sa liberté de manoeuvre,” Interview with Jacques Sapir, La Tribune, April 7, 2022.  https://docs.google.com/document/d/15HPI8jPHkI6amJqavpdEIVdtn42L_PJLAGP5wSephmc/edit

[7] https://twitter.com/russeurope/status/1573700845065093123?s=20&t=CaBSr2UT2VakVlMkkWx9_g; and https://twitter.com/russeurope/status/1573701320107823105?s=20&t=CaBSr2UT2VakVlMkkWx9_g


https://twitter.com/russeurope/status/1573704187111694336?s=20&t=CaBSr2UT2VakVlMkkWx9_g; https://twitter.com/russeurope/status/1573706337623629826?s=20&t=CaBSr2UT2VakVlMkkWx9_g

[9] Will Vernon, Laura Gozzi, “Ukraine war: Sergei Surovikin removed as commander of Ukraine invasion force,” BBC News, January 11, 2023.

[10] Jacques Sapir, “Ce que j’ai vu à Moscow,” Front populaire, December 10, 2022.  https://frontpopulaire.fr/international/contents/jacques-sapir-ce-que-jai-vu-a-moscou_tco_17612597

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