Russia vs. Ukraine: A Subaltern Empire Against the “Populism of Hope”



postcolonialism, catching-up imperialism, populism of hope, recognition games, normative order, Ukraine, Russia


This article discusses the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine from a postcolonial perspective. It argues that the structure of coloniality in the region is tripartite: besides Russia and Ukraine, the “West” is present as the main significant Other for both sides. With regard to the West, Russia is a “subaltern empire” and Ukraine is a “double subaltern,” peripheral to more than one center of power. Within this complex of imperiality and subalternity, Russia is engaging in a “catching-up imperialism” driven by resentment against the West. Russia has subsumed neighboring states, or parts of them, in brutal violation of the existing international order. Its leaders claim it is only mimicking the hegemon’s (i.e. the West’s) imperialist modus operandi. This geostrategic pattern is captured by
Erik Ringmar’s notion of “recognition games.” Fighting in those “deadly games,” Zelensky’s Ukraine is breaking out of its place as a mute subaltern. The rhetorical aspect of Ukraine’s response to Russian aggression can be called a horizontal “populism of hope.” Ukraine has attained global visibility and recognition in the Northern hemisphere as a beacon of grassroots democracy, resilience and
freedom. Russia, however, has rebranded itself as the spearhead of a global fight against Western hegemony. The outcome of this military and discursive standoff will largely define a future normative international order displaying new hierarchies of symbolic power.

DOI: 10.14712/23363231.2023.3