A Hunger Within the US Left for “Action” on Ukraine Is Driving Us Astray

People rally to support the Ukrainian people and Ukraine's sovereignty and stop the war that Russia is waging against them in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 6, 2022.
Outrage among progressives is too often being funneled into unreasonable actionism — an “act first, ask questions later” approach to foreign policy. Here a protester in St. Paul, Minnesota, promotes a no-fly zone at a rally on March 6, 2022.

BYAaron JaffeZachary Levenson & Vanessa WillsTruthout

Refugees from around the world walk forward, ashes fall in the background, the Earth in various positions rotates behind them

PART OF THE SERIES

Russia’s War on Ukraine in an Age of Escalating Imperial Tensions

As the global news media continue to document the Russian military’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Ukraine, many in the U.S. have been voicing support for action. Even those with the best of intentions want to “do something” and do it immediately.

But we want to suggest that this can lead to a disastrous and self-defeating strategy. “Doing something” has tended to mean demanding increased action from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to protect Ukraine, which, we insist, will only reproduce the conditions that helped produce the current conflict in the first place.

To be clear, this is no defense of Russia, and the primary responsibility for this war lies with that country. But just as we don’t side with Russia because we’re critical of NATO’s imperialist motives in the region, we also don’t align ourselves with NATO just because we condemn Russian aggression.

This may seem obvious, but unfortunately it isn’t the standard position in the U.S. Rather, Russia and NATO tend to be pitted against each other as if they were antitheses forcing a choice. Even though neither shines with the moral force of transparent perfection, the argument often goes, their mutual opposition forces us to side with a lesser evil.

But we want to be clear: This reductive calculus is a dangerous way of thinking.

Both NATO and Russian President Vladimir Putin are primarily motivated by a desire to extend their geopolitical sphere of influence, which is just a fancy way of saying that in addition to strategic outposts and security guarantees, both want privileged access to Ukrainian resources. NATO moved further eastward after the dissolution of the Soviet Union despite assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev to the contrary. To be clear, this was not out of any Western benevolence, but because doing so extended U.S. and European economic access. For states that had been under Soviet sway, becoming a part of NATO meant increasing integration into the dominant European economies.

NATO is a crucial part of the U.S. strategy of economic domination — a domination that we on the left must oppose on principle. As anti-capitalists, we mustn’t accept the enrichment of a handful of oligarchs via the increasing immiseration of the majority. This principled anti-capitalism should likewise inform our rejection of Putin. His invasion of Ukraine is far from motivated by humanitarian concerns. Like U.S. and Western European capital, Russian capital is also driven by access to Ukraine’s minerals, rich earth, pipeline infrastructure, waterways and strategic ports. This economic interest is, of course, covered with a thin veneer of justification — from a chauvinist restoration of Russian imperial culture to Putin’s hollow claim to be leading a campaign of denazification — but here too we find that the two have quite a bit in common.

We must reject the idea that NATO represents a morally superior way of life and condemn the burgeoning Russophobia that blames all Russians for a war that so many of them oppose. Yet we must equally condemn Putin’s dangerous Russian chauvinism, as it denies Ukraine’s independence and the right of an oppressed people to self-determination.Even as Putin claims “denazification” as his goal, the Russian invasion has the effect of emboldening and legitimizing the far right in both Ukraine and Russia.

While Russian capital is obviously comparatively weaker than its larger NATO counterparts, Putin’s hot war was neither necessary nor liberatory, and the refugee crisis, loss of life, and mass trauma it has caused are abominable. Meanwhile, NATO’s “colder” violence of economic compulsion stems from the bloc’s economic superiority, which it uses to force the sacrifice of Eastern European social services on the altar of capital in ways that destabilize, dehumanize and atomize. Unfortunately, NATO’s neoliberal onslaught has been invoked by some on the left, tragically, as grounds for declaring Putin a “lesser evil.”

Putin and the Growth of the Far Right

Many of those on the U.S. left who present Putin as a “lesser evil” have been quick to accept his attempts to justify the war through narratives about a need to “de-nazify” the country. But Putin’s rhetoric is cynical and misleading. He has himself continued to work with far right actors, both in Russia and abroad, many of them sympathetic to the so-called “alt-right” in the U.S.

And the revival of neo-Nazism in Ukraine was largely a response to the Russian seizure of Crimea. The notion that extending force in ways that already fanned the fascist flames would now somehow extinguish them is illogical, to put it mildly.

On the other side, in responding to this messaging from Putin and his supporters, U.S. and European corporate media have also misled readers by dramatically downplaying the existence of the far right and its power in Ukraine. For example, they have obscured the role of far right, openly neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine such as the Azov Battalion. It is true that the far right did not meet the necessary electoral threshold to win any parliamentary seats. However, the Azov Battalion has been absorbed into Ukraine’s regular military forces since the 2014 Maidan upheaval. Stepan Bandera, a noted antisemite, fascist and Hitler collaborator, is openly represented as a hero of Ukrainian nationalism. He was later imprisoned by the Nazi regime because the interests of far right Ukrainian nationalism came into conflict with those of German nationalism at the time.

A more accurate view of the situation of the far right in Ukraine would acknowledge that the Ukrainian resistance does indeed contain reprehensible elements, and that it shouldn’t be uncritically celebrated or reduced to a monolith. But the bulk of the resistance is worth valorizing, and it is equally misguided to reduce the entire thing to its neo-Nazi fringe elements. And this is to say nothing of these far right elements among Russian separatists.

A more accurate view would also acknowledge how, even as Putin claims “denazification” as his goal, the Russian invasion has the effect of emboldening and legitimizing the far right in both Ukraine and Russia. Antiwar protesters in Russia are being silenced and persecuted. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the ban of 11 left and left-liberal political parties. This is in addition to the ban on far left parties after Maidan. One of these parties, the Opposition Platform for Life, has 44 democratically elected seats in Ukraine’s 450-seat parliament. Further, the Ukrainian film director Sergei Loznitsa was recently expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for being an unpatriotic “cosmopolite” who spoke out in solidarity with antiwar protesters in Russia.

Internationally, far right extremists flock to Ukraine in order to gain training opportunities and bragging rights. The war has become a breeding ground for international fascism.

This means that international observers should be skeptical of the popular representation of the war as a simple case of good versus evil. Yes, we unconditionally condemn the Russian invasion and wish a speedy victory to Ukrainian struggles for self-determination. But this shouldn’t lead us to celebrate Zelenskyy as a friend of this cause, let alone side with NATO’s imperialist motives.

Back in the U.S. and Europe, instead of examining the historical and political roots of the conflict, facile Russophobia has become the order of the day. An Italian university banned Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, only backtracking under pressure. In the U.S., the University of Florida removed Karl Marx’s name from a campus study room, “given current events in Ukraine.” And the Boston Marathon banned all Russian and Belarusian runners from participating this year, conflating private citizens with the actions of their respective governments.

Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we see a far right emboldened internationally — including in Russia, where a chauvinistic attitude is enforced through the near ubiquity of state media and propaganda. Left-wing peace activists are being marginalized internationally, including in Russia and Ukraine. Abroad, the corporate media are engaged in mass denial and obfuscation on the reality of fascist and far right tendencies. Instead, calls for a no-fly zone, a move that would draw more of the world’s most powerful nations into open conflict and thereby bring us uncomfortably closer to World War III, grow louder and louder. It is potentially suicidal.

Meanwhile, the international left is weak and disoriented. Lacking its own momentum and capacity for political leadership, many are reduced to simply picking a side among capitalist governments and institutions hell-bent on war or whose demands increase its likelihood, whether that is Russia, the U.S./NATO, or Ukraine.

These are conditions that the far right — not just in Ukraine and Russia, but globally — is well-positioned to exploit.

What Then Is to Be Done?

The antiwar movement in the U.S. scarcely exists, and the organized left is focused excessively on domestic politics. In moments like these, without any collective vehicle to articulate dissent, let alone solidarity, two tendencies arise. On the one hand, solidarity becomes a markedly individualized affair, reduced to nothing more than displaying the colors of the Ukrainian flag or making individual contributions to charity drives.

On the other hand, feeling themselves to be toothless, those engaged in individualized politics often seek out institutional actors. Unfortunately, in this case, doing so takes the form of supporting state action, with avowed progressives such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez calling for sanctions and giving tacit support to U.S. military intervention in Ukraine, under certain circumstances. Instead of looking to left-wing Ukrainian militants and Russian antiwar protesters, or developing meaningful channels of solidarity, the focus is on addressing one’s own government, which typically takes the form of tried-and-true liberal demands.The task of the left is not to choose sides amid inter-imperialist rivalry, but to … build a mass internationalist, anti-imperialist, antiwar movement capable of intervening on the side of peace.

Once proposed, sanctions seem legitimate enough: Who could possibly be against sanctions targeting Kremlin officials or Putin-aligned oligarchs? We could. The “surgical” imagery tied to these sanctions is largely propaganda, cover for much broader, indiscriminate sanctions. In practice, these sanctions have the effect of tanking the ruble, which adversely affects working-class Russians rather than some imagined Russian oligarchs close to turning on Putin.

Second, countless members of the American commentariat, from members of Congress to self-proclaimed Ukraine experts, are following Zelenskyy in calling for a no-fly zone. In this formulation, a no-fly zone is imagined to be a gigantic physical barrier that keeps Russian planes from entering Ukrainian air space. A no-fly zone is a physical barrier — one comprised entirely of gunfire. Enforcing a no-fly zone would entail NATO forces shooting down Russian planes in Ukrainian air space. It would be a declaration of war.

And finally, the Biden administration in the U.S. (with significant support from its base), along with other NATO countries, has moved to get weapons into the hands of Ukrainian forces. While the targeted distribution of weapons to resistance fighters might seem like a good idea in theory, in practice it amounts to the hasty dumping of weapons caches into a country marked not just by political fracture, but with a well-organized and freshly emboldened far right movement complete with openly fascist elements. This isn’t to say we don’t want to see the resistance armed. But simply unloading weapons and fleeing the scene is a recipe for disaster. We’ve been here before: in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in Kosovo in the 1990s, in Iraq in the 2000s. We know how those scenarios played out.

In the absence of any viable alternatives, and hardly any decent media coverage, an entirely justified and deeply human sense of moral catastrophe is being funneled into unreasonable actionism — an “act first, ask questions later” approach to foreign policy.

Yet an honest appraisal reveals that the left is not sufficiently empowered to impose its political will. We should side with the brave journalists reporting the complexity and nuance that is required to understand the situation — or those who resign when doing so is impossible. It is also why we should support the peace protesters, the army deserters and the anti-imperialists in every camp. In that vein, we support the recent development of a transnational coalition of groups in a Permanent Assembly Against the War.

The notion that we need to support this or that capitalist bloc is but a symptom of the lack of an organized antiwar movement. Thus, the task of the left is not to choose sides amid inter-imperialist rivalry, but to raise mass consciousness regarding the history and present circumstances of international conflicts and to build a mass internationalist, anti-imperialist, antiwar movement capable of intervening on the side of peace, even when the ambitions of the world’s ruling classes demand bloodshed and war.

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