Strange Days: The Left and Ukraine
May 18, 2022
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced on February 24th, anyone searching for the position of the western Left may find themselves confused. Instead of a coherent position, one finds several, very different, variants. On one hand, some diversity is obviously to be expected, but, on another, this would appear to be quite strange. The invasion by a larger, more powerful regional imperial hegemon with a long history of imperialism against neighboring states into one of those less powerful neighbors would seem to be an easy call. After all, a portion of the Russian invasion force headed straight for Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv with the expressed goal of regime change against a democratically elected government (with a Jewish president). And, against all early intelligence assessments, the Ukrainian resistance actually held the invaders off, forcing the Russian military to redeploy. It would be hard to think of a more inspiring example of anti-imperialism in recent times.
Yet much of the Left is not on board. While it comes in various flavors, a decent portion of the Left leans towards the imperialists. One faction is openly pro-Putin (seen in spaces such as Consortium News and The Grayzone), spouting Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine being overrun with Nazis and the massacres in Bucha being false flags meant to enflame global public opinion against Russia. This actually goes back some time. While Putin has long had an acknowledged fan club on the far-right (Trump, Bannon, Carlson, Giuliani, Pat Buchanan), the Left has by no means been immune. Professor Stephen Cohen shilled for Putin for years at The Nation magazine. Oliver Stone has long been explaining how Putin has been misunderstood by the West. John Pilger spent weeks mocking the possibility of an invasion, at one point proclaiming it “is not running to schedule according to its Anglo-American promoters.” Then, on March 12, Pilger tweeted “Russia has been baited into a closing trap in Ukraine, as it was in Afghanistan. This brings closer America’s aim of breaking Russia (Kissinger).” Pilger labels Ukraine “Europe’s only openly neo-Nazi infested country.“ In Ukraine’s last election the far-right coalition won a whole 2.3 percent of the vote. In fact, the far-right has polled low since 2014. Perhaps this faction can be dismissed as a crackpot fringe, though it seems to have a strangely vast online presence.
A larger, more authentic Left is genuinely anti-war. It raises valid concerns about the long-term consequences of flooding a country such as Ukraine, with its endemic corruption, with weapons. NATO did expand and certainly, Vladimir Putin has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons-making the risk of escalation quite scary. There are obvious reasons to hope any war quickly ends with a negotiated settlement and such a stance doesn’t deserve to be immediately labeled as “appeasement.” War is inherently destructive, and in this war, it is Ukraine that will bear most of the cost.
Yet this fraction of the Left doesn’t seem to seriously ask itself why the Kremlin should have any say about the sovereignty of democratic countries. Abstract principles such as “sovereignty” may well come crashing down in the face of cold reality and mounting dead bodies, but cannot the same be said for concepts like liberty, equality, and fraternity? Since gaining its independence, Ukraine may not exactly be a model of governance but its government is duly elected. Its survival should evoke sympathy and one would be hardpressed to argue Ukraine’s government shouldn’t accept support where it can find it.
Whatever one’s feelings about NATO (and its body count is high), solid majorities in Eastern Europe appear to support it. Leftist analysis often uses the passive voice, saying that countries in Eastern Europe having been “absorbed” into NATO. It implies that NATO expansion is a purely imperialist venture when the obvious fact is those states applied to join and the expansion was at least as much on their initiative as the original members. A Pew Research poll from 2020 revealed that 77 percent of Lithuanians support the alliance, as do 88 percent of Poles and 53 percent of Czechs. It is likely a safe bet that, since then, the numbers have only increased, as Finland and Sweden look poised to sign up. In any confrontation over it, why would the Left rush to support the perspective of the Kremlin over that of states that are the historic victims of Russian imperialism? (It is also worth mentioning that both Boris Yeltsin and Putin made noises about joining NATO at different times.)
While it is absolutely true, as the Left points out, that the U.S. government wouldn’t welcome the expansion of a China-led alliance into its neighborhood, this misses the point. The correct question is what would the Left say in such a scenario, and, indeed, it is hard to picture the likes of Noam Chomsky, who has recently taken to citing Henry Kissinger’s realism on the subject, sympathizing with the Monroe Doctrine. The sovereignty of poorer countries has always been a left-wing priority. The Left justly screams bloody murder about American imperialism both historically and in the present day. Plus, there is the obvious fact that Ukraine was not close to joining NATO a few months ago anyway.
Another overlap between these two factions is on the question of eastern Ukraine. Here it is taken as a given that the region’s large Russian speaking (or, as it is sometimes more vulgarly put, “ethnically Russian”) population is supportive of, or at least sympathetic to, Putin’s aim of controlling the region. If that is true, then Russian-speaking Ukrainians must, to some extent, think Putin has concerns for them as well. This goes back to the Maidan Uprising in 2014. That event is often labeled a “coup” by the Left, but is it not strange that a months-long popular uprising against a corrupt president, which didn’t involve the military and was met by harsh state repression, would be labeled a coup by those who usually claim to like uprisings? The negativity stems from alleged U.S. and NATO involvement. But while U.S. and European politicians publically supported the protests, including meeting with far-right figures in Ukraine, John McCain met with the far-right Svoboda party, and though it was certainly an example of great power hypocrisy (just witness the silly hysteria about Russiagate in the U.S.), there is no serious evidence that they orchestrated the movement. The protests and results were not manufactured by the U.S. In no way is this comparable to Chile in 1973 or Guatemala in 1954.
The first response of the Russian government was to invade and seize Crimea. Described by Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK as “Russia’s reintegration of Crimea,” the territory has been in Kremlin hands since 2014. In a recent interview with The Intercept discussing a possible settlement to the conflict, Chomsky proclaimed “The fact of the matter is Crimea is off the table. We may not like it. Crimeans apparently do like it.” This sentiment apparently stems from a March 2014 referendum that took place in Crimea on the question of annexation. The results of that referendum showed overwhelming public support for joining Russia. As reported by Russia Today, 96 percent of voters went for annexation. The Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported it 93 percent to 7 percent. Of course, the referendum was bogus. At the time, 37 percent of Crimea’s population was Tatar or Ukrainian. Would only three to seven percent of the vote against joining Mother Russia? If the presence of 21,000 Russian soldiers, lack of international monitors, and absurdly one-sided numbers (all common in elections sponsored by dictatorships) don’t give it away, a report by the President of Russia’s own Council on Civil Society and Human Rights wrote to this effect: “In Crimea, according to various indicators, 50-60% voted for unification with Russia with a voter turnout (yavka) of 30-50%.” The ballot itself only had two options: join Russia or greater autonomy from Ukraine. The status quo ante was excluded. It is impossible to imagine Chomsky overlooking this sort of thing if the U.S. were behind it. The Marxist writer Vijay Prashad legitimized the referendum in a recent interview “even if the referendum has cheating on some level.” Prashad went on to describe Russia as a “defensive power rather than imperial.”
Then there is Donbas, the historically industrial area in eastern Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population. Speaking on Fox News, nominal left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald termed the invasion itself as a “border dispute” between Russia and Ukraine. Greenwald said in another Fox News interview “when the Russians invaded Ukraine and, basically, said, ‘we want the eastern part of Ukraine which is largely composed of Russian speaking, ethnic Russians who feel more loyalty to Moscow than they do to Kyiv to be independent,’ suddenly the U.S. said, ‘this a war so vital to us that we need to involve ourselves in it.’” This sort of “analysis” collapses on itself, unless you ignore the words of Putin and the endless stream of Kremlin propaganda about “denazification” and “Greater Russia,” not to mention the Russian military’s attempted headlong rush to Kyiv. Greenwald also blamed U.S. support for the Ukrainian resistance on “Democratic elites” still angry about Russiagate and Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016. Such gibberish is also spouted by Tucker Carlson, clips of which are commonly replayed on Russian state media.
Basic facts on the ground seem to go against this idea. Much of the Russian invasion has occurred in the east. Testimony of captured Russian soldiers reveals that they expected to be greeted as liberators by the Russia speaking population. Instead, they have met fierce resistance. Perhaps the most Russian city in Ukraine is Mariupol, and the Russian military has shown no qualms in flattening it.
It is true, going back to the aftermath of the Maidan Uprising, parts of eastern Ukraine erupted in opposition to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. But Yanukovych dripped with corruption: By the time he was booted, his dentist son was worth an estimated $510 million, and his government’s attempted suppression of the Maidan protest left dozens of protestors dead (though, in another bizarre twist, some of the Left even disputes that). Still, it is true, that he maintained a level of support in the east. It is also true that with the Ukrainian government in a state in flux, far-right militias, including the now-famous Azov Battalion, initially played a prominent role in the conflict. The protests in the east were complex affairs featuring some working-class elements who feared losing economic contact with Russia. But there were at least as many far-right (Anti-Semitic) elements, Russian nationalists, and Russian mercenaries. Before long the Russian military was directly involved.
Crucially, only a small minority of people in Donbas wanted to be with Russia: only 15 percent of people according to a Wall Street Journal 2014 poll. The conflict has smoldered for years with both sides accused of human rights violations. It thas left the region largely deindustrialized. Between conflict and awful governance, between 2014 and 2018 Donbas lost roughly 60 percent of its GDP. The two “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk that have emerged, while officially independent (though this is recognized only by Russia), are practically under Russian control. Factories have been stripped, machines outright stolen and sent to Russia, or simply sold as scrap metal. Since 2014, over 40 mines have been shut down in the region, with a loss of 60,000 jobs. Real trade unions are banned, and “elections” are uncontested affairs. On the Freedom House 0-to-100 scale, Ukraine scores 61 (in the same range as Colombia and Indonesia). The republics in Donbas score a grand total of 4, one point higher than North Korea! Is this really the future that much of the Left is eager to solidify in the region? And why does it seem to go unnoticed now?
It is easy to think of other reasons to hope the Ukrainian resistance holds on even beyond preserving Ukrainian democracy and minimizing the scope of Russian fascism. History shows that failed military adventurism provokes interesting developments in Russia. Think of the aftermaths of the Crimean War, Russia’s failed war against Japan in 1905, World War I in 1917, and Afghanistan in 1989. Would it be better or worse for the Russian working class if Putin is granted a “victory” in Ukraine?
It goes without saying that war is a gruesome business and wishing to see it end swiftly is a humane instinct. However, there is also a difference between aggressors and their victims. It is up to the Ukrainians to decide the path forward and, if the time comes, to make painful concessions with their sovereignty and territory. The Left should be universally calling for the cancellation of Ukraine’s foreign debt. Shamefully, the Ukrainian government is paying it off even as it is under attack. It should be calling for real, internationally supervised referendums on any future negotiated status of Crimea and Donbas. In the meantime, it’s a great failure of much of the Left that the resistance hasn’t received its support.