Strange Days: The Left and Ukraine

Joseph Grosso

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.