We would like to add to the incredible volume of writing now in place, and daily multiplying, some clarification concerning a couple of broad issues that vex left thinking about the war in Ukraine.
Some matters garner near universal left agreement: mainstream media is a mishmash of racist, hypocritical stupidities. NATO and the U.S. have been grossly vile in all this, and are certainly not good guys seeking justice. The near universal mainstream media and pundit claim is that to boycott Israel for its occupation policies is an unwarranted, and even anti Semitic tactic. Yet, to sanction and boycott Russia is an obvious and mandatory indication of civility and humanity. This last reveals either monumental stupidity, or hypocrisy, but is nothing new or even unexpected. It certainly doesn’t deny the validity of sanctioning Russia, but it does further reveal the incredibly supine position and delusional self-perceptions of Western media. That no one is able to even conceive of boycotting U.S. products, like, say, the cluster bombs we use and sell, simply adds to the evidence that we live in an upside down world. We could go on, and on, as many have in many fine essays, but perhaps there isn’t much point in taking on that task for any audience that might read this. After all, this obvious hypocrisy is not in question for left audiences.
But, for such left audiences, some important issues are in question. Mostly, these involve formulations and analyses, and become matters of actual practical import only when they affect left clarity and accuracy and left ability to talk to others, or when they cause leftists, who ought to feel solidarity with one another, to instead glare and growl at one another.
The U.S., NATO, and Russia are imperial entities that pursue what they conceive as self-interest regardless of the corpse count their choices impose on others. They are held in check only by costs imposed on them by forces of dissent and opposition. This is widely agreed, though some would rather not talk much, or even at all, about the Russian part of this ugly picture. The latter hesitancy seems to arise when some think, “yes, but my enemy’s enemy is my friend. My enemy is American Imperialism. Russia is my enemy’s enemy. Russia is therefore my friend”. Some, with wrinkles and refinements, follow this path. One side right, one side wrong. Victory to Russia?
To clarify, if my enemy’s enemy (Russia) imposes authoritarian subservience on its internal population, and invades other countries across its borders, is it really my friend? Suppose my enemy’s enemy also causes a problem for my number one enemy (American Imperialism), must it for that reason, remain my friend? Some advocate this logic, or even just function as if they are acting on this view without literally pronouncing it. But does anyone really, seriously, believe it?
Some instead say a pox on both imperialisms, the bigger U.S. one, and the smaller Russian one. Okay, so far so good, but from there they conclude: “one side wrong, the other side wrong – step aside from it”. But what of the people of Ukraine? If we choose to wash our hands of the situation and either say or imply, “let the imperialists destroy each other,” where does that leave those whose homes and bodies represent the battleground upon which the titans clash? A sign recently shared from Ukraine says: “Russia stops fighting, no war. Ukraine troops stop fighting, no Ukraine”. For the left to side step the violence being waged on Ukraine is to become complicit in that very violence. Yes, a pox on all imperialisms. No, to looking away. No, to inadequate conclusions that equate anti-imperialism with ignoring the plight of its victims.
There is a further nuance that applies to both the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and the “one side wrong, the other side wrong – step aside” views which also shouldn’t be glossed over. Russia is a capitalist country which has foregone even the most minimal political democracy. Is this supposed to make it our friend? Regardless of the deplorable condition of political democracy in the U.S., it cannot, in any seriousness, be equated to the dictatorial conditions that Russian citizens now endure. It is just this political difference between Russia and the U.S., and between Russia and what may emerge in Ukraine, that may have some very serious relevance for a second locus of debate, and for its practical implications.
This second locus is not nearly as open and shut as the first seems to be, and it revolves around the question: Why did Russia invade Ukraine?
First, and by far the most often offered left answer, is that the expansion of NATO and the possibility of Ukraine becoming a beachhead for U.S. military power, has left Russia concerned about its security. To ward off those possibilities, Russia has invaded. One hears this and might wonder why a missile aimed at Moscow fired from Ukraine, is any worse than one launched from a submarine anywhere, or worse than one launched from, say, a Silo somewhere in Kansas. Optics says it is. Rhetoric says it is. Many of our friends say it is. But is it?
We already have the capability to blow up the world a dozen times over. Is NATO expansion really about attacking Russia, or is it about escalating military, instead of social expenditures? And for that matter, escalating military thinking, motives, and values, rather than social thinking, motives, and values?
This “confronting a security threat” view of Russia’s motives also has to explain why Russia invading Ukraine would make it less likely that Ukraine will host missiles, and more likely that NATO will come into disfavor. Instead, it seems invading Ukraine could easily engender just the opposite outcome regarding NATO, which is already happening. Invading might succeed in getting a formal public agreement, of what is already a private agreement, that Ukraine will not become a NATO member. Even taking for granted, as we do, that Russia doesn’t take into account the human cost in Ukrainian lives and infrastructure—just as the U.S. ignores the same matters in all its violent and otherwise destructive international pursuits—it is hard to fathom the level of ignorance this motivation suggests. Invade despite all the costs and risks of doing so for Russia itself, including provoking sanctions, boycotts and economic decline, risking sinking into a possible quagmire of disaster, and arousing what could become system-changing internal dissent, all to get an agreement which could have been had far more easily and was indeed, already preferred by France and Germany? It is a possible explanation. It may be correct. But we find ourselves unconvinced.
The positive side is that, if indeed true, the “seek security” motivation would imply the possibility of an invasion exit ramp. If reducing military risk is actually Russia’s motivation, the invasion could end by Russia withdrawing, giving some guarantees about respecting the sovereignty of nations, and receiving a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, and that no missiles will be placed on Russia’s border. Russia withdraws. Each side claims victory.
Unfortunately, we must confront the unconvincing, or at best incomplete, military security motive with a second, less often offered answer to the question of why Russia has invaded Ukraine. It suggests that the Russian motivation has relatively less, or perhaps even little to do with military fears, and has much more, or even primarily to do with fears of internal dissolution. In this view, invading Ukraine is meant to prevent “the threat of a good example.” Meaning, in this case, the threat of Ukraine becoming a model of democratization of a kind that Putin fears, and indeed, that the entire Russian oligarchy fears.
This is not to say that Ukraine has become a paragon of democracy, but it threatens significant realignments economically, politically, and even culturally away from Russia and towards the U.S. and its fellow NATO member states. Russian elites could well be frightened by the specter of Ukraine escaping Russian wants, while also democratizing in a way that suggests the desirability of free elections, freedom of speech, etc., and of Ukraine then receiving vast Western aid to escape its extreme financial woes. Russian elites could fear that such a trajectory would inspire and facilitate other regions, and even Russia’s own population, to seek to escape the particular form of fascistic capitalism Putin now heads up for a less authoritarian form of capitalism.
In this calculus of war, we need to hope that Russia’s motive is fear of U.S./NATO militarism, and not fear of internal dissolution spurred by Ukraine’s success in extricating itself. The first motive has the possible off-ramp exit from war noted earlier – Ukraine remains neutral, both sides claim victory. For Russia to get what it really wants, if it instead has the second motive, may have no off-ramp, or nearly no off-ramp. Victory for Russia, with this second motive, would entail either installing a subservient government to ensure on-going oligarchic control of Ukraine, or doing enough damage to Ukraine’s population and infrastructure to ensure it becomes a model for the price of dissent. If this reminds you of the U.S. approach to what it perceives as threats, well, it should.
Short of the imposition of a puppet government, and/or enactment of incredible destruction well beyond what Ukraine has already suffered, the only other off-ramp by which the invasion could end would be international and Russian popular movement opposition so strong and sustained, that it causes exactly what the invasion was conceived to prevent: not just the fall of Putin, but also the unleashing of massive dissidence in Russia, and bordering Russia proper. Most on the left agree that imperialist capitalism largely created and now enables Putin, and continues to reproduce fascist figures like him across the world, from Trump, to Modi, to Johnson. What these hate-mongering creatures fear most is the only true threat to their power – massive grassroots resistance, united in solidarity. Intense domestic and international dissent is one way this invasion could be ended. The continuation of a united uprising beyond this war, is likely the only way to build lasting peace.
Of course, the bottom line, and perhaps our main point, is that all the above is mostly academic. Whatever the motive of this invasion, all people of good will and human caring, much less leftists seeking a truly better world, need to steadfastly oppose it and, in particular, to support those opposing it around the world, especially inside Russia itself. When we find we disagree about interpretations of what is going on, or even about predictions of where events might turn next, this should have no effect on our supporting Ukraine, supporting the Russian people’s dissent, and opposing Russia, opposing NATO, and opposing the U.S. role in this and in other imperial and otherwise destructive, anti-human ventures around the world.
Imagine some galactic intelligent life form studying us from afar, or perhaps, even imagine ourselves in the future looking back on this moment. They, or we, would see a planet on the verge of a civilization-level ecological nightmare. Militarism still haunts all international relations, distracts from, and indeed propels, our existential climate catastrophe. They would see tanks rolling up to nuclear reactors. They would see vast stores of resources put to destructive violence. They would see us witnessing all this, and taking as a lesson that we need to produce more weapons, distribute more weapons, use more weapons. They would see that rather than facing our collective ecological crisis together, we have fallen into the well-worn, fascist trap of divide and conquer. We have declared war on ourselves.
What would they make of all this? What do you and I make of it? Is it grist to squabble about? Or is it reason to rebel?