Clarity on Ukraine

Against the Current, No. 221, November/December 2022

The Editors

AS RUSSIA’S INVASION and its global impacts spread with ruinous impact, it’s high time for factual, political and moral clarity on what this war is about. That requires sorting out a great deal of ideological mythology on all sides. It shouldn’t be surprising, we suppose, that this war has cut through usual political dividing lines on the right as well as the left.

There’s a barely disguised pro-Putin wing in the U.S. Republican Party, generally aligned with Trump/MAGA forces. More “traditional” neoconservative militarists (and some of the Democratic establishment) see an opportunity to use Ukraine as the battering ram to bring down the Russian regime and cripple its ally China. Others like Henry Kissinger, whose unquestionable imperialist war criminal credentials span four decades of the 20th century, call for Ukrainian “territorial concessions” — meaning surrender and dismemberment — in the interests of stability.

Among parties of the European far right, the German AfD and French Rally (Marine Le Pen) openly sympathize with Russia, while the Polish “Law and Justice” ruling party is militantly pro-NATO, the Hungarian Christian-nationalist regime of Viktor Orban plays both sides, and the newly elected far-right coalition in Italy appears itself to be divided on the war.

The divisions among these reactionary, racist forces and governments are largely conditioned by how to manipulate nationalist sentiments and public fears over Europe’s economic woes; by opportunistic hopes of aligning with what will turn out to be the “winning side;” and by the scramble to secure energy from Russian oil and gas in a pending bitter winter.

On the left, meanwhile, the divisions are over the meaning of imperialism and how to oppose it — in particular, the problem posed by a war in which the aggressor is not “our own” imperialist power, as it has been from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq and so many in between. The fact that U.S. imperialism is as vicious and destructive as ever is not the central issue in the present war.

Socialists need to be clear about our position: We support Ukraine’s war of national survival and its right to receive assistance. We do not support NATO. Thanks to Putin, in fact, NATO and U.S. imperialism have already accomplished strategic goals: NATO’s shaky unity is restored, Finland and Sweden are joining, Germany is ramping up its military spending to and probably beyond the two percent of GDP level, and U.S. “leadership” of the alliance is restored.

To help pose the central questions, elsewhere in this issue we publish an excerpt from a powerful statement by Ukrainian and other European leftists. The full text is posted on the ATC website.

First and foremost, this statement presents a powerful case for Ukraine’s right of self-defense against a brutal Russian invasion. The fundamental reality is that this invasion has explicitly stated annexationist objectives and, were it to succeed, a genocidal trajectory that’s already been evidenced in the slaughters of civilians and forced population removals in Russian-occupied territory.

The statement is also clear about the imperialist character of NATO, what it stands for, and the demand for its dissolution and the forging of an anti-militarist alternative to great-power blocs. While addressing a document from part of the German left, its arguments are highly relevant to the debate in the U.S. left, where sectors of the peace movement oppose Ukraine’s right to obtain weapons on the grounds that “arming Ukraine only prolongs the war and suffering.”

These forces, we are sorry to say, include pacifist-leaning organizations — including CodePink, RootsAction and World Beyond War — that have done excellent work around many issues such as the U.S.-Saudi-backed war in Yemen, Washington’s sadistic cutoff of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, and more.

It is painful to see these groups’ inability to understand the legitimacy of Ukraine’s war against Putin’s invasion, or the deluded notion that Ukrainian surrender or acceptance of territorial amputation would bring “peace through negotiations,” or even the unworldly idea that peaceful resistance by itself would turn back Russian tanks.

A Proxy War?

We don’t suggest these antiwar voices are supporters of Putin, or that they’re anything but sincere in their horror — which anyone with human feelings must fully share — over the death and destruction that’s being inflicted every day on Ukraine and its people.

Rather, the problem is their disorientation over a war that’s not “our own” imperialist crime — and their refusal to address the issue of Ukraine’s right of self-defense. CodePink and RootsAction representatives in particular have declined to answer this question when repeatedly and directly asked. To be sure, they voice their support of Russian draft refusers and the revived Russian antiwar movement, which represents a great hope for us all — but that stance doesn’t respond to Ukraine’s rights.

To justify this unacceptable evasion, some of the U.S. peace movement, along with the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, have come up with the formula of a “proxy war” in Ukraine between the United States and NATO on one side, versus Russia on the other, such that supporting Ukraine’s right to receive weapons means backing “our” imperialist side.

The argument is seductive because it sounds principled, because it points the finger at NATO’s aggressive post-1991 expansion to Russia’s borders, and because it reflects an aspect of reality — but in a highly distorted way. (For some discussion of these issues see our earlier editorial in ATC 218, “Out of the Imperial Order: Chaos” and a statement by Solidarity).

There is indeed a danger of the war growing to an inter-imperialist conflict — particularly if Russia’s invasion is protracted. The longer it takes Ukraine to defeat the invasion, the greater the danger that the war might escalate and expand. That’s especially true as Putin’s moves to annex occupied territory, under the obscene pretext of fake “referendums” that no one takes seriously, make any prospect of negotiations even more distant.

It’s profoundly mistaken, however, to elevate this potential danger to a primary immediate one — and even worse when leftists do so for essentially ideological reasons to rationalize abstention from supporting Ukraine.

Why? Critically, both NATO and Russian militaries have made clear — for reasons of their own interests — that they have no intention of escalating to direct confrontation. Biden will not supply Ukraine with artillery capable of striking inside Russia. As for Putin’s purported threat to use nuclear weapons, that’s meaningful more as a terrorist bluff than a serious military option. (Today’s satellite-guided weapons of mass murder by precision artillery, high-tech drone strikes and the like make “tactical battlefield nukes” a blunt rather than efficient option.)

The argument that NATO expansion “provoked” the Russian invasion fails on critical examination. As unjustified and triumphalist as it was, NATO’s expansion to strategic states of eastern Europe was substantially completed more than a decade ago, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009).  The additions of Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020) are hardly game-changers.

All this certainly contributed to the ascendance of Putin’s sinister Great-Russian revanchism, but cannot be said to have “provoked,” let alone justified, his assertions in 2021 that Ukraine “is not a real country” and that its people need to be incorporated (subjugated) under Russian rule.

Supposedly, Russia was also provoked by a 2008 promise of Ukraine itself joining NATO, a reckless and frankly stupid U.S.-inspired project — but the Russian regime surely understood that any such action would be vetoed by Germany (and after 2014 Ukraine was not eligible under NATO’s own rules when it didn’t control its territory of Crimea).

Any prospect of Ukraine joining NATO is the kind of issue that could have been resolved by a combination of diplomatic and semi-secret agreements. It’s much harder now with the outbreak of war where Ukraine’s very existence is at stake.

Some on the left, for example the editors of Monthly Review, have argued at length that the Ukraine war is the culmination of longstanding U.S. intentions to cripple and then fragment Russia itself. Whatever the historical backdrop of such imperialist ambitions, the fact is that the United States and NATO did not supply advanced weapons to Ukraine in advance of the invasion.

Indeed, even though U.S. intelligence accurately predicted the invasion, Washington and other western capitals expected a Russian victory within days with the rapid fall of Kyiv and all of eastern Ukraine. Only the success of Ukraine’s resistance, and the clear refusal of its population to tolerate any consideration of surrender, prompted the West to undertake massive arms supply and ramp up vital intelligence support of Ukraine’s military.

It’s understandable that those who don’t or can’t recognize the centrality of Ukraine’s resistance and popular mobilization can only view this as a Western-inspired “proxy war.” The blind i>reduction of Ukraine and its people to pawns on the great-power chessboard is a fatal obstacle for efforts to build a peace or anti-imperialist movement worthy of the name.

Against “Campism” and All Imperialism

There are even worse, pro-Russian so-called “campist” left voices who claim to see something “anti-imperialist” in Russia’s drive to stamp out Ukrainian independence and national existence, including the grotesquely misnamed United National Antiwar Coalition. (UNAC has held webinars featuring a former nuclear weapons inspector Scott Ritter, issuing half-deranged declarations that Russian triumph is inevitable and that Ukraine deserves to be destroyed.)

Support of Russia in this war is an absolute betrayal of basic democratic principle, without which any posturing about socialism is empty noise.

At the same time, we are well aware of all manner of bitter reactionary consequences of this war. These are gifts provided by Putin, free of charge, to western imperialism and the weapons industry.

The suppression of women’s rights and the erosion of democracy in Poland are forgotten as that country becomes a U.S.-backed pillar of NATO’s strategic rearming. Palestine and its people are collateral damage, as happens in almost every international crisis — as the Israeli army’s near-daily murder of Palestinian young people and the destruction of occupied neighborhoods proceeds with minimal media attention.

The Russian regime’s ideological claim that “Ukraine was never a real country” strikingly parallels the longstanding Zionist argument that “there was never a Palestinian nation or state” — in each case, justifying colonialism and annexation. More than 30,000 Ukrainian and Russian refugees have fled to Israel while Palestinians remain stateless in their own occupied homeland, or in exile.

At the same time, the threat of starvation in the Horn of Africa brought on by drought and climate change, as well as skyrocketing food prices in much of the Middle East and Asia, are exacerbated by the interruption of critical grain shipments from Ukraine and Russian fertilizer exports.

What will happen in the coming ominous winter months is an open question. We note that at the time when “Support Ukrainian Resistance and Disempower Fossil Capital” was written, the authors saw signs that economic and fuel supply pressures in Europe might be leading western countries to push Ukraine toward surrender.

With recent Ukrainian advances and the brutal hardening of Putin’s stance — and the unknown consequences of Russia’ internal crises — that now appears less likely, but it’s important to understand that imperialism is infinitely treacherous and the twists and turns of policy are not necessarily predictable.

We do know that the rising stakes, as well as casualties and the scale of destruction, make clarity about this war all the more critical for any authentic socialist and anti-imperialist politics.

November-December 2022, ATC 221


    1. It’s amazing how little the authors of this article know about Russia or Ukraine. I have been studying both of them for most of my life, with a little less time spent on Ukraine. I studied Russian and Soviet history at the University of Paris and speak Russian fluently. I’ve listened to Boris Kagarlitsky as he told blatant lies about what’s going on in Ukraine.
      I would add that I read David Finkel’s review of Medea Benjamin’s book (along with a coauthor I don’t recall), and I was simply amazed that David, whom I’ve met, could be so badly informed about the situation in Ukraine.
      That pretty much sums it up for ATM: a publication that issues comments on a war it has no clue about.

  1. I agree with the thrust of the article, although I have reservations about the proposed course of action. If we are not actively pursuing a negotiated peace, then we are not seeking to limit death and destruction to the greatest extent possible.

    I would propose instead a line of supporting Ukraine’s right to self-defense, opposing NATO’s expansionism, respecting Ukraine’s right to _request_ weapons (rather than their right to _receive_ them), and demand that NATO attach conditions to future weapons shipments. Specifically, I would like to see NATO force Ukraine to resume peaceful negotiations with the Russian aggressor, or at least accept any invitation to negotiations from the Russian government that is not obviously presented in bad faith.

    In solidarity,
    Evan D

    1. Have NATO force Ukraine to negotiate with the invaders? Thanks, but no thanks. Our one and only role should be to popularize the right of the Ukranian people to self determination and to make available the history regarding this issue. In this regard, the Militant’s coverage has been excellent and World Outlook just published a very good piece as well. Of course, Ukraine is free to do what they think is necessary, but they are, after all, winning.

      1. I find the prospect of NATO forcing Ukraine to do anything distasteful as well, David. However, I find the prospect of countless innocent Russian conscripts dying in a war they do not want and did not vote for even more distasteful. There are no good options in war, just less bad ones.

        How would you respond to my point about the difference between a right to request and a right to receive?

        In Solidarity,
        Evan D

        1. If I may butt in… With regard to your first question, the Russians themselves must resolve the issues of unwanted death and democracy, just as we would expect to deal with the same issues if happening here.

          As to the second question, there is, surely, no substance to a right to request defensive arms if there is not also the right to receive them. That is an empty and useless proposal to my mind. With respect, if I were in the Ukrainians’ shoes, I’d be insulted by the proposal. Not being in their shoes, I understand your good intentions.

          I agree with the editorial.


          Warren D.

  2. An excellent article; I especially like the demolition of the “proxy war” analysis which is popular in some left-wing circles. Readers may like to follow coverage of anti-war activities in Ireland : “Over 83 missiles hit Ukraine on the morning of October 10 2022, targeting homes, streets, hospitals and power stations. Half of Ukraine is now without water and electricity. For many in Ukraine it is again February 24 2022. Putin wants the people of Ukraine to be afraid, but they are not afraid.

    At very short notice, almost 200 protesters gathered at the Kremlin HQ in Ireland, the Embassy of Russia located at 186 Orwell Road.The only left-wing participating organisation was the Irish Left With Ukraine (ILWU). People picketing the Embassy of Russia were mostly from Ukraine, were women, and were regularly cheered by passing motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Approach roads to Dublin’s Kremlin bunker are decorated with Ukrainian flags and signs denouncing Russian war crimes.”

    Mass campaigning against Putin’s barbaric war needs to grow.”

  3. Well said! Over the years I have attended numerous UNAC actions here in NYC. I have even attended a UNAC National Convention or two. I am appalled that a self-described “antiwar” organization cannot come out and oppose Russian imperialism in Ukraine. People who had no problem saying “US Out of Vietnam Now!” half a century ago when American imperialism was involved, cannot apply what they learned then when Russian imperialism invades Ukraine! I say Russia Out of Ukraine Now! Free All Russian Peace Protesters! OTAN/NATO Out of Europe!

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

  4. Why do you keep going on and on about the “left”? This is a meaningless term and has been for many years now. What matters is if you advance or detract from the line of march of the working-class towards self-realization and power. The left today, in it’s entirety, essentially, has gone over to the Woke wing of the Democratic Party, which is now dominate.

  5. These are two old Soviet Republics fighting amongst themselves, and we have no stake there at all.

    Additionally, the Crimea was never a part of the Ukraine until Nikita Khrushchev, who was half Ukrainian himself, gave it to the Ukraine in exchange for support in the Soviet Congress back in the 1950s. They found out it was illegal, so they actually had to re-write a clause in their Constitution to allow it. It is a part of their history.

    Therefore, we have no stake there. Why not simply remain neutral?

    As far as the Israel comparison, the proposal to make is closer to Ukraine giving back the Crimea to Russia, like Israel gave back the Sinai to Egypt. That won the Nobel Peace Prize, if you remember.

    I have nothing more to say on the matter.

  6. I agree with almost all of the above, except for a few points:

    1. I don’t discount the nuclear threat as empty saber rattling. I did a few months ago. At this point, I’m not as wholly convinced that Putin is a canny rational actor. That said, I think this makes an even stronger case for ensuring he is removed from power and makes appeasing him even more dangerous. We cannot allow the world to be held hostage by a fascist imperialist.

    2. Saying we are against NATO at this point seems irreconcilable with pragmatic anti-imperialism. With Biden’s admonition to Putin, “don’t even think about moving on an inch of NATO territory,” he made it clear to every country that could potentially be invaded or bombed by Russia that their choices were to either join NATO or potentially be the next Ukraine.

    If the US and NATO were moral actors or at least took seriously their international commitments, that obviously wouldn’t matter. After all, every member of the UN has pledged responsibility to assist other states in “protecting their “population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity”. That alone should have guaranteed far more robust response far earlier from the US and its NATO allies. But in reality there are limits in how far the West will go to defend a non-NATO nation. Like it or not, joining NATO may be a matter of survival for Finland and Sweden and we should fully support their choice in that regard.

    3. I’m not as charitable in my read on groups like CODEPINK: Women For Peace. There’s a point where useful idiocy becomes active complicity, and they’ve long since crossed it.

    1. Code Pink’s conduct and extensive relationship with Islamic Republic of Hell raises many queries.
      Suffice it to say that, after the overthrown of Islamic Reoublic in Iran, “comrade” Benjamin might need some explanations about all those smiling and hand shaking pictures with high officials of Islamic Republic.

  7. An awesome Editorial. I agree 100% which I don’t always with the Editors on every issue.

    I wanted to take up a very tangential issue, something referenced by David Rowlands. I too wonder about the term “Leftist” a term that really wasn’t used that much until the 1960s. Usually one said “Socialist” or “communist” or “Marxist”. Unlike David Rowlands this has little to do with “Wokeness”, taken from the talking heads at Fox news and the grotesque representatives among the Meritocracy of Donald Trump.

    The term itself, “Left”, always a description relative t the “Right” or a wing of the workers movement and never a descriptive noun used to describe a thing or a euphemism for socialism. Just ay “Socialist”. The term is now pretty much owned by the GOP as a curse word against the liberal wing of the Democrats or, as the case is among most active Trump supporters, all liberals and Democrats. It also taken as a badge of honor by the MSNBC crowd of liberals when they describe President Biden as part of the “Left”.

  8. Aside from the way too generous assessment of Code Pink’s motives, this is an editorial that is very close to the mark. Thanks

  9. I like ATC but was disappointed after reading their take on Ukraine. They slam Monthly Review’s position on this issue. I agree with Monthly Review’s position. ATC say they are against Imperialism, but wish to arm Zelensky and his cronies, which includes the Nazi Azov group. They also fail to recognize the CIA coup(“Maiden Revolution”) in 2014, a fatal mistake. You can’t be against NATO’s imperialism over there, but for it over here, that doesn’t work. If you are really against imperialism, it should be everywhere. You just support NATO here in this one instance but nowhere else? Of course Putin is wrong, that’s not the point. The big winner here will be NATO and the US. The authors who claim that those opposed to NATO have an “inability to understand” and that this is not a proxy war fail to understand history. Over and over they speak of NATO’s innocence, also failing to recognize earlier statements by the US, all down the memory hole. NATO’s expansion to the east? Not a big deal. The bombardment of Yugoslavia? Down the hole. And claiming that NATO didn’t give weapons to Ukraine in advance is irrelevant. No US military on the ground there? Surely there are. If you are anti imperialist this must apply to both sides, with an eye on history. Russia isn’t in Mexico. NATO, however, is expanding all over the place, and have their fingers exploring South America now. None of this makes any sense without recognizing where the largest empire in the world is. Most Americans don’t recognize this.

    1. Thanks to Steve Shields and others for comments. We appreciate the opportunity for dialogue, even (in fact, especially) where we don’t agree. Steve is definitely right on one major point: “The big winner here will be NATO and the US.” In fact that’s already happened, whatever the outcome of this war may be for Ukraine — victory, defeat, or some kind of messy partial “settlement” that might be just a pause until the next bloody round. As we stated in our “Clarity on Ukraine” letter, the strengthening of NATO and U.S. “leadership” is Putin’s free gift to imperialism. This is tragic. Where we don’t agree with Steve Shields is his view that NATO is the only thing that matters in this war, that the will of the Ukrainian people and their right of self-defense counts for little or nothing, and the simplistic view that the complex 2014 Maidan events can be reduced to a “CIA coup.” That is not what serious Ukrainian leftists think. As consistent rather than selective anti-imperialists, we begin with Ukraine’s right to exist and its people’s right to determine their country’s future. The U.S. peace movement, understandably, has difficulty dealing with a war where “our own” imperialist regime is not the main aggressor, but it will have to learn on the fly. We look forward to continuing this vital discussion. Right now, we need to recognize clearly that Russia’s intention isn’t about defeating the Ukrainian army, which it’s failed to do, but to freeze and starve the Ukrainian civilian population — a kind of medieval siege waged with modern high-tech artillery and drones. That’s the nature of this war at this point, bordering on genocide, even more clearly than when we wrote our letter from the editors.

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