An embarrassing war: what to do when Russia attacks Ukraine but you are left‑wing?

Denys Gorbach writes, on how the French-speaking left has reacted to the tragedy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


On February 24, the Russian army began its invasion of Ukraine. At the end of the third week of the invasion, thousands of civilian casualties were reported, and many hospitals and schools were destroyed by the bombing. A real humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the besieged cities, while the aggressor uses munitions prohibited by international conventions. How has the French-speaking left reacted to this tragedy?

The leaders of the organizations of the French left have made only one change in their rhetoric compared to their statements before February 24: since the beginning of the war, they have been denouncing the actions of the Russian government. For the whole of the previous year, when Putin was accumulating troops around the Ukrainian border, nothing like this had been heard. Beyond this significant development, little has changed. Any denunciation of Putin is inevitably followed by the ritual phrase that “the West” or “NATO” or “US imperialism” played as important a role if not more so than Russia. Jean-Luc Mélenchon complains against “the annexation of Ukraine by NATO”; the AIT distributes stickers inviting Ukrainian soldiers to desert rather than defend their cities (there are obvious mistakes in the texts of these stickers, obviously written by a Russian, but it does not matter, because anyway, the stickers are stuck in French cities, far from any Ukrainian soldier!); the NPA warns against US troops, who are not there; Nathalie Arthaud decided that it was the right time to speak out for the umpteenth time against the misfortune sown everywhere by the Western imperialists.

The militants who are usually so resolute in their support of all the victims of war and capitalism have suddenly become extremely nuanced and “reflexive” – as if they were still hoping to try their luck in a competition for the post of director of Sciences Po Paris (unfortunately it is no longer vacant). Why this change of tone?

This clumsy reaction can be explained by the embarrassment caused by the reversal of the roles traditionally reserved for geopolitical camps in this war. A while ago, the French left, which, like the Americans, generally does not have much interest in international politics, developed a standardized scheme to describe any war or crisis abroad: it is enough to blame American imperialism (in France, both on the left and on the right, the archaic but charming expression “Atlanticism” is used). Until then, in most cases, this intuition bore fruit, coinciding more or less with the reality on the ground, structured by the political-economic dominance of “Western” forces. Nevertheless, this cliché is responsible for serious factual errors in Western analyses of the war in Syria: Priyamvada Gopal, Leila al-Shami, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Jairus Banaji and many other authors have written extensively about the geopolitical bias that has prevented the Western left from identifying the Russian government’s decisive contribution to the Syrian humanitarian tragedy. In the same way, any criticism of the Chinese government is often rejected and marked as a favourable reading of this famous “Atlanticism”.

The predominant geopolitical reading in the analyses is the sad legacy of the intellectual crisis of the world socialist movement, which hit it after the fall of the USSR. Disoriented, the left first campaigned against the “unipolar” world and “globalization”. The instincts inherited from the Cold War – Washington’s assimilation to capitalism/imperialism – were adapted to the new situation and then reinforced in the 2000s, when new candidates for international hegemony, including Russia, emerged. The struggle against capitalism has been replaced by the struggle against “neoliberalism” (in favour of other, more beneficial capitalist forms) and against “imperialism” (exclusively Anglo-American, to the rigour of Israeli and French). Paradoxically, those who challenge these reformist and nationalist views in favour of more radical anti-capitalist and internationalist approaches are often condemned as “liberal and nationalist.”

It seems that this view makes a distinction between two types of nationalism. This distinction has no clear structural criteria, relying instead on the intuitions or impressions of Western “anti-imperialists”. In their worldview, there are gentle nationalisms, which deserve unconditional support: Irish, Palestinian, Kurdish, Catalan, Breton, Basque, often Russian, sometimes French nationalism. The British and white Americans to are allowed to be nationalists and even racists, provided that “the legitimate demands of the white working-class” are rationalized as a naïve but sustainable response to the ravages of neoliberalism. This kind of excuse is not allowed for evil nationalism(s), especially geographically concentrated in the Eastern European region, such as Ukrainian. The Eastern barbarians hardly deserve understanding or in-depth analysis. It is a field where Westerners can exercise their strongest postures, after having turned a blind eye to ultra-rightist excesses elsewhere. The reason for this difference in treatment is the geopolitical perspective: the progressive or reactionary character of any political phenomenon is analyzed in relation to the ultimate evil that is American imperialism. This is why the immense number of political movements in the farthest corners of the world is spared the attention of the Western left: since it cannot link these African and Asian conflicts to its analytical scheme, it prefers not to talk about them at all.

The poverty of this analysis should be obvious. The war in Ukraine, initiated very clearly by the Russian government, obviously cannot be convincingly explained by references to NATO’s sinister policies. Very briefly, I will make a few points about the shortcomings of the campist logic. First, Russia is not the USSR. It is no longer a “workers’ state”, albeit a “distorted” one. As shocking as it is to some people to imagine themselves alongside Soviet tanks in Prague, the tanks and rockets currently destroying Ukrainian cities are deployed by a virulent anti-communist regime enthusiastic about neoliberal policies. Even within the framework of the “tankie” logic of the 1970s (support for the “homeland of the world proletariat”), it is difficult to find a justification for this invasion.

Second, imperialism, like neoliberalism, is not one thing. Rather, it is a relationship that structures capitalism on a global scale today. It is therefore useless to associate it with the policies of a particular country. Until the beginning of this century, the United States effectively maintained a hegemonic position in these relations, overdetermining developments on the international stage. This is no longer the case today. Not everything on this planet is inspired by Washington. The mania of Western analysts who seek NATO everywhere can be compared to the instincts of Ukrainian nationalist intellectuals who are able to find Russian traces in every unpleasant phenomenon, including in the yellow vest movement. The argumentative level remains the same.

Thirdly, it is not only NATO and Putin that are endowed with agency. Taking a step back from a strict geopolitical reading, one could note the presence of tens of millions of other agents, who live for example in Ukraine. These people are not all puppets of the Kremlin, the Pentagon or Brussels. They have their own will, interests and perspectives. Ignoring the concerns of the Ukrainian working class while focusing on the psychological state of a handful of strongmen in the Kremlin or the Pentagon is deeply problematic, not only from an ethical point of view but also from a heuristic point of view. Sociology, anthropology, political economy provide much more useful tools for critical analysis than geopolitics – unless your goal is to produce politically correct clichés rather than understand the essence of the problem.

But what about this Ukrainian agency, aren’t they all Nazis there? I will not deny the existence of the problem of the extreme right, which weighs heavily on Ukrainian society. There is a lot of serious work devoted to the Ukrainian Nazis, some of which are written by the author of this text. Those who are really worried about the Ukrainian Nazis only have to read this literature, which has never interested the French-speaking left. This is the right opportunity to get informed, formulate a position on this subject and engage in the international fight against the extreme right alongside the Ukrainian comrades.

Here we will indicate only very brief elements of this complex history:

(1) Ukraine is an ethnolinguistic heterogeneous country, which does not make it deficient or exotic (Belgian ethnolinguistic groups are more distant from each other than in Ukraine);

(2) this heterogeneity has become a politicized issue only since the 2000s and is imposed by the logic of parliamentary competition;

(3) the far right is a by-product of this polarization that came out of the control of the political elites around 2013-2014;

(4) it exists on both sides of the political divide (pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian), although pro-Russian Nazis sometimes call themselves “anti-fascist patriots”;

(5) the “pro-Ukrainian” extreme right poses a huge problem for Ukrainian society, and it is made worse by the Russian invasion;

(6) so far, despite its influence within Ukrainian liberal civil society, the far right has failed to win more than 2-3% in elections over the past ten years;

(7) the “decommunization” and the centralizing approach that resembles the French in the linguistic field are very worrying trends in “normal” times, that is to say before February 24;

(8) the neo-Nazi Azov regiment is a significant factor in internal politics, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the entire Ukrainian army in the context of the current war.

In other words, neither Ukrainian society nor the state nor the Ukrainian army are “Nazis”, although the Ukrainian far-right is very real and dangerous in principle. Will this dangerousness be alleviated if the West stops supporting Ukraine in this war? On the contrary, in this scenario we will witness the creation of a political entity defeated by the Russians, geographically diminished and relentless in its virulent nationalism. The humiliation of defeat and anger towards the “Western liberal traitors” will be the ideal atmosphere for the flourishing of Azov and his ilk.

We would be delighted if the French-speaking left finally began, after all these decades, to take an interest in the subject of Ukrainian politics and to help us in our long struggle against Azov and other far-right groups, as well as against repressive laws in the cultural field. It is never too late for this kind of solidarity, especially since the French comrades undoubtedly have much to teach us, after their decisive political “victory” over any rightist tendency in their own country. The Ukrainians, who voted 73% for a Russian-speaking Jew with an anti-nationalist agenda, are taking any advice from the compatriots of Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. More seriously, I hope that the readers of this article agree that the presence of disturbing trends in domestic politics can in no way justify a so-called “humanitarian” invasion. If the protection of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine consists in slaughtering this same population by the thousands with cluster bombs and thermobaric bombs, I tremble at the idea of the protection that the Erdogan regime can provide to the French Muslim population. Fortunately, France is protected against this type of threat by its military alliances, which is not the case for Ukraine.

While waiting for the Western left to speak out against the ultra-right Putin regime and revive the socialist tradition of supporting the struggles of small nations against the imperialist oppressors, we are witnessing an attitude that only aggravates the situation. Western socialists who condemn all Ukrainians en bloc as “Nazis” “Atlanticists” are not neutral agents. Their position influences attitudes within Ukrainian society, which is moving further and further away from the left as the latter is perceived as “pro-Putinian”. By reinforcing the stereotypes implanted by the Ukrainian right, the Western left helps stifle any progressive initiative and amplifies the voice of nationalists. This self-fulfilling prophecy will in retrospect justify the positions taken today. The narcissism of socialists in rich countries will assert itself at the cost of social and political progress in a country on the European periphery.

About ten years ago, I would have said that the desire of the Western left to validate its opinions prevailed in any case, in all circumstances, over the desire to deepen its analysis and build living solidarity. But contrary to this pessimistic view, the comrades in the first world had been able to get out of their comfort zone by supporting the struggle of the Syrian Kurds – despite the nationalist and “militarist” character of this movement, framed by a single party and allied to the US government. Solidarity with the Ukrainian struggle could be the next step in the direction of the global anti-capitalist movement, based on equality and mutual aid for workers, away from the shameful logic of imperial “exclusive areas of interest.”

We are still a long way from that. The overlap of the Western left between two perspectives – that of political purity and that of reformist realism – puts Ukrainian workers and socialists in a double impasse. On the one hand, the Ukrainians are condemned because of their desire to join NATO (this wish has become the majority very recently, only because of the Russian policy of escalation) and to equip themselves with the means to lead armed resistance to the invasion. They are subject to the strict demands of antimilitarism, anti-patriotism and adherence to the socialist program of world transformation. If the entire nation is not mega-hyper-internationalist-communist, it does not seem worthy of the precious support of the socialists inhabiting the rich countries. At the same time, the latter allow themselves the luxury of reasoning in the “realistic” register, being very moderate on the socio-economic level of their programs and favouring the perspective of the realist school in international relations. The perspective that takes into account only the interests of the great powers is used by the movement that claims to be communist and internationalist.

Hence the typical responses to the current war: it’s very sad, but it doesn’t concern us that much. We condemn the war and that is why we are not going to do anything to stop it, not even a small statement. Because in any case, it is the fault of NATO that “surrounded” poor Vladimir Putin and provoked him. Putin must of course be denounced, but we must think about giving him “security guarantees”. Ukrainians, on the other hand, do not deserve security guarantees because they do not fascinate the Western imagination as much as Russia, exotic and attractive. Ideally, we would all be very happy in a world without nations or borders, but since there is a disgruntled imperialist, it is better to give him what he wants and continue to criticize his own imperialism, calmly. There is no alternative, as one of the Marxist classics put it.

What position seems reasonable to me? The simplistic picture offered by liberal narratives would certainly not fit. I am very far from the imaginary where this war would be a “struggle of civilizations”, a confrontation between the all-democratic Ukraine and the genetically authoritarian and malicious Russia, or a personal delirium of the Russian leader. Like any social phenomenon, it is complex, and this complexity cannot be sacrificed for a beautiful slogan. Those who want to better understand the context of this war can do so by referring to the academic and militant literature that exists on this subject. It is not only the EU, the USA and Israel/Palestine that deserve in-depth study.

Notwithstanding all this complexity, it seems relevant to me today to state:

(1) full support for the Ukrainian resistance, armed and unarmed;

(2) clear denunciation of the Russian aggressor, without ritual reservations about NATO;

(3) and to demand the withdrawal of all Russian troops from the entire territory of Ukraine, as a necessary condition for possible democratic self-determination;

(4) the cancellation of Ukraine’s external debt;

(5) confiscation of the property of Russian (and possibly Ukrainian) oligarchs to compensate for the damage caused by the war;

(6) the generous, unconditional and equal reception of all people fleeing Ukraine and other countries of the world to find asylum in rich countries;

(7) the launch of a globally coordinated energy transition programme to end dependence on hydrocarbons and the resulting political excesses;

(8) the disarmament of all “great powers” – the decisive ban on nuclear weapons and other types of armaments considered barbaric today;

(9) the democratization of the UN, which must equip itself with effective levers to implement these demands.

A basic level of political reflection and responsibility requires, in my view, adherence to these minimum points.

Source > Commons (original in French translated using a translation program)

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