Gone Rogue: The Left and Ukraine

Joseph Grosso writing for Counterpunch argues that anyone searching for the position of the western left on the invasion of Ukraine, may find themselves confused. Instead of a coherent position one finds several, very different variants.


Source > Counterpunch

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced on 24 February, 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 its 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. 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, in fact a decent portion of the Left leans towards the imperialists. There is one faction that is openly pro-Putin, seen in spaces such as Consortium News and the Gray Zone, 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’s understandable effort. While Putin has always had an acknowledged fan club on the far-right (Trump, Bannon, Carlson, Giuliani, Pat Buchanan), the Left has by no means been immune.

Oliver Stone has long been explaining how Putin has been misunderstood by the West, once describing the people living under his rule ‘They have freedom of worship, they do what they want. They have travel, the Russian people have never been better off.’ In a recent interview, Stone presented this interesting history lesson, referring to Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter and one of Stone’s chief villains: ‘Brezinski was a Pole. He got revenge for Poland. Poland has always been attacking Russia, as far as I remember back to another century. The two world wars that occupied Russia so tragically, the entry points were always through Poland and Ukraine.’

John Pilger spent weeks mocking the possibility of an invasion, on February 17th he proclaimed it ‘is not running to schedule according to its Anglo-American promoters.’ Then after the invasion indeed came, on March 12th 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 and that low support has been consistent for years.

Monthly Review, the socialist magazine that has been running since 1949, its inaugural issue featured an essay by none other than Albert Einstein titled ‘Why Socialism’ (according to the website Einstein’s essay remains the magazine’s most popular work), has been flogging the complete Russian line for months. The initial response of the editors was liberally sourced with references to a racket called the Strategic Culture Foundation, a ‘think tank’ that has long been suspected as a front for Russia intelligence. The foundation has been banned by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (Einstein also now shares a screen with another crackpot pro-Kremlin outfit called Moon of Alabama). The editors described the Russian invasion as ‘When Ukraine and U.S.-dominated NATO continued to cross the red lines, Russia massively intervened in the ongoing civil war in Ukraine in alliance with Donetsk and Luhansk.’

There was no greater Putin shill than the late historian Stephen Cohen. In a 2008 Newsweek piece Cohen labeled Putin ‘The Savior.’ In an article in The Nation in May 2014 Cohen lamented that Putin isn’t ‘credited with stabilizing a disintegrating nuclear-armed country.’ A few months later, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile when flying over separatist controlled territory in eastern Ukraine killing all 298 people on board (a Dutch led Joint Investigation Team found that the launcher came from Russia the day of the attack and returned to Russia the next day), there was Cohen rushing to exonerate Putin, saying ‘I always ask, Who had a motive? The Russians didn’t have a motive, because it’s a catastrophe for Putin. Pro-Russian rebels on the ground- it’s not clear that they have the capacity. The Ukrainian government- they have the toys.’ On those rebels, in July 2014 Cohen wrote in The Nation: ‘It is true, of course, that the anti-Kiev rebels in these regions…, are aggressive, organized and well-armed—no doubt with some Russian assistance, whether officially sanctioned or not. But calling them ‘self-defense’ fighters is not wrong since their land is being invaded a government whose political legitimacy is arguably no greater than their own, two of their large regions [Donetsk and Luhansk] voted overwhelmingly for autonomy referendums.’ It is an understatement to say those referendums were flawed. In the same article, Cohen went as far to claim Putin was acting with ‘remarkable restraint.’ Was that actually a backhanded way of saying Cohen would have understood if a full Russian ‘intervention’ came a few years earlier? One wonders what Cohen would say now.

Speaking on Fox News, nominal left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald put forward a similar line and terming the invasion itself as a ‘border dispute’ between Russia and Ukraine. Greenwald went on to say ‘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 Kyev to be independent, suddenly the U.S. said, ‘this a war so vital to us that we need to involve ourselves in it.’ 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. This gibberish was soon trumpeted by Tucker Carlson and loudly replayed on Russia state media.

The greater ‘analysis’ collapses on itself, unless you ignore the words of Putin about Ukraine being an artificial creation of Lenin (one would think that might be the clincher for the Left) and the endless stream of Kremlin propaganda about ‘deNazification’ and ‘Greater Russia’, not to mention the Russian military’s attempted headlong rush to Kyiv. If the only goal was to free their fellow Russians from ‘genocide’, why did the Russian military attack the capital so quickly?

Here it is taken as a given that the region’s large Russian speaking, or sometimes more vulgarly put ‘ethnic Russian’, population is supportive, or at least sympathetic, to Putin’s aims, and that to some extent Putin has some concern for them as well. First, basic facts on the ground seem to go against this idea. Much of the Russian invasion has occurred in the east. Testimony of captured Russia soldiers reveal that they expected to greeted as liberators by the Russia speaking population. Instead, there has been fierce resistance. Mariupol is perhaps the most Russian city in Ukraine and the Russia military had no qualms in flattening the place.

This goes back further to the Maiden uprising in 2014. The event is often labeled a ‘coup’ by much of the Left. Strange that a months-long popular uprising against a corrupt president that 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. Then president Viktor Yanukovch 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 Maiden protest left dozens of protestors dead (in another bizarre twist, some of the Left even disputes that). The negativity stems from alleged U.S. and NATO involvement but while U.S. and European politicians publically supported the protests, including some (John McCain) meeting with far-right groups who played a role toward the end. It was certainly an example of great power hypocrisy, just witness the silly hysteria about Russiagate in the U.S. But there is no serious evidence they orchestrated the movement. In no way was this comparable to Chile in 1973 or Guatemala in 1954.

After Yanukovch fled to Russia, 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, Noam Chomsky proclaimed ‘The fact of the matter is Crimea is off the table. We may not like it. Crimeans apparently do like it.’ That latter sentiment apparently stems from a March 2014 referendum that took place in Crimea on the question of annexation. The results of the 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. In Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city, the turnout somehow reached 123 percent. At the time 37 percent of Crimea’s population was Tatar or Ukrainian. Would only three to seven percent of them vote against joining Mother Russia? If the presence of 21,000 Russian soldiers, lack of international monitors, and absurdly one-sided numbers, common in elections sponsored by dictatorships, don’t give it away, a report by the President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights was quoted afterward with these numbers: ‘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 was excluded. Impossible to imagine Chomsky overlooking this type of thing if the U.S. government was 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 Donbass, the historically industrial area in eastern Ukraine with a large Russian speaking population. It is true, going back to the aftermath of the Maiden uprising that parts of eastern Ukraine erupted in opposition. Despite the corruption, Yanukovch 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 unfolding 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.

Yet it is also true that only a small minority of people in Donbass wanted to join Russia- only 15 percent of people in Donetsk according to a Wall Street Journal 2014 poll. The conflict has burned on for years with both sides accused of human rights violations and has left the region largely deindustrialized. Between conflict and awful governance, from 2014 and 2018, Donbass lost roughly 60 percent of its GDP. The two ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk that emerged, while supposedly independent (but recognized only by Russia), are practically under Russian control. Again, those referendums that Cohen referred to were recognized by nobody, in fact not even the Russian government had the stomach for it. Factories have been stripped, the 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, ‘elections’ are uncontested. On the Freedom House 0-to-100 scale, Ukraine scores a 61 (in range of Colombia and Indonesia). These gangster republics in Donbass 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?

The 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 smeared as “appeasement.” War is inherently destructive, and in this war, it is Ukraine that will bear the brunt of the destruction.

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. Whatever one’s feelings about NATO, and its body count speaks for itself, solid majorities in Eastern Europe appear to support it. Leftist analysis often uses the passive voice that countries in Eastern Europe have been ‘absorbed’ into NATO, implying NATO expansion was 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 about it, why would any part of the Left rush to see the perspective of the Kremlin over those other states which are historic victims of Russian imperialism? Are the ‘legitimate security concerns’ of a state with the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal of greater concern than those of a country that gave up its arsenal under pressure in exchange for a piece of paper, the Budapest Memorandum, that was supposed to guarantee its sovereignty and borders?  Putin trampled on that in 2014. It is also worth mentioning that both Boris Yeltsin and Putin made noises about joining NATO at different times?

While it is absolutely true that the U.S. government wouldn’t welcome the expansion of a China-led alliance into its neighborhood, this is 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 Chomsky, who has recently taken to citing none other than Henry Kissinger’s ‘realism’ on the subject, sympathizing with the Monroe Doctrine. (Chomsky recently called Donald J. Trump the only ‘Western statesman of stature’ who was being sensible regarding Ukraine). The Left would be justly screaming bloody murder about American imperialism both historically and in the present day. The sovereignty of poorer, smaller countries has always been a left-wing priority. Plus there is the obvious fact that Ukraine was not close to joining NATO a few months ago anyway. And shouldn’t Ukrainians under attack take support where they can find it?

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 brings about 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? Many on the Left have shouted about the U.S. ‘fighting Russia down to the last drop of Ukrainian blood’, yet the among worst victims of the invasion are the countless Russian soldiers, many from the poorest regions of Russia, whose lives are being pissed away by a corrupt, incompetent, outdated army on a cynical imperialist venture. Such victims have no honor. In the fog of war exact numbers are hard to come by but estimates put Russian losses at around 15,000.

It goes without saying that war is a gruesome business and working 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. There is plenty for the Left to be doing. It 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.

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Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).