The Ukraine War, One Year In: Three False Narratives
One year into the United States’ proxy war with Russia, the left has yet to cohere around a consistent, unified anti-war message — never mind a revived antiwar movement. Quite the reverse in fact, many on the left — including a number of self-described “socialists” — are supporting the war in Ukraine. The long beleaguered antiwar movement is finally and incontrovertibly dead.
Indeed, in many respects, the left has ceded ground in antiwar rhetoric to the right. For evidence of this, look no further than the February 19 “Rage Against the War Machine” demonstration, in Washington, D.C., which featured more libertarian speakers than socialist ones. While I hold great personal admiration for left-wing figures like Max Blumenthal and Chris Hedges, neither of them can accurately be described as “Marxist,” or even “socialist.” (Hedges, who often strikes me as more of an anarchist than anything else, disavows the label, “Marxist.”)
For the record, I am in no way opposed to forming a united front to end the U.S.-Russia war with people who hold views I disagree with — or even views that I find repugnant. I just think it is a sad indictment of the current state of the antiwar movement when the wing-nut libertarians are outflanking the left on antiwar organizing.
The unfortunate reality is that the renewed interest in socialism within the last decade or so has not led to a revived antiwar movement. The DSA/Bernie Sanders left is primarily oriented around labor organizing and domestic reforms. (These are important pursuits, no doubt.) The college-educated Millennials and Gen-Zers who largely make up the revived socialist movement are, perhaps, too young to recall the Iraq war. And the threat of being drafted to fight in Vietnam is ancient history to them. As a result, the few antiwar organizations still active in this country (like Veterans for Peace or Code Pink) are almost exclusively composed of aging Baby Boomers. Attend a Veterans for Peace rally and you are unlikely to encounter anyone under the age of 30.
If you try to stake out a consistent Marxist analysis of this war you are immediately and viciously denounced as a “Putin apologist,” or accused of succumbing to “Russian propaganda.” It is a testament to how fully propagandized working-class Americans are in our “democracy,” with its “free and independent” news media.
The following are three false narratives surrounding the U.S.-Russia war. This essay is styled after a recent piece by self-described “communist,” Paul Street, in CounterPunch (“The Ukraine War One Year In: Nine False Narratives,” Feb. 24, 2023). This piece is already long enough as it is, so I am going to limit my analysis to what I consider to be the three biggest bourgeois myths about the war.
Street, like so many on the Trotskyist left, wants to have it both ways: He condemns Russia’s “illegal” invasion of Ukraine, while also acknowledging the role the U.S. and NATO have played for decades in fomenting the conflict. Street makes no mention whatsoever of Ukraine’s shelling of the Donbass region, where the ethnically-Russian civilians are tortured, beaten, and killed by far-right Ukrainian nationalists. As a result, Street never articulates a coherent analysis of the war, beyond a muddled, “pox-on-both-sides” condemnation.
As Street says, “Let’s try to see through the lethal fog of propaganda…”
False Narrative #1: “Russia is the aggressor in this conflict. Putin’s ‘illegal’ invasion of Ukraine is ‘unprovoked.’”
Let’s set aside the fact that the United States and NATO have done everything conceivable to bait Russia into invading Ukraine. For decades, the West has allowed NATO to expand closer and closer to the Russian border — despite the U.S.’s decades-long pledge that it would not do so. Then there was the U.S.-backed Maidan coup in 2014, which toppled Ukraine’s democratically-elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, and installed a far-right regime.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year is precisely the outcome the U.S. wanted. Don’t take my word for it: Lloyd Austin, the secretary of “defense,” conceded as much last year when he stated that America’s goal is to tie Russia down in a prolonged war so as to “weaken” it. Indeed, this proxy war shares much in common with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — another instance in which the U.S. provoked Russia into a quagmire occupation.
But, let’s set all of that aside for a moment. The fact is that Russia held back for eight years while the pro-NATO nationalist government of Ukraine shelled and tortured the residents of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The residents of these areas, commonly referred to as the “Donbass region,” are ethnically Russian. They speak Russian — though their language has been banned in Ukraine.
The Donbass region declared independence from Kiev in 2014, following the Maidan coup. Authorities in the Donbass again took up a referendum to officially join Russia in late September 2022. Despite the referendum’s overwhelming passage, Western media were quick to dismiss the vote as “fraudulent,” insisting voters were “forced by gun-point” to approve the measure. Western capitalist media said virtually nothing of the 100 or so international observers who physically travelled to the Donbass to monitor the election. Many of the Western journalists who reported on the vote are now facing severe legal repression back home for “spreading Russian propaganda.”
Russia has tried — twice — to pursue diplomatic negotiations with Kiev, through the Minsk Agreements. But it has been rebuffed at every turn.
War is never desirable. I absolutely lament the innocent working-class Ukrainians and Russians who have lost their lives in this needless, completely avoidable war. And it is always the poor and working-class who ultimately endure the worst suffering in any war.
But ask yourself: How would the U.S. respond if Mexico surrounded the Texas border with warships? Do not doubt, for a minute, that the U.S. would not swiftly respond with the fullest, most savage force of the U.S. military — a response that would easily far outweigh anything Russia is capable of.
False Narrative #2: “This is an ‘inter-imperialist’ conflict. Socialists must oppose ‘Russian imperialism.’”
The question of whether — and to what degree — contemporary Russia constitutes an “empire” has generated much confusion among leftists and socialists, alike. Much of the confusion stems from a lack of clarity on the definition of “imperialism.” Liberals tend to have a very loose, generic (and decidedly unscientific) understanding of “imperialism,” which amounts to little more than “Big Country Invades Small, Defenseless Country.” If this shallow, simplistic conception is our sole understanding of “imperialism,” then, yes, Russia most certainly would qualify as an “empire.”
Marxists, however, have a more complex, materialist understanding of imperialism. V.I. Lenin, in his 1917 essay, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, defines “imperialism” as the monopoly stage of capitalism. Imperialism is the result of the merging of finance, banking, and monopoly capital. This stage, according to Lenin, is the logical and inevitable outcome of capitalism as it reaches beyond its own borders in search of new and ever-expanding markets.
While the global order has, no doubt, changed in the century since Lenin wrote Imperialism, his economic analysis of imperialism remains unsurpassed.
So is Russia an empire…? This is where things get somewhat complicated.
Russia does, indeed, meet certain criteria of Lenin’s understanding of imperialism. Russia has the eleventh largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $1.48 trillion. It supplies much of the oil and natural gas to Europe. And Russia has, in recent decades, seen significant financial gains from state-owned, multinational energy corporations like Gazprom, Lukoil, and Sberbank of Russia.
It is true that Russia is a net exporter of capital, as socialist YouTuber, Marxist Paul, points out in a video on the “perils” of “campism.”
But Russia’s overall GDP is still dwarfed by that of the United States. In many respects, Russia has been actively locked out of the “club” of the Global Elite, which is still fully dominated by the U.S. Likewise, Russia does not maintain nearly 800 military bases throughout the world, as America does. (Russia, by contrast, has about three dozen.)
This is not to suggest that Russia is a specifically “anti-imperialist” state. Vladimir Putin likely harbors imperialist ambitions just as any ruling-class capitalist. And he would no doubt seek to expand Russia’s geographic and political influence (just as the U.S. has over the last century-plus) if given the military power and opportunity.
Nor is it my contention that Russia is somehow still communist. Unfortunately for the world, it is not. The U.S. toppled the Soviet Union over three decades ago. The anticommunists on the left — of all people! — should know this better than anyone. And it is these same left anticommunists who are so enthusiastic about shipping weapons and fighter jets to Ukraine.
But Russia does not fully meet all of the criteria to be accurately labeled an empire. Thus, the contention that this is an “inter-imperialist” war is misleading. Russia’s motives in invading Ukraine stem far more from basic self-defense than from an attempt to “retake” Ukraine. Nor is Putin (an oligarchic capitalist) seeking to “re-build the former Soviet Union,” as anticommunist leftists like Ashley Smith ridiculously argue.
False Narrative #3: “There are no Nazis in Ukraine. This is just Russian propaganda.”
Leftists who support the fight for “Ukrainian democracy,” go out of their way to downplay (or ignore entirely) the presence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian military. The most prominent example, of course, is the far-right Azov Battalion. Prior to Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the fascist character of the Ukrainian government was widely reported on in the mainstream news media. Now, however, it is taboo to even mention.
Leftist cheerleaders for the proxy war will typically utilize two methods to casually dismiss the Nazi influence in Ukraine. 1) They will point to the fact that “popularly-elected” Ukrainian actor-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. And, 2) they remind readers that the Azov parliamentary candidates fared poorly in Ukraine’s most recent election.
But Ukraine’s “Nazi problem” is not limited to Azov, alone.
The truth is that Ukraine (which was once an integral part of the Soviet Union) has a long and troubling history of allying with fascists. The far-right, Ukrainian Organization of Nationalists (OUN) fought alongside Nazi Germany during the Second World War, killing 150,000 Ukrainian Jews, Poles, Romas, and Ukrainian communists. During the Babi Yar Massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust, the OUN in conjunction with the Nazi occupiers of Kiev, killed nearly 40,000 Ukrainian Jews in just two days.
These right-wing nationalists have ruled Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union and, along with it, the Soviet bloc. They maintain statues and have holidays honoring fascist figures like Stepan Bandera, Symon Petliura, and Roman Shukhevych. And these factions have been highly influential in creating the myth of the “Holodomor,” or Stalin’s “intentional” famine which he inflicted upon Ukraine from 1932–1933.
Yet disturbingly, many on the left (including an alarming number of self-described “socialists”) have little use for any of this history. Instead, Trotskyists like Ashley Smith chide the “tankies” for not supporting Ukraine’s “right to self-determination.” But what about the “right of self-determination” for the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics? Under the bourgeois warmongers’ “Acceptable Narrative,” which even the left subscribes to, these people have been erased, entirely.
No, I am not insisting that every citizen of Ukraine is a fascist. There are certainly socialists and communists in Ukraine, as well — though Zelensky and previous administrations have banned them.
The sad irony is that the very same people who spent four years decrying Donald Trump as a “fascist” seem perfectly content with arming and aiding actual neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Indeed, there was once a time when liberals, for all of their faults, at least understood the dangers of fascism. Socialists could form anti-fascist united fronts with liberals in the interest of fighting the far right. But, in our lopsided, post-Trump political environment, liberals now adore the FBI and the “Deep State,” and can no longer be counted on to fight Nazis.
Some Closing Thoughts: No War But Class War!
Suffice to say, the Biden administration’s unyielding support for Ukraine has nothing to do with “democracy,” or Ukraine’s “right to self-determination.” Working-class Ukrainians have about as much democratic influence in their corrupt, mafia-state government as working-class Americans have — which is to say, little to none. This conflict is not about the “fate of democracy.” However, given the war’s increasing risk of nuclear annihilation, it may well determine the fate of human civilization…
As it is, Russia’s victory seems all but inevitable. There is no way Ukraine can win this war. Yet the U.S. government continues to shovel millions of dollars into this failed proxy war. Meanwhile, the working-class residents of East Palestine, Ohio have been abandoned. The left must demand diplomatic negotiations to broker a peace deal. We desperately need a new antiwar movement to challenge the warmongers in D.C. The upcoming protest in Washington, D.C., on March 18 is, perhaps, a good place to start.
Down with NATO! No to U.S. imperialism! And, as always, “No war but class war!”