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The Left’s Bad Takes on Ukraine

Intelligencer logo Intelligencer 3/20/2022 Eric Levitz
A residential neighborhood in Kyiv’s Podilskyi district on Friday after a Russian missile struck the area, damaging or destroying countless buildings. At least one civilian was killed in the attack, dozens were injured, and hundreds were forced from their homes. Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images © Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images A residential neighborhood in Kyiv’s Podilskyi district on Friday after a Russian missile struck the area, damaging or destroying countless buildings. At least one civilian was killed in the attack, dozens were injured, and hundreds were forced from their homes. Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As Russian missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities, the American left has come under a more figurative kind of fire.

In recent weeks, a wide variety of publications and politicians have taken U.S. leftists to task for their collective response to the crisis in Ukraine, which has been derided as blinkered, “pro-Putin,” and worse things besides. These critiques have prompted rhetorical reprisals from socialists who contend that their faction’s analysis of the war has been unerringly sound, both morally and analytically. More ambivalent fellow-travelers, meanwhile, have vacillated in the crossfire.

The debate over the American left’s position on Ukraine is confounded by disagreements over what constitutes “the American left” and its position on Ukraine. The impetus for most discourse on this subject were statements published by the Democratic Socialists of America’s International Committee (DSA IC). Yet that committee does not represent the views of all DSA members, let alone, Americans who identify with “the left.” And the DSA IC’s policy demands — the lifting of sanctions against Russia, the denial of military aid to Ukraine, and America’s immediate withdrawal from NATO — directly contradict the positions held by America’s most prominent socialist politicians.

If conservatives have elided this complexity to declare the entire U.S. left weak on Russian aggression, some socialists have done the same for contrary purposes. In the Atlantic, Elizabeth Bruenig argues that centrist and conservative critics of the DSA IC have refused to engage its policy “arguments on their merits,” opting instead to litigate the morality of its rhetorical tone and emphases. Contrary to the claims of such hippy-punching moralists, Bruenig writes, the left’s actual views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict remain “credible and well-attested in the mainstream.” Yet Bruenig substantiates this claim by equating Bernie Sanders’s views on the war with those of the DSA IC. Bruenig writes that the left’s anti-war position does not mean “abandoning Ukraine,” but rather, offering “maximal support to Ukraine without triggering a Russian response that would intensify conditions on the ground”; namely, providing it with some arms and sanctioning its invader. But this is a description of Bernie Sanders’s (and Joe Biden’s) position on the war, not the DSA IC’s.

Bernie Sanders commands exponentially more power and support than the DSA IC, which is a small (and internally controversial) subcommittee within a socialist organization that has less than 100,000 members. So it makes sense for Bruenig to treat Sanders’s position as the best proxy for the U.S. left’s writ large.

Within the small world of self-identified American leftists, however, the DSA’s substantive positions are far from marginal. Indeed, a large contingent of prominent leftwing writers, activists, and organizations have argued in recent days for ending U.S. sanctions against Russia, withholding military aid from Ukraine, and immediately dismantling NATO. This contingent’s perspective deserves to be taken seriously. For one thing, its analysis spotlights many inconvenient truths that few other American political factions wish to acknowledge. As importantly, however, the weakness of some of its arguments reflect genuine pathologies within the U.S. left’s foreign-policy thinking — above all, an ideological rigidity that leaves American socialists ill-equipped to interpret the emerging multipolar world order, and therefore, to change it.

Many on the American left were ideologically unprepared for Putin’s invasion.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caught much of the U.S. left off guard.

As 190,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border in January and February, conventional wisdom among U.S. leftists held that no war was in the offing. They were hardly alone in that assessment. The Ukrainian government had itself argued that Western officials were overhyping the threat it faced. Some mainstream Kremlinologists believed the same. They noted that Russia’s state media was not preparing its populace for a major war, and that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine made little strategic sense. Vladimir Putin might be ruthless, the reasoning went, but he was not reckless.

Many leftists echoed these premises. But their widespread (if hardly universal) failure to anticipate Putin’s intentions was not rooted in such dispassionate analysis alone. The vehemence with which some socialists automatically dismissed the U.S. government’s narrative — which is to say, its “over-the-top” prediction that Putin was intent on “marching to Kiev and toppling the Ukrainian government” — betrayed ideological discomfort with that possibility.

In the realm of foreign affairs, America’s leftwing activists and intellectuals are at our most cogent and self-confident when holding the U.S. government to account for offenses against the peace. And before Putin’s invasion, it wasn’t that hard to see the Russia-Ukraine crisis as a byproduct of America’s overweening imperial ambition if you cocked your head to the left.

As socialists have emphasized in recent weeks, the U.S. backed NATO’s expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, in defiance of both its promises to Russian authorities and the counsel of its own national security elite. Everyone from George Kennan to Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Thomas Friedman warned that extending a Western military alliance to Russia’s borders risked provoking conflict between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. Nevertheless, the U.S. carried on projecting power eastward, eventually extending an offer of NATO membership to Ukraine itself. This drew objections from the socialist left, but also from the likes of Henry Kissinger, who warned that trying to turn Ukraine into an “outpost” of the West would risk its very survival, since “to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”

America proceeded to seek influence over Ukraine’s domestic politics, using soft power to channel Ukrainians’ domestic discontents over corruption and economic stagnation towards a movement for Western integration. Following 2014’s Maidan Uprising, the U.S. lent its backing to a Ukrainian government that undermined the language rights of Russian speakers and other minority ethnicities. The U.S. did all of this knowing 1) that there were profound divisions within Ukrainian society over the questions of language policy and whether to align with Russia or Europe; 2) that Russia had repeatedly signaled that it considered a Western-aligned Ukraine intolerable; and 3) and that NATO wasn’t actually prepared to fight in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, should it come under Russian attack.

In sum, in the left’s account, U.S. foreign policy placed the advancement of Western influence above the welfare of ordinary Ukrainians, whose security and domestic stability would have been maximized by an embrace of neutrality between the great powers to its east and west.

This remains a worthwhile critique of America’s policies toward Ukraine. Indeed, Putin’s war of aggression only underscores America’s recklessness in declaring that Ukraine would “one day” join a military alliance hostile to Russia — only to refuse, for more than a decade, to actually grant Ukraine that alliance’s protections.

Yet even before Russia’s invasion, the left’s dominant narrative about the crisis in Ukraine had its awkward aspects. It is perfectly natural for foreign policy “realists” like Kissinger to disdain heedless affronts to Russia’s “sphere of influence,” or to insist that Ukraine must give Putin’s kleptocratic regime veto power over its foreign policy. But socialists do not generally recognize the legitimacy of imperial orbits, nor counsel acquiescence to relations of domination, for the sake of conflict avoidance.


Video: Health crisis spills out of Ukraine conflict (Reuters)

Meanwhile, the notion that Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion was rooted in its “legitimate security interests” — as a segment of leftists routinely avow — is hard to credit. Surely, a nation’s only legitimate security interests are defensive ones. And Russia’s nuclear arsenal was always sufficient to deter the threat of an invasion (as we are now seeing, that arsenal is menacing enough to stop Western leaders from entertaining so much as a no-fly zone for Ukraine, nevermind an offensive invasion of Russian territory).

These ideological tensions notwithstanding, the left’s basic narrative remained coherent, so long as Putin could be understood as a rational actor with limited demands. Leftists could comfortably castigate Western leaders for choosing “to make war inevitable by refusing to compromise,” if compromise meant acquiescing to Ukrainian neutrality. By contrast, if Putin was in fact preparing for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine aimed at forcing regime-change in Kyiv, then the West’s culpability for the present crisis would be greatly attenuated. In that circumstance, the left could still take the U.S. to task for co-authoring the conflict’s background conditions; which is to say, for serving as midwife to the birth of Russia’s oligarchy, failing to integrate Russia into a comprehensive security architecture after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and encouraging Ukraine to pursue a foreign policy that was likely to imperil its people.

But if the Putin of 2022 believed that invading and occupying Europe’s second-largest country was a good idea, then there was no basis for believing that Western imperialism was the chief obstacle to a diplomatic resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. America could not cajole the Zelenskyy government into suicide. If Putin wanted to install a puppet regime atop Kyiv’s ruins, then decrying “U.S. brinkmanship” and NATO’s “imperialist expansionism” would not qualify as a remotely serious response to the crisis. Thus, when the DSA IC condemned those forces in a late January statement — which included not a single criticism of the Kremlin — the committee also lambasted the “sensationalist Western media blitz” that was “drumming up conflict” through its histrionic predictions of an impending Russian invasion.

When reality turned against leftwing orthodoxy, some leftists turned against reality.

Once Putin validated the Western media’s predictions, the American left’s ideological orthodoxies ceased to provide it with unambiguous policy guidance. Socialists generally support the self-determination struggles of nations victimized by imperial aggression. But they are also typically wary of flooding war zones with American munitions. DSA’s supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel affirm the legitimacy of economic sanctions as a means of liberating a people from military domination. Yet such leftists also know that sanctions are a form of collective economic punishment against civilians, and routinely decry their use. The American left disdains NATO for its destructive humanitarian interventions. Yet it also prizes solidarity with socialists in less fortunate corners of the globe. And many Eastern European leftists consider NATO a vital bulwark against their republics’ subjugation to a reactionary autocracy, a conviction that became difficult to dismiss once Putin launched a war of imperial conquest.

Instead of grappling with these complexities, however, many leftists have simply pretended that they do not exist.

On Wednesday, the DSA IC voiced its opposition to U.S. military aid to Ukraine, arguing that the provision of weapons to the Ukrainian government would “escalate the conflict and prolong the war.” Instead, the committee argued that “progressive anti-war voices” should push for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

This basic line is shared by many progressive commentators and organizations. In an otherwise thoughtful piece, the leftwing reporter Ross Barkan argues that liberals have fallen prey to “crackpot realism” — meaning a maniacal, moral fervor for escalating deadly conflict — on the grounds that they support sending arms to Ukraine. Rather than aiding Ukraine’s self-defense, Barkan implores progressives to demand peace, which can “only come with an agreement that both Ukraine and Russia can live with, a prospect that Western talking heads do not want to accept.”

In Jacobin, Branko Marcetic offers a tellingly elliptical version of the same argument. Instead of making a forthright case against providing military aid to a democratic government suffering an imperial invasion, Marcetic chooses to inveigh against the purely hypothetical prospect of arming a future Ukrainian insurgency against a Russian-imposed puppet government in Kyiv. This maneuver shifts the terrain of debate into the left’s comfort zone. Rather than confronting the tension between socialists’ historic commitment to national struggles against imperial aggression and its wariness of flooding warzones with weaponry, Marcetic’s reframing allows him to recycle the left’s battle-tested arguments against funding destabilizing insurgencies against loathsome regimes. Yet the moral force of those arguments derives from their recognition that the evils of state failure and civil war tend to outstrip those of despotism. In the actually-existing Russia-Ukraine conflict, however, it is a Russian military victory that threatens to plunge a nation into ungovernability and civil strife, irrespective of U.S. policy.

By column’s end, Marcetic’s case against “turning Ukraine into another Afghanistan” starts shading into an argument against providing arms to a sovereign government under siege, insisting that peace cannot be achieved through a “military solution,” but only through “a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement that guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity (and gives Moscow a road back from what at this point looks like a disastrous miscalculation) while addressing Russia’s long-standing security concerns.”

What all of these analyses willfully ignore is the clear relationship between Ukraine’s military strength and the plausibility of such a settlement.

Three weeks ago, Russia had no interest in a diplomatic solution that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity; it aimed to dissolve the Ukrainian military and install a puppet regime in Kyiv. It was the Ukrainian army’s unanticipated success in fending off a much larger Russian force that led the Kremlin to abandon those demands, and entertain settling for Ukraine’s neutrality. Nevertheless, Russia is still insisting on large territorial concessions. And its refusal to agree to a ceasefire calls the sincerity of its diplomatic posture into question. Should the fragile military stalemate between Ukraine and Russia break decisively for the latter, there is good reason to believe that a “mutually agreeable settlement” will become impossible.

This reality is not difficult to understand. But acknowledging it would leave the American left without any pat ideological answers to the question of how to advance peace and justice in Ukraine. And some socialists seem more interested in maintaining their ideological comfort than engaging with reality. Thus, the DSA IC baselessly declared this week that the United States has largely rejected negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, suggesting that Western imperialists remain the primary obstacle to peace. Nevermind that, in one recent poll, nearly 80 percent of Ukrainians said that they were not “ready to accept” Russian sovereignty over the Donbas, even if doing so “guaranteed an immediate end to the war.” Nevermind that, in the words of Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous, Zelenskyy could not concede to Russia’s current terms without driving many Ukranians into an embrace of insurrection and “guerrilla warfare.” Nevermind that the Kremlin is denying that any “major progress” has been made in negotiations, despite the fact that Russia has already gotten Zelensky to forfeit Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership in those talks (a fact that calls the centrality of NATO to the present conflict into question).

It is theoretically possible that, at a certain point, Ukraine’s military strength might lead it to prioritize total victory over a negotiated settlement, at a terrible cost to human life. But no one in the world understands the horrors of this war better than the Ukrainians. If anyone is fit to judge when the costs of resistance outweigh those of compromise, it is them. And in any case, given the imbalance of forces, the risk of Russia attaining a degree of military dominance than nullifies its interest in diplomacy is much greater.

My point here is not to assert that arguments against arming Ukraine should be beyond the pale. Such a policy entails real harms. These weapons will not disappear on the day peace is declared. Many will find their way onto black markets, and from there, to places where they will kill and maim innocents. Further, if one deems Russian military victory a foregone conclusion, then there is a case that minimizing needless death requires abetting Ukraine’s swift defeat. That is a grim argument, and one that seems much less credible now than it did two weeks ago. But it isn’t ludicrous. What is ludicrous, however, is to speak as though there is a button marked “mutually agreeable diplomatic settlement” that Joe Biden could press today, if only he weren’t mashing the “more guns” button instead.

The left’s arguments against America’s sanctions policy have been more worthwhile. The risks of waging a near total economic war on a nuclear superpower are vast and unprecedented. And the immediate impact of U.S. sanctions is to immiserate many Russians who are powerless to influence their autocratic government, while also exacerbating hunger crises in the Global South. Given the routine failure of sanctions to deter aggression, it is hard to say with confidence that the benefits of economic warfare will outweigh its costs. Yet the socialist left is one of the only factions in U.S. politics that’s interested in subjecting our sanctions policy to cost-benefit analysis.

Nevertheless, it is doubtlessly the case that sanctions make it harder for Putin to finance his war machine. And the DSA IC has not made much of an effort to explain why this is an unworthy goal. Nor has it tried to reconcile its moralistic objections to sanctions against Russia with its support for BDS. In theory, there are plenty of ways of rationalizing these stances: One could believe that broad-based sanctions are more likely to work in Israel, since Israel’s government is democratically accountable to much of its population; or that economic warfare against Russia carries a nuclear risk that economic warfare against Israel would not; or that “BDS” describes a demand for narrowly targeted sanctions, rather than the broad-based kind being inflicted on Russia. That last argument strikes me as dubious; it is hard for me to believe that, if the United States decided to kick Israel out of the dollar-based financial system until it withdrew all settlers from the West Bank, the American left would mobilize in opposition, on the grounds that sanctions “severely impact working-class people.” Regardless, failure to acknowledge and explain the apparent contradiction invites the suspicion that the DSA’s foreign policy stances derive less from considered principles than ideological reflex.

It’s the lack of thought that counts against.

The American left contains multitudes. Some of its factions have navigated the present crisis with humility and curiosity. And the left’s more dogmatic members have also made some valuable contributions to the discourse on Russia-Ukraine; socialist polemics remain a better guide than mainstream reports to many aspects of the conflict. On the questions of refugee resettlement and debt forgiveness, meanwhile, the left’s solidarity with Ukraine is more robust than that of more mainstream political tendencies.

Nevertheless, some of the most prominent leftwing writers and organizations in America have proven too ideologically rigid to see the conflict through clear eyes. Their arguments have been less offensive for their substantive content than their intellectual carelessness. Obvious counterarguments go unaddressed; apparent contradictions, unexplained; falsified predictions, unaccounted for.

This apparent aversion to acknowledging complexity and moral ambiguity should trouble anyone invested in the left’s political project. Socialists forfeit all hope of persuading anyone outside their esoteric circles if they call for choking off military aid to Ukraine and demand a “mutually agreeable diplomatic resolution” to the conflict without 1) addressing the obvious objection that Ukraine can only hope to secure such a settlement through force of arms; 2) offering an evidence-based theory for how Russia can be persuaded to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity through sheer diplomacy; or 3) explaining why the left would oppose sending arms to a democratic government struggling against domination by a far-right autocracy, given its historic support for arming the Second Spanish Republic and the Sandinista government. The American left can’t begin to fulfill its vision for change without dramatically expanding its ranks. Associating itself with undercooked defenses of toxically unpopular positions on the world’s most salient geopolitical crisis seems like a poor way of doing about that task.

Of course, the hazards of ideological inflexibility aren’t merely reputational. The American left inherited many of its present verities from the Cold War era and ensuing period of U.S. global hegemony. But the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Incisive analysis of the emerging multipolar order, and the challenges it presents to egalitarian change, will require nimble thinking. Succumbing to dogmatism will not only undermines the left’s capacity to win power, but also, its fitness for wielding it.

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