Self-determination and the war in Ukraine
The Western Left argues that supplying weapons to Ukraine will prolong the war and increase fatalities. In fact, the opposite is true
When I wrote ‘A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv’ two months ago, I hoped the shock of Russia’s invasion and the voices of the Ukrainian Left would push Western leftists to reconsider their approach.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case.
In analyses of the war by the western Left, Ukrainians are just victims in need of humanitarian aid, rather than subjects with desires that should be respected.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone on the Left — not by a long shot. Scandinavian and Eastern European left-wing parties have listened to Ukrainians and supported arms supplies to Ukraine. Some progress is taking place among US socialists. But even a joint statement by Ukrainian and Russian socialists hasn’t convinced enough people to support military aid. Let me try to talk to the Left once more.
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A just war?
Let’s start by addressing a common question: why is the West paying so much attention to Ukraine, and providing it with so much help, when other armed conflicts around the world are so often ignored?
I agree that other conflicts are paid insufficient attention. As I’ve written before, the fact that Europe has treated Ukrainian refugees so much better than their Syrian and Afghan counterparts is due to racism. This is a good time to criticise migration policies and point out that better help should be offered to all refugees.
But aren’t the potential consequences of the war reason enough to pay more attention to it? When was the last time the world was so close to the threat of nuclear war?
Admittedly, we can list many complaints about the domestic and foreign policies of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Ukraine isn’t even a classic liberal democracy. Here, every new president tries to amass as much power as possible via informal mechanisms, the Parliament passes unconstitutional laws, and rights and freedoms of citizens are often violated. Even during the war, the Ukrainian government has passed a law curtailing labour rights. In this respect, it is not very different from the rest of eastern Europe.
But this does not mean Ukrainians should give up the struggle. At the start of the war, I decided to join the Territorial Defence Forces – as did anarchists from Ukraine, Belarus and even a few from Russia. They dislike Zelenskyi and the Ukrainian state itself, they’ve been repeatedly detained during protests by police (as I have been), and some foreign anarchists have faced deportation attempts by the Ukrainian security services. But still we went to war. You may think that these are not ‘real’ anarchists – or you may consider the notion that we know something about eastern Europe that you do not understand.
I am a socialist, and I do not think that you should have to fight for your country in any defensive war. Such a decision should depend on analysis of the participants, the social nature of the war, the sentiments of the people, the broader context and the potential consequences of different outcomes. If Ukraine was run by a fascist junta and the situation was the one presented by Russian propaganda, I would still condemn the invasion, but I wouldn’t join the army. Leading an independent partisan struggle would be more appropriate. There are other invasions, such as the US invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, that should be condemned, but would it have been right to fight for the regimes of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein? I doubt it. Is Ukraine’s far-from-perfect democracy worth protecting from Vladimir Putin’s para-fascist regime? Yes.
I know that many dislike such terms. After the war began in 2014, when it became popular in Ukraine to label Putin a fascist, I criticised this view. But in recent years, his regime has become more and more authoritarian, conservative and nationalistic, and after the defeat of Russia’s anti-war movement, its transformation has reached a new level. Russian left-wing intellectuals, such as Greg Yudin and Ilya Budraitskis, argue that the country is moving toward fascism.
In many armed conflicts, it is right to call for diplomacy and compromise. Often in the case of ethnic conflicts, internationalists should not take a side. But this war is not such a case. Unlike the 2014 war in Donbas, which was complicated, the nature of the current war is actually simple. Russia is waging an aggressive imperialist war; Ukraine is waging a people’s war of liberation. We cannot know how Ukraine will develop after the war – it depends on myriad of factors.
But we can say for sure that only if Ukraine wins will there be a chance for progressive change. If Russia wins there will be horrible consequences. This is the main reason to support the Ukrainian resistance, including with military aid.
The Ukrainian far Right
Here, some readers might ask another question: what about the Ukrainian far Right? In the more reasonable debates on this topic, one side always stresses the far Right’s low electoral support and lack of representation in Parliament, while the other emphasises that, due to infiltration of law enforcement agencies and active participation in street protests, the far Right has had disproportionate influence over Ukrainian politics.
While these arguments are correct, both sides usually ignore that the disproportionate influence of the far Right was based largely on the weakness of civil society and the Ukrainian state, rather than its power.
The far Right’s presence can be felt across eastern Europe, but the dynamics are different in each country. In the late 2000s, the Russian far Right unleashed terror in the streets, including bombings, pogroms, and other lethal attacks. After the Manezhnaya Square riot in Moscow in 2010, the Russian state began to crack down on the far Right, and its members fled the country or were jailed. Some went to Ukraine, which was a safe place for them not least because the repressive apparatus of the Ukrainian state is so much weaker. (The relative weakness of the state was also the main reason for the success of mass protests in Ukraine compared to Belarus, where demonstrators faced arbitrary detention and torture, or Kazakhstan, where Russian-backed security forces led a deadly crackdown.)
In recent years, the far Right’s power in Ukraine has been subject to new challenges. Once, the movement compensated for electoral failures by strengthening its presence on the streets. But since the Maidan revolution in 2014, the development of liberal civil society has changed the balance of power in street politics. Until recently, there wasn’t always a clear line between the far Right and other political forces. This is gradually changing, due to the rise of feminist and LGBTIQ movements, which oppose right-wing radicals.
What’s more, there has been a resurgence of the antifa movement on Kyiv’s streets, following the successful campaign against the deportation of Belarusian anarchist Aleksey Bolenkov last July, and the protection of the city’s central Podil district from the far Right months later.
Since Zelenskyi came to power in 2019, the far Right’s alliance with the liberals, which formed during the years of struggle against the Yanukovych regime, has also slowly started to collapse. And after interior minister Arsen Avakov, who had close ties to the far-Right Avoz movement, a volunteer paramilitary militia, resigned in July, the state apparatus began to treat the far Right more coolly.
Of course, the war has changed everything, and what happens next will depend on many factors. The participation of the Ukrainian far Right in the current war is less noticeable than in 2014, with one obvious exception – the Azov Regiment. But not all Azov fighters are from the far Right, and, as part of the National Guard and the Armed Forces, they carry out orders from the high command. And Azov is only a small part of the Ukrainian resistance. There’s no reason to assume the current war will push the rise of the far Right to the same extent as the war in Donbas.
Today, the main threat to Ukrainian citizens is not the country’s far Right, but Russia’s occupying forces. This is true even for groups that have often been attacked by the far Right in recent years, such as Roma or LGBTIQ people, who are now also active in the Ukrainian resistance. And it applies to residents of Donbas, too. Kremlin propaganda has hypocritically used Donbas residents to justify the invasion, accusing Ukraine of ‘genocide’ while the Russian military razes the region’s cities to the ground. While people join huge lines to enlist in the Territorial Defence in Ukraine, in the Russian-controlled part of Donbas, men are caught on the streets, forcibly conscripted, and thrown into battle, without training, like cannon fodder.
Another common argument against Ukraine’s resistance is that this is a proxy war between the West and Russia. Any military conflict is multilayered, and one of the components of the current confrontation is an inter-imperialist conflict. But if that is enough to call this a proxy war, almost all armed conflicts in the world are proxy wars. Instead of arguing about the term, it is more important to analyse the degree of Ukraine’s dependence on the West, and to understand the goals of both imperialist camps.
Ukraine is much less of a Western proxy than the Syrian Kurds were US proxies during their heroic fight against ISIS. But proxies are not puppets. They are local actors who receive military support from other states. They have their own interests. And just as leftists supported the fighters in Rojava, north-east Syria, despite the Syrian Kurds receiving US military aid, leftists should support the Ukrainian people. Socialist policy on armed conflicts should be based on analysing the situation on the ground, rather than on whether an imperial power supports one side or the other.
In recent months, some leftists have used the history of the First World War to argue that socialists should not support either side in inter-imperialist conflicts. But the Second World War was also an inter-imperialist conflict. Does this mean neither side should have been supported? No, because the inter-imperialist conflict was only one dimension of that war.
I have previously written that many representatives of anti-colonial movements did not want to fight for their colonisers during the Second World War, and one of the leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC), Chandra Bose, even collaborated with Nazi Germany. But it is also worth mentioning the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, another Indian anti-colonial leader: in the conflict between fascism and democracy, we must unequivocally be on the latter’s side.
It should also be noted that M.N. Roy, arguably the INC’s most left-wing member, was the most consistent of the congress’s leaders in supporting the Allies’ war against Axis powers. Just as this didn’t mean Roy suddenly supported British imperialism, backing the struggle against Russian imperialism does not imply support for American imperialism.
Of course, the situation is different now. Direct participation of other states in the war will only make the situation worse. But socialists should support economic pressure on Russia and demand tougher sanctions and embargoes on Russian oil and gas. Many of the sanctions currently in place are designed to weaken Russia’s military industry and hinder Moscow’s ability to continue fighting. Leftists should also support sanctions on oil and gas imports from Russia, which will further increase economic pressure on Putin to end the war.
The US may have learned its lesson by disgracing itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia must now learn its lesson, too, and the tougher, the better. Defeat in war has repeatedly provoked revolutions, including in Russia. After Russia lost the Crimean War in 1856, serfdom was finally abolished in the Russian Empire. The First Russian Revolution of 1905 took place shortly after Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. Losing against Ukraine could spark a new revolution. With Putin still in power, progressive change in Russia and most post-Soviet states will be almost impossible.
Western states share responsibility for this war. The problem is that many radical leftists criticise these states for the wrong reasons. Instead of criticising the supply of weapons to Ukraine, they should criticise the fact that even after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas, EU countries continued to sell weapons to Russia. The responsibility for that decision lies with Western governments, not the Left. But rather than try to change the situation for the better, much of the left is foolishly trying to make things even worse.
Ukrainians are well aware that war is terrible. This is not our first war. We have lived with the conditions of a smouldering conflict in Donbas for years. We are suffering major losses, and we will continue to suffer if the war drags on. It is up to us to decide what sacrifices we are willing to make to win, and what compromises we must make to stop death and destruction. The US government agrees with this – I do not understand why much of the Left prefers to take a more imperial approach, demanding that the West decide for us.
So far, the Kremlin has been unwilling to make serious concessions, it is waiting for us to surrender. But Ukrainians will not agree to the recognition of its territorial conquests. Some argue that supplying weapons to Ukraine will prolong the war and increase the number of victims. In fact, it is the lack of supplies that will do that.
Ukraine can win, and that victory is what the international Left should stand for. If Russia wins, it will establish a precedent for the forced redrawing of state borders and push the world into a Third World War.
I became a socialist largely under the influence of the war in Donbas and my realisation that only overcoming capitalism will give us a chance for a world without war. But we will never achieve this future if we expect nonresistance to imperialist intervention. If the Left does not take the correct stance on this war, it will discredit and marginalise itself. And we will have to work for a long time to overcome the consequences of this nonsense.
This article originally appeared in Dissent.
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