A Progressive Response to Ukraine

We ought to be able to criticize U.S. empire without denying other bad state actors exist, each with their own objectives.

Joel Bleifuss

Yaroslav Kushta/Getty Images

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First, let’s dismiss those neocon commentators who are so eager to flex military muscle, such as Frederick Kagan from the American Enterprise Institute. Stoking the fires of war, Kagan wrote in the Hill, With a Russian takeover of Ukraine … the re-emergence of a serious Russian conventional threat on the Polish and Romanian borders would … require a remobilization by NATO states and the deployment of significant forces on those borders.” What good, exactly, will that do? President Joe Biden is not going to go to war with a nuclear power.

Second, let’s not fixate on NATO, that dinosaur of Cold War strategy. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, from the center-left Social Democratic Party, has made clear that Ukraine will not be joining NATO as long as he is in office, and Washington clearly has no appetite to assimilate Ukraine into the mutual defense pact anyway. NATO is only relevant because Russian President Vladimir Putin, cynically exploiting Russian anxieties over NATO expansion, is stirring up Russian chauvinist resentment in an attempt to justify a reckless
and illegal war. 

Third, let’s recognize that Ukraine, a sovereign state, has the right to its territorial integrity, which is being dismantled by its bigger, more powerful neighbor. Yes, there are Russian-speakers on both sides of the Ukrainian – Russian border, and Russia and Ukraine do share profound historical ties. These facts do not justify the flagrant violation of this most fundamental international norm.

Fourth, let’s recognize that Putin’s Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty for the past eight years. Recall the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and Russia’s military support for Russian speaking separatists. Putin, with his deployment of peacekeepers,” now appears set on remaking Ukraine in the image of Belarus (a Russian vassal state along the Ukrainian border), in which Russia has deployed 30,000 troops.

Now, during the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, certain elements of the Left rationalized Russia’s actions and preemptively blamed the United States for any forthcoming military operations, a reflexive reaction against Washington’s position. Over at Common Dreams, for example, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies — from the antiwar group CODEPINK—wrote February 17 that a Russian invasion was the least likely outcome” of the crisis, but should Russia invade: Biden would achieve the full blown Cold War that successive U.S. administrations have been cooking up for a decade, which seems to be the unstated purpose of this manufactured crisis.” On February 28, after the least likely outcome” occurred, Benjamin and Davies were back on Common Dreams, While condemning Putin’s invasion, they write, There is a more insidious reality at work beneath the surface, and that is the role of the United States and NATO in setting the stage for this crisis.”

Their confused version of anti imperialism falsely assumes all world developments are determined by schemers in the U.S. government, yet we ought to be able to criticize U.S. empire without denying other bad state actors exist, each with their own objectives. Here’s how Martin Kimani, Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, rebuked Russia in his remarks on the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, by drawing an illuminating analogy to 20th century history:

Today, across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds. At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later … . We chose to follow the rules of the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations charter, not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.

To the extent that Russian-speaking Ukrainians have legitimate grievances about the cultural politics of 21st-century Ukraine, those complaints must be addressed through some means other than the conquest, annexation and fracturing of Ukraine by a militarily superior power.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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