A More Progressive Response to the Ukraine Crisis

U.S. progressives should condemn Russia’s invasion—and oppose NATO.

Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies

Civilian participants in a Kyiv Territorial Defence unit train on a Saturday in a forest on January 22, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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This op-ed is a response to A Progressive Response to Ukraine,” published by In These Times on March 14.

On March 14, In These Times publisher Joel Bleifuss published an editorial headlined, A Progressive Response to Ukraine,” in which he mischaracterizes what the two of us have written about this crisis and fails to acknowledge the positive contributions that many progressive groups are making to both explain the crisis and work towards a solution.

Bleifuss cites our articles in his assertion that certain elements of the Left rationalized Russia’s actions and preemptively blamed the United States for any forthcoming military operations.” 

In our writings since last November, we certainly described U.S. provocations: the West’s broken promises on NATO expansion; NATO’s ill-advised promise of membership to Ukraine; the U.S. role in the 2014 overthrow of the Yanukovych government, which we argue was a coup; the Trump administration’s support for President Zelensky’s failure to deliver on the Minsk II agreement; and the Biden administration’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Russia over its security concerns after 30 years of expansionist U.S. and NATO policy in Europe.

We did not use these to justify the Russian invasion but to explain our government’s role in stoking tensions. Once the invasion happened, we immediately condemned it as an unjustified, brutal, illegal act of aggression. 

Bleifuss insists that progressives should not fixate on NATO,” and says that NATO is only relevant because Putin uses it to cynically stir up Russian resentment. But if NATO had disbanded as the Warsaw Pact did in 1991, or if it had not expanded to Russia’s border, we doubt that Russia would have invaded Ukraine. 

If anything, progressives should fixate” more on NATO, an aggressive military alliance that has a history of illegally invading sovereign states, such as Afghanistan and Libya. It promotes a vicious cycle of militarism by insisting that all 30 members spend 2% of their GDP on preparations for war instead of on the real needs of people and the planet. It is an alliance in constant search of new enemies to justify its existence.

Regrettably, the Ukraine crisis has given NATO an enormous boost. Right now, our call should be for no NATO expansion.” But as soon as this crisis is over, we should join with our progressives colleagues in Europe and elsewhere to call for the disbanding of NATO.

Bleifuss’ main point that progressives should be able to criticize the U.S. empire without denying that other bad state actors exist is precisely what most anti-war groups have been doing. 

On February 24, the very day of the Russian invasion, RootsAction, a progressive group, condemned Russia and said that the world desperately needs a single standard of accountability to prevent the crime of war — a crime that the Russian government is now committing in Ukraine and the U.S. government continues to commit elsewhere as part of the ongoing war on terror.’” 

Veterans for Peace, an anti-war organization, put out an excellent statement that begins: Just as Veterans For Peace condemned U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, we strongly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and grieve for all those who have lost their lives in this horrific war.” Numerous other progressive groups put out similar statements condemning both the Russian invasion and U.S. policies. 

Right now, progressives should put their efforts into opposing the no-fly zone that Zelensky has been calling for. We must help people understand that this would trigger a direct U.S. confrontation with Russia and the real possibility of another world war, as well as a nuclear confrontation. We should be pushing the White House and Congress to hold fast on their rejection of this request, and push them to give full support to the ongoing negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. 

This crisis should also make it crystal clear to progressives that we must get serious about building a massive global movement to support the UN Treaty to ban nuclear weapons. 

Without condoning or excusing Putin, who bears the direct and immediate responsibility for the invasion of Ukraine, progressives need to push our government to stop fueling the war, and instead do everything it can to bring the war to an end. 

And rather than fueling divisions among progressives, In These Times should be rallying progressives to do everything they can — get out into the streets, make congressional calls, write op-eds, hold teach-ins — to end this war and to lay the foundations for a much stronger and more effective U.S. anti-war movement.

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Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

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