Solidarity with the people of Ukraine, in the face of the devastation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, is the overwhelming sentiment in the United States, and rightly so. This commitment to solidarity with Ukraine is politically ambiguous, however, with both reactionary and progressive potential.
The Beltway bipartisan foreign policy establishment has excelled at turning pro-Ukraine sentiment into a vehicle for militarism and nationalism. It has long agitated for confrontation not only with Russia, but China. It is using this moment to foretell an inevitable global conflict between an authoritarian “East” and a democratic “West” to win yet another increase to the already bloated Defense budget. Never mind that Russia’s nuclear deterrent renders the bulk of U.S. military power essentially useless.
Seeing such reactionary politics attached to pro-Ukraine sentiment, a progressive might hesitate to embrace the dominant spirit of solidarity with the people of Ukraine — but that response risks putting the Left out of step with not just popular sentiment, but also our own values. Pro-Ukraine sentiment aligns with an array of powerful progressive stances: anti-fascist, antiwar, anti-occupation, anti-oligarch, pro-refugee, and calls to cancel Ukraine’s sovereign debt.
The Left has an opportunity here to consolidate, clarify and strengthen these sentiments in support of a principled progressive and internationalist agenda. This agenda opposes not just this particular war and occupation and the oligarchs of this one particular country, but opposes them everywhere. It opposes not just the violent politics of Putin, but the authoritarianism and nationalism that have been gaining power worldwide. It supports refugees and debt cancelation not just related to Ukraine, but in response to crises in all countries, especially in the Global South.
In particular, there is an opportunity to situate Putin within a larger context of authoritarian and nationalist leaders, including in Hungary, India, China and Brazil — and in the United States, in the person of former President Donald Trump and his would-be successors. Of this group, Putin has consolidated the most power and is possibly the most ideologically extreme, but what is common to them all is the root of their politics, which grows from the failures of neoliberalism.
In the United States and much of the world, the economic and social upheavals that followed the 2008 financial crisis triggered rejections of the neoliberal status quo. Long-term economic dysfunctions and growing inequality have given rise to a spirit of zero-sum competition and growing insecurity. The conditions are ideal for the authoritarian Right to promote an array of reactionary politics that channel discontent toward convenient scapegoats through nationalism; racial, ethnic and religious supremacy; misogyny, homophobia and transphobia; and the rejection of globalization and cosmopolitanism.
The rise of Putin in Russia, starting back in the early 1990s, follows a similar pattern. A rapid and chaotic transformation of the Soviet state-led economy into a free market system — designed by Western neoliberal economists and implemented by Russia’s elites — devastated the Russian economy in just a few years. The process cut five years off of the average Russian’s life expectancy by 1994, and it enabled the sudden emergence of fabulously wealthy oligarchs. Putin came to power in the late 1990s by taking control of these new oligarchs and winning populist support through promises of economic renewal and a return to national glory.
True solidarity with Ukraine means not just opposing Putin’s reactionary violence, but attacking the root causes of reactionary power in Russia and elsewhere. By building a just and sustainable global economy — a world beyond the neoliberal status quo — we can overcome the trends of grotesque inequality and zero-sum competition. We can render obsolete the authoritarian and nationalist politics that so urgently threaten so much of the world.
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Tobita Chow is the director of Justice Is Global, a special project of People’s Action that is building a movement to create a more just and sustainable global economy and defeat right-wing nationalism around the world. You can follow Tobita on Twitter at @tobitac.