Russian President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu (Shutterstock)
It is tough for leftists to be on the same side as the mainstream. We can easily feel at those times that we’re missing something, that we’re letting down the struggle, that by ganging up even on an admittedly bad actor we’re helping strengthen the nemesis at home, allowing it to appear as the good guy. Ever since 1917, that has been the case with regards to the western Left and Russia. Before 1917, the Left saw the tsarist autocracy as the pinnacle of authoritarian reaction, an attitude that eased the path for the socialist parties of Russia’s enemies to embrace World War I. But ever since the Russian Revolution, the Left has been wary of joining with any western bourgeois condemnations of the country, despite its own often fierce objections to Stalinism or the clampdown on internal democracy.
As the war now enters its second month, we see this again in the case of Ukraine, despite the fact that Putin’s Russia is far closer to the tsarist model than to anything from the Soviet period. In the first days after the invasion, it seemed like almost all that prominent western left commentators could talk about was not Russia but NATO. The invasion was wrong, they usually stated at the outset and then proceeded to focus on the “real” culprit, invariably the West. Its guilt? That it had already expanded NATO to the east, and that it not ruled out the possibility of Ukrainian membership. It didn’t matter that NATO expansion was driven more by the east Europeans than by Washington, which was originally quite divided on the matter. Nor did it matter that NATO membership for Ukraine was hardly imminent, or that in no scenario was a NATO attack on Russia imaginable.
What mattered was that all these moves angered Russia, and it was the justified anger of Russia that so many western leftists seemed so eager to focus on in these first days following Russia’s invasion. In this way, they have effectively minimized Russia’s responsibility by embracing a “realist” view that the destructive rage of a “great” power is something the world must somehow accept as normal. It is not surprising that east European leftists have been unsparing in their criticism of their western counterparts, accusing them of “westsplaining.”
Even Noam Chomsky, while more viscerally critical of the invasion—he called it “a major war crime, ranking alongside the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Hitler-Stalin invasion of Poland in September 1939”—then proceeded to speak all about NATO, endorsing someone else’s claim that “there would have been no basis for the present crisis if there had been no expansion” of NATO. Once again, Putin appears here as almost helpless, apparently left no other choice but to invade Ukraine in trying to defend Russia.
The statement of the “Party for Socialism and Liberation” was blunter but not really different from the approach of too many others: “While we do not support the Russian invasion, we reserve our strongest condemnation [emphasis added] for the U.S. government, which rejected Russia’s legitimate security concerns in the region.”
In other words, in the first days of this brutal and completely unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country, the first concern of many western leftists was to contextualize the invasion, shifting the blame to the enemy at home, and thereby standing aside from the outpouring of mainstream condemnation.
As for its supposed “security guarantees,” perhaps Russia does “need” them; great powers always insist they do. But for leftists to be more concerned with the security interests of a great power—in this case, a right-wing militarist power that supports itself almost entirely by the mining and selling of planet-killing fossil fuels—than with the desires of a small people hoping to secure their independence and not be invaded, is scandalous. Leftists never treat the peoples marginalized by western imperialism in such a dismissive way.
Giving a Pass to Imperialism
And yet this is not so surprising to me. I have been writing as a leftist about eastern Europe since the late 1970s. When I harshly criticized Soviet policies, or supported opposition movements in the Soviet bloc, western left colleagues sometimes looked at me askance. After all, the mainstream press and usually even the American government often criticized the same things and at least discursively supported the same movements. Wasn’t I thus just endorsing western Cold War government policies when, as an American, I should be focusing on how to change things here?
In the early 1980s, I wrote numerous articles from Poland for the left American weekly In These Times about the Solidarity trade union movement there—a workers’ movement fighting against the Soviet-backed government that practiced participatory democracy, opposed capitalism, and demanded independent trade unions. When I got home, one friend introduced me as a “former leftist.” The fact that my critique of the putatively left state socialist system never sounded anything like that of bourgeois counterparts—the fact that leftists really defended Polish workers’ labor rights unlike, say, Ronald Reagan’s cynical defense of Solidarity while crushing labor movements back home—somehow meant nothing to some leftists, concerned above all that taking a certain position put them “on the same side” as their enemies at home.
Yet it’s contrary to all internationalist principles, and plainly Americocentric, to give even a slight pass to an imperialism just because the country doing it opposes the country you think does it more. Blaming America for Russia invading Ukraine is like blaming the German Communist Party for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. If the Party didn’t organize an uprising, which the Freikorps and government had made clear they would resist, they wouldn’t have shot her. In politics, states always face provocations. But they are not obligated to respond in the worst way possible.
The Problem of NATO
NATO has of course long been a major point of contention for Russia. The West has understood the prospect of Ukrainian membership as so unacceptable to Russia that NATO has repeatedly stated that there were no plans to do begin accession, though without formally withdrawing its 2008 statement that this was the long-term aim.
So, did Putin invade in order to keep NATO out of Ukraine? Objecting to NATO is one thing. But waging a war that invariably leads to the strengthening of NATO suggests that this is not the key question here. If the main aim were to take NATO membership off the table, Russia could have kept its troops surrounding Ukraine and announced that it was ready to invade. It would have then held off any attack pending emergency talks on Ukrainian neutrality. If rejected, it might have begun a limited incursion into the lands already controlled by separatists and threatened an escalation without an agreement on NATO. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said soon after the invasion that he was open to discussing the question of neutrality. Putin could have taken various steps short of all-out war to address what so many have said is Russia’s main grievance.
So, there must have been something else going on. And it hasn’t been hidden.
Putin has been expressing his views on Ukraine extensively for years. In July 2021 Putin wrote (perhaps even himself) a 7,000-word article completely devoted to two points: that Ukraine is an inalienable part of Russia and that Ukrainians have no right to govern themselves unless they do so in deep collaboration with Russia. The piece argues that an unbreakable connection between Russia and Ukraine existed for over a thousand years until it was broken definitively by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, allowing a large Ukrainian Soviet republic to become an independent state when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Forget for a moment the bizarre assumption that nations take on their eternal form at one particular moment of creation. Putin’s more important quote is this: “Soviet nationality policy created three separate Slavic peoples, when in fact there is only one large Russian nation, a triune people comprising Great Russians [i.e., Russians], Little Russians [i.e., Ukrainians], and Belorussians.”
The problem, then, with all the accounts focusing on NATO—a topic barely mentioned in Putin’s July text—is that they deny Putin agency. They present Putin as someone capable only of reacting, to America. Putin has repeated endlessly, and with signal clarity, what he thinks of Ukraine apart from the question of NATO. The NATO question is certainly not unimportant, but western analysts who keep stressing its absolute centrality are just plain guilty of not letting easterners, even in this case Vladimir Putin himself, speak for themselves. Yet Putin is clear: if NATO, one year ago, had taken membership off the table, Putin would still be left with the problem of Ukraine insisting that it is a completely separate entity from Russia.
Further evidence for the centrality of the “one great Russian nation” theme comes from a remarkable article published a day after the invasion in Novosti, the official Russian news agency, and then deleted hours later when it realized the extent of Ukraine’s resistance. Amazingly, some in the top leadership have believed this would be a cakewalk, because the article announces that “a new era” has begun, with Russia “restoring its historical fullness” by re-uniting the Russian people “in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarussians, and Little Russians.” Ukrainian independence, it continues, is intolerable because it means the “de-Russification of Russians.”
How much clearer can Russia say that NATO was only a minor symptom of a bigger problem? Publicly Russia spoke about NATO because it knew that this was something anyone wary of American power could latch onto, as a way of minimizing Russian responsibility. We should indeed be wary of American power. But if we are to listen to what Putin says, then we must acknowledge his clear and proud expressions of utterly imperialist ambitions toward Ukraine.
Putin and the Left
Do some people still harbor a view of Putin as some kind of leftist? Is that why there is still this reluctance in some western left circles (though not in eastern European left circles) to attribute the same ill intentions to Russia as they do to the United States?
It is true that Putin long served the Soviet state, belonged to the Communist Party, and famously bemoaned the end of the Soviet Union. It is also true that in most international conflicts during the Cold War, except for the ones inside the Soviet bloc, the Soviet Union was usually on the progressive side.
But Putin entered the state apparatus of the Soviet Union not for any progressive reasons, but to serve a powerful Russian state. There is no evidence of Putin having ever been interested in any kind of left ideology. He belongs squarely in the tradition of those old imperial White Army émigrés who began to embrace Soviet Russia in the 1930s when they saw that it was restoring the Great Russian power they had been pushing for all along.
In fact, the closest Putin comes to having an intellectual hero is one of the key theorists of the anti-Bolshevik side in the Civil War: Ivan Ilyin, a Christian monarchist and early admirer of Hitler, whose ashes Putin retrieved from America to have ceremoniously reinterred in Moscow. As for Russian leaders he styles himself after, his model is Tsar Alexander III, who reversed the reforms of his predecessor and strengthened authoritarian rule during his reign from 1881-1894, becoming a model for the west European right resisting liberal and socialist reforms just as Putin is now a hero for Marine Le Pen or Tucker Carlson fighting against egalitarian “woke” tendencies today.
George Kennan offered his warnings about NATO expansion before anyone had ever heard of Vladimir Putin. Any Russia was likely to be wary of NATO on its borders. But not every Russia would treat Ukraine as devoid of the most elementary rights of self-determination. Neither Lenin nor Gorbachev nor Yeltsin treated Ukraine that way, and Putin has denounced all three. Not every Russia would respond to a distant possibility of Ukrainian membership in NATO with an all-out war. And for those who keep returning to Russia’s justified fears of NATO on its borders, how to explain an invasion that is, as anyone could have predicted, already leading to a more aggressively anti-Russian NATO than anything since the end of the Cold War?
Recognizing Putin’s enormous culpability does not mean giving a free pass to America. Given its unwillingness to push for Ukraine’s NATO membership, it ought to have publicly taken the prospect off the table and worked towards a joint agreement for neutrality that would have defused Russia’s main talking point. Yet for all of America’s historic sins and culpabilities, the war in Ukraine is not one of them. Even Putin locates the causes of the war in Ukraine’s push for full independence—a push, he tells us repeatedly, that he cannot accept.
Almost no one on the left has supported the war. But saying “Down with the Russian invasion” and then turning immediately to blaming America, and only America, for provoking it is almost the same. Not only does it show a lack of basic understanding about Russia, it is also a stunning betrayal of the most basic internationalist principles. If we want to support the right of self-determination to America’s neighbors, we can’t deny the same to Russia’s. If we’re not able to recognize multiple imperialisms, we are guilty of the same kind of Americocentrism for which we castigate others.