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Why Ukraine Matters for the Left

Opposition to U.S. adventurism is principled. But this is Putin’s adventurism, and the left must stand firmly against it.

A demonstration in support of Ukraine in Krakow, Poland
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
A demonstration in support of Ukraine on May 29 in Krakow, Poland

Weeks after the September 11 attacks, Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece in The Atlantic castigating an American left he saw as unwilling to recognize the enemy that had just attacked the United States or support appropriate measures to confront it: “My chief concern when faced with such an antagonist is not that there will be ‘over-reaction’ on the part of those who will fight the adversary—which seems to be the only thing about the recent attacks and the civilized world’s response to them that makes the left anxious.” 

Hitchens turned out to be totally wrong about this. As the next 20 years demonstrated, he should in fact have been quite concerned about the overreaction, which would comprise multiple—and some still ongoing—military interventions, lead to the proliferation of adversaries, kill hundreds of thousands of people, and displace millions. It would also embolden very similar forces, marching under different flags but adhering to a no less radical ideology, here in the U.S. In short, a series of devastating and still mounting losses for the principles Hitchens espoused. 

A number of leftists were scalded by Hitchens’s opprobrium in the piece, which marked a full embrace of the armed interventionism that would characterize his remaining years (he died of cancer in 2011). One target that stands out is Susan Sontag (who would die of cancer three years later), who had dared to suggest that the attacks were partly a consequence of U.S. policies (a claim, ironically, the Bush administration would affirm with its own short-lived “Freedom Agenda,” which sought to reverse decades of U.S. support for Middle East authoritarians) and that Americans should not allow our collective trauma to be exploited to support a new Crusades.  

“Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together,” Sontag wrote in The New Yorker. “A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.” Hitchens scoffed at this “disdainful geopolitical analysis.” Sontag’s piece was, in retrospect, more courageous and prescient than anything he would ever write again, asking tough and necessary questions at precisely the moment they were needed, when asking them would be the costliest.

There is, however, a line from Hitchens that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I consider the Biden administration’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine and the debate within the U.S. left about it. All the left’s objections, Hitchens wrote, “boil down to this: Nothing will make us fight against an evil if that fight forces us to go to the same corner as our own government.” 

Yes, it was hyperbolic and unfair. I would like to make sure it remains so. Hitchens saw 9/11 as a moment to decisively break from the left and, if not to join the right, at least to join the pro-war herd. I am interested in building the left. Today, the U.S. left is stronger and more influential, and growing faster than at any time in my lifetime. On the most important national security, economic and trade policy, and social justice issues of our time, the left has gotten it right. But it’s important to think through how our values of social justice, human security and equality, and democracy are best served in a response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

We should acknowledge absolutely that skepticism toward the kind of righteous sloganeering we’ve seen around Russia’s war is entirely reasonable. Our political class advocates military violence with a regularity and ease that is psychopathic. Our politicians demand others show more courage in the face of Vladimir Putin’s violence than they’ve ever been able to muster in the face of Donald Trump’s tweets. We should not, however, let all of this absurdity blind us to the instances when provision of military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order. Assisting Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion is such an instance. 

The endless military interventions of the last 20 years have engendered a hard-won skepticism not just among the left but among the American people toward the use of force. Our arms dealer–funded think tanks don’t like it, but this is the appropriate default position for a responsible democracy. It’s hard to escape the impression that many in Washington see the war on Ukraine as a boon, something to help both transcend our internal battles and lift U.S. foreign policy out of the doldrums and restore its meaning and potency. This is incredibly dangerous.

But we should also recognize that the Biden administration is not the Bush administration. The Biden team clearly did not seek this war, in fact they made a strenuous, and very public, diplomatic effort to avert it. Having been unable to do that, they’ve acted with restraint and care not to get drawn into a wider war with Russia while also making clear the stakes of the conflict for the U.S., for Europe, and for the international system. I have not been shy about criticizing this administration where it has failed to uphold progressive principles. It’s a long, depressing, and growing list. But Ukraine is an area where I think the administration is getting it mostly right.

Still, for many of my friends on the left, this is all too familiar. It is all too convenient that, having finally drawn the longest war in our history to an ignominious close in Afghanistan, we should now happen into a new one to give us meaning. I get that sentiment. But I think we should interrogate it.  

In the interest of “steel manning” leftist objections to the U.S. role in Ukraine—that is, addressing the arguments in their strongest form—I’ll look at arguments from two of the giants of the international left, two people for whom I have tremendous respect, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky and Brazilian opposition leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In an April interview with Current Affairs’ Nathan Robinson, Chomsky said, “There are two options with regard to Ukraine”: 

As we know, one option is a negotiated settlement, which will offer Putin an escape, an ugly settlement. Is it within reach? We don’t know; you can only find out by trying, and we’re refusing to try. But that’s one option. The other option is to make it explicit and clear to Putin and the small circle of men around him that you have no escape, you’re going to go to a war crimes trial no matter what you do. Boris Johnson just reiterated this: sanctions will go on no matter what you do. What does that mean? It means go ahead and obliterate Ukraine and go on to lay the basis for a terminal war.

Those are the two options: and we’re picking the second and praising ourselves for heroism and doing it: fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.

In an early May Time magazine interview, Lula said, “Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty”:

The U.S. and the E.U. are also guilty. What was the reason for the Ukraine invasion? NATO? Then the U.S. and Europe should have said: “Ukraine won’t join NATO.” That would have solved the problem.… That’s the argument they put forward. If they have a secret one, we don’t know. The other issue was Ukraine joining the E.U. The Europeans could have said: “No, now is not the moment for Ukraine to join the E.U., we’ll wait.” They didn’t have to encourage the confrontation.

First, of course we should be pushing for a settlement. The longer this war grinds on, the worse it will be, foremost for the Ukrainians but also for a world already suffering from a pandemic and climate change–induced food crisis. As of this writing, I have seen no evidence of a settlement in the offing—as in, a deal that Putin would actually entertain, let alone accept—that we’re refusing to “push for.” Ukraine presented Russia with a far-reaching set of proposals over a month ago, including a commitment to “permanent neutrality.” Volodomyr Zelenskiy continues to offer to negotiate directly with Putin to end the war. As for the claim that the U.S. and allies are “fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian,” this disingenuously suggests that Ukrainians are merely instruments of U.S. policy. But it should be clear by now that the Ukrainian people are going to fight the Russian invasion whether we help them or not. The U.S. should certainly be actively engaged in finding a diplomatic path to end the war, and avoid committing to maximalist aims that could foreclose one, but for the moment that path is unclear.

With regard to Lula’s claim about NATO, it is worth remembering that in the weeks leading up to the war, U.S. allies, specifically German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, signaled clearly that these issues were on the table. Scholz and Macron both came out of their separate hours-long meetings with Putin and specifically cited the issue of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership as items under discussion. Or, more exactly, not under discussion, as in it was not going to happen. It was not enough. To be clear, it was entirely appropriate to discuss these concerns if there was even the smallest possibility of averting this catastrophe. But we should recognize that Putin has now made that discussion moot.

Look at what Putin himself said in the speech he gave on the eve of the invasion, in which he laid out a vision of reclaiming not only the Soviet sphere but a pre-Soviet vision of a new Russian imperium. While we should not dismiss the political salience of NATO expansion within the Russian political system—multiple U.S. officials have acknowledged those concerns over the past decades—we also shouldn’t pretend it’s the whole story. As Putin has made clear, NATO expansion is only one part of a much larger set of grievances. One can perhaps always insist that “we should’ve done more,” but based on what we know now of Putin’s goals and grander vision, it seems absurd to suggest that even an ironclad public pledge from President Biden that Ukraine would never be accepted into NATO would have convinced Putin to draw back the 180,000 troops he had placed on Ukraine’s borders.

It would be foolish, however, not to recognize that Lula is giving voice to many in the global south who are skeptical toward rallying calls from a U.S. that acts with total impunity, and toward appeals to a “rules-based international order” from countries that break those rules when they see fit. Recognizing that hypocrisy, and recognizing the role that the U.S. and its allies have played in undermining the order they themselves built, is essential for building a better, more stable, humane, and progressive one. But preventing powerful countries from invading and obliterating weaker ones should be a core principle of any such order. And past hypocrisy shouldn’t serve as an excuse for failing to say that clearly, and act on it. 

Yes, it is maddening to see calls for accountability for Putin’s atrocities from the same people who endorsed, defended, and continue to oppose any meaningful accountability for America’s own. It is infuriating to see our political class chuckling about George W. Bush’s recent Kinsley gaffe about “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq,” as if it isn’t the confession of a war criminal. But suggesting that Bush’s impunity is a reason not to hold Putin accountable is asking Ukrainians to join Iraqis in footing the bill for our corruption. 

As a counterpoint to Lula’s position, consider the stance of Gabriel Boric, Chile’s new president. Few countries in the world are more entitled to point the finger back at the U.S. than Chile, whose socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a U.S.-backed military coup in 1973, followed by decades of repression under the brutal military government of Augusto Pinochet. Yet Boric—whose Cabinet includes Allende’s granddaughter—declared solidarity with Ukrainians. “Russia has opted for war to solve conflicts. From Chile we strongly condemn the invasion of Ukraine, the violation of its sovereignty and the illegitimate use of force,” he said in a March 1 statement. “Our solidarity is with the victims, and the peace efforts.” 

The question of solidarity is one we on the left have to take seriously. And here we should acknowledge what our Ukrainian colleagues and others from the region are saying. “The argument of the left should be that in 2003, other governments did not put enough pressure on the United States over Iraq,” wrote Ukrainian historian and activist Taras Bilous. “Not that it is necessary to exert less pressure on Russia over Ukraine now.” 

This solidarity has been hard to find in some of the statements from the Democratic Socialists of America. To be clear: The cherry-picking of their statements by the White House’s rapid response director and left-punching of floundering moderates is transparently cynical and opportunistic. Centering opposition to U.S. imperialism and militarism is an entirely appropriate starting point for any U.S. left organization, even if it’s not the whole race. Hard questions need to be asked, especially now, about the goals and interests NATO actually serves. But we also need to ask hard questions about how our struggle against militarism works alongside our commitment to colleagues around the world who require more than just a call to stop the war.

With that said, it’s important to differentiate between the genuine anti-war anti-imperialism of DSA and others in the American left and the pernicious authoritarian agitprop of The Grayzone and the like. The right’s goal is to divide the left, and we should not help them, but the goal of building a stronger left is served by identifying, engaging, and organizing with those genuinely acting on principles of solidarity, democracy, and human rights and not wasting time with atrocity-denying grifters and click-baiting provocateurs.

It is right to be cautious about getting drawn into something bigger than we want. It is right to be concerned that the administration’s rhetoric is, to paraphrase one of the Reagan era’s military recruiting films, increasingly writing checks that its policy can’t cash. Here, as after 9/11, fear of overreaction is entirely appropriate—our foreign policy apparatus is designed to stoke, and then cash in on, overreaction. And our job is not simply to allow Ukrainians to write U.S. policy. Americans—all of us—are now implicated in this war. If the American people are providing arms, as we are to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, then we have a reasonable interest in, and reasonable expectation of influence on, its outcome. The Biden administration has made clear the kind of outcome the U.S. is trying to produce, but also rightly made clear the limits of U.S. engagement and the overriding concern about avoiding nuclear escalation. 

One thing the left definitely should not do, nor anyone, is buy into the narrative that Russia’s war on Ukraine has restored America’s mission and purpose. That our country can seem to allocate money efficiently only toward weapons and little else should be a source of shame, not pride. Observing how easily tens of billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine were moving through our otherwise obstreperous and unproductive Congress, Adam Tooze summed it up: “That they can agree on that and not on health care or climate change policy is a sign of America’s own dysfunction.” 

Despite the enchantment of our political class, Russia’s war on Ukraine is not a manic pixie dream conflict that will lift our country out of its legitimation crisis. If we allow this moment to be used simply to reassemble a broken Washington foreign policy consensus, we will not reverse that crisis, we’ll deepen it. An influential, well-organized, and growing political left is essential to repairing this country—and that includes its foreign policy. The response to Russia’s war on Ukraine is a key part of that. It is possible, indeed it is essential, to apply the historical awareness that Sontag urged, and not be stupid together, while acknowledging that supporting the defense of Ukraine is the right thing for the global left to do. Even if our own government is doing it.