No Sympathy for Killers

A little more than a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there remain those on both the Left and Right who refuse to unreservedly condemn the Russian government for the invasion. I lack any means to influence the Tucker Carlsons of the world, so I’ll stick to views from the Left.

The DSA International Committee statement of January 31, issued during the Russian military buildup but prior to the invasion, placed the onus for tensions on the United States, NATO and Ukrainian extremists – and assigned no fault to Russia. The official DSA statement, issued on February 26, shortly after the invasion started, condemned Russia for its aggression but also called for US withdrawal from NATO.

With bombs raining down over Ukrainian cities, the Russian military indiscriminately attacking military and civilians targets alike – including bombing a maternity hospital – and a humanitarian crisis that has driven millions from their homes, how does one find any villain in this story other than Vladimir Putin and his government?

Here are the main arguments one hears as to why Russian doesn’t deserve the blame, or all of it:

  • Russia was provoked by NATO expansion. Since NATO was formed to counter possible Soviet aggression during the Cold War, there was no justification for its continuing existence after 1991 except to limit and humiliate post-Communist Russia. The subsequent eastward expansion of the alliance and Ukraine’s move to join it left Russia feeling encircled and threatened.
  • Related to the point above, the real problem is the imperial ambitions of the United States and its European allies.
  • Ukraine is home to neo-Nazi militias and their supporters, perhaps even some occupying high government positions.
  • Ukraine is home to millions of ethnic Russians who would prefer their communities to be part of Russia.
  • Ukraine was historically part of Russia anyway.

All of these points have some degree of merit. Yet whatever claim Russia had to the world’s sympathy was erased when its military started killing Ukrainians.

Yes, the world lost an opportunity to ease European tensions for the long term when NATO embarked on expansion after the Soviet Union collapsed. The global peace movement and Left should have campaigned harder for NATO’s abolition, or at least to limit its size and scope.

However, this doesn’t serve as an excuse to use military force to obliterate a sovereign nation (and many of its people). Comparisons with Nazi Germany are too often bandied about like confetti, but one parallel with the current situation is particularly apt. After World War I, Germany was unfairly tarred by the victorious Allies for responsibility for the war when there was plenty of blame to be shared by the major European powers. The reparations and territorial losses humiliated Germany, and Hitler played on these grievances to gain power and wrest initial concessions before launching his own war.  Were the grievances valid? A lot of them were. Did they justify everything that came next? That question answers itself.

The official DSA statement’s inclusion of a demand for US withdrawal from NATO sounded so tin-eared because it was so ill-timed. Right now, NATO is a large reason why Ukraine hasn’t already been swallowed up (at least as of the time this issue of the Socialist goes to press). The Ukrainians are fighting heroically, but billions in NATO military aid have been critical in helping their troops resist superior Russian firepower. Every day Putin makes the case for NATO’s continued relevance.

Yes, the United States is an imperialist power, with military interventions almost too numerous to list (although the late journalist William Blum tried). History reminds us, however, that Russia had long been engaged in aggressive imperial expansion when the Pilgrims were still learning to grow squash. The breakup of the Soviet Union was the belated (partial) dismantling of the old Tsarist empire. Russia still incorporates numerous non-Russian communities that were victims of long-ago imperial ambitions. Americans took to the streets to protest many of the United States’ military ventures, from Vietnam through Iraq. Why not when Russia does it? World citizens have a duty to oppose violent imperial expansion, whether undertaken by their country or another.

Neo-Nazis in Ukraine? Sure. They’re in a lot of places, including the United States. I don’t want Russian bombers blowing up our cities to eradicate them.

As far as Ukraine once having been part of Russia: That’s a dangerous game called revanchism. The Left normally doesn’t invoke this to excuse Russia, but nevertheless all who cherish peace should condemn the notion that any country has the right to take back militarily any territory it held at any time in the past. That’s a recipe for unending global war, and has been used as a justification for, to give one example, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. All indications are that Putin’s aggression is increasingly causing Ukrainians with Russian ethnicity or sympathy to fully embrace a Ukrainian identity. 

Yes, Russia has legitimate grievances about the way it has been treated over the past three decades. But a deadly total war against Ukraine is not a justified incursion, it’s not escalation, it’s a war of choice with the aim of erasing a sovereign country, no matter how many deaths it takes. The world must demand of Russia: Stop the bombing and pull out the troops. Then we’ll talk. 

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