As the invasion enters its second year, Ukrainian resistance and success has stunned a world that expected their immediate collapse in the face of a supposedly unstoppable Russian military colossus.
Everywhere that Ukrainian forces have liberated territory, they have found the same thing: torture chambers and mass graves left by occupying forces, towns depopulated through mass deportation, targeted executions of Ukrainian political and cultural figures. Anyone that doubts Russian colonial occupation can match the brutality of any of the planet’s other empires should be obliged to read every harrowing report.
Having failed in their initial attempt at a lightning strike to depose the democratically elected Ukrainian government, Russia has resorted to raining mass bombardment on all civilian infrastructure of Ukraine. Power lines in the midst of winter, kindergartens, maternity wards, libraries, historic sites, even Soviet war memorials – all are targets. This of course is no surprise to anyone who has followed the monstrous scorched earth air war Russia has waged on Syria.
Faced with assault by a vastly larger, nuclear-armed superpower, many in the west expected immediate disintegration of resistance, evacuating their embassies and preparing for an occupation administration in Kyiv. For the initial months of the invasion, Ukraine fought with minimal international support. When the expected collapse didn’t happen, NATO countries were ambivalent about whether and how much to arm the Ukrainian resistance.
Military support has been piecemeal, heavily debated each stage of the way and caveated. It has only increased in direct proportion to Ukrainian forces disproving western assumptions on the battlefield. Whether or not to provide a handful of battle tanks has been a pained discussion wrought by delay and indecision, and aircraft to repel relentless aerial attacks appears to be a step too far for even the most vocally ardent of Ukraine-supporting states.
As a result, the Ukrainian government has been forced to beg anyone who will listen on the world stage for arms. This humiliating position, in which societies who have not known the risk of invasion or occupation for generations debate the worth and cost to themselves of Ukrainian lives, has at times boiled over into a full-scale upbraiding by Ukrainian officials of the failures of European countries to assist their neighbour in repelling aggression.
Yet for many purportedly “left” commentators, these are the acts of “puppets” or “pawns”. In order to ignore the voices of those under attack, it’s necessary to mentally construct a nation of 43 million people as nothing more than a chess piece, which can be sacrificed by the players sitting safely far away at the side of the board – where we imagine ourselves to live. It is in fact a distinctly imperialist view of the world, in which the only actions that matter are those of the great powers.
Russian imperialism on the advance
Russian state propaganda paints the invasion as primarily a proxy war between equal powers to hide the reality. This is a brutal imperial attack by one of the planet’s largest empires to subjugate a nation it has colonised for centuries – and is as much about shoring up a domestic authoritarian regime and crushing the prospect of internal opposition as it is about re-establishing a colonial “sphere of influence” (the so-called “Russian world”).
Always conspicuously absent in this view has been any attention to the perspective or experiences of Ukrainians. It’s painfully obvious that those calling for negotiations with the aggressor and an end to support for Ukrainian resistance, claiming themselves to be acting in humanitarian interest, have not taken the time to speak to Ukrainian refugees in their community, or to learn about how Ukrainians have responded to the last year of invasion.
This view spans a range of positions from outright support for Russia’s narrative of the war to a boilerplate sentence deploring the invasion while then going on to excuse it through supposed western provocation. Undercutting both are two key assumptions that are demonstrably false, and that originate in Russian propaganda.
Firstly, that Ukraine is not a democracy, but in fact ruled by a far-right regime installed by a western-backed coup in 2014. This is a claim completely impervious to reality. In this alternative universe, the government democratically elected in 2019 and begging for our support is not in fact legitimate, and we can ignore their pleas.
Secondly, that the countries surrounding Russia constitute its sphere of influence, where it should have an unchallenged right to be the final political determinant without obstruction. This imperialist attitude has been argued time and again by supposed “anti-imperialists” who would never accept such logic about the US and Latin America. But due to historic sympathy for — and confusion around — the global role of Russia, these principles are reversed when it comes to the supposed traditional Russian “sphere of influence”.
NATO expansion is seen as a nefarious plot to neuter Russia. This is divorced from the reality that many countries in eastern Europe correctly assessed that it was probably only a matter of time before the Russian state returned to a historic pattern of militarily dominating its neighbours. Decisions on NATO membership were taken by democratically elected governments and often ratified by referenda. Whatever we might think of such decisions, they were not imposed; in fact, membership applications were often met with deep ambivalence from American policymakers keen to preserve their precious chess board.
The last year has demonstrated that Ukrainians will never submit to the status of puppets and pawns. They will continue to demand the world’s support and deserve it, because their battlefield is one of the most crucial fronts in the worldwide conflict taking place between and within different countries to preserve and extend even a semblance of democracy and prevent our societies falling to a rising wave of authoritarianism and extreme reaction.
Struggles for democracy
The regime in Russia has increasingly abandoned any pretence of acting democratically, facing mass protest at rigged elections and assassinating or otherwise eliminating important critical voices. As it has progressed toward full dictatorship, the real threat that Ukraine poses has emerged. The idea that Ukraine could pose a security risk to Russia is of course ludicrous; the real threat is that of a good example.
The Russian regime cannot tolerate the presence of a genuine democracy in Ukraine. It threatens Russian-aligned oligarchical access to and control over Ukraine’s resources. But even more crucially is the risk that it raises questions for people inside Russia itself.
Despite the heroism of the Ukrainian war of national liberation, and despite the nihilistic violence of the occupation, this has also been a year in which significant sections of the global left have refused to deal with the facts that this conflict has revealed, in the process covering us all with shame.
For everyone on the left around the world, the ghosts of all our nightmares have returned to haunt us. The war forces all of us to face pasts that have seemed for decades like ancient history – and yet which continue to exert an undead influence on how we understand the world today. In order to hold on to core beliefs or stories, there are some things you have to systematically unsee. Our legendary histories of the 20th century are becoming unstuck.
How can we explain the fact that, for many, Ukrainians are not a people deserving of solidarity in the way that Palestinians are, or the Vietnamese were before them? A number of related factors are at play, which boil down to the ossification and decay of the left’s ability to view our current historical reality except through the lens of a greatly mythologised past.
There is the simple fact that the current Russian state inherited an immense historical asset from its Soviet predecessor. Although the worldwide network of Communist parties and aligned organisations has collapsed relative to its 20th century height, there remains a skeleton of infrastructure in many countries around the world – including many postcolonial countries where they continue to hold far more political power and influence.
There is also the legacy of all the Soviet efforts to fight the Cold War ideologically and politically, with propaganda explicitly depicting the USSR as a member, defender of and leader of the colonised world and the global working class, rather than another, different form of brutal empire. This was, on various occasions, backed with military aid to various insurgent forces around the world.
For many, it’s incredibly difficult to let go of or update their view of this legacy, because there remain some positive elements of how such groups and individuals interacted with their own local context which they desperately wish to hold on to. But of course, it’s also true that this numerous and global section of what calls itself the left was, in the final analysis, subservient to the foreign policy objectives of the Soviet state. In many cases such activists were forced to act against their own local interests on the orders of Moscow. Much like the view of Ukraine today, the Soviet state saw social and national struggles around the world as chess pieces to be deployed or sacrificed as part of a grander competition.
Soviet and imperial nostalgia
Of course, as many have pointed out, for this legacy to be transferred to the Russian state today is preposterous. While it appropriates Soviet imagery and mythology, and longs for the USSR’s geopolitical strength, the current Russian regime also explicitly and vocally aims at a project of creating an imagined continuation of pre-1917 imperial Russia.
This confused historical consciousness is perhaps best represented by the widely circulated photo of a Russian chest tattoo of both Tsar Nicholas II and Stalin (pictured right). But Russian leaders are well aware of how to trigger these loyalties with historical gestures towards a selectively retold version of the Soviet role in World War Two – reflexively accusing their adversaries of the Nazism they so increasingly resemble.
This messaging is delivered internationally by a sophisticated array of media and communications strategies, targeting different sectors with tailored messages. While the primary audience for Russian propaganda internationally is a conservative and far-right one, this also includes media platforms very specifically designed to influence people on the left.
Rosy nostalgia for the Soviet role in decolonisation struggles obscures the deeply ambivalent role that Soviet and then Russian influence has played in the developing world, but more importantly the fact that Russia is itself an empire. For many it’s hard to conceive of this because of the different form this empire took – vast land expansion over a continental mass, rather than trans-oceanic colonisation. But it’s time we understood that colonisers don’t only travel in ships. It systematically blinds us to the immense historic struggles of countries like Ukraine, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia, or Chechnya and Kazakhstan.
Today, minority nationalities such as Buryats fighting in Ukraine are dying at highly disproportionate rates as they are used as cannon fodder. Their Russian commanders’ view seems the same as what was once said of Highland soldiers used similarly by the British army: “No great mischief if they should fall.”
The absence of left dissidents
Throughout the Cold War, how to relate to the “Russia Question” was an existential issue for the left. While pro-Soviet forces were numerically much larger, there was a minority of various anti-Stalinist socialists and anarchists who also tried to highlight the realities of the USSR and point towards a different model of the future. And yet today, many of the groups that inherit these traditions are functionally identical in their view of the Ukraine conflict to the heirs of the pro-Soviet Communist parties. What happened to their critical consciousness? Why are so many supposedly critical forces repeating the same Kremlin propaganda?
For starters, we must question how critical such voices truly were of the USSR, if they have so easily fallen back into parroting parodic versions of its old propaganda. For many socialists, the purpose of criticising the USSR was to rescue its legacy. Theological disputes emerged over correct terminology, and the exact moment that the Russian Revolution fell from its own legendary Garden of Eden. When the horrors of Stalinism and Soviet repression were spoken of, high in our thoughts were the people like us that suffered from it.
For many socialists, the greatest crime of the USSR was to kill socialists and stain the name of socialism, all while claiming to be socialist – much more than the suffering of the Soviet-ruled peoples as a whole. Once again, focusing on our own ideological perspective on this history has blinded us to the much larger suffering of wider societies, particularly in the subjugated nationalities of the USSR. For many wider awareness of the vague and undefined horrors of Stalinism would require too much painful critical engagement.
The Soviet crimes in Ukraine rank among the great crimes against humanity of the 20th century, including the deaths of millions through consciously engineered famine, and decades of cultural and political suppression. If you find yourself balking at that description, feeling a knee-jerk reaction that surely the crimes of Russian imperialism can’t be compared to the more familiar crimes of European powers or the US, it’s time to sit back and examine why that is, and perhaps learn a bit more of our shared history.
Of course, the whole world of doctrinal dispute on the nature of the Soviet Union came crashing down between 1989–1991. Its collapse was a deeply traumatic event for those who had invested their hopes in its role in transforming the world, and their groups collapsed in membership, often folding or transforming under new names. But it also turned out to be deeply challenging to those socialists who had been critical of the USSR as well. In the process, a deep instinct to huddle together was born, leading a slew of left unity projects. I myself spent over a decade as part of one (the Scottish Socialist Party).
These attempts at unification of what remained of the far left following the shock of the Soviet collapse necessitated uniting around a lowest common denominator that participants could agree on – a domestic agenda of improved welfare and basic social-democratic demands. Questions of international politics or the historic roles of socialist states were simply too difficult or contentious, and so were set aside as irrelevant.
The difficulty with this approach is that it meant the only people on the left talking about the Cold War and the Soviet role in it, and therefore helping new generations to comprehend recent history, were those who celebrated a side they saw as resisting a global imperialist conspiracy. Those with a more critical view remained silent in the interests of unity around more immediate and local campaigns. But over subsequent decades of drift and the past receding into memory, this led to an unbalanced view of this complex history. Stalinist propaganda has resulted in the decay and abandonment of any semblance there ever was of a truly independent and internationalist left perspective.
Of course, the deep residual reserves of soft power at Russia’s disposal are powered by worldwide disgust at the historic actions of the US. Throughout the Cold War, American policymakers also took their place on the chessboard, brutally enforcing its own sphere of influence and battling for control of contested zones. In many cases this entailed support for horrific dictatorships and brutal methods, up to and including the intervention of the US military itself.
This view was only accelerated in the 2000s, as the US defied global opinion to invade Iraq and pioneer new forms of warfare, brutality and torture through the War on Terrorism. It’s in this period that there is a grain of truth to assigning some responsibility to the US (and UK) for the current war. The arrogance and ferocity of the post-9/11 period deeply destabilised the world.
In the end the US was defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to a retrenchment to lick wounds, and endure an ongoing apocalyptic domestic social collapse. But the political technologies of this period have travelled throughout the world’s empires, as witnessed by Putin claiming (with western collusion) his conquest of Chechnya as part of the war on terror, or China committing genocide against Muslim minorities in the name of “fighting terrorism”. Islamophobia is now a globalised means of policing state enemies.
The campaigns against the Bush administration’s wars represented a high point for the left, and also seemed to confirm a residual simplified Cold War view of the US as the world’s prime source of evil. But the invasion of Iraq was now 20 years ago, and despite the fond memories many have for the movement, it did in fact fail to prevent the war and the years of consequences. It’s time to recognise the last decade of history which we have just lived through has seen the decline of US hegemony and the rise of authoritarian and imperial projects in various countries to fill the resulting power vacuum.
Even more crucially, it’s time to uphold the principles of self-determination and solidarity with the oppressed consistently, and not ditch them when the aggressor happens to be a state that isn’t a western ally. Much of what infrastructurally remains of the 2000s anti-war movement, epitomised in the UK by the Stop the War Coalition, has become a disgusting parody of solidarity, blaming the victims of some of today’s most brutal wars for their own destruction.
Time to revive real internationalism
We should have woken up to how far this rot had proceeded when we looked the other way as Russia began bombing Syria back to the Stone Age on behalf of its mass-murdering tyrant Assad. The Syrian regime famously crossed Obama’s “red line” by gassing civilians, only to reveal that there would be no serious consequences and it could act with impunity. Ever since, people across the left have brought deep and staining shame upon themselves by recycling baseless conspiracy theories that Syrian rebels murdered people in their own communities to provoke US intervention (which, of course, never came). There is no moral difference between this and any other form of atrocity denial, and yet such views were shared by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.
These political pathologies cross many traditions of the left, and also are by no means limited solely to the “western left” (see Kavita Krishnan’s comments on Russian influence in India, or position of Brazil’s newly re-elected President Lula on Ukraine). It suggests that these are not only issues of parochiality and ignorance, but reveal fundamental historical and theoretical issues that can be shirked no longer if we are going to construct a viable progressive politics for the 21st century.
It’s possible that many will object to the gloomy picture painted here, pointing to numerous examples of honourable exceptions among the ranks of the left engaged in solidarity with Ukraine. It may even be the case that passively, far more people who consider themselves part of the left are concerned with the issues raised here. But many people are afraid to articulate this publicly because they are unsure, lack the confidence and fear being denounced as neocons, American agents or Nazis.
While it’s incredibly painful for those of us with a background in the left and labour movement see our networks become vehicles for war crimes apologism, and it is important to combat this, we must also recognise that rescuing the left’s honour is of distant importance compared to the urgent needs of Ukrainians. The myopic disaster that constitutes much left geopolitical analysis necessitates that we begin again, and start to rebuild international solidarity from the ground up.
A key way to do this is to return to what should be an elementary principle: listening to, respecting and acting on the views and demands of those being oppressed and in struggle around the world. This means refusing to see any of the world’s peoples as without agency or views of their own — not empty puppets or pawns of the great powers, pieces on a chessboard to be sacrificed.
In the case of Ukraine, this would mean hearing the message that is coming loud and clear from the Ukrainian government and people, that they need military as well as humanitarian support to continue their resistance and liberate their country from a fascist occupation — not patronised and starved into surrender by an international community that much of the left would like to see trade their lives to appease Russian imperialism.
Jack Ferguson is a long-standing socialist and community organiser in Tayside. He is a member of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign Scotland and the Republican Socialist Platform.