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Ukraine: Morality and Reality


The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force …. The Ukrainian question is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous role in the life of Europe.

Leon Trotsky

Six months after being invaded by Russia, Ukrainian society has suffered immensely and borne the majority of the costs of the war being waged against it. Numerous atrocities have been committed against civilians such as the massacre in Bucha. Terror bombing tactics used by Russia in Syria have also been applied in Ukraine. Cities such as Mariupol have experienced brutal sieges ever since the war started, and whole towns have been reduced to rubble. Mayors and other local officials who refused to cooperate with the Russian occupation have been executed. One-third of the population has been displaced, and tens of thousands of others forcibly deported to Russia. In the Donbas, tens of thousands of Ukrainian men have been forcibly drafted to fight for Russia’s proxy militias.

Ukraine has also been economically shattered by the war. Critical infrastructure has been wrecked across the country. Russian forces have seized vital Black Sea trading ports, the industrial and mining area of the Donbas, and important tracts of agricultural land in the south. Nearly a third of the civilian population has lost their jobs, and many households are surviving only on food relief and medical supplies delivered by volunteers.

And yet, despite this devastation and suffering, the Ukrainian willingness to resist the invasion, dismemberment, and subjugation of their country has not dissipated. Contrary to the sectors of “informed” opinion at the beginning of the war, which had simply taken it as given that the Russian army would steamroll its way into Kyiv and topple the Zelensky government with little effort, Ukraine has put up stern resistance. It has managed to beat back the Russian advance and inflict high casualties on Russia. This is in spite of many thousands of their own soldiers having lost their lives and the army being increasingly forced to rely on untrained and poorly equipped reserve units and civilian militias. Access to recently arrived NATO-supplied artillery and rocket launchers has provided the means to destroy Russian ammunition depots and command-and-control centers deep inside Russian-occupied territory. Just recently, Ukrainian forces managed to attack a Russian air base deep within Russian-occupied Crimea, destroying numerous warplanes likely used to bomb Ukrainian towns and cities.

Idealists, Realists, and the Left

Much of the debate surrounding the Ukraine war is really a quarrel between liberal internationalist idealism and realism. Liberal internationalism — the belief that liberal democratic capitalism should be spread across the world and the transnational institutions that undergird them should be upheld — seems to be the default ideology in foreign policy. Within mainstream ideology, its only formidable rival is realism (aka realpolitik). The simple difference between them is that, while liberal internationalism seeks to subjugate might to right, realism says that might makes right. In other words, liberals seek to use military, diplomatic, and economic power in service of morally just causes – “democracy promotion,” “humanitarian intervention,” etc. Conversely, realist statecraft is temperamentally conservative, having no faith in pursuing grand ideological projects or historical progress. The supreme objective of power should be to achieve the necessary conditions for security and stability in a chaotic world.

Liberal internationalists enthusiastically support Ukraine out of a fidelity to “European values” and a clarion call for the West to stand up to Vladimir Putin as a threat to liberal democracy and a “rules-based international order.” Indeed, their solidarity with Ukraine and embrace of the Ukrainian flag seemingly echoes the liberals and radicals in the 19th century who expressed solidarity with the cause of Poland and Greece against Tsarist and Ottoman domination, respectively, as well as Italian unification, at a time when bourgeois national movements in the wake of the American and French revolutions were a historically progressive force against feudalism. So, they take a “bourgeois defensist” position that, alongside heavy sanctions against Russia, demands that Ukraine should be supported, up to and including giving them heavy weapons, not just to defend themselves but also to overturn the Russian invasion and potentially land a conclusive defeat on Russia.

The predominant realist position as articulated by John Mearsheimer, however, claims liberal internationalist overreach bears most of the responsibility for creating the current crisis. NATO and EU expansion into countries that share a border with Russia and the West’s support for pro-democracy movements in Ukraine in the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Maidan Revolution, part of a strategy to entice Ukraine away from Russia’s “orbit” and integrate it into the West, needlessly provoked Russia. These actions ignored its “legitimate security concerns” and upset the balance of power, inevitably resulting in the Ukraine invasion. Therefore, instead of pouring arms into Ukraine, which only pours fuel on the flames, Western policy should choose the fire extinguisher of a negotiated peace settlement where accommodations to Russian grievances will haveto be made.

On the Left, unsurprisingly, there is a general incoherence on the “Ukraine question.” At its worst, the tankie left — small but occasionally loud, mainly coalescing around publications such as The Grayzone, MintPress, and the grim alternative universe of sectarian Stalinism — openly justifies Russia’s invasion on the bogus grounds that it was a “special military operation” to protect the Russian-speaking minority in the Donbas and to “de-Nazify” the country. Being the Soviet nostalgists that they are, they robotically parrot Russian nationalist narratives masquerading as “Marxism-Leninism.” They rubbish reported and documented massacres such as in Bucha as “false flags” meant to give the West a casus belli to wage war on Russia and enflame Russophobia in global public opinion.

Furthermore, they regard any political expression of Ukrainian identity as “fascist” or “Neo-Nazi.” They don’t make any distinction between Ukrainian liberal nationalism — represented by Zelensky and his party, which defines Ukrainian citizenship in civic terms and believes Ukraine should be part of the European Union on a liberal democratic basis — and the ethnonationalism practiced by the Azov Battalion, the Right Sector, and Svoboda, all of whom have historical and ideological links to Ukrainian nationalist collaborators with the Nazi occupation of the 1940s. To them, it’s all the same thing. Ukrainians who oppose Russian attempts to dominate their country are all “Banderites.” The Maidan Revolution was really a US-instigated “regime change” operation. Like any propaganda worth its salt, this perspective exploits and weaponizes grains of truth in history to fit a tendentious ideological narrative. Of course, one would have to elide the fact that far more Ukrainians, whether as partisans or soldiers in the Red Army, fought against the Nazis (it wasn’t only Russians!). Moreover, they conveniently omit the existence of fascist and far-right Orthodox militias among the pro-Russian separatists, most of whom are ideologically descended from the White Army and Black Hundreds, the antisemitic counterrevolution against the Bolshevik Revolution.

A much wider section of the Left — represented by Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Branko Marcetic, the DSA, and the editors of New Left Review — certainly condemn Russia’s invasion, but, like the realists, lay most of the blame for the crisis on the US for provoking Russia’s invasion with its buccaneering desire to increase its hegemony in Europe. They are disillusioned with liberal internationalists who they feel are turning a complex geopolitical question into a simple morality tale — the good West vs. evil Putin — that ultimately will serve as a veil for liberal militarism and the revitalization of Western hegemony.

Being that their raison d’être on this question is being “anti-war,” their main concerns are focused on the potential long-term consequences of flooding Ukraine with masses of weapons from various countries. Could those weapons end up in the wrong hands? Do they just prolong the war leading to more death and destruction instead of leading to a resolution? Wouldn’t a ceasefire and negotiation be a better resolution than the slim prospect of a Ukrainian victory?

Ben Burgis in an earlier essay for Sublation, Ukraine and the specter of Christopher Hitchens, laments the soft left for being insufficiently anti-war, for taking a supposedly “Hitchensian” path in banging the drums of war and labeling anti-war leftists as “pro-Putin.” Instead of backing “escalatory” policies such as giving arms to Ukraine, which, as he sees it, in the worst-case scenario could put the whole world on the brink of a potential world war, Burgis advocates, as evidenced by his defense of Noam Chomsky’s comments on Ukraine, a negotiated peace settlement between the leading powers.

The Price of Peace

Understandably, there are good reasons to hope any war, including this one, ends with a negotiated settlement instead of a gruesome war of attrition or an existential fight to the finish. All wars, even the justest ones, carry an inherent brutality and destructiveness that spares no one. In the words of General Sherman (who was certainly no softie when it came to waging total war against the Confederacy), “its glory is all moonshine; even success, the most brilliant, is over dead and mangled bodies. . . [O]nly those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated. . . cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

However, if I may provoke you, should “peace” come at any price? What do we mean by “peace”? In a recent essay for Dissent Magazine, Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute makes the case for an “ethical realist” resolution to the war, to which I’m sure many leftists will be sympathetic. It “dictates a search for a peace settlement that would safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty and its ability to move toward the West, while giving Russia enough in territorial terms to allow Putin to claim victory and end the war.” But this “solution” is built on a series of obvious contradictions. How can you “safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty and its ability to move toward the West” while “giving Russia enough in territorial terms to allow Putin to claim victory” when “victory” for Putin is precisely terminating Ukrainian sovereignty and its ability to pivot towards the West? How can you safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty but at the same time give territorial concessions to Russia in such a way that satisfies all parties? This is a fantasy that is neither “ethical” nor “realist” and that thinks you can make everyonehappy to “end the war” without either side’s objectives coming into conflict with each other.

When we talk about “peace,” we need to be clear about what it actually entails. It seems that the “unethical” realists are more forthright in sketching out what they mean by “peace” and the consequences of it. That, for the sake of peace and stability, Ukraine may have to concede its claims on land seized by Russia (which also includes Crimea), perhaps going up to and including a de facto partition in order to satisfy Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” in its near abroad.

Lenin notoriously condemned treaties of this sort, based on “spheres of influences,” as “agreements between robbers behind people’s backs.” A “peace settlement” that confirms Russian conquests and de facto partitions of Ukraine along crude ethnolinguistic lines would be no different and would be a boon for Russian revanchism. It’s an obnoxious pseudo-peace erected on shoddy foundations. At best, it will be nothing more than a fragile truce until the next round of fighting. Any genuine “peace” is one that doesn’t compromise Ukraine’s self-determination and independence. One of the worst elements of this argument is the commonplace that Russia is the only actor that has “legitimate concerns” rooted in history and the dignity of its nation that deserve a hearing, as if Ukrainians’ own concerns and grievances — very much rooted in history, with its relationship with Russia long being a semi-colonial one — are to be treated as a minor consideration at best.

War, as von Clausewitz famously exclaimed, is politics by other means. War under capitalism is very often politics by other means, and that is why capitalism is moribund and incapable of advancing humanity. Bourgeois society promises a world peace based on freedom, democracy, cooperation, wealth, and abundance for all of humanity. Yet, capitalism, with its frequent crises, creates the fertile soil that makes wars and Bonapartism more likely. War, fundamentally, is a symptom of political failure. Putin has been trying to achieve on the battlefield what he couldn’t achieve at the negotiating table. He will only return to the negotiating table if his war in Ukraine can gain him sufficient leverage to get what he wants. This reveals that Putin is acting out of weakness and desperation, not strength. In this sense, the Ukraine war is a huge gamble for Putin. From his point of view, Russia’s invasion has to succeed.

However, if Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine fails and is conclusively defeated before the eyes of the world, then some interesting and even modestly progressive developments could follow. His regime could go into crisis, ignite a popular uprising à la 1905 that could even spell its demise (and potentially the hideous regime in Belarus too). This is one reason to hope the Ukrainian resistance prevails beyond the preservation of Ukraine’s national self-determination and democracy or giving Russian chauvinist revanchism a bloody nose.

To paraphrase Thucydides, war is evil, but submitting to the dictates of others is worse. Sometimes you have to fight, not because it’s virtuous but because it’s necessary. I recently wrote an essay for Sublation defending the right to bear arms for the socialist movement as part of the democratic inheritance from the bourgeois revolution. When faced with oppression, the people have the right to armed self-defense. It would be obscenely hypocritical of me to deny this basic democratic right to Ukrainians when faced with an invading army bent on subjugating their country, including getting heavy weapons from outsiders. Although as a Marxist, the goal is ultimately to transcend nations altogether, Ukraine’s right to national self-determination, the precondition of a democratic society, should be defended. Despite the many iniquities of Ukrainian internal politics, including corruption and wrecking workers’ rights, these are the matters at stake. And no amount of obfuscation should blind one to it.

Barbarism and Chauvinism

In the conspicuous absence of international struggle for socialism, wars and the barbarism and mutual chauvinisms that come with them are likely to become more frequent and more devastating. Today, the war is in Ukraine. Tomorrow, as it seems almost an inevitability, it will be over Taiwan. This is not something to be glib about, but one must keep it real. The Marxist Left is impotent; it can’t actually intervene in the crisis to influence it in any way. So, what you have as a substitute is bloviating moralism, folk theories based on factoids and half-truths, and a resentful counterposing of Ukrainian suffering with the suffering of those from the Global South, none of which actually contributes to understanding the crisis and potentially politically intervening in it. Quite the opposite.

Overall, the danger in viewing the Ukraine war through the narrow prism of a “proxy war” contest between Russia and the West is that the most important elements of this conflict — Ukraine and the right of its people to freedom and self-determination — all but disappear from view. Furthermore, we may end up defending not what is vital for the people of Ukraine — democracy, liberty, self-determination — but whatever happens to be in the interests of Brussels or Berlin or Washington or Moscow or what is necessary to uphold a “balance of power,” instead of overthrowing it. As should be obvious, the two do not correlate.