London, England, UK. 6th Mar, 2022. Former Labour leader JEREMY CORBYN makes a speech during a protest against the war in Ukraine organised by Stop The War Coalition. Alamy

What the Left Keeps Getting Wrong About Ukraine

Vapid bromides about peace and negotiation are no substitute for policy and a frank acknowledgement of Russia’s responsibility for the conflict.

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
9 min read

In an essay for the New Republic in June, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy advisor Matt Duss offers some moral and political instruction for the Left. There are “instances,” he writes, when the “provision of military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order. Assisting Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion is such an instance.” This is a gentle reproach, and it’s full of hedges and caveats like this one: “...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.” Duss is strangely sympathetic to the idea that the invasion of Ukraine is just an arbitrary, warmongering post-Afghanistan rallying cry intended to “give us meaning.” He seems to be concerned about the sensibilities of people who hold that view or he wouldn’t have addressed it in such a fraternal I’m-with-you-but sort of way.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been cataclysmic—tens of thousands have been killed, while millions have been torn from their homes and displaced within Ukraine and across Europe. Entire cities have been leveled and many Ukrainians have been captured, tortured, and sent to internment camps. Civilians have been massacred in Bucha, Irpin, and elsewhere. Having attempted in vain to conquer and annex the entire country, Vladimir Putin is now trying to slice off as much territory as possible. Russian forces are executing this strategy with indiscriminate artillery and missile bombardment of civilian areas—a terror campaign that doesn’t require precision-guided munitions (which Russia quickly depleted and is struggling to replace). The sanctions imposed on Russia have fueled a global financial crisis, and Putin has held shipments of food and energy supplies hostage in retaliation. Russia is obliterating Ukrainian culture in the areas it controls.

Despite all this, Duss finds it necessary to inform the Left that the conflict isn’t in fact a propaganda item invented by Western governments to inflame our appetite for war. It’s a depressing commentary on the principles of today’s left-wingers that someone needs to hold their hands through these elementary points. As Duss notes, the Biden administration tried to avoid war and now wants to support Ukraine without drawing the United States or NATO into a larger conflict with Russia. Western leaders were desperate to prevent the war, for reasons that are becoming more obvious by the day. Beyond the massive influx of Ukrainian refugees in Europe and around the world, Western publics are now facing rates of inflation they haven’t seen in decades, an energy crisis, and the possibility of recession (if we haven’t already entered one).

Rather than pandering to the Left and spelling out why Ukraine matters in big, bold font, Duss may want to consider why he has to treat his fellow left-wingers like children and convince them that the invasion is, in fact, exactly what it looks like—a Russian atrocity. “In the interest of ‘steel manning’ leftist objections to the U.S. role in Ukraine,” he writes, “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.”

The arguments advanced by these “giants” typify the evasiveness and moral confusion that have come to characterize much of left-wing thought on foreign policy. Chomsky incorrectly observes that Western countries have refused to negotiate with Putin and are now “fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.” Duss takes issue with the insulting imputation that “Ukrainians are merely instruments of U.S. policy” and points out that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had already announced that his country is willing to observe “permanent neutrality.” As far back as March, Zelensky said he had “cooled down” on the prospect of joining NATO, as the alliance was “not prepared to accept Ukraine.” Here’s what Lula has had to say about the war in Ukraine, after announcing that “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.

It’s as if Lula hasn’t read or listened to a single word Vladimir Putin has written or said over the past decade. The idea that the United States and Europe could have “solved the problem” with an announcement that Ukraine wouldn’t join NATO is ridiculous. First, Ukraine’s early offer of neutrality made no difference to Moscow. As former Polish Defense Minister Radosław Sikorski explained in a debate about how Western governments should respond to the war in May, “President Zelensky has already conceded that Ukraine doesn’t need to join NATO—Ukraine can become a neutral country. At which point, President Putin should have said, ‘Right, I’ve won my war. I can go home.’ And yet, nothing like that has happened.”

Second, there’s the library of speeches and articles Putin has generated outlining his imperialist vision for Russia—from his address after the annexation of Crimea to his 7,000-word treatise “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (published in July 2021) and his speech on the eve of the invasion in February.

One of the most common deformations of left-wing thought on foreign policy today is summarized by the political theorist Michael Walzer in his 2018 book, A Foreign Policy for the Left. The “default position” of the Left, Walzer argues, is anti-interventionist and tends toward the view that “everything that goes wrong in the world is America’s fault.” One consequence of this view is the “denial of agency to other countries.” Instead of blaming the horrors in Ukraine on the revanchist dictator who launched a savage imperialist war against his neighbor, many left-wingers insist that the West is “also guilty.” This habit has become so ingrained that declarations of Western complicity and culpability are often the only contributions left-wing organizations and figures make to debates about war and human rights.

Duss criticizes the “pernicious authoritarian agitprop of The Grayzone and the like” and urges his fellow left-wingers to avoid “wasting time with atrocity-denying grifters and click-baiting provocateurs,” but this is fairly low-hanging fruit. The Grayzone is a cranky website run by Max Blumenthal, which routinely publishes articles like this one, which theorizes that Russia’s bombing of a theater in Mariupol (in which civilians were sheltering) may have been a “false flag attack” to trigger “direct NATO intervention.” While it’s nice to see a prominent left-wing foreign policy advisor condemning one of the most noxious and conspiracy-laden propaganda outlets on the Left, Duss argues that it’s “important to differentiate between the genuine anti-war anti-imperialism of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] and others in the American left.” But like Chomsky and Lula, the DSA demonstrated its faithful adherence to the default position of the Left after the invasion of Ukraine when it issued a statement that “reaffirms our call for the US to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.”

“While the failures of neoliberal order are clear to everyone,” the statement concluded, “the ruling class is trying to build a new world, through a dystopic transition grounded in militarism, imperialism, and war.” In response to Rep. Conor Lamb’s criticism of the DSA’s statement, Duss declares that the “left-punching of floundering moderates is transparently cynical and opportunistic.” Here’s what’s actually cynical and opportunistic: using the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an excuse to criticize America’s “imperialist expansionism” and jeer about the “failures of the neoliberal order.” Duss takes issue with the fact that solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance is “hard to find in some of the statements” from the DSA, but he maintains that, “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.”

But for many left-wing organizations, intellectuals, and politicians around the world, resistance to Western “imperialism” is the “whole race.” When Russia massed its forces on the Ukrainian border, former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned… NATO. The Stop the War Coalition, the organization Corbyn led before he became Labour leader, made the same argument as the DSA: “The conflict is the product of thirty years of failed policies, including the expansion of NATO and US hegemony at the expense of other countries as well as major wars of aggression by the USA, Britain and other NATO powers which have undermined international law and the United Nations.” Corbyn now says, “Pouring arms in isn’t going to bring about a solution, it’s only going to prolong and exaggerate this war.” Instead, Corbyn has called for the UN—as well as the African Union and the Arab League for some reason—to resolve the conflict. As if getting a few more negotiators involved will stop the Russian war machine.

On the gravest foreign policy crisis of our time, much of the Left has little to offer beyond vapid bromides about “immediate diplomacy and de-escalation” (DSA) and the “resumption of diplomatic negotiations” (Stop the War). Yes, we would all like diplomacy to succeed. When it fails, as it so obviously has in the case of Ukraine, what does the Left suggest? Duss accused critics of the DSA of “cherry-picking” its statement by focusing on the criticism of NATO, but this was the only element of the statement that saved it from complete meaninglessness and irrelevance. It’s bizarre to call for the dissolution of NATO at a time when the alliance has never been more important (and when other Western governments, like Sweden and Finland, have recognized the necessity of joining). But at least it’s a specific policy prescription. Demands for peace, negotiations, et cetera, on the other hand, merely present the illusion of action and principle.

Not all of the Left has been so morally and politically inert since the invasion. The German Greens, for instance, have been urging their government and the rest of Europe to send the Ukrainians the means to defend themselves. Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, two leading Greens in the German Cabinet, were pushing Chancellor Olaf Scholz to provide Ukraine with heavy weaponry when many of their colleagues and other Western leaders were worried that this would escalate the conflict too rapidly. Western governments eventually got around to sending heavy weapons platforms like the US-made HIMARS precision-guided rocket system, but not until Russia was already making significant gains in the Donbas. If other factions of the Left are opposed to giving Ukraine the military assistance it needs, they shouldn’t hide behind empty words like “solidarity” and “peace”—they should explain why Ukraine isn’t worth fighting for.

Duss opens his essay with reference to an article by the late author Christopher Hitchens published after the September 11th attacks. “My chief concern,” Hitchens wrote, “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.” Duss argued that Hitchens was “totally wrong about this,” as he believes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were catastrophic overreactions. He contrasts Hitchens’s point with an observation made by Susan Sontag around the same time: “A few shreds of historical awareness,” Sontag wrote, “might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.” Sontag, Duss writes, had “dared to suggest that the attacks were partly a consequence of U.S. policies,” and her response was “more courageous and prescient than anything [Hitchens] would ever write again.”

Here’s a bit of Sontag’s article that Duss decides against reproducing two decades later:

Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Which is to say that American pilots were the real cowards, while the theocratic ghouls who flew civilian airliners into buildings full of civilians were the courageous resisters of the American empire. Duss thinks this hideous sentiment was “courageous and prescient.” Al-Qaeda did, in fact, declare war on civilization, liberty, humanity, and the free world on September 11th, and the insistence that the massacre of 3,000 civilians in the United States was merely a response to American foreign policy isn’t just myopic and ahistorical. It’s an ugly misattribution of responsibility that elevates the strategic rationalizations of mass murderers to the status of legitimate grievances.

Despite his criticism, Duss acknowledges that there was one line from Hitchens’s post-September 11th essay that he’s “been thinking a lot about lately.” Hitchens argued that the Left’s arguments after the atrocities in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania “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.” Judging by the Left’s response to the war in Ukraine, Hitchens was more prescient than Duss is willing to admit.

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Matt Johnson has written for many outlets and is the author of the forthcoming book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment (Feb 2023)