The Socialist Case for Supporting Ukraine

I've got a new video out, finally. You can watch it, or if you prefer reading or want to check my sources, the script is below.

We’re now nearly a year and a half into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When the war started, many predicted a swift Russian victory, given the enormous disparity in population and the fearsome reputation of the Russian military. That military has since proved to be something of a paper tiger, as dogged and innovative Ukrainian troops not only stopped Russian advances into Ukraine but have inflicted some serious defeats. The courage and effectiveness of Ukrainian forces have repeatedly shocked even seasoned military professionals.

However, informed observers inside and outside of Ukraine also generally agree that American military and economic support has been vital to Ukrainian defense. Ukrainian troops have fought with quite extraordinary determination, but without American cash, military hardware, and intelligence Russia probably would have won by now. Other nations have helped, but nobody else in the world has anything remotely like American military capability.

During this war, a number of prominent American leftists and leftist organizations have argued against this support. As I mentioned in my previous video, lefty philosopher Cornel West is running for president on a platform of cutting off aid to Ukraine and disbanding NATO. Before the war, the Democratic Socialists of America’s International Committee put out a statement saying: “We recognize that the expansion of NATO and the aggressive approach of Western nations have helped cause the crisis and we demand an end to NATO expansion. We also oppose US and NATO military interventionism and the tens of billions in military aid and weapons shipments which only further exacerbates the war and undermine a negotiated settlement.” Famous economist Jeffrey Sachs has put forward this same argument.

This is all wrong. But before I get to my main argument, I want to address this claim that America caused the Russian invasion by pointlessly expanding NATO into Eastern Europe. By this view, Vladmir Putin felt that Russian security was threatened by NATO and so had no choice but to invade Ukraine.

Neither part of this claim is true. Sarcasmitron has an excellent detailed video debunking what he calls the “NATO sob story” that I highly recommend watching, but it’s pretty long so I’ll summarize it here.

So, it is admittedly true that NATO is to some degree an appendage of the American empire, which does indeed exist. But NATO is not wholly under American control, and it did not expand eastwards for no reason, or entirely under American pressure. In the important case of Poland, for instance, the Polish government basically blackmailed its way into the alliance.

First Poland asked to join, and when that didn’t happen fast enough for its taste, it threatened to develop a nuclear arsenal if it wasn’t admitted, and when that didn’t work either it intervened in the 1996 American election by sending Polish officials to meet with Republicans who attacked Bill Clinton for dragging his feet on Polish admission. That prompted Clinton to get the process moving, and he made a deal with Russian President Boris Yeltsin where Russia agreed to the admission, in exchange for timing the announcement for both Clinton’s and Yeltsin’s political benefit and a bunch of American aid.

Why might Poland have done this. Hmm, let’s think about it. About half of what is now Poland was conquered and annexed by the Russian Empire from 1772 to 1795, and remained under imperial domination until 1917, when it was lost to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk momentarily, then became an independent country under the Paris Peace Conference settlement. Soviet forces attempted to reconquer it in 1918 (in a war Poland started, to be fair), but failed. The Soviets invaded again in 1939, when Stalin conspired with Hitler to divvy up Polish territory, and after that invasion the Soviet secret police, under Stalin’s orders, murdered nearly 22,000 Polish army officers and intellectuals in cold blood.

After the Second World War, Poland was established as a Soviet puppet state in the Eastern bloc, and remained a de facto Soviet colony until 1989. The Polish communist party ran the Polish economy on behalf of the Soviet metropole, and remained in power only because of the threat of Red Army attack, made explicit with the brutal crushing of uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

A big problem with a lot of American lefty foreign policy thinking is ignoring the agency of other countries, arguing that America is the root cause of everything that happens and it’s always bad, like some mirror image American exceptionalism. But in reality it was Eastern European countries that provided the main impetus for NATO expansion—and they did it for entirely understandable reasons. Russia is right next door and had been invading, annexing, and dominating the whole region for centuries. America is far away, and while it might treat NATO members poorly from time to time, it hasn’t installed brutal puppet governments in France, Germany, or Norway. If it’s a choice between being Poland or being Belarus, it’s obvious where to go.

And now thanks to Putin’s war, NATO is stronger than it’s been since 1989. Finland and Sweden, which were neutral for the entire Cold War, are now joining up.

As Sarcasmitron says, it maybe was diplomatically unwise to expand NATO so quickly, and George W. Bush’s typically impulsive offer of membership to Georgia and Ukraine out of nowhere did provoke the 2008 Russian invasion of the former country. But after that, both America and the EU repeatedly attempted to buy off Russia with concessions. It was made abundantly clear under Obama and Trump and under Biden immediately prior to the invasion that Ukraine had no immediate prospect of joining NATO. Germany in particular made half its economy dependent on Russian gas supplies, partly with the idea that deep economic connections would make Putin’s regime more reasonable. Whoops! Ukraine itself had ruled out NATO membership for a generation by leasing a naval port in Crimea to Russia for 30 years in 2010.

On the second part of the claim, Russian security is not seriously threatened by NATO expansion. Now, back in the 1940s, it’s understandable in security terms why Stalin colonized eastern Europe—the Soviet Union had just been invaded by an army coming through Poland and Ukraine, just like Napoleon did in 1812, and he wanted a buffer zone.

But that all changed with nuclear weapons. Russia’s enormous nuclear deterrent provides the strongest possible protection against invasion, and we know Putin believes it is effective. The tell here is how Russia has deployed its forces during the Ukraine war—namely, scraping up just about every border deployment across the whole country and throwing them into the fight. In terms of conventional forces, Finnish or Polish troops could probably be in Moscow in a few days without firing a shot. Putin has no fear of this because he understands, correctly, they would never do that for fear of nuclear reprisal.

In short, as Ukrainian academic Volodymyr Artiukh said in an interview with Jacobin, NATO expansion was a fig leaf for invasion.

So why did Putin do it? Even longtime Russianist experts are scratching their heads about this one, because it has been such a disaster for him. But I’ve got a sketch of a theory that is a lot more convincing than the NATO sob story. The actual Russian “interest” that is threatened by NATO expansion is its ability to influence if not outright dominate neighboring countries, in what Putin thinks is his rightful sphere of influence. Putin has a puppet ally in Belarus, and he has meddled extensively in Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and of course Ukraine for years now. Russia heavily backed the party of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, and Putin personally bullied him into not signing an EU association agreement that had overwhelming support in the Ukrainian parliament and public. When that touched off the pro-EU Maidan revolution, Putin annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas, backing a fake separatist movement there.

The situation is a lot more complicated than that gloss, of course, and I’ll recommend another two Sarcasmitron videos if you want full details.

But at bottom, I think this is a classic imperialist war of aggression coming from a guy who, by his own account, is upset about Russia’s diminished size and influence since the Soviet collapse, and therefore wants to make it a great power again. His plan seems to have been to make a lightning strike into Kyiv, decapitate the Ukrainian government and civil society, install a puppet government, and have the Russian military back home in a couple months. I think Putin thought Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would cut and run, the Ukrainian military was full of nonbinary they/thems who couldn’t fight, and that Western democracies were all cowards and hypocrites who would let Ukraine die the moment the price of natural gas went up by a nickel.

From his point of view, this was at least sort of plausible. He had easily defeated Georgia in 2008 and got away with it, annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas in 2014 and got away with it, and meddled in the 2016 American election and mostly got away with it. Ukraine’s army hadn’t been able to push him out of the Donbas after 6 years. Zelenskyy really is an actor and comedian with no prior political experience.

Now, escalating to the extent of a full-blown invasion was still extremely stupid given these facts, but dictators tend to get more stupid and weird the longer they hold power, and Putin has been in power for more than 20 years now. Dictators surround themselves with dimwitted yes-men and toadies who can’t pose a threat to their power, so they lose track of reality. Their egos often balloon out of control, and they spend billions on monuments to their own megalomania. As a result, they are commonly overconfident about their military prowess. And Putin has also clearly been consuming a lot of right-wing English language media, which as we’ve seen with Elon Musk, is one of the quickest ways to turn your brain into soup.

I think this question of motivation is important to establish because I don’t think the argument about NATO expansion is really about supporting Ukraine. One could believe that Russia felt threatened by NATO, but still support Ukrainian defense. After all, feeling threatened doesn’t give a country license to invade other countries in response. Suppose Canada joined some Chinese military alliance and cut off trade with the US. American elites would probably be extremely pissed about that. But that doesn’t mean it would be justified to invade Canada.

I think that instead a lot of leftists have been seriously wrongfooted by the situation, and are grasping around for any kind of argument which makes it sound like America is still the bad guy, as it has usually been. But it’s just not true. American presidents and diplomats have done many bad things, some of them horrible in the extreme, but Putin is ultimately responsible for this terrible crime.

So let me get to the socialist case for supporting Ukraine. Now, as a foundational political and ethical matter, my basic view is that Ukrainians deserve the right to determine their own destiny rather than being forced one way or another at bayonet point.

But as far as socialism, the first and most important part of the argument is about democracy. In my view socialism is all about collective control of economic production. Rather than a small minority of capitalists deciding what happens with the factories, retailers, farms, and so forth—namely, that they should get all the profits for themselves—the population as a whole should decide.

But that raises the question of how you decide what “collective control” actually means. Lenin, who had total contempt for what he called “bourgeois democracy,” had a theory that a minority vanguard party could seize control of the government, abolish private property, and bring about socialist utopia. In practice, as numerous socialists and anarchists pointed out at the time, this turned out to be a theory of dictatorship. Lenin and his Bolshevik party recreated pretty much the same Russian Empire as they destroyed, complete with secret police, mass murder, horrendous famine, a slave labor system, colonial possessions, and unaccountable wealthy elites, just with some additional low quality economic development and fairly meager welfare benefits. And after just 70 years the whole thing collapsed in on itself.

So I believe that any socialist program must be based on a democratic foundation. Indeed I would say that socialism is definitionally democratic—an autocratic state might own all the property in the country, but if that state is not subject to collective control through elections and the rule of law, then it will inevitably manage that property on behalf of political elites rather than the ordinary citizen. By my definition, Norway, where the democratic government owns three-quarters of the national wealth excluding owner-occupied homes, is the most socialist state that has ever existed.

The application to the Ukraine war is obvious. Ukraine’s government is of course not socialist, but it is meaningfully democratic. International observers agree that President Zelenskyy was elected fair and square, and while in socialist terms his domestic policy has been pretty bad, democratic institutions provide a framework where Ukrainian socialists can organize labor unions and political parties to pressure him to change his policy, or try to elect somebody else. That is more or less how Norway got to where it is today.

A second point is about civil liberties, which are a necessary part of democracy but still worth emphasizing. A future Ukrainian socialist movement may or may not get collective control of the national wealth in future, but freedom of speech, assembly, the press, and the rule of law are still worth defending in themselves.

The moral point of socialism, which I’ll get to in a second, is to improve the lives of all people, and a repressive dictatorship is an unpleasant and dangerous place to live. In Putin’s Russia, journalists or activists critical of the regime are routinely beaten, imprisoned, or assassinated, the ability of ordinary people to read or say what they want is tightly restricted, and corruption is absolutely rampant.

Third is simple humanitarianism. In my view, socialism is based on moral egalitarianism—the idea that all people are equally morally valid, and institutions should therefore be arranged such that every single person has the capability to pursue what they have reason to value (in Amartya Sen’s terms). It follows that if some person or group is suffering unnecessarily, a socialist ought to support alleviating that suffering if possible. I would say, for example, that while the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is brutally repressive, American economic sanctions still ought to be removed, because the sanctions aren’t doing anything but starving the Afghan people.

Now, I need to be careful here, because a lot of liberal imperialists have used this argument to justify wars of aggression. But that is just a case of them being deluded or liars or both. A socialist humanitarian must be humble about his or her own limitations, biases, or blind spots—Lenin again comes to mind—and especially when it comes to aggressive military force. The problem with the humanitarian case for invading Iraq, for instance, was that it proposed to install a democratic government by force in a country with no recent experience of it, using a military composed of young men and women from 6,000 miles away, who had no direct stake in Iraqi institutions.

In other words, if you want to conduct humanitarian foreign policy operations, you’ve got to connect means and ends. That’s why feeding starving people, or giving money to poor people, or handing out AIDS medication and malaria bed nets in African countries, are all a lot more likely to have a good outcome than trying to do regime change.

But Ukraine is a situation where a ton of guns and bombs makes sound humanitarian sense. Here we have a sovereign democratic government with an organized official military that is attempting to fight off a brutal and totally unjustifiable war of aggression. The Biden administration is not trying to install democracy by force in a foreign country it doesn’t understand or actually care about, it is trying to help an established democracy defend itself by giving it the weapons it needs to survive. It’s the rare occasion in which the world’s biggest military industrial complex can actually come in handy.

It follows that the most plausible way to limit the violence and chaos is for Ukraine to win on the battlefield. If we stop arms shipments and Russia does destroy the Ukrainian state, that won’t be the end of the war. It’ll evolve into an indefinite insurgency, probably led by the most fervent right-wing Ukrainian nationalists, with catastrophic consequences for Ukrainian civilians, Russian soldiers, and the broader region alike, just like what happened in Iraq and Syria thanks to George W. Bush.

Considering all this gives a sense of why Ukrainians are fighting so hard in their own defense. They can see what will happen should Russia conquer their country—it will be a brutal nightmare of repression, violence, poverty, and maybe an outright genocide. Russian occupied towns have seen torture, mass executions and rapes, kidnapping of Ukrainian children, and suppression of Ukrainian-language books and media. Russian propaganda is full of outright genocidal rhetoric, and Putin himself says that Ukraine is a fake country.

On one level, I can sort of understand why so many American leftists are uncomfortable with arming Ukraine. From 2001 to when Biden pulled out of Afghanistan, America went on a 20-year imperial war bender that wrecked half the Middle East, wasted trillions of dollars, and killed millions. Now some of the most fervent war on terror supporters are also backing Ukraine. “America bad” and “no more weapons exports” have been mostly accurate foreign policy heuristics from Bush through Trump. I’ll admit that this is a difficult place for me to be too. I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to Ukraine myself in 2014 when this all got started.

But on another level, that doesn’t excuse knee-jerk reactions to the most serious war in Europe since 1945. At bottom, this is a simple situation: a democratic government is trying to defend itself from a murderous foreign invader. Listen to Ukrainians, who are extremely worried about Trump getting elected again and cutting off their war supplies. If some terrible people happen to be on the side of the angels, that’s just how politics works sometimes.

Consider the Crimean War, in which the Russian Empire tried to seize chunks of the declining Ottoman Empire in 1853. Britain—which at the time was the largest imperial power in the world by far—fought with the French to prop up the Ottomans to preserve the European balance of power. None other than Karl Marx himself strongly supported the British in his journalism for the New York Tribune. He wrote:

Russia is decidedly a conquering nation, and was so for a century, until the great movement of 1789 called into potent activity an antagonist of formidable nature. We mean the European Revolution, the explosive force of democratic ideas and man’s native thirst for freedom. Since that epoch there have been in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe – Russia and Absolutism, the Revolution and Democracy. For the moment the Revolution seems to be suppressed, but it lives and is feared as deeply as ever … But let Russia get possession of Turkey, and her strength is increased nearly half, and she becomes superior to all the rest of Europe put together. Such an event would be an unspeakable calamity to the revolutionary cause. The maintenance of Turkish independence, or, in case of a possible dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the arrest of the Russian scheme of annexation, is a matter of the highest moment. In this instance the interests of the revolutionary Democracy and of England go hand in hand.

You don’t have to accept Marx’s view of revolution to see the basic logic here. If an utterly reactionary dictatorship is committing an imperialist war of aggression, and international politics has aligned such that a different imperial power is supporting the defenders, then you take that side. And this actually worked to some degree. As my buddy John Ganz points out, Russia was defeated, and this resulted in a modernization effort that included the emancipation of the Russian serfs.

I’ll leave it there for now. There’s a lot more I could get into with this war and lefty foreign policy in general—like what would happen if we actually did disband NATO, and how some people are tiptoeing up to the idea that Ukraine should just be forced to surrender for the convenience of western powers, no matter the cost in civilian lives—but that will have to wait for a future video. If you want to support the channel, you can subscribe to the newsletter, or check out my book. I’ll be back soon.

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