So. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, you’re probably aware some events have transpired – and are still ongoing. But just for the sake of clarity, I’ll elaborate a bit on what I mean by that.
On February 24th, 2022, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine in what appears to be an attempt to topple its government, install a puppet, and drag it by force back into Russia’s “sphere of influence” as part of a blatant war of imperialism and conquest.
There. I think you’re all caught up now.
Many of you know I’ve taken an interest in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict before it boiled over into full-scale war. Hell, I’ve taken an interest in the conflict since long before this current war appeared on the horizon, or before I ever started writing here. I’ve known as I’ve watched events unfold over the past few weeks that I wanted to write something related to what’s happening in Ukraine, but I was unsure what to write – and also was exhausted just keeping up with developments on the war from day to day and feeling overwhelming anger, sadness, dread, etc.
I could just give you an update regarding the situation on the ground in Ukraine, but then I’m really just drifting more into becoming an OSINT guy and that’s not really my thing (besides, whatever I write could be out of date by the time I finally post this essay). I could go back and ruminate on why we are where we are now – and I may very well do that at some point, but I also feel like that isn’t especially useful for anyone at this moment in time. A time and place will come for more reflection on that, but right now I’m trying to think of something more useful in the lane I operate in and for moving us forward.
Instead, I think it’s time I tried to get back to the core of why I started writing these things to begin with, rather than spending too much time just being a typical, run of the mill military analyst. I needed some time to process what was happening and get a handle on it before I could even contemplate getting back to this, but now that I’ve had time to collect myself I think we need to talk about how we on the Left need to think about Ukraine and wars like it going forward – because more are coming. What is going on in Ukraine right now is a major turning point for the entire world, and quite simply put we need to adapt as these changes occur if we want to have any hope of staying relevant and fulfilling our hopes of a better world. The horrific events unfolding in Ukraine need to be an impetus to step up everything I’ve already been advocating for in these essays and other rantings and ravings online, not only if we want to be seen as a credible and believable alternative to the powers that be, but also if we are actually going to be true to any of the principles we allege that we stand for here on the Left.
I should stress going into this that I’m not writing this piece because I think our prospects on the Left are dim when it comes to this area. If anything, I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the aggregate of the response on the Left to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But being me, I’m not one to sit on my laurels. I’m taking this opportunity to foot stomp what I’ve been saying for a while and encouraging people to keep the momentum we have gained on changing other Leftists’ views regarding international affairs, war, and related errata into something resembling what could be actual, functional policy if and when we ever actually are able to govern.
Learning to Live with Complexity
I’ll be honest: as an expanded war in Ukraine began to look more and more likely several weeks ago, I was dreading what the response on the Left – in particular, the online Left – would look like. I was bracing for a level of posting that had hitherto been unseen in human history. And, for a brief day or two after the initial invasion, I certainly did see some absolutely atomically hot takes come across my dash (it’s a miracle I still have my account with what I wanted to respond with).
That being said, I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by what the reaction on the whole by the Left in the United States and the West has been. Even if you have legitimate grievances with the United States, NATO, and other Western governments and institutions, it’s pretty easy to see that Russia’s naked violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and horrific violence committed against its people is inexcusable and indefensible. People seem to be calling this what it is: bad.
Of course, there have still been hold outs. Mostly, its been the usual suspects of apologism for authoritarianism like Glenn Greenwald or the Greyzone crew of Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté, and various Marxist-Leninist political parties like the Party for Socialism and Liberation (I refuse to link to any of their material on principle but if you feel like taking psychic damage it’s out there to see). These are your typical tankies and campists who have only doubled down on their defense of Russia in the name of “anti-imperialism” (despite the fact we are watching Russia engage in a literal war of empire, even in so far as Russian President Vladimir Putin has described it in speeches leading up to the invasion – barely even attempting to conceal it). There have been others as well, who may not fit neatly into either of those bubbles but are certainly adjacent to them. These voices may not be as numerous as those who oppose Russian aggression, but they remain loud, attract attention, and retain influence.
I’ve always typically been more of the type to say that we should just ignore voices like these. To not even waste time and energy on rebutting them. To an extent, I still believe that in some cases. But I also think to an extent that we can no longer afford to simply ignore them. Not when the rest of us on the left can become lumped in with their horrible positions and they can have an actual impact on how mainstream Leftist organizations try to message on the conflict. Not when they make a mockery out of those of us who stand on the sides of actual victims of imperialism, while they champion the violence being exhibited on those victims. It’s not enough to just ignore them or only say that they are stupid and wrong (they are), but for us to be able to have a coherent response and present an alternative line of thinking for those on the left that isn’t only made up of “you are stupid and wrong.” Quite simply, we need actual policy alternatives.
This presents some uncomfortable realities to deal with for some on the left. I know that for many who still aren’t tankies or campists or whatever, there is a lot of healthy skepticism and hesitancy to advocate strongly for one position or policy or another when it comes to war and diplomacy. Events like the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and more still continue to color many people’s thoughts and affect their outlooks – for better and for worse. I understand that some people see the United States sending arms or other forms of military support and get an immediate, negative response at the front of their brain based on past experiences.
To that, I can only say this: I understand, but we need to learn to live with that. We need to learn to live with complexity.
By learning to live with complexity, I don’t mean that we should simply ignore all the little details when looking like wars like in Ukraine. That would simply be the approach the United States took to many regimes it supported during the Cold War and the Global War on Terror but with a new visage. A return to the reverse-campism of U.S. foreign policy where we just threw weapons and money at any dictator as long as they said they were opposed to Socialism or Communism or supported U.S. counterterrorism operations. Hell, in a few cases during the Cold War we threw money at dictators who still were authoritarian socialists just as long as they weren’t aligned to the Soviet Union– as we saw in places like Somalia, Egypt, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and more.
No, when I say we need to learn to live with complexity, I mean the opposite of ignoring all the little details for the sake of convenience. I mean instead that we should look closer at them. A complex situation should be an invitation for us to dig deeper and learn more about the context and the circumstances, not a repellent for us to either look away or to handwave the intricacies and pretend we see, hear, and say no evil.
The reason I bring this up is I often still see a lot of people working hard to bring up reasons to not support Ukraine. There’s a whole variety of them: not wanting to support the United States; not wanting to support NATO; being wary of the U.S. and NATO causing escalation; not wanting to contributed to violence and war; being (understandably) concerned about Ukrainian far-right nationalism and outright Nazism; etc. etc. The list goes on.
All of these things I can understand and accept to a point. The problem for me is, there is no critical look at the circumstances of the conflict and the reasons for being wary beyond the initial appraisal of what’s going on. There’s no further investigation to what lies below the surface. There is no examination of how widespread the political powerbase of the far-right even is in Ukraine (like the fact that Ukraine’s far-right – even after conflict first started with Russia back in 2014 – have fared horribly in Ukraine’s elections). There’s no interrogation of what alternatives Ukraine has to war that aren’t simply just giving Russia everything it wants and giving up their freedom in the process. There’s no asking of “ok, if Ukraine shouldn’t get weapons from the West, who the fuck else is going to give them arms to defend themselves against Russia?” There are constant knee-jerk reactions based purely on appearances and first-looks based only on the broadest of ideological assumptions that are probed no further. We need to be able to look at a situation in greater depth before we reach judgements and decide upon action – or inaction. Otherwise, we will accomplish nothing of any help worldwide.
Recontextualizing “Critical Support”
When my leftward bent first intensified, I often heard a lot of people throw around the phrase “critical support.” It feels like something I don’t actually see much of anymore, or when I do it feels like it gets thrown around more as a meme than anything else. I think my ultimate point in this essay is we need to reclaim and recontextualize that saying, because quite frankly: you’re never going to find a conflict where you will be able to uncritically support a side – even if they are solidly the one in the right. There will always be baggage, big or small. No one is perfect. No one is blameless. No one is without sin. That’s reality. That’s the world we live in. And yet too many people seem to think that is the case and create a gold standard of the “perfect” recipient of our support that is impossible to meet.
Again: that is not an excuse for us to look the other way at states or groups or whoever we support against aggression when they do wrong – whether it’s one glaring transgression or a number of smaller ones that reach critical mass. But it’s important to keep in mind that more often than not it’s going to be the latter rather than the former. IT’s not going to be big, glaring failings that we can all turn towards and say, “that’s unacceptable”. It’s all the small things. All the little details that someone will bring up in a Twitter post and point to and say “I told you so” about and say that one instance alone is enough to merit the end of any and all support. While big bold red lines for our support do and should exist, those lines are few and far between. Everything else is fuzzier, blurrier, less distinct. If we make everything a red line, we end up doing nothing. We end up retreating into isolationism and ethno-centrism and exceptionalism much in the same way many on the far-right do (yet more evidence in favor of Horseshoe Theory and Red-Brownism). We need to accept that there is no perfect side in a war, while ruminating on how many transgressions we should put up with before it’s a bridge too far. It’s a process.
We need to be able to look at a war or conflict and the parties involved and take in the big picture. We need to take in the circumstances and context, as well as the positive and negative aspects of the players – big and small. We also need to think about them both in the short and long term, think about what potential consequences there may be and how they could possibly be mitigated over time if action is taken. Really, we just need to actually think about this stuff more in general. Just fucking think. Use our brains. Not just see one thing and then immediately make up our minds and proceed to double, triple, quadruple down on our judgement no matter what else we see out of confirmation bias.
We shouldn’t become involved in every war, every conflict, every battle around the world. Not only is that not right, but it’s also not sustainable or doable – as recent experiences have shown. But as I’ve said before, there are wars that are wars of necessity, wars of survival for their people. I’ve grown to dislike the term “just” war, as I think it’s about as useful as the term “good” war (in that it isn’t). There are no “good” wars as all war is bad – but something we are cursed with. There are no “just” wars, as killing and maiming is never a morally and ethically “just” endeavor. The better term is more “necessary” wars; “unavoidable” wars; “justified” (as opposed to “just”) wars. If you’re looking for a justified war, you are not going to find one that fits the bill as much as the current conflict in Ukraine does. You have a large aggressor state launching a full-scale invasion of a smaller state and waging total war on it based upon false pretenses in a blatant violation of its sovereignty and international norms – mirroring in many ways the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is as “just” a war as war ever gets, believe me.
For all of Ukraine’s faults, it is a predominately democratic country. It is a flawed democracy, still in transition. Its people have made an earnest attempt to better their society since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and have been seeking to separate themselves from a literal imperial power that seeks a veto over their internal decisions and to impose its will upon them by force. Ukraine absolutely has its problems – which will no doubt be multiplied by this war. Problems like corruption, extremism, political infighting. I know I certainly don’t ignore those problems and I will push Ukraine to work on them in the future.
But right now, those other problems just don’t matter as much as supporting them in their fight to just keep existing. As much as the Neo-Nazi Azov Regiment can and should absolutely go fuck themselves, right now I can’t let one band of crazies on the frontline be the only reason to not support a nation of 44 million people trying to defend themselves from being conquered and subjugated and possibly worse. None of the problems Ukraine has can be fixed if Ukraine doesn’t exist anymore. Once we ensure that the people and nation of Ukraine can continue to exist independently, that should be an invitation for us to engage with them as they try to avoid slipping further into destructive paths like reactionism and fascism and nationalism – rather than just immediately write them off now. They have to survive if they’re going to change and to write them off as beyond saving in the state they’re in currently is a disservice to every Ukrainian that has died since 2013 trying to make their country a better place.
If there’s one truism that’s absolutely been born out for me as I’ve delved deeper into adulthood, it’s that doing the right thing is never easy. It’s often not only difficult, but uncomfortable and stressful and anxiety inducing and wracked with doubt. The best possible answer to our problems – one with no negative repercussions and no baggage or downsides or uncomfortable facts to deal with – is never, ever going to exist. We live in a world where we need to find the least-worst options to do good. Just as I think there is no such thing as a utopia, there are no paths we can take to a better world that don’t have something “problematic” associated with them in some way. There are absolutely things we should draw a line in the sand on and say “no further” when it comes to our actions abroad and support to others. But we need to learn that those big, glaring, red lines are the exception, not the norm. The devil is in the details. It’s the little things that add up and matter. We need to learn about where, in the aggregate, we draw the line. About what is acceptable to us, and when it’s too much and we should say no more. We need to be able to identify a situation that is “acceptable” for the time being, as it will never be “perfect”. Ever.
A Scary New World
We are witnessing yet another watershed historical moment unfolding in real time before our eyes in a decade that has already had far too many of those. The Russo-Ukrainian War is a turning point in international relations. We are seeing the collapse of a world order that has endured since the end of the Cold War and something new arising in its place. It’s not clear that that new order is yet. While I still think the risk of a wider war – and certainly nuclear war – is still low (though a valid concern), what we need to be more worried about is an intense period of aggressive competition between states and a return to a more multipolar, unstable world with more conflict in general. The war we’re seeing in Ukraine will not be the last of its kind that we see for some time. I worry that it will be simply the first of many other conflicts like it in the decades to come.
It is on that note, I come to my usual, recurring conclusion that I will continue to beat like the dead horse it is until more people listen. If we want to be true to our ideals and principles – like international solidarity with those who are oppressed and deprived of the basic necessities of life – we cannot afford to be disconnected from the world events that will be unfolding from here on in. We cannot turn a blind eye to them, and we certainly cannot pick sides based only on aesthetics or performative anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism or based on standards of purity that are completely unobtainable outside of fiction.
Though it may be uncomfortable for some, you will often find yourself – by happenstance – on the same side of those you distrust or even hate. You may have to settle for supporting a side that doesn’t 100% line up with your values, but is generally speaking trying to do good and has room for improvement. You may have to support things you otherwise find abhorrent, like the use of military force and supply of arms. These are unfortunate side effects of trying to do the right thing in defense of those being maimed and slaughtered by aggression.
We all became leftists or socialist or whatever you want to call yourself because somewhere, on a fundamental level, we want to do good. We want the world to be a better place for everyone living in it in all aspects. It’s a good and noble thing to want, but there is – unfortunately – no easy way to do that. It means making tough decisions. It means doing things sometimes that you don’t want to do. That should not be an excuse for bad behavior on your part – and especially not for excusing the bad behavior of others. What it should be is an impetus to avoid inaction when lives are on the line and make those tough decisions. It is good that we have firm principles and we should not abandon them, but we need to learn when to pick our rhetorical and ideological battles and know when it’s worth drawing a line in the sand (or not). We need to rediscover what “critical-support” really means and think hard on what the boundaries of that support are.
These are all tough, introspective questions that we need to ask ourselves and I don’t have any hard and fast answers to them right now. Even if I tried to offer you some answers in that vein, no two situations are alike; no two conflicts are alike. These are decisions we’ll need to make on a case-by-case basis as we strive to understand what’s going on in the world beyond our borders. But as that world becomes more chaotic, more violent, more dangerous, these are the conversations we need to have in our own minds and with one another as leftists. These are the issues we need to debate and hash out going forward if we really do earnestly want to make this world a better place.
The world is becoming scarier, but we can’t let that frighten us off from trying to make it better.
Photo credit: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine