I feel like every time I rejoin you all with one of these essays I have to go “boy, a lot of history sure happened in the last month” and this time it’s no exception. I’m going to spare you the line-item state of the world summary, however, and I’m gonna try and get straight to the point in this piece because I really think the main point of this month’s essay is an important one that I want to really want to cram into people’s brains and make it stick there.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a number of repercussions there will be more as it continues on. One that I’ve noticed online in particular – though exclusively – is the treatment of war and struggle as being almost like some kind of team sport. This in itself is not new by any means, but I believe that the monumental nature and scale of the Russian invasion and the manner in which it caught so many off guard has amplified this tendency. The result is that you get a number of people boiling down armed conflict and the geopolitics surrounding it into essentially “yay my team and anyone that supports it and boo the other team and anyone that supports it.”
Now before you take that the wrong way, this is by no means an attempt on my part to “both sides” the Ukraine conflict. I have maintained since 2014 that Russia is an aggressor trying to impose its imperialistic will on Ukraine and that belief has only been reinforced by the events of the past seven months as Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has slogged on. The point I’m trying to make is, by taking a “sportsball” (God help me) approach to wars like the one in Ukraine and everything else that becomes connected to it, those with that mindset begin to dumb down, disregard, or downright ignore nuance to the point that it starts to become actually harmful as it spreads to events that are removed by several orders of magnitude. It’s also worth noting that this attitude is something that’s not exclusive to any particular political ideology and that I’ve noticed it coming from all comers interacting with the War in Ukraine and other conflicts.
Said harmful effects became obvious in the past few weeks as new events unfolded outside of the scope of the War in Ukraine, but with the shadow of that conflict hanging over it and the “go team” simplified mindset having a direct impact on how it has been (incorrectly) perceived by many who have become more focused on international relations following the start of the Russian invasion. My goals for this essay are to A.) try and explain how all of this (i.e. geopolitics) is – unfortunately – more complicated than it looks and that can’t be helped; but I also want to B.) try and explain how you can wrap your head around what sometimes feels like conflicting and contradictory stances on geopolitics in a world increasingly filled with more and more crises and conflicts. At the end of the day, if you follow a consistent moral compass when it comes to armed aggression and your sense of internationalism and solidarity, you’ll find that navigating this crazy world isn’t as hard as a lot of people would lead you to believe (often to their own self-interested or sinister ends). So, without further ado, let’s get right into things.
The Tangled Web of Geopolitics
Life is inherently complicated. We, as human beings, have a natural desire to try and simplify it in order to make it both easier to understand and to manage – even if sometimes there are aspects of life that are difficult (if not impossible) to simplify. Geopolitics takes that to an extreme. Geopolitics are complicated, messy, sometimes contradictory, and always frustrating. So, it’s no mistake that the casual observer (and sometimes even the more experienced practitioner) will try and boil geopolitics down to simple, black and white terms, in order to try and make sense of it. While this desire to make geopolitics into a simple binary is understandable, it almost always ends up going too far and leads to flawed and often hurtful approaches to the rest of the world.
An excellent example of this are the latest clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan – occurring very much in the shadow of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine. If you’ve read my essays before or followed me on Twitter (or follow Joe Kassabian on Twitter), you’re probably no stranger to the long-time struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan – particularly over the contested majority-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh. However, recently Azerbaijan broadened the conflict with a large-scale series of strikes against Armenia proper, attacking across their internationally recognized border with only the flimsiest of pretenses. While at the time of writing this essay things have calmed down some, the situation remains tense – with some countries advising their citizens to now evacuate certain parts of Armenia due to fears of further Azeri invasion.
Now, whatever you think about the Artsakh issue (my stance is that it is Armenian but that’s a completely different essay), we should all be able to agree that countries should not attack one another’s internationally recognized territory proper – especially not without actual provocation or under false pretenses (which Azerbaijan’s pretenses almost certainly are). Yet, I’ve seen quite a lot of sentiment on social media that somehow Armenia has done something to “deserve” this attack or that its somehow their “just desserts” and that they deserve no sympathy or assistance.
The very flawed and twisted justification for this attitude is that Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance led (and dominated) by Russia, formed following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. Since Armenia is therefore a military treaty ally of Russia, a number of supporters of Ukraine (which I also support against unjustified Russian military aggression and imperialism) seem to believe that Armenia deserves whatever it gets as its attacked by Azerbaijan. There’s also a rather rosy attitude towards Azerbaijan by Ukrainians and Ukraine boosters, as Azerbaijan has politically supported Ukraine since the Russian invasion, sent humanitarian aid, and also has expressed a willingness to step up its oil and gas exports to Europe in order to counteract potential energy warfare by Russia this winter as the War in Ukraine drags on.
There are many problems with this logic (or lack thereof). For one, it fails to interrogate the actual relationship between Armenia and Russia beyond its more surface levels, refusing to ask why Armenia is even in an alliance with Russia to begin with. Armenia is small (both population and territory wise), landlocked country that is flanked by two states (Azerbaijan and Turkey) with much larger populations and resources – one of which has already attempted to wipe out its people before, with the other essentially now daring the world to stop them from doing it again. Armenia lacks the energy resources of Azerbaijan, which has facilitated strong relationships with countries eager to buy those resources – in addition to its strong partnership with Turkey over shared Turkic culture. From the moment it gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia needed a security guarantor if it was to avoid another genocide. Russia was the closest and most able and willing to act compared to other states, essentially falling into the role of Armenia’s security guarantor by default and then proceeding to hold a trapped Armenia hostage in the ensuing economic, political, and security relationship.
Essentially, Russia has remained Armenia’s primary security partner all these years basically out of both inertia and a failure by the United States and other countries in the West to do anything to change the situation – even after Armenia’s peaceful democratic revolution in 2018. Russia has also increasingly failed in its role as a security guarantor for Armenia. Russia and the CSTO’s failure to act decisively in the face of the most recent Azeri aggression (this time against Armenia’s internationally recognized territory) has sparked widespread anger and frustration with Russia by Armenians. Some Armenians have even called for Armenia to leave the CSTO and the situation has led to outreach by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives – Nancy Pelosi – as the CSTO appears to fragment while Russia’s war in Ukraine falters. While Armenia has been Russia’s ally on paper, it is not and has never been a universally happy and loving relationship and is one that Armenia took out of necessity and lack of options to survive.
Those making overly simplified comments about the Armenia-Azerbaijan situation also seem to ignore that, however cozy Azerbaijan has been with the West or supportive (notionally) of Ukraine, it has retained close political and economic ties with Russia – which in the typical Russian fashion has been trying to play both sides of a frozen conflict (one that is increasingly warming up). Azerbaijan isn’t acting on any profound political or moral grounds, it is simply trying to play all sides in support of its national interests – among which are removing the Armenian state and Armenian people off the face of the Earth (if you don’t believe me, take a look at what 99.9% of Azeri accounts on Twitter have to say about Armenia). Azerbaijan is taking advantage of the war in Ukraine in order to distract from what it wants to accomplish in Armenia, and unfortunately its propaganda war has been far too effective for my tastes thus far (though this time around more people seem to be taking a stand against its more naked aggression and I hope this trend continues – especially if it attacks Armenia further).
Aside from personal interest, I wanted to bring up Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular because this conflict serves as such a solid and recent illustrative example of what I’m trying to communicate. That none of these events happens in a vacuum or without a complex web of sometimes contradictory connections. This isn’t new, either. It’s always been the case, even in situations that have been historically characterized as being almost entirely binary in nature.
Let’s take the Cold War, as another example. We think about the Cold War almost exclusively as a geopolitical struggle between East and West, Communism and Anti-Communism, with two monolithic blocs led by almighty superpowers acting in perfect lockstep with one another. It makes for good propaganda, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Both East and West had many fissures and countries within both blocs often acted against one another out of self-interest or opposing principles and ideology – both via proxy and sometimes directly. In the East, the most famous example of this is probably the Sino-Soviet split, which led to the Soviet Union and China engaging in direct border clashes in 1969 and becoming enemies for the next two decades. Another prominent example is the Suez Crisis, where both Britain and France – in league with Israel – attempted one last great imperialist adventure to retake the recently nationalized Suez Canal from Egypt and potentially even remove the charismatic anti-imperialist President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power (against the express wishes and without the direct knowledge of their allied superpower, the United States).
The Cold War, despite our binary view of the competition, was riddled with cases like those just mentioned where supposed allies and partners crossed one another (if you really want to make your head hurt, take a look at the Wikipedia article for the Nigerian Civil War and then take a look at who was supporting both sides). Despite our innate desire to boil down geopolitics to a simple black and white, good versus evil struggle, that is almost never the case. The reality, as we’ve seen in the examples I’ve brought up, is far more convoluted than we’d like it to be.
How to Hold Two Opinions at the Same Time – A Primer
By now I’ve driven into your heads that geopolitics are not straightforward or black and white. Yeah, good, ok. So now what are you actually supposed to do with this information as you go about your lives? I’m glad you asked.
The point I’m trying to make by smashing you over the head with the proverbial mallet here, is that I want people to understand that sometimes states and their peoples are going to have to make decisions in order to survive that may not necessarily sit well with you ideologically, politically, or otherwise. To be clear, I’m not talking about excusing horrific acts of mass wanton violence like genocide or ethnic cleansing or other war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those are unacceptable no matter who is committing them or what reason they ostensibly have. I’m talking about actions like forging economic ties with, buying arms or seeking military support from, and generally associating with countries, groups, organizations, and so on that you may not be a fan of (for perfectly justified reasons in many cases).
Obviously, there’s no one-sized fits all approach to evaluating these actions and figuring out how you should feel about them or respond to them. There is no one universal “line” that once crossed a country or a people should suddenly no longer be worthy of support in its struggles against outside aggression (nor do I really think there should be a universal line except for specific cases like those acts I mentioned in the previous paragraph). But we have to understand when we see countries doing things that make you want to – for lack of a better term, God help me for saying this – “cancel” them, we also have to put said actions in their proper context (something I’m big on in international relations and security studies in general). We have to understand that, while in some cases countries may be performing certain acts purely out of self-interest and preserving or furthering their national power, in many cases countries and groups are doing them for one main reason: survival. Often, they just have no other options to turn to.
This is a frustrating thing to deal with because it means we have to take positions that, while they are not essentially contradictory, they feel so or appear so. I support Ukraine’s fight against the unjustified invasion and aggression by Russia, while also supporting Armenia’s similar fight against aggression by Azerbaijan and Turkey. What this means is I end up supporting countries that – if you connect the dots – appear to be aligned against one another. Ukraine being aligned with the West and Azerbaijan against Russia, while Armenia is (on paper) allied with Russia against Turkey and Azerbaijan (which I will again remind you both have very close relationships with Russia still despite all this), makes you think that therefore you should also be opposed to Armenia as well as Russia and that you should support Azerbaijan for supporting Ukraine. It all comes back to our innate human desire to make all this simple and cut and dry, black and white.
These types of positions may seem contradictory, but really when you get to the heart of the matter they are not. Said heart of that matter is we should always be opposed to unprovoked and unjustified armed aggression by one state or party against another, full stop. At the end of the day, Russia invaded Ukraine in a war of imperialistic aggression that was entirely a choice on their part (one they are paying for dearly now), that they were led to following their own mistakes they made via their heavy-handed response to the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-2014. Likewise, while in past struggles with Azerbaijan, Armenia has certainly undertaken acts that were horrific and uncalled for and should be acknowledged as such, that in no way justifies the ongoing aggression that Azerbaijan continues has shown against Armenia and Armenians now for decades. As I shared earlier, Azerbaijan continues to engage in ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide in Artsakh – a historically Armenian majority region – and now seems set on taking those acts to Armenia proper with its most recent attacks on internationally recognized Armenian territory. In both Ukraine’s case and Armenia’s case, even though their relationships tie them to their enemies, it is still ethically, morally, and ideologically correct to support both of them in their struggles as they are both still fighting fundamentally the same struggle despite the geopolitical bullshit that encumbers them as they fight to survive.
As leftists – and just as people – we should take a fundamental stand against armed aggression in all cases, while also supporting those who are victims of aggression in their right to self-defense. This was one of the earliest points I made in writing my essays and one I endeavor to return to often, discussing how being anti-war does not mean that you can’t or shouldn’t defend yourself against armed aggression with force in kind. Being anti-war just means that you don’t start none – that doesn’t mean there won’t be none, if someone else decides to attack you (put another way: “fuck around and find out.”) Once again, this is not a contradictory stance to take. In fact, it is the only acceptable stance to take if you are to stay true to leftist internationalist principles of solidarity and resistance against fascism and imperialism worldwide. We cannot pick and choose the struggles we support based purely on the most superficial of aesthetics or we are betraying the principles we claim to uphold and take to heart. This doesn’t mean that we have to rush to a state’s aid directly in the case of every single war – especially in a case where you have one shitty regime attacking another shitty regime. However, we should still on principle be opposed to armed aggression in the interest of stopping the suffering of innocents caught in the crossfire, and we should then be prepared to assist like minded peoples and governments that share the values we hold as democratic socialists when they request our help and assistance.
I’ve seen plenty of cases of this on the Left, which is one of the main reasons I started writing these essays to begin with. It is most commonly observed in the tankie tendency to support authoritarian leftist regimes regardless of their many failings and crimes, as well as in the more general campist tendency to support any regime – regardless of ideology – that stands in opposition to the United States and the West simply because of said fact and nothing else. The fact is, for us on the Left, it is no less complicated, and we are not immune to geopolitics. As Democratic Confederalists in Rojava attempt to preserve their revolution, they’ve been compelled to balance between the United States and the West on one side and Russia and the Ba’athist Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad on the other in order to defend themselves against aggression by Turkey and its proxy forces in Syria. They do so because they are doing what they need to in order for both their people and their revolution to survive, while remembering the hard learned lesson of what happens when you depend on one guarantor of your security only to be betrayed time and time again by multiple parties and left to defend yourself with little resources on hand. This is the world we live in, and it involves striking a balance between our ideological beliefs and the cold hard facts of reality. Its never easy, and ideally always a temporary act, but still one that always seems to drag on longer than anyone wants it to and can gnaw at the soul and the conscience along the way if you truly hold your beliefs dear.
Stop and Think
In a better world (not necessarily a perfect one, but a better one), this would all actually be simpler. Perhaps then we actually would have an international united front of ideologically like-minded countries and peoples assisting one another in defending against the arrayed forces of authoritarianism, fascism, imperialism, and a like; enabling its members to not have to make deals with the devil in order to survive and ensure they have a future. In a better world, the struggle of actual good versus evil – though still maybe not as clear cut as we’d all like it to be – would at least be more defined and less fuzzy and easier to get a handle on for the average person who doesn’t have an advanced degree in international relations.
But, as I’ve spent the past multiple paragraphs explaining, that is not the case. I hope someday we can get closer to that kind of world, but as with everything else I aspire to in these essays, it’s going to take many years and a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve. In the meantime, in the interest of those who engaged in ongoing battles for survival, there are certain things we are going to have to tolerate and make allowances for.
Does this mean that we should not care at all about taking strong moral positions? That since black and white issues are so rare that everything should be treated as “gray” and that ethics and morality, and ideological positions don’t matter? That we should all become ultra-realists that Kissinger would applaud? Of course not. The main overarching point I’m trying to make (and have made on other related issues in these essays before) is that all of this is far more complicated than you think. That’s not an excuse to not care, it should be an excuse to care more and an impetus for you to want to figure out how you feel and have to think about events more deeply and your own reactions to and interactions with them more deeply. It means you have to engage your brain when you see a new Tweet on world events and not immediately decide the entirety of your position right then and there in 280 characters based on whatever thoughts are floating in your head at the time. I know this is a tall order at a time when a new historical event is occurring every five minutes, but it really is essential if we are to have fewer in the future.
Ok, I’m fading fast here due to having stuffed myself with this sausage stew I made earlier, so I’m afraid I have no eloquent conclusion here other than “think” and “don’t be a fucking jackass.” Oh, and try to take a moment to breathe now and then in between major historical events or you will go insane – guaranteed. That’s all I got for now. Until next time, stay safe and look after yourselves and your loved ones, and I’ll be back with another lecture next month.
Photo Credit: CSTO