How should opponents of oppression, centralized power, militarism, and greed take a stance on the war begun by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Here’s a rundown of the (mostly aligned) factors people of good conscience and/or people on the political left ought to consider as they take a stand.
Note: This piece was born of a Twitter thread written as news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine broke on February 23. I’ve corrected a few things (mostly spelling, he said sheepishly) and enriched that thread with links to sources here.
Anti-imperialism and self-determination are foundational values for looking at international conflicts.
Both are grounded in a refusal of the right to conquer territory by force. Since the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact and 1929 Litvinov Protocol, even imperial powers like the US and France, as well as the Soviet Union, are formally signed on to the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by force.
Legal condemnation of the Axis Powers in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials are built on this foundation, so is modern international law. The UN Charter made this a treaty obligation of all states. Self-determination and decolonization built on this. Uprisings and resistance across the global South turned the UN framework, built by colonial powers, into an organization committed to decolonization.
This is what we invoke when we defend(ed) Algeria, Vietnam, Palestine, Western Sahara, East Timor.
While freedom of smaller countries from foreign powers has been an uphill climb, large and substantial regional, inter-state peace—notably in Europe, Latin America—has also emerged in this framework. Where the 19th century and early 20th century were full of invasions and border wars in both regions, the European Union and several Latin American forums offer an alternative. (This is why this new invasion is both one point in a long series globally, with Iraq 2003, Georgia 2008, Yemen 2015 as prior examples, and a shocking break in the European context.) So principles of international law are both close to causes of justice and elements that are routinely violated.
Those of us who live in imperial powers have ample opportunity to take stands in defense of international law by demanding that our governments abandon occupied territories and occupying allies… For US Americans, this includes ongoing wars/occupations in Yemen, W Sahara, Palestine. But that doesn’t mean that we have no ethical interest in the anti-imperial struggles, or rights for self-determination of people affected by rival imperial powers.
In the early 21st century, there are at least three independent great powers:
the US (& many allies), Russia, and China.
All are expansionist. All are capitalist.
Part of our ideological work as anti-imperialists is refusing the cognitive structures of empire. We should reject the Monroe doctrine and US domination of Latin America. They are not our backyard. We have no right to veto governments there, or put down opposition protests, much less invade and occupy them.
And for the same reason, we must reject the concept of a Russian near abroad, a sphere of influence where it has a veto over local movements and self-determination, where it can invade with impunity.
Our efforts should focus on alliances and empathy with anti-militarists and anti-imperialists in Russia, not with Russian fears of an independent Ukraine. Mutual recognition among imperialists is our enemy, whether it is Trump’s idolization of Putin or Germany’s commitment to a Russian gas pipeline.
We should educate ourselves about, and cultivate solidarity around past forms of imperial domination in the Russian orbit, notably the coordinated starvation of Ukraine and the mass deportation of ethnic groups across the Soviet Union. We must listen to Ukrainian voices in a time when they are under attack.
Anti-militarism and the threat of nuclear war
The next level, militarism, is more complex: Confrontations among countries with large militaries are disastrous. We’re witnessing the beginning of one of only a handful of military-military conflicts since 1945. (Most wars in that period were fought by irregular, non-state forces on at least one side.) Iran–Iraq and US–Iraq (1|2) both illustrate the horrifying toll that such conflicts can bring. De-escalation is a huge priority. As is global diplomatic and economic isolation of states that start such wars.
Between wars, US military alliances like NATO are massive export markets for weapons manufacturers. Each sale increases the risks and costs of future conflict. Despite its successful deterrence so far, then, NATO represents a gamble that could eventually make future conflicts far more deadly.
Separately, the involvement of nuclear powers represents both a severe risk and a mechanism that can cause military powers to think twice before escalating. For a mirror image example, consider Cuba in the 1960s… the Soviet Union developed an alliance with a former colony of the US, provoking a nuclear crisis, but also likely deterring a full-scale US invasion.
Ukraine would be a nuclear power too, were it not for a series of denuclearization agreements in which both Russia and the US promised to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. There are long-term implications of a world that reneges on protection for giving up nuclear weapons. Those of us who want a nuclear free world have an implicit stake in Ukrainian security.
Last but not least, the conflict in Ukraine sees a democratic government facing invasion by a oligarchical and authoritarian one, whose leader has declared that it isn’t a real nation. Nothing good can come of that.
As anarchists in Russia put it: ”this will mean the further spread of the so-called ‘Russian world’: a crazy combination of neoliberal oligarchy, rigid centralized power, and patriarchal imperial propaganda. This consequence is not as obvious as the rise in the price of sausages and the sanctions on smartphones—but in the long run, it is even more dangerous.”
To sum up
In short, there are wide reasons for left sympathy with Ukraine in this conflict.
In the context of Russian threats, and violence, Ukraine’s practical refuge is engagement with the EU and future alliance with NATO, two institutions leftists have long questioned.
Leftists’ rightful rejection US imperial power should not cloud our moral rejection of Russia’s current imperial invasion.
We can simultaneously be a voice that highlights divisions and dissent in the invading power, builds cross-border alliances against imperial power, supports bold moves to undercut fossil fuel revenue to Russia, and urges caution on military actions.
Other left analyses:
Top photo: Maidan Square with mist, Kyiv, Ukraine. CC-BY Juan Antonio Segal.