Whose war is it, anyway?

We're coming up on a year since Russia turned the simmering insurgency it had backed in the Donetsk region and the illegal 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula into a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has in turn become a protracted war seemingly aimed at annexing the whole of Ukraine and dismantling both the Ukrainian government and any idea of a unique Ukrainian culture. In the days leading up to this eruption of all-out war I believed those voices in the media who said that war would simply not arrive, that it would be such an obvious geopolitical blunder that Putin was surely too smart to go through with it. That he might be able to win such a war, but he must understand that the cost would be too great, and that all the warnings from the Biden administration of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were so much bluster intended to rally support around US aid to Ukraine as the country struggled to hold up its territorial integrity. All of us who believed this were proven wrong in spectacular fashion.

A bombed hospital in Ukraine
A bombed hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. Photograph published by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine web site armyinform.com.ua and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

So much talk has been made of the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine since then, and so many people more expert in the politics of the region and the material realities of this war have spoken about it. But for those of us interested in the future of left politics in the United States and lacking expertise in the geopolitics of eastern Europe, the war still bears talking about. Firstly, because people anywhere in the world having their homes blown up deserve international solidarity. But also precisely because so many who don't understand Ukraine have yammered on about it in a way that turns it into a wedge issue within our own insular anglophone left circles, exposing a fissure in an what can hardly even be called our coalition. On opposite sides of that fissure are fundamentally incompatible understandings of not only the material situation in Ukraine today, but of what imperialism and anti-imperslism actually mean.

🌐 The missing superpower

The United States in particular persisted under a hegemonic anticommunist order for so long that thirty-something years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the very word socialist is still a pejorative in many contexts—perhaps even most contexts, depending on where and with whom you live. The Cold War so pervasively ordered ideological expression in this country that now even many people of my generation who have no personal memory of the Cold War are conditioned to believe that geopolitics are governed by two distinct and competing world orders, one led by the US and the other by its avowed rivals in Russia, China, Iran, and perhaps India. This non-US world order may not be fully aligned behind Communism, but China and some smaller states in its orbit maintain a commitment to some or other interpretation of the idea. If you continue to hold this dualistic view of the world, and hold (as I do) a dim view of US anticommunist interventions in the recent past, you might feel that the only alternative is to support this other world order. If, in particular, you see the US as the principle exponent of imperialism in the modern world, then support of this other world order in all matters of geopolitics becomes the practical expression of anti-imperialism.

One problem with this understanding is that the alleged rival order does not hold on common the shared (though often nominal) ideological commitment to Socialism that bound together the Soviet sphere of influence. Even China's Communism, which is flexible enough to accommodate neoliberal factory labor conditions, is not held in common by the other major players in this supposed alliance. Certain smaller states, Cuba and the DPRK among them, maintain at least a nominal commitment to whatever they have come to define as Socialist or Communist policy, but the Russian Federation certainly does not; Putin even famously denounced Lenin in a public speech at the start of the invasion, blaming the founding Bolshevik leader not only for sowing the seeds strife amongst Slavic nations but for conceptually creating Ukraine in the first place. Putin explicitly cast his invasion of Ukraine as a correction of Lenin's mistakes and a decisive act of decommunization, even as he also offered “denazification” as a justification.

The other problem with this rival world order offering an alternative to the US sphere of influence is that it doesn't exist. Chinese leadership, for example, have proven themselves more open to Russian trade than the US or European Union, but have been unwilling to commit troops and reluctant to provide military aid to the cause of russifying Ukraine. At the risk of restating obvious recent history, the Soviet Union's collapse did not leave in its wake a united bloc of allies collectively forming a rival superpower against US hegemony, let alone an ideologically consistent, anti-imperialist one.

🪖 Learning the wrong lesson from the right text

As a kid during 2003 US invasion of Iraq, I can't say I understood very well what was going on except that it seemed that the adult world all around me had gone completely off the rails. Saddam Hussein was described to me as a dictatorial madman who menaced his own people with chemical weapons (in the 1998 Halabja massacre of Iraqi Kurds, a well-documented event), but why this would best be solved by US military “shock and awe” was unclear. There were supposed to be hidden “weapons of mass destruction” that Hussein was poised to fire at his foreign adversaries, but these never materialized.

History, as they say, may not exactly repeat itself, but often rhymes. Absent any actual incident of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordering the chemical bombing of some or other region of Ukraine, Putin and Russia's state media apparatus fabricated a secret, Ukrainian state-sponsored genocide against Ukrainian russophones, which could only be stopped through Russian military intervention. That this does not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny, or that Zelenskyy's own first language is Russian, does not deter those already committed to supporting the Russian state's anti-imperialist imperialism. Ukraine had publicly surrendered its nuclear arsenal early in its post-Soviet history as an independent state, so rather than “weapons of mass destruction,” the Ukrainian state was instead accused of using secret US-funded labs to develop exotic “bioweapons” programmed specifically to target ethnic Russians. That these bioweapons have failed to materialize has done no more to end the war in Ukraine than the fictitiousness of Saddam Hussein's WMDs ever did to end the war in Iraq. The whole scheme of pretexts for invasion, adopted without regard for evidence and just as easily discarded and forgotten, is so familiar to me. It was really just too perfect when former US president George W. Bush, in a widely televized Freudian slip, decried “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq… I mean, of the Ukraine.”

US supporters of and apologists for the invasion of Ukraine also look upon the invasion of Iraq as a cautionary tale, but the lesson they draw is different. For me the obvious lesson there is the evil of what was done, and it would be evil no matter who did it. For others it seems the lesson was all about who did it, and this reinforced a crude geopolitical heuristic: if it aligns with US foreign policy, it's wrong. This heuristic was pretty reliable for a number of years, but now it leads people to defend the very same crimes committed against Iraqi people, just because this time around they are committed under orders of the Russian president and against the populace of a country aligned with the United States. As John Ganz put it in “Some Thoughts on Ukraine”:

Russia's appeal in the West, which crosses the traditional boundaries of right and left, is irresistible for those who believe the worst crime imaginable is Western hypocrisy. Since this hypocrisy is the only unforgivable sin, Russia's crude and cynical exercise of power, its barely plausible justifications for its actions, its overt gangsterism at home and abroad, is seen as a virtue.

🫓 What came to pass in Syria

I am not at all the right person to talk about Syria in depth. But, as with Ukraine, there are pockets of the political left here in the US and elsewhere in the anglosphere who have trouble reconciling themselves to basic documented facts of the civil war that began there in 2011, so these bear repeating. Bashar al-Assad is and was a deeply repressive hereditary autocrat, and the war began when he moved to crush a largely grassroots protest movement demanding that he be removed from power. A number of armed anti-Assad groups with varying ideologies emerged, and some of them eventually won material support from the Obama administration in the United States. But into this situation also emerged a notoriously violent armed theocratic movement called variously Daesh, the Islamic State, ISIL, or ISIS. Daesh inflicted ever more losses upon Assad's forces, but as their power grew they began to bring the same military force to bear against other, more secular anti-Assad groups and ultimately against anyone who did not swear total allegiance to their theology.

The emergence of a militant theocratic threat in Syria provided a pretext for ever-increasing violence against civilians including lethal chemical attacks on entire urban neighborhoods; the victims of these attacks could then be branded as either terrorists or collateral damage of Assad's defensive campaign against terrorism. This development also opened the door for a Russian military intervention in support of the Assad government. There were got a preview of the Russian military tactics now on display in Ukraine: the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, the frequently declared cease-fires that Russian officers violated as soon as people tried to use the break in fighting to safely move about, and the use of the fascist paramilitary Wagner Group that was officially unconnected to the Russian military or government.

Here, too, we got a preview of the failure of international left solidarity in the face of war crimes and repression not aligned with the United States. Bashar al-Assad's nominal claim to a legacy of Ba'athist Arab socialist leadership and the United States' haphazard support for anti-Assad forces were enough to convince some on the political left, including a number of somewhat prominent cultural figures, to uncritically embrace Assad. These pro-Assadists would deny known war crimes committed by Syrian state forces (like the afformentioned chemical attacks attested by copious video and eyewitness accounts, or the state's tortures and killings gruesomely documented in thousands of photographs of the “Caesar report” that were verified by Human Rights Watch), to the point of endorsing conspiracy theories. Explaining the roots of this phenomenon is out of my depth, but the work has been done very capably by Daphne Lawless in her 2018 essay series “The red-brown 'zombie plague'” for the Trans-Tasman socialist publication Fightback. (See parts One, Two, and Three on the Fightback web site. Also potentially illuminating is The Right Podcast episode 22, in which CounterPunch radio host and one-time US Assad supporter Eric Draitser explains both what drew his cohort to Assad and how he came to reject this approach to geopolitics in favor of greater solidarity for people in Syria and later Ukraine.)

📻 The lopsided pacifism of Axis Sally

There has been curious paradox of pacifism around the war in Ukraine. Early on I noticed that many in the chorus of support for the invasion on social media would frame Zelenskyy's requests for military aid from NATO member nations, or his refusal to surrender or hand over large regions of Ukraine without the support of a national, free referendum, as acts of warmongering. Anyone who suggested anything other than denying all military aid to Ukraine and pressuring the Zelenskyy government into surrender was cast as a hawk demanding a prolonged proxy war against Russia to be fought “to the last Ukrainian.” Such were the complaints I heard from some of the communists in my broader social circles. The maybe less sophisticated reader comments I read on news items about the war in Al Jazeera's social media feeds described Zelenskyy as a depraved “clown 🤡” cruelly sending his people to war on behalf of his NATO masters.

The topsy-turvy picture of the war I got from these pacifist pro-invasion talking points began to get under my skin. Were we really to believe that this war was brought about solely by madman Zelenskyy, and that Putin sought nothing but peace in Ukraine—while Russian authorities moved to imprison citizens for repeating the generic pacifist slogan “Нет войне” (“No to war”)? Or that the Ukrainian state alone bore responsibility for perpetuating the conflict, as Russian forces continued to bombard civilian infrastructure, apartment buildings, and hospitals? I had always thought of myself as a pacifist, but did pacifism really demand that a country invaded out of the blue simply turn itself over to annexation as a condition for peace, or that if such a country failed to immediately surrender we must view it and not the invading power as the war's principal aggressor?

There is danger in taking grand historical comparisons too far. But historical precedents can help us clarify what is possible. As Allied forces moved to liberate Axis-occupied territory in the Second World War, the Nazi propaganda machine cultivated superficially anti-war propaganda for foreign audiences that was designed to justify the Nazi conquest of Europe and reframe the German state as an unwilling participant in the war. Mildred Gillers, a German-US woman who was among the radio personalities collectively known as “Axis Sally,” delivered English-language radio broadcasts from Berlin in which she often talked of the Reich having been “forced” into war. In her telling, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the principal aggressor, a warmonger sending good American boys overseas to serve shadowy Jewish interests represented by his friends and advisors. The pacifism Mildred Gillers promoted was founded on antisemitic lies, and lopsided. It demanded that the war end not by Germany withdrawing any of its occupying forces, but by Allied nations simply allowing these occupations to continue and Nazi-perpetrated genocide to spread across Europe.

This lopsided pacifism held sway amongst the Reich's influential supporters abroad, like Father Charles Coughlin, a popular US radio personality who was wisely forced out of public life in 1939 as it became apparent that his broadcasts were inciting fascist street violence. It was the kind of pacifism espoused by some in the Oswald Mosley camp of British fascists, figures like nature writer Henry Williamson. I do not mean to say that there was no genuinely felt aversion to war in this brand of pacifism; Williamson, for example, developed his opposition to war understandably in the trenches of World War I. But this form of pacifism was glaringly one-sided, admonishing military resistance to the Reich but unconcerned by its military invading and occupying Czechoslovakia under the pretense of protecting a German ethnic minority living there. Nor did this pacifism condemn the German invasion of Denmark and Norway under the guise of thwarting alleged French and British occupation plans there. And it was silent, of course, on Nazi-perpetrated genocide, an asymmetric war not against a rival state but against civilians in the Reich's own territories.

None of this is to say that we can draw direct, one-to-one parallels from World War II to the invasion of Ukraine. I do not mean to definitively cast any contemporary leader into the role of Hitler, or of Chamberlain, or Churchill. But from this historical precedent we can see that not all pacifisms are made equal. Some pacifists will be very selective about what counts as starting a war, or who holds responsibility when war occurs. To some pacifists, an unprovoked invasion is not warmongering, but resistance to that invasion is.

To understand who truly has the power to end a war, we have to understand who is choosing war now, who is keeping the war alive. In the context of Ukraine, that is not Zelenskyy. This is not to say the Ukrainian president is a saint, or that he has done everything right. I am unsettled, for example, by some of the measures he has taken to mute political dissent in Ukraine during the war, in the name of maintaining defensive unity. But he has never had full control of the metaphorical ship. In the wee hours of 1 January 2013, Zelenskyy was performing a wacky, comedic musical number on Russian television. By 25 July 2019 he was President of Ukraine, taking a call from US President Trump, and faced with the task of maintaining an impossible domain balancing act. On one side was the looming military threat from Russia, the defense against which relied on military aid from the United States. On the other side, Trump was demanding that before Ukraine receive this aid, Zelenskyy should publicly announce a legal investigation into the son of Trump's foremost political opponent—an investigation that was not actually occuring. Squeezed between two much larger military powers, he was being asked to deceive the public about official proceedings in exchange for continued Ukrainian sovereignty. In the end he remained polite, but promised nothing. Already-allocated US military aid to Ukraine remained inexplicably frozen until US legislators started asking uncomfortable questions about it. Now, too, in the war, Zelenskyy's choices are constrained by pressure from all sides. Continued military aid from abroad still depends on good diplomatic relations. The Ukrainian military and volunteer forces seem willing to carry out his commands, but would they be so willing if he were to turn from a spirited defense of national sovereignty to the full surrender that Putin seemed to expect, or even to concessions like officially recognizing Russian rule in Crimea? Would the war actually end so neatly? Would Ukrainians universally heed the order to lay down their arms? Would the risk of Russian military reprisals on occupied Ukrainian cities instantly evaporate?

On the other hand, what would happen if Putin found an excuse to declare “Mission accomplished,” and began to withdraw all Russian troops from Ukraine to victory parades at home, celebrating the success of the “special military operation”? The proximate cause of the war is the presence of an occupying force in Ukraine. Certainly the retreat of this force, even a “victorious” retreat, would be the most effective means of ending hostilities.

I've come to learn that to declare oneself a pacifist, or against war, means little without context. “This war must end” would surely seem a truism in Ukraine today. In Russia, it is criminal speech. Whether I have anything in common with another pacifist or leftist depends on is having some basic, shared understanding of reality. Not only the understanding that war is vile, but a common good faith approach to this essential question: Whose war is it, anyway?

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.