This past Monday, May 9th, marked Victory Day in Russia and it was widely feared the president of the country would use the occasion to officially declare war on neighboring Ukraine. This didn’t happen but, like the ‘intervention’ in Libya in 2011, the ongoing ‘special military operation’ in the country’s western neighbor is a semantic distinction without much real difference for ordinary Ukrainians trying to live their lives as bombs fall on their cities and towns.
The celebration of what is often called VE Day in the Russian Federation, a vast country comprised of over 100 ethnic groups beyond the one it’s named for, is significant in that no country suffered more in the Second World War than what was then the Soviet Union. 20 million ethnic Russians died in the conflict with Nazi Germany and its puppets in a little more than half a decade.
The holiday is also celebrated in Ukraine, which was occupied during the war and where at least 7 million people lost their lives in the fight against Nazism.
This history helps explain the Kremlin’s current propaganda focus on ‘de-Nazifying’ its neighbor. The far right and even militias like the Azov Battallion absorbed into Ukraine’s national guard in late 2014 have become an alarming force in Ukraine’s politics in recent years but it’s an exageration to say that they control the country’s government. The Azov Battalion itself is currently suffering heavy losses in the besieged city of Mariupol.
It’s also important to note that Russia was invaded from the west three times from the 19th to the mid-20th century and that this tragic history is useful to the country’s current leadership in mobilizing the support of its citizenry for its military adventurism.
None of this excuses the war of aggression undertaken by the Russian Federation, just as the fears around non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq didn’t provide any legal justification for the American invasion of that country in 2003. This is the worst crime a state can commit under international law for very good reason; without limits on the use of force by nations we will live in a world consumed by violence, or at least one even more chaotic than it already is.
The precedent set by the United States in Iraq (some may plausibly argue earlier military actions by that country, Russia, China and others established this long before) has been taken as a green light by a number of regional powers to behave in similar ways. A good example of this is the invasion of Yemen spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in hopes of overthrowing that country’s Shia Houthi government, an ongoing conflict that created the conditions that the UN still describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis despite the terrible violence currently being inflicted in Ukraine. h
The ongoing demonization of Russians themselves by the Western press and politicians has played into the hands of that country’s own far right nationalist leadership who use the media they control to point it out. This also minimizes the risks undertaken by thousands of the country’s people of all ages who took to the streets throughout Russia to protest against the attack on a neighbor that many have familial ties to despite the risks involved in dissenting, including incarceration.
It isn’t just civil society in Russia that has attempted to stop the intervention either. Although a propaganda effort on the part of Ukraine can’t be entirely dismissed, according to a report in The Daily Beast, some Russian soldiers have taken it upon themselves to sabotage the war effort in the field. “We have one tank left in the regiment. In short, we broke our tank ourselves in the morning so as not to go,” one soldier was said to have told relatives in a conversation intercepted by Ukraine’s security service, the SBU.
These brave dissidents should make policy makers in Western countries think twice about casting such a wide net that it seems to place blame on almost 150 million people for the crimes of Vladimir Putin and his cronies. Although he has been rehabilitated in recent years, it never occurred to anyone to dismiss America’s cultural achievements because of George W. Bush’s criminal attack on Iraq but we are being told that from ballet to literature, the flowers of Russian culture should be boycotted and even banned in the West.
The reaction of hawks in the United States and many NATO countries to Putin’s war, whether they view themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ was to be expected, as too many like to pose as ‘tough’ while collecting donations from arms manufacturers who want to see the war in Ukraine continue for as long as possible. Those actively calling for actions like a no fly zone that could set off a 3rd World War as Russiabn aircraft are shot down are no less genocidal than the monsters in the Kremlin that they oppose.
Arguably worse, the Biden Administration and many from both parties in the country’s Congress have taken to bragging about the aid from weaponry to intelligence sharing that has been invaluable in to Ukraine’s resistance. This makes it seem that Russia is actually at war with NATO and makes a diplomatic solution to the conflict less and less likely meaning many more will suffer and die for what appears in many ways to be a strategic miscalculation on the part of the Russian leadership.
It also creates the further risk of an escalation, including the use of so-called tactical nuclear weapons, that could be ruinous for Europe and the world.
More disappointing for some of us, if less horrifying, is the reaction of some who claim to be on the left who want to excuse Russia’s leadership and put the blame for the conflict on the United States.
As commentators like Max Blumenthal who I once respected often note, correctly, the advance of NATO to Russia’s borders was risky so long as that country was denied membership into the Western club, kept at arms length as a convenient antagonist even as the original reason for this has faded from most people’s memories (not to mention the fact that successive generations have been born since the collapse of the Soviet Union).
These commentators also opine about the ‘color revolutions’ funded by the West that have helped bring anti-Russian governments to the country’s doorstep, including the one in Ukraine in 2014 that both realized the aspirations of many of the country’s citizens but also the interests of neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists who had seen their dreams of transforming the Greater Middle East go up in smoke and worked to revive long held anti-Russian sentiment to create a greater threat than hard to defeat insurgents, mostly it seems to keep the militaristic gravy train rolling.
These ‘leftist’ voices usually only critique American imperialism (ignoring say French imperialism in the Sahel region of Africa) and seem hopeful for a multi-polar world. The idea of numerous centers of power besides the United States could make for a more peaceful world focused on economic competition in the best case scenario but the last time this was the case in hisotry it led to the needless slaughter of the First World War as Europe’s most powerful countries fought to carve most of the rest of the world up into colonies.
One doesn’t need to approve of the American imperialism that has damaged so many countries in the modern era, including itself, to criticize Russia for doing similar things. A lack of consistency in this area is a sign of intellectual immaturity at best.
An internationalist progressive left should not focus on taking risks to weaken the Russian Federation but on diplomacy to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine and hopefully other areas of conflict. Solidarity across borders could allow us to work together to find solutions to the problems we face in common like hunger in our own countries and the global south and the existential risk of climate change.
It takes courage to call for peace in an echo chamber filled with voices calling for more wars that they will never have to fight themselves. Let’s be courageous.