[Published at Common Dreams.]
To be a leftist in the United States is a dispiriting experience, but in the last year one of the more dispiriting things has been to see the attitude of many leftists themselves on a subject of crucial importance: the war in Ukraine. The consensus of the Washington establishment remains that the U.S. must support Ukraine against Russian aggression, in the form of providing enormous amounts of military aid. Progressives in Congress largely share this consensus, having voted for military aid and even cravenly retracted their letter to Biden in October that suggested he pursue diplomacy. Outside the halls of power, too, many leftists effectively support Washington’s policies. To be sure, they add the qualification that one must also oppose American imperialism—but when they’re supporting a U.S. proxy war that is providing pretexts to increase military spending and expand NATO (an instrument of U.S. power), this is an empty qualification. The sad fact is that there is little vocal advocacy in the U.S. today for the only moral position, namely to engage in immediate negotiations to end this horrific war.
Instead, most liberals, conservatives, and even leftists seem to support Antony Blinken’s rejection of any ceasefire or negotiations that “would potentially have the effect of freezing in place the conflict, allowing Russia to consolidate the gains that it’s made.” In other words, negotiations have to be postponed until Russia is in a weaker position than it is now. In fact, the official U.S. war aim is “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says. That means Russia has to be so devastatingly weakened—preferably defeated—that its capacity to wage war is destroyed. This, in turn, means that the war must go on for a very long time, perhaps “to the last Ukrainian,” as John Quigley speculates. Zelensky, who seems “heroically” willing to countenance the ongoing destruction of his country, is now even insisting that Russia give up Crimea.
All this is madness, and ought to be seen as such by any clear-eyed opponent of the U.S. empire (which is vastly more global, hegemonic, and dangerous to the world’s population than today’s Russian “empire”). Before accepting complete defeat, Putin—whom, after all, we’re supposed to view as a bloodthirsty monster—would likely wage total war on Ukraine, possibly including use of nuclear weapons. So anyone who defends the U.S. war aim (and Ukraine’s current war aims, as stated by Zelensky) is advocating the destruction of Ukraine and, perhaps, nuclear war. Aggression should indeed be opposed, but not at the expense of human survival or the survival of millions of Ukrainians.
However strenuously it has been denied by Western supporters of this war, Russia has legitimate grievances (at least much more legitimate than those that have motivated U.S. wars since the 1960s) that must be addressed in order to end the killing. It isn’t a simple matter of evil imperialism vs. a wonderful pacifist democracy. Scores of experts, including even Cold Warriors like George Kennan, have discussed the many provocations from the U.S., NATO, and Ukraine that brought on Putin’s invasion, and we needn’t rehash the whole history here. What is at stake is, in large part, a clash of rival imperialisms—a global one (the U.S.’s) and a relatively minor regional one (Russia’s)—which means there is no morally pure outcome, as there rarely is in politics. A peace settlement will have to be a compromise, which, like most compromises, will doubtless leave all parties somewhat unhappy but at least will end the slaughter. Russia, for example, may well end up retaining Crimea (which it annexed in 1783—until 1954) and certain other small strips of territory it has gained. Leftists and left-liberals who wring their hands about how this would teach the lesson that aggression sometimes pays would do well to reflect on another fact: if, somehow, NATO and Ukraine manage to inflict a terrible defeat on Russia, this will teach America that unfettered military expansion—and incitement of war—is a great way to crush one’s enemies, and it will apply the lesson to China.
It’s worth noting, too, that it isn’t only a confrontation of great powers that is at stake, or the survival of millions of Ukrainians and their country’s physical infrastructure, or an atrocious empowerment of the U.S. military industry. The longer this war goes on, the more damage is done to the natural environment, including efforts to combat global warming. In just the first seven months of the war, the fighting released 100 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, as a report by Chatham House notes, “across the world, countries are building or reopening coal power stations and investing in oil and gas development.” Soaring energy prices have led to a “gold rush” for new fossil fuel projects. Oil companies are making record profits. Are we supposed to care more about punishing Russia than leaving a livable world to our descendants?
This is to say nothing of the large-scale food insecurity the war has fostered, the cost-of-living crises that are impoverishing millions, and the displacement of refugees. These problems cannot be solved until the war ends. And it can end only with negotiations. One expects neocon vampires like Anne Applebaum, Bill Kristol, and Robert Kagan—not to mention Biden administration officials like Blinken and Victoria Nuland—to experience throes of ecstasy over any war that projects American power, but when even progressives and leftists are vehemently defending U.S. proxy wars and effectively dismissing the idea of negotiations, it is clear that America’s moral and intellectual rot runs very deep indeed.
Liberals and leftists out to be embarrassed that the most vocal advocacy of the antiwar position today is from the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tucker Carlson, and right-wing libertarians. It’s time that the left reclaimed its antiwar traditions.