Sitting out Ukraine

Sitting out Ukraine
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It’s been interesting to follow the lefty spin on the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict — or rather lack thereof.

If hardcore American progressives have traditionally possessed one consistent virtue, it’s moral clarity on foreign policy. During both the Cold War and the War on Terror, lefties were tireless in calling attention to the human cost of American geopolitical calculations, loudly reminding everyone of the body count of American-backed dictators, the destructive toll of American-led bombings, and the ignored human suffering of regions beyond the realm of US interests. In that sense, campus radicals, street marchers, and socialist intellectuals of various stripes absolutely deserved the “conscience of the nation” title they were sometimes politely given — even if they didn’t always have the best record of betting on the right horse themselves.

As we enter the so-called “post-American era,” however — an era in which the United States is no longer the world’s primary mover-and-shaker in foreign crises and conflicts — much of the left’s interest in standing up for principle and human rights abroad seems to be waning in sync. The complete lack of a compelling left-wing narrative on Ukraine is a good case study.

Though this now feels like a million years ago, we may recall that a couple months back, the Russian government was officially declared an enemy of the progressive left following President Putin’s approval of a regressive law that outlawed so-called pro-gay “propaganda” in public places. For a brief window, Putin was fashionable to hate, and hate progressives did, with memes and hashtags and vodka-dumpings and all the rest. It was post-modern foreign policy-making at its finest, and a reflection of the central role gender/racial/sexual identity issues have come to play in contemporary liberal thinking — often at the expense of much else.

But then Putin invaded Ukraine, and no one knew what to think anymore.

Ukraine was the conflict’s plucky underdog to be sure, and in that sense a natural ally of those who usually enjoy siding with David over Goliath. But at the same time, some of her staunchest defenders were neo-con Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, problematic allies for any self respecting lefty to be sure. Those guys were warmongers, and certainly no one wanted to start a war over godforsaken Crimea, not after we just got everyone out of Iraq. Not with Afghanistan in eyeshot of the finish line.

But mounting an effective “US out of Ukraine” campaign was never going to be easy, either. After all, America had no vested interests in the country of the sort that could be turned into a cute, “No Blood For Oil” style slogan, exposing Uncle Sam’s shallow self-interest in feigning concern towards this remote nation’s tragic plight. As many observers have noted, Russia barely has any self-interest in Ukraine, so economically dysfunctional is the country and resource-barren its land. In short, a standard materialistic analysis of the Crimea conflict — one of the academic left’s standard prisms for determining moral righteousness in foreign affairs — simply doesn’t work.

So how then, to spin? The best efforts were pretty threadbare.

Patrick Smith in Salon argued the realities of the whole conflict were being hidden under a “thicket of misinformation, disinformation, spin, propaganda and straight-out lying” from the American political establishment, born from a “century-and-a-half habit of demonizing Russia” for vaguely racist reasons. The Putin government, Pat said, was actually “open to negotiations” with Washington over Ukraine, but of course Washington was disinterested since the Victoria Nuland tapes had already revealed America’s ultimate aim was nothing less than the installation of a compliant Ukrainine “puppet government” full of neo-Nazi thugs.

Similar words were echoed by Stephen Cohen in the pages of the Nation, where the veteran leftist historian spoke in confident, Chomskyian tones of Ms. Nuland’s “coup” against the “democratically elected” regime of the deposed Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych in the service of various “zealous ultranationalists” backed by Senator McCain and others.

None of this was very convincing. Even if the Ukrainians are tainted with the sin of imperialist American support, the enemy of my enemy should at least possess some redeeming qualities, and a modern leftist who tries to find any in the current gang running Moscow is simply “pathetic,” in the words of Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine. At least old school Soviet apologists could make excuses for the USSR on the basis of sticking up for the“one country in the world [that] was implementing socialism,” says Jon, but “Vladimir Putin’s Russia follows no model except Russian nationalism.” Not to mention, you know, all the gay-hating, journalist-killing stuff.

In the end, it seems the most dogmatic leftists have found the easiest resolution to the many inelegant ambiguities of the Ukraine situation is to embrace a sort of blasé neutrality about it all. Indifferent to Putin’s Russia, but similarly uneasy about being associated with the plight of a celebrated American ally, the mainstream conclusion of the picket and placard set is to simply sit this one out. It’s a drift into unprincipled isolationism not terribly different from the stance some further right types took during President Obama’s 2011 raids against Libya, and a no less revealing reflection that theirs is a cause far more about contrarianism and ideological opportunism than anything particularly enviable.

A peaceful, sovereign nation has been invaded, and a chunk of its territory forcibly annexed, by one of the world’s preeminent rogue regimes. Yet because this story does not fit neatly into some preexisting narrative of Imperial America, oil, and capitalism, no one on this continent will take to the streets in their defense.

So much for anti-war, so much for human rights, so much for international law. So much for Ukraine.

So much for the left.



  1. AshburnerX

    I'd wager the lack of protests and popular support for helping Ukraine is more out of the very real thought that we simply don't have a dog in the fight. Ukraine has made it clear they don't want us over there fighting in the streets… and even if they wanted outside help, it would be the US acting under NATO with the support of the European Union. Except Europe is dragging it's feet over this and they have much more lose than we do. We can't go in without European support. Besides, if morality was the only basis we needed to send in the troops, I'd rather they'd be fighting genocidal warlords in Africa than protecting the infamously corrupt Ukrainian government from collapsing.

    Really, the only thing on the line right now is our status as the World's Police, which is something the Left already wants to go away. Not letting Russia flex it's muscle isn't that important anymore… they aren't the Soviet Union and they never will be again. We're already in the process of containment once again… a few years of sanctions and Putin will be ready to talk. Until then, he can keep pretending the Russian petrostate isn't on it's way out.

  2. w00062016

    That might explain why there seems to be so much mainstream apathy, but what about the hard left? Since when do liberals need a dog in the fight? What dog did they have in the fight over the Russian "gay propaganda" laws? Or in the Gaza strip? Or in the China/Tibet dispute? Or in South Africa's apartheid laws? Or whenever some redneck town tries to institute school prayer? Heck, at my college they formed a club with the specific intent of getting people out to "progressive" protests. Didn't matter what it was, as long as it was progressive, they'd get people out and protesting.

    Liberals, especially the hard left, have always claimed to be driven by ideals and altruism. In fact one of their most consistent claims is that while conservatives fight for self interest, they fight for the powerless and unvalued. It's hard to jibe that with their apathetic, maybe even slightly sympathetic, reaction to Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

  3. Colin Minich

    They also have a tendency to rail against those who they KNOW won't tie them up and kill them. If half of these "activists" went up against Putin or someone like Kim Jong-Un, as compared to them ebul corporations or Amurkkkans, they'd likely get their asses beat or get a real feel of harsh reciprocity. So, as is with most humans, they'll take the easy way out…or actually be apologists for people like Vladimir Putin.

  4. Trenacker

    The hesitancy on Ukraine comes, I think, from several sources.

    First, the radical left has always tended to begin with the a priori assumption that the United States is the greatest threat to international security. So far as I can tell, it is because so many conflate potential power with imminent harm. Using that logic, it becomes an almost impossible effort to shift one quantum of worry from the American boogeyman to any other.

    Second, there is the deep-seated suspicion of American motivations… which doesn't mix well with a bizarre tendency to assume that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In other words, Putin isn't bad because he is a geopolitical adversary of the United States, and therefore a potential counterbalance to our self-aggrandizing behavior. It is for this reason that the left often rings its hands and insist that we respect the "national interest" of other nations (always at our own expense and peril) without pursuing our own (which would, of course, constitute bullying).

    Third, a good number of those now trying to argue Putin's case are not liberals but Russophiles, usually enthusiasts of Russian militaria, who fancy that their close study of Russia provides them a platform to speak more accurately to what is going on. Inasmuch as the Western media has tended to portray Putin as the clear transgressor, the necessary reaction (both to defend their hobby and to demonstrate their prowess) is to equivocate.

    Fourth, the left is inherently sympathetic to the proposition that all peoples deserve the right of self-determination. Inasmuch as the pro-Russian Crimeans are in the majority, Putin's actions have the veneer of legitimacy. Nevermind the inherent complications of self-determination or its potential incompatibility with the creation of healthy nation-states.

    Fifth, some on the left have seemed strangely indebted to Russia since Edward Snowden was given refuge there, preferring to focus on the consequences of Moscow's decision rather than its reasons for having taken it.

    Sixth, some small number of leftists are fully ready to accept the words of any foreign leader over those of an American official. The Nuland tapes, and the role of ultra-nationalists in the Maidan protests and Maidan government, provide the basis for conspiracy theories and equivocation.

  5. Pat Gunn

    I'm not sure if I'd count as part of the radical left by your metrics (I'm an American socialist, but a very technocratic one and suspicious of populism and activism), but at least by my experiences arguing for a stronger response, I think you're onto something with a number of your points. Particularly the first, second, and sixth (which are all closely related). There seems to be a worry that any American arguing for a response is falling into patterns of American imperialism, and at least currently progressives seem to have the mindset that any involvement overseas is likely to make things worse; they point at Iraq as an example.

    I find it pretty frustrating, as I see strong international norms that have kept peace and stability not being defended and I worry about the long-term effects of that. I think there's a good liberal (and a good conservative) case to be made for a much stronger response to the Russian occupation, and I'm surprised how much pushback there is against such cases.

  6. Ricardo

    I think post of the inertia comes from the lack of violence. Crimea is very much "occupied" but not the way Palestine is "occupied". I think a lot of people just expect it all to work out, rather than in places where people's rights our lives are being trampled and it's already not working out.

  7. w00062016

    True, but that might not last. The only reason for the lack of violence so far is that the Ukrainians are smart enough to know that any violence will give Putin an excuse for more aggression.

  8. Iokobos

    Scaling down your military (at the advice of the very man who is effectively abandoning them) helps too.

  9. Les

    The Ukrainians in Crimea aren't fighting back mostly because they Like the idea of being annexed by Russia.

    A part of the narrative being left-out is that Ukraine IS a nation, a nation with it's own internal politics it's own political and cultural struggles, in this case namely between 'Native' Ukrainians and 'Russian' Ukrainians (who have existed in Ukraine long enough anyone on the outside would assume they were just as 'Native as the Natives'.)

  10. Amestria

    In your little mini-essay you call Ukraine an American ally. It's not an American ally, we have no treaty of alliance with them nor any of the military obligations that phrase implies.

  11. ShadowFox

    "we have no treaty of alliance with them nor any of the military obligations"

    Yeah! You know except for the treaty we have with them. The one that obligates us militarily. The one reaffirmed by Barack Obama. The one where Ukraine gave up it's nuclear weapons and disbanded the majority of its military in exchange for America and Britain being the military guarantors of their territorial sovereignty. Yeah that one.

    But except for that you're totally right on!

  12. Amestria

    You mean the 'Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.' That is not a treaty of alliance and there is nothing in that treaty that obligates the United States militarily.

  13. @Andy928766

    This might be explained by the fact that some of these people get all their news from Russia Today.

  14. Scherzo

    I think the issue here, in terms of the contradiction, is because Progressives view Russia as European in terms of cultural issues but Eastern in terms of Geopolitics.

    Beyond progressives though, the Center-Left is now eating crow for their insistence that the days hardball politics in Europe are over, and are now trying to play catch up with tough sounding but ultimately toothless measures against Russia.

  15. Amestria

    Perhaps the fact no one is really protesting the Ukraine can be explained by the following:

    1. Anyone following the news knows about it, no need to raise awareness.
    2. Most people already think Russia is in the wrong, so no need to convince people of that.
    3. The Russian government is not supported by American economic or military aid, so the ability of the American government to change the behavior of the Russian government is more limited and also the American government is not morally responsible for the actions of the Russian government.
    4. Right now the American government is attempting to pressure the Russian government with creative sanctions, which seems to be the limit of what can be done short of starting a war.

    btw, does anyone know what sort of hat McCullough's stereotypical leftists are always wearing?

  16. Amestria

    Another thing, a lot of the commentary about the Crimean occupation seems to assume there is something more the American government could do and overlooks certain inconvenient facts. Namely, there is no support for a war in the US or in Europe, no treaty obligating an American military response, Russia is a major European energy supplier, and the West needs continuing Russian cooperation concerning Afghanistan and Iran.

    Also, quite a few observers on the ground have speculated that Russia, in seizing the Crimea, has seriously injured its ability to influence the rest of Ukraine in the near future (and potentially for some time to come). So this might in a sense be a win for the West – Russia has grabbed a symbolic but marginal bit of land and in doing so made itself the enemy of a country once considered to be within its diplomatic orbit (and which only a few months ago seemed to be headed towards a more permanent association).

    A careful and measured response seems best and that's more or less what's happening.

  17. Dryhad

    So much for anti-war, says J.J., because an ostensibly anti-war segment of the population isn't advocating what could only really end up as a war. What precisely do you imagine the left should be fighting for here? The US isn't the aggressor here (as in Afghanistan and Iraq) and Russia isn't being supported by them (as in Israel) so what would lobbying _to the US government_ accomplish? The only thing I can think of would for them to invade, in which case no doubt you'd draw a comic mocking the hypocrisy of a group that in the space of a decade went from protesting against wars to depose totalitarian regimes to demanding a war to depose a totalitarian regime.

    Part of being anti-war is you don't get to play world police, you don't get to release the hounds every time a dubious election is held in Eastern Europe or the Middle East or Africa or wherever else human rights are violated. It's a perfectly consistent position for the left not to advocate what would surely end up as another Iraq, if not worse. At least, that's my view of the situation. Bush thought he could solve the world's problems by declaring war on unjust regimes, and it would be incredibly foolish to make that mistake again.

  18. Trenacker

    The issue is the perception that the left assails rather than lobbies — that is purpose is less to change policy at home than to achieve emotional catharsis through active shaming. You make a good point: it is certainly possible that anticipated efficacy drove a lot of protest against the Bush administration, not just pure antipathy to the man himself or the wars he initiated.

    Frankly, I think there was also a very strong element of self-aggrandizement involved in Bush-bashing. Many would-be "deep thinkers" found it endlessly gratifying to think they were comparing wits with "the most powerful man in the free world" and coming up hands-down victors.

  19. Dryhad

    Well in that case the issue is that there is no catharsis to be gained from shouting what everyone already believes, and there's no support to be gained for protests that openly aren't trying to accomplish anything.

    I worry you're reading to much into my mention of Bush. I just meant him as the one who started the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, freshest in the minds of the Left in particular. But you could easily cite Clinton's wars in Yugoslavia or go all the way back to Vietnam if you felt so inclined. The point is a protest against the US is saying that the government is doing something wrong, and if that's the case then I don't see anything it could be other than "not going to war". The anti-war lobby, for obvious reasons, doesn't want to send that sort of message.

  20. yes, me

    Blaming all the world's problems on the American left, again! So the leftist columnists should be whining more, but what difference does it make? Russia doesn't care, and no one wants to start a war right now.

  21. Guest

    The only truly consistent response here would be for RUSSIANS to protest 'Russia out of Crimea'.
    The previous protests referred to were by citizens protesting THEIR OWN government's intervention (ok, the Israel in Palestine one is a bit different but most of those guys see US support for Israel to be close to control).
    Do you see any Russians protesting against their own government's actions? How do you think those protests would go?

  22. Amilam

    Actually a few thousand did hold a demonstration. It got a bit of coverage for a while. They were later drowned or by a bigger pro annexation rally, but it still happened. Russia is highly corrupt and its government thuggish, but they are no where near as repressive as China let alone a country like North Korea.

  23. Rachel

    What kind of world do you live in that the left is already calling for "US out of Ukraine"? If you want to cherry-pick a bunch of people that are as representative of the left-wing as Alex Jones is for the right, and biased Russian studies authors, sure, but I haven't seen anything like that. More like "woah now, settle down there and ease off the trigger", or "hey guys, they're going to SANCTION them, sure, that'll work!" and poking fun at people trying to offer a solution.

    Because there is none to advocate for unless you'd have the left going out to advocate for war. Besides, there are people out there.

    I think you have a point because there aren't as many as when the anti-gay laws were passed, but I think it's still hyperbole.

  24. Guest

    Hang on… back in February you were complaining that western liberals needed to get some perspective and go protest about somewhere where things were worse instead of spending a few minutes on some facebook activism or whatever it amounted to about the Putin-backed homophobic crackdown. Were there even street demonstrations?

    Now, when Russia pulls off a pretty much bloodless occupation with arguable majority support of the local population – albeit for geopolitical reasons and with a risible legal cover story, the "it's worse somewhere else" argument is nowhere to be seen.

    Doesn't your observation in these two cases instead validate the idea that people are mostly sensible human beings who look at where they can do the most to improve the world, and decide that standing out in the cities of North America will do precisely nothing about goings on between Moscow and Kyiv?

    Or have you confused the left with the hawks and the liberal interventionists, the people who argued that sufficient quantities of ammunition can become a progressive force for curtailing the ambitions of despots or defending the oppressed? Strange, when the foe is one no western government wants to go up against, I don't see them out on the streets. (Or maybe I've misunderstood and you think Putin IS the model liberal interventionist?)

    For actually, there ARE lefties protesting against the occupation. Some are in Ukraine: they are also worried about the fascists in the government and suspicious of the agendas of Western governments. Some are in Moscow: they're a bit more muted because, well, it really doesn't do to offend Mr Putin.

  25. KKoro

    To those saying that "well, American protestors wouldn't be able to affect change because they're in America,":

    JJ also brought up the fact that they were up in arms for the Russian homophobia thing, [i]another[/i] issue in which protesting in America would have equal efficiency.

    The idea that the protest is only worth doing if it's against the majority party of your own government is the [i]exact behavior JJ is criticizing[/i] — being contrarian rather than principled.

    If the leftists JJ's criticizing had half the morals they claim to, they'd be protesting Russia right now, whether or not it would "actually accomplish anything".

    [i]"Doesn't your observation in these two cases instead validate… "[/i]
    Not really, if you have pattern recognition and look at the other protests he mentioned, where that same rosy outlook would have different results than the actual.

  26. JP Johnson

    I know this may sound, but I think you may find that most in the left would be opposed to a Russian occupation of the Ukraine (the Crimean question being a bit more complicated). However, as we are not Russians, I don't know what you expect us to do about it. All of the above protests you reference are in reaction to active actions that occur due to the American government, so we protest because we feel that America should be better than it is. We aim to hold ourselves responsible for our actions and while we may not like what Russia is up to, but we feel a third World War, the other option on the table, would be terrible.

    As I can't see how this could be anything other than incredibly obvious, I assume this is a bit of trolling on your part.

  27. Guest

    that would be nice unless its strangely leftist anti-war organizations who have supported putin's actions despite in their heydays protesting against "imperialism".

  28. JP Johnson

    Well, to be fair…the United States and NATO did antagonize Russia when it was in a weaker position. Russia definitely overreacted for sure, but our hands aren't exactly clean in the matter. It's classic Cold War blowback, it's just that the act in question (expanding NATO) occurred after the Cold War, making it even more stupid than the usual brand.

  29. Guest

    Love the whataboutism, mccain and boehner are cases of a broken clock is right twice a day, But there is no reason the left should be defending russia's actions. And yet here we are.

    First the baltics and poland Joined NATO and EU as a deterrence against russia. They've were invaded by russia and forced into communist totalitarianism. There is no reason to assume that after being free of communism that they would show gratitude about being invaded and screwed by russia. Just like the iraqis did with the iraq invasion with the US when the iraq invasion ignited a civil war.

  30. JP Johnson

    I'm not defending Russia's actions…they're really quite bad in how they're treating the Ukraine. However, we did play a part in compelling Russia to do it. History didn't start last week with Russia, just as history didn't start with 9/11 with Bin Laden, and history didn't start in 1979 with Iran. Just because something is clearly wrong doesn't mean there isn't an action that we did that led to this response. We promised the Russians, we will not take advantage of you as you transition to freedom and democracy…we did, and they responded by putting an ultra-nationalist in power. What they're doing may be wrong, but we helped make it happen and I don't want to start World War III over it.

  31. Trenacker

    While I agree that from a Russian perspective, NATO expansion was threatening, I feel compelled to ask for the sake of fairness: was it, in fact, "taking advantage" of Russia? Abjuring NATO expansion, while wise, I think, from a political-military perspective, also implies that Russia does indeed have a sphere of influence or legitimate zone of exclusive interest. That is, are some small nations rightly Russian marches?

  32. JP Johnson

    Not necessarily, but wouldn't we too feel threatened if Mexico or a South American country joined a Russian based alliance? What we should have done, if we were going to do something that could tweak the nose of Russia, is encourage the growth of a Baltic Alliance, perhaps with a nuclear weapon or dozen at their control to band together in the post Russian world. It's not that Russia has a right to march all over these smaller nations, it's that we took a position that made them feel like we were encircling them and we would feel the same if the shoe was on the other foot. It doesn't help that we ticked them off over what is essentially a Paper Tiger. We are not going to war over the Ukraine or Latvia or Estonia or whatever other nation could have or did join NATO. Better for them form their own defensive pact that the Russians wouldn't have liked, but we would at least be a step away from.

  33. Guest

    Is it the case that every small nation on Earth should be an American one instead?

  34. Bill

    No American government has any real involvement in the situation… even the US, which usually has treaties with EVERYBODY, barely has any affiliation with Ukraine at all (basically some indirect interaction related to nuclear disarmament, that's about it).

    Protesting is something you do to get an entity to do something. Since no American government is responsible for the situation or has any kind of tie to it that would give it leverage… there's nothing that the continent's governments really can do short of starting a war here. It's not like Iraq/Afghanistan where the bulk of the forces involved were US, or Israel where the bulk of the money involved is US money. No real point in protesting unless you're trying to get us to bomb the place.

  35. Guest

    Its not about protesting thats the problem, its the left's defense of russian actions that should of went against their morals as such during the iraq invasion yet the left is defending russia because.

    1. They hate the west since they won the cold war, even putin despite being a right wing nationalist who has banned "homosexual propaganda" they LOVE him because he takes a swipe at the west.

    2. The so called Anti war groups turned out to be nothing but far left pressure groups when many defended russia's annexation of Crimea.

    3. The left thinks Russia, and RT "are their friends" and have consolidated themselves into Putin Bots and Nashi bots, just to be anti-west despite not even wanting to leave the west.

  36. StephenM3

    I'm… not under the impression that the Left supports a Russian invasion of Urikraine. They generally think Putin is a bad dude. They're happy that the US is imposing sanctions to attempt to pressure Russia to stand down. The left doesn't want to go to *war* with Russia over this, not yet, which is pretty consistent with being anti-war.

    The american right is mocking the sanctions, calling it a weak and ineffectual response. What do they think we *should* be doing? Jumping straight to open combat? That kind of warmongering seems a bit premature.

  37. Jake_Ackers

    The mockery stems from the fact we knew this was going to happen. And yet Obama did nothing. It was said by the Reps in 2008 and guess what? They were the ones mocked by the Left. Hitler didn't stop at the Sudetenland nor at Austria. Anyone who thought in this day and age Putin would stop at Crimea is fooling themselves.

  38. Jake_Ackers

    And they said Russia would stop at Crimea… Now they are marching towards Kiev.

  39. MisterSwarm

    Sorry for my russian ) Поверьте, что многим в России ситуация с Крымом не нравится, особенно интеллигенции.
    В нашей стране не принято протестовать – потому что это ничего не изменит.
    Но машина пропаганды средства массовой информации в России работает на полную, и многие думают что так и нужно. А наши средства массовой информации только и говорит что Америка враг =)