What Can the Left Actually Do About Ukraine?

Acknowledging our weakness on the international stage is not a call for nihilism, but a prerequisite for determining what we can actually do.

In the weeks leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, many in the US, including DSA’s International Committee, were focused on criticizing “US militarization in Ukraine” and dismissing warnings of an imminent Russian invasion as a “a sensationalist Western media blitz drumming up conflict.” Then the world changed forever. While Russia’s devastating invasion on February 24 did eventually prompt some backtracking, more careful language, and a belated effort to solicit a broader range of views, it did not lead to a widespread reassessment of the left’s approach to global conflict. Instead of reassessing why so many pre-war predictions and assumptions proved to be wrong, there is still a strong impulse to minimize Russia’s responsibility for launching the war in the first place or keeping it going once its initial aim to quickly decapitate the Ukrainian government failed.

Although it’s true that explicit leftist support for Russia’s war is relatively small and confined to an extremist fringe, it would be disingenuous to claim that such positions have had no impact on the broader democratic left. Rather, they reflect a general confusion regarding three related but distinct questions: our basic values as socialists, our role under present conditions, and what goals we wish to achieve through the positions we take. It is our hope that by clarifying and reframing these questions, we may point the way to a positive left program on Ukraine.

Much of the Western left analysis of Ukraine begins with a simple premise: a pre-emptive hostility to US military policy, and a conviction that it’s of primary importance for socialists to be seen as opposing it. While this seems to be an obvious application of anti-imperialist principles, it can easily lead us astray. Firstly, it instills a motivated reasoning that undermines our own ability to accurately assess global events. Our discomfort with ending up “on the same side” as NATO or the Pentagon has led many to reach for the most palatable narratives rather than seeking the most accurate analysis of the situation, wherever that takes us. The result is that even outside of explicitly pro-Russia circles it is not uncommon to hear that the popular Maidan uprising was actually a “US-instigated fascist coup”; that the sniper killings that escalated the protests into a confrontation with the state were a “false flag” operation; that Ukraine has killed “14,000 ethnic Russians” in the Donbas region and banned the Russian language; that pro-Russian protesters were “massacred” in Odesa; or that the Minsk Accords failed solely because of Ukraine or the US – all repeated with absolute confidence despite much evidence to the contrary.

Furthermore, a default commitment to oppose whatever we imagine the (often internally divided) US foreign policy establishment’s position to be undermines the left’s own credibility. It turns into counter-propagandists rather than serious actors with a radical analysis and vision for a better world. If the Pentagon declares COVID-19 or global warming to be a threat, it does not follow that the left should become anti-vaccine activists or climate denialists. Yet it is precisely such misplaced reasoning that has led some prominent progressive figures to align themselves with conspiracy theorists, Putin supporters, and outright fascists. As such, we should not be surprised when seemingly innocuous calls for peace and negotiations are met with skepticism or fail to appeal to a broader audience.

Some have argued that even if we recognize Russia as primarily responsible for the war, our primary role as US socialists is to oppose American militarism. But this kind of heuristic has little purchase in a conflict where the US military is not the aggressor. And by putting us at direct odds with socialists not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltic states, such a myopic position undermines the very sort of international ties we desperately need to build.

Prioritizing geopolitical considerations over human rights, solidarity, or even a commitment to seeking out accurate information makes even less sense considering that the left is in no position to have the slightest practical impact on world geopolitics. Within DSA, this results in an odd mix of pragmatic approaches to domestic politics while issuing maximal demands on foreign and international affairs. Calls by the left for de-escalation, negotiation, the disbanding of NATO – or for that matter the withdrawal of Russian troops – are ultimately directed at parties who aren’t listening to us, delivered as if we have a seat at the table when we’re not even a fly on the wall.

Acknowledging the left’s weakness on the international stage is not a call for nihilism, but a prerequisite for determining what we can actually do. That begins with accurately assessing the concrete causes of the conflict and what it means for the people most affected by it. A working knowledge of the post-Soviet world would leave us far less confused about the nature of Russia’s goals as a regional power seeking to secure Ukraine as an export market, put its industrial capital and labor force at the service of a common oligarchic class, and subordinate its relatively independent Russophone civic and cultural life. It would also clarify the stakes for Ukrainians, forced to choose between a fairly typical post-communist democracy struggling with economic stagnation, corruption, and far-right nationalism that nevertheless managed to maintain a relatively tolerant and open civil society through multiple peaceful transitions of power, and an openly revanchist nuclear power that has been ruled by the same figure for over 20 years, conducted brutal military interventions at home and abroad, and integrated religious militarism into its state ideology while globally promoting a toxic form of reactionary cultural warfare.

No matter how much we may wish otherwise, present circumstances leave only two realistic options for Ukraine: military resistance or Russian occupation, which we have already seen makes more difference than just a change of flags. In these circumstances, for the left to actively oppose Ukrainians’ request for military aid against a brutal invasion, or to take them to task for seeking NATO support, is misguided. This does not mean, however, Western left should publicly align itself with the war effort or actively support NATO, even if it is understandable for Ukrainian comrades to do so. We should not be blind to the fact that while it may occasionally support progressive forces, the US military establishment’s ultimate goals will not align with ours, and we have no influence on the scope and direction its involvement takes. We should also remain alert to Western leaders’ efforts to put Ukrainians into the service of their own aims, and avoid inferring too much from polls conducted during wartime. There is no reason for the Western left to take a loud position for or against Western military aid to Ukraine, particularly when we have no plausible alternative to offer in this regard and when such decisions are in any case outside of our control.

Instead, we must look to the non-military realm as the place where we can effectively intervene, which we can do by building relationships with Ukrainian social movements, trade unions, and activists with whom we share fundamental values. Such relationships would allow us to help support Ukrainian workers’ struggle for labor rights that are currently being eroded under Zelensky’s government, and against the privatization and neoliberal reforms that are undermining not only Ukraine’s economy but its ability to defend itself. These links will also be vital as Ukrainian comrades move towards an ambiguous “European future” that, even in the best case scenario, will mark the beginning of new struggles rather than the resolution of existing ones.

At home, we can ease the pressure on Ukraine through the ongoing campaign to forgive its foreign debt, as well as continuing to support refugee and humanitarian efforts in any way we can. And on the global stage, we must continue to uphold the principles of internationalism and anti-imperialism at all times, not only when it is convenient to do so. This means continuing to criticize NATO and Western governments as well as those of their geopolitical rivals, highlighting their shared culpability in undermining international law and human rights. It also means supporting calls, coming not only from Ukraine but from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, to democratize the UN and reform the imperial structure of the Security Council, whose veto system primarily protects the interests of major global powers. All of these initiatives must be developed and pursued through partnership with comrades abroad, whether they are part of their respective nations’ governments or in opposition to them.

Above all, our task is to always develop concrete analyses of concrete situations. The socialist left cannot expect to have immediate solutions for crises generated under a capitalist global order. Rather, our unique contribution in these crises is that we are the only ones capable of properly articulating their material causes, and the only ones working towards a future where they do not happen again.