Which side are you on? The disappointing Western left's reaction to Russian aggression
While we expected them to only express their support, we got a dose of Kremlin propaganda. Western leftist thinkers, in the face of the aggression against Ukraine, were primarily concerned about the Russian sphere of influence.
Russian aggression on Ukraine triggered a wave of mobilization in the region. Citizens of bordering countries, with a particular focus on Poland, unequivocally sided with the victims of the invasion, organizing fundraisers, taking part in protests at Russian embassies and even welcoming refugees into their own homes. However, the farther one goes west, evidently the harder it is to see the gravity of the problem.
An exceptional case of shortsightedness was diagnosed in the so-called Western left, already in the first days following the Russian invasion. Their comments resembled a message of Kremlin propaganda rather than a diagnosis from the stars of the progressive thought.
The Victim State
Even the most important representatives of Western leftist thought have fallen into the trap of rotten symmetrism, inadvertently repeating the same rantings about Russia being threatened by an expanding web of NATOs influence. Can the largest country in the world, spanning across 9 different time zones and possessing the second largest nuclear arsenal, really be concerned about losing territory to the North Atlantic Treaty?
For years, the Russian Federation has been trying to portray itself internationally as a “victim state”. On the one hand, it would be an ideological victim, being under increasing pressure from "Western liberalism". On the other, it would be a victim of the expanding Western sphere of influence, led by NATO. The Kremlin narrative even seems to speak of an unwritten rule, establishing Russia's sphere of influence within the borders of the former Soviet Union, whose disintegration, Vladimir Putin called "the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century."
While we have grown accustomed to such messages from the Kremlin, in the face of the aggression against Ukraine, similar sentiments began to appear in the statements of people in whom I personally would not have expected them before.
Painting Russia’s Portrait
Perhaps my biggest personal disappointment was a statement by Canadian publicist
Naomi Klein. The author, known for her criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and for standing up for exploited minorities in her texts, this time did not side with the victim.
On her Twitter account, Klein shared her appreciation for the text by Phyllis Bennis, Respond to Putin's Illegal Invasion of Ukraine with Diplomacy, Not War calling it an "excellent analysis". Although we don't learn from it what a "legal invasion" might look like, Bennis clearly indicates the reason for Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
As for resolving the conflict, that requires understanding its causes - which has everything to do with when we start the clock. - writes Bennis. If we start the clock in February 2022, the main problem is Russia's attack on Ukraine. If we start the clock in 1997, however, the main problem is Washington pushing NATO - the Cold War-era military alliance that includes the United States and most of Europe - to expand east, breaking an assurance the U.S. made to Russia after the Cold War.
The same sentiment was shown by Noam Chomsky. The American linguist, in an interview with Jeremy Scahill, explicitly pointed to NATO’s talks with Ukraine about joining the alliance as one of the factors leading to Russian invasion. We can't be sure, but it's possible that these strong statements may have been a factor in leading Putin and his circle to move from warning to direct invasion. - Chomsky said.
The Stop the War Coalition, led by former British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, has also joined this chorus. In an open letter published on their website less than a week before the invasion of Ukraine began, they recognize "Russia's security concerns."
We have also heard similar comments from the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), founded by former Greek Finance Minister, Janis Warufakis. Like Phyllis Bennis, DiEM25 traces the genesis of the aggression on Ukraine to the Cold War, and cites among its causes the West's lack of reaction to Russia's demands for respect for its political sphere of influence, as well as the West's suspicions of Russia's neo-imperialist ambitions.
See for yourself
The leaders of Western leftist thought seem to be too far away from the unfolding conflict to understand its core. Slovenian philosopher Slavoy Žižek, for example, has no similar problems.
Even after the Russian aggression, some of this "left" (I can't help but use quotation marks here) continue to blame the West, singing the same song: NATO gradually tightened the noose around Russia and destabilized it, surrounding it with military bases, triggering color revolutions and ignoring its quite legitimate concerns. Let's remember that the West invaded Russia as many as twice in the last century. - Žižek writes. There is, of course, a grain of truth in this. But in the same way, one could justify Hitler and blame the Treaty of Versailles, which wreaked havoc on Germany's economy.
Nor are the fantasies of Klein, Benni, Chomsky, Corbyn or Warufakis shared by commentators from Poland. In response to the Canadian columnist's tweet, MP for the left-wing RAZEM party, Adrian Zandberg wrote: No, this is not an excellent analysis. It's embarrassingly naive. It's an excellent exhibit, though. Anglo-Saxon arrogance is truly impressive. Has it crossed your mind that maybe, just maybe it's worth checking out what Ukrainian socialists think? It's their skin in the game…
However, this does not change concerns about the condition of contemporary left-wing thought, which not only has trouble forming a unified front, but, as we can see, is not quite able to unequivocally take the side of the victim. I am also ashamed, above all, of attempts to go back decades in time to outline the chronology of events that allegedly led to Russia's aggression against Ukraine on February 24 of this year.
For we should not discuss how much the invasion of Ukraine is a consequence of U.S. actions, how much of NATO's actions, and how much of Putin's own imperialistic inclinations, eager to write himself in larger letters in the Russian textbooks.
I fear how the Left will respond to further questions about Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Whose sphere of influence will Taiwan turn out to be? And whose Kosovo? Which nation will be the next to be sacrificed on the altar of symmetrism?
Wiktor Knowski is a student at the Artes Liberales faculty at Warsaw University. He is a writer in electronic music magazine “Muno.pl” and lifestyle journal “F5” with guest publications in “Krytyka Polityczna”. He is the founder and editor of “Hectic Magazine” - a portal created by young artists, dedicated to the topics of art, culture and politics. Both at the academy and in his publications he deals mostly with social issues.
Ivo Daalder, 2022, Putin’s NATO bungle, https://www.politico.eu/article/putins-nato-bungle/
Phyllis Bennis, 2022, Respond to Putin’s Illegal Invasion of Ukraine with Diplomacy, Not War, https://fpif.org/putins-invasion-of-ukraine-is-illegal-and-wrong-respond-with-diplomacy-not-war/
Slavoj Žižek, 2022, Jest coś, co Zachód konsekwentnie pomija w swoich kalkulacjach,
Katharina Bluhm, 2022, The Ideology Behind Russia’s War, https://www.zois-berlin.de/en/publications/zois-spotlight/the-ideology-behind-russias-war
Łukasz Dąbrowiecki, 2022, Odwracanie Putina ogonem. Po napaści Rosji na Ukrainę część zachodniej lewicy ugrzęzła w symetryzmie, https://oko.press/odwracanie-putina-ogonem-po-napasci-rosji-na-ukraine-czesc-zachodniej-lewicy-ugrzezla-w-symetryzmie/
Jeremy Scahill, 2022, Noam Chomsky and Jeremy Scahill on the Russia-Ukraine War, the Media, Propaganda, and Accountability, https://theintercept.com/2022/04/14/russia-ukraine-noam-chomsky-jeremy-scahill/
Razvan Mirsu, 2022, Russian invasion of Ukraine: Causes and consequences, https://diem25.org/russian-invasion-ukraine-causes-and-consequences/