The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has lasted nearly a month, killing over 3000 civilians and wounding more than 10000 of them. The humanitarian crisis has attracted much attention on campus, with students organizing vigils and fundraisers for disaster relief. Some progressives on campus, however, have adopted the Russian talking point, holding the West and NATO responsible for triggering the invasion. Curiously, their arguments, in line with realist scholars they usually despise like John Mearshimer and Stephen Waltz, mainly concern the security needs of the Russian state and the imperialist nature of NATO. They contend that the “imperialist,” U.S.-led NATO expansion, in violation of its promise to the Soviet Union before the unification of Germany, triggered heightened anxiety in Eastern Europe and pushed Russia to defend its sphere of influence via war. What’s more, being in the same camp as isolationists like Rand Paul, they also call for dialing down sanctions against “ordinary Russians,” and argue against any form of NATO intervention.
The seemingly innocent anti-war and anti-imperialist position taken by some progressives is harmful for Ukrainians and other oppressed peoples fighting against autocratic brutality for two reasons: 1) on the surface level, blaming NATO/the West denies any agency of Ukrainians and their legitimate wish to join NATO and embrace the West, and 2) in promoting their version of anti-imperialism, the anti-war left in fact embrace a form of U.S.-centrism that ignores atrocities committed by adversaries of the U.S., such as Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran.
Let’s take on the “Ukraine is the West’s fault” argument first. The problem of this proposition is that it assumes that without NATO expansion, Russia would behave differently. Both historical and contemporary empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Long before the establishment of NATO and since the reign of Ivan the Terrible I in the 16th century, Russia sought eastward expansion to secure its relatively weak geopolitical position that lacks strategic depth. As noted by renowned historian Stephen Kotkin, Russian foreign policy “has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities” for centuries. In a present day scenario, the best way for Russia to prevent the eastward expansion of NATO would be to station troops alongside the Russian-Ukrainian border without an invasion to achieve maximum deterrence effect and bargaining power. In fact, it was Russian aggression against Ukraine throughout the 21st century that accelerated Ukraine’s embrace of the EU and NATO. Public opinion polls suggest that immediately after the Cold War, only 37% of Ukrainians supported joining NATO. It was not until after the Orange Revolution, when Russia poisoned Yushchenko with neural toxins, that more than 50% of the Ukrainian public embraced the idea of a national referendum on joining NATO. After the Russian invasion of Crimea, the Ukrainian support for NATO reached a historical height, with more than 60% of Ukrainians embracing the idea. Breaking down Putin’s psyche, his rationale to attack Ukraine, and the puzzling optimistic evaluation before the war is a tall order. Historians are likely to debate causes of the war for decades, but it is clear that NATO expansion is not a major factor in Putin’s calculation to launch the war — he barely mentioned NATO in his war-declaration speech right before the invasion and declared Ukraine to be an imaginary state gifted by Lenin. If there is anything that can be learned from the ongoing war, however, it is that allowing Ukraine to join NATO in 2008 would likely have prevented the Russian invasion: the rock-solid peace and security in Poland and the Baltic states, countries that were traditionally in the Russian sphere of influence, are the best example of how NATO manages to protect member states from Russian aggression.
Contending with the uncomfortable idea that the vast majority of Ukrainians support NATO and that NATO could have protected Ukraine, the anti-war left, as represented by Marjorie Cohn who gave a talk at Swarthmore on March 2, 2022, often resorts to conspiracy theories backed by the Kremlin, claiming that the current pro-West administration was the result of the “illegimate neo-Nazi coup” of 2014 backed by the U.S. It is essentially a claim that not only contradicts with reality but also removes any agency vested in the Ukrainian people.
What is more disturbing than the flawed argument that ignores internal political dynamics and political agency of Ukraine is its moral implication: by identifying the U.S. as the only “bad guy” in the world, leftists ignore and indirectly whitewash the evils committed by autocrats around the world. Indeed, U.S. progressives are facing an intellectual dilemma between criticizing U.S. imperialism and addressing oversea authoritarianism today. They believe that criticizing autocracies in the global south would undermine their project of dismantling U.S. imperialism — an entirely false proposition, of course.
For years, they have focused primarily on wrongdoings of the U.S., in part because of this one-dimensional anti-imperialist project, but also because of the unconscious U.S.-centrism that inevitably results from solely focusing on U.S. behaviors. The anti-war left has criticized the U.S./the CIA, without concrete evidence, for offering support to pro-democracy protesters in Syria, Hong Kong, and Venezuela, and has been largely absent on issues such as the annexation of Crimea, Assad’s war crimes against civilians, Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East, and China’s treatment of ethnic minorities and Hong Kong. Instead, they focused mostly on where they deemed U.S. policy to be wrong, like in regards to dealings with Yemen, Israel/Palestine, and Cuba. Why was this the case? The current generation of the anti-war left, born at the end of the Cold War, have never experienced real threats firsthand from other great powers. Instead, they grew up in an America-dominated world in which the power of the U.S. was largely unchecked. As such, their worldviews were shaped by events such as the invasion of Iraq, where an omnipotent U.S. failed to sustain its moral claim of establishing a democracy to replace the Saddam regime. Thus, those born in this generation spent their formative years criticizing the U.S. regime with a deep sense of guilt. This introspective guilt, coupled with continued unchallenged U.S. dominance, resulted in the millennial anti-war left supporting the very ideas they attempted to criticize: U.S. dominance and imperialism.
In adopting this viewpoint, the anti-war left ended up where they exactly did not want to be: U.S.-centric. As mentioned before, many progressives have ignored human rights violations and atrocities caused by many foreign powers — Russia in Syria; Iran in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon; and China in Hong Kong and Xinjiang — because these countries are adversaries of the U.S. and can potentially undermine U.S. dominance. Moreover, instead of helping activists within these authoritarian countries, anti-war progressives view them as agents of the U.S.’s imperialist interests and advocate for U.S. isolationism, even when real-life human rights atrocities were being committed against civilians. This is another mistake caused by their belief that only the U.S. is capable of wielding real power in a unipolar world and that critical events happening in other countries have their roots in an American-centric system.
This “anti-war” worldview, in part due to the breakdown of the moral legacy of the U.S.- led, pro-democracy, and pro-openness post-Cold War order after the Iraq War, not only takes agency away from other oppressed peoples living under and being threatened by autocrats in Russia, China, Iran, and etc., but also indirectly promotes another form of U.S.-centrism, in which only the U.S. is deemed to have any real power over the global events. Progressive millennials now face the intellectual challenge of refraining from ‘westplaining’ Ukraine and aligning their worldview with moral claims about freedom and self-determination both home and abroad. Facing growing challenges posed by autocratic and inherently imperialist powers like Russia and China, leftists in the U.S. should unequivocally stand on the side of democracy rather than apologize for autocrats and their expansionist aggression in the name of “anti-imperialism.”