Some elements of the left have had difficulty processing the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, characterizing it as a valid response to American imperial designs. High on the list is NATO expansion. While this is not a universally held leftist position, I want here to focus on its implications for global right-wing politics.
Bryce Greene, writing in FAIR, asks “What You Should Really Know about Ukraine,” and places NATO expansion first on his list of American culpabilities. Vijay Prashad, writing in Tricontnental, alludes to Nato’s “absorbing” Eastern Europe. Noam Chomsky, in an interview with Truthout, contends that the U.S. refusal not to reject Ukrainian entry into NATO “may have been a factor in impelling Putin to criminal aggression.” The Democratic Socialists of America refer to “the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.”
Chomsky has also suggested, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Ukraine’s stated well-publicized push for more armaments from the U.S. and Western Europe is illusory and part of a “western propaganda system.” In his Current Affairs interview, he contends (apparently having not followed the progress of the war) that the U.S. is fighting a war “until the last Ukrainians,” as though the Ukrainians themselves have no voice in the matter. And he proposes that it is contrary to the security interests of Sweden and Finland to join NATO, apparently having better knowledge of those interests than the Swedes and Finns themselves.
Since NATO expansion is offered as a primary driver for Putin, some of these critics, including Chomsky and Jeremy Scahill, have advised President Volodymyr Zelinskyy to accept neutral status and a promise not to join NATO as a way to end the conflict. Zelenskyy did, in fact, offer each early on, which got him nowhere with Russian negotiators.
Green goes beyond the NATO expansion thesis, blaming the International Monetary Fund and European Union desires for cheap labor to bring Ukraine into the western European orbit. Following Vladimir Putin, he suggests that Ukraine is heavily influenced by neo-Nazis, and he defends the presidency of the notoriously corrupt Victor Yanucovich (brought to power with the help of convicted fraudster Paul Manafort). Green contends that Yanucovich, who fled to Russia in the face of a popular uprising, was deposed by an American-led coup.
These critics, with their tacit justifications of Putin’s invasion, have three things in common. None are Ukrainian or Eastern European. None are experts on Ukrainian politics or history. And the historical knowledge of each seems to reach only to the 1990s.
Timothy Snyder, the distinguished scholar of Ukrainian history, with long ties to the region (and a self-described person of the left), has debunked the NATO expansion thesis, noting, for example, that Putin’s’ own rationale for the invasion, which he laid out in a 7,000 word essay, entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” mentions NATO precisely once. The preeminent historian, Serhii Plokhyn, in his highly regarded history of Russia, “The Lost Kingdom,” has noted that Russian desires to control Ukraine reach back at least to Catherine the Great and have been a theme of Russian nationalism ever since.
But you don’t need to be an expert in Ukrainian or Russian history to understand that, given the previous 45 plus years of Soviet colonization of Eastern European states, they may have had legitimate concerns about future Russian intentions. None of these nations were forced into NATO, and none faced popular opposition for joining. Acceptance into the EU is far from automatic, and was embraced by popular majorities in the Eastern European nations that were eventually admitted. Moreover, if NATO expansion was the main driver for the invasion, then how do these critics explain the Russian invasion of Chechnya, with its incineration of Grozny, the invasion of Georgia, and Russian support for separatists in the Transnistria region of Moldova? In none of these cases was NATO membership within any kind of serious consideration.
It seems, at the very least, presumptuous, for outsiders to tell Ukrainians, other Eastern Europeans, and Nordic states, how to conduct their defense and economic affairs. Writing in The Nation, Linda Mannheim has referred to this phenomenon as “leftist westplaining.” As noted Polish expert David Ost has succinctly stated, “[I]t’s contrary to all internationalist principles, and plainly Americocentric, to give even a slight pass to an imperialism just because the country doing it opposes the country you think does it more.”
Significantly, the above cited critics are mostly silent about Vladimir Putin’s politics. Unrecognized is Putin’s role as a hero to white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other elements of the far right, for which he is given a pass by those who apparently find this forgivable in the service of resisting what they view as western imperialism.
Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be separated from its support for far right political parties in Europe, such as Jobbik, the Hungarian neo-Nazi party, and the National Front in France. Putin has supported the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist organization responsible for an attack on an asylum seekers center in Gottenburg, Sweden, and the Wagner Group, an international mercenary organization that takes its name from Hitler’s favorite composer.
Donald Trump’s love affair with Putin is well-documented. Tucker Carlson has characterized Zelenskyy as a tool of the U.S. State Department. Roger Stone echoes leftist critics of NATO when he states in an interview with Real America’s Voice, that “Putin is acting defensively. He’s not acting offensively. But you won’t read that in the mainstream media.”
The global right has long been obsessed with the supposed feminization of western societies. Putin added to his right wing bona fides with his domestic campaigns against LGBTQ rights. He has railed against gender fluidity as a “crime against humanity.” In keeping with these strategies, he has characterized Ukraine as a bastion of feminism, gay rights, and multiculturalism. In his February 24 speech justifying the “special military operation,” he referenced the “degradation” and “degeneration” of Ukraine under western influence which runs “contrary to human nature.” Putin’s views mirror the celebrations of unreconstructed masculinity that have informed the politics of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Gorka.
We can see echoes of Putin’s politics in Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” Florida and the rantings of the Buffalo, New York, Tops Market shooter.
The battle for Ukrainian sovereignty is not simply a matter of national self-determination, nor simply a great power struggle in an emerging multipolar order, although it is in some respects both of those things. The battle for Ukraine is part of an international ideological struggle between the forces of white supremacy, unreconstructed patriarchy, and proto-fascism and a transnational coalition, which includes progressives, liberals, and, yes, some conservatives, brought together, as all coalitions are, with multiple and sometimes contradictory motivations, but all having a common purpose to hold the line against Putin’s multifaceted imperial authoritarian project.
Thomas Shevory, Emeriti Professor of Politics, Ithaca College. Author of seven books on law, public policy, and politics. Has been a Fulbright Teaching Scholar at the Free and Independent University of Moldova and the National University of Mongolia.