The recent war in Ukraine has shocked the (Western) world and will probably, together with the (still ongoing) pandemic, be a moment of a great change in historical direction. A lot is being said, a lot of discourse generated and in typical jingoist fashion a lot of nuance is being lost. In this post I’d like to write out some of my own thoughts on this topic.
Where is the nuance?
Here are two general statements I can get behind:
- We shouldn’t engage with warmongering and imperialist discourse, nor encourage such policies
- We should help the Ukrainians against the invader
There’s a tendency in these fraught times to view these two as mutually exclusive, or even as pro-either-side-of-the-conflict. This is blatantly false. The first is arguably anti-NATO and the position a lot of leftists seem to take, which isn’t necessarily in conflict with the second statement, but this gets warped as being pro-Putin, which is contradictory with it.1 The equation with being anti-NATO and pro-Putin is weird, too, since not every European country is part of it (for different reasons). But the window of collective agreement seems to have shifted towards accepting NATO as the good guy, even though they are nominally not involved in the conflict.
During times of war, even if we’re not directly involved, emotions flare up and get the upper hand. The room for nuance seems to disappear. It’s not that far-fetched to be reminded of the start of the First World War, where parties across the spectrum, in different countries, banded together to enthusiastically vote for war, even against any prior commitments to the contrary, and dissenters got suppressed or worst case even killed.2 We should be mindful of this and give ourselves the necessary discursive distance to think things through and look for the best resolution to the crisis.
This isn’t the same as neutrality though. Many countries in the West are incapable of being neutral in this conflict because of NATO membership, which makes it difficult as a citizen of any of these countries to have a truly neutral position. Anyone claiming otherwise would probably better be described as a cynic than anything else.
Against (re)militarization, for cooperation
One thing that seems to be happening fast is a reorientation of the European continent towards rearmament: pledges of higher defense spending or reintroduction of military service abound these days. This, in turn, requires a increased degree of militarization of our society, these increased expenditures can’t be sustained by just the temporary public outrage on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There needs to be a sense of threat and thus purpose to it all. This goes against everything the European project (the EEC, the European Union, etc) stood for at its inception, being (mainly economical) cooperation and a fostering of peace.
Larger military spending also implies a more dangerous world, not a safer one. This money would also be money that can’t be used for social or economic policy, something that has actual value (and a societal return on investment), instead of the black hole that is military spending. There is a real danger here to fall in a military-industrial trap (insofar we haven’t already) like American society. We should be highly cautious of this. This alone should justify a critical stance on this topic.
Of course I hope I’m completely misreading the situation, and I’d be glad if I did. But in this, I’d rather err on the side of caution.
Personally, I’ve been against NATO for some time now, for multiple reasons: it has lost its original purpose, it’s expansionist and imperialist and is dominated too much by the United States, since it delivers most of the funding and strength to the alliance.
NATO expansionist policy these last 30 years is certainly a contributing factor to (but not a justification of) the geopolitical situation. By expanding beyond a tacitly agreed upon line and excluding (arguably with good reason) an at that time weakened Russia, it has started acting as a menace towards them, threatening their historical sphere of influence. I do want to make clear that there’s a clear difference between understanding the historical chain that led us here and using this history as a justification. But at no point has the West taken a concilliatory, cooperative or reserved stance, or done anything that could lessen any build-up of tensions.
I’m not a pacifist myself, but I’d rather have a exclusively European defensive alliance. I want the US out of European politics and leaders that are accountable to us - something the US leadership isn’t. This would make a larger military spending somewhat more defensible in my opinion. It could also be more acceptable to Russia.
Against Putinist-Russian imperialism
It’s good to remind oneself that war is bad for most involved, except for the military-industrial complex: while the financial markets went red after the invasion, the stocks of the large US defense companies reached new heights. But this won’t benefit the common people. Those that’ll suffer are firstly the Ukrainian people of course - getting bombed, livelihood and homes destroyed, having to flee the country - secondly the Russian people - the conscripts who’ll have to do the dying, the working classes who bear the economic cost of both the war and the sanctions placed upon their country - and thirdly the European working classes who’ll have to pay the cost of the Western policies of these last few decades. Remember: “When the rich wage war it’s the poor who die.”
Russia’s autocratic system, its fervent nationalism and military interventionism has never been something to be admired. Where the wars of nineties could, conceivable, be viewed as part of the post USSR collapse transitionary period, the wars in Georgia showed us different. There is nothing to be defended in Russian military foreign policy. But I’m not Russian. I have little influence on their society, but I do have qualms with what my leaders do and I can expect that I at least have some influence here over our foreign policy. This is another reason to be critical of our Western politicking.
Ultimately, it’s Putin and the cronies in his vicinity that are responsible for this. They made the decision to invade, to escalate to violence and bring misery upon many innocents. This is self-evident. But no evil is big enough to stop any critical reflection of anyone else’s misdeeds or mistakes.
Helping the Ukrainians
So, then, how could we help the Ukrainian people? Military intervention is off the table - with or without NATO. No no-fly-zone would be acceptable, as it would be tantamount to a ‘soft’ declaration of war, which is non-differentiable from a normal declaration of war. The consequences would be unimaginably worse than they already are now.
Delivery of weapons seems to me to be morally defensible, but is in turn not a justification for the aforementioned rearmament of Europe. There’s a lot of weaponry that we have that isn’t actively being used and would serve a better purpose to fight off the invasion.
Delivery of humanitarian aid is, of course, a given. Food, shelter, medical supplies to the Ukrainians are necessary and could be used to help Russian victims (both during the war as after it) too. The potential for speedy recovery, both economically as diplomatically between the European nations, will benefit most from this. Same goes for giving asylum to the refugees (any refugees, really), which seems to go better than the last refugee crisis on the continent. Hopefully this will be a lesson going forward.
Lastly, Europe can and should be (on it’s own, without the US and not in some NATO capacity) be a negotiator and guarantor of the post-war settlement. The US are no longer trustworthy, but Europe could show itself to be.
Which isn’t to say that it’s not possible to take this position, and indeed some people, on every point on the political spectrum, do so. For the left-wing stance: there is no such thing as pro-imperialist anti-imperialism. ↩︎
See for instance the murder of Jean Jaurès or the stance of the German SPD. ↩︎