Since February, the threat of nuclear war has become part of our daily reality. Yet in most countries, politicians’ attention is elsewhere. Candidates for the US Senate — the chamber with greatest foreign policy involvement — could clash for an hour without even mentioning Ukraine; there have been no calls for large-scale protests; diplomacy seems stalled; almost all of the media are betting the nuclear threat is simply a Russian blackmail attempt to distract people from its string of military defeats. The bear snarls when it’s cornered, we’re told; it’s an expression of frustration, not a cause for concern. On the ground, the fighting is intensifying; bombings come in response to acts of sabotage. But away from the fighting, especially on the left, people don’t want to talk about it.
So the debate on Ukraine held in the French National Assembly on 3 October took place in an atmosphere of general indifference. The less said about it, the better. The embarrassed remarks of deputies anxious to disassociate themselves from any past collusion with Vladimir Putin vied with grandiloquent oratory on ‘the free world’ that smacked of the 1950s. As in every conflict the United States has been involved in since the Korean war, interchangeable politicians, and journalists whose knowledge of history is limited to 1938-39, rehashed the same old comparisons: Munich, Daladier, Chamberlain, Stalin, Churchill, Hitler.
In the past 20 years, Saddam, Milošević, Gaddafi and Assad have all been presented as reincarnations of Hitler; a new one comes along roughly every five years. This time, Putin, ‘the master of the Kremlin’, has been cast in the role. And every time, we’re exhorted not just to fight him, but to punish and destroy him, to prevent his criminal enterprise expanding. Then we replay the same scene in which we discover, to our surprise and chagrin, that what comes after the monster’s defeat is not the liberal, inclusive democracy we were promised: Gaddafi was succeeded by mafia-like militias, ISIS flourished among Saddam’s former supporters.
In the case of the war in Ukraine, the risky gamble of ‘regime change’ in Moscow is not just being encouraged by neoconservatives who advocate big military budgets and a perpetual clash of civilisations, but also by some on the left who would like NATO to help Kyiv reclaim its entire territory, including Crimea. What response can there be to the confusion created by such positioning?
In 1961, at the height of the cold war, George F Kennan, the American theorist of Soviet containment, warned: ‘There is nothing in nature more egocentric than the embattled democracy. It soon becomes the victim of its own war propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision to everything else. Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side is the centre of all virtue. The contest comes to be viewed as having a final, apocalyptic quality. If we lose, all is lost; life will no longer be worth living; there will be nothing to be salvaged. If we win, then everything will be possible; all problems will become soluble; the one great source of evil … our enemy will have been crushed; the forces of good will then sweep forward unimpeded; all worthy aspirations will be satisfied’ (1).
In the case of Ukraine, such black-and-white thinking is particularly seductive because the Russian government’s wrongs are so egregious. It has violated its neighbour’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders and it persists in trying to crush the Ukrainian people’s right to exist. It has thereby committed a blatant breach of the UN Charter, which prohibits such use of force. Moreover, as a founding member of the UN, Russia is stopping the organisation fulfilling its role as guarantor of international peace since the Security Council, on which it has a veto, is the only body authorised to sanction an aggressor. It is thus acting like the US did during the Iraq war, but with an additional aggravating factor: despite having recognised Ukraine’s borders when it gained independence in 1991, Russia had already annexed part of its territory — Crimea, in 2014. And it has recently claimed as its sovereign territory several other regions in the Donbass and southern Ukraine, which it only part-controls.
There is nothing in nature more egocentric than the embattled democracy. It soon becomes the victim of its own war propaganda
George F Kennan
Lastly, the Russian army has committed destruction, war crimes and rape (see Ukraine: rape as a weapon of war, in this issue). Not necessarily on a greater scale than other occupying forces — it’s worth remembering US behaviour in the Vietnam war: the B52 bombers raining fire, the widespread spraying of Agent Orange, the massacre of 500 villagers by US troops in Mỹ Lai in March 1968. But who wants to remember this when no one else does? Since 24 February especially, it’s been off-limits to mention anything that could sully the West’s spotless reputation or spoil the fairy tales that have it saving the weak and humble from bloodthirsty tyrants. The endless pious lies we are fed only testify to the current intellectual decline and climate of intimidation (2). And the risk is that we too, for fear of saying the wrong thing, become like those sleepwalkers who stumbled into war in August 1914.
A few days before the Great War broke out, the French public had no interest in Sarajevo or the blue line of the Vosges that divided France and Germany. In July, Henriette Caillaux stood trial at the Palais de Justice for the murder of the director of Le Figaro, Gaston Calmette, whom she suspected of orchestrating a smear campaign against her husband, Joseph Caillaux, a man triply guilty in the eyes of the (rightwing) newspaper, as he was (moderately) leftwing, hostile to militarism, and the architect of income tax, recently approved by the National Assembly. Henriette Caillaux was acquitted (she’d committed a crime of passion) the day Austria declared war on Serbia. General mobilisation followed immediately. On 22 August, 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single day. By then, everyone had forgotten the Caillaux trial, just as we might soon forget the death of Elizabeth II and the countless trivial controversies and petty news stories that have distracted our attention from the war in Ukraine.
Before the eruption, we had already looked away as things heated up in the Donbass, the Kremlin and NATO headquarters. At this stage, it’s no longer necessary to point out the series of provocations that led Russia to believe that the US, contrary to its commitments at the time of German reunification, was seeking to move closer to Russia’s borders, to absorb former Soviet republics into its camp and thus threaten Russia’s strategic position. The West avoided such rashness in the days of the Soviet Union and would never have tolerated a strategic rival on its borders. The Cuban crisis made that clear in October 1962.
Diplomacy, and not PR
But back then, the two superpowers, though they disagreed on all the big questions, avoided getting drawn into provocation, one-upmanship and war. The absence of rolling news and a less toxic media environment doubtless helped. A secret agreement resolved the 1962 crisis and Armageddon was averted. The withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba was followed not only by Washington’s public commitment not to invade the island, but also by the secret dismantling of US missiles in Turkey. Unlike Emmanuel Macron, Western heads of state then did not let journalists listen in on their conversations with their Russian counterpart; they understood that diplomacy is different from PR. In contrast to Putin, they were also wary of making long, impassioned speeches whose every utterance sounds like an ultimatum.
The Cuban crisis brought down the temperature. Washington and Moscow realised that the scale of the disaster that had been averted showed the need to replace the cold war with peaceful coexistence. ‘While defending our own vital interests,’ President Kennedy suggested in June 1963, ‘nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.’ Kennedy instructed his diplomats to ‘avoid unnecessary irritants and purely rhetorical hostility’ (3).
For now, the conflict in Ukraine shows no sign of a good outcome or displays of insight to match Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s. This war will end badly, one way or another. A Ukraine crushed, subjugated and dismembered by Russia is not the most likely outcome today. It would certainly be a spectacular setback for the US and NATO, but it would also benefit an authoritarian, reactionary form of Russian nationalism, allied to the Orthodox Church and the far right. Such an outcome, it scarcely needs stating, would not serve any progressive cause whatsoever.
But that doesn’t mean we should exaggerate the threat that Ukraine’s defeat would pose to the rest of Europe by pretending that if Odessa fell tomorrow, Moscow would attack London, Berlin or Paris. Russian troops are so bogged down in the Russian-speaking Donbass after eight months of war that it’s impossible to seriously believe that they would, or could, threaten even Poland or Lithuania, both NATO members.
There is no good outcome
But nor will the war end well if Russia is defeated and humiliated. Certainly, a military victory for Ukraine, achieved with massive Western assistance, would halt Russian aggression and restore Kyiv’s sovereignty over its entire territory, formally at least. But, even if the prospect of such an outcome did not lead Moscow to take foolish risks, including nuclear ones, it would not just amount to a victory for the Ukrainian people insofar as it would also strengthen the US’s global position, which has been shaken after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, it would consolidate American hegemony in a European Union that has definitively abandoned any ambition of strategic autonomy. And it would lead to Ukraine’s lasting subordination to NATO; that is, to the certainty of a permanent state of tension with Russia, a neighbour that would nurse a desire for revenge.
In either case, the rejection of a diplomatic solution that allows the protagonists to avoid the ‘humiliating retreat’ that Kennedy feared would mean that the Great Powers, instead of finally confronting the problem of global warming and power relations between states, would devote their energies to rearmament for decades to come. It’s true that defeat for Russia has sometimes led to democratic reforms — the abolition of serfdom shortly after the Crimean war, the limitation of the tsar’s autocratic powers after Japan’s victory in 1905 — but in those instances there was no ‘regime change’. And the danger of nuclear escalation did not exist.
In Europe and the US, the left is aligned or cowed. Elsewhere, it is often duplicitous or ‘campist’. It’s aligned when it supports NATO policy, which bears a responsibility in this conflict. Yes, NATO is supporting a besieged country entitled to defend itself and liberate its territory by the means of its choosing, including requesting foreign aid. In supporting this, this part of the left is nevertheless siding on a key issue with governments that it should be challenging. And, by locking itself in a new ‘sacred union’, it has given up on expressing any autonomy or putting forward any proposal, thereby fulfilling what its adversaries have always expected of it: that it demonstrates its ‘responsibility’ by falling into line. ‘Countering Russian aggression militarily, given the current balance of power, inevitably means making peace with NATO,’ concludes French political journalist Edwy Plenel, an ardent supporter of NATO’s war in Kosovo in 1999. ‘In this tragic alternative, Russian imperialism leaves us no choice’ (4).
Another part of the left, which has been largely silent, believes Western sanctions are neither legitimate nor effective, but defends them anyway to avoid criticism. And when asked about Ukraine, it swiftly changes the subject. In France, as soon as the NATO-aligned left — the Socialists and the Greens — puff out their chests knowing they enjoy the support of almost all the ruling elite and the media, the other left — the Communists and La France Insoumise — put their heads down, waiting for the storm to pass and keen to preserve the unlikely alliance they formed a few months ago.
A split left is not new
This divide between the Atlanticists and the non-aligned is not new. In April 1966 François Mitterrand and his Socialist colleagues Max Lejeune and Guy Mollet tabled a censure motion against De Gaulle’s government. Their reason? The president had, by withdrawing French forces from NATO, ‘isolated France and thereby created a dangerous situation for our country’. At a time when France is engaged alongside the US in a war that could bring confrontation with Russia, the divergence between the two lefts looks more like a tearing-apart, even if they see eye to eye on defending the environment and the cost of living.
While defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. [Diplomats should] avoid unnecessary irritants and purely rhetorical hostility
John F Kennedy
A third sector of the left, sometimes described as the ‘campist’ left, which is powerful in Latin America and the Arab world, declares itself anti-imperialist and repeats, as in the days of the Soviet Union, most of Moscow’s talking points. To such an extent that it raises doubts about whether it realises that, as Marxist thinker Stathis Kouvelakis put it, ‘Russia [has become] a capitalist state whose ruling class is made up of an oligarchy created by pillaging former state assets with the full support and help of the Western powers’ (5). Ukrainian libertarian activists add to this criticism that they face ‘not only a war between states vying for geopolitical position’ but ‘also a decolonial war of national liberation’ in which Moscow is trying to impose puppet governments, replace the Ukrainian currency with the rouble and make the teaching of Russian compulsory (6).
This anti-imperialist left is legitimately critical of Ukraine’s and the EU’s alignment with the US, but it overlooks the fact that it was Putin who precipitated this geopolitical shift, and Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO. Putin’s critics like to point out that he was a KGB officer, but given his actions since February, it’s hard to imagine him doing more to serve US interests if he had been, like George H Bush, director of the CIA.
For, although supporters of a total Ukrainian victory affect not to have noticed, Russia has already lost its bet. Its military setbacks have damaged its army’s credibility; its adventurism has strengthened the US’s presence in Europe; its aggression has fortified Ukrainian national feeling, which Putin denied existed when he spoke of ‘one people’ (even if in Crimea, the Donbass and elsewhere, many Russian-speakers still feel closer to Moscow than Kyiv). Finally, Russia is more dependent than ever on China as a market for its gas and a means to avoid diplomatic isolation. So claims that negotiating with Russia would be a reward for its invasion are no longer tenable.
Is it so hard to understand several things at once, including when they’re apparently in opposition? It’s possible to defend the Ukrainians’ right to sovereignty while also recognising that Russia’s ‘humiliating’ defeat would, if humanity survives it, advance US hegemony. For the US dominates NATO, and by supplying billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Ukraine is seeking to weaken one of the Western bloc’s strategic rivals. The position of these two adversaries within the international order also explains why many states in the South, without backing Russian aggression, consider Moscow to be a geopolitical counterweight whose collapse would revive American hubris, with all the dangers that this entails.
The sanctions policy, which lacks legal legitimacy and is often imposed on states that do not want to participate, adds to this fear, while also contradicting the West’s invocation of rules and law. It’s almost beyond belief that European states should embrace this policy with such enthusiasm, having been victims of a legal stick-up in the form of extraterritoriality when Washington imposed huge fines on them for trading with Cuba and Iran, which the US, casting aside international law, had unilaterally decided to sanction (7).
The war in Ukraine must end with a diplomatic solution. There is no sign of one yet. Russia has just annexed territories that it will eventually have to relinquish for an agreement to be possible. And the Ukrainian government has refused to negotiate with Putin. Given this stalemate, non-belligerents should avoid strutting displays when people are dying. And they would be wise to consult with countries that Moscow and Kyiv still listen to in order to devise the terms of a settlement that both countries could accept.
For their part, the Western states which are helping Ukraine defend itself must ensure it understands that the weapons they supply cannot be used to reconquer Crimea, which Moscow will not accept, let alone mount attacks on Russian territory. The unrealistic idea of trying Putin for war crimes should also be dropped, bearing in mind that George W Bush is spending his retirement painting on his Texas ranch. Finally, since President Biden spoke on 6 October of the ‘prospect of Armageddon’, it would be good to feel reassured that he’s making every effort to avoid it, rather than just survive it. For Ukraine, too, a ceasefire and a frozen conflict are better than a nuclear winter (8).
The invisibility of the left in this conflict is astonishing. Rather than weigh in, it stays silent or spouts nonsense. The vision of a war of civilisations has resurfaced, coal-fired power stations are starting up again, military spending is exploding. Where is the left? What does it think? What diplomatic solution can it offer? We knew it was divided on energy policy, cultural symbols and electoral strategy. The war in Ukraine reveals the divisions are even worse when it comes to foreign policy, an area where everything is still to do (or redo) — assuming the left still has any interest in it.
https://mondediplo.com/2022/11/01edito Ukraine: the dangerous war the left won’t talk about, by Serge Halimi (Le Monde diplomatique