There has long been a tendency among “realists” on the right to treat smaller nations as if they were the playthings of empires. Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, is reported to have quipped thus about the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?” What’s curious is seeing sections of the left fall into a similar moral black hole.
Ukraine offers a good example of the phenomenon. Since Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, public opinion in Ukraine has shifted markedly toward the West. Even in Crimea itself, an opinion poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology between 8 and 18 February, 2014 (just a month before a disputed referendum in which 95.5 per cent of voters in Crimea apparently wanted to become part of Russia), found that public support in Crimea for joining Russia was just 41 percent. There have also been increasing calls within Ukraine for the country to join Nato.
It doesn’t take a strategic genius to work out that Ukraine is seeking to forge closer relations with the West due to long-standing fears of Russian aggression. Other nations in the region have pursued a similar path before. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states all joined Nato in the 1990s and early 2000s not because they were forced to, but because more than half a century of subjugation at the hands of Russia was a significant factor in the internal politics of those countries.
Yet there is a tendency among anti-war and progressive groups in the West to invert this truth — to treat eastern European nations as if they had no agency of their own. Thus Nato’s welcome of former Eastern Bloc countries into its military alliance has been recast as “relentless expansionism” by the Stop the War Coalition, while the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has called on Nato to “rule out membership for Ukraine”. It has described the alliance’s refusal to do so as “provocative and destabilising”. Elsewhere, a recent article published on the left-wing website Democracy Now echoes the Kremlin’s talking points: that Ukraine is failing to implement the Minsk agreement, meant to stop the fighting with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region, and that its government is overrun by the far right.
The tendency to give military tensions in Ukraine the “both sides” treatment is a curious and depressing development. One has come to expect it from “peace” groups with a dubious history, but even multinational corporations are at it: last week Ben & Jerry’s accused Joe Biden, the US President, of escalating tensions in Ukraine and fanning the flames of war. The company tweeted that “you cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war”, a statement as platitudinous as it is historically ignorant (try telling Europeans that the surest way to prevent foreign invasion is simply not to prepare for it).
This second point seems an especially insipid thing to say considering Vladimir Putin did invade Ukraine in 2014 (and Georgia in 2008). Moreover, it is Russia that has 100,000 troops stationed on its border with eastern Ukraine, even if the United States has sent the Ukrainians a modest shipment of military aid.
Ben & Jerry’s has a history of speaking out about the causes it believes in. In 2020 the Unilever-owned company posted a statement on its website under the title “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy”. It has also been especially active when it comes to the environment.
Yet opposing racism or protecting the environment is more straightforward than wading into issues of foreign policy. The ice cream brand ought to know this already, having decided last year to stop selling its products in occupied Palestinian territories while continuing to promote them in China, where human rights abuses against the Uighurs are well documented.
During the Cold War, arguments on the left which emphasised the wrongdoing of “both sides” at least had a twisted logic to them: you could — at a stretch — fool yourself that the Russians were building a socialist paradise behind the Iron Curtain. There was an ideal, even if theory and practice diverged enormously. This produced a curious cognitive dissonance among some activists. Leszek Kołakowski described them as people whose “hearts are bleeding to death when they hear about any big or minor (and rightly condemn-able) injustice in the US” who “suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society”.
But what “new alternative society” is Vladimir Putin building, exactly? Twenty-first century Russia is nationalistic, autocratic and corrupt. It is a country led by a dictator who proclaims that liberal values are obsolete: one suspects that Ben & Jerry’s pet causes would get short shrift in the Kremlin.
While the Soviet Union paid lip service to Ukraine’s right to self-determination (even if this was ignored in practice) Putin’s wish to subordinate Ukraine to Russia is based on the nakedly reactionary tsarist idea that Russia and Ukraine are “one people” (Putin has said this on numerous occasions). Ukrainians are viewed as their neighbour’s “Little Russian tribe”.
Russian media has long tried to label the Ukrainian government fascist and far-right, and sections of the British left (including a former aid to Jeremy Corbyn) have parroted the same rhetoric. Yet the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a centrist Russophone. The far right in Ukraine has attracted no more than 2.3 per cent of the popular vote in any national election, far less than in many other European countries.
Putin’s real strategy over Ukraine is to seek negotiating leverage with the western powers so that they acquiesce in his plan for Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to be granted “special status” — a euphemism for Russia’s continued interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs through its proxies and “people’s militias” (read: warlords).
Ukrainian membership of Nato is not on the cards for the foreseeable future: France and Germany are both strongly opposed to Ukraine joining the bloc. Thus the Russian President is effectively pushing Europe to the brink of war based on demands the West not do something it does not intend to do anyway.
But Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, is right to say that the alliance must not make concessions to Russia on the issue of Ukraine’s potential accession. Nor is it clear why the American and European negotiators should accept the one-sided Minsk agreement when a majority of Ukrainians do not want Donbas and Luhansk to be given “special status”, as the agreement sets out.
Whether Ukraine seeks to join Nato, or gives large chunks of its territory away to an imperial power, is a matter for the Ukrainian people to decide. Not Russia, not western “anti-war” groups and certainly not a multinational corporation selling overpriced ice cream.