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Left in the dark: Ukraine’s struggle for support and solidarity

pro-ukraine rally new york US
Pro-Ukraine rally in New York, March 4, 2022. Source: depositphotos
Left in the dark: Ukraine’s struggle for support and solidarity
Article by: Martin Fornusek

The cries of a nation at war are drowned out by the noise of westsplaining from parts of the Western Left.

Faithful to the US-skeptic, NATO-skeptic legacy of the Cold War, a significant number of voices from among the American and European Left denounces the West’s support for Ukraine.

The arguments range from the “fault on both sides” and “arms supplies prolong the war” type of claims to outright blaming Ukraine and its Western partners for causing the war in the first place or even sympathizing with Russia.

Certainly, this does not refer to the Left as a whole. To name one example, Sanna Marin, the Prime Minister of Finland and the leader of the Social Democratic Party, is among Ukraine’s most vocal supporters. To avoid any misconception, let us use the term “Ukraine-skeptic Left” to refer to all the opponents to Ukraine aid and Rußlandverstehers on the left side of the political spectrum.

Strange bedfellows

It is hard to grasp why so many on the Left sympathize with the Russian regime rather than Ukraine.

Suppressing the rights of the LGBTQ community, a superficial promotion of Christianity and traditional values, and fearmongering about decadent liberal and progressive ideals: the Kremlin seems to attack everything that the contemporary Left stands for while courting the Western Radical Right.

Where in this reactionary soup did the Western Left find any endearment in Putin’s regime? 

Nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union cannot serve as a justification. Russia’s modern-day Communist Party is nothing more than an appendage to Putin’s heavily conservative and nationalist regime, which, incidentally, still retains its colonial empire in the Caucasus and Siberia.

It seems it does not matter that while Kyiv enshrines the rights of its indigenous peoples, Russia either persecutes minorities, as it does with Crimean Tatars in the occupied Crimea, or uses them as cannon fodder

No matter that while the Ukrainian parliament discusses civil union for the LGBTQ+ community, and the community’s members volunteer to the frontline to fight for their rights, Putin signed yet another anti-LGBTQ+ law just a few months ago, making it illegal to promote same-sex relationships or discuss them as “normal.”

Inexplicably, these Russia’s sins are forgiven, while Ukraine’s achievements are forgotten.

Russian police crackdown on LGBT protesters
Russian police crackdown on LGBT protesters (Image: social media)

West-centrism

The explanation is simple: the actions of concrete, individual actors are irrelevant. They are distant, uninteresting, and unfamiliar, unlike the comfortable dichotomy of the “West and the rest.” The Ukraine-skeptic Left’s criticism is not as much aimed against Ukraine as against its Western allies, namely the United States. And since they often brand the imperialist West as the root of all evil, this “hereditary sin” is also passed on to Ukraine.

Make no mistake — this is no defense of the US’ past foreign policy mistakes. We must ask, however, why should we cast Washington’s “powers that be” in the central role of the conflict while omitting the voices of those that are in the very midst of it? Especially when it should be the Left that ought to care for these voices the most.

To illustrate, a rally took place in Washington, DC, this February, organized by both the Left and the Right in opposition to arms supplies to Ukraine. This red-brown coalition earned criticism from several left-wing and thoroughly anti-establishment US outlets. They denounced it for not truly representing voices from disadvantaged groups, such as the ethnic and sexual minorities, the working class, or citizens of the Global South.

If we skirt extensive academic definitions, this last sentence captures the very essence of what the Left should stand for — giving voice to the oppressed and supporting those who suffer at the hands of the powerful.

All the more surprising was that among these listed oppressed groups, the authors somehow failed to mention Ukrainians themselves. An odd omission, as Ukraine was the central topic of the entire event.

In the discourse of the Ukraine-skeptic Left, the people of Ukraine never take a central stage and are left with one of the two following marginal roles.

1. “Stand-in for the Yankees”

Some Western leftists reduce the Russo-Ukrainian War to the confines of their own political experience. The only role Ukrainians play in this narrative is as a stand-in for the US political establishment. When Russia invaded, it did so to resist American expansionism rather than attack a sovereign neighbor, they say.

This perspective completely ignores the opinions and experiences of Ukrainians, replacing them with a narrative centered around America and the West. An independent country with its own voice, goals, and historical experience is forcefully shoved into one of the pre-existing, familiar categories of the Western political discourse. No voice is given to Ukrainians, and their future is to be decided by outsiders. Paradoxically, this is quite a colonialist and imperialist take from otherwise strictly anti-colonialist leftists.

2. “Victims of the West” 

The other role that the people of Ukraine play is as victims – not of Russia, but of the West.

For those like the British Labour Party ex-leader Jeremy Corbyn or the Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mike Wallace, the suffering of Ukrainians is a rhetorical tool against the military aid for Ukraine, on account that it prolongs the conflict. Of course, they omit the fact that it is Ukrainians themselves who are asking for further support.

Using somebody else’s suffering as a political argument while completely ignoring their own voice shows hypocrisy and arrogance. The Ukraine-skeptic Left puts itself into a position of a more civilized, educated savior, coming to the rescue of easily manipulated Ukrainians who do not know what is best for them — a textbook case of westsplaining.

The UK Labour Party’s former leader Jeremy Corbyn. Source: Depositphotos

Ukraine has its own agency, however. Kyiv’s diplomacy is in overdrive to secure further Western military hardware. Local non-governmental and civil society organizations gather funds to procure drones, body armor, humanitarian material, and more to bolster Ukraine’s defense efforts.

From top to bottom, the Ukrainian population is working to secure Western aid virtually in unison. Furthermore, around 86% of Ukraine’s population supports joining NATO, and the same number wishes to continue resisting the invader.

This is not a result of some geopolitical plot by Washington; it comes from Ukrainians’ own experience of the Russian aggression, of the terror bombing, and of the “litany of violations” against civilians in the occupied territories.

The Left must look at concrete events, listen to concrete people who experience them, and based on that, provide concrete solutions. It cannot hide behind empty slogans and comfortable generalizations, but must instead apply the same, much-needed moral standards to Putin as they would to Bush, Reagan, or Nixon.

Applying left-wing tenets to the case of the Russo-Ukrainian War must inevitably lead to the conclusion the rights and identity of Ukrainians are under assault by a comparably more powerful, imperialist aggressor. In this case, it is the Ukrainians who face oppression and need their voices to be heard.

If the goal of the Left is to give voice to the terrorized and vulnerable, it must support Ukraine, and it should do so the way Ukraine itself asks: by giving it concrete means to defend itself against the more powerful aggressor.

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