In Solidarity with Ukraine

Why We Fight

What has recently been called the new ‘heart of Europe,’ Ukraine, has received an outpouring of affection and solidarity from countries the world over. While it has been bruised and battered by Russian missiles, its heart is still beating strong, and it is fighting back. In fact, back in 1887, Austro-Hungarian geographers noted that the centre of Europe landed in Ukraine, but, until now, the country has been side-lined in the political imaginary of Europeans.

But Ukraine is no longer ‘sort of Russia’ orbiting the central sun of Moscow, breathing an atmosphere of poverty and austerity, dreaming dreams out of phase with its own beliefs, but a fully-fledged self-governing entity with a vision and determination for freedom all of its own, willing to intuit a reality far beyond that which it seemed capable. While we cannot foresee the military-political outcome of the Ukraine tragedy, and while hegemonic media narratives are giving some support to Putin in countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, we cannot hesitate to show our broad, sweeping support for Ukraine, or to remain silent about this full-fledged assault on the lifeblood of a country whose population has been subjected to unimaginable brutality from a powerful neighbour of fellow Eastern Slavs. Vladimir Putin’s intention appears to be to eliminate Ukraine’s independent existence. Terry Eagleton argues that the reason behind Putin’s invasion is partly ethnic: ‘He thinks that the country is ethnically speaking a fiction, a cardboard cut-out of a nation, and should be wound up as soon as possible. Ukraine is a void, a non-entity, and Russia will impose some order on this chaos by incorporating it into itself. Then the Ukrainians will cease to be unreal and become what they essentially are, namely, Russians.’

Ukraine is waging a defensive struggle for self-determination, and its survival is an urgent necessity for the entire world. We know that this war is more than a fight between autocracy versus democracy. But where do we stand at this precise historical moment in our understanding and support of Ukraine? We understand that this is a war that is benefitting the transnational capitalist class, especially the military budget of the Pentagon and those of other countries, the arms merchants of the Permanent War Economy and the crime bosses who head the fossil-fuel extraction industry – ‘we work in construction, and just want you to know, it’s nothing personal, just business.’ We know that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 violated the Budapest memorandum and the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation, and has violated international law by refusing to comply with an order by the UN International Court of Justice to suspend military operations in Ukraine ‘accusing Russia of manipulating the concept of genocide to justify its military aggression.’

Another question: Should Ukraine fight to regain Crimea? How should the injustices committed against the Tatars be resolved? Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea, were co-opted by Stalin in 1944, but returned to Ukraine after the dissolution of the USSR. Many were forced out of Crimea again in 2014 after Russia illegally occupied Crimea, and those who remained in Crimea after the Russian occupation have faced persecution. (I am old enough to remember when I first heard about the Tatars, after Rudolf Nureyev, who was born in a remote village in the Urals, defected to Paris and became one of the world’s most accomplished ballet dancers. A prodigy with the Soviet Union’s Kirov Opera Ballet Company, he was granted political asylum in France in 1961, and then went on to build his legendary career as dance director at the Paris Opera Ballet and as a principal dancer with England’s Royal Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.)

There are more questions: What should be done with the Donbas area? Should Ukraine cede more territory to Russia? Should Ukraine give up its ambition to join NATO? The Ukrainians are fighting for freedom and a desire to cast off the yolk of Russian oppression as well as the right to determine their own future against a reactive, imperialist nuclear power that doesn’t even consider it a valid country. While Putin’s back was put against the wall when NATO broke its promises to Gorbachev and expanded eastward, Putin decided to muster his troops and execute with singular barbarity an illegal invasion against a sovereign country on the false pretence that it wasn’t a legitimate country to begin with (he likes to blame Vladimir Lenin for this) and that it needed to be de-nazified and de-militarised – and it appears that every Ukrainian was to be treated as a Nazi unless proven otherwise, according to Russia’s ‘denazification manual’ published in the Russian press. The idea of spending years in a Russian re-education camp is not an inviting prospect for anyone to consider, let alone all Ukrainian citizens! Who would insist on such a language? Heinrich Himmler, are you listening from your cave in Gehenna?

Georgia had previously tried to join NATO but was attacked. And, now, given Putin’s brutally aggressive move against its neighbour, Finland and Sweden understandably desire to join NATO. Their decision came in direct response to Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian hospitals, schools, maternity wards and humanitarian corridors that were viciously bombed and in the wake of Russian troops committing war crimes so heinous that they are deserving of dragging Putin into the dock at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. And we know that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by the Russian military.

Questions that have persisted during debates among the left have centred on whether Ukraine should try to regain Donbas and Crimea, on whether countries who have nuclear arms will feel emboldened to blackmail other countries if Russia subdues Ukraine, whether supporters of Ukraine should be seen as pawns of NATO-US propaganda, and whether or not the Azov Battalion is at the forefront of the defence of Ukraine. Another question being asked: If the invasion of Ukraine is a spinoff of the rivalry between modern imperialist regimes, and, if it is essentially a US proxy war against Russia, and if we acknowledge this while at the same time recognising the hypocrisy of our own country who currently supports murderous dictators around the world, do we then retreat from our support of Ukraine and its people? Must those who bear the scarlet letter of supporting Ukraine be ridiculed for enabling United States imperialism with its history of supporting bloody wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam? These are some of the questions that have prevented the European and North American left from forging a united position on the war in Ukraine. Clearly, the tainted legacy of Ukrainian fascism and the participation of pro-Nazi Ukrainian forces in the Holocaust is a dark stain in world history, and nobody who reads history from a critical vantage point should try to refute this.

But the question today is: Should present-day Ukrainians who are anti-fascist and fighting for freedom and democracy (bourgeois or socialist) be tainted with this history? Are Russians really fighting neo-Nazis and fascists in Ukraine, outside of the Azov battalion? Yes, ultranationalist paramilitary units with neo-Nazi ties, such as the Azov, Aidar, and Dnipro-1 and -2 battalions, which were later incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard, were at the forefront of the war in Donbas in 2014. But does that make Ukraine a fascist country today? The outsized role played by neo-Nazi forces in Ukraine in 2014 is clearly a gift to Russian propagandists, but does that mean we should no longer support Ukrainian socialists, anarchists and trade unionists against Putin’s military attacks? Can’t we do this yet still be critical of whatever fascist or neo-Nazi organisations are still operational? Can’t we do this and remain critical of US imperialism and NATO? To what extent do these fascist forces have power? Do they have more power than, say, the Ku Klux Klan in the United States? The liberal magazine, The Nation, has forcefully condemned what it perceives as a growing Nazi problem in Ukraine:

There are neo-Nazi pogroms against the Roma, rampant attacks on feminists and LGBT groups, book bans, and state-sponsored glorification of Nazi collaborators. These stories of Ukraine’s dark nationalism aren’t coming out of Moscow; they’re being filed by Western media, including US-funded Radio Free Europe (RFE); Jewish organisations such as the World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre; and watchdogs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House, which issued a joint report warning that Kyiv is losing the monopoly on the use of force in the country as far-right gangs operate with impunity.

Shaked Karabelnicoff of Jewish Unpacked acknowledges Ukraine’s neo-Nazi problem but distinguishes this from the hyperbolic accusation that Ukraine is a Nazi state:

‘The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries  –  and the main difference between them is: Ours is real. You are told we are Nazis. But could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?’ Zelensky asked, addressing the charges directly in Russian. The Ukrainian president did not explicitly note his Judaism in the address, but mentioned his personal connection to the Holocaust. ‘How can I be a Nazi? Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.’ Three of Zelensky’s grandfather’s brothers were killed in the Holocaust, and Zelensky has been outspoken about his Jewish identity. Between May and August 2019, Ukraine was the only country other than Israel to have both a Jewish head of government – Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman – and a Jewish head of state, President Zelensky. Jews in Ukraine generally do not face acts of violence or public condemnations of Israel, according to the American Jewish Committee’s report. In 2018, the Pew Research Centre found Ukraine to be the most accepting of Jews among all Central and Eastern European countries. Last week, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law criminalising antisemitism as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). IHRA defines antisemitism, in part, as ‘a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,’ and ‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination’ by ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour…. In Ukraine, the offence of antisemitism is now punishable by a fine or a prison sentence of up to five years. Despite this, antisemitism is not a thing of the past in Ukraine.

Karabelnicoff does not underestimate the problems with Ukraine’s factionalised politics, and the horrors experienced by Ukrainian Jews at the hands of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators during World War II, especially the more than 100,000 Jews murdered at Babyr Yar outside Kyiv. Nor does Karabelnicoff downplay the fear that the chaos of war in Ukraine may unleash further antisemitic violence. Some Ukrainian lawmakers have been among those to support ‘celebrate Nazi collaborators as war heroes, trumpeting their anti-Communist battles while ignoring their complicity in Holocaust crimes.’ Clearly, the neo-Nazi Azov movement (formed in 2014 in the chaos of war by a ‘ragtag group of far-right thugs, football hooligans and international hangers-on, including dozens of Russian citizens) is a serious problem for Ukraine, but its political power is very limited: ‘Azov became an official unit of Ukraine’s National Guard. The movement’s most public face is the National Corps political party, consisting of approximately 10,000 members, which won barely 2% of the vote in a coalition with other far-right parties in parliamentary elections in 2019.’ Michael Corborne, who wrote a book on the movement, warns: ‘The Azov Movement is frequently cited by people who want … to give Putin a free pass to do what he wants in Ukraine,’ but ‘[i]t doesn’t in any way justify the actions of the Russian president.’

Antisemitism is a horror that is deeply ingrained in the history of the world, but unlike that which fades into lost tomorrows, it’s not left to rot along with the toothless jawbones, the severed vertebrae and broken femurs, markers of ancient crimes, but vomited up unannounced from the depths of ignorance, making its way into countryside churches and quiet townships and cities announcing its latest class offerings on inclusion – all before it once again sinks into the muck of time. Beware of the racism and antisemitism that comes with smiling faces; it’s likely to be a version of the beads and whiskey offerings made by federal troops to indigenous tribes just prior to a federal massacre.

Yes, Ukraine’s current president is Jewish, and they have had a Jewish prime minister, too, ‘but antisemitism continues to spike across the spectrum, all over the world, including in both Russia and Ukraine.’ Karabelnicoff is, however, careful to point out that ‘[t]here is a world of difference between real concerns about the growing far-right and hyperbolic claims that Ukraine is aligned with Nazism…. The far-right is a problem in Ukraine, but Ukraine is far from a Nazi state.’

Justifications for War Explained

Michael Marder and Anton Tarasyuk do a creative job explaining how the Russian leadership is justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by using Slavoj Žižek’s ‘broken kettle’ logic that he famously used in explaining the war in Iraq:

Borrowing from Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of an old joke about a broken kettle, Žižek uses the example to shed light on an unconscious defence mechanism deploying many inconsistent arguments: ‘(1) I never borrowed a kettle from you, (2) I returned it to you unbroken, (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you.’

Does the same mix of reasons not apply even more to the war Russia is waging against Ukraine, as explained by the Russian leadership itself? So, ‘I never borrowed a kettle from you’ is tantamount to the denial of the very fact of there being a war, which is officially called ‘a special military operation’ in the Russian media. ‘I returned it to you unbroken’ corresponds to the rigged history lesson Putin gave to the public in announcing this very ‘special operation,’ according to which he was going to protect the population of the Donbas region and join together, rather than break up, territories that have traditionally been part of Greater Russia. And ‘the kettle was already broken when I got it from you’ parallels the defensive stance, according to which Russia attacked its neighbour because it felt threatened, either in the long term by the eastward expansion of NATO or, in the short term, due to belligerent designs imputed to Ukraine. Thus, according to the official justifications of the unjustifiable war, it was simultaneously a preventive strike, a special operation to stop a genocide, and a war of conquest and imperial expansion.

The question has been raised: Could the invasion of Ukraine be a genocidal war designed to erase Ukraine from the map, along the lines of the 1932-1933 Holodomor, an artificially created famine planned and carried out by the Stalinist regime that killed millions of Ukrainians. The authors remark that ‘the accusation of genocide, levelled by Putin against the Ukrainian state and its actions in the Donbas region, are indicative of Russia’s own intent.’ In other words, the imputation of genocide to Ukraine is indicative of the psychological mechanism of projection operating in the KGB-limned brainpan of Putin’s own mind, revealing what he has in store for the Ukrainian people. Or it could be epistemicide, the extermination of Ukrainian cultural traditions, its languages and worldviews, cosmovisions and religious beliefs.

An op-ed published on RIA Novosti by Russian state media (one of the three largest news agencies in Russia that have a mass-circulation) by journalist and Kremlin-aligned political operative Timofey Sergeytsev has caused quite an uproar outside of Russia. According to Tzvi Joffre of the Jerusalem Post, Sergeytsev claimed that ‘Ukronazism’ is a greater threat to the world than Hitler’s Nazi Party and called for a complete Russian takeover of the entire country of Ukraine, including its culture. Straightaway, it called for a brutal retribution against the people of Ukraine for those who refuse to kiss Putin’s ring. Sergeytsev also remarked ‘that in peacetime it would be necessary to “achieve irreversible changes” and that forced labour, the death penalty and imprisonment would be used as punishment against the “accomplices of the Nazi regime.”’ According to Susanne Sternthal,

Sergeytsev’s choice of words, such as ‘de-Ukrainization’ and ‘denazification,’ are terms calling for the destruction of Ukraine. In his April 4 article of 1,700 words, Sergeytsev uses the word Nazi 69 times. In order to achieve the ultimate goal of ‘de-Ukrainization,’ Sergeytsev calls for a rejection of Ukrainian ethnicity and the peoples’ right to self-determination. Echoing Putin, Sergeytsev writes that Ukraine has never been a nation-state, adding that its attempts at becoming independent have led to ‘Nazism.’ Sergeytsev calls on all of Ukraine’s elite to be ‘liquidated’ and ‘the social swamp which actively and passively supports it should undergo the hardship of war and digest the experience as a historical lesson and atonement. The constant use of the word ‘Nazi’ triggers a visceral reaction among the Russian population. During World War II, the Soviet Union suffered horrible atrocities at the hands of the Nazis. In one example, the Nazi blockade of Leningrad lasted from September 1941 until January 1944, a total of 900 days. An estimated over 1 million people died from systematic starvation.

Ideological Production in Putin’s Regime: The Bric-a-Brac Propaganda Machine

Sergeytsev is a member of the so-called ‘methodological movement,’ founded by Soviet philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky. The movement is a variation of the hyperconstructivist technocratic worldview, ‘grounded in a belief in the unlimited possibilities of engineering design applied to politics.’ This technocratic rationality or instrumental reasoning, of which the storied Frankfurt School warned us, can be applied to any political arrangement or modifications to such arrangements since they are made possible by scientific engineering. Of course, any such ideological state apparatus informed by the methodological movement has serious regressive implications, which can lead to reification and the blunting of critical temperament. It can result in a technocratic culture like that described in the novel 1984, which emphasises standardisation and efficiency, which, in turn, can end in an acid-bath of vicious authoritarianism powered by raw operant conditioning used as a form of social control – do as we say or you will lose your job, pay a massive fine or rot in prison! As Marder and Tarasyuk explain:

According to the ‘methodologues,’ any kind of world rearrangement is possible, national, cultural and social included, because ultimately there is no reality to acknowledge and reckon with. From its start in the late Soviet era, the ‘methodological movement’ was not intended to be purely theoretical. Shchedrovitsky made it clear that the social goal of the ‘methodologues’ was to approach decision-making positions as close as possible…. Many among Putin’s media managers, political consultants, bureaucrats and politicians are, in one way or another, affected by Shchedrovitsky’s worldview.

Sergeytsev’s manifesto called for the annihilation of Ukraine as part and parcel of a complex mixture of what constitutes the reproduction of the Russian ideological state apparatus. Russian ideology is reproduced by a complex apparatus and is not as clear-cut as it is in, say, China, where schoolchildren are required to memorise parts of the speeches of Xi Jinping.

Ideological production in Russia is multi-layered, multi-referential and employs cross-referencing to achieve its most potent effects; it is created through diverse cultural and political juxtapositions digitally remastered by the technocratic elite specifically for propaganda purposes. It is a planned form of institutional heteroglossia – a reservoir of unfinalised meanings and folkloric associations that never wander outside of the watchful eye of those manning the searchlights of the panopticon and is grimly illustrative of a totalitarian regime. Social forces, institutional practices, and the idyllic chronotypes and dystopian caricatures displayed in news media work to assimilate preferred meanings and functioning narratives from an array of selected information-generating sources. For instance, ‘[t]his apparatus combines a broad spectrum of agents and dissemination points: from a TV host who simply broadcasts a Russian ‘patriotic’ news interpretation to secret troll factories, paid pundits, and networks of proxy Telegram channels camouflaged as independent or Ukrainian information sources.’

The Russian ideological state apparatus has its own rules of the game, as does the US and all other imperialist regimes. Marder and Tarasyuk note that ‘[w]ith respect to decision-making, these rules are rooted in a constant process of second-guessing and ideologically narrativising the actions of the bosses, up to the ultimate boss, Vladimir Putin.’ In other words, there is no single philosopher king pulling the strings – not even Alexander Dugin or the imported American ally, Saint Tucker Carlson – but there is a pervading miasma of nihilism, a radical paranoia about other countries and a caustic belief that there are no foundational principles immune to technological adjustments or fixes. Marder and Tarasyuk sum up this dystopian process as follows: ‘There is no head in the Russian ideological apparatus. It is acephalic. The acephalic nature of Russian ideology creates a situation when there are no authors of the ideology, and no genuine ideas, but there still exists a logic, or even a methodology that accompanies and covers the decision-making.’ According to Marder and Tarasyuk, ‘[f]rom this nihilistic impulse comes the idea that the project of destroying a sovereign nation and its people is justifiable and can be seen as nothing more than a matter of creating a proper methodology with an action plan. And it is this very nihilistic impulse that, unaffected by any value restrictions, creates a genocidal logic, executed by Putin in the current war.’

Susanne Sternthal points out that Putin has made efficient use of what is known as the Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, a federal agency that monitors and censors Russian mass media and decides which needs to be shut down. She further reports that ‘in 2022 alone, Putin closed the last remaining independent sources of information in Russia: liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, online television channel TV Rain, bilingual news site Meduza and Novaya Gazeta, whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. The Russian government not only has total control over all media, but it dictates what can be seen and heard. The war in Ukraine, for instance, can only be referred to as ‘a special military operation.’ Anyone who calls it a ‘war’ is subject to a prison term of 15 years.’

As we support Ukraine, we lament the demise of countries struggling for freedom and a functioning democracy, including the United States, which are being besieged by the doctrines of illiberal democracy propagated by the Republican Party and fascist regimes elsewhere around the world who are competing to take the helm of the next World Fascist Order. Here in the US, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene wants the focus to be directed away from white supremacist mass murderers and to be put on minority mass murderers. ‘So, white supremacy shouldn’t be the main target,’ the lawmaker added. ‘We should be more concerned about the illegal invasion at the border….’ Greene doesn’t appear to understand that when you defend white supremacist mass killers, you are betraying the entrenched features of white supremacy and are being complicit, in fact, in ideologically reproducing what is most dangerous about white supremacy – its desire to erase minority groups and their history from the face of the earth. In this sense, Greene is not unlike Timofey Sergeytsev.

We hope that Ukraine prevails and joins the fight for a socialist future. But the first priority is that it survives. And, no doubt, the forces of fascism worldwide will try to capture its leadership. The major political battles ahead involve the struggle against fascism and Trumpism. For therein lies our only hope for a future of equality and justice.

We cannot de-claw, sanitise or domesticate the direction of politics today in which displaced abjection is turning people against the most vulnerable in our societies. We are searching for a politics drenched in hope, but, at a time of intellectual drought, we are seeking a dialectics of awakening, by which the opaque can become transparent, where an archetype of democracy can come to know itself, but at a time when people are forced to take refuge 346 feet below street level in subway tunnels and abandoned train cars. For too many, our visions now seem made of baseless fabric. Our revels are now ended, as Shakespeare might put it, an insubstantial pageant faded, as we retreat into some hypnagogic dream. No, we won’t leave it at this. We won’t surrender our future to some scribblings on a CEO’s dry-erase whiteboard. We will challenge the repressed desires embodied in the collective dreams of our sick and dying world, those made in the board rooms of mining and oil companies. And we will build, along with our Ukrainian comrades, a new social universe of hope and possibility.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). In Solidarity with Ukraine: Why We Fight. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/in-solidarity-with-ukraine/

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.