The bifurcation of the left reflects a growing lack of common sense and empathy with the actual circumstances faced by ordinary people.
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Ever since Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine a year ago, many people have expressed frustration with WhoWhatWhy for covering the Russian invasion from the premise that Russia is the problem.
They say we don’t understand the situation. As one old friend and supporter said to me, “It’s complicated.” And some say I’ve forgotten the insights revealed in my own work — on the troubling history of malicious operations by US intelligence and financial elites detailed voluminously in Family of Secrets — and in my early efforts to expose the true (and bad) reasons we invaded Iraq.
But from the very beginning of the Russian invasion, I simply could not understand why some intelligent people I knew, longtime peaceniks and humanitarians, and more than a few noteworthy journalists, had scarcely a word of sympathy for the people of Ukraine. After all, Putin’s genocidal intentions became clear early on — from Putin confidant Vladislav Surkov stating that “there is no Ukraine” to the daily atrocities reported by multiple NGOs.
How can anyone be insensitive to the horror happening over there? Day after day for the past year, the world has witnessed Putin’s scorched earth strategy of targeting civilians, bombing their homes, schools, churches, hospitals, ancient historical sites, crops, and basic infrastructure. Russian troops steal all they can, from small items like wedding rings to millions of tons of Ukrainian grain. They even appear to be draining a massive Ukrainian reservoir.
And from the confirmed testimony of survivors, we learn of sickening atrocities committed by those troops (many of whom Putin mobilized by emptying prisons), including prolonged torture, gang rape of children as young as four and grandparents as old as 85, often in front of loved ones; the shooting of beloved pets as they scrounged for food, as if it were a sport. According to Ukrainian authorities, they even hung animals in trees “for entertainment.”
Most progressives do “get it.” Yet, the holdouts, both here and in Europe, have impacted the discussion, effectively helped Putin, and undermined perception of the facts on the ground.
Which raises the inevitable question: Does their indifference or outright opposition to helping Ukraine have any merit at all? After months of thinking constantly on this topic, I’ll say it: I appreciate the basis for their beliefs — but I don’t think so.
I understand that disagreements like this can sometimes end friendships, and I hope we can all be honestly blunt without that happening. Anyway, here goes.
Left vs. Far Left
Those on what might be called the “ideological left” — those who are against aiding Ukraine — tend to distrust any military or foreign policy initiatives by the US. The idea is that, based on the US’s long history of imperialism, we should default to assuming the worst of intentions when it comes to Ukraine.
To them, it makes no difference what party is in power in the US: It is as if there are no good people in positions of authority, no one able to resist the imperial advance of the military-industrial complex. Thus their refusal to support the effort to help Ukraine.
As for Putin, according to them he had to invade Ukraine, because of the “NATO encirclement” of Russia and the (in their minds) evil threat that the coalition-of-almost-everybody still represents in today’s world. They also point to what could be called a “reverse Monroe Doctrine” — after all, they say, Ukraine is in Russia’s backyard, just as Mexico is in ours. Finally — and certainly no small thing — they also believe that anyone who supports arming Ukraine for self-defense is leading humanity into a nuclear war.
So… If there’s a nuclear war, America and NATO are responsible, not Putin. That’s the line we hear.
Dissonance and Empathy
I would contend that this bifurcation of the left reflects a growing lack of common sense and empathy with the actual circumstances faced by ordinary people — a rigidity that treats with ambivalence or doubt any support for the Ukrainians’ efforts to defend themselves. This kind of skepticism feels both outdated and verging on the paranoid. Crucially, it fails to take into account the continuous changes in everything from the governance of individual countries to shifting alliances and the ebb and flow of global power. In both cases, a failure to pay attention to the changing reality — and the actual facts on the ground — risks millions of innocent lives.
One key difference between the war in Ukraine and the Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan wars, which should be obvious to any unbiased observer, is this: Zelenskyy’s government has rallied widespread elements of the Ukrainian population in a heroic and punishing battle against Russia, in contrast to the quagmires that led the US into propping up deeply unpopular and manifestly incompetent governments in Southeast and Central Asia.
The Power of Fear
It’s certainly true that, in assessing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the appropriate response for the West, confronting Russian aggression militarily, even if by proxy, could indeed plunge the world into a series of events leading right to nuclear annihilation.
Fortunately so far, while creeping forward in terms of military aid, the US has not engaged in direct combat in Ukraine. Yet if confronted, we face a set of choices, none of them good: Back down, or don’t back down.
Over the last year, Putin has used the threat of nuclear war several times, specifically to weaken pro-Ukranian resolve; yet while his propaganda has convinced more than a few, there are no signs that Russia has taken steps to prepare for a nuclear conflict.
But Putin’s aggressive behavior since the West effectively acquiesced in his annexation of Crimea (not getting into “Russia’s historic right to it”) should give us pause: Where exactly would we draw the line in opposing naked military aggression, if not Ukraine?
And if Putin keeps succeeding in grabbing his neighbors by force, what message does that send other would-be aggressors, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world? The canard that all politics, all government is inherently, fatally, corrupt is a counsel of self-validating despair — and a gift to the forces of authoritarianism and autocracy. It also ignores the fact that, of the many countries in the world, the US, even with the tremendous deficiencies and wrongs we cite and endeavor to expose, isn’t — by multiple indices and relatively speaking — all that bad.
Yup, I said it. The critics, by and large, still choose to live here for good reason.
Of course, the how-to of avoiding nuclear holocaust in a world with countless nuclear powers is an extraordinarily difficult problem. But giving carte blanche to bad actors like Putin to kill or ruin the lives of millions in pursuit of their ambitions is hardly the only option.
The majority of progressive-minded Russians are opposed to Putin, repressed by Putin, and totally sympathetic with Ukraine and its plight.
And the notion that it is the only option reflects just how many of us seem truly lost. Here is a tweet to the world from a fellow I’ve known and liked for years:
You insane Dems have launched war on #Russia. To please your biggest donor @georgesoros you risk destroying us in #NuclearWar.
This is from a longtime idealist and activist! I may not agree with George Soros on some issues, but I have always found him to be a man of conscience, and hardly ever eager to see war. (Disclosure: We have never received a penny from Soros or his organizations.)
That this bizarre attitude is increasingly on display, with its concomitantly myopic view of Putin and his reign, is just astonishing to me and, thankfully, to most people.
It’s not that hard to see the truth for what it is. Documented stories of Putin’s police-and-corruption state come in a never-ending stream, even beyond Ukraine, and not just from Western media. Conscientious, brave Russian reporters tell us all the time.
If you pay attention, you will learn about the profound poverty of the nation, especially outside of Moscow. And about the dissidents and journalists who are murdered, seemingly weekly, via curious “falls” out of windows, other kinds of “accidents,” shootings, poisonings, and other means. For details, go here, here, here, here, here. Even an American businessman got the window treatment. Brutalized war protesters are sent to jail for a decade for posting on social media. Russian victims are often named and, if possible, quoted.
Here are only two random items from just this week:
A Russian court has sentenced journalist Maria Ponomarenko to six years in prison for a Telegram social media post about a Russian airstrike.
Olesya Krivtsova is a 19-year-old Federal University of Arkhangelsk student on trial, facing decades in prison for an antiwar instagram social media post.
When versions of this kind of oppression happen to Americans, Palestinians, or folks almost anywhere else, they actually do seem to bother my friends. But I never hear expressions of concern about this oppression with regard to Russia.
Putin Is Russia and Russia Is Putin? Not So!
The defense of Putin’s war from some of these people is, of course, based on a lot of talking points I see, spread widely and presented as certitudes:
Ukraine has to this day a propensity for neo-Nazism or fascism, Jewish president notwithstanding.
Ukraine is inherently corrupt, while Russia under Putin has kept corruption in check, as a professor told me the other day. (Despite decades of documented evidence to the contrary.)
The CIA thwarted the Ukrainian people’s will and overthrew the pro-Moscow Ukrainian government in the country. (Here’s a different view from interested parties in the region.)
The West is driven solely by selfish motives in backing Ukraine. (See the rest of this piece for counter-arguments.)
Putin and his prolific disinformation machine spread these manufactured ideas through state-controlled news outlets, social media, and paid propagandists, including actually creating fake “BBC” reporting(!). Meanwhile, writers I consider to be naive or deluded and historians outside Russia skillfully deploy selected “true facts” or anecdotes in support of highly questionable conclusions.
One of these conclusions appears to be that we can and should give Putin the benefit of the doubt and assume that he actually has “Russia’s” interests at heart. But it seems easy enough to discount that, even without looking into the man’s soul, as former President George W. Bush famously claimed to have done. Putin’s own actions, along with many of his statements, indicate rather his devotion to the Putin and Friends enrichment scheme, or some deranged and dangerous plan (plucked from the 19th century’s Great Power playbook) to “Make Russia Great Again.” Does Putin = Russia any more than Trump = the USA?
In truth, “Russia’s interests” and Vladimir Putin’s objectives seem far from the same thing, even if you leave out the billions Putin and his oligarch cronies have siphoned from Russian coffers since 1999. From the perspective of hard-nosed realpolitik alone, it may actually be good for Russia to get along better with its neighbors. And it may also be true that most Russians do not feel threatened personally by NATO or by Ukraine.
To be sure, the majority of progressive-minded Russians are opposed to Putin, repressed by Putin, and totally sympathetic with Ukraine and its plight. Thousands have close family in Ukraine and know the extent of Putin’s perfidy; some have actually taken up arms for Ukraine. Thousands have fled Russia since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
How can Western naysayers minimize or ignore this large subpopulation opposed to Putin, or suggest that people in the US know better than those actually living in what is in fact a totalitarian state? It’s worth recalling that many who condemn US actions to oppose Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine were themselves protestors against aggressive US war policy in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq. Why can they not relate to Russians’ domestic opposition to Putin and his war?
Furthermore, how can anyone ignore the thousands of conscripted Russian civilians given only hours of training and little combat gear, who are then turned into waves of cannon fodder? Or ignore the thousands of panicked Russians fleeing? The horrible abuses? The soldiers defecting, and other Russians, embarrassed and horrified by what their country is doing, taking action to help the Ukrainians?
I could go on, but ultimately, there is no getting around the simple fact that one man, Vladimir Putin, who for decades has openly voiced his wish to reinstate the USSR, invaded a sovereign nation and is willing to countenance the death of huge numbers of his own people, let alone even more Ukrainians.
We have to start from there. We have to acknowledge the murderous madness of that. We must show sympathy for innocent people being slaughtered — not just innocents, but badly outnumbered ones, standing up to a vastly superior military power.
Why? Because if we do not start from a position that considers other human beings, how human are we?
This brings to mind one of my friends, an economist, a good guy, who worries about nuclear war and essentially argued, in a conversation with me, that the US should give Putin whatever he wants. The next day, we both happened to be on a group teleconference on an unrelated topic. Once he finished opining, he paused, chortled, and dryly noted: “Spoken like a true economist — notice there are no people in this analysis.”
As I was wrapping this article up, I read Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech in Munich about Russia’s crimes against humanity in Ukraine, and about the need to stand up to authoritarian nations using “brute force.” Exactly. No appeasement.
I also happen to be reading a Budd Schulberg book written in the late 1930s, in which one character explains that a movie studio doesn’t plan to make a screen version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here — because the English leadership at the time “doesn’t want to make Hitler and Mussolini sore.”
And we all know how that worked out.