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Ukraine, Russia and the Split on the Left
OR Love Letter to a Lost Tankie
A couple weeks ago, I told you I intended to write about Ukraine, but the Republican supermajority in Indiana’s legislature jumped the line, and jumped the shark with their copycat version of Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law. I’ll dive deeper into the GOP’s entire “Slate of Hate” in the next episode of the podcast, but the Russian war on Ukraine deserves a few words.
While most Americans support continued U.S. aid to Ukraine, an increasing share of the population says our country is doing too much to help the beleaguered Ukrainians. In fact, nearly half (47%) of the historically hawkish Republican Party believes the U.S. is doing too much, and 41% of Republicans would support ending the conflict quickly, even if that meant Russia keeping captured Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, the historically dovish (OK, less hawkish) Democrats overwhelmingly support American involvement on Ukraine’s behalf, over 60% saying we should continue to support Ukraine as long as it takes.
Over here in my political home, just beyond the left flank of the Democratic Party, things get a little complicated. Many on the nominal anti-war left, including some of my own friends, have become Putin apologists. Their resistance to U.S. imperialism, while rightly justified, has metastasized into support for authoritarian regimes. They see this conflict as a proxy war caused by NATO expansion and a desire for profit by the arms industry and defense contractors.
Given the lengthy history of unwarranted U.S. military intervention in sovereign nations, I certainly understand the trepidation. Countless incursions on behalf of big business in Latin America, banana republics, the overthrow and annexation of Hawai’i, the colonization of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, staged coups in the Middle East, support for right-wing dictators during the Cold War, and the open-ended War on Terror should give us pause. President James K. Polk lied the U.S. into the Mexican War; McKinley lied us into the Spanish-American War; LBJ lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, escalating American involvement in Vietnam; George W. Bush’s administration lied the nation into war in Iraq. The United States has been the instigator, and on the wrong side of history, damn near every time shots have been fired.
So, I get it. As a small-d democrat and anti-imperialist, I recognize that our country has been the most aggressive imperial power since at least World War II, if not before. From the Conscience Whigs, who opposed the Mexican War, on through the American Anti-Imperialist League at the turn of the 20th century, to the massive movement against the Vietnam War and the protests against the illegal invasion of Iraq, those of us who value peace and resist domination have stood up to military aggression by our own government. We must continue to do so. But we must also stand up to call out imperialism wherever it occurs, whoever the offender.
Let’s be very clear: Russia’s incursion into their sovereign neighbor’s territory IS an act of imperial aggression. Now, I understand many on the far left have a fondness for Mother Russia that dates to the Soviet era, be it as a bulwark against Western expansionism or as a nominally socialist state. Despite the fact Stalin wasn’t really a socialist and betrayed Marxism-Leninism before his predecessor’s body was even cold, or that the U.S.S.R. was itself an empire, many leftists have nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Although I believe this sentimentality is misplaced, I’ll let you keep it. But the Soviet Russia you lament has ceased to exist for decades now. Back in his KGB days, Vladimir Putin may have been an nominal member of the Communist Party (he didn’t have a choice), but Putin is no leftist. The Russian Federation of today is a neofascist mafia state.
When the Soviet government collapsed in the early 1990’s, organized crime filled the power vacuum. Desperate for cash, the new Yeltsin administration, with the “help” of American economists and organizations like the IMF (I know - the West bears a great deal of responsibility for the Frankenstein’s monster that is modern Russia), rapidly sold off state assets in a fit of flash privatization dubbed “shock therapy.” A great many of the individuals who came to control these highly valuable enterprises - steel, aluminum, shipping, mining, banking, broadcasting, oil and gas - were mafiosi whose seed capital came from criminal activity. By 1999, with Yeltsin dying, these newly-minted oligarchs orchestrated the installation of relatively-unknown Putin as his successor.
But Putin is not an empty figurehead Don. Content to let his oligarchs capos control the Russian economy, skimming billions in public money at every turn, Putin could focus on his ultranationalist goals. Hand-in-hand with Patriarch Kirill, former KGB comrade and head of the Russian Orthodox Church, inspired by early 20th century Russian imperialist and fascist political philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and with the new roadmap provided by current neofascist author and political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, Putin set about recreating the Russian Empire. Though he decries the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” Putin’s north star isn’t Marx or Lenin, but Peter the Great.
Let’s look at Dugin’s Eurasian imperialist roadmap a little closer, because Putin is not the only far-right politico following the same plan. According to The Guardian, Dugin’s Eurasia Movement “supports tradition against liberalism, autocracy against democratic institutions, stern uniformity against Enlightenment pluralism,” and is increasingly popular with authoritarian nationalist figures across the world. Trump advisor and gin-soaked brain of the MAGA movement, Steve Bannon, reportedly spent eight hours exchanging tips with him in a Rome hotel room. In addition to that very influential American fascist, Dugin has connections to the far-right in France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere. Combine the international business connections of Russian oligarchs, their relationship with Putin and the state intelligence apparatus, and Dugin’s relationship with far-right influencers in the Western democracies, and you have a recipe for destabilizing the West.
“It is generally important to introduce geopolitical chaos within the American daily experience by encouraging all manner of separatism, ethnic diversity, social and racial conflict, actively supporting every extremist dissident movement, racist sectarian groups, and destabilizing the political processes within America,” said Dugin in his 1997 book The Foundations of Geopolitics. By using vast amounts of money to influence political elites, and “using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures” among the population, Russian intelligence has been able to shape election and policy outcomes to its favor in the United States and across the larger liberal democratic world. “Every fissure” - they’ve been targeting us on the left, too.
As a student of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger (he literally wrote a book about the guy), it should come as no surprise Dugin is familiar with the Hitler regime’s propaganda playbook. If you’ve had a chance to listen to Rachel Maddow’s 2022 podcast, Ultra, then you will also be familiar with the Nazi disinformation blueprint. In short, in the years before American entry into World War II, German agents in the United States used access to members of Congress to spread Nazi propaganda across the country, conspired with isolationist organizations like the America First Committee to keep the U.S. out of the war, and funded the extremist Christian Front militia in an effort to overthrow the government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who they considered a “secret Jew”). The Dugin-Putin disinformation scheme IS the Goebbels-Hitler scheme, turned up to unimaginable levels with the power of social media, right down to the “America First” language. We’re all being used.
Frankly, the parallels between the current moment and the lead-up to World War II are terribly uncanny. The language Putin uses about native Russian speakers in the Donbas is the same language Hitler used about native German speakers in the Sudetenland. The rigged annexation referenda in four Ukrainian territories is eerily reminiscent of the controlled plebiscite that completed the Nazi’s Anschluss with Austria. Nominal communist Xi and christofascist Putin find themselves in a tenuous autocratic alliance just as Stalin and Hitler had crafted an uneasy detente in 1939. The Third Reich exploited powerful new means of communication in radio and film; Putinist Russia exploits powerful new means of communication in the internet and social media.
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, having ceded parts of sovereign Czechoslovakia to the German Fuhrer in the Munich Agreement, declared the sides had achieved “peace for our time.” The peace was broken the following year when Hitler invaded Poland. When modern leftists call for a negotiated settlement that would cede territory to Putin, this is the kind of “peace for our time” they can expect. This is what you get every time with autocrats and Putin’s brain, Dugin, has already called for a new Russian-dominated Eurasian empire stretching “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Is this what you’re supporting?
We on the left are supposed to stand for democracy over autocracy, humanism over hierarchy, tolerance over domination. There are many valid critiques of the U.S. military-industrial complex and NATO, but the Eastern European left wants NATO there as protection from their neofascist, imperialist Russian neighbors. And that’s what this should be about: defeating the scourge of fascism. The Russian disinformation machine has been tremendously successful in cultivating ultranationalist right-wing movements in other countries, but I’m disappointed to say they’ve had far too much success splitting the democratic socialist left from the liberal center. God knows I’ve got just as many bad things to say about global capitalism as the next leftist, but at least markets respond to social pressure. The old lines are no more. The democracy vs. autocracy fight rages both across and within national boundaries. When socialism joins forces with liberalism, fascism loses. When socialism joins with fascism, that’s called a red-brown alliance, and it’s bloody shite! So, whose side are you on, anyway?