What the Left’s Critics Ignore About Military Solutions to Ukraine

Critics have taken the Left to task for its skeptical view of offensive military aid for Ukraine. They are quick to forget the fraught record of liberal interventionism around the world.

Civilian volunteers for units set up by veterans of the Azov Battalion, a far-right militia absorbed into the Ukrainian military, train in a secret location in Dnipro, Ukraine, March 6, 2022. (Andrea Carrubba / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The war on Ukraine has brought up thorny questions for not just the Left but anyone interested in peace and a stable security order. On the one hand, the moral lay of the land here isn’t complicated: a sovereign country is being invaded by a larger neighbor, an invasion that seems to be the singular act of an autocrat. Supporting Ukraine as it defends itself is unambiguously the right thing to do.

The question is how to do it. Socialists, progressives, and even liberals all have a well-founded skepticism toward Western military intervention as a solution to the world’s ills, not to mention a keen awareness of the risks of nuclear escalation. Yet the current situation demands that something be done to both alleviate Ukrainian suffering and put pressure on Moscow to end its war.

It’s with the fraught history of liberal interventionism and blowback in mind that the Left has tried to chart a careful course on Ukraine. With negotiations that could have averted the war rejected by Washington at the start of the year, Ukraine and the world were plunged into a situation that has no satisfying answers. Jacobin has offered up a suite of nonmilitary responses to the ensuing war while warning of the potential long-term destabilizing effects of pouring weapons into the country, not to mention the dire need to prevent the conflict from turning into a nuclear war. In a climate of jingoism, we’ve been heavily criticized for this position.

The most thoughtful of these criticisms has come from New York magazine’s Eric Levitz. Even as he’s acknowledged this magazine’s “valuable contributions” to the debate, and that “the Left’s solidarity with Ukraine is more robust than that of more mainstream political tendencies,” Levitz derided the Left’s response to the war as “half-baked” and dogmatic. According to him, for the Left, this war has revealed “genuine pathologies” and “an ideological rigidity that leaves American socialists ill-equipped to interpret the emerging multipolar world order, and therefore, to change it.”

Yet Levitz doesn’t deal with the specific realities in Ukraine that inform the Left’s unease with flooding the country with Western arms, and invents a nonexistent tradition of socialist support for Western military intervention to justify that policy. Nor does he take seriously the very real US and British strategy to turn Ukraine into Russia’s Afghanistan. These failings aren’t unique to his critique — they are likewise a part of what now seems to be the broader liberal consensus on this war, which has facilitated a sudden return to the interventionism of decades past that views Western military power as an obvious solution to global conflict. American exceptionalism is back, and the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan — a country from which the United States just disengaged — forgotten.

The Far Right to Bear Arms

Levitz’s chief sticking point with this author and the Left generally is over our aversion to “lethal aid” as a solution to the Russian invasion, with Western governments currently sending guns, ammunition, grenade launchers, missiles, and so much else into the country. He argues that by increasing Ukraine’s military strength, these weapons shipments make a cease-fire more likely, as Ukraine “can only hope to secure such a settlement through force of arms.”

To begin with, it’s far from clear Western arms shipments have been the deciding factor in Russia’s military underperformance. As Pentagon analysts recently told Newsweek, there’s significant evidence that Putin, acting on bad intelligence and miscalculating how easily Russian troops could take the Ukrainian capital, didn’t use the full force of his military. Most notably, the Russian Air Force has been little used throughout the invasion, despite air superiority being crucial to any successful military operation. There are also the allegations of low morale among Russian troops, its use of conscripts, and various other problems that have allegedly plagued its military.

To be clear, it’s entirely possible these weapons shipments were a crucial factor in Ukrainian military success. It’s also entirely possible, given all the above, they were less of a factor than many assume. The reality is that, between the fog of war and crisscrossing propaganda campaigns that shape our understandings, we just don’t know. Given this uncertainty, it’s even more important that we consider the risks of this policy.

Those risks happen to be serious. Levitz makes vague reference to “real harms,” namely that weapons “will find their way onto black markets, and from there, to places where they will kill and maim innocents.” But this is barely the half of it. For one, if Western military aid really has prevented a swift Ukrainian defeat against a Russian military not yet fighting at full capacity, then that has also risked simply prolonging the war and Ukrainian suffering, and eventually leading Moscow to ramp up the brutality of its assault as a solution to the stalemate.

But arguably more critical is the matter of Ukraine’s far right. Putin’s pretext of “de-Nazification” has caused an unofficial kibosh on the matter of discussing this issue in Western media, which, if it does cover the matter, stresses the modest electoral success of ultranationalists and the fact that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky himself is Jewish. As scholars like Volodymyr Ishchenko have repeatedly argued, this misunderstands the role and influence of the far right in Ukraine, which has a well-funded and well-organized activist movement. It is from these far-right formations that the most effective anti-Russian fighting force is understood to emerge. This is the selfsame far right that regularly resorts to street violence and has successfully shifted the Ukrainian political center toward the direction of ultranationalism.

Americans are tragically aware by now what can happen when their government decides to back extremists in one conflict out of temporary convenience. We should recall the infamous words of Jimmy Carter advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on the US backing of anti-Soviet fundamentalists in 1980s Afghanistan: “What is most important to the history of the world? . . . Some stirred up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

There is a real risk we are sleepwalking into a similar outcome. Western weapons have already found their way into the hands of far-right extremists, who are integrated into Ukraine’s national guard, its police hierarchy, and its military. These weapons will doubtless find their way to many more extremists, since arms have, quite understandably, been handed out indiscriminately. This poses medium- to long-term threats to Ukraine’s stability and peace in the region if and when the war, God willing, ends.

These far-right groups are explicitly ethnonationalist and even white supremacist. They believe in taking and wielding power by force and dictatorship, support the reacquiring of nuclear arms, and are violently reactionary and militaristically hostile to what they see as a multiculturalist Russia. As even the New York Times pointed out before the invasion, these groups — currently in a marriage of convenience with Zelensky’s government as it resists the Russian invasion — are

a two-edged sword, threatening not just the Kremlin but also the Ukrainian government, which could be rocked and possibly overthrown by them if Mr. Zelensky agrees to a peace deal that in their minds gives too much to Moscow.

As the Times suggests, these groups have been one of the primary obstacles to peace in the Donbas for the past eight years. In 2014, after playing a leading role in violently ousting then president Viktor Yanukovych, far-right extremists staged a bloody confrontation with government forces when his successor, Petro Poroshenko, tried to implement elements of the Minsk accords a year later. This assault was not the last such attack to be launched against Poroshenko. Part of the reason Zelensky failed to fulfil his election-winning pledge to secure peace in eastern Ukraine is because these groups mobilized against him and directly threatened him over what they see as a capitulation to Moscow.

“Zelensky said in his inaugural speech that he was ready to lose ratings, popularity, position,” one ultranationalist leader remarked in 2019 about the Ukrainian president’s peace efforts. “No, he would lose his life.”

What might happen if such groups have ready access to the copious weaponry now spreading through the country? What might it mean for the future of Ukraine’s brittle democracy or even Zelensky’s rule? What could it mean for vulnerable minorities like the Roma and LGBTQ community, both of which have been serially targeted with violence by these groups? How might it impact the prospects for a lasting peace, or at least stability, in the region once the war ends?

The potential blowback isn’t limited to Ukraine. As West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center has repeatedly pointed out, Ukraine has for years been the epicenter for international far-right organizing. That includes white supremacist extremists from nearby Germany as well as US extremists, with even the FBI stating that the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion “is believed to have participated in training and radicalizing United States–based white supremacy organizations,” including ones that took part in the infamous Charlottesville rally. Despite years of liberal panic around domestic far-right extremists — and despite the protection of American life being the most unambiguous, core US interest — there’s little consideration as to how the Biden administration’s approach might wind up increasing the domestic and international threat of such extremists.

Remarkably, though these concerns have been central to left-wing unease about offensive military aid to Ukraine from the start, Levitz doesn’t grant them so much as a single mention. Who here exactly is failing to grapple with “complexity and moral ambiguity”?

A Skeptical Eye on Intervention

For Levitz, the aversion to waves of Western military shipments as a solution to this war is a sudden break from “socialists’ historic commitment to national struggles,” such as the Left’s “historic support for arming the Second Spanish Republic and the Sandinista government.” This is an interesting version of history, to say the least.

In reality, today’s left has long been skeptical of liberal interventionism by Western governments as a solution to the world’s crises. As Daniel Bessner has outlined, in a “world of brutal realities,” humanitarian interventions confront “radical uncertainties” that clash with our understandable desire to help — uncertainties like whether or not such interventions will cause more violence in the long term or whether the officials implementing them are informed enough to make decisions that won’t simply make things worse.

As a result, the list of US interventions that has been subjected to left criticism is extensive. We’ve pointed to the tragic blowback from Washington’s support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a prime example of such consequences. We’ve criticized Washington’s military involvement in the Balkan wars of the 1990s as counterproductive and dangerous. We’ve opposed the 2011 Libyan misadventure — sold at the time as simply a humanitarian intervention to prevent a government massacre — and which soon morphed into a regime change operation that plunged the country into far worse chaos. We’ve criticized US involvement in Syria, which, among other things, has seen the CIA funnel arms to al-Qaeda and other extremists that were part of a supposedly “moderate” opposition against the country’s dictator — another intervention justified on humanitarian, liberal, pro-democracy grounds.

The invocation of the Spanish Republic is deeply confused, given that both Zelensky’s government and Ukraine’s general postrevolution political landscape — both increasingly authoritarian and implementing ultranationalist and neoliberal policies — bears no resemblance to that short-lived experiment in progressive governance. That’s not even to get into the fact that the Spanish were fighting fascists, while in this case the outcome of Western policy is indirectly arming fascists. That of course doesn’t mean Ukraine isn’t deserving of our solidarity and support, but it does mean one should think carefully about the form that support takes.

As for the Sandinistas, the left-wing campaign for the US government to arm them that Levitz invokes simply didn’t happen. Instead, the Democratic Socialists of America and like-minded groups campaigned for nonviolent demands. These included ending Washington’s arming and backing of the vicious right-wing contras fighting the Sandinistas, as well as ending US involvement in the region more generally, and lifting its embargo on Nicaragua. It’s not clear what Levitz is referring to.

Because of all this history, there’s been a strong consensus this century among socialists, progressives, and many liberals that it’s profoundly undesirable for the US government to serve as the world’s policeman. Over the past month, that consensus has abruptly reversed. But is the call for providing offensive support, practicalities be damned, to a country being invaded or repressed by a larger power really a principle today’s liberal interventionists would apply consistently?

As appalling as the US invasion of Iraq was, would it have been wise for China, Russia, or some coalition of other countries to involve themselves by supplying Iraqi forces with weapons and other military support, as the US is doing now in Ukraine? Doing so would’ve likely dangerously escalated that war, with the Bush administration doubtless considering those governments cobelligerents, potentially setting up a nuclear confrontation. These are among the reasons why no one seriously called for such a thing to happen, despite the unambiguous moral imperative to help Iraqis.

For years, the Left and liberal position on the war in Yemen, now in its seventh year and with an indescribably awful human toll, was that the United States and other Western governments ought to end their backing of the Saudi-led coalition. Should the Left now be calling on Washington to not simply withdraw from the conflict but also get involved on the side of the Houthis and fight a proxy war against Saudi Arabia? Likewise, should the Left abandon its demands for Washington to broker and actually implement a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, and instead push for sending billions of dollars of weapons to Hamas in Gaza? Will this call really be reprised the next time a reckless US politician starts a war, as Donald Trump very nearly did with Iran, with columnists and political figures demanding that other governments pour lethal aid to the country that US forces are invading? It’s safe to say no one would consider these sensible or serious propositions.

This isn’t a call for unbending pacificism in any conflict no matter the particulars of the case. Nor does it mean we should stand by and do nothing about this crime. At Jacobin, we’ve called for increased humanitarian assistance, upping refugee numbers, canceling Ukraine’s public debt, cracking down on tax havens worldwide to put pressure on Russia’s elite, and aggressively investing in transitioning away from fossil fuel reliance. Some, like Intercept DC bureau chief Ryan Grim, have suggested creative ideas, like inducing Russian military desertion through immigration incentives in the West. Thomas Piketty argues that for all the talk of targeted sanctions against the Russian elite, Western governments have not seriously tried to implement this because of the potential blowback on their own elite. This could explain why Western governments instead resorted to the usual and immoral tool of collective punishment against the entire Russian population, a decision that is also hurting working people around the world through the damage done to the global economy.

And we’ve called for diplomacy. Levitz ridicules this notion, calling it “ludicrous” to “speak as though there is a button marked ‘mutually agreeable diplomatic settlement’ that Joe Biden could press today, if only he weren’t mashing the ‘more guns’ button instead.” But Washington has consistently dismissed diplomacy ever since this crisis began late last year, maintaining the public facade, as Zelensky has complained, that Ukraine would one day cross Moscow’s long-standing red line and join NATO. Washington has persevered with this position, even as the alliance privately told Zelensky it wouldn’t happen, and even as the United States refused to formalize that reality — an unconscionably reckless scheme, given Putin’s troop buildup and his known willingness to violate international law and wage war.

Even now, despite the urging of experts, Washington and Western governments are uninvolved in the cease-fire negotiations between Kiev and Moscow. Even Zelensky has urged them to be more involved, something recently unwittingly acknowledged by the UK defense minister. This demand echoes the calls of analysts like Ishchenko as well as Ukrainian pacifist Yurii Sheliazhenko, who argues that both US and Chinese leadership should join Moscow and Kiev at the negotiating table to ensure a lasting and balanced settlement. We are endlessly told to listen to Zelensky and other Ukrainians’ requests, but this particular request goes curiously unheard.

No one has ever said a negotiated solution would be easy, quick, or inevitably successful. But at no point through this entire conflict has it even been tried. And with the DC press corps seemingly militantly committed to World War III, surely putting more pressure on Western officials to do this is a more productive use of journalists’ time.

So would pushing back against the idea of turning Ukraine into a yearslong quagmire for Russia. What Levitz dismisses as a “purely hypothetical prospect” floated to allow the Left to avoid messy reality and wallow in its “comfort zone” is, in reality, now the more or less explicit strategy among US and British officials. Further, it is the one Washington has been planning for since at least December. This idea would be disastrous for ordinary Ukrainians and extremely perilous for the world, given that the man who could well be the next US president has called for getting into a game of nuclear brinkmanship with Putin. Warding political decision makers away from this horrible idea should surely take higher priority than picking apart the statements of left-wing organizations that have little to no influence on US foreign policy.

Knowing the Limits

The sad fact is, just as with the US invasion of Iraq, there are no good solutions to this crime that Western governments can impose — only a suite of options that range from unsatisfying to disastrous. The liberal clamor for sending weapons into Ukraine is understandable (its ridiculing of Western powers entering negotiations and silence on nonmilitary responses, less so). But it is also a holdover of the liberal interventionism of decades past that imagines, despite copious history, that Western military power can or should be mobilized to stop bad things from happening.

In the process, those pushing this line avoid the complexity of the Ukrainian situation and don’t consider the potential for blowback, a tragically timeworn pattern in Western foreign policy. In Levitz’s case, this means simply ignoring the problem of Ukraine’s far right, and how a prolonged conflict and a flood of weapons may dangerously empower them, increase Ukrainians’ suffering, and feed future destabilization. In the case of other commentators, it means being oblivious to or remarkably blasé about the very real potential for another world war and a nuclear holocaust. And in both cases, it means forgetting that the officials who run Western foreign policy have a wildly different set of interests than the understandable humanitarian ones that motivate commentators.

Living in the emerging multipolar world means understanding the limits to US power, that there is no single “international community” that can dictate rules or bend reality to its will, and the well-documented capacity for military solutions to make things worse. It also means that, in the absence of actually democratic, independent, and robust multilateral institutions that can impose order and the rule of law in the world — and in the context of dealing with governments still armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons — all governments, including Western ones, are forced to carefully maintain regional balances of power, exercise restraint, and make pragmatic choices. This was something well understood during the Cold War, if not always practiced, and was tragically abandoned once the “end of history” came knocking.

The answer isn’t a wholesale retreat to unreconstructed “realism,” but neither is it a return to liberal interventionism. Instead, for Western liberals who want to help Ukraine, the most helpful course with the least risk of making things worse is to call for exactly the kinds of nonmilitary responses the Left has long advocated. This will require pressuring leaders to not trap Russia in a quagmire but to join the ongoing cease-fire negotiations and, ideally, craft a more stable security arrangement for the region. It may not sound viscerally satisfying, and it sure as hell won’t be simple. But it’s the only way to extricate ourselves from this increasingly perilous situation, and it’s the first step, as we sit on the verge of ecological crisis and far too many other civilizational threats, to creating a global order defined not by conflict but cooperation.