- Gilbert Achcar (GA)
- Branko Marcetic (BM)
Jacobin contributor Gilbert Achar and staff writer Branko Marcetic debate whether the Left should support sending military aid to Ukraine.
It is sufficient to look at the titles of most of the articles on Ukraine and Russia that Branko Marcetic has published in Jacobin since the Ukraine crisis started peaking in February to see a common trend. “A US-Backed, Far Right-Led Revolution in Ukraine Helped Bring Us to the Brink of War” (February 2), “Turning Ukraine Into Another Afghanistan Would Be a Disastrous Idea” (March 8), “Persecuting Ordinary Russians Won’t End Putin’s War” (March 14), “Fighting Putin With Putinism” (March 17), “What the Left’s Critics Ignore About Military Solutions to Ukraine” (March 27), “Whitewashing Nazis Doesn’t Help Ukraine” (April 7), “The Biden Administration Fed the Press Dubious Intelligence About Russia” (April 8), “Holding Putin Accountable Would Require an Actual Rules-Based World Order” (April 11), and “The US Has No Idea Where Its Ukrainian Military Aid Is Going” (April 21).
As a socialist writing in Jacobin, Marcetic certainly has sympathy for the oppressed of the world. But in those articles, it is striking how little space is offered to empathy with the Ukrainian victims of the Russian campaign of massacre, wanton destruction, and mass rape. The content of those pieces, as evinced by their titles, is principally dedicated to opposing US weapons deliveries to Ukraine. There’s no foregrounding of outrage at the murderous invasion of a country by its far more powerful imperialist neighbor, openly harboring far-right Great Russian nationalist views that deny the invaded country’s very right to exist as an independent nation. Much ado is made about Ukrainian neo-Nazis and the Azov Battalion, which is estimated to total ten thousand fighters and is central to two of the abovementioned articles, but little is said about Vladimir Putin’s increasingly neofascist regime, which is far more right-wing and autocratic than Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, or about war criminal Ramzan Kadyrov’s 12,000 vicious Chechen troops that Moscow deployed to Ukraine after Syria, and which are to Chechnya’s people the equivalent of thuggish collaborationist troops enforcing a brutal foreign occupation.
On the issue of arms deliveries, I don’t need to repeat here what I have written elsewhere on several occasions. Let me only point to the shift in Branko Marcetic’s position from the piece in which he showed concern for the Ukrainian people when the invasion began. In that article, “Four Ways to Counter Russian Aggression That Don’t Risk Nuclear War” (February 28), he advocated that “humanitarian assistance should be ramped up to at least the same level as the amount of military aid.” Although this was hardly adding anything to the actual balance of Western humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, it would have been good had Marcetic stuck to this line instead of turning toward what sounds like unreserved opposition to military aid. It would have been better still had he adopted a position akin to that of Noam Chomsky, who recently argued that sanctions and military support for Ukraine may be justified to the extent that they contribute to the purpose of
doing what we can to bring [Russia’s] criminal aggression to an end and doing so in a way that will save Ukrainians from further suffering and even possible obliteration if Putin and his circle are driven to the wall with no way out.
For if one is serious about countering the Russian aggression, the only effective way to do it is to support the Ukrainians’ right to get the means they need to defend their country, the defensive means that they have been begging for even before the war started and that they demand more urgently each day — but only such defensive means, that is, neither a no-fly zone that risks widening the scope of the war nor weapons of a kind that would dangerously escalate the confrontation. All the rest — negotiations, ceasefire, acceptable conditions for ending the war, and even development of the antiwar movement in Russia itself — depend on what the Ukrainian resistance can achieve.
The key point here is to respect the rights of the victims to decide. Those, like the Joe Biden administration and the Boris Johnson cabinet, who are increasingly showing an inclination to push the Ukrainians to shift from defensive goals into the much larger aim of crippling Russia’s power, are actually endangering them. Conversely, those who have been portraying them from the start as tin soldiers used by Washington against their own free will and demanding accordingly that no more weapons be delivered to them are in fact demanding that Washington and its allies coerce them into surrendering to the invader. The Left should oppose both stances.
As a fan of much of his work and as someone of shared ideological commitments, I’m deeply disappointed by Gilbert Achcar’s letter. To begin with, discussing some of my recent output at Jacobin, he claims that “the content of those pieces, as evinced by their titles, is principally dedicated to opposing US weapons deliveries to Ukraine.” This is untrue: only three of those nine articles are about Western arms shipments, and that’s being generous — in one concerns about arms shipments come up just a handful of times.
Achcar laments “how little space is offered to empathy with” Ukraine. If one reads past the headlines, concern for Ukraine is central to my work. One recent article criticized is expressly about the horror Ukrainians will suffer from US policymakers’ unconscionable Afghanistan 2.0 strategy. Same goes for the concerns raised about weapons shipments: while they warn about blowback to the West, they also at length explain the long-term risks they carry for Ukrainian democracy.
It’s not empathy to ignore this or stay silent about the disastrous consequences of this strategy for Ukraine. Nor is it empathy to bite one’s tongue as the Western press rehabilitates the ultranationalist groups who terrorize Ukraine’s vulnerable communities and who have repeatedly threatened and carried out anti-government violence.
Achcar claims “there’s no foregrounding of outrage at the murderous invasion of a country by its far more powerful imperialist neighbor.” Never mind that he immediately undercuts that claim by citing a piece that does. Or that one of the pieces he objects to both affirmed the reality of Russian war crimes in Bucha and discusses what it would take to actually hold Putin to account. Or that a different piece he objects to opens by saying the “moral lay of the land here isn’t complicated” because “a sovereign country is being invaded by a larger neighbor.”
He claims that “little is said about Vladimir Putin’s increasingly neofascist regime” moments after he objects to my piece warning the West against adopting the kind of authoritarian information-control system that exists under Putin, who I call a “dangerous autocrat contemptuous of basic freedoms.” He conveniently leaves out entirely my piece on the brave antiwar dissent within Russia that Putin crushed.
He correctly points out the Kremlin’s own extremists, but last I checked, there’s no Western campaign to arm or whitewash these forces. He says arms must continue to flow short of those “that would dangerously escalate the confrontation,” ignoring that it’s exactly those weapons that are now being sent in a war that is only escalating. He says it’s up to “victims to decide,” moments after rejecting long-standing Ukrainian calls for a no-fly zone and while ignoring Ukrainian antiwar voices. And of course, he doesn’t discuss the risks of existing US policy for Ukraine or for the world that I and others have raised, which include the possibility of nuclear war.
We’re increasingly falling into a dangerous style of discourse, in both the mainstream and the Left. More often than not, critics of Western policy in this war find their substantive points ignored in favor of innuendo and aspersions, based on selective quoting and outright misrepresentation.
Ukraine is a sovereign nation that has the right to resistance against imperial aggression and the barbarities being inflicted by Russian forces. But as a journalist who covers US policy for an English-speaking readership, I’m going to continue doing my job and critically covering US policy in Ukraine, especially when much of the Western press has abdicated that responsibility. Those like Achcar would do better focusing their energies not on arguing in favor of weapons shipments and attacking its few dissenters — military aid is already flowing with no debate and overwhelming public support, and there’s no sign it’s slowing down — but on pushing the West, particularly Washington, to enter and engage in serious negotiations, which it has refused to do since before the war. It’s the only way this terrible war will end, but it won’t happen if no one pushes the Biden administration to pursue it instead of its quagmire strategy.