Among Western left-wing politicians — from “the Squad” to European left parties — a small but loud minority is voicing its opinion on the war in Ukraine. In publications and institutions rooted in the radical left, as well as those in the surroundings of the ruling US Democrats or German Greens, these voices are not a minority, but form a majority. Who? The supporters of arms deliveries to Kiev.
My intention here is not to discuss the pros and cons of such arms deliveries and these forces’ underlying assumptions about history, the functioning of international politics in an anarchic system of states, etc. Nor is it intended to answer the question of why younger leftists, or Greens with a leftist self-image, are especially inclined to this position. Suffice to say, this has causes that extend beyond the dominance of the pro-weapons supply position in the wider media or the fact that the aforementioned center-left parties are today in power.
Rather, it is important to understand that Ukraine’s self-defense has points of contact with strong leftist sentiments — an antiwar stance, anti-fascism, and the desire to act in solidarity, internationally, with the vulnerable — which is why it should be understood as a “leftist” as well as “liberal” cause. At this point, however, this article’s aim is to help clarify the differences within the Left, by exploring the fundamental contradictions and shortcomings of left-wing and radical-left advocates of arms deliveries.
The Right to Self-Defense
The position in favor of weapons supplies can be briefly outlined as follows: Russia — there is no doubt about it — invaded Ukraine in violation of international law. There is a right to self-defense, and international solidarity therefore means supporting Ukraine (or at least its current government) in exercising that right.
Solidarity, in this case, does not just mean the demand of far-reaching humanitarian aid for refugees, asylum for deserters from both sides, support for civil resistance in Ukraine and the Russian antiwar movement, or possibly building up domestic pressure for a cease-fire to prevent an escalation of the war on the backs of Ukrainian civilians. Rather, it is meant in the narrowest military sense.
Vladimir Putin is a Great-Russian nationalist and “völkisch” fascist who has publicly denied Ukraine’s right to exist and who — following this genocidal ideology (instead of material economic, geopolitical, security-political, etc. interests) — has imposed war on Ukraine. Following this genocidal ideology, he is overrunning Ukraine with a “war of extermination.” Many explicitly say “like Adolf Hitler once before,” others only suggest it. Hitler, however, could only be stopped by force of arms. Hence, it must happen in the same way now.
From all this, it is immediately deduced that one must be in favor of the delivery of armed vehicles, battle tanks, and possibly fighter planes, in favor of training Ukrainian forces to use all this equipment outside and inside the country — ultimately, everything that is needed to throw Russia (“the Russian fascists”) out of Ukraine. Many think: this must happen, because otherwise “evil” would still be rewarded for its deeds.
There are also others — like the Ukrainian Marxist intellectual Volodymyr Ishchenko or the Ukrainian pacifist activist Yurii Sheliazhenko, or the 785,000 signatories of the “Manifesto for Peace” by Die Linke politician Sahra Wagenknecht and the German second-wave feminist Alice Schwarzer — who warn of an escalation spiral in Ukraine with further Russian war crimes (such as the destruction of energy and water supplies), of a bloody war of attrition and sleepwalking into a third world war.
Critical of arms deliveries, they instead demand that Western governments support the diplomatic efforts of the UN secretary general, Brazil, China, Spain etc., for an internationally mediated peace settlement. For this, they stand accused of merely succumbing to Putin’s propaganda of intimidation, wanting to leave Ukraine to its fate and forcing it to surrender, advocating an “appeasement” policy like Neville Chamberlain once did with the Munich Agreement of 1938, merely encouraging Putin to continue, possibly to invade the Baltic States (although, in contrast to Ukraine, they have long been part of NATO), just as Hitler then invaded Poland in 1939, and so on.
From there, it is not far to the liberal ruling-class accusations today leveled against critics of the current direction of German politics. That is, the charge of being a “lumpenpacifist” (as liberal Spiegel columnist Sascha Lobo puts it), “conscienceless subjugation pacifist” (as per liberal political scientist Herfried Münkler), “fifth column of Vladimir Putin” (claims Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of the hawkish-neoliberal Free Democratic Party) or “peace-rubbish talker” (Lobo, again).
Now, such ahistorical-schematic comparisons are characterized by ignorance of history as well as of the present. There is a historical revisionism lurking behind it, since it relativizes the Holocaust and Germany’s “war of extermination” in the East, which sought to systematically murder at least thirty million people, including through systematic starvation of cities, to enable the enslavement of the colonized local population. Left-wing voices in Germany who once kept a wary eye on the “singularity” of the German war of extermination and the “civilizational breach at Auschwitz,” as the German-Israeli historian Dan Diner called it, today have little to say about this new historical revisionism — or are even suggesting it themselves.
The demand for military defense of Ukraine, presented with firm conviction, is rarely thought of from its end point and justified in terms of the concrete military-strategic situation, which makes a military victory without direct deployment of NATO troops and a collapse of the entire Russian military highly unlikely, or indeed the fact that it has entered into a war of attrition with daily deaths of around one thousand for a few square kilometers around Bakhmut, an eerie reminder of Verdun and the “Green Fields of France.”
Moreover, those who demand arms exports to Ukraine usually never reflect possible unintended consequences of “their own” actions. Yet these latter are much too real and, given Russia’s dominance of escalation they are, ultimately, inevitably incalculable, including the use of Russian thermobaric, chemical, and tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and a nuclear World War III beyond Ukrainian borders.
Bankruptcy of Left-Wing State Theory
What is particularly striking now, however, is that those who before February 24, 2022 were still active in socialist reading groups where they read Karl Marx, Nicos Poulantzas, and Ellen Meiksins Wood, wrote articles and books about questions of materialist state theory, and strictly focused on radical movement politics based on Gramscian or even anarchist principles warning against any government participation or even voting — that these same people are now suddenly discovering the bourgeois-capitalist state, as currently governed, as a vehicle for their politics.
No less striking, in Germany, the aged leftists from the pro-Israel “anti-Deutsch” tradition, of all people, who emerged during the Gulf War (1990–91) criticizing the traditional communist and socialist left’s anti-imperialism and antiwar stance, are now, after years of retreat into a more or less private life, at the forefront of left-wing demands for arms deliveries to Ukraine.
One can hardly miss the irony that those who once fought against the old national liberation movements and the old anti-imperialism — arguing that their “people’s wars” were brutal, nationalist, and blurred class antagonisms — are now especially passionate about the “people’s war” of “the Ukrainians,” simply because once again old ghosts, the peace movement and the old anti-imperialism, have to be hunted down.
Now, one would think that those Western leftists who argue in this way, as outlined at the beginning of this article, would organize international solidarity in a very practical way, against the background of their specific political and theoretical points of reference. That they, following the historical model of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War or today’s International Freedom Battalion in defense of the Kurdish autonomous regions, go into the trenches in front of Bakhmut as international volunteers. Or that they would start a campaign to collect donations from other leftists and sympathizers similar to the radical left’s “weapons for El Salvador” campaign during the 1980s.
At least one would think that they would use their journalistic outreach to call for participation in the fighting there, which US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, the highest-ranking US soldier, has described as “a very large attrition battle with very high casualties, especially on the Russian side,” because poor people from the remotest parts of Russia are being downright burned there without soldierly training, adding to the roughly three hundred thousand war dead so far.
Instead of this, however, left-wing radicals today demand the delivery of MRAPs, HARMs, and Abrams, of “Gepard,” “Marder,” “Leopard 2,” or even fighter jets from the power apparatus, which they once saw through as a capitalist and imperialist state, a state over which they have zero influence. Or they essentially approve of this discourse because they either do not present any alternatives of their own, remain silent on the prevailing discourse, or even shift their activism to attacking the critical voices within the Left. In all that, they usually refuse to see that the logic of Western politics in Ukraine ultimately means involving also NATO troops due to the imbalance of manpower between Ukraine and Russia.
Now, Ukraine is not the Spanish Republic, nor is it Rojava. It is not an anarcho-communist revolution defending itself against fascism, or a new democratic model in the Middle East, but a state that is completely dependent on the West militarily and financially. It is a state in which — hardly less authoritarian and oligarch-capitalist than its neighbor Russia — socialist opposition parties and communist symbols were banned as “pro-Russian” even before the war began.
One in which, after the banning of the large “Opposition Platform — For Life” and eleven other parties, the party of the oligarch and ex-president Petro Poroshenko is the only remaining opposition. One in which a state of emergency was declared even before the war began, fundamental civil rights are suspended, eighteen- to sixty-year-olds fit for combat are recruited from the streets, and well over ten thousand conscientious objectors have been arrested at the border and shipped back into battle.
It is also a state in which a brutal anti-union law (dated August 17, 2022) forces workers to negotiate individually with their bosses over their wages. Given the unemployment rate of 24.5 percent, wages have fallen accordingly by 27 percent in 2022. Meanwhile the government is in the process of “negotiating” with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) a “structural adjustment program” that will force Ukraine to undertake gigantic privatizations of large state-owned enterprises, significant social spending cuts, trade liberalization and market deregulation measures.
Ukraine, said Ukrainian minister of economics, Yulia Svyrydenko, in late 2022, was becoming a “model open economy,” while Oleksandr Pysaruk, CEO of Raiffeisen Bank Ukraine and a former IMF representative, rejoiced: “I hope this is Ukraine’s third chance. The first was the Orange Revolution in 2004, which unfortunately was a missed Raiffeisen Bank opportunity. Maidan (2014) was not completely lost, but we have never had a reform of this magnitude in Ukraine!”
In Chorus With the Rulers
In short, the comparison with Spain in 1936 or Rojava in 2016 fails, at least from a left-wing perspective; unless, of course, left-wing and radical left-wing advocates of arms deliveries fundamentally share the US and German governments’ assessment that the war in Ukraine is a “conflict of values” in which “Ukraine” is defending the “freedom and democracy” of the “West” against “Eastern authoritarianism.”
Either way, when left-wing radicals speak of military self-defense against the Russian attack, it would only be consistent to talk about setting up international brigades to help. But such initiatives are not to be found in Western countries. For instance, from Germany only neo-Nazis have joined the Ukrainian forces. All this means, conversely, that the normally anti-systemic left-wing radicals today simply want and support exactly what the rulers are currently doing and what they are currently pushing in media as the majority opinion. Or rather, are trying to enforce, since they are only managing in part.
For example, in Germany, before Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to supply Leopard 2 battle tanks, a majority was still against it, while a large majority of 64 percent to 23 percent also opposes the supply of fighter jets that came into discussion immediately afterward; an absolute majority sees Germany’s arms deliveries as “active war participation”; and a majority of 58 percent — and rising — agree that “diplomatic efforts to end this war do not go far enough,” while 30 percent consider them “appropriate.”
Admittedly, a position may be correct even if it is in line with the ruling class and even if it contradicts a majority in the population. Left-wing supporters of arms deliveries argue that, faced with Russia’s war, we should, after all, be in solidarity with Ukraine and defend its sovereignty.
Perhaps it would be too much to expect leftists to show their solidarity with Ukrainian workers in this exceptional war situation by focusing on the Ukrainian trade unions’ international campaign against harsh anti-union laws. Or to expect them to defend the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state by raising a scandal over the ongoing looting program of the IMF and international capital and launching a major campaign to cancel the debt of this country and its bitterly poor population.
This would all be necessary — but it could also appear to some as shadow fighting or even be interpreted as a form of sedition and defeatism, undermining military morale. So, there is also a need for answers to the question of how to stand in solidarity with the people who are currently victims of a war imposed by Russia.
In this regard, however, it is notable that the left-wing supporters of arms deliveries say solidarity “with Ukraine” or “with the Ukrainian resistance,” but understand by this the Ukrainian government, which is provided with weapons by Western states, and the Ukrainian military leadership which uses them. That these leftists, moreover, apparently cannot imagine any other form of left-wing solidarity with the Ukrainian civilian population than having the imperialist state supply weapons to a war zone. That it is alien to them that another form of solidarity would be to prevent an escalation of the ongoing proxy war on the backs of the Ukrainian population and to push for a cease-fire, to promote civil resistance, to encourage the flight of all people from this war (including all deserters), to help the Russian antiwar movement, etc.
All this reveals how far the logic of military force has penetrated leftist thinking. For evidence of this we need only note that, as a rule, those who are furthest removed from the army and military-strategic issues even display a much higher willingness to find solutions by force, while it is senior military officers such as US chief of staff Mark A. Milley or retired Bundeswehr generals such as Harald Kujat, Erich Vad, or Helmut W. Ganser, freed from restraints of obedience, who know from their own experience the limits of such force and warn against the illusion of a military solution in Ukraine.
But let us return to the argument that there is a United Nations Charter article 51 right of self-defense for states (peoples) that become victims of wars of aggression. At the beginning of the war, Die Linke politician Gregor Gysi said that this entailed a moral obligation to enable these states to follow up on those rights, i.e., by supplying them with weapons. According to Gysi, one cannot on the one hand acknowledge that such a right exists, but then also deny the attacked the weapons to exercise this right. So in essence, he said, arms deliveries are the right thing to do. Only in the case of Germany they are not, out of historical responsibility for the German war of extermination in the East, which twenty-seven million Soviet citizens — Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, etc. — paid for with their lives, half of them civilians. No German tanks should ever again be deployed to kill the ancestors of those who were killed during World War II.
So in the end, also Gysi sided with the party leadership and spoke out against Berlin’s arms deliveries — but only against the backdrop of German history. The logic, however, is clear: if a country is attacked, there is a moral obligation to supply weapons. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and most published opinion also see it that way.
It gets tricky and a bit unsavory when one then realizes that according to this logic, the German government would have to deliver weapons today to the Yemeni population for self-defense against the genocidal war of aggression of dictatorially ruled Saudi Arabia. And weapons to the Kurdish populations in northern Syria and northern Iraq so that they can defend themselves against the war of the Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
That in the recent past they might even have had to demand sending weapons to Western Sahara (against Morocco), the Palestinians (against Israel), to Yugoslavia in 1999, to the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2002, to Iraq in 2003, and to Libya in 2011. Today, the Saudi invasion in Yemen has resulted in more than 380,000 deaths, four million refugees and nineteen million people suffering from hunger to date, according to UN figures.
According to Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners . . . are bombing hospitals, kindergartens, schools” and are responsible for countless “war crimes.” The Turkish war of aggression against the Kurdish autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria, in turn, has displaced more than half a million people, claimed tens of thousands of lives, including countless civilians, while Erdoğan has consistently bombed Kurdish residential areas in his own country as well, in the manner of a war criminal.
Instead of following its moral automatism, however, the German government not only covers for, but even actively supports, the wars of invasion waged by its autocratically ruled NATO partner Turkey and the Saudi dictators, another Western ally. For example, the Green foreign minister Baerbock traveled to Turkey after the war began and praised “our strong German-Turkish partnership” and their common stance against Russia; in turn, in September 2022, the Economic Affairs Ministry led by Robert Habeck, also from the Greens, lifted the ban on exporting weapons to the belligerent dictatorship that had been issued after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and approved the export of German munitions and military equipment worth €38.8 million for the same fighter jets responsible for war crimes such as bombing civilian targets. All of this apparently — as even the German state news outlet Tagesschau suspected — in “hope of oil and hydrogen.”
Nevertheless, German government representatives are not ashamed to describe their actions as “value-oriented foreign policy” in the sense of a “rules-based international order” or — as Baerbock recently did during the Munich Security Conference 2023 — as “guided by the European peace order, the United Nations Charter, and international humanitarian law.”
Now, undoubtedly, most leftists who, in line with the German government, advocate the “right of self-defense” and arms deliveries also denounce this Western hypocrisy and double standard. There is agreement on this. However, intellectually they are not following Egon Bahr, the architect of the 1970s détente policy called “new Ostpolitik” under then Social-Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt, who warned the younger generation in 2013: “International politics is never about democracy or human rights. It is about the interests of states. Remember that, no matter what they tell you in history class.”
Instead, they stand — consciously or unconsciously — on the position that the policy of the government is, of course, morally twisted and hypocritical, but that a “value-oriented foreign policy” could exist in principle even with this capitalist state and that as such it is a good thing but merely needs to be implemented consistently and credibly.
But this would mean that political leftists are now those who, in practice, demand from the state, on which they usually have little to no influence and which they reject in theory: “Deliver weapons to (almost) every war zone of this world!” “Antifa means deliveries of battle tanks!” Because in the vast majority of wars in the world there is an aggressor or invader (and far from rarely it is NATO states or their allies).
Moreover: because even more people on the Left are in favor of sanctions than in favor of arms deliveries — even in the party executive of Die Linke, this is today the majority position with regard to Russia — and in the future they would have to demand sanctions against countless states in polemics and demonstrations, they would have to write this into their election programs, and they would have to justify the effects on the working classes of (almost) all countries as well as the intensification of international confrontations, etc.
Of course, no radical left-wing intellectual or politician of Die Linke would do all this, not even the political class of Greens and other liberals, who rely on “military solutions” and sanctions as quite normal means of foreign policy. But it would be only logical and consistent.
However, the fact that the left-wing advocates of arms deliveries (and sanctions) do not do all this does not make it any less awkward. On the contrary, the question arises: Why do they call for arms deliveries (and/or sanctions) in one place — as in Ukraine — but not in another — for example, in the case of Yemen, or the Kurdish regions in northern Syria and Iraq — even though it would be the logical consequence of their own values? Why don’t they write long editorials and biting commentaries, interrogate the government in the German Bundestag, organize rallies and events, until they are finally heard, the state bows to left-wing pressure, and justice finally prevails?
There are only two possible answers to this question: either it is the result of an intuitive racist attitude that considers Christian-white Ukrainians to be of higher value than non-white Muslims. This is unlikely to be the case — except perhaps among some “anti-Deutsch” socialized leftists and ex-leftists. Or it is that their own politics — at least the ones directed outward (which today override everything else) — are a (variously determined) appendage of the ruling class and its politics. That is, attached to the politics of a state once seen as capitalist and of a bourgeois-media public sphere that we used to learn to consider an “ideological state apparatus.”
Both answers are likely to make the left-wing supporters of the prevailing policy of arms deliveries extremely uncomfortable.