On February 24, after months of increased tensions, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine. Politicians, institutions, celebrities, and branded social media accounts rushed to make statements in response, ranging from denunciations of Russian President Vladimir Putin to anodyne calls for peace to in-depth sociopolitical analyses by newly minted experts.
Forty-eight hours later, the Democratic Socialists of America put out its own statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calling on the United States to withdraw from NATO to “end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage” for the conflict. The organization forcefully denounced Russia’s escalation, expressed solidarity with the working classes of Ukraine and Russia, demanded the acceptance of all refugees, and urged an “immediate ceasefire and the total withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.”
It seemed like a totally innocuous position to hold. But during times of war or major international crises, there’s little tolerance for anti-imperialist dissent. Warmongering voices are amplified by credulous media outlets, and those who stray from the consensus are accused of spreading propaganda or being on the side of terrorists. Efforts to explain or contextualize the underlying dynamics and historical events that led to the conflict are also stifled. The Ukraine crisis is no exception.
Sure enough, Washington pounced. Sitting members of Congress, political candidates, media outlets, and a Biden administration official immediately went after DSA, attacking the group for “blaming US imperialism” for the invasion. Representative Ritchie Torres, a House Democrat from New York, tweeted that DSA and Tucker Carlson “have joined forces to form a pro-Putin axis in American politics, an alliance of useful idiots.” White House rapid response director Mike Gwin denounced the statement as “shameful.”
The New York Post published three different articles about DSA in 24 hours, and the socialist organization’s call for the US to withdraw from NATO even made its way to Fox News, above a chyron reading “POINTING FINGERS.” Democratic candidates like Conor Lamb, a representative running for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, and Max Rose, who’s running for the House seat he lost in 2020, also chimed in. “I’m positive that your words mean nothing to [Ukrainians], but anti-tank missiles and bullets do,” Lamb said on Twitter.
Gerard Dalbon, who sits on the DSA International Committee, which helped draft the Ukraine statement, told The Nation that the bipartisan backlash to the organization’s stance on the issue “just goes to show that we’re definitely doing something right.”
“Americans, in general, don’t like to acknowledge the role that the US plays in creating the underlying causes for these kinds of crises around the world,” Dalbon said. “So I think it was great that DSA stuck to our statement, in terms of not shying away from that.”
The idea that NATO expansion is among the leading causes of the current crisis is not new, and certainly not a fringe observation. For years, officials and foreign policy experts across the political spectrum warned that NATO expansion, led by the United States, would constitute a provocation that could spark a war. It wasn’t just the left objecting to NATO’s pushing eastward, either. In the late 1990s, figures ranging from George Kennan, architect of America’s anti-communist “containment” policy in the Cold War, to Sam Nunn, former US senator and chair of the Armed Services Committee, argued that NATO expansion would be disastrous.
”It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history,” Kennan said in 1998. “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.” As recently as 2014, Henry Kissinger, war criminal and former secretary of state, wrote: “Ukraine should not join NATO, a position I took seven years ago, when it last came up.” Instead, he said, they “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland.”
The current crisis also follows the neoliberal shock therapy America imposed on Russia in the 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union, a set of policies that killed and impoverished millions. Washington’s intervention set the context for creating the conditions and political system that led to Putin’s rise. To discuss or try to understand how the US and NATO have exacerbated the conflict over the years, as the DSA statement did, is not the same thing as justifying an act of aggression, which the DSA statement did not.
But this hasn’t stopped progressive media outlets and commentators from punching left. A recent piece in The Intercept rebukes the “pseudo-leftists” (or “tankies”) that call themselves anti-imperialists while defending or making excuses for Putin and Russia—but gives no concrete examples of the phenomenon. (The article agrees that NATO “laid the groundwork for confrontation with a series of missteps.”) A New York magazine article, meanwhile, echoed the criticism that DSA runs into trouble when it focuses “too heavily on the U.S.–NATO side of the equation.”
“This part, I think, is a misunderstanding of internationalism,” another member of the International Committee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told The Nation. “We are a US-based socialist organization, and so our primary duty is to oppose our own militarism, our own imperialism, and broadly our own capitalist class. That’s where we have to take a hard position and to call out and recognize the role that we have escalating and fomenting and creating war around the world.”