The Left Should Support Ending Violence in Ukraine

The Left Should Support Ending Violence in Ukraine

The Left Should Support Ending Violence in Ukraine

That means supporting a negotiated settlement in the name of limiting still more horrendous devastation.

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The Ukraine conflict—now headed toward its 500th day—has descended into a grinding war of attrition. Russia’s winter offensive gained little ground. Ukraine’s spring counter­offensive is sapped by an exhaustion of weapons and troops. The costs to Ukrainians—in lives and welfare—continue to mount, as do the pressures to escalate.

In February, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, once more suggested that neither side was likely to achieve its objectives on the battlefield. Yet neither Putin nor Zelensky has offered concessions that might lead to a settlement. Never has the need for a global peace movement—and international peace initiatives—been more apparent. Yet, on the left, the most visible voices are those condemning any deviation from total support for the war.

Most recently, the esteemed historian Michael Kazin, coeditor emeritus of Dissent, wrote to denounce peace advocates as professing an “anti-imperialism of fools.” Joe Cirincione, a longtime arms-control advocate, suggests that they are “in danger of losing their humanity.” Representative Jamie Raskin, a leading congressional progressive, argues that those who would push Ukraine to negotiate exhibit a “colonialist reflex.”

Their argument is clear: Putin is evil, his invasion an unprovoked act of aggression, condemned by nations around the world. Unchecked, Putin’s Russia poses a threat to its neighbors, to the United States, and to “democracy itself,” in Joe Biden’s words. The monetary cost to the US of the proxy war—about $100 billion and counting—has been relatively modest. Those calling for negotiations or for limiting US aid are aligning themselves with the Trump MAGA crowd. And while the war may one day end in a negotiated settlement, it is up to Ukraine to decide the timing.

Putin’s invasion was clearly an act of aggression, fully deserving of the near-universal condemnation that it received at the United Nations. Yet the events leading up to the invasion can’t be ignored as blithely as Kazin the historian (ironically) does.

Russia’s objections to the expansion of NATO to its borders were dismissed, even as experts like George Kennan warned against the provocation. In 2008, NATO provided Ukraine with a “Membership Action Plan.” After the United States embraced the 2014 coup that ousted a corrupt but democratically elected pro-Russian Ukrainian leader, Putin responded by annexing Crimea, and fighting began in the Donbas. NATO then intensified its training and supply of the Ukrainian military. Both sides violated the Minsk agreements, which seemed to offer the best hope for peace. (Germany’s Angela Merkel later described the accords as a sham meant only to buy time for Ukraine’s military buildup.)

This history does not justify Putin’s invasion—but surely it informs it. Kazin allows that “in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise, the expansion of NATO may well have been too hasty,” but notes that the nations bordering Russia all wanted to join. Of course they did. But the US would not sit idly by if Texas seceded and then moved to forge a military alliance with Russia or China.

This history also informs the global response to the Russian invasion. While condemning the invasion, most of the world’s nations have remained neutral in the conflict, refusing to enforce US sanctions against Russia. “I don’t want to join the war,” Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has stated, “I want to end the war.” The major independent countries of the Global South—Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, India, and China—see the war as a Great Power conflict and are skeptical of US sermonizing about the “rules-based international order” after the debacles in Iraq and elsewhere.

War is hell, and the Ukrainians’ defense of their country has come at a staggering cost. Ukraine’s military has been more than decimated. Civilian casualties continue to mount. The country’s economy has been savaged, with Ukraine losing close to 30 percent of its GDP. The World Bank estimates the reconstruction costs at over $400 billion. About 14 million people have been displaced—nearly a third of the population.

The invasion exposed Russia’s military weakness, not its strength. Its invasion alienated its neighbors and strengthened NATO. Intelligence estimates indicate that Russia’s military casualties were worse than Ukraine’s. Russia has shown that it does not have the conventional military prowess to take on NATO’s allies.

Kazin compares the cost of the war for the US to the price of a Navy aircraft carrier. But the true costs are much higher. Military budgets are soaring far beyond the cost of supplying Ukraine. European protests over inflation as a factor in these costs are spreading. As Russia and China grow closer, Great Power confrontation diverts the resources, attention, and cooperation needed to deal with the polycrisis posed by climate change, pandemics, mass migration, debilitating inequality, and widespread corruption. Weaning the US establishment from its self-anointed mission of policing the world was always going to be difficult. The war in Ukraine has made it far harder.

Biden’s rhetoric notwithstanding, the United States has not treated the Russian invasion as a threat to democracy, to Europe, or to the US itself. Biden has refused to directly commit US forces, and he has limited the range and scope of the weapons supplied to Ukraine. We are not “all-in”—nor should we be. Any Ukrainian leader would seek to enmesh the US and NATO directly in the fighting. We have a far greater interest in avoiding a direct conflict with a nuclear power.

As the war grinds on, however, the pressure to escalate grows. Gradually, the United States and its allies have acceded to Ukrainian demands for more advanced weapons. US and NATO trainers are reportedly on the ground inside Ukraine. The perils of this should be apparent.

If a broader conflict is to be avoided, and if the horrendous devastation of Ukraine is to be limited, a negotiated settlement is needed. Any settlement will inevitably be unseemly­—one that reflects reality, not morality. Both sides will likely use a cease-fire to rebuild their forces. Continued peace will require security assurances and economic incentives. This will require the good offices of outside parties—Brazil’s Lula has called for convening a “peace club” to intervene—but that can come about only if the US and its NATO allies support it.

Here the left does have a role to play—not as advocates for war but as a movement for ending the violence. A peace movement is needed to encourage the combatants to negotiate and to ensure that the US and its allies don’t block negotiations. Wars are horrible, Kazin writes, and “we on the left should do what we can to stop them from starting and end them when they do.” We would all benefit if he and the left adhered to that wisdom.

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