Against Imperialism II

Weapon stocks rise as the bodies fall. In this social media techno-dystopia, the charts come to hand in real time alongside footage of the bombs hitting homes – a guarantee on investment.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine must come to an end. The Russian state is ultra-reactionary, repressive, and imperialist. Criticism of NATO does not undermine these facts.

There is a prevailing conception that current criticism of NATO is ‘whataboutism’ used to excuse Russian imperialism. This is not the case. Instead, criticism is intended to demonstrate that aligning with Western powers means supporting the same actions that are rightly condemned when carried out by the Russian state.

Critics highlight the hypocrisy of Western condemnation of Russian actions not to play the contrarian but in an attempt to address imperialism in a meaningful way. As Vijay Prashad noted, “the same week that Russian forces entered Ukraine, the United States launched airstrikes in Somalia, Saudi Arabia bombed Yemen, and Israel struck Syria and Palestinians in Gaza.”

The world has long been divided into ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ peoples in the Western mind. Eurocentrism and white-supremacy have allowed Canadians, Americans, and Europeans to rage at Russian actions while ignoring the acts of imperialism that they themselves placidly contribute to.

The reason that Ukrainian victims of war are treated far differently from those in Syria, Yemen, or Palestine is not simply because the aggressor is Russian but also because the victim is categorized among the civilized people of the world.

It takes a peculiar form of historical amnesia to believe that Western criticism of Russian imperialism is benevolent. The invasion of Iraq and the formula of extradition and torture that America developed in the aftermath has been forgotten, I suppose. The ‘civilized’ have forgotten the carpet bombs and chemical weapons that were used in Vietnam, the lives of two-million civilians, the intentional destruction of farmland and food sources in an attempt to displace populations. It has been forgotten that Indigenous peoples who attempt to protect their land from further expansion and destruction by Western states are still met with militarized force.

Instances of imperial aggression carried out by Western powers are brought up in order to demonstrate the contradictory nature of current condemnation. This contradiction is not highlighted for the sake of smugness or deflection but because it drastically alters the nature of condemnation.

Uncritically accepting the position that Russia alone carries blame in this war contributes to further war. This does not mean abandoning those defending their homes in Ukraine against an imperialist invasion. Yet, it is important to question why people are willing to condemn horrific acts of war only when the specific acts are also being condemned by their own governments and media networks.

Imperialism does not exist in isolation. No instance of imperialism is an isolated ‘crime’ which just happened to occur – imperial wars are not blunders or missteps – they are elements of an ongoing process. Isolating one instance from the other distorts the situation at hand and prevents it from being meaningfully examined.

For those on the ground, defending themselves against Russian state forces, there is an overwhelming and immediate aggressor. People resisting imperialism should have support and praise. The anger that some Ukrainians feel at Westerners who ignore Russian imperialism at a distance is understandable.

From within NATO member states, it is still wrong to view this invasion in isolation and engage in self-serving outrage only because it is easy to do so now. It is imperative to reflect on a deeper level. This reflection involves examining our own role in the war, the connection between this war and others across the world, and its historical context.

Drawing on history is not deflection. History is the interpretation of past occurrences. We are necessarily alienated from it, which inevitably distorts, but also gives the opportunity for reflection – it allows events to be viewed contextually. This enables the critique of past occurrences in order to alter present actions and shape future conditions.

Putin’s claims of de-Nazification are self-serving. Ukraine is not a “Nazi state” and Putin’s primary concern in Ukraine is not the presence of Nazis. Yet, this fact does not undermine the legitimately concerning neo-Nazi and fascist presence in Ukraine. It also does not undermine the fact that this presence is being supported by Western powers and weaponized to combat Russia.

The support for neo-Nazi and fascist elements in Ukraine is not disconnected from the disproportionate attention that this war has received in Western media. The distinction between acceptable levels of violence inflicted on Europeans and non-Europeans should be central to this discussion. It should not be ignored that, as Césaire said, Europeans legitimized and cultivated the practices of Nazism on non-Europeans long before they were brought home.

Eurocentrism and white-supremacy are elements integral to European fascism and, in the case of Nazism, are particularly so. In Ukraine, ultra-nationalistic support has swollen in the face of imperialism. Those who attempt to downplay the threat of neo-Nazism in Ukraine often point to the fact that it primarily exists externally to parliamentary government and that, among the population, most people are not supporters of the far-right.

While it is certainly good that neo-Nazi parties are not winning in terms of votes, an organized militant force can exert disproportionate influence when compared to the electoral power of the same number of voters. Furthermore, a particularly definitive aspect of the fascist state is that it begins externally to the state apparatus – initially, fascism is always a minority element. The state apparatus, particularly its repressive elements, contain elements of fascism – breeds fascism – but fascist states emerge when fascists latch onto the state and attempt to establish control from an external position.

It is not inevitable that fascism will take hold in Ukraine and fascism should not be equated with all Ukrainian nationalism. Still, a degree of fascist Ukrainian nationalism, and neo-Nazism, is being explicitly condoned and supported. There is simply no moral justification for neo-Nazi support. It is also not difficult to envision a situation down the line where baffled historians attempt to understand the short-sightedness of Western powers giving arms to neo-Nazi militants in a war zone rife with ethno-nationalist conflict.

The West is not concerned with Russian imperialism because it is morally wrong. It is concerned that Russian imperialism undermines its authority. The treatment of this war in Western media and public discourse has been actively fueling and contributing to the ideological solidification of imperial power and to the legitimacy of imperial war when its victims are non-European.

Russian imperialism must be resisted, of course, but it cannot be resisted by embracing Western imperial power.

Luke Beirne was born in Ireland and lives in Canada. His debut novel debut novel, Foxhunt, will be released by Baraka Books in April 2022.