Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now: Reflections on War, Peace, and Ukraine

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

*This essay is an updated version and partial reconfiguration of a presentation I gave online to the Chicago chapter of the national organization Refuse Fascism last Monday night.

Thanks to the war in Ukraine, we are now closer to nuclear holocaust than any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. To quote Bob Dylan, “let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

In what follows below, I will dig into four core United States and related “pro-Ukraine” media and political class narratives that increase the odds for annihilation. First, however, let’s establish six basic principles on how to approach the Ukraine Crisis from the radical anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, and peace and justice-loving livable ecology left.

Beware the Fog War

The first precept is to beware of the fog of war. By “fog of war,” I mean the confusion and cognitive overwhelm resulting from both the rapid and unpredictable pace and number of often emotionally powerful and mind-numbing events and from the self-interested disinformation and propaganda that is constantly put out on all sides of military conflicts. There’s another meaning to the phrase “fog of war” that I’ll mention under my sixth precept.

There’s No Social Justice and Democracy on a Dead Planet

The second and most urgent precept is that there’s no social justice or democracy of civil liberties or civil rights or anything good on a dead planet. This is true whether the planet is turned into a frozen hulk by nuclear war or cooked to death by capitalist climate change.

Let’s be very clear about something that too many US-Americans don’t seem to understand: a US/NATO-imposed “No Fly Zone” over Ukraine means military confrontation between the United States and Russia. A military confrontation between the United States (and here it should be acknowledged that NATO is for all intents and purpose the USA) and Russia means World War III and that war could very well go nuclear and global.

The other great threat to human existence is ecocide, led by the fossil capitalist campaign to turn our planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber – a crime that makes Hitler look like a small-time gangster. And here it should be noted that the Ukraine War is providing a terrible pretext for policymakers to remove constraints on the mass extraction and burning of coal, gas, and oil and to thereby accelerate an environmental catastrophe that is already underway. It is a great boon for the carbon capitalist cookers of the planet as well as the arms manufacturers, whose stocks have risen with the conflict and the coming escalation of US and European war budgets. Mass death in Ukraine is very good news indeed for our corporate Masters of War.

Factoring the two great existential dangers of our time – nuclear and capitalogenic global warming into their calculations, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last January 22md put their Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. I bet they’d cut that in half in the wake of Putin’s invasion. “The hour is getting late.”

Oppose More Than One Imperialism at the Same Time

The third precept is that we can and indeed must oppose more than one thing at the same time. We must oppose both US-NATO imperialism and Russian imperialism. We do not call them identical or say that they are of equivalent power because there’s never been anything like the US-American Empire, which accounts for more than a third of world war spending and has more than 1000 bases across 80 countries. Still, we align with neither Washington nor Moscow. We do not fall for the Pavlovian fake left habit of automatically identifying the enemy of our enemy (EOOE) as our friend. (The EOOE is our friend or at least very close when it/he is a genuine people’s revolutionary like Lenin or Mao or Che or Ho Chi Minh, but not when it/he is a fascist butcher like Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, or Vladimir Putin.) We do not embrace the Kremlin’s imperial aggression because we rightly oppose Washington’s imperialism.

This means rejecting the war fog coming from the Kremlin and its Pavlovian allies, including the following abject falsehoods: “Putin had no alternative but to invade;” “images of Russia bombing civilian targets are fake news;” “Ukraine isn’t a country;” “Ukraine is a Nazi state and Russia’s invasion is a repeat of the Great Patriotic Soviet War against fascism during WWII;” “Ukraine is committing genocide against Russian speakers;” “All the imperialism in this conflict is on NATO’s side. Russia isn’t imperialist, it’s just practicing national self-defense.” All of that is nonsense.

Nobody should doubt for one second that Putin’s monopoly capitalist Russian regime is imperialist. It has intervened not just in its own immediate regional sphere but in Libya, Syria, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Kremlin’s aims regarding Ukraine are more than merely defensive and that Ukrainian resources and ports are of great economic and strategic military significance to Russian oligarchs and the Russian state.

Do Not Align with Reckless Bourgeois-“Democratic” Nationalism

The fourth principle is that we must not increase the odds of global war by embracing reckless bourgeois nationalism. The Ukrainian people have every right to defend themselves against criminal invaders and occupiers by any means necessary and to seek outside assistance for their resistance. At the same time, for reasons that I’ll expand on below, we on the actual Left, insofar as such a thing exists anymore, must not follow much of the West in slavishly and uncritically embracing Ukrainian nationalism and the cult of Volodymyr Zelensky. We don’t “have a dog” in this war race – not even the outwardly cute and cuddly “Paddington” Zelensky, who has been transformed in mere weeks from “that comedian-turned-president who Trump tried to bully” into a semi-messianic personality in Western capitals, parliaments, and media.

Reject White Western Imperial Hypocrisy

The fifth precept is that we must reject white and imperial hypocrisy. For many of us on the actual anti-imperial Left, it’s been depressing to watch the US political and media class fall over itself with moral outrage so strong that many of its talking heads (egregious examples include the leading MSNBC warmongers Joy Reid and Michael McFaul) seem ready to risk WWIII in response to Putin’s crimes in Ukraine. Again and again, we are told that America stands up to bullies and that that’s why we must do everything we can to help Zelensky and the white-skinned people of Ukraine. Meanwhile there are significantly greater and ongoing human tragedies being inflicted by US-allied client states Israel and Saudi Arabia against brown-skinned people in Gaza, the West Bank, and Yemen. Is Uncle Sam standing up to those bullies? Of course not.

Don’t like bullies? Look in the mirror. US. economic sanctions and a US aid embargo are killing thousands if not tens of thousands right now in Afghanistan, where Washington is “pushing millions into poverty and starvation”) to punish the Taliban government. Russia has yet to commit crimes remotely close to the ones the US itself has directly committed against the brown-skinned people of Southeast Asia, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, with a cumulative body count reaching well into the multiple millions. Our media and political class still refuse to acknowledge those epic crimes as war crimes and crimes against humanity. And yes, there is a racial dimension to this hypocrisy.

How can US-Americans meaningfully oppose Putin’s horrific crimes in his nation’s own regional sphere of influence when US-Americans fail to acknowledge and oppose their own empire and allies’ larger and ongoing crimes far from (as well as near) US borders? How harp shrilly on the plight of Ukraine while turning a blind eye to the plight of so many other suffering masses whose misery has been created by the US and its allies and clients and the world capitalist system that Washington so consistently advances? How expect to be taken seriously advocating national sovereignty for Ukraine when, as Noam Chomsky recently observed, the US is “the world’s leader in brazen contempt for the doctrine”?

Antifascism Begins at Home

A sixth principle is that antifascism begins at home. There’s been a lot of loose talk about fascism in the Ukraine crisis. Both Ukraine and Russia are accusing each other of being fascists – a word that makes US media, politicians, and intellectuals very uncomfortable even as their coverage of the Ukraine Crisis is rife with analogies between Putin and the ultimate historical fascist Hitler. And indeed, contrary to what the ridiculous Pavlovian, pro-Putin “left” says, fascism is a far more accurate description of the authoritarian white nationalist Putin dictatorship than it is of the Ukrainian government (notwithstanding the disturbing presence of Nazis in Ukrainian politics and armed forces). More importantly for our purposes, though, we’ve got plenty of fascism right here in the US, where one of our major parties (the Republicans) has gone fascist and the other one (the dismal neoliberal- imperial Democrats) is its enabler. We had a fascist in the White House for four years (2017-2021), for God’s sake. I just published a book about that little problem, how it happened – and how it would well happen again: This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America. If you want to fight fascism, my fellow US Americans, start right here in your home country, where the fog of inter-imperial war abroad provides cover for fascistic right-wing homeland wars against women, people of color, immigrants, gay and transgendered people, voting rights, historical truth, and livable ecology. As Avakian says, “your shining City on a Hill is full of fascists.”

False Talk on the Western Side: Four Lethal and False Narratives

I mentioned a handful of false Russian and pro-Russian narratives above. What about the false talk on the US/Western/NATO side? This is the war propaganda and misinformation that we are most called to criticize given where we are, in the belly of the beast of the most dangerous and extensive empire that has ever existed. Here are four leading false narratives on the Western US NATO- side of the Ukraine Crisis.

+1. “NATO just a defensive European alliance. Russia’s invasion was completely unprovoked by the US, NATO, and the West.” Nonsense. Created above all by Washington planners to counter Soviet Russia in the wake of World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is mainly the handiwork and extension of US power – it is the American eagle to the Russian bear in Europe. NATO has fought destructive and disastrous offensive wars beyond Europe in Afghanistan and Libya. It trains and coordinates for actions far beyond Europe.

Over and over, this phrase has been uttered by US talking heads in the last three weeks: “completely unprovoked.” To see why it’s false, we need to go further back in history than just three weeks and recall the outcome of the internal debate the United States ruling class had over Eastern European policy after the end of the first Cold War of 1945-1991. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US power elite decided to reject and abandon promises made to Gorbachev and the former USSR: instead of welcoming Russia into a common de-militarized Europe and providing large- scale economic and social assistance to help Russia transition safely and securely into a peaceful new era, Washington chose to continue treating Russia as a hostile enemy. The United State imposed harsh neoliberal (“free market”) economic punishment on the former Soviet Union, leading to a drastic and indeed deadly decrease in Russian life expectancy. In the late 1990s and the first decade of the present century, Washington pushed its anti-Russian military alliance NATO into the formerly Soviet-aligned Eastern European corridor through which western troops from Napoleon to the German Kaiser and Hitler’s Third Reich had repeatedly brought mass Russian death and destruction. The US brought NATO right up to Russia’s western doorstep in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia. It tried to recruit the Russian border state Georgia. It is this that created the rise and initial popularity of the white nationalist great Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in the first place. Poking and torturing the Russian bear has been the name of the US game for a generation.

It is of particular and provocative significance that US-dominated NATO has for years declared as a goal the inclusion of Ukraine in the Western military alliance. This has always been especially and highly offensive to Moscow. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. It reaches well into southwestern underbelly of historic Russia. It is home to vast grain and mineral resources and major seaports. It is of vast material and strategic as well cultural, historical, and ideological significance for the Russian state and empire. “As has been understood for a long time, decades in fact” Noam Chomsky noted in an important Truthout interview four days ago:

for Ukraine to join NATO would be rather like Mexico joining a China-run military alliance, hosting joint maneuvers with the Chinese army and maintaining weapons aimed at Washington. To insist on Mexico’s sovereign right to do so would surpass idiocy (and, fortunately, no one brings this up). Washington’s insistence on Ukraine’s sovereign right to join NATO is even worse, since it sets up an insurmountable barrier to a peaceful resolution of a crisis that is already a shocking crime and will soon become much worse unless resolved — by the negotiations that Washington refuses to join. That’s quite apart from the comical spectacle of the posturing about sovereignty by the world’s leader in brazen contempt for the doctrine, ridiculed all over the Global South though the U.S. and the West in general maintain their impressive discipline and take the posturing seriously, or at least pretend to do so.”

This understanding hasn’t stopped the US from intervening in 21st Century Ukrainian politics, as when Washington backed and helped engineer a coup to replace a neutral elected Ukraine president with a pro-Western president. It hasn’t stopped NATO countries from conducting numerous joint military exercises with Ukraine, from placing military ships in the Black Sea, or from funding the Ukrainian military in a war with Russian separatists and Russia that has been ongoing for the last eight years. Now, of course, the US and NATO are heavily equipping the Ukrainian military and imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russia in a war that Washington is fueling not out of any special concern for the Ukrainian people but rather to bleed and cripple Putin’s Russia in much the same way as the Western-backed Afghanistan war bled and crippled the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

+2. “This is a Great Struggle Between Democracy and Autocracy. Zelensky and Ukraine are great champions of democracy aligned against the autocracy of Putin.” False. There should be no serious doubt about the autocratic and even fascist nature of the Putin regime, which is sweeping up Russian antiwar protesters. Putin’s rubber stamp government has made it a crime carrying a 15-year jail sentence to call Putin’s war of invasion either a war or an invasion. Putin has recently gone on television to call Russian war critics “traitors” who are part of a pro-Western “fifth column” that needs to be “cleansed” from the Great Russian Nation. “Any people, and especially the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish the true patriots from the scum and the traitors, and just to spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths,” Putin said. Putin’s language and that of his

So, no love for Putin, for crying out loud. But the notoriously corrupt nation that the Ukrainian oligarch-linked and West-aligned Zelensky represents not represent actual popular democracy. It represents merely fledgling bourgeois democracy, which is a form of and cloak for capitalist class rule. We have bourgeois democracy here in the US, where majority and generally progressive public opinion is consistently cancelled by concentrated wealth and power on one issue after another. And Russia would oppose a Western-militarized and potentially NATO- Ukraine of any political form, including fascist. The US is backing Ukraine with massive military assistance not to advance “democracy” (which does not meaningfully and functionally exist in its own homeland) but in accord with the American Empire’s longstanding pursuit of strategic and imperial advantage. The Ukrainian national struggle is embedded within a wider inter-imperial conflict and has its own class rule content.

+3. “Putin wants to invade NATO territory. He’s not just attacking Ukraine. He’s also waging a war on all of Europe and indeed all of civilization.” This is highly dubious, to say the least. Putin certainly knows that attacking NATO territory could well mean a mushroom cloud over Moscow. At the same time, Putin is having a very difficult time subduing Ukraine. He appears to have badly underestimated the Ukrainian resistance and military. He is dealing with morale issues among Russian troops and the Russian populace. He is facing an imploding economy, and dissatisfied oligarchs due to historically unprecedented, US-led economic sanctions. Images of civilian destruction in Ukraine are a public relations nightmare for the Kremlin. The idea that Putin has the ability or desire to push beyond Ukraine and into NATO territory is far-fetched. At the same time, Russia has in fact sent out feelers and terms for the cessation of hostilities. There are negotiations taking place. Russia requires a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality plus acknowledgement of the fait accompli of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the independence of the two breakaway Russian-speaking republics in eastern Ukraine. The Russian terms are far from perfect, but they are an opening point for negotiations, and it seems increasingly likely that Putin would welcome some kind of “mission accomplished” off-ramp whereby he can stand down from a war that has not worked out very well for him at home or abroad.

+4. “The US carries deeply about Ukrainians.” Really? Then why are Washington and US media not paying more serious attention to peace negotiations and how to provide Putin with a way out, thereby prolonging the agony and upping the ante of devastation. As Chomsky says,

We must find a way to bring this war to an end before it escalates, possibly to utter devastation of Ukraine and unimaginable catastrophe beyond. The only way is a negotiated settlement. Like it or not, this must provide some kind of escape hatch for Putin, or the worst will happen. Not victory, but an escape hatch. These concerns must be uppermost in our minds.”

Let’s be brutally candid: US policy isn’t about helping Ukrainians. It’s about US strategic aims: bleeding, crippling, and collapsing Russia in a prolonged war that will kill thousands if not tens of thousands more Ukrainians. Here is a likely accurate informal assessment from the left journalist and historian Terry Thomas earlier this week:

Biden wants to destroy Russia’s economy and its international influence; undermine its position in the world system, and the current situation offers an opportunity to do that…Biden should be calling Putin on the phone and demanding direct negotiations with him. The option is not even discussed. Seems pretty revealing. Would rather dangle all of this stuff about no-fly zones and beefed-up NATO militaries: these are obvious ways to make the situation worse. Despicable. And none of this exonerates Putin. He’s a war criminal. But the war criminal thing is part of the resume of great powers. So the idea that Putin is somehow beyond the pale is laughable.”

Why are the White House and its allies so focused not on peace but rather on urging Ukraine to keep fighting and thereby continuing the war and the remarkable sanctions on Russia? Here again Chomsky speaks with sage wisdom:

We can only speculate about the reasons for U.S.-U.K. total concentration on warlike and punitive measures, and refusal to join in the one sensible approach to ending the tragedy. Perhaps it is based on hope for regime change. If so, it is both criminal and foolish. Criminal because it perpetuates the vicious war and cuts off hope for ending the horrors, foolish because it is quite likely that if Putin is overthrown someone even worse will take over…And at best…it would leave the problem of settlement where it stands…Another possibility is that Washington is satisfied with how the conflict is proceeding. As we have discussed, in his criminal foolishness, Putin provided Washington with an enormous gift: firmly establishing the U.S.-run Atlanticist framework for Europe and cutting off the option of an independent “European common home,” a long-standing issue in world affairs as far back as the origin of the Cold War. I personally am reluctant to go as far as the highly knowledgeable sources we discussed earlier who conclude that Washington planned this outcome, but it’s clear enough that it has eventuated. And, possibly, Washington planners see no reason to act to change what is underway.”

“I Have a Need”

In his emotionally hyper-potent March 16th address to the US Congress (which came with an evocative Hollywood-caliber video on the humanitarian horrors of Putin’s criminal war), the newly anointed Western “democracy” redeemer Zelensky called for increased military assistance – highly provocative NATO jets if not his much-desired and reckless No-Fly Zone. He revoltingly invoked the great antiwar preacher and democratic socialist civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on behalf of intensified war. He cited the 9/11 jetliner attacks as part of his call for the US to show “strength” by “closing the sky” over Ukraine. He shamed himself and his teary-eyed audience by quoting the pacifist King’s phrase “I Have a Dream” to set up his supposedly pithy phrase: “I have a need.” A “need” that is, for imperial war planes to engage with Russian jets in a nuclear superpower confrontation that could close the sky for 8 billion human beings.

Well, Palestinians have a need. Yemenis have a need. Hondurans have a need. I could add one group of nonwhite oppressed peoples around the world after another who have a desperate need. The children of the Democratic Republic of Congo have a lot of desperate and unmet needs. I don’t see their leaders speaking to Congress with violins playing anytime soon.

There are many around the world with dire need for release from oppression. We all need to be protected from the ongoing menace of nuclear war, which Zelensky fans like Francis “End of History” Fukuyama irresponsibly tell us to calm down about because the fears are “way overblown.”

Much of what I argue here is automatically dismissed as “Russian talking points” in liberal media and online discourse – this even when those of us who make these points preface them with strong denunciations of Putin’s criminal invasion. There is, to be sure, the aforementioned Pavlovian and “tankie” Putin “left” that does in fact pathetically transmit Russian talking points, but that so-called left does not deserve to be taken all that seriously and the American warmongers love to exaggerate its size and influence.

What do serious, actually Left anti-imperialists want? An end to the war, peace now, before this thing spills over and goes nuclear. An end to the war so we can breathe and live on to build a movement capable of fighting the only struggle worth waging: a people’s socialist revolutionary movement against capitalism-imperialism, the underlying social and political order that generates the interrelated, overlapping and mutually reinforcing master threats of nuclear war, ecocide, and fascism.

The other night on MSNBC I saw a former high diplomat in the Obama administration say that “now is the time to choose sides.” And I thought to myself, “yes, comrade, now is the time to side with the peace and justice- and ecology- loving people of the world against the profit, war and ecocide pigs of Washington, Moscow, London, Brussels, Paris, Ankara, Riyad, and Tel Aviv and Brasilia …and against any and all people recklessly calling for US and NATO No-Fly Zones and NATO jet planes over Ukraine.

A final observation: the Ukraine Crisis seems likely to roll on, with the basic US goal being to bleed and cripple Russia and certainly not to save Ukrainian lives. If saving Ukrainian lives was the US aim, the lying neoliberal imperialist Biden (who led the charge for the monumentally criminal and mass murderous US invasion of Iraq from the Democratic side of the US Senate in 2002 and 2003) would be on an emergency hotline with the fascist war criminal Putin working out a “mission accomplished” off ramp moment for the Kremlin. The carnage will continue, chewing up ordinary Ukrainians and Russian conscripts while “defense” industry profits rise and fossil capital gets a lethal boost to accelerate the Greenhouse Gassing of our one and only planet.

How much longer the war can completely dominate the US news cycle is an interesting question. Something else will have to break through at a certain point: a mass shooting beyond the norm, a climate-fueled super-tornado that makes the 1925 Tri-State twister look small by comparison, or a new big Covid-19 surge, for three examples. How about a mass popular movement for women’s badly endangered reproductive rights here in the US? I’d like to see that be the next big story: a massive people’s movement to break the leading spear in the hands of Amerikaner Christian fascist right now: the effort to re-impose the de facto female enslavement of forced mother through the cancellation of Roe v. Wade.

Paul’s new book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (New York: Routledge, December 31, 2021).

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).