Should The Left Support Biden in Ukraine?

Image by Tina Hartung.

Part One—Matthew Duss

Matthew Duss is a leading figure 0n the American political left. However, the left is fragmented, and so we have to qualify this and say he is an important voice in one part of the left—the “connected” left. He is a foreign policy advisor to the independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders is allied with the Democratic Party, which gives Duss some access to the foreign policy debate inside that party. This can be considered a good thing. We certainly need as many “connected” progressive voices as we can get.

It is also true that progressives, among others, can come to conclusions that are swayed by their environment (in this case the Democratic Party) and thus not be as objective as they should be. Also, in times of struggle, keeping to a clear and analytical mind is hard for all of us. Duss faces this problem on the issue of Ukraine.

Here is his position:

“This is apparently hard for some folks to grasp because it’s not true in many other areas of foreign policy, but a responsible progressive position on Ukraine is basically what Biden is doing right now.”

What he is saying is that the United States has so long been in the business of trampling on governments, be they democratic or otherwise, it is hard for many on the left to ally with Washington in the alleged promotion of democracy in Ukraine. Nonetheless, in this instance, it is Russia who is the bad guy, so it is okay to go with President Biden.

Is he correct? Well, he elaborates on his position in a recent (June 1, 2022) article in the New Republic entitled “Why Ukraine Matters for the Left.” It lays out his argument in favor of supporting U.S. government policy in Ukraine. I am going to analyze important parts of this essay and then draw a conclusion. My analysis is not moved by conscious bias, but rather factual evidence and hopefully clear thinking. I’ll say here at the beginning that I am sorry if folks on one side or another get upset.

Part II—’The Biden Team Did Not Seek This War”

Duss starts by confronting the comparison, drawn by many on the left, between the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the U.S. activity in Ukraine. He tells us that “the Biden administration is not the Bush administration.” This is true. Biden hasn’t invaded Ukraine as Bush did Iraq. In the present instance, it is the Russians who are the invaders. Duss goes on to contextualize Biden’s actions as follows: “The Biden team clearly did not seek this war, in fact they made a strenuous, and very public, diplomatic effort to avert it.”

Here is where we run into a problem. This assertion is taken out of historical context. The truth is that President Biden and most of his immediate predecessors set both Russia and Ukraine up for this war, albeit not as crudely and abruptly as Bush set up Iraq. Biden, et al. also did this in a manner that bypassed the notice of the American people and much of the media. The setup came by relentlessly pushing NATO’s boundary right up to the Russian border. This put Russia in a bad position. As they saw it, they were threatened by a partial encirclement by a hostile force. In response the Russians acted diplomatically by offering the West a mutual security treaty that included a red line proviso that Ukraine would never be invited to join NATO. Biden and other Western leaders did not treat this proposal seriously. In fact, they discovered, in a poorly timed fashion, that all countries have a sovereign right to associate freely with whomever they chose. This conveniently matched up with NATO’s “open door policy.” Biden seemed to assume that this new “basic principle” applied to Ukraine. But wait, perhaps not to Cuba.

It was this sort of hypocritical position that cast the rest of Biden’s proposed half-measures in doubt and led President Putin to eventually conclude that there was no choice but to invade and conquer Ukraine to avoid its becoming part of NATO and therefore “an existential threat” to Russia.

It should also have been a red flag to people like Duss that his ally was up to its old tricks. Perhaps Biden was not acting as “strenuously” as he seemed. Perhaps his newly found “basic principle” put forth in a “very public, diplomatic way” was a bit of idealistic propaganda for “public” consumption.

Once the war began, according to Duss, the Biden administration “acted with restraint and care not to get drawn into a wider war with Russia.” I guess everyone has their own definition of “restraint.” In fact, the U.S. has given over $50 billion worth of assistance to Ukraine. Most of it has been military in nature, including now the prospect of “medium” range missiles. On this point, Duss tells us that we should remember “the instances when provision of military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order.” I do not know what instances Duss is referring to—at least not since World War II. To my knowledge, since 1945, the United States has not used military aid toward these ends. And indeed, U.S. aid has largely gone to extend the war, giving Russia all the more reason and time to literally destroy Ukraine.

A long list of premeditated U.S. and European sanctions have been placed on Russia in an attempt to ruin that country’s economy—and take away every yacht, west of the Caspian Sea, owned by a wealthy Russian. Biden had warned these sanctions were coming if Russia invaded Ukraine. Subsequently, the Biden administration publicly declared that its goal is to “weaken Russia.” Put this all together and you begin to feel that, as the New Yorker magazine put it, “Ukraine is now America’s war, too.” Considering all of this has happened in a three-month period, we can ask just how much “restraint” Biden has exercised. At best, we can view his actions as resulting in a very dangerous version of mission creep.

Part III—The Ukrainian People

Duss’s support of the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine almost naturally leads him to play fast and loose with the term “the Ukrainian people.” For example, when Duss attempts to counter the charge that Biden is willing to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian, he assures us that “it should be clear by now that the Ukrainian people are going to fight the Russian invasion whether we help them or not.”

How come those Washington decides to support are “the people” and the opposition is not? For instance, most of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east of the country who have taken up arms against the government in Kiev are magically not of “the people.” How about the roughly one million Ukrainians who have taken refuge in Russia? Are they part of the Ukrainian people? If we are to be accurate, the “Ukrainian people” are divided and are distributed on both sides of this fight. As always the majority are fleeing the war zones or just trying to survive the violence from whichever side it comes.

There is one other factor that should make me question Duss’s use of “the Ukrainian people.” The roots of the present government in Kiev lay with a U.S.-backed coup in 2014 that deposed a legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, who favored working with Moscow to settle the country’s neutral status toward the West. He also favored a round of early elections to settle disputes on this question. The overthrow of Yanukovych increased Russian fears that NATO and the European Union, with Washington’s backing, aimed to turn Ukraine into a pro-Western, anti-Russia state.

Part IV—Russia’s Imperium

Towards the end of Duss’s essay, he quotes Vladimir Putin to show that he is a self-confessed imperialist. “Look at what Putin himself said in the speech he gave on the eve of the invasion, in which he laid out a vision of reclaiming not only the Soviet sphere but a pre-Soviet vision of a new Russian imperium.” Based on Putin’s professed “vision,” Duss concludes that “it seems absurd to suggest that even an ironclad public pledge from President Biden that Ukraine would never be accepted into NATO would have convinced Putin to draw back the 180,000 troops he had placed on Ukraine’s borders.”

While Duss is probably loath to believe Putin on any other subject, he is ready to believe him here. His assessment may be accurate; however, one can make just as good an argument that Putin’s “imperium” talk is propaganda for the home front. There is even a Western analogy. The major reason given for the expansion of NATO is no longer the defense of Western Europe, but rather the spread of democracy. Putin uses talk of a Russian imperium to rouse his domestic constituency, and Western politicians (Trump excluded) use the spread of democracy as an equivalent. And in both cases, national leaders may well have convinced themselves that their propaganda is true.

Finally, Duss’s declaration that even Biden’s “ironclad public pledge” of a neutral Ukraine could not have stopped Putin’s invasion may not be the whole story. Putin’s disregard for any hypothetical pledge or promise on the part of Biden would probably be in recognition that the isolated policy decision of one president (e.g., the Iran nuclear deal) can be overturned by his successor. Such a pledge by Biden might well have forestalled a Russian invasion, but it would ultimately not been enough to end the crisis. The Russians want a real security treaty and not just a pledge from a U.S. president.

Part V— Conclusion

Duss concludes with a plea for solidarity with Ukrainian leftists who, among others, are defending their homeland against the Russians. He admits that American hypocrisy is a problem, “recognizing the role that the U.S. and its allies have played in undermining the order they themselves built.” But he seems to think that this hypocrisy has no impact on the present situation. He believes that the left must adopt as a “core principle” the struggle to “prevent powerful countries from invading and obliterating weaker ones.” To do so is to help create “a better, more stable, humane, and progressive [world].” And, because there is allegedly no hypocrisy in present motives and actions, it is all right to ally with the U.S. in defending Ukraine from the Russian aggression.

I wish Duss good luck on preventing the strong from beating up on the weak. Just about all of the past (and present) history of states involves just such exploitation. Nonetheless, he is correct in stating that this is an ideal to be strived for. The notion of occasionally taking on disreputable allies might also be understandable.

However, before you ally with anyone, you’d best proceed with your eyes fully open: think through your arguments objectively and present them so. Duss does not do this. Maybe this has something to do with his present position and environment, which is that of an advisor to a U.S. senator. For whatever reason, he denies his own country’s role in bringing about this war, notably by (1) trying to block Russian influence through the Ukrainian coup of 2014, (2) rejecting the possibility of a neutral Ukraine by hypocritically inventing a “basic right” to choose any affiliation, and by (3) not taking seriously Russian efforts at diplomacy through the offer of a comprehensive security treaty.

I point all this out to remind Duss and others (in the remote hope that they read this) that if they are to lead a viable left that can successfully build itself up domestically and ally with like movements abroad, they must be clear minded. And if they are to ally with the U.S. government, they’d better be ready to back off rather than be led astray. Otherwise, they will end up as somebody’s tool. This entire exercise does not “deny atrocities” or support Russia’s decision to destroy Ukraine. It has to do with the formation of strong and honest arguments no matter one’s position—which should be another “core principle” of the left.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.