War in the Ukraine is Not a Fight Between Good and Evil; Just Bad vs. Bad

*If We Are To Combat A Rising Fascism At Home, We Cannot Support Sending Guns To Fascists Abroad;

*Neither The Russian Nor The Ukrainian Governments Are Friends Of The Worker;

*Its Time For A Negotiated Peace!

Russia, the larger nation, is acting as the aggressor in the Ukraine. The invasion was motivated by a desire for empire and is imperialist in nature. But all fights are not created equal, fairytales are not all true, and all underdogs are not worthy of armed support.

The Ukrainian state, like Russia, is rightwing. But unlike any other country in the world (at least since the fall of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain), Ukraine has organized Nazi and fascist groupings overtly incorporated into its Armed Forces. One of these is the Azov Battalion, who have massive (and growing) influence within the Zelenskyy regime.

However, it should not be so surprising that the Ukrainian state remains committed to honoring contemporary fascists. From 2014 (after the U.S. supported overthrow of the previous government) through the winter of 2022, countless monuments were constructed honoring WWII era fascist leader Stepan Bandera; a man who collaborated with the Nazis and played a hand in the holocaust (1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered in death camps and by firing squad during the Second World War). This is the man that the Ukrainian state, ruling class, and growing fascist movement chose to elevate to national hero status.

The Nazi Azov Battalion, for its part, became an official part of Ukraine’s Armed Forces in 2014. From 14′ forward, Azov was heavily engaged in armed conflict against Russian speaking separatists in the Donbas. During this time, the UN found Azov to be involved in torture and mass rape. The rise of this Nazi wing of the Ukrainian military, before the Russian invasion, was disconcerting enough that the U.S. Congress, in 2018, forbid military aid given to the Ukraine to be channeled to Azov.

At the time, Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said:

“White supremacy and neo-Nazism are unacceptable and have no place in our world… I am very pleased that the recently passed omnibus prevents the U.S. from providing arms and training assistance to the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion fighting in Ukraine… The State Department should pressure Kiev to dissociate itself with this group and investigate whether any of our weapons or training have already been provided to them… This is just one of many reasons why lawmakers should be concerned about channeling huge amounts of weapons into this volatile conflict zone.”

Although times have changed (and the U.S. no longer places such restrictions on the flow of weapons to the Ukraine), Representative Khanna’s concerns were well founded. Azov’s founder & leader, Andriy Biletsky, has unapologetically stated that the mission of Ukraine is to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade… against Semite-led [Jewish] Untermenschen.” Azov, who flies an SS emblem as their battle flag, also has proclaimed that their intent is to cleanse Europe of immigrants and homosexuals.

Despite the dark history of Azov (and other fascists groups operating in the Ukraine) President Zelenskyy has chosen to not distance his government from fascists and he continues to go out of his way to praise Azov as dedicated frontline combatants against Russia. He has awarded them medals and put up plaques on the streets of Kyiv honoring their fallen. These are Nazis…

The truth is that the Ukraine has had a growing Nazi problem for years, and since the Russian invasion fascist and rightwing influence in this country has only grown. In fact the government has recently advanced new labor laws that greatly roll back the rights of Unions and workers throughout the country. And meanwhile a multitude of leftwing parties (those who were said to be sympathetic to Russian separatists) have been outlawed and their members kicked out of Parliament.

History has shown examples of many wars and armed conflicts whereby working class left movements have grown out of the struggle. Spain, facing a fascist uprising in 1936, saw workers not only volunteer for the frontlines, but also seizing factories which then became democratically managed through their labor unions. During WWII resistance groups across western Europe were often organized by the local Communist & Socialist parties and after the war was won, carried on their struggle winning elections to office, or in the case of Yugoslavia, taking the reins of government with mass popular support. Even our own American Revolution unfolded as an increasingly militant call for a more radical democracy by the common farmers who fought against British Imperialism. But alas, after nine months of fighting, thus far, there has been no progressive mass movement by Ukrainians seeking a more liberatory or leftist post-war nation. Rather the far right continues to grow, continues to consolidate power (now backed with unlimited western arms), and Nazi formations operate with impunity under the banner of their army. This begs the question: should the Ukraine prevail, and should there be no reckoning with the growing contingent of armed fascists before such a victory, what would a post-war state look like?

Of course this is not the story Zelenskyy wants to tell, and this is not within the simplistic narrative, one of good vs evil, that NATO and U.S. would prefer we stay within the bounds of. Just last week CNN and other networks were expelled from the Ukraine after airing film of citizens in Kherson welcoming Ukrainian soldiers with Nazi salutes. Yes, the reality of the Ukraine is one where liberators are met with, not red flags or Union banners, but outstretched arms more reminiscent of a Europe we thought we put behind us.

Further, just days ago rockets struck in Poland (a NATO country). Zelenskyy was quick to claim that this was a Russian attack, and as such Article 5 of the NATO treaty should be invoked, thus starting WWIII between the nuclear powers. As it turns out, these were Ukrainian rockets, likely going off course after seeking to shoot down Russian missiles. I highlight this to make plain how dangerous the world situation is right now in regards to the war and the West’s on-going uncritical support for the Ukraine.

And let us be clear: the Russian invasion, though not justified, finds partial roots in the Western desire for NATO expansion (something the Ukrainian government was moving towards), and the concern that having such an expansionist military alliance on new sections of its boarder represented a strategic threat. The war also finds a spark in the Ukrainian repression of Russian speakers and the bloody armed conflict between the central government in Kyiv and the majority Russian breakaway regions in the east. Taking these dynamics into account, coupled with Russia’s desire to reclaim aspects of its former empire, it is not hard to see how the war came into being.

None of this is said with the intent of seeking to whitewash or justify Russian aggression. Putin’s Russia, like the Ukraine, is no friend of the worker, no friend of the left. It should be clear that Putin is not motivated by a progressive ideology or even a base concern with a rising fascism (in fact his government provides support to a number of fascist groups around the world). For him, as I have said many times, it is a war of empire. Nor is any of this said to seek to mitigate or deny war crimes that may have been committed by Putin’s forces. Undoubtedly war crimes have been committed, but lets not be so foolish as to think fascists in the Ukrainian ranks have not also engaged in such activity against Russian speakers, minorities, and those they perceive as collaborators (even if the “embedded” corporate media does not put them on the nightly news). As Sherman once said, regarding his brutal march through the Confederacy, “war is hell” and one should certainly have empathy and sympathy for the countless civilians suffering today.

I say what I say to call a spade a spade. These are the facts and they must be looked at with somber senses if we are to make an informed decision as to what is to be done next. If we are to risk nuclear war, let us do so as a people who are not fed fairytales about how the evil Russians are marching on innocent and blameless Ukraine before they continue to march on to Paris and then Des Moines. Let us clearly and accurately articulate that the Ukrainian state, which before the war was cited as one of the most corrupt in the world, is reactionary and rightwing to its core and is unapologetic in regard to its open and institutional support for Nazis and fascists.

Let us also recognize that given the current political configurations inside the Ukraine, if left unchecked, a probability arises that what would emerge through a complete Ukrainian victory (something only vaguely possible through the massive flow of NATO weapons) could very well be a powerful and armed fascist movement in a position of acute influence over a nation of 44 million people in central Europe. Thus like the U.S.’s previous military support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (which led to the eventual rise Taliban and Al Qaeda), a continuing unconditional and uncritical support by the West for a rightwing Ukraine, could be midwife to a darker future when the fog of war eventually lifts.

As a Labor Movement, we must demand better. At minimum, we must not support a limitless flow of arms to the Ukraine while Nazis and fascists are allowed and encouraged to operate openly within its ranks. And further, its time for the West to encourage a negotiated end to the carnage; not one where either combatant gets the full scope of their desires, but one whereby the world sees a de-escalation as the alternative to endless bloodshed, the further emboldening of fascists, or worse, nuclear war. This is not a pacifist position (I am no pacifist). It is a sane position, and together may we work to see sanity prevail.

David Van Deusen is the President of the Vermont AFL-CIO.