War In Ukraine. Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies. Preface by Katrina vanden Heuvel. OR Books, 2022. 185 pages.
Fair warning: this is a seriously misguided and disorienting book, even though useful in a certain sense. It’s useful for some background material it presents, but (as we’ll see) in a severely one-sided way – and important for what it reveals of the impasse of a U.S. peace movement in facing a tragic war in which “our own” side is not the main imperial aggressor.
Evading this reality requires constructing a narrative that depicts Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – now becoming a wintertime medieval-type siege waged with 21st century military technology – as almost entirely a reaction to United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) provocation and intervention in Ukraine’s chaotic internal politics. It requires positing, therefore, that “diplomacy” between the U.S. and Russian great-power overlords is the only exit from a bloody disaster.
Laying out that case is the central task that the authors Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies set for themselves. And there’s no doubt that their work is finding a ready market in a peace movement milieu that generally knows little about eastern Europe or Russia’s own imperialist history. Our antiwar movement naturally knows much more about the U.S. record of aggressive wars and genocidal coups in the global South and the Middle East, understands all too well the cynical western rhetoric about a mythical “rules-based international order” (translation: the USA makes the rules and gives the orders), and is prepared to accept the contention that Ukraine is basically more of the same.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the women-led CodePink organization, is a longtime well-respected antiwar activist. The group’s work exposing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, for example, enabling the mass slaughter of Yemeni civilians in that country’s civil war, has been powerful. It’s also in the forefront of the struggle for abolition of nuclear weapons, among other critically important issues of U.S. global policy.
It is inconceivable to me that Medea Benjamin would author a book on Yemen, say, in which actual Yemeni voices would be almost absent, and the people of Yemen treated as objects of heartfelt sympathy but not viewed as agents of their own freedom struggle. It will become apparent why I raise this point in the context of the present review of her book on the Ukraine war.
Since the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Benjamin has been asked a basic question multiple times in person and in online forums: Is Ukraine a “real country” (contrary to Vladimir Putin’s claim), and does it have the right to defend itself? To my knowledge, she consistently refuses to answer. As far as I know, the same is true of other peace movement groups with a similar orientation — RootsAction and World Beyond War, to be specific (both of which I’ve repeatedly queried on the subject).
That’s why, before opening this book and to avoid prejudgment, I posed for myself the following questions:
1) Do Benjamin and co-author Nicolas Davies address Ukraine’s right to defend itself, and if so, Ukraine’s right to obtain necessary weapons, and how?
2) How many actual voices from Ukraine, and how many analytical and antiwar Russian views, are cited and uplifted in a book subtitled “making sense of a senseless conflict”?
Spoiler alert: the answers won’t be happy ones. But posing these issues is critical to provide context for discussing the authors’ own concluding section “How on Earth Will This End?” (pp. 179-182) and in particular their contention that “(w)ithout a peace agreement to end the war, both sides continued to endure immense losses and inflict immense damage.” (180)
In itself the latter statement is clearly true enough – especially as Russia’s inability to defeat Ukraine’s army has turned to a campaign to systematically freeze and starve Ukraine’s civilian population. But only if we agree that Ukraine’s war of national defense and survival is legitimate, and entitled to get support wherever it can obtain it, can we hope to have a morally defensible discussion of what “peace agreement” might emerge from this carnage – above all with the approval of Ukraine’s government and people, based on their assessment of risk and rewards.
Obviously there are limitations to what’s realistically possible. President Zelensky’s desire for a “no-fly” zone, for example, was never going to be met, given the danger of direct confrontation between Russian and Western air forces – nor could those of us on the left in solidarity with Ukraine endorse it. But appeals for “diplomacy” at all costs are unsustainable.
Such a discussion must address what kind of “diplomatic settlement” might actually hold, rather than just hitting a pause button to prepare the next even bloodier round. If “diplomacy” is to succeed, it clearly will require Russia’s permanent renunciation of its annexationist, openly proclaimed “right” to possess Ukraine. That must mean that the costs of continuing the invasion become unsustainable.
But without the essential premise of Ukraine’s right to defend its sovereignty and chart its own future, pleas for “negotiated peace” reduce to saying that the war needs to be settled between the great powers U.S./NATO and Russia. And opposing military aid to Ukraine means that its wishes are cut out of the equation. I’m afraid that’s just about where Benjamin and Davies land. The following paragraph, if read carefully, is telling:
“Westerners supporting endless shipments of weapons to Ukraine sincerely hoped to defend Ukrainian freedom and sovereignty. But calling on Ukrainians to keep fighting until they won a total victory over Russia and reclaimed Crimea and the Donbas could only lead to massive Ukrainian death and suffering, and an increasingly dangerous proxy war between nuclear superpowers that threatened the life of everyone on earth.” (180, emphasis added)
What’s wrong here? Almost everything – beginning with the premise that Ukrainians are being egged on to “keep fighting” for impossible objectives, against their own better judgment. This goes along with a widely circulated fable that Ukraine was all set for a negotiated deal very early on, but was instigated by Biden and Boris Johnson to pull out of a promising peace settlement. The authors summarize this story (pages 83-85) without confronting the detail that Russia would not renounce its annexationist claims on Ukraine.
Second, closely related to the first, is a view of the “proxy war” as the predominant factor in the conflict, in which Ukraine is seen as little more than a pawn subordinated to in a U.S./NATO drive to weaken and ultimately disintegrate the Russian Federation. Indeed, in the authors’ account even Russia has very little independent agency: Vladimir Putin’s pronouncements for example that Ukraine “was never a real country,” is “run by Nazis” and needs to be back in the Russian embrace are not mentioned, let alone taken as the existential threat they are to Ukraine’s people.
This is a very severe weakness, because the roots of the invasion in the multiple crises of Russia’s own mafia-type petro-capitalism and the Putin regime are essential to understand. The analyses of Russian leftist authors – Boris Kagarlitsky and Ilya Budraitskis, to name just two among many – are easily available in English online, but unmentioned in the book. Indeed the authors’ sources do not include a single critical Russian voice.
This makes it all the more difficult to grasp the specific character of the war. The full extent of massacres of civilians at Bucha, Irpin, Izium and other Russian-occupied towns may have been revealed after Benjamin and Davies did most of their writing – but these war crimes flowed directly from the nature of an annexationist and bordering-on-genocidal invasion that the authors fail to confront. They do not endorse or justify the invasion, which the first sentence of Katrina vanden Heuvel’s Preface calls “Russia’s illegal, brutal assault on Ukraine” (5), but their (and her) analysis of it doesn’t go much beyond dissecting NATO’s provocative behavior.
Third, the appeal here to the fear of nuclear annihilation is not entirely honest. It is certainly true that so long as nuclear weapons exist, we all live under that threat. But it’s misleading to suggest that the danger has become so much greater during this war that Ukraine’s independence should be sacrificed to avoid it.
The nuclear powers themselves, for their own reasons, are avoiding such provocations. What’s more, Benjamin and Davies don’t acknowledge that a Russian victory would ratchet up tensions and the risks of escalation toward nuclear war. It’s also unfair to ignore the fact that Ukraine, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was one of only two countries in the world to give up nuclear weapons — along with post-apartheid South Africa. The ever-present nuclear war threat must not be leveraged to compel Ukraine to accept surrender or a bloody amputation.
Provocation and the War
Back to the beginning: The bulk of the book covers the background, with chapters on “How 2014 Set the Stage for War,” “The Success and Failure of the Minsk II Peace Plan,” “The Russian Invasion of Ukraine” and “NATO: Myth vs. Reality.”
As a quick primer or refresher course on NATO’s reckless expansion after 1991, violating promises that U.S. diplomats had made to Soviet leader Gorbachev – and at a time when NATO itself could reasonably have gone away, along with the Soviet bloc’s Warsaw Pact – this account has some value. But some questions aren’t posed: for example, since NATO’s expansion to the main eastern European states was substantially complete by 2004, it can hardly fully explain Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine from 2014 to the present.
In a paragraph revealing more than the authors may intend, they write:
“In 2004, seven more Eastern European countries joined, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These countries had not only been part of the Soviet Union, but were already part of the Russian Empire during the Czarist era.” (105, emphasis added)
Indeed, they had been – and knowing what Russian rule had been like for some decades or centuries, they weren’t going back. The authors evidently regard this as a provocation to Russia, without regard for the concern these countries had for preserving their own independence. In writing that “(e)very country in Eastern Europe that joins NATO becomes a threat to Russia” and enhances “the danger of a civilization-ending nuclear war” (106), the authors disregard these nations’ well-rooted fears of Russia’s threat to their security and self-determination.
They do recognize that the invasion, “putting Russia into the role of aggressor…brought a tremendous jolt of unity to U.S.-European relations and gave NATO a new lease on life,” and as a further result “Sweden and Finland put in applications to join NATO, which NATO eagerly welcomed.” (115)
All these are Putin’s free gifts to western imperialism. Does it mean that NATO expansion is a good thing? No — what it does show is the burning necessity of a global antiwar movement worthy of the name that demands the defunding, disarming and dissolution of all great-power war blocs, first of all NATO and the Russian-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). Only the power of mass movements in the main imperial powers can convince smaller nations living in their shadows of a positive alternative to throwing themselves under the dubious protection of one or the other.
We’ve known this since the days of the Cold War, and it’s just as true today as the war in Ukraine drags the world in a horrible direction – not really toward nuclear war, but toward the bitter political winter of a new Cold War.
Benjamin and Davies undoubtedly want to see a global movement to confront this danger. Unfortunately, the one-sided way they present the issues doesn’t point a way toward building it. Part of the problem I see is that they offer Ukraine and its people sympathy, but not solidarity. It’s astonishing that while opposing weapons for Ukraine, they don’t raise the most basic demand for the cancellation of Ukraine’s foreign debt, an essential first step toward meeting the colossal costs of reconstruction.
Here the questions I posed before opening the book are particularly relevant, and I’ve already indicated a partial answer: The question of the legitimacy of Ukraine’s military resistance remains not directly answered, and the number of Russian voices we hear is precisely zero.
What about the most important of all, Ukrainian voices? The answer is exactly one: Yurii Sheliazhenko, a principled pacifist and “war resister who continued to publicly oppose war while the bombs and shells were blasting around him.” (184) This is a view claiming a consistent conscientious objection to war and violence under all circumstances.
That’s a Ukrainian voice and viewpoint that surely deserves to be heard — but the only one? At a time when tens of thousands of Ukrainians from all walks of civilian life rushed to join the Territorial Defense Forces? When people have accomplished miracles of grassroots organization for mutual aid in their communities, and for sending material support to the front-line soldiers? When the great majority of Ukrainians have chosen the course of armed struggle to protect their nation, and the partial democracy they’ve achieved, over surrender and enslavement?
The absence of voices from the Ukrainian left is particularly crippling when it comes to the authors’ account of the chaotic events of the 2014 Maidan uprising, which they flatten into the story, too common in the western left, of a U.S.-sponsored and fascist-led “coup” against the elected Viktor Yanukovych government. (This is the simplistic mirror image of the U.S. State Department narrative of a unified popular democratic revolution.)
Suffice it to say here that there are reasons why the majority of Ukrainians from right-to-left on the political spectrum reacted furiously when Yanukovych made a last-minute switch from an agreement with the European Union to signing up with a Russian-organized Eurasian competitor. Ukrainian left activists don’t buy the “coup” story that it was all a CIA-State Department manipulation.
To attempt to understand the complex origins, the events and the struggles in eastern Ukraine following Maidan, it’s necessary to see what those activists have to say. And they’re readily available: to name one, Yuliya Yurchenko’s work Ukraine and the Empire of Capital. From Marketisation to Armed Conflict (Pluto Press, 2018) lays out the story of the oligarchic-capitalist devastation of Ukraine after 1991 under “(t)he combination of ill-prescribed market transition reforms, loaned fund mismanagement and misappropriation by the kleptocratic ruling bloc.”
Yurchenko is among the members of the Ukrainian Sotsialny Rukh (Social Movement) group whose articles and interviews are readily available in English. This isn’t the place to explore many important details, but the point here is that Benjamin and Davies appear to be unaware of these sources — or else don’t care enough to consider them.
For readers who do care, the views of Ukrainian leftists are easily accessed in English. To give just one example, the issue of negotiations, and valuable empirical survey results on the attitudes of the Ukrainian population, are laid out by Denys Bondar and Zakhar Popovych: The left view on the prospects of peace negotiationsСоціальний рух (rev.org.ua)
Readers of this book will also learn nothing about Putin’s turning Belarus into a vassal regime (although its dictator Lukashenko hasn’t sent troops into the war, knowing how explosive the popular reaction might be), or what conclusions people in Eastern Europe might draw from that, or from Russia’s intervention to crush a powerful labor-led 2021 popular uprising in Kazakhstan.
The authors conclude with an eloquent statement: “This tragedy was not driven by the desire of ordinary Russians to conquer Ukraine, nor any wish by ordinary Americans or Europeans to return to a world divided by a Cold War and an Iron Curtain.” (181)
With that sentiment, one hopes, we can all agree. The book’s failure, however, lies in giving no answers, or dreadfully wrong ones, to what “ordinary Americans or Europeans” should be trying to do about it, and refusing meaningful solidarity to what ordinary Ukrainians are actually doing. A peace movement worthy of the name, and capable of facing the enormous challenges that confont us in a world of intensifying imperialist rivalries, is going to have to do better than that.