I generally admire Eric Draitser’s knowledgeable, sharp-edged commentaries on international affairs, which are equally critical of U.S. imperialism and other forms of colonial and neocolonial oppression. Nevertheless, something bizarre happens in Eric’s review of War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict by Medea Benjamin and Nicholas Davies. Having criticized those authors, with some justification, for oversimplifying a complex conflict, he then produces a radically oversimplified response which amounts, in effect, to joining the U.S./NATO camp and underwriting the Zelensky regime’s drive for “victory.”
The review begins by accusing Benjamin and Davies of presenting a one-dimensional view of the war that is too close to the official Russian narrative used to justify the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Draitser scores some points here; this history, strongly influenced by the authors’ opposition to the role of the U.S. and NATO in helping create the conditions for the conflict and then escalating it, ignores certain complexifying facts and tends to relieve Putin of all responsibility for the invasion. But he does not advocate a shared responsibility for the conflict and a shared duty to end it. His conclusion (which he labels a “sound leftist position”) is that Ukraine needs to win the war and the Russians need to lose it.
Here is the conclusion in Eric’s own words:
Reading Benjamin and Davies leaves one with the simple, straightforward analysis, dominant in some corners of the Left, that this is an easily understood proxy war between NATO and Russia. Seen through this distorted lens, one could understand why some on the Left call for an end to the war via “peace negotiations” (and dismembering of Ukraine) and oppose sending vital weapons to those fighting the Russian invaders.
However, a serious examination of the war and its many dimensions leads to the very different conclusion that Ukraine has been invaded by an aggressive sub-imperial state, which also happens to be the traditional colonial power in the region, and that resistance to such aggression is not only justified, but a prerequisite for the survival of the people of Ukraine and the defense of their right to self-determination. In fact, such an analysis leads to the logical conclusion that opposing Ukraine’s right to defend itself and eject its invaders is an abandonment of every principle of internationalism, solidarity, and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics.
Reasons for peace negotiations. Eric may be right to allege that the Ukraine conflict is more than an “easily understood proxy war,” but whatever other factors may be involved in this conflict, it is a proxy war by definition. What else do we call it when an outside imperial power supports one side in a civil conflict against another side supported by a “sub-imperial” competitor which then becomes a party to the conflict? Eight years of civil warfare in the Russian-speaking Donbas provinces are not simply the result of some demonic Putin plot.
In any event, this is not the main reason anti-war radicals call for peace negotiations. They do so not only because Russia has legitimate security interests that the U.S. and NATO have refused to recognize, but also because seeking a “victory” by the Zelensky regime is likely to kill hundreds of thousands more people, turn Ukraine into a bombed-out desert, and generate escalatory spirals that threaten to become world war.
Self-determination. Apparently under the impression that invading a state produces an unjust war, but that provoking an invasion and escalating the subsequent war are justifiable, Draitser approves the massive armament of Ukraine to permit it to “eject its invaders.” Presumably, this means that Kyiv is to resume control over the Donbas provinces, which were supposed to become autonomous under never-implemented Minsk II agreement, and over Crimea, most of whose residents have absolutely no desire to return to Ukrainian rule. I suppose that it also means that Ukraine is free to join NATO and, like its Polish and Rumanian allies, to station NATO troops and offensive missile bases on its territory.
What justifies this underwriting of the chief U.S. and NATO aims by a self-described leftist? The answer is the “right of self-determination.” But there are differences between this right as defined by bourgeois figures like Woodrow Wilson and by Marxists. Marxists do support the right of nations to self-determination, but they do so with important qualifications. As Putin has noted in his usual contemptuous manner, it was Lenin who most strongly supported the independence of Ukraine and other socialist republics. But with Ukraine very much in mind, the Bolshevik leader declared that the right of self-determination does not permit national chauvinist regimes to oppress minorities, to overthrow the workers’ state, or to accept arms from foreign imperialist powers. (See, e.g., “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914).).
In any case, the status of the Donbas provinces, Ukraine’s right to join NATO, the fate of Crimea, and the vital questions of militarization and security in Eastern Europe and Russia – all these issues can and should be discussed in peace negotiations. Eric opposes negotiations, however, because they would result in the “dismemberment” of Ukraine. This position, actually to the right of that announced by U.S. Chief of Staff General Mark Milly, ignores the fact that peace treaties often involve making changes in the status of disputed territories. The contours and content of the right of self-determination are not pre-political “givens.” They are historically determined – and those determinations often involve negotiations that make some concessions to aggressive competitors for the sake of long-term peace and stability.
The key questions, it seems to me, are how to end this ghastly, increasingly destructive war, to guarantee Ukraine’s long-run independence and security, and to establish a sustainable basis for peaceful relations between Russia, the U.S., and Europe. Advocating a Ukrainian “victory” by any means necessary does not answer these questions even if the advocacy is dressed in the language of self-determination. Negotiations – the sooner the better – are urgently needed.