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Fifteen bad Ukraine narratives

Getting past some problematic thinking on Russia’s invasion

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Photo by Artem Kniaz/Unsplash

Especially when deepened by the fog of war, idiocy comes in many mutually reinforcing forms. Let’s examine and get past some problematic thinking on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But first, let’s proclaim some basic principles. The Ukraine crisis is a good focus for practising the art of detesting two things at the same time.

Just as one can hate both the neoliberal-capitalist Democratic Party and (imagine) the neofascist-capitalist Republican Party at the same time, one can simultaneously abhor both supremely dangerous US-led Western imperialism and the less powerful but nonetheless criminal, imperialist, and supremely dangerous regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While highly unequal (except perhaps in their capacity to plunge the planet into nuclear winter), both sides are capitalist, racist, sexist, imperialist, plutocratic, undemocratic, fasci-genic, nuclear-exterminist, and (last but hardly least) fossil-capitalist and eco-exterminist.

Who should you oppose? All of the above. People of the West, fight your own capitalist-imperialist governments and social orders. People of Russia, resist your own capitalist-imperialist government and social order. People of the world: struggle against capitalism and imperialism, which is leading human civilization to literal ruin through war, poverty, and ecocide. When and where did we ever ask for all this dehumanizing madness and depravity? Do not lose sight of the real enemy: the ruling classes and their chaotic, parasitic, and exterminist world capitalist system, in whose darkening shadow we live.

As a couple of smart young German philosopher-activists wrote in 1848: “The working people have no country… Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.”

Using that as an elementary starting point, let’s examine fifteen bad narratives running around the intertwined media, Internet, and political cultures regarding the crisis unfolding in Ukraine.

Western imperialist propaganda

I’ll begin with six foolish storylines coming from the US and Western-NATO side of the equation.

1. “Putin’s invasion was unprovoked by the US-led West.” In the immediate sense, this is true: the West did nothing particularly special or distinct in the few days or weeks prior to Putin’s invasion. But the relevant time frame is much bigger. Imagine Russia placing state-of-the-art offensive missiles in Central America while continuing with longstanding efforts to enlist Mexico in an anti-US military bloc. Imagine Russia placing military bases and missile sites along Canada’s southern border and a missile-bearing naval presence near the United States’ Pacific or Atlantic Ocean shores. How long would Uncle Sam put up with that before invading Mexico or Canada and starting a naval confrontation? The question answers itself.

The United States and its imperialist NATO allies have obviously been poking the Russian nationalist bear across the post-Cold War era, upping the ante of their eastward march in ways guaranteed to spark an angry and violent reaction from a nation whose masters have rich historical memories of Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler sending giant, mass-homicidal armies through eastern Europe to wreak havoc in their homeland.

The US-led West has broken one promise after another regarding Russia’s regional security concerns in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War. The US has been politically and militarily surrounding Russia since the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in 1991. In violation of a disingenuous pledge made to the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the US has drawn numerous Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia) into the lethal NATO alliance. It has installed troops and nuclear weapons near Russia’s borders. Eight years ago, the United States backed and enabled the removal of a Ukrainian government friendly to Russia. It developed economic and military ties to the newly installed Ukrainian government, which declared that it wished to join NATO.

As the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) notes, “The US has been moving rapidly and dramatically to station cutting-edge and high-powered missiles near Russia in Romania and Poland. And in the longer run, it is moving to bring Ukraine—which shares a 1,400-mile land and sea border with Russia—into the US-led NATO military bloc…”

The US and NATO have spent the post-Cold War era poking the nuclear weaponized Russian nationalist brown bear it has created. An ugly confrontation with the beast it has fed and terrorized for years is less than historically surprising.

2. “The United States has moral legs to stand on when it comes to calling out imperial aggression, including illegal invasions, seizures, and absorptions of other peoples’ lands.” Okay, this statement is never explicitly made in those words, but my sentence captures the essence of a basic assumption underlying US government and media statements against the horror of Putin’s war on Ukraine. The assumption is absurd, as is shown by any honest survey of imperialist, white-nationalist US foreign policy from the genocidal ethnic cleansing of North American Indigenous First Nations through the seizure of the Southwestern US and California from Mexico (in the name of allegedly God-ordained “Manifest Destiny”), the mass-murderous US occupation of the Philippines, the attempted US invasion of socialist Cuba (leading the revolutionary Castro government to request Soviet nuclear missile protection), the US crucifixion of Southeast Asia (which killed three to five million people between 1962 and 1975), the long unjust US war on Afghanistan (2001-2021), and the monumentally criminal and mass -murderous US invasion, occupation, torture, and near destruction of Iraq. When the US learned that the Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba to help deter future US invasions of the island, by the way, the John Kennedy administration brought the world to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear annihilation in order to force their removal.

It has been darkly amusing lately to hear the United States’ UN Ambassador proclaim that Putin wants to “return the world to a time when empires ruled the world” and intone that “one country cannot simply redraw another country’s borders by force or make another country’s people live under a government they did not choose.” World history has never seen anything on the scale of the US-American global empire, which has overthrown dozens of governments since 1945. The American Empire accounts for 40 percent of global military spending and maintains more than 800 military bases across more than 100 countries. Washington denouncing imperial ambitions is like John Wayne Gacy denouncing serial killing.

America stands up to bullies,” Joe Biden told the world four days ago. “We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” What a joke. These were rich words coming from the mouth a man who as a Senator helped lead the charge for the monumentally criminal 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the same time, Biden’s beloved American Empire is bullying numerous nations and people around the world (Cubans, Venezuelans, Iranians for starters). It is doing nothing to stand up for the Palestinians and the Yemenis among other longstanding non-white and officially unworthy victims who are being tortured and bombed by US-funded and US-equipped terror states like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

3. “The old KGB agent Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union.” Not really. Vladimir Putin is a militantly anti-communist despot atop an authoritarian capitalist oligarchy. He is animated by an older, pre-Soviet Russian nationalism and imperialism that blames the hated Bolshevik leader Lenin for supposedly creating the purportedly artificial nation of Ukraine in the first place. (In reality, Lenin acknowledged the historical reality of Ukrainian nationhood and self-determination as part of his revolutionary strategy to undo the Russian Empire). Putin claims his invasion is part of “de-communization”—a cleansing of the Soviet Marxist-Leninist legacy.

4. “Sanctions should be imposed on everyday Russian as punishment for the crime of invading Ukraine.” That is morally problematic collective punishment for a crime ordinary Russians did not commit. Russia is an authoritarian gangster kleptocracy run by Putin in alliance with, and on behalf of a small coterie of filthy-rich oligarchs. There was no plebiscite held whereby the Russian people voiced support for the invasion of Ukraine, just as there have been no plebiscites in which the Ukrainian people asked for the invasion, or the US-American people backed the eastward expansion of NATO to Russia’s front door. And indeed, there appears to be considerable popular anti-invasion and anti-war sentiment within Russia, leading to protests and arrests in numerous Russian cities (the call for sanctions conjures up decent people’s fantasies about “good sanctions” that only target the Kremlin and Putin’s oligarch friends, ignoring the real aim: to create such hardship that people demand change. Hurting ordinary people is a feature, not a bug. It didn’t work with Saddam—in fact, it strengthened him by giving him an external excuse for the failures of his regime).

5. “If you criticize NATO, you a Russian bot or a Trump supporter.” This is nonsense. Actual “radical Leftists” are internationalists who simultaneously criticize both NATO imperialism in and the petro-capitalist and kleptocratic gangster regime in Moscow. The aforementioned RCP, for example, says that “both the US and Russia are oppressive imperialist powers, and both lie all the time about what they are doing and why… In a heinous act dripping with hypocrisy,” the RCP elaborates, “Vladimir Putin announced he was sending in his army to ‘demilitarize and de-Nazify’ Ukraine. This is nothing but grotesque imperialist bullshit to justify a move to protect the capitalist-imperialist interests of Russia.” Imagine that: hating two things at the same time! Code Pink also performs the trick of chewing gum and walking at the same time: it denounces both the Russian invasion and NATO presence in Eastern Europe

6. “The US should send more military forces to NATO states on the borders of Russia and Ukraine to deter further Russian aggression into Europe.” No. Putin shows no sign of wanting to set the world on fire by crashing into NATO space. Beefing up the direct US military presence on Russia and Ukraine’s border adds more paranoia-enhancing fuel to Putin’s fire. It increases the chilling possibility of direct military engagement between the world’s two leading nuclear weapons powers, who together possess the capacity to blow up the planet many times over.

7. “The US and NATO should impose a No-Fly Zone over Ukraine.” The retiring United States Representative and apparent warmongering lunatic Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) went on television last week to call for this. This wild-eyed notion is shared by other Western Ukraine- defenders. It’s an insane and reckless idea. Hey, what could go wrong after a NATO/US F-35 takes down a Russian fighter jet over Odessa? With Putin not-so subtly reminding the West that he possesses a giant nuclear arsenal and the US headed by a doddering mediocrity struggling with low approval tares as his nation’s fading global hegemony is challenged, this is no time for provoking air-battles between the world’s two leading nuclear powers! Kinzinger needs a check-up from the neck up. Any elected official calling for a No-Fly Zone over Ukraine should be forced to rescind that call or resign for advocating a policy that could lead to the end of human civilization.

Putin and his “left” bobbleheads

Now let’s turn to five foolish and false claims emanating from the Russian and Putin-fan side, which creepily includes no small number of “left”-identified and mostly white male Americans writing for or posting from media outlets that shamelessly channel Russian talking points for US and Western consumption.

8. “It was warmongering Western hysteria and shameless captivity to CIA propaganda to warn of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.” I read countless comments almost exactly like this and again and again on the social media accounts of numerous self-identified lefties and supposed anti-imperialists in the days and weeks leading up to Putin’s invasion. What’s there to say to this claim now except, to use the well-known acronym from phone text and online communication? LOL (short for “laugh out loud”)?

9. “Putin had no choice but to invade Ukraine.” This is absurd. There was no sudden or immediate move to join NATO (or any other immediate precipitating action) on Ukraine’s part close and prior to the invasion. There are numerous other ways in which Putin could have responded to NATO’s ongoing imperialist (yes) and (yes) provocative presence in Eastern Europe. He could have doubled down on diplomatic pressure, threatened to withhold gas and oil from Europe or boost the price of Russian petroleum, launched a new and smart public relations campaign against NATO expansion, stopped and re-set after recognizing the two “independent” republics in Eastern Ukraine and more. How about just cool his jets and wait for the fascist Amerikaner Party of Putin fan Trump to take back full US-national power in 2024-25? The notion that he had no option but to launch a multi-pronged full-scale criminal invasion causing terror and death in Ukraine (including Russian troop fatalities) is pathetic on a scale that almost defies belief. Yes, it’s a complex situation in which many key forces and actors have put explosives in place, but Putin did not need to press the detonator. As the Russian-speaking anti-imperialist and CounterPuncher Eric Draitser recently said in one of his highly informative podcasts on the Ukraine Crisis:

The left is almost entirely clueless when it comes to the real issues here. Yes of course NATO expansion terrible. Nobody on the Left would support the continued expansion of NATO which is a belligerent power and a threat. But the idea that Putin was forced to make this move is ludicrous apologia for the Kremlin. This not exactly the kind of thing that should be supported by any honest left-wing voices. This is something that needs to be condemned. This is imperialism. And we need to be very, very, very clear about that. If you call yourself an anti-imperialist and you’re cheering on the Russians, you’re a liar, a fake, a hypocrite, and a disgusting piece of garbage. There are people who are going to die because of this decision that Putin made—this absolutely unilateral choice that Putin made. He didn’t have to do this.

10. “Ukraine is a Nazi, fascist, and genocidal state and Russia is engaged in a great anti-fascist and anti-genocide struggle by attacking it.” This is childish Kremlin propaganda that many online “leftists” seem perfectly happy to spit out in defense of Putin’s invasion. Yes, there is a disturbing far-right fascist and neo-Nazi presence in some influential Ukrainian positions. But, no, Ukraine is not a neo-Nazi fascist state. It is a diverse, complex, and (yes) significantly corrupt effort at civic nationalist (not ethno-nationalist) bourgeois democracy with a Jewish president who has ancestors who perished in the Nazi Holocaust. Russia and Russian politics contain significant fascist, parties, and elements and characteristics, as do the United States, Western Europe, and Brazil. A clumsy but actual fascist who took critical advice from fascists like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and Michael Flynn held the US White House between 2017 and 2021, but that did not make the United States a fascist nation during those years. That fascist president, Donald Trump, had and retains great respect and even envy for Putin, whose authoritarian and white nationalist politics check off numerous boxes on the fascist political playlist, and whose invasion of Ukraine seems like something out of Hitler’s foreign policy playbook. Ukraine is not committing genocide is Eastern Ukraine. Russian speaking people in Eastern Ukraine have received terrible and bloody treatment but calling this “genocide” is absurdly over the top and stretches the meaning of the word beyond recognition. As “Comrade Redbeard” writes at People’s Voice, “I suggest Putin put his own house in order before he starts anywhere else. There’s an awful lot of swastika sporters walking around free and proud in Russia. Protecting ethnic Russians from genocide? The anti-Russian ultranationalists wield a frightening amount of power in the streets of Ukraine, but they are a minority and in no position to carry out a genocide.”

11. “Ukraine isn’t a real country.” Nonsense: Ukraine is a real country, with a distinct if diverse ethnic and territorial base formed during and after the 1917 Russian Revolution and consolidated in the wake of the collapse of Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. It has been a fully independent and non-federated state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The significant resistance Ukrainian armed forces and civilians are putting up against the Russian invasion is richly suggestive of a very real national identity.

12. “Ukraine is just a puppet of the United States.” While Ukraine receives significant US economic and military assistance, that is a gross exaggeration. Ukraine is a sizeable independent nation situated between imperial power blocs, trying to pursue its own interests in strategic fashion. Its intermediate position grants it leverage and its long history of struggle and imperial oppression (from Russia and Germany alike) gives it lessons in the battle to survive in the world of competing nations and empires.

FOX and Friends

Then there’s the malevolent and moronic, ecocidal crap coming out of the minds and mouths of Trump, Trumpists, and FOX News.

13. “Putin is a strategic genius. His invasion is brilliant.” Putin-admiring white-nationalist Republifascists like Donald Trump and Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have voiced sentiments along those lines. The praise appears to be misplaced. As of this writing, it seems distinctly possible that Putin miscalculated. His action appears to have potential to become a strategic and political fiasco for him—a quagmire replete with thousands of Russian conscript casualties, an angry Russian population, irate Russian oligarchs, and embarrassed military commanders. Putin may have underestimated at least three key things: Ukraine’s capacity and will to resist, the West’s capacity to stand together in opposition, and the willingness of middle-class Russians to resist a criminal war against fellow Slavs with whom Russia has many cultural and familial links. The invasion is unpopular with Russians, with thousands risking arrest by protesting in the streets and public squares. Russia’s powerful partner, China, has urged Putin to negotiate with Ukraine. Putin can’t even get the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, whose elites he recently bailed out with a military intervention, to join his war. Western talking heads are not indulging in pure fantasy by discussing the possibility of Putin losing legitimacy with his fellow oligarchs and military commanders. The oligarchs are facing significant losses from Western sanctions against Russian elites, banks (including the Russian central bank), pipelines and more. The military is looking at potential humiliation some top generals are likely to blame on Putin.

14. “This wouldn’t have happened if Trump was president.” The risible Trump bootlicker and repulsive grifter Glenn Greenwald has gone on his favorite media outlet Fatherland (FOX) News to make this claim. It’s more than a little bizarre: not only was Trump’s presidency notoriously close and even outwardly acquiescent towards Putin, but the tangerine-tinted tyrant’s first impeachment resulted from him getting caught trying to make US military assistance to Ukraine contingent on Zelensky somehow digging up political dirt on Joe Biden. The more likely scenario under a second Trump term would have been a Russia-allied White House providing cover and even assistance for Russian moves into Ukraine.

Perhaps Putin wouldn’t have felt compelled to go in at all because he would have felt safe against NATO expansion by the presence of his fellow NATO critic Trump in the White House. Okay, so therefore we want an eco-cidal white nationalist and neo-fascist—a man accurately described by Greenwald’s former friend Noam Chomsky as “the most dangerous criminal in human history”—still in the world’s most powerful and dangerous job, the US presidency? Really?

15. “Biden and Europe are not being tough enough in responding to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine because the West is too dependent on Russian oil. The West is excessively dependent on Russian oil because it has been brainwashed into believing in the hoax of climate change by leftist environmentalists. Russia’s invasion shows that we need to smash the radical left Democrats and dig up and burn more fossil fuels.” This is the eco-cidal argument being made by the militantly fossil-capitalist climate deniers and planet-cookers at FOX News. Beyond the question of how tough the West is or isn’t being on Russia (the sanctions aren’t squat and neither are the arms being sent to Ukraine), it absurdly portrays Biden and his fellow petro-imperialist Dems as left environmentalists while using Putin’s invasion as a rationalization for accelerating the process, already well underway, of turning the entire planet intro a Greenhouse Gas Chamber.

Which reminds me of another line from those young Germans of 1848:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.

This article originally appeared on


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