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How the issue of Ukraine is playing out on the left

Is it permissible to mention NATO expansion when we discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

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Mural in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine. Photo by spoilt.exile/Flickr.

A significant issue that has generated much heated discussion on the left is not over whether Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is justifiable. Few, that is very few, say it is. Rather the key question is whether raising the issue of NATO enlargement distracts from the atrocity of Putin’s aggression. Indeed, some on the left accuse those who raise the issue of NATO of justifying the invasion.

This is the basic claim of an article in New Politics by Taras Bilous titled “A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” that begins with the words “The ‘anti-imperialism of idiots’ meant people turned a blind eye to Russia’s actions.” Bilous takes issue with Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic (as well as New Left Review editor Tariq Ali) for articles that criticized NATO expansionism and in doing so were allegedly soft on Russia. In fact, Marcetic and Jacobin have condemned the Russian invasion (and Putin himself) in no uncertain terms.

The argument for raising the issue of NATO expansion is somewhat weakened by the fact that there is a secondary motive that Putin articulates, namely the claim that Ukraine forms part of Greater Russia, an argument that explicitly negates the principle defended by Lenin of the right of self-determination and specifically the right of succession. Putin has defended the invasion on the basis of the threat posed by NATO expansion but also on the basis of the historical justification of the notion of a Greater Russia.

Nevertheless, the major motive for the invasion is the fear of NATO expansion and what it implies with regard to Russia’s legitimate security concerns. That is, NATO expansion represents an existential threat to Russia, an undeniable fact ignored by those on the left who oppose raising the issue of the alliance at this moment. Ukraine’s membership in NATO would inevitably result in the installation of nuclear bases, a reality exacerbated by Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in effect since 1987.

It is no exaggeration to say that Russia’s very existence is threatened by missile installations in neighbouring countries. In a matter of a few minutes, Russia could be blown off the face of the Earth. Furthermore, membership in NATO means that the US considers an attack on that nation as an attack on US soil. Any border skirmish (such as the one that set off the Korean War) would necessarily involve the US militarily. In short, given this reality, which Russian diplomacy has harped on ever since the first wave of NATO expansion in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, the issue of NATO expansion cannot be placed on a par with Putin’s romantic notions of a Greater Russia.

Indeed, any congent analysis of the official statements by Russian leaders over the last decade in reaction to NATO expansion will clearly indicate that security considerations and not the vision of a Greater Russia was the major issue of concern for them. The mainstream media is now deceptively emphasizing the latter factor and playing down the former.

The anti-war movement needs to raise the issue of NATO expansion because the only way that the war can be resolved is through an agreement that places limits on the expansion of the alliance. Furthermore, the only long-term solution to the threat of war is the abolition of NATO, which ever since the fall of the Soviet Union has been transformed from a defensive pact to an offensive one.

Laying beneath the discussion is another debate of a broader scope and of greater significance in the long run, namely: is Russia an imperialist nation? The word imperialist is getting thrown around a lot in the context of the Ukraine-Russia war and in effect it is being used as synonymous with expansionism.

First, the issue of imperialism has to be divorced from the issue of the lack of democracy in Russia. Imperialism cannot be equated with authoritarian rule. Empires from that of Rome to Great Britain in the nineteenth century to the US today have been considered democratic. Second, if the Russian invasion of Ukraine is essentially about security concerns, as I have argued here, then the use of the term “Russian imperialism” is misleading. Third, Russian intervention at the world level is minuscule in comparison to US interventionism. Russiagate was kid’s stuff at best in comparison to the US’s ongoing violation of national sovereignty on multiple fronts throughout the world. Furthermore, no country comes close to matching American military presence around the globe in the form of 750 military bases and 200,000 troops stationed on foreign soil, as well as the type of military pact that NATO represents and that Washington’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy potentially represents.

The International Marxist Tendency (IMT) points out that Russia prior to 1917 was an imperialist nation even though it was economically backward and indeed semi-feudal. Likewise Russia today is imperialist in spite of its economic backwardness. The problem with this argument is that it inadvertently lets US imperialism off the hook by (again inadvertently) lending itself to Washington’s main talking point. If Russian aggression is comparable to that of the US, then this ‘new Cold War,’ just like the original one, is a battle between democracy (the US, Western Europe and even Israel) against the authoritarian rule of Russia and China. No mention is made of the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine (as despicable as it is) was provoked (most likely intentionally so) by NATO. And no mention is made of the fact that US military and political aggression throughout the world is incomparable with that of any other nation.

Finally, the most important point of all. A century ago, Lenin demonstrated that imperialism is not a policy but an imperative. US imperialism is not the result of the aspirations of individual politicians, be it Bush, Trump or Biden. It is part of the logic of the capitalist system at a given stage. In contrast, the invasion of Ukraine is largely the result of the decision of one individual, namely Putin. Russia as a semi-periphery nation (from an economic viewpoint), dependent on the export of raw materials, cannot be considered imperialist at this stage. This is not a mere academic question. From this proposition flows the pressing need to prioritize the struggle against US imperialism, an enemy that stands in the way of the achievement of nearly all other important goals.

Steve Ellner, a retired professor of the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela, is currently Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives. He is co-editor of Latin American Social Movements and Progressive Governments: Creative Tensions between Resistance and Convergence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

A shorter version of this article was published in Green Left.

I am an organizer with the International Marxist Tendency in Canada, and this is an entirely false representation of our position. We have consistently explained that US-NATO imperialism is the greater force of reaction globally, and have consistently emphasized how NATO expansion has led to this situation. Our slogan, repeated in every article and every public talk, has been “The enemy is at home”—that is, for workers in NATO countries, our enemy is first and foremost our own ruling class. If you visit our website you’ll see that we have an entire article about how NATO provoked the invasion. In our official statement on the invasion we specifically say “It is true that Russia cannot be placed on the same plane as the United States. The US is still the world’s dominant imperialist power by several degrees of magnitude. By comparison, Russia is a small or medium-sized imperialist power. Its economy is not in the same range as that of the US and not even that of the European imperialist powers.”

—Marissa Olanick, March 26, 2022

My article’s paragraph on the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) links to the group’s 19,500-word statement titled “Imperialism Today and the Character of Russia and China.” In it, there is nothing to indicate that the United States is a greater danger to world peace and a greater obstacle to the third-world struggle to achieve national sovereignty than are Russia and China. The entire statement seeks to demonstrate that Russia has become “a powerful and aggressive imperialist state as Tsarist Russia was” and to prove that imperialism has become even more developed in the case of China. In spite of the statement’s extended discussion of the relations between Venezuela and China, there was not one word about Beijing’s defence of the principle of national sovereignty dating back to the 1950s, a position that has led it to denounce the US-imposed deadly sanctions on that nation. Any lengthy statement on the topic of imperialism today needs to differentiate the actions of China and Russia throughout the world with those of the United States.

—Steve Ellner, April 18, 2022


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