Is Lula a pro-Russian “tankie”? Should the Canadian left echo or marginalize his outlook on Ukraine?
Last week, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called on the US and other Western countries to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine. “The United States needs to stop encouraging war and start talking about peace,” he said. “The European Union needs to start talking about peace so that we can convince Putin and Zelensky that peace is in the interest of everyone and that war is only interesting, for now, to the two of them.”
Lula wants to establish a group of like-minded nations, including India, China and Indonesia, “who want peace, a word that has so far been used very little.” As part of this effort, a top adviser recently traveled to Moscow, and Lula spoke with Ukraine’s president to test the waters for negotiations. Brazilia even suggested that ending the war will require a commitment that Ukraine not join NATO and that Crimea remain under Russian control.
President Lula in Beijing: 'US and other countries must stop supplying weapons and encouraging war' pic.twitter.com/LXGDfwgKr8— Kawsachun News (@KawsachunNews) April 15, 2023
The Canadian left has mostly shied away from openly criticizing the strategy of sending offensive military aid to Ukraine, which has resulted in a boom in the global arms trade. Even fewer leftists have pointed to Canada’s support for NATO expansion as a contributing factor that made war in Eastern Europe more, rather than less, likely.
Even if she spoke Portuguese NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Heather McPherson would struggle to have a productive conversation with Lula on Ukraine. McPherson prefers to depict the conflict as a cosmic struggle between good versus evil, and has repeatedly accused Russia of genocide. Some members of the NDP caucus openly agree with McPherson’s stance and do not support negotiations, while the party’s more anti-war figures (Matthew Green, Niki Ashton and Leah Gazan) remain silent.
Green Party co-leaders Elizabeth May and Jonathan Pedneault are only slightly more aligned with the Brazilian president. Despite the party’s constitutional commitment to nonviolence, they have backed sending over $2 billion in arms to fight the Russian military and have expressed opposition to peace talks. Following on the heels of Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Antony Blinken, and Mélanie Joly, among others, Pedneault recently traveled to Ukraine in what he labeled a “democracy” support mission.
In the early months of Russia’s illegal invasion, Todd Gordon, editor of the socialist magazine Midnight Sun, labelled me a “campist” for pointing out Canada’s role in supporting the 2014 coup that ousted Ukraine’s democratically-elected President Viktor Yanukovych. Gordon has suggested that Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion is a national liberation struggle akin to Algeria’s independence movement (with 400,000 French troops in Algeria in 1956 Canada transferred hundreds of thousands of bullets to that country through NATO’s Mutual Aid Program. In fact, Ottawa donated billions of dollars in arms to France, Belgium and Britain as they violently suppressed independence struggles in Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya and elsewhere).
Despite NATO countries pumping at least $80 billion worth of arms and other assistance into Ukraine, a good portion of the Canadian left seems to have no issue with flooding the country with offensive military aid despite the obvious risk of escalation. In an article titled “What divides the Left over Ukraine peace negotiations?” Toronto-based organization PeaceQuest quoted “disarmament advocate” Joe Cirincione, who criticized “a vocal minority of anti-war activists and left experts [who] continue to blame the United States for the war.” According to Cirincione, arming Ukraine is rooted in the same principle that “guided progressive policy during the post-colonial era, including opposition to Western wars in Algeria, Vietnam, [and] Africa.”
Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, British Columbia’s most popular progressive online news outlet The Tyee published a call for Canada to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces. The article conceded that, “Like it or not, Canada is a major arms producer,” and argued that lethal exports bound for the murderous Saudi kingdom should be diverted to a “besieged strategic ally standing up to geopolitical forces fundamentally opposed to the principles of democracy.” I wrote a detailed response which their editors declined to publish. Since then The Tyee has ran at least 20 articles supportive of Canada’s Ukraine policy and only a few mild criticisms.
The same pattern is evident in the digital pages of Canada’s National Observer. A search of their site found over two dozen articles mentioning Ukraine, almost all of which are uncritical of NATO policy. After the sabotage of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline resulted in the largest methane leak in history, the Observer, usually an ecologically-minded publication, ran two articles suggesting Russia was responsible for destroying its own natural gas infrastructure. Another Observer story suggested that only climate change deniers would blame anyone but Moscow for blowing up the pipelines: “Online conspiracy theorists are already alleging it was not Russia that sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines but more likely the eco-zealots at the World Economic Forum, or the White House and European capitals, all part of the larger plot to take away freedom and enforce ‘climate lockdowns.’”
According to a Washington Post report from December, “23 diplomatic and intelligence officials in nine countries” privately admitted there was no evidence of Russian involvement in the pipeline bombing. Meanwhile, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s reporting pointed the finger at Washington. US officials repeatedly expressed opposition to the Nord Stream pipelines and, tellingly, only Russia, China and Brazil supported a recent United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the international body to launch an investigation into the sabotage.
In a sign of how the left treats Lula’s position (and others like it) on Ukraine, the usually union and community group friendly Centre St-Pierre in Montréal cancelled the room rental for a recent talk on the origins of the war in Ukraine. It was supposed to include Université de Montréal history professor Samir Saul, activist Christine Dandenault and myself. Québec Green Party leader Alex Tyrell was set to chair the meeting. The centre initially said I was “pro-Russia” and then cited the risk of a possible counter protest for canceling the booking.
Would the centre have allowed Lula to speak at the event, or cancelled his appearance due his “pro-Russia” perspective? It appears only a small number of Canadian activist groups and independent media outlets are willing to platform the position of probably the world’s most well-known leftist.
Lula’s stance is not some aberration motivated by narrow personal or national interests. Left parties and movements across the Global South have articulated similar positions. “Even if they end up as scrap in Colombia, we will not hand over Russian weapons to be taken to Ukraine to prolong a war,” declared left-wing Colombian President Gustavo Petro in response to a recent US push for his country to deliver arms. “We are not with either side. We are for peace.”
The Canadian left ought to echo Lula’s stance. It is time to end the horrors in Ukraine and push for peace.
Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.