When the Russians began their invasion of Ukraine, it seemed to me to be a no-brainer regarding how progressive forces should respond. After all, the Russians violated international law–quite openly—and it was carried out by a regime that increasingly has the characteristics of a semi-fascist cabal. Thus, I was stunned by some of the responses to the invasion, including from people that I had known for years and, in some cases, considered comrades.
What was at stake in this weird combination of silence, ambivalence, and, in some cases, complicity with regard to the Russian aggression? To a great extent it is related to a form of linear or one-dimensional thinking, i.e., our principal opponent, namely U.S. imperialism, must be our only opponent. Further, that we must take issue with every foreign policy advanced by the United States.
The difficulty with such an approach is that it converges with isolationism rather than internationalism, and it also is myopic in not appreciating that there can be multiple enemies at any one moment. And, in response to multiple enemies, one must identify, in concrete circumstances, who or what is the main opponent. In the Haitian Revolution, for instance, the enemy alternated between the French, British, and the Spanish. As C.L.R. James wrote, in the iconic Black Jacobins, at different moments the Haitian revolutionaries had to make dramatic adjustments such that the enemy of yesterday might not be the enemy of today.
For many of us on the left side of the aisle in the United States, such an approach seems overly burdensome. It is far easier to simply declare that we should oppose anything that the United States does overseas, full stop.
Interestingly, this sort of approach is not new and, prior to World War II, found support in segments of oppressed communities. I am referencing the pro-Japanese movement that University of Massachusetts Professor Ernest Allen has documented, a movement that grew in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). The Japanese victory sent shockwaves throughout the colonial and semi-colonial worlds, as well as within Black America. A country from among the “darker races” had defeated a white, European power!! This compelling image obscured the fact that an imperial Japanese project was being undertaken which, while in opposition to European and U.S. imperialisms, was in no way a champion of self-determination and freedom. For many, however, the “enemy of my enemy was my friend.”
The Ukraine Solidarity Network was recently formed with a different approach and framework. Our framework begins not with justifications for spheres of influence, but the notion that great power domination must be explicitly opposed through support for the right of nations to self-determination. Violations of that right, and violations of international law regarding the sovereignty of nations, needs to be opposed by supporting those who are the victims of aggression. Indeed, the victims of aggression have the right to engage in resistance to the violators of international law. You can read our mission statement below.
Many of our friends on the left have ignored the notion of the right to national self-determination, in the case of Ukraine, in part because of an ignorance of the historic colonial and semi-colonial relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and in part due to our shared opposition to NATO expansion into eastern Europe. NATO expansion was not justified and fostered the instability of the region.
Yet NATO expansion into eastern Europe was not the reason for the war or, in effect, a justification for the Russian invasion. That would be like saying that the 1919 Versailles Treaty ending World War I caused, if not justified, Hitler invading Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland. In other words, such a linear argument would ignore any agency on the part of the supporters of Nazism and place the entire matter of the origins of World War II on that treaty. Few people would accept such an argument.
Russian President Putin was fairly clear as to his objectives, prior to the invasion and on the night of the invasion, in declaring that Ukraine was a national fiction. Putin went further in denouncing the arguments that had been raised by Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin in favor of national self-determination. In effect, Putin was arguing for a Russian sphere of influence. The last time that I checked, left and progressive forces were supposed to stand in opposition to spheres of influence.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought to the surface tensions that have been haunting the Western left and progressive movements for years. Fundamentally, the question becomes one of whether there can be multiple enemies of the world’s oppressed and, secondly, whether the proliferation of opponents of U.S. imperialism—regardless of the nature of these opponents—is a good thing that should be supported.
In 1937, the great African American progressive scholar W.E.B. Dubois was prepared to applaud the alleged social accomplishments of the Japanese occupied puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria), the same year as the Japanese “rape of Nanjing,” one of the most notorious horrors of the World War II era. All of this, apparently, in the name of recognizing Japan’s alleged right to its own empire, an empire of a people of the “darker races,” an empire that was prepared to crush the forces of progress. In other words, the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, regardless of how nefarious. Dubois later regretted this stand.
A final point. In the face of aggression, does a nation have the right to resist? Should they have such a right, do they have the right to obtain the weapons that are needed, or must they engage in a purity test in order to guarantee that the weapons are from a non-imperialist source?
The Ukraine Solidarity Network, unapologetically, believes that the victims of aggression have every right to defend themselves and should receive the support of those who support national self-determination and justice. To do anything else means, in effect, calling for the victims of aggression to surrender. Such an approach is completely unacceptable.
Ukraine Solidarity Network Mission Statement
Solidarity with Ukraine!
THE UKRAINE SOLIDARITY NETWORK (U.S.) reaches out to unions, communities and individuals from diverse backgrounds to build moral, political and material support for the people of Ukraine in their resistance to Russia’s criminal invasion and their struggle for an independent, egalitarian and democratic country.
The war against Ukraine is a horrible and destructive disaster in the human suffering and economic devastation it has already caused, not only for Ukraine and its people but also in its impact on global hunger and energy supplies, on the world environmental crisis, and on the lives of ordinary Russian people who are sacrificed for Putin’s war. The war also carries the risk of escalation to a direct confrontation among military great powers, with unthinkable possible consequences.
It is urgent to end this war as soon as possible. This can only be achieved through the success of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion. Ukraine is fighting a legitimate war of self-defense, indeed a war for its survival as a nation. Calling for “peace” in the abstract is meaningless in these circumstances.
The Ukraine Solidarity Network (U.S.) supports Ukraine’s war of resistance, its right to determine the means and objectives of its own struggle – and we support its right to obtain the weapons it needs from any available source. We are united in our support for Ukraine’s people, their military and civilian defense against aggression, and for the reconstruction of the country in the interests of the majority of its population. We stand in opposition to all domination by powerful nations and states, including by the United States and its allies, over smaller ones and oppressed peoples.
We uphold the following principles and goals:
1) We strive for a world free of global power domination at the expense of smaller nations. We oppose war and authoritarianism no matter which state it comes from, and support the right of self-determination and self-defense for any oppressed nation.
2) We support Ukraine’s victory against the Russian invasion, and its right to reparations to meet the costs of reconstruction after the colossal destruction it is suffering.
3) The reconstruction of Ukraine also demands the cancellation of its debts to international financial institutions. Aid to Ukraine must come without strings attached, above all without crushing debt burdens.
4) We recognize the suffering that this war imposes on people in Russia, most intensely on the ethnic and religious minority sectors of the Russian Federation which are disproportionately impacted by forced military conscription. We salute the brave Russian antiwar forces speaking out and demonstrating in the face of severe repression, and we are encouraged by the popular resistance to the draft of soldiers to become cannon fodder for Putin’s unjust war of aggression.
5) We seek to build connections to progressive organizations and movements in Ukraine and with the labor movement, which represents the biggest part of Ukrainian civil society, and to link Ukrainian civic organizations, marginalized communities and trade unions with counterpart organizations in the United States. We support Ukrainian struggles for ensuring just and fair labor rights for its population, especially during the war, as there are no military reasons to implement laws that threaten the social rights of Ukrainians, including those who are fighting in the front lines.
A list of signatories is available here.