A full-page ad in the May 16, 2023 New York Times exemplifies the moral bankruptcy and imperial arrogance of some well-funded groups on the authoritarian Left and the pacifist anti-war movement who oppose solidarity with Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion.
The ad was placed by the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), which is conducting a media campaign featuring former military, intelligence, and national security officials. They call for the U.S. to end military aid for Ukraine’s self-defense and to use U.S. diplomatic power to impose a peace settlement. EMN’s principal donor is Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, who has given EMN more than $1 million. The cost of a full-page ad in the New York Times is upwards of $150,000.
The moral bankruptcy of the ad is rooted in its purported neutrality between the aggressor and its victim. “We reject the idea that diplomats, seeking peace, must choose sides, in this case either Russia or Ukraine,” the ad says.
In reality, the genocidal nature of Russia’s war to recolonize Ukraine was made clear by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his February 21, 2022 speech justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here he made claims that he and other Kremlin leaders have been making repeatedly for many years. They assert that Ukraine is not a real nation apart from Russia and is merely a fiction created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The genocidal intentions of Russia’s invasion were reinforced in an article by veteran Russian ultra-nationalist Timofey Sergeytsev. The article is entitled “What should Russia do with Ukraine?” It was published by the state-owned Kremlin news agency RIA Novosti on April 3, 2022, the same day the Bucha mass murders of Ukrainian civilians by Russian occupiers became public.
Sergeytsev wrote, “Denazification will inevitably include de-ukrainization,” which, he explained, means “A significant number of common people are also guilty of being passive Nazis and Nazi accomplices.… [Ukraine’s elites] must be liquidated as they cannot be reeducated and the social swamp that backed them must be subject to the terror of war and made to pay for their crimes.”
To ferret out people loyal to Ukraine in the Russian-occupied territories, Ukrainian citizens are subject to filtration camps where those who remain loyal to Ukraine are detained, interrogated, and often subject to forced labor, torture, rape, execution, and/or deportation to Russia, with abducted children sent to Russian re-education camps. The Nuremeburg International Military Tribunal for Germany declared following World War II, that wars of aggression are “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” In Russia’s war of aggression, Ukrainian prosecutors have already identified 80,000 discrete war crimes they want to prosecute.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine reported in March that these war crimes include “attacks on civilians and energy-related infrastructure, willful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and other sexual violence, as well as unlawful transfers and deportations of children.”
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported last November that 14 million Ukrainians, a third of the Ukrainian people, had been driven from their homes by the Russian invasion. If the ad’s military experts cannot choose sides between the violence of the Russian aggressors and the self-defense of the Ukrainian people, they have no ethics worth respecting. The ad implores U.S. diplomats and its readers to not choose sides between the Russian war criminals and their Ukrainian victims. But in these circumstances, neutrality is complicity in Russia’s genocidal war of aggression.
The ad rejects taking sides between Russia and Ukraine, but it does not reject the imperial arrogance of presuming that the U.S. can use its diplomatic power to pacify Ukraine. “As Americans and national security experts,” the ad reads, “we urge President Biden and Congress to use their full power to end the Russia-Ukraine War speedily through diplomacy.” What Ukrainians have to say about a just peace settlement is nowhere considered in the ad, reflecting a colonial mindset where only the geopolitical interests of imperialist powers count. What the natives want do not matter.
Instead of considering Ukrainian voices, the ad is a long narrative about, as one of the sub-headings reads, “Seeing the War Through Russia’s Eyes.” That it surely does, for example, by calling U.S. arms to Ukraine “fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.” This characterization quotes without attribution the quip often voiced by Russian leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and chair of the international affairs committee of the Russian parliament Leonid Slutsky.
The Russians, in turn, picked up this catchphrase from their ideological fellow travelers among American conservatives like Ron Paul and Tucker Carlson as well as establishment diplomats and professors like Chas Freeman and John Mearshimer. Others who have also taken to repeating this platitude, like Noam Chomsky, Medea Benjamin, and The Grayzone, are on the fringe of the campist Left and peace movements that oppose the U.S.-led imperialist camp of the West with support for the supposedly anti-imperialist camp of the rest, no matter how oppressive, exploitative, and indeed imperialist those governments may be.
The ad’s passive “understanding” for Russia’s aggression is passive-aggressive pacifism. “The immediate cause of this disastrous war in Ukraine is Russia’s invasion. Yet the plans and actions to expand NATO to Russia’s borders served to provoke Russian fears.” In other words, Russia invaded but blamed NATO.
The same passive-aggressive pacifism is exhibited early in the text where it calls for U.S. diplomacy to end the war before “the war” goes nuclear. It does not acknowledge that it is only Russia that has been making nuclear threats (or is indeed the only nuclear power). The point is to scare the hell out of people so they will pressure the U.S. to make Ukraine concede compromises that accept Russian annexations of Ukrainian lands in order to stop a nuclear war. The ad ignores the dire consequences for nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, and preventing nuclear war if Russia’s nuclear bullying succeeds. The lessons drawn will be the same lessons that Iran and North Korea drew following the invasions of Iraq and Libya after the latter two nations abandoned their nuclear weapons programs.
The imperialist outlook of the ad is exhibited in a graphic showing NATO military bases in Europe juxtaposed next to hypothetical Russian military bases in Canada and Mexico, asking “What if the Shoe Were on the Other Foot?” Although the European graphic shows no U.S. or NATO military bases in Ukraine because there are none, the implicit message is that Russia should have its own sphere of influence in Eastern Europe just like the U.S. has its own sphere of influence in the Americas under the Monroe Doctrine. Here the ad accepts the imperialist doctrine that the big powers have the right to divide the world up between them into their own spheres of influence over smaller nations. It would be one thing if the ad advocated U.S./Russia negotiations toward mutual security and disarmament agreements. It is another to excuse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by implying the U.S. would be justified in invading Mexico and Canada if they hosted Russian bases.
The ad includes a misleading timeline of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the aggressive U.S. nuclear policies of unilaterally withdrawing from three nuclear arms control treaties and placing missile launching sites in Poland and Romania. These moves deserve criticism and protest, but they do not justify Russia’s invasion. The timeline leaves out many other events crucial to understanding the conflict, starting with 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine gave up to Russia the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in return for promises from Russia, the U.S, the UK, France, and China to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. Russia reaffirmed that promise in the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Friendship Treaty.
What most Ukrainians view as a popular revolution in 2014 against corruption, oligarchy, and police brutality by a Russian-backed kleptocrat, Victor Yanukovyh, is framed “as a coup by U.S. and NATO nations.” Russia’s immediate initiation of its war on Ukraine following the revolution—with its military intervention in Crimea and the Donbas—is not mentioned in the timeline. Neither is the passive response from the U.S. and NATO countries to this aggression. The timeline for the 2015 to 2020 period only notes a U.S. troop build-up in Europe by Obama in 2015, which was more than reversed by President Trump in 2020, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies treaties under Trump. Listing only these events is misleading. The basic policy of the U.S. and NATO countries toward Russia’s low-intensity war in Ukraine was passive. Here is what the Obama Doctrine in Ukraine meant at that time according to President Obama himself:
Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp….The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.
So much for alleged U.S. support for democracy and the right of nations like Ukraine to self-determination. Germany’s Russia policy under Angela Merkel focused on deepening economic ties with Russia, including building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This was seen as both in the interests of the German economy and (wrongly) as a deterrence on further Russian aggression in Ukraine because it would jeopardize Russia’s own economic interests.
The next-to-last event on the timeline claims the U.S. rejected Russian negotiation proposals “immediately.” The Russian proposals of December 17 are better described as demands, with Russian insisting that the U.S. withdraw NATO forces back to their pre-1997 military footprint or else—the “or else” being the 150,000 Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s border. Russia insisted on “negotiating” only with the U.S., which could not have accepted and enforced Russia’s demands on behalf of NATO’s 31 member nations. The U.S. and NATO did immediately respond, saying some of Russia’s proposals had merit and were worth negotiating. They sent coordinated written responses on January 27 on the disarmament and European-wide security concerns that Russia had raised.
However, Putin had already signed off on battle plans for the Ukraine invasion on January 18, as Ukraine found out from Russian battle plans captured during the first week of the full-scale invasion. Volodymyr Artiukh and Taras Fedirko, members of Ukraine’s democratic socialist organization Soltsianyi Rukh, reviewed this diplomatic episode, while also assessing the negotiations of the 2014-2015 Minsk Accords and the peace deal on the table at the end of March 2022. In their article, “No, the West Didn’t Halt Ukraine’s Peace Talks With Russia,” they conclude that “in Russia’s repertoire, diplomacy has consistently been subordinated to the use of force.” But only Russian views, not Ukrainian, are part of the timeline presented by the ad. The last point on the timeline notes the Russian invasion started on February 22, 2022. Yet for Ukrainians, February 24 marks Russia’s full-scale invasion in a war that started in 2014 with Russia’s military interventions in Crimea and the Donbas.
Much of the ad cites many warnings over the years by national security elites—from George Kennan and Henry Kissinger to the current CIA director William Burns—about Russia’s likely military reaction to NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. Much should be criticized about the U.S. policy toward Russia since the 1990s. Instead of diplomacy to establish a mutually beneficial pan-European security agreement, what the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed as a Common European Home at the time of German reunification in 1989, NATO pursued military expansion against Russia. But instead of advocating for a return to that broader diplomatic agenda with Russia, the ad calls for “an immediate ceasefire and negotiations.” From the context of the ad, it is clear that this means U.S./Russia negotiations over Ukraine. Nowhere does the ad indicate the Ukrainians have any role in negotiations. They are calling on U.S. imperialists to negotiate with Russian imperialists to carve up and partition Ukraine between them in the interests of “peace.”
The same week that the ad ran, the weekly column of Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin and Nicholas Davies was about the ad and pushed the same agenda. The column exhibits the same moral failures and the same deafness to Ukrainian appeals for anti-war solidarity. The call for a ceasefire and negotiations we hear from EMN and Medea Benjamin is really a call for the U.S. to use the leverage of its military and economic aid to force Ukraine to accept compromise based on Ukrainian land concessions to Russia. Benjamin premises her case by saying that Ukraine taking back the Russian-occupied territories “is just not going to happen” and that therefore Ukraine must compromise and accept a land-for-peace deal that leaves much Ukrainian land under Russian occupation. What the Ukrainian people want is not considered. In fact, they overwhelmingly reject territorial concessions, by an 87% to 9% margin in the most recent of five surveys conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology between May 2022 and February 2023. All five surveys have consistently shown similar opinions.
The contradictions in this approach have been highlighted by John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus:
[T]hese pundit-activists believe, with [Madeline] Albright, that America is the indispensable nation in this conflict, that it has the power to force a ceasefire, negotiate a peace, and remake the European security order. This naïve belief in the power of American empire flows from a mistaken understanding of the role the United States has played in Ukraine (that it stage-managed the “coup” in 2014, that it has single-handedly blocked potential peace negotiations since the invasion last year). According to this argument, even if the United States used its preponderant power for “evil” in the past, it can turn around like a super villain that has seen the light and use this preponderant power for “good.” In this way, a false reading of the past produces nonsense policy recommendations today.
So far a strong majority of progressive- and peace-minded people in the U.S. still supports military and economic aid for Ukraine’s self-defense. The progressive solidarity groups are working to build moral, political, and material support in social and labor movements for the people of Ukraine in their resistance to Russia’s invasion and their struggle for independence, democracy, and social justice. Those of us in the solidarity movement know from listening to our comrades in Ukraine’s progressive social and labor movements that Ukraine faces a two-front struggle against both Russia’s primarily military imperialism and the West’s primarily economic imperialism, which is manifested in Ukraine’s huge foreign debt and the neoliberal privatization, austerity, and deregulation policies of Ukraine’s government. We oppose both Russian imperialism and U.S.-led Western imperialism. While we advocate military support from any source to the Ukraine government and its armed forces for its resistance to the Russian invasion, we give our political support to Ukraine’s progressive social and labor movements who, as the Ukrainian socialist Denis Pilash puts it, are fighting both “Russian tanks and Western banks.”
A longer version of this piece first appeared in Tempest.