It’s Time For Progressives To Talk About Tanks – OpEd


Hard security–the sort of security that involves military force–is not a subject that gets discussed often in left or progressive spaces. In fact, the very concept of security itself is sometimes viewed with suspicion as an “unhelpful framing” that is intrinsically more favorable territory for the right.

This is not without good reason. Like the rest of the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Iraq war, I’m used to “security” being used as a catch-all justification for all manner of foreign military adventures or threats against civil liberties. This applies even in non-military matters. The frame of energy security, for example, is often used to justify delaying the green transition and “keeping the lights on” by all means possible, usually fossil-fuel heavy. This situation has led some progressives to avoid discussing “energy security” at all and instead refer to “energy sovereignty” or “energy democracy.”

Where progressives do talk about security, it is usually to broaden the concept to include what is commonly called “soft security.” Indeed, environmental degradation, climate change, poverty, and ill health are as much, if not more, of a threat to human well-being than military or terrorist threats.

Yet this one-sided approach has led to a situation where progressive voices are weak or absent in spaces where hard security is discussed. Questions around defense, the armed forces, and security are left to generals, conservatives, and the establishment. Participants at elite fora discussing these issues are more likely to encounter progressives outside protesting than in the room.

But from my own country of Georgia (invaded by Russia in 2008), from Ukraine, and from Russia’s entire post-colonial periphery, this situation is untenable. And that means that the Western left, to be a truly international movement, must tackle the issue of hard security head on.

Not the Time to Negotiate with Russian Imperialism

The fiction that the imperial dreams of far-right authoritarians like Putin can be managed solely through diplomacy is no longer tenable. This presents a problem that is especially acute for progressives, whose the impulse, post-Iraq war, has been to push for compromise, negotiations, and diplomatic solutions alone, on the assumption that these should be sufficient.

The problem for advocates of this stance is that, for Russia, international agreements, negotiations, and treaties are near meaningless. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s modus operandi has been to change facts on the ground by military force, tearing up or simply ignoring any agreement or treaty that gets in the way.

Most famously, Russia violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which it promised to “guarantee” Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in exchange for the latter relinquishing nuclear weapons. But other examples demonstrate that this is the rule and not the exception with Russia. The 2008 Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement that ended the Russia-Georgia war required Russian troops to return to their pre-war positions. They never did so, and Russia faced few if any consequences for this. The 2014 Minsk protocol required that Russia “withdraw illegal armed groups and military equipment as well as fighters and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine.” It didn’t happen.

This attitude also applies to non-military matters. In 2012, Russia secured membership in the World Trade Organization by agreeing to allow Swiss customs agents to monitor trade traffic at the borders of territories it illegally occupies in Georgia. It never did this either, again with zero consequences.

Nor can all this be explained by Russia’s perception that the West promised not to expand NATO “one inch” eastward. That phrase was uttered as part of a hypothetical question during an exploratory meeting over German reunification, not contained in a formal agreement. And it was obviated by a subsequent course of negotiation in which Moscow accepted that east German territory would, after unification, be protected by NATO’s Article 5.

Russia doesn’t even respect treaties signed with its allies. In 2020, when Azerbaijani forces bombarded and threatened territory internationally recognised as Armenia in the wake of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russia was obliged to help defend Armenia as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. It did not, instead pursuing closer relations with Azerbaijan.

Russia respects neither international law nor the agreements it signs. It does not respect its neighbors’ right to exist as sovereign, independent states. Russia is the world’s foremost land empire in the classical sense, one that seeks “national greatness” through territorial expansion rather than the more diffuse forms of power that characterize U.S. global influence.

When faced with such a foe, the standard progressive prescriptions don’t cut it. Attempts by progressive or Marxist analysts to explain Russia’s actions purely through the prism of elite class interests, while interesting as attempts to introduce that dimension to the conversation, fall short by ignoring the extent to which Putin’s regime–and, unfortunately, mainstream Russian political culture as a whole–is motivated by non-economic goals. Putin seeks to rebuild the Russian Empire not because Russian oligarchs really require control over the coal mines of Donbas but because he believes in a sort of manifest destiny for Russia as the center of a greater “Russian World.” It is a worldview that has no room for a concept of independent Ukrainian identity and sees non-Slavic nations such as the Georgians in borderline racist, or at least paternalistic, terms as uppity southerners who require the civilizing hand of Moscow.

This means, if countries like Ukraine indeed have the right to survive as independent nations, that progressiveshave to address traditional hard security. This means casting aside the traumas induced by theIraq and Vietnam wars and switching to “Spanish Civil War mode,” drawing on progressive traditions that take seriously the imperative of military force in the face of far-right threats.

In doing this, progressives must also discard the lazy, incoherent mashup of neorealism and Cold War anti-imperialism–ironically popular both among progressives and the ultra-conservative right–that casts Ukraine and other countries in the region as mere pawns in a geopolitical “great game” between the West and Russia. In this fevered fantasy, NATO seeks to “encircle” Russia, which has every reason to fear for its safety. By this token, any action taken to arm Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, or any other country on Russia’s border is an act of provocation, enlisting Russia’s neighbors as a proxy force against it. But the reality is that none of these nations would ever contemplate initiating a conflict with their much-larger neighbor.

A bizarre coalition of anti-imperialists and Kissinger-school realists keep telling us to treat Russia with understanding, recognize its “security concerns” as legitimate, and grant Russia more control of its “near abroad.”.

The Establishment-Progressive Consensus

Many progressives would be surprised at how similar the discourse within “establishment” circles before the Ukraine war, especially in Europe, resembled those within progressive spaces on the subject of how to deal with Russia. And conversely, how different it was to the aggressively expansionist stereotype.

Consider the record of U.S. policy. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, the Obama administration provided only non-lethal assistance to Kyiv. Even an anti-battery radar was modified so that it could not detect artillery fire coming from Russian territory, and Russia was alerted to this in advance. Only in 2018 did the first Javelin anti-tank missiles find their way to Kyiv, a measure that might help blunt a Russian assault but was plainly insufficient to stop it, let alone provide offensive capacity. And Ukraine was forbidden from actually using the Javelins in the then-ongoing conflict in the Donbas. The November 2021 Charter on Strategic Partnership promised nothing in the way of arms transfers (offering only training) and supported only a diplomatic solution to the Crimean issue. Georgia got even less.

The Western establishment, far from flooding Russia’s pro-Western neighbors with support and encouragement to stand up to the Kremlin, has largely left these countries at the mercy of Russia for fear of “provoking the bear.” The West, prioritized relations with the imperial center in Moscow over ties with its fearful former colonies.

This is the philosophy that gave us George Bush Sr.’s “Chicken Kiev speech,” which aimed to keep a reformed USSR intact to ensure “stability.” Later, George W, Bush’s openly embraced Vladimir Putin in the face of mass atrocities in Chechnya. Overall, the West responded minimally after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and started bombing Syria in 2015.

The major westward shifts in countries of the region largely occurred as a result of popular revolutionary uprisings from below, not as a result of Western machinations or elite political consensus (though pro-Western elites did play a role). The infamous “color revolutions,” such as those in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Kyrgyzstan (2005), Armenia (2018), and Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in 2014, may have been supported rhetorically and in a minor way financially through pro-democracy NGOs financed by Western grant-making organizations, but they reflected genuine and strong desires among the populations of these countries to pursue full decolonization from Russia and democratization. It is those desires that pulled the West into the region in “competition” with Russia, and not the converse.

Georgia’s repeated attempts to procure the sorts of weapons that would prove helpful in the event of another Russian invasion–such as anti-tank and air defense capabilities–fell on deaf ears in Washington DC–so much so that the then-Georgian-president was forced to deny that there was an unofficial ban on the sale of weapons to Georgia (though military aid resumed in 2012). The reason for the West’s reticence had nothing to do with human rights. These are countries that regularly sell billions of dollars of high-tech equipment to despotic Gulf regimes currently engaged in an ethically dubious military adventure in Yemen.

Rather, by refusing to provide Russia’s democratic neighbors with the means to defend themselves, the United States was implicitly accepting that such arms sales would be “provocative” to Russia. In fact, NATO, far from acting as the aggressive juggernaut of popular Western leftist fantasy, had de facto refused membership to Ukraine. The 2008 Bucharest Summit resolved that Ukraine and Georgia would one day “be members of NATO,” but it was a purely rhetorical sop to the Bush administration from France and Germany, which  were determined to keep Ukraine out. As John Mearsheimer, no less, admitted in 2015, “NATO expansion is dead.”

Towards a Progressive Conception of Hard Security

Although the Western security establishment has, too slowly, set about providing Ukraine at least some of the arms and training it needs, progressives seemed confused and divided. Some grudgingly accept the need for arms but qualify that they must only be “defensive” or not “advanced,”terms with nebulous military meaning. Others oppose arms entirely.

This has several root causes. First, there is the ghost of influence from sections of the left that consider it their duty, for reasons that are vague and muddled, to support the enemies of the West. This minority is tiny, but vocal.

Second, and more importantly, there is the kneejerk impulse to resist the policies of the West shaped by the disgraceful wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Progressives are wary to be on the same side of a major international issueas those who backed those two disasters.

Third, there is the influence of the pacifist strain in progressive thinking. Pacifists find the very ideas of weaponry and armaments, let alone using them, viscerally distasteful, and overwhelming.

None of these sentiments is important compared to the objective reality that Ukraine, Georgia, and Taiwan face. If the argument for avoiding detailed discussion of how to support the armed resistance to Russian colonial domination boils down to “people we don’t like also support Ukraine” then that argument is as good as lost. The viability of countries rests on physical security, which means, in part, on military capacity. Russia’s 2008 invasion cast a shadow over Georgian politics that has not lifted and made the task of progressives here much harder. Rather than pushing for positive change, Georgian progressives have to fend off Russia-influenced bids to restrict civil freedoms. It is a risible expression of privilege for those who live already in security and comfort to forget those challenges.

Building a progressive position on hard security requires, first, to outflank the establishment on granting Ukraine the military support it needs not only to halt but reverse Russia’s territorial advances.  Military supplies have always been several months behind and left Ukrainian forces in the lurch. British MP Clive Lewis, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, has given an example of this approach. A frozen conflict may suit cynical realists in the West, but it does not suit Ukraine. In such cases, progressives must stand unequivocally with Ukraine, whether that suits the West or not. Progressives must also support granting similar military support and security guarantees to other countries at risk of Russian imperial warmongering–namely Georgia and Moldova. This approach also applies to economic policy and issues of “soft security.” Where neoliberals promote the interests of oligarchic capital over the security of the Ukrainian people, progressives can be the loudest voices of dissent.

Second, progressives need to think deeply about what circumstances warrant the provision of military support, or even military intervention. The abuse of the concept of humanitarian intervention by neoconservatives has led to an overcorrection by progressives in the direction of non-intervention. For every Iraq or Vietnam, there are cases like the Rwandan genocide, where the lack of intervention cost a million lives or the war in Bosnia where Western intervention indisputably halted a genocide. The question of whether to intervene, either by provision of weapons or boots on the ground, is not a simple one with one-size-fits-all answers, or even one that fits into a tidy left-right debate. A principled stance would support genuine democratic struggles against truly genocidal or fascist forces, while rejecting dubious, open-ended arguments for regime change.

Third, progressives need to distinguish themselves from both the establishment and the knee-jerk anti-Western elements by elaborating a vision of progressive overhaul of the defense and security sector. Progressives rightly protest the moral vacuum of the modern arms trade in which multinationals make obscene profits from selling weaponry to despots. But in cases where it’s necessaryto defend the forces of progress and democracy against those very despots, an alternative system is clearly necessary, albeit with more stringent anti-corruption and human rights criteria. Perhaps, more radically, there is room for debate about deeper changes to the structure of ownership and control within the industry as well a reduction in the influence that industry has over foreign policy think tanks.

Finally, concepts of “soft security” and “hard security” need to be integrated into a progressive vision for security as a whole. Democratic security should emphasize the interdependence between hard and soft security and sustain a society that is not only democratic and egalitarian but also more resilient to external attack. A society more at ease in its external security is more likely to pursue more democratic and progressive societal goals. Hence, progressives can argue that environmental justice, economic justice, and equality are security issues, but also that the security sector must be made to serve the interests of society.

Progressives can also sound the alarm when, as is too often the case, security policy is directed toward protecting the interests of elites or serving the security industry itself rather than protecting society. Progressives can confidently argue that the post-9/11 security establishment spent far too much time and money fighting vague and largely-exaggerated threats such as “international terrorism” and “illegal” migration instead of protecting innocent people from forces that would seek to harm them.

This is just the start of an urgently needed conversation. Ukrainian (and many other) lives depend on it. If progressives allow the forces of reaction to dominate the discourse on defense and security, the world will pay a heavy price.

This article was published by FPIF and is the ninth essay in a new series Ukraine and the World, a joint project of FPIF, European Alternatives, and Another Europe Is Possible. The first essay on Ukraine and energy can be found here, the second one on Ukraine and the world order here, the third on Ukraine and non-alignment is here, the fourth is on Russia’s agricultural warfare, the fifth is on the anti-American left and the war in Ukraine, and the sixth on peace plans, the seventh compares the situation in Ukrainetoday with Cuba in 1962, and the eighth looks at the conflict through the lens of the Korean armistice.

Alex Scrivener

Alex Scrivener is the executive director of the Democratic Security Institute based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Before DSI, he worked in a variety of policy, activist and research roles including at Global Justice Now in the UK, the International Criminal Court in the Hague and the BBC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *