An imperial army invaded a neighboring state less than a week ago under the absurd farce of “denazification.” Ukraine’s actual “crime”? Its people leading two pro-democracy revolutions (in 2004 and in 2014), democratically electing a president committed to anti-corruption despite serious roadblocks, and a desire to chart its own future. Civilians across the occupied country have shown a level of resistance, humor, and community, in doubt in part due to the country’s people-powered leadership, that is as astonishing as it is inspiring (albeit not unique). The Ukrainian people are the exemplar of people-powered resistance to fascism, courageously banding together to face down one of its more violent and dangerous expressions.
President Vladimir Putin’s invasion is not just one due to unmet security guarantee demands or the Kremlin’s deteriorating ability to control events in its neighboring countries. Rather, it is an outgrowth of a fundamentally racist nationalism with adherents all over the world, including here in the US. Former President Donald Trump and his ilk’s ongoing praise of Putin for his strongman tactics is just the latest evidence that Putin’s appeal is not necessarily kompromat, but also the very idea that if you are strong enough and tough enough, that the world can be recreated into surreality where one certain people rule supreme over all others. This distortion of how the world works (or at least the modern world) is especially appealing adherents to the mythos of American exceptionalism, in which toxic masculinity, white saviorism, and white patriarchy rules above all else — so it’s no wonder Trump Republicans are now Putin Republicans.
THE STRUGGLE ON THE AMERICAN RIGHT
Just like Nazi propaganda before it, Putin’s playbook justifying his invasion mirrors Trump’s for his useless, racist, billions-wasting border wall so his cronies can profit: Manipulate people’s perceived fear of instability and uncertainty (bonus points if the abuser’s previous policies created the problems in the first place) and invoke a historical, ideally hypernationalist mythology of dominance to convince everyday people that an outside force, an outside people, are to blame for their plight, and only retaking what is theirs is the solution. Rather than the truth, this tactic is merely these demagogues projecting their own inferiority complex onto other people more vulnerable than they.
Whereas Putin’s attempt to mobilize the Russian people in his favor on the absurd notion of “liberating” Ukraine appears to be failing both inside and outside of Russia, Trump’s appeals and his media echo chamber continue to successfully mobilize a small, but violent minority of the country, eagerly awaiting its next opportunity to implement its extreme agenda — through force if necessary. Trump’s capture of the Republican Party was complete when, less than a month ago, the GOP’s national committee declared the violent insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021 “legitimate political discourse.”
Putin’s imperialism is merely the most extreme expression of the same type of state violence that Black and brown people experience everyday in America, all of it in service of maintaining a system of racial and ethnic supremacy.
Much like Putin’s oligarchs, Trump’s oligarchs appear willing to tolerate just about anything in order to take power. There’s little reason to wonder why. After all, many of these oligarchs have insinuated themselves amongst the other white collar oligarchs, criminals, and tax evaders galavanting around the world, stashing their money in US, European, and Caribbean tax havens, and laundering their corrupt money abroad through cultural and political purchases and donations. It is not conspiracy to connect the dotted line from Putin’s hack of the Republican National Committee in 2016, Russian oligarch campaign donations to Republican (and Democratic) politicians, whatever the hell happened in Helsinki, and the fact that a growing percentage of one major political party has not only embraced racist authoritarianism but seems to now rely on the supremacy of one over the rest.
THE STRUGGLE ON THE AMERICAN LEFT
Yet, despite these clear markers of a growing, global campaign to subvert unresponsive democratic systems and/or freed former colonies to fascistic, primarily racial-religious authoritarianism to maintain the power of the ruling class, there are pockets on the Left who have somehow convinced themselves that expressing solidarity with Ukrainians crosses a line into being part of the pro-war camp.
Some parts of the American Left have failed to distinguish between the evil of imperialism writ large and the evil of American imperialism. In the case of Ukraine, the argument goes, the post-1991 expansion of NATO is the key provocateur of the current crisis. It subverts Putin’s imperialism, which he articulated as not just a return to a united union of the former Soviet republics, but a reformation of a new Russian empire in his image, to be primarily a response to talk of Ukraine joining NATO, and US and European negotiators not seriously addressing Russian security concerns.
Rather than putting the provocation of NATO expansion as the footnote it deserves in causing this current saga, this view risks missing the bigger context of transnational, ultra ethno-religious nationalist forces pursuing supremacy no matter the costs to society. It misses the clear solidarity progressives should feel when we see other states use violence to oppress working people demanding the freedom to thrive. The fact that the US’ pursuit of global hegemony at all costs has caused devastation that has helped drive global insecurity does not excuse Putin’s grotesque invasion, nor his or other strongmen’s weaponization of devastation in their own pursuit of power.
The kindling for the geopolitical tinder box in Eastern Europe, just as it is in most other places throughout the world, is truly about everyday people rising up for their right to determine their own future. In the case of Ukraine, it has been the Ukrainian people’s decision to chart a new course. Putting aside the mental gymnastics required to reach this position, this narrow view of solidarity fundamentally misunderstands what Putin’s invasion represents for working people everywhere, especially for our struggle for democratic renewal here at home.
HOLDING A MIRROR
Trying to bomb away Ukrainian democracy has so far failed to produce the progress Putin desires politically or militarily, escalating the stakes as the mercurial strongman focuses on saving his delusions of grandeur on which his own future now relies. But Putin’s imperialism is merely an extreme expression of the same type of state violence that Black and brown people experience every day globally, in service of maintaining a system of racial and ethnic supremacy. In invading Ukraine — whose people already led two separate people-powered revolutions to secure their democratic future — Putin, like many other strongmen before him, has gravely underestimated the will of a free people to resist bondage.
Just as with resisting white nationalists from taking over our government, it is imperative that we expand our conversation from being only about how much money are we going to give Ukraine’s military to one where the question is how can we best invest in Ukraine’s democratic future, especially in the long-term amidst potential authoritarian winter. The task force targeting Russian oligarchs and illicit financial flows is critical: In the immediate term to create fissures undermining Putin’s domestic support for the invasion, and in the long-term, as Putin’s corruption will only be addressed if the US and Europe also addresses its own corruption.
Support, however, can’t stop at punitive measures or cleaning up our side of the street. Let’s expand on current models of peacebuilding trust funds and create one for Ukrainian and Eastern European to not only support civil society capacity expansion, protection, and powerbuilding in the long-term, but also investing in addressing fragility and conflict before it turns into violence. Just as USAID is localizing and increasing the flexibility of 25% of its foreign assistance so as to increase ownership and expand the resilience of changemakers in the long-term, US policymakers should apply this approach globally and seeking to decolonize the global assistance systems to better support the people on the ground closest to the solutions and the harm.
Throughout history, brave peoples and communities have been forced to turn to civil resistance and civil-based defense as their only means of physical, let alone psychological or socio-economic security in the face of state violence. Ukraine is no different and failing to see their struggle for freedom as mirroring our own is not only short-sighted, it’s a danger to us all.
Kate Kizer is a progressive foreign policy writer and strategist, and a columnist at Inkstick.