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Ukrainian Socialists Have A Bone To Pick With Lefties In The West

Leftists in Western countries do not understand Ukraine’s complicated relationship with nonproliferation and disarmament.

Words: Terrell Jermaine Starr
Pictures: Artur Voznenko

Vladyslav Starodubtsev is pretty annoyed with lefties in the United States and Europe.

Too many of them, he says, parrot Kremlin talking points that NATO provoked Russia into invading Ukraine (“That’s bullshit,” he told me) and that the West’s refusal to negotiate with President Vladimir Putin will lead to nuclear war. In his view, progressives in the United States and Europe, whom he generally aligns with when it comes to fighting capitalism and supporting workers’ rights, are out of touch when it comes to their regional security, especially when the culprit is not Washington or Brussels. Starodubtsev added many of these people are, to some extent, influenced by the discourse of “tankies” — people who align with authoritarian states while posing as a left-wing. 

A head of the Kyiv branch of the Ukrainian democratic socialist nongovernmental organization, Sotsialnyi Rukh (The Social Movement), Starodubtsev said he and its membership oppose imperial uses of military power and do not support the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But because Russia is their neighbor, the conversion around these issues requires nuance and philosophical compromises that his progressive peers in the West have the privilege to ignore — particularly lefties in the United States. 

“There’s discourse with a lot of anti-war activists and pacifists who say, ‘(Russia) can have Ukrainians, but let us have a world free of nuclear dangers.’ But, in fact, that usually just empowers the possibility of nuclear blackmail,” Starodubtsev said of Putin’s nuclear threats if the West continues to support Ukraine. “If it’s tolerated once, it would happen another time and only motivate other countries to obtain more nuclear weapons. It means a lot of bad signals for the world.” 

Be it progressive elected officials in Congress or anti-war activists leading anti-NATO protests in the streets, Ukrainian socialists argue the conversation about a progressive policy on Ukraine has largely been dominated by Americans and Europeans and ignores their views completely. Such a stronghold on the discourse erases Ukrainian progressive viewpoints and strips them of their agency and self-determination, many socialists in Ukraine have expressed. 

Presidential candidate Cornel West’s recent statements blaming NATO for Russia’s invasion and suggesting that Kyiv cedes occupied land to Moscow really annoyed the Ukrainian left. CODEPINK co-founder Media Benjamin, whose organization has led several protests blaming NATO for the Russian invasion, quote-tweeted support for West’s words. Democratic Socialists of America have been especially vocal about blaming NATO for provoking Russia into the invasion. Many progressive members of Congress have pushed for more diplomacy with Moscow, even though Putin has never shown good-faith interest in such talks. 

Progressives here in Ukraine argue that Russia’s invasion of their homeland has exposed the limitations of Western progressive thought on fighting imperialism when Western actors aren’t at play. 

“I know that the left tends to look for a nefarious US plot behind everything. Of course, I think it’s important to analyze every conflict to understand all the players, the dynamics, and who’s culpable,” Alona Liasheva, a sociologist and researcher of urban political economy at The Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen, said in an interview with Truthout. “In the case of Ukraine, it’s far simpler than many on the left think. Ukraine was attacked by an imperialist army, and as a result we are in a struggle to defend our lives and our very right to exist as a sovereign nation.”

Traditionally, the left has taken a strong stance against militarization that usually unites them globally. Be it Iraq, Libya, Vietnam, or other conflicts, progressive voices found it easy to point to the West as the primary target. But progressives here in Ukraine argue that Russia’s invasion of their homeland has exposed the limitations of Western progressive thought on fighting imperialism when Western actors aren’t at play. 

This has created a chasm between activists in the West who are used to assigning blame to Washington or Brussels for abusing the Middle East or the Global South versus Ukrainians who say the atrocities they are experiencing don’t garner the same sympathy. Maksym Eristavi, a Ukrainian activist and co-host of the Ukrainian Spaces podcast, told me in an interview last year that Ukrainians are not traditionally viewed as people of color, and this may prevent many in the West from seeing Russia’s colonialism for what it is.  

“The experiences that you have to deal with linked to colonialism, even if you’re not a person of color, very eerily resemble the dynamic,” he said. “I am not saying it is the same. It’s not. However, the dynamic is often similar. We discussed a lot [about] how Russians don’t see Ukrainians as white enough and how many Westerners don’t see Eastern Europeans as white enough or as white trash. I think this is something people should be more open about. It doesn’t mean if we introduce this to the narrative about colonialism, it makes [the] suffering of people of color less. But we face similar shit that other nations face under colonial rule: genocide, war, exploitation, pillaging, rape.” 

A Misunderstanding 

People of color have historically suffered the most when it comes to nuclear weapons testing. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands. The testing left behind environmental and health issues the islands deal with to this very day. According to an article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Manhattan Project built many of its facilities on native land, often without the consent of the local population. The world’s first weapon of mass destruction was detonated on land bordering the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. Western nuclear powers mined uranium in countries such as Congo, Niger, South Africa, Gabon, Madagascar, and Namibia without providing health protections for the workers or environmental safety measures for local communities.

So it should come as no surprise that most of the nations that have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) are from the Global South.

What makes Ukraine’s position on nuclear weapons nonproliferation complex is the failure of the Budapest Memorandum to provide the security assurances many Ukrainians hoped it would provide, and Russian forces raising fears of turning the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant into a potential nuclear bomb. 

Ukrainian socialists like Taras Bilous, a member of The Social Movement and an active soldier, told me that nuclear weapons should be eliminated. However, Bilous told me that Ukrainians have learned that unilateral disarmament doesn’t lead to positive outcomes for them. The Kremlin, Bilous said, knew that no one else in the Soviet sphere would do what Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan did when they got rid of their nukes. Of course, Kyiv was under pressure to ditch them and didn’t have the resources to maintain an arsenal, but lawmakers at the time invested faith in security assurances that the 2014 and 2022 invasions proved to be fruitless. 

“The Budapest Memorandum was a mistake made not by Ukraine but by the US,” Bilous said. “If the US had given concrete commitments to defend Ukraine in this memorandum or if a small part of the nuclear weapons remained in Ukraine, perhaps there would not have been a war. But the US insisted on the conditions that Ukraine was eventually forced to accept. By doing so, they opened the possibility of a Russian invasion.”

In an ideal world, Ukrainian socialists would tell you that they’d be fine without NATO or nuclear weapons. It’s simply not practical for their survival at the moment.

“There is a gap between the future we want and the present,” Bilous told me. 

The main gripe many Ukrainian socialists have against the “This is NATO’s fault” crowd is that it is inconsistent with the thinking of the Ukrainian people. Most Ukrainians were opposed to joining the alliance and the EU before 2014, but those attitudes swung in the opposite direction after Russian tanks rolled into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. As of 2023, a record 86% of Ukrainians want to join NATO. Most poll respondents cite the threat from Russia as the main reason. 

So, if most Ukrainians have consistently said via polling over the past nine years that the threat of Russia is pushing them to join NATO, why do so many lefties in the West argue the alliance is to blame? 

Starodubtsev told me the answer is simple.

“They don’t have Russia on their border,” he said. “Americans don’t have the threat of a full-scale invasion of Canada into their territory occupying New York. I don’t think that [Justin] Trudeau has such plans. They don’t understand what it means to have your family killed or land occupied. They don’t understand the existential dangers, insecurities, and sleepless nights that come with it. All of these questions are usually approached with the very privileged position of people who don’t have any security threats to worry about. So they can speak about (these security issues) with moral arrogance.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is the host and founder of Black Diplomats, a podcast that discusses foreign policy from a social justice perspective. He is also a resident of Inkstick’s and Bombshelltoe’s Creative Capsule Residency.

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