Making Sense of Russia's Invasion of Ukraine
by Paul Le Blanc
Resistance Books, 2023
The Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine in 2014, and its full-scale war against Ukraine in 2022, led to many fissures on the Left in the United States and internationally.
As a member of the Ukraine Solidarity Network, an author of an early article about the struggles in Ukraine in 2014 (which I recently updated), and as someone who has worked with Ukrainian and Russian public health researchers around HIV/AIDS and related issues for much of this century, I have been frustrated by the lack of a good books to ask others to read. It is therefore a pleasure to read Paul Le Blanc’s Making Sense of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, which is very short and can easily be read in ebook format.
Unlike such earlier books, such as War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict by Medea Benjamin and Nicholas Davies (reviewed critically on this site), Le Blanc’s study gives respectful consideration to the views of people who disagree with the author. Of particular note, Le Blanc (unlike Benjamin and Davies and most other commentators who support Russia in its war) presents the views of both Russians and Ukrainians. In this, he is in accord with the “nothing about us without us” principle that any analysis of an oppressed or otherwise suffering group of people needs to include their views. As anyone who has looked carefully at the history of Ukraine over the last few centuries knows, Ukraine has a long history of being oppressed by the rulers of Russia. The current attempt by Russia to seize the country is one of the most horrible, though still less destructive than the massive starvation that Russia’s so-called Communist rulers imposed on Ukraine and other parts of the USSR in the 1930s.
Le Blanc makes his position on the war clear from the outset. As he puts it:
- I favor the defeat of [Vladimir] Putin’s invasion and victory for Ukrainian self-determination.
- I oppose imperialism in all its forms—including Putin’s invasion, including NATO.
- I oppose capitalism and favor its replacement with genuine political and economic democracy everywhere: the United States, Ukraine, Russia, etc.
Le Blanc discusses the argument that the expansion of NATO instigated the attack. In doing so, he does conclude that Putin may have seen this expansion as threatening, but also points to other reasons for the invasion that were more important: the need of Putin and the capitalist Russian to deflect growing opposition within Russia and lay the basis for the repression of opposition by attacking a neighboring country; the “Greater Russia” imperialist mindset of much of the Russian ruling class (which in some ways analogous to the “Manifest Destiny” beliefs of U.S. rulers in the 1800s and since); and the principled anti-revolutionism that Putin widely expressed in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on Syrian revolutionaries and in opposing the Maidan uprisings in Ukraine in 2014.
Le Blanc’s discussion of the Maidan uprisings is perhaps too short. He points out that this uprising in no way attacked capitalism, which is true. He does not discuss, and perhaps does not fully understand, the extent to which it led to important reforms, including greatly reducing the ability of police to exact bribes from citizens in everyday encounters. He also does not note that, like other movements, such as the U.S. Civil Rights Movement during the first part of the 1960s, the Maidan movement had many possibilities within it in 2014. It did indeed include right-wingers, even some fascists, as the campists have fetishized, but it also included many socialists, anarchists, feminists, social democrats (who looked to German or other Western European welfare states), and others. I anticipated at the time that many of its participants might well have turned sharply to the left when the nearly inevitable financial crackdown by the International Monetary Fund and others hit in the spring of 2014, but Putin’s seizure of Ukraine foreclosed that possibility (as he probably intended) by strengthening Ukrainian militarism.
Le Blanc discusses the arguments that the anti-Ukrainian Left makes about Ukrainian reactionary fascism. In doing this, he confronts myths with realities. The fascist right wing has little support in Ukraine, there is a fairly strong fascist movement in Russia, and Putin and his allies are in many ways a pole of attraction for rightwing ultra-nationalism globally. He also, and rightly, describes the strongly neoliberal beliefs and actions of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government—and documents the struggles of Ukrainian socialists and unions against this.
In presenting these arguments, Making Sense of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine uses a number of long quotes from Russian and Ukrainian socialists who make many insightful observations about how the war is hurting both Russian and Ukrainian workers and about the necessity of supporting Ukrainians in their struggle against Russian oppression and destruction. Le Blanc ties this analysis to classic discussions among Marxists such as V. I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg about the right of self-determination and the role of socialists in such struggles.
Finally, Le Blanc discusses the issue of the Ukrainians’ asking for and relying on weapons from Western imperialist powers in their war of self-defense. Many on the Left who say they oppose the Russian assault have called for an end to arming the Ukrainians, and have argued that this dependency makes the Ukrainians tools of imperialism. Le Blanc presents useful historical background on this debate, including the fact that the Left globally was largely united in arguing that the Western powers should arm the Republicans in Spain against the Spanish fascists in 1936 and after—and that they should also send weapons to the Chinese nationalist forces under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek when Japan invaded China during this same period. I would add that the Left also supported providing arms to the reactionary government of Ethiopia when Italian fascism invaded that country.
The point Le Blanc makes is straightforward: Failing to support arming a people defending its right to exist is to make a mockery of saying you oppose the oppressors in their invasion. This clear argument is denied by much of the Left today when they call for ending arms shipments in order to further “negotiations” by the great imperialist powers to impose a settlement on the Ukrainians.
Le Blanc’s Making Sense of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine is useful both for our own education and as a way to help educate others.
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Featured image credit: World at Large News; modified by Tempest.
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Samuel R. Friedman is a lifelong social activist and long-time socialist. His writings on social justice topics include about 50 publications on workers’ movements, how we might create socialism, political economy, racism or social movements—including Teamster Rank and File (Columbia University Press, 1982) and “What happened in Ukraine” (2015). He currently is a research professor of Population Health at a leading New York university and previously the Director of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research at National Development and Research Institutes in New York. He has published two books of poetry (most recently A Precious Residue: Poems that ponder efforts to spark a working class socialism in the 1970s and after. October 17, 2022. https://imhojournal.org/wp-content/uploads/Friedman-S.-2022.-A-Precious-Residue.pdf) as well as several chapbooks and many individual poems. He is the author of over 500 publications on HIV, COVID-19, STI and drug use epidemiology, prevention and harm reduction. He is a member of the Tempest Collective, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Ukraine Solidarity Network, the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War, and the People’s CDC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org