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Why Progressives Should Help Defend Ukraine

Acknowledging the United States’ failings doesn’t mean ignoring Russian imperialism.

By , founder and host of the foreign-policy podcast Black Diplomats and author of the upcoming book, Black Man on the Steppes: My Odyssey From Detroit to Eastern Europe.
Ukrainian servicemen load a truck.
Ukrainian servicemen load a truck.
Ukrainian servicemen load a truck with the FGM-148 Javelin, an American man-portable anti-tank missile provided by the United States to Ukraine, at Kyiv’s airport on Feb. 11. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

There are some problems for which it’s hard to decide between the carrot and the stick. Or in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine, sanctions, military aid, diplomacy, or a combination of the three.

And that’s especially hard for progressives who are averse to the idea of the stick at all—especially when Washington is wielding it. That’s a reasonable objection, given the United States’ history of disastrous military action in recent decades and Washington’s frequent failure to recognize other countries’ grievances. But at this point, it is clear that Putin is getting fat off the West’s diplomatic carrots and needs a few whacks of the stick—none of which includes sending U.S. troops to do the whacking.

As the Kremlin continues its buildup of around 175,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, lawmakers in the United States are engaging in vigorous debates over how to best respond. The more hawkish members of Congress are pushing for further shows of strength against Putin, whose approach to regional diplomacy is limited to threats of military occupation and economic blackmail. Progressives, alternatively, are seeking a diplomatic approach that they feel is respectful of Putin’s concerns for security.

There are some problems for which it’s hard to decide between the carrot and the stick. Or in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine, sanctions, military aid, diplomacy, or a combination of the three.

And that’s especially hard for progressives who are averse to the idea of the stick at all—especially when Washington is wielding it. That’s a reasonable objection, given the United States’ history of disastrous military action in recent decades and Washington’s frequent failure to recognize other countries’ grievances. But at this point, it is clear that Putin is getting fat off the West’s diplomatic carrots and needs a few whacks of the stick—none of which includes sending U.S. troops to do the whacking.

As the Kremlin continues its buildup of around 175,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, lawmakers in the United States are engaging in vigorous debates over how to best respond. The more hawkish members of Congress are pushing for further shows of strength against Putin, whose approach to regional diplomacy is limited to threats of military occupation and economic blackmail. Progressives, alternatively, are seeking a diplomatic approach that they feel is respectful of Putin’s concerns for security.

This is a tough dilemma for progressives. Both the United States and Russia are imperial nations that have caused deep harm around the world. To which bullying empire do we grant the benefit of the doubt? Most importantly, whose concerns should we center in all of this?

As a progressive who has called for bans on nuclear weapons, sharp reductions in military spending, and a pivot from using force to resolve conflict, as well as someone who has studied Russia’s colonial framework in the region, my answer is simple: Ukraine.

Although I respect congressional members who have called for restraint and are against any military action, I fear that they have a healthy critique of U.S. imperialism but little understanding or comment about Russia’s own colonial history and present.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, argues that Putin has legitimate concerns about NATO, he ignores the fact that the alliance did not grow unilaterally. The dozen or so ex-Warsaw Pact and former Soviet republics that joined did so because of their experience of being forcefully occupied by Soviet forces—and of being victims of Russian imperialism even before that. And from the Holodomor famine in Ukraine to the Soviet’s crushing Hungary 1956 uprising, imperialist atrocities, led by Moscow, were common in the region. Giving Putin’s revisionist history about NATO—as flawed as the alliance is— any credence undercuts the moral fabric of progressive, anti-imperialist talking points in the first place.

Even beyond Europe, Russia’s history, like the United States, is built off the back of settler colonialism. Vast regions, such as Siberia, the Caucasus, and the Arctic, were all colonized during the Russian Empire. Minority peoples were trampled by Russian armies and targeted for genocide by Soviet rule. (Some people calling themselves communists and socialists will try and claim those atrocities never happened: They’re hypocritical apologists for genocide but fortunately relegated to talking nonsense on social media and are without any power to influence policy.)

Sanders’s column claims that if Mexico wanted to join a military alliance with Russia, the United States would not stand for it. Perhaps that’s true—but it would be just as wrong as Moscow doing the same. If the United States wanted to colonize Mexico in 2022, I would have no problem with them wanting to join a military alliance for protection.

But Sanders should also remember that we aren’t talking about a hypothetical Mexico. We’re discussing a very real Ukraine. Washington’s theoretical hypocrisy shouldn’t distract us from Moscow’s immediate threat. Let’s assume we all think the Monroe Doctrine was a mistake—and I think it was. Does that mean Ukrainians aren’t in danger from Russian imperialism because the United States has done bad things too?

Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar echo similar talking points about indiscriminate sanctions without saying if any sanctions are appropriate at all. These are the same congresswomen who have vigorously called for a boycott against Israel, one I personally agree with, and have rightly used their platforms to seek Palestinian state sovereignty.

So, on the one hand, they are very outspoken about using economic leverage to force Israel to respect human rights in Palestine, yet they don’t have the same energy for Putin, who has displaced tens of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine and whose government is all but ridding Crimea of its native Tartar population?

So, Israel should get hit with sanctions but not Putin? What’s the difference?

The problem with Omar and Tlaib’s statements isn’t that they aren’t morally sound (they very much are) but that they are morally inconsistent. The world can’t rightfully challenge the actions of one form of settler colonialism while showing restraint for similar behavior by Putin.

As much as many folks want to criticize NATO, the main reason most of Europe isn’t in the same political quagmire as Ukraine is precisely because NATO exists. Soviet imperialism in Europe was real from the start, from attempts to reconquer Poland and Finland before the war to the continued occupation of much of Eastern Europe afterward.

And let’s be clear: This goes both ways. Right-wingers who are ready to fight for Ukraine but dismiss the suffering of Palestinians and others are even more mistaken. And progressives have plenty of rightful criticisms of the U.S. habit of resorting to force when diplomacy might work better. The United States has relied on the military so much that even NATO deploying troops for logistical purposes and providing aid—not troops— to Ukraine evokes sincere fears that it won’t stop there. I respect progressive lawmakers’ nervousness around any invocation of the military, given the record of U.S. hawkishness.

Yet, progressives sometimes fail to acknowledge that some people, like Putin, have no interest in peace, and the world needs messaging to address that reality. After eight years of diplomacy—where Ukraine has done nothing to justify Moscow’s eight-year occupation of its sovereignty—I see no moral issue with providing defensive weapons to Ukraine so it can at least defend itself against a bully. Or for the United States and European Union to surgically target Putin and his inner circle with sanctions, as Magnitsky Act architect Bill Browder told me. Even on sanctions, progressives need to learn to distinguish the kind of sweeping measures that have been rightly criticized for hurting ordinary people from the targeting of a corrupt elite’s offshore holdings.

Given that Russia has essentially blocked off parts of the Black and Azov Seas, tough sanctions should be seen as a diplomatic tool. For progressives to suggest sanctions are only a means of escalation signals they simply will allow Putin to do as he wishes without consequence. At the moment, that is their message: Do nothing. And that is simply unacceptable from either a moral or practical perspective.

Being progressive on foreign policy means we can reverse the imperial, racist ideology of the Monroe Doctrine; downsize the United States’ reliance on military; and support allies in Europe who joined the alliance on their own initiative because Moscow didn’t have anything to offer them. Now, if some progressive thinkers want the United States to pull out of NATO altogether, they need to be blunt and say that—though it’s not a point of view that will find much traction on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. What is missing from the progressive caucus’s talking points is examples of how the military should be used—even in limited cases such as providing aid for nations to defend themselves.

The United States can end its imperial policy today, but that won’t mean a thing to Putin—it’ll only encourage his own colonial mindset. Given this reality, what is the progressive blueprint for security when diplomacy fails? Deterrence isn’t a step toward war but, ideally, the opposite: Arming Ukraine could help avoid the possibility of a catastrophic conflict where tens of thousands of both Ukrainians and Russians die.

As a wise man—with a great jump shot—once said: “Violence is never the answer. But sometimes it is.”

This is what Ukrainians understand and progressives don’t about Putin: Diplomacy doesn’t mean anything if your adversary can kill you and steal your land without consequence. The United States isn’t the only imperialist nation out there, and Moscow and Beijing won’t transform into paragons of good behavior with Washington off the scene.

Ukrainians aren’t asking the United States to fight for them. They’re not even asking to join NATO (yet). They simply want America to honor its moral promise via the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that it would help defend them against Russia in case of an attack—something the United States did not do in 2014. As a progressive, I think it is only right to recognize that our word is our bond and give Kyiv as much defensive firepower as it needs to fight off its oppressor.

I respect restraint. Had the United States listened to Rep. Barbara Lee about Iraq in 2003, Congress would not have given former U.S. President George W. Bush broad powers to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. She made that criticism even though she is not a dove in the military, as she made clear during my interview with her last year. None of my critiques of progressives’ stances on Ukraine are meant to challenge their moral judgment. We need Lee’s voice on Russia now more than ever. Same for Sanders, Omar, Tlaib, and the rest of the progressive caucus. As much as I disagree with their conclusions, I respect them as moral voices in this debate.

But in the West’s efforts to overcorrect for the United States’ past foreign-policy failures, we cannot forget the plight of Ukrainians—or buy into Russia’s own imperialist myths.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is founder and host of the foreign-policy podcast Black Diplomats and author of the upcoming book, Black Man on the Steppes: My Odyssey From Detroit to Eastern Europe. He is also a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Twitter: @Russian_Starr

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