CounterPunch podcaster Eric Draitser has published a hit piece attacking veteran anti-war activists Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies in the form of a review of their new book, War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless War.
His review, published on January 27 by an obscure avowedly socialist online magazine named Tempest, and subsequently republished by left-liberal magazines Portside, and Left Links, heaps contempt upon said book and its authors.
I submitted a version of this critique to Tempest, which declined to publish but offered no explanation as to why. Draitser accuses the authors, and also that part of the left which rejects his Russophobic analysis, as having committed an “abandonment of every principle of internationalism, solidarity, and anti-colonial and anti-imperial politics,” and he evidently imagines himself as the absolute authority on such matters.
My purpose herein is not to critique the Benjamin and Davies book against which Draitser expresses such hostility, but to respond to his misrepresentations of the subject matter: U.S. imperialism, NATO, Ukraine, Russia and the Ukraine War.
However, in a critique of its reviewer, I cannot avoid offering something, at least minimally, of my opinion as to the book’s faults and virtues. With the exception of a few misstatements regarding peripheral matters (such as classifying [p. 25] Ossetians and Abkhazians as “Russians”), the book is generally accurate as to the facts of the Ukraine conflict.
However, in my opinion, it has some faults which include the following:
- It states (p. 60) that Congress banned U.S. military aid to the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, but fails to mention that the Pentagon and CIA ignored the ban.
- It joins Draitser in repeating (pp. 20, 99, 108) the false Cold War portrayal of NATO as “a military alliance built to defend Europe from attack by the U.S.S.R.” In fact, the USSR, devastated by war, both then and subsequently, sought peaceful coexistence with the West. Soviet impositions in Central Europe involved countries (Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia/Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) on its western border of which: 4 of 6 (along with the Baltic states had hosted covert-action regime change ops against the USSR during the 1920s, 5 of 6 had repressed their Communist parties throughout the interwar period, and 5 of 6 had been allied to Nazi Germany during its wartime invasion of the USSR. The actual purposes of NATO and of Western European economic integration were: a) to create a U.S.-British-dominated capitalist bloc in Western and Southern Europe, and to b) prevent Communist parties from coming to power by democratic means in those countries. Popular Communist-led insurgencies had liberated Yugoslavia and Albania from foreign fascist occupation without aid from the Soviet Red Army and would have done so in Greece but for British and U.S. military intervention which imposed a brutally repressive fascist regime upon that country. Moreover, Communist parties had emerged with much support in other Western countries, especially Italy and France where they participated in post-war governing coalitions. Propaganda of an alleged Soviet military threat served to promote fear of Communism. Constant repetition eventually induced much of the public and most operatives in their foreign policy establishments to begin to believe it.
- The book is excessively moralistic and, in my opinion, unrealistic in some of its conclusions.
Some virtues of the book:
- It is very informative as to the relevant events.
- It exposes the racism in Western and Ukrainian treatment of refugees.
- It exposes the deceptive war propagandizing in mainstream news media.
- Benjamin and Davies advocate pressing for peace talks and a negotiated Ukraine War resolution, which is the appropriate policy for anti-imperialists.
Many liberal leftists, siding with the U.S.-NATO and Kyiv, purvey falsehoods about the Ukraine War. They often do so out of ignorance and because of their gullible acceptance of one-sided reporting in the mainstream news media (which serve as a propaganda arm of the bipartisan U.S. imperial foreign policy establishment), and/or out of sympathy for suffering Ukrainians and an obsession to be seen as politically respectable.
Many of these “leftists” always were, or have devolved into, liberal reformist big-D Democrats as they seek to induce the broad progressive constituency to give allegiance to these Dems whom they portray as defenders of progress and democracy notwithstanding these Dems’ subservience to capital and empire and their many betrayals of struggles for social justice. As for Draitser, although he may differ from these Dems on some other matters, he clearly sides with them and the U.S. foreign policy establishment on Ukraine. However, being apparently quite knowledgeable, he differs from the ill-informed leftists in that he falsifies the realities of this war out of an obvious Russophobic hatred.
1. The global capitalist system. Draitser portrays Russia as a potent capitalist imperialist competitor to the West, whereas it is, in fact, a semi-peripheral capitalist country whose major foreign trade (aside from the export of weapons) consists of exports of minerals and agricultural products and the offshoring of capital (by its oligarchs) to secret bank accounts and the purchase of luxury properties in the West. Moreover, Draitser asserts that this war “has already shaken the global capitalist system.” In fact, capitalism and capitalists (especially military contractors and fossil fuel firms) thrive on wars such as this one. One must wonder what he was thinking when he made those assertions.
2. NATO expansion. Draitser gives grudging credit to Benjamin and Davies for their “highlighting the vicious U.S.-NATO war-machine” and its wide-ranging imperial “military interventions” et cetera. But then he alleges that their book “ignores many of the critical elements of the NATO-Russia relationship” and “NATO-Russia collaboration.”
He charges Russia with having criminally collaborated with NATO (prior to 2014): a) by selling arms to the U.S.-NATO client regime in Afghanistan (which was fighting an ultra-reactionary al-Qaeda-allied Taliban insurgency while Russia was fighting al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Russia’s north Caucasus), and b) by failing to oppose NATO’s 2011 regime-change invasion of Libya (where Russia evidently did not see its interests affected). Draitser then leaps to the conclusion that Russia’s complaint of NATO threat against its national security is nothing but a pretext to justify imperial aggression against its neighbors.
Crucial facts which he evades.
- In return for the Russian agreement to the reunification of Germany, the U.S. and NATO had promised in 1990 that NATO would not expand into Central or Eastern Europe or conduct military operations there. The U.S. and NATO soon broke that promise. For the past 25 years, Russia, beginning with U.S.-favorite Yeltsin, had repeatedly complained against NATO expansion; diplomatic attempts by Russia to obtain redress invariably fell upon deaf ears.
- The U.S. has placed nuclear-capable missiles in Poland and Romania (planned from 2008).
- The U.S. and NATO conduct anti-Russia war games in the Baltic states.
- The U.S. incited and abetted the 2014 coup which replaced a democratically elected Russia-friendly Ukrainian government with one which was and is hostile toward Russia.
- The U.S. began conducting secret military training missions in Ukraine in 2015, thereby bringing Ukraine de facto into the anti-Russia NATO military alliance.
- As Putin has stated, Russia concluded that a military response was necessary and overdue.
Clearly, Russia’s perception of threat and provocation from the West was neither imaginary nor pretext.
3. Weapons of mass destruction. Draitser quotes Putin saying “If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction…Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.” He then dismisses Putin’s concern with a false comparison to the U.S. lie about weapons of mass destruction to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq. He evades the fact of U.S. placement of nuclear-capable missiles in Poland and Romania and the likely future placement of the same in Ukraine. Has Draitser forgotten how the U.S. reacted when the USSR responded to Washington’s nuclear missiles in Turkey by placing comparable missiles in Cuba?
4. Putin’s intent? Draitser alleges that Benjamin and Davies “ignore” what Putin said (February 21, 2022) about history, namely, his spiritualized conception of the history of the east Slavic (Russian-Belarusian-Ukrainian) peoples, and his view that Lenin’s policy of right of secession for the USSR’s union republics was “a mistake.”
We may, and should, disagree with those Putin views; but Draitser falsely attributes to Putin an intent to erase Ukraine as a sovereign separate state. He alleges that “Putin is quite openly declaring that Ukraine does not, in fact, have a right to exist”; but, while Putin mourns the fact of Ukraine’s separate existence, he acknowledged (in that same speech) that “the events of the past cannot be changed.” Moreover, in his February 24 TV address, Putin stated: “Russia accepted the new geopolitical reality after the dissolution of the USSR. We have been treating all new post-Soviet states with respect and will continue to act this way. We respect and will respect their sovereignty.”
Even if we disapprove some of Russia’s annexations, Russia offers very plausible justifications at least with respect to Crimea and Donbass (where the post-coup regime, as explained below, forfeited its right of sovereignty by reneging on promises to their peoples). Despite Putin’s actual statement, Draitser alleges that said statement calls for “the erasure of an entire nation.” Is Draitser unable to distinguish between sentiment and intention, or is he being disingenuous in order to make war propaganda for the U.S., NATO and Kyiv?
5. War crimes. Draitser embraces U.S.-NATO war propaganda by charging Russia with “‘senseless’ criminal attacks on civilian infrastructure” and joins the U.S. and Western liberals in calling it “war crimes.” Meanwhile, he evades the crimes of the post-coup Kyiv regime which include its eight years of artillery and bombing attacks upon the people of the breakaway Donbass republics. Draitser likewise avoids any acknowledgment of the war crimes perpetrated: by the post-coup Ukrainian state against dissidents, by its neo-Nazi militias against racial and gender minorities, and by its armed forces against unarmed captives.
6. Voices. Draitser complains that Benjamin and Davies ignore “Ukrainian voices,” and that they have a “complete absence of any Russian voices.” For him, missing voices means pro-war Ukrainians and pro-Western anti-war commentators in Russia. [In fact, Benjamin and Davies name (pp. 137, 141-143, 147) 13 anti-war Russians; Draitser apparently did not read the entire book.] He names several Ukrainians, including avowed socialist Taras Bilous, who along with the others wants war until Ukraine re-conquers all territory lost since the 2014 coup. He makes no mention of respected Ukrainian socialist intellectual, Volodymyr Ishchenko, who does not support Russia’s invasion, but reports facts which Draitser evades, including the Kyiv regime’s rampant repression of dissent. Draitser also avoids any acknowledgment that there are many socialists and Communists in Russia who support Putin’s action in Ukraine. It seems that, for Draitser, the only “voices” worthy of mention are those with whom he agrees.
7. Political repression. Draitser complains of Putin’s “repression” of “independent media.” In addition to his evasions of relevant facts, Draitser’s double standard is astonishing.
- He personally interviewed Russian liberal “socialist” Boris Kagarlitsky this past September (with Kagarlitsky speaking, in opposition to Russia’s Ukraine War, in Moscow where he remains active in his Institute of Globalization Studies).
- Meanwhile, any Ukrainian who is even suspected of opposing Kyiv’s war is liable to arrest on a charge of treason and at serious risk of torture and murder.
- When the leading opposition party in Ukraine was beginning to outpoll Zelensky (in 2021), its leader, Viktor Medvedchuk, was arrested and charged with treason.
- Ukraine has outlawed all of its opposition parties.
- Ukraine has outlawed the Communist Party and Communist symbols since 2015.
- Ukraine has suppressed all independent media.
- Moreover, the U.S. (to some degree) and its European allies (even more so) impose bans to make it difficult or impossible for their citizens to access Russian media.
Yet, Draitser, like the U.S., directs complaints of repression only against Russia.
8. Donbass. Draitser complains against the attention which Benjamin and Davies give to the Donbass people’s republics which Draitser contemptuously dismisses as creations of “Russian-backed intelligence operatives and/or fascists with deep connections to the Russian state.” He also denies the significance of the “‘anti-coup’ uprisings” which inspired their formation. He then asserts that it was “‘activists’ on the ground doing Russia’s bidding in fomenting the war on Donbass [and] pro-Russian neo-Nazi infiltration of the region that helped spark what became called a ‘civil war.’” It is apparently true that, with reliance upon limited Russian assistance, the more progressive Donbass rebel leadership in 2014 was subsequently displaced by operatives aligned with the more conservative policies prevalent in Russia. Aside from that bit, which Draitser exaggerates, his portrayal is a grossly false caricature of what actually happened.
Facts which he evades.
- The U.S.-backed 2014 Maidan coup (which Draitser does not even acknowledge) took advantage of popular mass protests which had support almost exclusively in central and western Ukraine (with most of the Maidan protesters pressing for policy changes rather than seeking a coup). The coup itself was spearheaded by violent neo-Nazi militias. It was opposed overwhelmingly by the people in southern and eastern Ukraine (including Donbass).
- The coup regime sought to suppress popular opposition through brute military repression, but the armed forces at that time lacked the appetite for military action against the people, so the regime organized a new military force into which the neo-Nazi Azov militia was merged.
- People in Donbass organized their own militias in opposition, thusly began the civil war.
- Mediation by U.S. allies France and Germany resulted in the Minsk agreements (2014-15), between Kyiv and the rebel leadership, with Kyiv promising to implement autonomy within Ukraine for the two Donbass republics.
- Russia and a unanimous UN Security Council endorsed said Minsk agreements, and Russia continued to support Minsk for eight years.
- Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted (December 2022) that Kyiv and NATO backed Minsk in order to gain time for Kyiv to restore its military capacity (severely diminished by the coup) preparatory to a military re-conquest of Donbass.
- Meanwhile, Kyiv (with U.S. encouragement) refused to implement the promised autonomy and thereby end the civil war.
9. Crimea. Draitser says nothing about Crimea except to allege that a Russian oligarch, Konstantin Malofeyev, “was named in a [U.S.] federal indictment as one of the ‘main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea.’” (One must wonder why Draitser relies upon the U.S. government and Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli International Studies Institute, which he also names as an authority, as his sources.)
As a proponent of Kyiv’s re-conquest of Crimea, Draitser has to evade any mention of the actual history.
- 1954. Khrushchev orchestrated the decision (of dubious legality) to transfer Crimea from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian SSR without the consent or approval of the people of Crimea.
- 1991. At the breakup of the USSR, Crimea’s elected leaders attempted to obtain recognition of Crimea as an independent Republic separate from Ukraine.
- 1992. After disputes between Kyiv and Crimea over the scope of Crimea’s autonomy, Kyiv agreed to a compromise recognition of Crimea as an Autonomous Republic within Ukraine.
- 1995. Kyiv abolished the Constitution of Crimea, abolished its office of President, made the elected Crimean parliament’s choice of its Prime Minister subject to veto by Kyiv, and imposed other severe limits (thereby largely negating its autonomy).
- 2008. Polling by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies (not an agent of Moscow) found that 64% of Crimeans would like Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
- 2009-11. The United Nations Development Program (not an agent of Moscow) conducted periodic opinion polls in Crimea. Each time, at least 65% of Crimeans favored Crimea leaving Ukraine and reuniting with Russia.
- Crimea’s break with Ukraine was a direct popular response to the U.S.-backed 2014 coup in Kyiv (Crimea having voted overwhelmingly for the ousted government). Assertions that Crimea’s reunion with Russia was effectuated by a Russian “invasion” are false. Although Russia’s authorized military forces already based in Crimea assisted local forces in effectuating the independence referendum and the subsequent secession and reunion with Russia, those actions were welcomed by a huge majority of Crimeans, they being already so inclined. Moreover, given the history of past denials of their self-determination rights by both Moscow (1954) and Kyiv (after breakup of the USSR), the people of Crimea had more than ample justification for seceding and reuniting with Russia. Lenin, insisting that socialists are “the most consistent enemies of oppression,” would have agreed.
Draitser insists upon the “right to self-determination” for ethnic Ukrainians (over all of pre-2014 Ukraine), but he would deny self-determination rights to the predominantly non-Ukrainian populations of Donbass and Crimea.
10. Fascists. Draitser paints a whitewashed picture of nationalist Ukrainians as a righteous “nation” fighting for their “survival” and national “self-determination” against Russian “fascists.” Facts which he evades.
- During the last decades of the tsarist empire, pogroms in Ukraine murdered thousands of Jews, mostly at the hands of bigoted ethnic Ukrainians.
- During the Russian Civil War, anti-Soviet factions (including Ukrainian nationalists) perpetrated additional pogroms, killing tens of thousands of Jews.
- During the War against the Axis, the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists [OUN] and its Ukrainian Insurgent Army [UPA] collaborated with Nazi German occupiers and participated in the genocidal mass murder of Jews, Poles, ethnic Russians, and fellow-Ukrainians suspected of loyalty to the USSR.
- The post-coup regime in Ukraine lauds the OUN and UPA leaders as national heroes and erects monuments to them.
- The post-coup regime also restricts and suppresses the use of the Russian language which was claimed as the mother tongue of 30% of the population, while up to another 20% claimed both Russian and Ukrainian as their language of regular use.
Draitser brands nearly every Russian whom he can identify as involved on the anti-Kyiv side as a “fascist.” He is evidently blind to actual fascists who dictate policy for Kyiv.
11. Peace negotiations. Draitser responds to calls for peace negotiations by Benjamin and Davies and other anti-imperialists by accusing them of doing “a tremendous disservice to the people of Ukraine resisting an invasion, the people of Russia living under (especially those resisting) a criminal regime, and the international Left as a whole.”
He evades the facts as to U.S. objectives vis-à-vis Ukraine:
- The U.S., especially through its National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has been funding and training anti-Russia pro-West media and civil society organizations in Ukraine (and other former Soviet Republics) since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The CIA has, no doubt covertly, also done its bit to promote anti-Russia politics in Ukraine.
- A 2019 report titled “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia” by the U.S.-military-funded think tank, Rand Corporation, proposed that the U.S. goal should be “to undermine Russia just as it did the Soviet Union in the cold war.” U.S. President Biden has made public statements embracing that as the U.S. objective.
Viewing the conflict through his Russophobic glasses, Draitser wants what the U.S., NATO and Kyiv want, namely: the subjugation of non-Ukrainian populations under an oppressive rule by a victorious Ukrainian extreme-nationalist regime allied to a triumphant Western imperialism; a military defeat of Russia; and Putin’s replacement by a leadership subservient to the West (or Russia reduced to a failed state similar to the fates of Haiti, Iraq, and Libya). That, according to Draitser, is essential for “how we rebuild our international [anti-imperialist] movement.”
1. New cold war. Draitser is evidently blind to the fact that the U.S. and its closest allies are using Ukraine as a pawn in their new cold war against Russia. Western imperialism, with hundreds of foreign military bases and aspirations to exercise economic and military domination over every populated continent (and also space), is in conflict with every country (Russia, China, Iran, Syria, DPRK, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, …) which resists its dictates. It targets every such country for containment, subjugation and/or regime change.
2. Russia. We may consider Russia’s military response in Ukraine to be an inappropriate excess or imprudent or both, and we may fault Russian methods in its military operations but, while we may state our disapproving opinions, we have no capacity to influence Russia’s decisions.
3. Task. Our job, as anti-imperialist social-justice activists in the West, is to condemn and vigorously oppose the predatory acts of U.S.-NATO imperialism (including arms to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia) and to press for a negotiated peace. We must expose the falsehoods in the Russophobe war propaganda, and we must persist in supporting the fight against that real imperialist enemy. That is our obligation—even though we will be defamed by some avowed “socialists” as “Putin apologists.”
For additional fact-based analysis, see “Ukraine War, Divided Left: ‘Social Patriots’ and the ‘Anti-Imperialism of Fools’!” by Charles Pierce.
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