News | War / Peace - Eastern Europe - Ukraine (en) We Were Wrong

Many on the Left misjudged Putin’s drive to invade Ukraine. Now it’s time to take stock.



Daniel Marwecki,

Imperial claim: Russian President Vladimir Putin in a video conference about Western sanctions on 10 March 2022.  Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev / IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

War has returned to Europe, though it had never truly left. It was here in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia was shattered by a chain of civil wars complete with war crimes and genocide, wars that concluded with the reinvention of NATO when all was said and done. That being said, the war that has now returned is the one that the Charter of the United Nations was written against: since then, with the exception of the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, no European state had attempted to subjugate another. In spite of the assumptions of too many analysts, Putin does not just want to annex a bit of eastern Ukraine. His sights are set on the entire country.

Daniel Marwecki is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding (Hurst, 2020).

Translated by Adam Baltner.

The question of how those on the German Left should respond to this war should not be a question at all, and was already answered at any rate by the leadership of Die Linke before it was asked. As the party chairs and parliamentary spokespersons wrote, this “war of aggression in contravention to international law can in no way be justified. Russia must immediately cease combat activity, agree to a ceasefire, and return to the negotiating table.” The Russian assault is pure imperialism — imperialism that comes as considerably less of a surprise these days to people in Syria, Chechnya, Georgia, and many parts of Eastern Europe than to significant swathes of German society, including the German Left.

At the moment we’re still in the Clausewitzian “fog of war,” taking things as they come. What does Putin want to accomplish? Is his invasion a repeat of Brezhnev’s criminal mistake, who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 only for his successor to withdraw ten years and millions of dead civilians later into an own overstretched empire on the verge of its ultimate collapse?

This war is the decision of Putin and the handful of men around him, the Kremlin’s ruling circle. Russia under Putin acts like an imperial superpower: in 2008 it absorbed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in 2014 it annexed the Crimean peninsula and supported separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, and after 2015 it ensured that the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad was able to hold onto power in Syria.

However, measured by its economic output, Russia hardly enjoys superpower status. While it may be the largest country on earth, it has a GDP about equal to that of Spain. It is a state that is on the periphery of the global economy and dependent on fuel exports. All the same, it is also a well-armed state with a nuclear arsenal, and Putin knows how to use war to distract from its internal crises.

The war has drawn clear moral lines. Any attempt to understand Russian security interests — or to integrate the country into Europe, economically or otherwise — suddenly appears in Germany as naïveté at best, or as cynical, agenda-driven ignorance of the longstanding imperial plans of Putin at worst.

In numerous German talk show appearances before the war, politicians from Die Linke in particular dealt exhaustively with the issue of NATO’s eastward expansion and Russia’s “legitimate security interests” with respect to the Ukraine conflict. The fact that representatives of a party with almost no influence are disproportionately confronted with this issue in the national spotlight points to ulterior motives, for sympathy for Moscow's professed security sensitivity is a consensus issue across all of Germany’s political camps.

Aside from considerations of security policy, Russian integration into Europe was German government policy right up to the invasion. We can thank Angela Merkel that Germany now receives over half of its energy from Russia. Was the goal here to both secure cheap energy for Germany and prevent Russia from military adventures in Europe? Or did Germany simply make itself dependent on an autocrat as the German Green Party has alleged (and as events have now confirmed)? And does the critique of NATO and its eastern expansion up to Russia’s borders, a critique with deep roots both within and outside of Die Linke, retain any credibility? Now is the time for those who mistakenly believed an invasion of Ukraine was impossible to take stock.

NATO’s Eastward Expansion: A Debate Rendered Obsolete by Events

It is argued that the eastward expansion of NATO would conflict with Russia’s “legitimate security interests”. After all, so the claim, the United States would hardly accept it if Mexico or Canada were to enter into a military alliance with a hostile foreign power. Here, the Cuban Missile crisis is often invoked, when Khrushchev stationing nuclear warheads on Cuba raised the spectre World War III. By extension, is it not legitimate for Russia to oppose NATO’s expansion to its border?

It’s safe to assume that many leftists in Germany have been somewhat sympathetic to this argument, although it hardly exists only among leftists. The American Marxist Adolph Reed opined half-jokingly that the most important advocate of left-wing foreign policy in the United States is John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer would understand the joke. A political science professor known for his candour, Mearsheimer is a prominent representative of the modern, structuralist version of the school of thought known as “realism”. Due to realism’s origins as a tool in the Cold War, it cannot exactly be accused of leftist sympathies.

In the academic discipline of International Relations, where ideologically tinged theory debates reflect the worldviews that influence politics, realism assumes a central role. Some exponents of this school of thought, such as Mearsheimer or Stephen Walt, argue along with NATO critics that expanding the military alliance to Russia’s border would inevitably lead to insecurity in Moscow.

According to realism, states exist in an anarchic system where their own survival is their primary goal. For this reason, states try to expand their power. However, gains in power made by one state lead to increased insecurity for another — which then attempts in turn to expand its own power. This security dilemma can only be managed rather than resolved. To contain the threat of war, the security interests of the most powerful actors must be taken into account.

In 2015, Mearsheimer held a lecture at the University of Chicago titled “Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault?”, which now has over ten million views on YouTube. Two weeks ago, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared the accompanying article on Twitter. In this way, the famous realists of yesterday are becoming the useful idiots of today.

In addition to Mearsheimer, left-wing critics of NATO are fond of citing the diplomat George F. Kennan, whose famous “long telegram” justified the Western policy of containment during the Cold War. In his later years, Kennan was not simply an open opponent of NATO’s eastward expansion, but rather a critic of the very establishment of NATO, which he believed would unnecessarily militarize the conflict with the Soviet bloc. Yet Kennan’s policy of containment soon fell out of favour against the policy of rollback, which led directly to the Vietnam War (and, after the Cold War, to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars).

Mearsheimer is a Democrat and a centrist. Putin and his system of rule are explicitly abhorrent to him. His analyses derive from his conception of the anarchist nature of the international system, rather than from the inner life of the states that compose this system. This is different from Putin’s extreme right-wing fans in the United States and Europe, who see in the figure cast by Putin a sort of warrior against the “woke” liberal establishment.

This enthusiasm for Putin’s hyper-nationalism, militarism, and chauvinism is foreign to leftists and progressives, regardless of tendency. However, it is not without a certain irony that some leftists in both Germany and the United States occasionally sound like cold geostrategists with regard to Russia. All of a sudden, an imperial actor such as Russia is acknowledged to have security interests that deserve be taken into account. Meanwhile, Ukraine is reduced to a buffer state, a pawn of foreign powers.

Putin’s War

Yet all of the debates spearheaded by a number of leftists, by “realists” such as Mearsheimer, and by war-weary conservatives and progressives in order to explain and de-escalate the crisis surrounding Ukraine before the war now appear in a different light. Before he invaded, Vladimir Putin explained his position in two speeches where he denied Ukraine’s national independence, declaring it an artificial nation, and lied about it being ruled by “Nazis” who were committing a “genocide” in Donbas.

It’s common knowledge that Volodymyr Zelensky, the democratically elected president of Ukraine, is Jewish. The discourse on “genocide” is a bizarre propaganda lie to get the Russian people invested in the war. In his declaration of war against Ukraine, Putin disgraced the memory of the millions of victims of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union by explicitly situating his invasion in the tradition of the “Great Patriotic War”. Of course, Putin also mentioned NATO’s eastward expansion in his speech, which he characterized — whether justifiably or not is beside the point — as a humiliation and betrayal by the West.

Putin is attacking Ukraine because he feels like it. It’s not a coincidence that he’s doing so during the administration of Joe Biden instead of Biden’s predecessor. Incapable of dealing with humiliation, Donald Trump would have either immediately threatened with nuclear weapons or trained his drones and special units on Putin’s head, as he did to the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Putin is also letting himself attack because the American government and the other NATO member states announced in advance that they would not defend Ukraine. The United States does not want to risk a direct confrontation over Ukraine with a nuclear-armed Russia. This reveals Russia’s real security guarantee: not in the neutrality of its neighbours, but the possession of nuclear weapons.

Putin’s imperial claim to Ukraine has been evident since 2014. From this point at the latest, a NATO membership for Ukraine was de facto off the table, as this would have brought NATO into a direct military conflict with the Russian nuclear power. Here, however, the question of Western responsibility perhaps does arise. For if Ukraine had no real chance of joining the alliance, couldn’t this prospect have been explicitly denied? Couldn’t Russia have at least been offered a long moratorium for Ukrainian NATO entry? After the West’s recognition in practice of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, wouldn’t this admittedly rather symbolic concession have been the least the West could have done to potentially reduce the risk of war?

The archive will hopefully one day tell us whether the Biden suggested this to Putin behind closed doors. If not, this may be interpreted as failure to render assistance for the sake of the principle of the freedom to form alliances.

In contrast, the argument that NATO has outlived its purpose and should have been dissolved at the end of the Cold War now seems out of place. It has been overtaken by recent history and will only be of interest to future historians, if at all. The position that a pan-European security apparatus that includes Russia would be preferable to NATO is currently nothing more than a vision for an extremely distant future.

The problem with counterfactual history is that it can be used to justify opposing positions. Of course one can imagine that without NATO’s eastward expansion, there never would have been a security crisis between the West and Russia. But the gravity of events also suggests the opposite, equally counterfactual narrative: if Ukraine had only been accepted by NATO directly after the Cold War, Russia wouldn’t have risked war and there would be peace in Europe today.

It’s also not wrong to point out the hypocrisy of the NATO member states, and doing so might even be a good antidote to too much war euphoria among the spectators. With his attempt to force a regime change in Kyiv, Putin is intentionally repeating precisely what the United States attempted in Iraq in 2003. The result back then was civil war, a failed state, and rebellion. The end result was the decline of a superpower. Yet anyone who simply points out hypocrisy is arguing in bad faith. Putin and his ilk also like to point out the West’s crimes to justify their own.

Ultimately, however, the truth is that many political actors in Germany, from conservative to left-wing, misjudged Putin. This reveals in no small measure a nation-centric and Eurocentric worldview. One really had to have been averting one’s eyes and ears while Putin was dropping bombs on the civilian population in Syria to make this mistake. Yet just as the colonial violence of the Europeans returned to Europe in World War I, war has now again returned to Europe.

Putin’s invasion has created in a new epoch in Europe. It is hard to believe: Russia is once again the enemy in Germany. This fact is Vladimir Putin’s fault. No German government can accept a country in Europe simply invading other countries. With the declaration of Olaf Scholz’s government on 27 February 2022, Germany has entered into a new era of foreign policy. Military strength, energy independence, a Europe less dependent on US security policy — all this represents a departure from the old guidelines of German politics. As Lenin said, there are weeks where decades happen. Overnight, Putin transformed NATO in Eastern Europe into what hardly any leftist ever wanted to think of it as: an anti-imperialist defensive alliance.

The war has drawn clear lines. This doesn’t mean that progressive forces must now cheer on German militarization. On the contrary. But in order to become a credible and critical foreign policy force, the Left now also needs to change with the times.