Why some American leftists are critical of U.S. assistance to Ukraine

·Senior Editor
·11 min read

The phenomenon of Republicans who admire Russian President Vladimir Putin is well known — especially since its most voluble proponent is former President Donald Trump.

But on the left, there also exists a smaller movement that holds the United States and its NATO allies as at least somewhat responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin, an authoritarian nationalist who has enacted laws targeting LGBTQ people and jailed liberal dissidents, has never been lionized on the left. Still, a cadre of far-left activists and pundits argue that the U.S. risked provoking confrontation with Russia by expanding NATO to its borders, and some are opposed to giving military aid to Ukraine or imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

“Everyone I know is united in condemning this war, and none of us like Putin,” Branko Marcetic, a staff writer at the Marxist journal Jacobin, told Yahoo News. But, he said, that doesn’t mean the U.S. should arm Ukraine.

A Ukrainian serviceman holds an American-made antitank guided missile during a training exercise.
A Ukrainian serviceman with an American-made Javelin antitank guided missile during military exercises near Rivne, Ukraine, in 2021. (Anatolii Stepanov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“The idea of sending weapons to Ukraine — I think there’s a defensible argument for it,” Marcetic said. “The problem is, there was a similarly defensible argument for arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s when they were fighting a Soviet invasion.”

The mujahideen were militias that fell into civil war with one another after the Soviets withdrew. The Taliban grew out of that war, later giving safe harbor to al-Qaida. Similarly, Marcetic warns, U.S. weapons could wind up in the hands of Ukrainian neo-Nazi militias such as the Azov Battalion, a part of the Ukrainian National Guard. Putin, who said at the onset of the war that Russia’s aim was “the de-Nazification of Ukraine,” has used the existence of groups like the Azov Battalion to justify his invasion.

“Because Putin has used that pretext, and because it’s such a big element of Kremlin propaganda at the moment, that in the West there’s a whole idea of ‘there’s no Nazi problem in Ukraine’ ... which is just not true,” Marcetic said.

As Marcetic and others on the left see it, any action that escalates tensions with Russia or intensifies the conflict militarily could lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

“The solution to this conflict is not going to be military,” Marcetic said. “It’s going to have to be some kind of negotiated settlement.”

“I’m against funding a proxy war that will lead to more bloodshed and — if the corporate media calling for a no-fly zone has its way — possibly nuclear war,” Katie Halper, a left-wing commentator and talk show host, told Yahoo News.

“Putin’s invasion was unjust, illegal and immoral,” she added. “But that doesn’t make arming Ukraine to fight a protracted miserable proxy war, with no winners but the war industry, the right thing to do.” Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Halper and her co-host Aaron Maté produced an episode of their podcast, “Useful Idiots,” entitled “How the US Caused the Ukraine Crisis.”

Ukrainian servicemen move U.S.-made FIM-92 Stinger missiles and other military items off a truck at an airport in Kyiv.
Ukrainian servicemen move U.S.-made FIM-92 Stinger missiles and other military items shipped from Lithuania to Kyiv on Feb. 13. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

(Halper’s previous co-host Matt Taibbi, a columnist on Substack who used to work for Rolling Stone, is also a contrarian on Russia, having mocked the notion that Russia might invade right up until it did.)

On Wednesday, on the website the Grayzone, far-left journalist Max Blumenthal, who has been deeply critical of U.S. and Israeli policies, conducted a friendly interview with Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a conservative with libertarian leanings who voted against a congressional resolution stating U.S. support for Ukraine. The next day, Blumenthal pressed Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive Democrat, on why Americans should support sanctions on Russia if it raises gasoline prices.

“After campaigning on a peace platform, Ro Khanna sounds like a Bush-era neocon, spouting American exceptionalist bromides about freedom not being free,” Blumenthal concluded on Twitter.

In a recent editorial, the Nation magazine, a left-liberal tribune, while decrying the invasion, called for diplomacy instead of “a rush to arms” or sanctions that it warned “will hurt not only Russia — oligarchs and ordinary citizens alike — but also Europe, the US, and the global economy’s bystanders.”

A number of other progressive journalists have raised some similar concerns. Jeremy Scahill of the Intercept warned that arming Ukraine could prolong the war. Scahill also noted that the United States has previously invaded and occupied Iraq without provocation. Some on the far left, such as former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, have been arguing for years that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and U.S. support for pro-Western forces in Ukraine were provocations to Russia.

Concerns that NATO’s post-Cold War expansion into Eastern Europe could lead to a confrontation with Moscow are by no means limited to the left. As Ukraine fights for survival, there are some democratic socialists who come to some similar conclusions as their unlikely allies on the right about how the U.S. should, or should not, respond to the war in Ukraine.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, for example, worries that replacing Russian oil with oil from Saudi Arabia will empower the Middle Eastern kingdom, which has a deplorable record on human rights and is prosecuting a brutal war in Yemen. Omar, along with fellow left-leaning Democratic Rep. Cori Bush, was one of two House Democrats who voted Wednesday against banning Russian oil imports; they were joined in their opposition by 15 right-wing Republicans.

“If our issue is that we don’t want to buy oil from a powerful country that is conducting a devastating war on its weaker neighbor, I just don’t see Saudi Arabia hardly being a principled solution,” Omar said in a radio interview on “Democracy Now” on Tuesday.

Omar has been clear that she opposes Russia’s invasion and supports U.S. aid to Ukraine. So her reasoning is quite different from that of Republicans like Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who in a speech over the weekend called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” presiding over a government that “is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil.” (After a video of Cawthorn’s remarks was picked up by news outlets, the freshman congressman tweeted that Putin’s invasion was “disgusting.”)

Rescue members search for victims among rubble in Yemen.
Rescue workers search for victims among the rubble after jets of a Saudi-led coalition targeted a prison on Jan. 22 in Saadah, Yemen. (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

In fact, all of the members of Congress who belong to the Democratic Socialists of America, including Bush and Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have broadly backed the Biden administration’s alliance with Ukraine.

But the organization to which they belong has other ideas. In its Feb. 26 statement on the war, the DSA criticized Russia’s invasion but also came out against any effort to arm Ukraine or sanction Russia. It also called for the end of U.S. involvement in NATO.

“This crisis requires an immediate international antiwar response demanding de-escalation, international cooperation, and opposition to unilateral coercive measures, militarization, and other forms of economic and military brinkmanship that will only exacerbate the human toll of this conflict,” the group’s National Political Committee wrote. “DSA reaffirms our call for the US to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.”

The DSA’s statement was controversial among its own members. “They felt they had to criticize the United States for imperialism, for provoking the Russians,” Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College and a founding member of the DSA, told Yahoo News. Dreier called the statement “tone-deaf about the moment we’re in as a country — and about the role of progressives and the left working in politics.”

The DSA North Star Steering Committee, which urges the group to take a more politically pragmatic approach, issued a statement endorsing economic sanctions. “It is precisely because we oppose outside military intervention that we have an obligation to advocate for other means to compel a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine,” the committee stated.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman speaks into a microphone outside the U.S. Capitol.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, outside the U.S. Capitol, calls for action on the Build Back Better Act before the State of the Union address on March 1. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images).

Bowman also took a very different tack than the DSA. “I vigorously condemn Russian imperialism,” Bowman said in a statement on the day Russia invaded its neighbor. “I am committed to supporting the Biden administration in holding Putin and his oligarchs accountable. ... I support NATO and will continue to do so during this crisis.” Bowman is nonetheless contending with a primary challenger who is demanding that he explicitly renounce the DSA’s position.

The DSA does have at least one member in elected office who endorses its refusal to favor Ukraine: New York City Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan, a first-term Democrat who tweeted on Feb. 25, “​​Had Washington and Brussels taken Russia’s security concerns seriously this war wouldn’t be happening. No country wants or deserves to have foreign powers placing missiles right on its borders.”

Some Russia contrarians who may once have been on the far left have gone so far around the bend that they are functionally on the right. Take Glenn Greenwald, a columnist formerly of Salon, the Guardian and the Intercept, who has spent the last five years casting doubt on the substantial evidence that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf in 2016.

Greenwald is a regular on-air guest of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who embraced a pro-Putin position before the invasion and continues to criticize U.S. assistance to Ukraine. Having started his career as a critic of the George W. Bush administration and American hawkishness, Greenwald is now a conservative favorite who tweets assertions like “there is a massive escalation in state and corporate censorship regimes in the West justified in the name of this war” to his 1.7 million followers.

Glenn Greenwald speaks into a microphone at a meeting in Brazil.
Glenn Greenwald in Brasília, Brazil, in 2019. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

Similarly, former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on an antiwar platform, is a frequent guest on Fox News and spoke at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.

This evolution reflects how marginal these perspectives have become on the mainstream left.

“Most people who call themselves liberals or most people who presume themselves to be part of the Democratic Party, and this includes people like Bernie Sanders, who consider themselves socialists, are broadly supportive of what Biden’s doing,” Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party,” told Yahoo News.

“In terms of more prominent pro-Putin people, that’s found much more in the Republican Party than in the left of the Democratic Party.”

But they nonetheless are drawing on a deep vein in American leftist thought. Just as Trumpist conservatives hearken back to their movement’s isolationist, pre-World War II history, leftists and socialists urging the U.S. to withdraw from NATO are expressing their ideology’s anti-imperialist instincts.

“People on the left who call themselves anti-imperialist ... believe that no big power, especially their own country, should be an imperial power, should have the right to have a large military, should have the ability to intervene around the world,” Kazin said.

That perspective has roots in the Cold War, although mainstream liberals such as Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were reliably anti-communist. In keeping with the Democratic Party’s internationalist position, President Biden, congressional Democrats and mainstream liberal publications — such as the New Yorker and New York magazine — have steadily backed Ukraine against Russia.

President Biden stands at a podium as he speaks about trade with Russia.
President Biden speaks about trade with Russia at the White House on Friday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

David Greenberg, a historian who teaches at Rutgers University and used to work in liberal opinion journalism, observed that some left-wing opponents of aiding Ukraine are motivated by “a fear that we’re going to go back to another Cold War.”

“I think for some, that’s amplified by a conviction that the foreign policy establishment, liberal and conservative, took us to war in Iraq, that was a disaster, and they’re out to do it again,” Greenberg told Yahoo News.

Some anti-intervention progressives are even willing to propose making significant concessions to Russia to bring the war to a swift end.

“One dark reality that many in the West will soon have to reckon with is that the future of a democratic Ukraine is not worth a larger land war or a nuclear threat,” wrote Ross Barkan, a left-wing pundit and former New York state Senate candidate, in a recent column.

“In diplomacy, human life must be prized first, and if a so-called appeasement strategy is what saves us from further civilian slaughter, it will have to be the strategy pursued.”

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What happened this week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

Where are Russian forces attacking Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.