The currently-deteriorating situation in Eastern Ukraine is an international tragedy regardless of how it is perceived. Russia invaded the region in 2014 and fighting has hardly abated since. As I write this, more than 150,000 troops are amassed near the Ukraine-Russia border. Many of these troops, it can be noted, are within Russian borders, but significant numbers of military personnel are engaging in military exercises in Belarus or are stationed in the contested regions of Crimea, Donetsk, and even Transnistria towards Ukraine’s southwestern border. Russia has surrounded Ukraine on three sides, and undoubtedly remains the aggressor in the conflict.
The conflict has been the perfect breeding ground for fascist paramilitaries, which have emerged on all sides of the conflict. These groups, ranging from the Ukrainian nationalist Azov Battalion, to the Russian private military outfit Wagner Group, to war-tourism from American neo-Nazis like the Rise Above Movement, have used the conflict to develop military skills and strengthen international networks of far-right militants. At the same time, while Putin himself is not an open fascist, Russian domestic policy has not trended towards egalitarianism, but rather towards violent exclusion, which has ranged from LGBT persecution, to political oppression of dissenting voices, to military action in the largely-Muslim Chechnya region. Russia has also stretched its imperial muscle, invading not just Ukraine in 2014, but claiming the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008. More recently, Russian forces helped quell dissent in Kazakhstan and Belarus, two former Soviet states which are of strategic importance to Russia.
With this thirty-second summary, one might conclude that antifascist opposition to Russia’s domestic policies and imperialist posture is a logical conclusion, and one would be correct. The tendency among Western authoritarian “leftists” to defend Russia on the basis that Russia opposes the US is naive and ignorant. But this is not the dispute. Rather, the question remains whether the antifascist position therefore compels support of the US and the Biden administration when examining the conflict in Ukraine. Liberals and Progressives have argued that since they believe Putin’s Russia to be a fascist regime, that opposition to Putin’s endeavors is an antifascist act. Since the US opposes these measures, the US is therefore opposing Russian fascism.
This premise is flawed. To argue that the American position on Ukraine is an act of antifascist solidarity with the Ukrainian people is to argue that America is an antifascist state. As seen by America’s own domestic policy, which includes increasing legislative attacks against transgender people, intense levels of police violence largely targeting Black people, and horrific border policies that intern asylum seekers, America can make no moral claim, historical or contemporary, that it stands against fascism. America is not opposing Russia as an act of antifascist solidarity. America is opposing Russia as a means to maintain its position as a global superpower, and has been doing so under what it sees as increasing threats to its supremacy from China and Russia. America is not going to invade Russia, it is not going to seek to depose Putin from his seat of power, it is not going to grant asylum to large numbers of persecuted Russians. America poses no present threat to Russia’s fascistic domestic policies.
As a result, the American position in the Ukraine crisis has been notably more panicked than that of its European allies or even Ukrainian politicians themselves. The Biden administration has been pushing aggressive messaging warning of a Russian re-invasion of Ukraine. These messages have been uncharacteristically intense and with little room for speculation. As early as January 25, the Biden administration claimed that a Russian invasion was “imminent." This messaging has continued for the last three weeks, with Biden claiming again yesterday, February 17, that an attack was again imminent.
Many of these positions have been disputed by none other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has repeatedly called on the United States to stop inciting panic and who challenged the Americans to show proof of the impending invasion. The rhetoric from the US has not been without impact: on January 28, Zelensky claimed Western rhetoric harming the Ukrainian economy. His party repeated this claim on February 15, saying that Western “hysteria” was costing Ukraine $2-3 billion monthly. A quick scroll of social media feeds from people in Kyiv report that life there is largely normal with little cause for panic. Biden himself tweeted defensively about his administration’s language. So what explains the difference between American messaging and Ukraine’s daily experience?
American liberals believe that Biden is playing some form of three-dimensional chess. They argue that by publicly announcing Russian plans to invade, they are flexing their intelligence skills and thereby forestalling Putin’s plans. Frankly, I find this argument to be naive and dishonest. Diplomatic channels remain open between the United States and Russia, and while it is not unheard of for a country to inform its opposition that they are aware of plans for an attack, it is highly unusual to use the megaphone of international media to do so when much more subtle channels are available.
Moreover, it is absurd to imagine Putin in his palace watching CNN, throwing a hissy fit while Biden announces his carefully-laid plans on air. The CIA is not the Scooby Gang, and Putin is not a man under a sheet who would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids. For Biden, this logic creates a win-win situation: if Russia invades, then he was right; if Russia does not invade, then his genius statecraft paid off. In any case, the administration holds itself above critique. Antifascists ought not to fall for such logical traps.
No, the only reason to use the press as a messaging service is when the target audience is not Russia and Putin, but rather the rest of the world. America is signalling to the rest of the world that despite multiple ongoing crises, including the world’s worst COVID response, that it still remains a global superpower. Nobody except Putin, and even then maybe not even Putin, knows what Putin is about to do in Ukraine. But the Biden adminstration has manufactured a global consensus that war is probable, that war is likely, that war is imminent, and that Biden himself is convinced it is all but unavoidable. While Russia is no doubt the aggressor, and is itself clearly attempting to manufacture a justification for invasion, America has done everything in its power to eradicate any remaining doubt that war is coming. This has been profitable to American arms manufacturers. In the past year, at least $650 million in US-made arms have been sent to Ukraine. This includes automatic weaponry, ammunition, and anti-air and anti-armor missiles. America, not Ukraine, benefits from the belief that war is inevitable.
This approach should cause concern for any antifascist. While Russia holds culpability for bringing us to the brink of war, America likewise holds culpability for creating a long-term ecosystem where peace and diplomacy seem impossible, and where war, either now or later, is destined to break out. America and the United Kingdom have now flooded an unstable Ukraine with the world’s most advanced military weaponry at great profit; Russia is doing the same in the Balkans, where increasing fascist tendencies and ethnic strife are threatening once again to destabilize the region. Moreover, it is not “both-sidesism” to point out that the free-flow of military weaponry and the economic devastation of a nation is unlikely to sustainably impede fascism or prevent war. In any case, the two “sides” in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are Russia and Ukraine, not Russia and the United States. Criticizing America’s heavy-handed approach to the conflict is not the same as blaming Ukraine for being invaded. Conversely, criticizing America’s heavy-handed approach is also not a call towards isolationism or the abandonment of the Ukrainian people. Antifascism must involve abolishing false binaries, too.
At the end of the day, we must acknowledge that statecraft is not the path to antifascism. America is acting out of her own best interest, not in the interest of eradicating fascism. It is irresponsible to allow the Biden administration to hold an unassailable position, just as it is irresponsible to claim that Russia is anti-imperialist for opposing the United States. It is not an appeal to “both sides” when America has decided to draw the lines itself; in any case, calling out “both sidesism” presumes one of the sides is morally beyond reproach.
America has a history of manufacturing wars and antifascists are right to question the media narrative that the American presidency generates, particularly when the Biden administration lashes out at journalists and insists that we have to “just trust” them. Questioning and criticizing American claims on Ukraine, particularly through the lens of similar critiques by Ukrainians, is similarly not a capitulation to the Russian position. Antifascism is an act of continuous solidarity with people, not governments. There is no horse trading in matters of antifascism, certainly not when choosing between two military superpowers with horrific domestic track records on civil liberties. Antifascism is an act of community solidarity; war is an act of global dominance. Rarely do these align, and never do they align for long.
If Russia invades Ukraine, the result will be a tragedy for the Ukrainian people. Antifascist solidarity means dismantling the apparatus of war, disarming and disempowering the fascist paramilitaries, and building a society where borders are matters of mere historical trivia. If we call for the inevitability of war, we might just get what we ask for.