Europe's left confronts the challenge of Putin’s Ukraine war

March 2, 2022
Protesting the war in Maastricht on Feb 26
Protesting the war in Maastricht on February 26. Photo: Officine Digitali/Flickr CC By 2.0

At first glance, nearly all parties and think tanks in Europe that lie to the left of social democracy seemed united in their response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

There was agreement on three basic points: the demand for immediate withdrawal of Russian forces, emphasis on the role of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the underlying driver of the crisis; and calls, more or less detailed, for de-escalation, dialogue and a negotiated solution along the lines of the 2014 and 2015 Minsk accords.

This apparent unity extended from parties of the “post-communist” left (like Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance and Portugal’s Left Bloc) to those from the orthodox Communist tradition, who might have been expected to agree with the position of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) or of the Cuban government.

This holds that Putin had no choice but to conduct a military operation inside Ukraine, given the supposed continuing capitulations of the Ukrainian government of Volodymyr Zelensky, externally to NATO and internally to Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist right wing.

As the CPRF statement says: “Coercing Kiev provocateurs into peace and restraining NATO aggressiveness has become the commitment of the moment. Only demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine can ensure lasting security for the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and the whole of Europe.”

In contrast, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) website presents a “Joint Statement of Communist and Workers Parties”: “The decision of the Russian Federation to initially recognise the ‘independence’ of the so-called ‘Peoples’ Republics’ in Donbas and then to proceed to a Russian military intervention — which is taking place under the pretext of Russia’s ‘self-defence’, the ‘demilitarisation’ and ‘defascistisation’ of Ukraine — was not made to protect the people of the region or peace but to promote the interests of Russian monopolies in Ukrainian territory and their fierce competition with Western monopolies.”

Perhaps an extra motive for the apparent unity across the left was Putin’s “anti-communist” justification of his operation: it is a step towards reunifying the common Russian homeland and historical-spiritual space, which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks — with their policy of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination — chopped into pieces after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

NATO and EU seize an opportunity

However, this apparent broad unity of the European left takes place in the context of an offensive by its enemies at home. Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine has provided the United States, NATO, the European Union and its most important member state, Germany, with an opportunity for rearmament and repression of democratic rights, putting the left on the defensive.

Most importantly, Putin’s Ukraine invasion allows NATO itself to regain legitimacy. This instrument of US and European imperialism — which since the 1991 “end of communism” has at times been broadly questioned — can now be marketed as protection against a Russia presented as imperial and autocratic (whether in its Soviet or capitalist guise).

As for the EU, which brought the left-wing Greek Syriza government to its knees in 2014, it too can now be sold as providing defence of democratic values and shelter from aggressors.

As Ukrainian refugees are welcomed and helped to survive in bordering EU member states (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania), the EU hopes the images of yesterday’s darker-skinned refugees from the Middle East and Africa being tear-gassed and beaten at its frontier will fade.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, told the March 1 session of the European Parliament on Ukraine that Putin’s aggression “confirmed the pressing need” for the EU to take further steps towards becoming a unified institution.

His call came two days after the European Commission announced that it was banning all access to Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik Radio. President Ursula von der Leyen said they would “no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union”.

Apparently, the EU’s “European values” don’t extend to allowing ordinary citizens to make up their own minds about whether Moscow’s news is fake or not.

How to support Ukraine?

With the Ukrainian army and the militia hard-pressed to withstand the Russian advance, NATO states have moved to provide Zelensky’s government with the weapons needed to counter the threat.

In the process, two decisions have broken new ground: Germany’s decision to supply Ukraine with 1000 anti-tank weapons and 500 surface-to-air missiles (abandoning the country’s policy of not sending weaponry to war zones), and the EU’s decision to finance and purchase arms for a non-member state.

Left forces have been pressured by these moves. They are torn between the desire to defeat Putin’s aggression but not “leave the field to the warmongers and arms-dealers, including here” — in the words of Luxemburg party, The Left.

Should the parties of the left in Europe abandon their traditional policy of opposition to sending lethal weaponry to war zones?

In Norway, both the Socialist Left Party (SVP) and Red continue with this stance. In Denmark, however, the Red-Green Alliance (RGA), which supports the ruling Social Democrat government from without, resolved on February 27 to back Danish arms being sent to Ukraine. Its statement said: “We have a duty to help the Ukrainians in their resistance to Putin's insane war of aggression. The Ukrainians themselves have asked for military support. They are fighting for their country and for each other. And we have a duty to help.”

The Finnish Left Alliance, which governs as minor partner to the Social-Democrats, adopted the same stance, voting on February 28 to send military hardware to Ukraine.

What about militarism?

The Swedish Left Party maintained its traditional opposition to sending weaponry to war zones, until March 1.

Malin Björk, the Left Party’s Member of the European Parliament abstained on the March 1 resolution on Russia’s Ukraine invasion, which backs military support for Ukraine and was carried by 637 to 13, with 26 abstentions. Björk explained her vote on the party’s web site: “I cannot support the position that the entire European security order should be built around NATO, and that the EU and NATO largely converge into one unit. The resolution even calls on Sweden and Finland to join NATO. This is what the Left Party strongly opposes.”

However, in the evening of March 1, the Left Party’s National Board reversed a decision adopted two days earlier: the party now supports helping the embattled Ukrainians with arms, separating this decision from its stance on NATO.

In the German Bundestag, the parliamentary fraction of Die Linke (The Left) voted on February 27 to condemn the Russian invasion and impose sanctions that would hurt the Russian oligarchy and government, but not the mass of the population.

At the same time, it opposed the Social Democrat-Greens-Free Democrats government’s proposal for entrenching a minimum of 2% of GDP in military spending in the constitution and setting up a €100 billion special fund to kickstart this rearmament.

The arc of opinions within Europe’s left parties showed in their vote on the European Parliament resolution. Of the 39-strong left caucus, 21 voted in favour (including Syriza, France Unbowed, the Portuguese Left Bloc, Sinn Féin and Podemos), 7 voted against (including the Portuguese Communist Party, Anticapitalists from Spain and two Die Linke MEPs), while 10 abstained (including the Basque Bildu, the Swedish Left Party, the Spanish United Left, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and three Die Linke MEPs).

‘Listen to the East’

It is against this confused background that radical left forces in Eastern Europe have been venting their frustration with those they look to as allies.

A recent expression comes from four members of the radical left Polish party Razem (Together). They contest the viewpoint that Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine is a reaction to NATO encirclement, stressing rather “the real reasons that underlie Moscow’s actions: an illegitimate feeling of sovereignty over the Ukraine and neo-imperialist aspirations”.

Their call to “listen to the East” follows on a “Letter from Kyiv” by Taras Bilous of Ukraine’s radical Social Movement, in which he scores the Western European left’s “anti-imperialism of idiots”.

The sands are running out: will realisation by the Western European left that defeat for Ukraine will be a disaster for everyone arrive in time to make a difference?

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Article made possible by Duroyan Fertl’s invaluable research.]

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