The left must continue to condemn Russia’s invasion—and NATO
An elderly woman is helped by policemen after she was rescued by firefighters from her apartment after it was hit by a Russian bomb in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. | Felipe Dana / AP

BERLIN—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a disgraceful spectacle. The ongoing massive bombardment of urban areas is being undertaken with a humanitarian pretext, an apparent “genocide” of Russian speakers living in the Donbass region. As an accusation goes, it cheapens the word beyond comprehension.

This war of aggression is also being waged with an ideological component, which can be summed up as a neo-Tsarism and an anti-communism that denies Ukraine’s right to exist, trampling on the right of nations to self-determination. In short, it is waged along the same narrow nationalist and ultra-right-wing lines that Russia is accusing the Ukrainian state of representing.

Given the justifiable outrage that people are feeling toward this dangerous turn to full-fledged war in eastern Europe, it’s, of course, welcome to see masses pouring into the streets in cities across Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Anti-war protests are an important element of the struggle to avert a further catastrophic escalation.

However, we should also be highly vigilant of the fact that a significant component of what are nominally anti-war protests objectively appear to actually be pro-war. That is, rather than calling for constructive dialogue and de-escalation, many well-intentioned protesters find themselves perhaps unwittingly lining up behind the sleepwalk into a nuclear catastrophe and World War III.

Many well-intentioned protesters find themselves perhaps unwittingly lining up behind the sleepwalk into a nuclear catastrophe and World War III, like this one in France calling on NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. | Peter Dejong / AP

Take the major demonstrations that have unfolded here in Berlin over three consecutive weekends. These protests are homogenous only in the sense that they call for an end to Russia’s invasion and occupation. Where they diverge is over the question of such pro-war responses as demanding a No-Fly Zone (which would mean NATO going to war with Russia) or further sanctioning Russian entities. In the latter case, these sanctions almost always mean that ordinary working people suffer the most. This is also an act of warfare done by different means, even if the target is technically a Russian businessman, politician, or the like.

Of course, many of the protesters who have taken to the streets frankly don’t understand that this crisis isn’t anything particularly new, or perhaps they only vaguely know the content of what occurred in eastern Europe post-1990 or Ukraine post-2014. Emotional responses to war can be powerful and in a way necessary, but not understanding that this crisis didn’t begin with Russian tanks rolling into Ukrainian territory is vital.

It is true, however, that people quite honestly aren’t supposed to know any of this background. Yes, the Russian state media has muzzled voices of dissent on its screens and in print—or, in the case of RT’s coverage in the lead up to the invasion, aired fabricated videos alleging the humanitarian crisis in Donetsk and Lugansk. To point out their propaganda is quite easy to do, whether as a leftist or as a western mainstream media outlet.

At the same time, let’s also not forget the hypocrisy of our own mainstream press, who spend little to no time reflecting on the years of NATO expansion after the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union a year later, although it is provable that verbal assurances were made to Soviet leaders that the alliance would not expand.

How often have the BBCs, ABCs, NBCs, and the various other acronyms we watch day in and day out told us about Russia’s legitimate security concerns and that NATO isn’t some kind of defensive alliance? Do people realize that since 1949, its primary function has been the protection of monopoly capital situated in the West? Have we been told that this has literally nothing to do with the well-being of working people in our countries, but the expansion of the wealth for a privileged few?

Providing any of this context would not make for condoning Russia’s invasion. However, it would be vital to understanding how we got here. If we were to understand that 2014’s Euromaidan movement – as far as those western external powers were concerned—was an attempt to literally pull Ukraine into the orbit of the European Union and NATO, we would be able to more clearly see that what Russia is trying to do with even more despicable force is to wrestle it back into its own. Perhaps by dismantling it altogether. If Russia is no angel, which is certainly true, then NATO and U.S. imperialism are absolutely the primary warmongers in a historical sense.

Germany’s Die Linke and the question of NATO membership 

In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, many commentators and political figures alike have spoken of a “changed situation” in Europe. Although that is certainly true, what their conclusions are in terms of how to deal with this new situation is to ramp up the potential for human oblivion. While this is to be expected from the parties of the right and even of the center-left, it speaks to a very serious issue that parties declaring themselves to be socialist that have historically taken a firm line against NATO membership for their countries are also calling this into question.

After seven parliamentary members of Die Linke released a statement denouncing the war of aggression launched by Russia, but also daring to call out NATO’s aggressive posture for having fueled the crisis, party leader Gregor Gysi responded by effectively telling the group they should abandon all criticism of western imperialism. | Bernd von Jutrczenka / dpa via AP

Here in Germany, Die Linke (The Left Party) has been the most consistent force both in the parliament and in the streets opposing German imperialism, whether in the form of arms sales to reprehensible regimes such as Turkey, or an increase in military spending. The opposition to NATO membership has been a cornerstone of this anti-imperialist policy, which has been taken for granted over the years.

Doing reformist, parliamentary politics as a socialist comes with its own dangers, namely those of a tendency toward conservatizing one’s positions. This was most visible for Die Linke as a party when it attempted to water down its program in the run-up to the 2021 elections. One of the ways that it argued for inclusion in a Social Democratic-led government was by putting the question of opposing NATO onto the shelf.

Now in the “changed situation” on the cusp of the Spring of 2022, some within Die Linke’s leadership appear to be arguing for throwing the anti-NATO line out of the party’s positioning altogether.

This first appeared on the lips of long-time leading figure Gregor Gysi, who had overseen the transition of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) of East Germany into the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), predecessor to the current party.

After seven parliamentary members of Die Linke, led by the often controversial Sahra Wagenknecht, released a statement denouncing the war of aggression launched by Russia but also daring to call out NATO’s aggressive posture for having fueled the crisis, Gysi responded by effectively telling the group they should abandon all criticism of western imperialism!

His words are remarkably revealing. “You are only interested in saving your old ideology in every way. NATO is evil, the USA is evil, the federal government is evil, and that’s the end of it for you.”

Well, surely socialists don’t see anything as evil in a metaphysical sense, but we would do well to remember that even if we work within the framework of parliamentary democracy and we can raise our voices within the halls of power, those halls are still ones ultimately under the rule of bourgeois democracy. These states or institutions aren’t “evil” in some black and white sense, but they do fundamentally represent the monopolies, and thus they also represent imperialism.

In terms of “old ideology”, it appears as if Gysi—who was always the poster boy for the turn from communist into democratic socialist (a term that has always carried with it a shred or two of ambiguity)—means that leftists should square up ever more closely to the mainstream social democrats.

Die Linke, as a broad church party of sorts, is fortunate to have within its ranks those such as Wagenknecht who can call out NATO for what it is, even if I have personally disagreed with a wide range of other policies she has endorsed in recent years, whether on the question of refugees or COVID-19.

It’s also fortunate that the parliamentary grouping of Die Linke did not acquiesce to Gysi’s position, which would have meant signing off on the historical increase in military spending that was pushed by the Traffic Light coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democratic Party. It appears as if most still have the grounding and level-headedness to see that flooding Ukraine with weapons will only aggravate the situation further and bring the very real threat of a European-wide conflagration closer to reality than it has been since 1945.

Finland, neutrality, and the arms of NATO

While Germany is perhaps a poster child for NATO and the notion of its expansion (the annexation of the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic in 1990 brought with it the reunified country as a whole belonging to the anti-Eastern bloc), other countries that have positioned themselves neutrally for decades have now begun rethinking the question of whether joining NATO would be preferable.

One such country is my motherland of Finland, which has in some ways thrived since the end of the Second World War because of its decision to not join the alliance. Its neutral status meant reasonably good relations with both the western world and the Soviet Union, especially throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Neutral Finns call for peace: People demonstrate against Russia’s attack on Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, Feb. 24, 2022. Maintaining military neutrality throughout the Cold War ensured relatively smooth relations between Finland and the USSR. | Emmi Korhonen / Lehtikuva via AP

Since Russia’s invasion, the number of Finns who say they would be open to the country joining NATO has skyrocketed. The emotional content of this has an understandable basis. Finland was once part of the Russian Empire, and it achieved its independence in 1917 as a consequence of Lenin’s position on national self-determination. Despite this, part of its territory known as Karelia was annexed by the Soviet Union during the Winter War in 1939.

Thus, while fairly good relations with the Soviet Union and Russia have largely persisted, there has always been a degree of fear present in the minds of Finns when speaking of Moscow’s possible foreign policy motivations.

There would almost certainly be catastrophic consequences if either Finland or neighboring Sweden—which has also had a long-standing policy of staying out of NATO—were to join the alliance. On the surface, it may appear that joining it would make more sound defensive sense. After all, if Finland or Sweden joined NATO, this would mean an attack on one would mean an attack on all. Thus, the argument goes that this would prevent Russia from moving into Finland or beyond because it would effectively mean going to war with the U.S.

Although the content would be presented as defensive, it would in fact be remarkably provocative. It would almost certainly ratchet up tensions even higher, pushing Russia into an even greater corner in the sphere of security, which would only create the scope for greater escalation.

We should recall that countries like Finland, while previously under Russian imperial rule, are very different from Ukraine. Although certain fascist Russian philosophers such as Aleksandr Dugin, who has had the Kremlin’s ear at times, is keen to see both Ukraine and Finland permanently absorbed into Russia and lose their statehood, the fixation on Ukraine by the Russian state is the only one that makes sense from a rational perspective.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Finland wasn’t. Ukraine is flirting with EU membership, Finland has long been an EU member. Ukraine has a significant Russian-speaking population, while Finland’s is minimal. The two countries are very different.

On the question of NATO membership for Finland, it’s disheartening to see that this debate is also making its way into the Left Alliance, the post-communist party that forms part of the same Party of the European Left (PEL) that Die Linke is a founding member of.

Similar to their German comrades, the Left Alliance has been known for its resolute opposition to NATO. However, in light of recent events, party leader and current Minister of Education Li Andersson has said there is now an official discussion unfolding among the membership regarding a review of foreign and security policy positions.

In an interview in the Left Alliance’s Kansan Uutiset, Andersson outlined that, “It has been the case in the past that anti-NATO has been the unifying position of the party. Now it is rather distinctive. Some members are very strongly opposed to NATO membership and some are in favor of it.”

Moment of truth for the left 

Of course, democratic debates within parties of the left should be an indispensable part of doing politics. Surely, however, some issues should continue to be non-negotiable. It is the duty of socialists to lead the masses at a time of anxiety and confusion around militarization, not to tail them. We should not be lining up behind the forces of capital accumulation that we should know very clearly to not be our friends.

One can only hope that the democratic socialist parties of Europe do not submit to the more distinctly social democratic position, that while pushing workers’ rights within the framework of the capitalist system have usually been the most loyal left-flank of the imperialist order. These socialist parties might be best described as being “Two and Half International” groupings, with its leadership and membership swinging between the anti-imperialist and more definitely socialist, on the one hand, and the “left” opportunist, on the other.

This will be a defining moment for these organizations, as well as the left more broadly. We all need to remember at this juncture that opposition to NATO does not need to be—and should never be—equated with condoning the despicable Russian invasion. There is no justifying the unjustifiable.

Socialists have the responsibility of standing against war waged in the name of capitalism and its barbarity. This is precisely what the Ukrainian people are suffering from as a consequence of not only the neo-Tsarism of Vladimir Putin—but also very clearly the expansionist and insatiable appetite for markets that the U.S. and its junior partners have found essential in Ukraine.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Marcel Cartier
Marcel Cartier

Marcel Cartier is a critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, journalist, and the author of two books on the Kurdish liberation movement, including 2019’s Serkeftin: A Narrative of the Rojava Revolution, which was one of the first full accounts in English of the civil and political structures set up in northern Syria after 2012.