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No, Critics of Western Aid to Ukraine Aren’t Being Silenced

Too often, the critics can’t seem to make their case without resorting to distortions, conspiracy theories, and Kremlin apologism.
March 9, 2023
No, Critics of Western Aid to Ukraine Aren’t Being Silenced
The flag of Ukraine with its coat of arms flutters as activists gather in Lafayette Square to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Washington, DC, on February 24, 2022. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With new announcements of military aid to Ukraine from various countries coming almost every day, and with the United States and most of its allies signaling a readiness to stand with Ukraine until full victory in its war with Russia, there have also been voices from the left, right, and center warning about the dangers of groupthink and of silencing or ignoring dissent. Emma Ashford, a Foreign Policy columnist and Stimson Center fellow, issued such a warning on Twitter at the war’s first anniversary.

Debate and the free exchange of opinions on a policy as important as backing another country in a war—a war with a nuclear power, a war we might get drawn into more directly—is essential. Yes, when emotions run high, it is very easy for legitimate questions to receive less regard than they deserve. And yes, a war of aggression in the heart of Europe of a kind not seen since World War II (the wars in the former Yugoslavia and in Chechnya were not, technically, foreign wars) is going to unleash that kind of emotion.

So by all means, let us hear the dissent. If some people want to argue that Russia’s assault on Ukraine is a horrific act of aggression but it shouldn’t be America’s cause because our national interest is not involved, let them make that case. Others can respond that a world in which America has abdicated a leadership role in the international arena, in which democracies are weaker and fewer, and in which authoritarian regimes are more powerful will be a worse and less safe world for America.

If some people want to argue that we should be focused on the threat of a more powerful and aggressive China, that’s a reasonable point. Others can respond that curbing an aggressive Russia helps that goal rather than hurts it, and that Russia’s failure in Ukraine may prove essential to deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

If some people want to argue that we are being too reckless about the threat of nuclear escalation, they’re certainly not alone: Mainstream venues such as the Economist and the Atlantic have provided a platform for such concerns. Others can respond that yielding to Vladimir Putin’s nuclear blackmail is the most dangerous course of all.

Have people with dissenting views gotten too little attention or too few opportunities to be heard—at least, outside the right-wing and left-wing spaces that self-define as alternatives to the political mainstream? It’s difficult to say what constitutes sufficient attention. (Ashford’s Foreign Policy column is certainly a platform in a leading “establishment” outfit; the magazine’s roster of columnists also includes Harvard University international relations professor Stephen Walt, an avowed Ukraine aid skeptic.) What’s more, some complaints from the critics of pro-Ukraine-war “groupthink”—for instance, that the mainstream media relentlessly hype a rah-rah narrative in which the plucky Ukrainians are always doing so much winning and the bad Russkies are always getting their butts kicked—are simply wrong. The dreaded Russian winter offensive was widely trumpeted only a few weeks ago, before much of it apparently collapsed into, in one writer’s words, a “criminally incompetent” debacle.

The question of whether critics of U.S. support for Ukraine’s war effort are being sidelined is more complicated. I seriously doubt that anyone has ever been accused of being a Putin apologist, a Kremlin shill, or a Russian bot come to life simply because he or she suggested that the United States has higher priorities than Ukraine, that China is a greater international menace, that we are being too cavalier about the risk of a nuclear conflagration, or that Ukraine is not doing as well in the war as we are told it is.

The truth is that with some honorable exceptions such as Ashford, Ukraine “dissent”—whether right, left, or some other maverick form of it—almost invariably turns out to contain a heavy dose of “Ukraine was asking for it” victim-blaming, “pity poor Putin” excuse-making, assorted lies and conspiracy theories, unsavory pro-authoritarian views, and/or recycled Kremlin propaganda tropes. Ultimately, “Yes, Russia is waging a horrific, brutal, and entirely unjustified war of aggression against its neighbor in order to subjugate it—but it’s none of our business, tough luck, Ukraine” just isn’t a very palatable stance for most Americans (or Europeans). Thus narratives proliferate that mitigate Russian aggression (It was NATO expansion that done it!) or paint Ukraine as partly responsible for the war and/or too morally compromised to deserve sympathy, by invoking the “neo-Nazis” of the Azov regiment, the “U.S.-backed coup” that ousted a pro-Russian government in Kyiv in 2014, and various atrocities supposedly visited by Ukrainian troops and militias on the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine.

A recent, more or less toned-down version of these narratives appears in a March 1 post on the Substack of the controversial British sociologist Noah Carl. It is worth examining as a relatively balanced iteration of the “skeptic” view. For instance, Carl readily concedes that “Putin’s brutal invasion” is unjustified. He just wants to make the case that the situation is not as simple as an  autocratic regime wanting to crush the aspiring democracy next door and that the pro-Ukraine narrative is too one-sided. We’re not “helping” Ukraine, Carl argues, so much as “supporting the Western-leaning faction of an ethnically divided country” (emphasis in the original).

The element of truth in Carl’s claim is that the population of Eastern Ukraine—where Russian language is common and many have close ties to Russia—has been generally far less supportive than in western regions of the 2014 Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” of integration into Europe, and of post-Maidan governments. In April 2014, less than two months after the revolution in Kyiv, a Pew Research Center poll found that 67 percent of the population of Eastern Ukraine said the new government was having a “bad” influence on the way things were going in Ukraine while 28 said it was having a “good” influence; the figures in the West were almost an exact reverse, with 60 percent saying “good” and 28 percent saying “bad.” What’s more, while 68 percent of respondents in Western Ukraine said it was more important for Ukraine to have stronger ties to the European Union than to Russia, only 21 percent of those in the East agreed. Yet it is also worth noting that the largest group in Eastern Ukraine (35 percent) saw ties to both as equally important, while 30 percent picked Russia (compared to five percent in the West).

And yet the same 2014 poll showed another fact that Carl airbrushes from his narrative. While most Eastern Ukrainians were indeed skeptical of the new government in Kyiv with its pro-Western orientation and its advocacy for Ukrainian as the sole national language, they fairly decisively rejected pro-Russia separatism, with an overwhelming majority saying they wanted Ukraine to remain one country. Only 18 percent of residents in Eastern Ukraine were in favor of allowing regions to secede. (In Western Ukraine, the figure was a minuscule four percent.) Even among Russian speakers in the East, barely over a quarter—27 percent—said secession should be allowed. Crimea, by then already annexed by Russia, was the only region where a majority endorsed secession.

Thus, Carl’s conclusion that Ukrainians in Crimea and the Donbas “do not want to be part of the West” may be true for Crimea, but it’s almost certainly untrue for Donbas. What’s more, there is plenty of anecdotal and other evidence that the 2022 invasion and its bloody and prolonged aftermath has (not surprisingly) shifted even many previously pro-Russian Ukrainians in an anti-Russia direction. In a December poll, only 38 percent of residents in the East were prepared to make any concessions to Russia for the sake of peace—higher than the figure for the entire country (26 percent), but still far short of half, let alone a majority.

Carl cites a 2017 Rand Corporation report, “Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine,” as proof for his assertion that “support for separatism [in Donbas] was sizeable and, in large part, homegrown.” But this claim is based on selective quoting and outright sleight of hand; what the Rand report actually says is that local protests against a (subsequently vetoed) law passed by the Ukrainian parliament which stripped the Russian language of its “official” status were largely genuine and “driven by public anxiety.” However, the report also makes it exhaustively clear that the separatists who seized power in Donetsk and Luhansk amid the chaos of 2014 were marginal figures with no absolutely local support or popularity (generally, either domestic extremists and criminals or Russian interlopers). Indeed, the chapter covering these events is titled “How Russia Destabilized Eastern Ukraine.”

Carl also dusts off the theory that the February 18-20, 2014, sniper shootings of protesters on the Maidan, which helped delegitimize the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych even among the population in the East, were a “false flag operation” by Ukrainian far-right extremists—a claim that, Carl says, is supported by “overwhelming evidence.” Here, I’ll have to make a digression to examine Carl’s source for this dramatic assertion. (If you’re not interested in getting into the weeds a bit, you might consider skipping the next section.)

The source for the “false flag” theory of the Maidan killings is Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian-born University of Ottawa political scientist. Katchanovski has been pushing the “false flag” theory of the Maidan snipers’ massacre since 2014. His work has been generally viewed, in the understated words of University of Alberta historian David Marples, as “politically driven.” Katchanovski is, not surprisingly, the Kremlin propaganda machine’s favorite Ukraine expert. A 2018 virtual-model reconstruction, by the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University, based on extensive video footage, concluded that the shooters were members of Yanukovych’s Berkut special riot police. However, in a longer post on the subject on the Daily Skeptic website, Carl says that the reconstruction has been debunked in Katchanovski’s subsequent paper and that his work is being ignored for purely political reasons. (Katchanovski’s theories were also recently aired by another pundit skeptical of the pro-Ukraine consensus, veteran writer and journalist Robert Wright.)

I am not a forensics expert; neither is Carl and, notably, neither is Katchanovski, who has his own debunkers. It should be said that even Katchanovski’s critics, such as Marples, acknowledge that much about the sniper massacre remains murky because no one was ever convicted in the killings—which is, perhaps, not surprising given the utter chaos that reigned on the square and around it. Georgia College historian William Risch, who is working on a history of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine and kindly shared some excerpts from his manuscript with me, points out that three politicians from the far-right, anti-Yanukovych Svoboda (Freedom) Party were in fact investigated in 2015 for a possible connection to the sniper shootings because they had reserved rooms at the Ukraina Hotel near the location from which some of the shots were fired, but those investigations also went nowhere. However, Risch, like many others, is highly skeptical of Katchanovski’s premise that the entire hotel, a massive Soviet-era structure, was under the control of anti-Yanukovych rebels. Perhaps no less saliently, Risch told me by email, “I highly doubt that the February 20 shootings were needed to spread more violent resistance in Ukraine. It was already there.”

Whether or not the Berkut riot police carried out the shootings, they were already heavily implicated in violence against Maidan protesters. As Maples wrote in his assessment of Katchanovski’s first paper in 2014: “Virtually anyone interested in Ukraine with access to the Internet watched live feeds of the unprovoked police violence of November 30 and December 1, 2013, which in the eyes of many Kyiv locals transformed the protests from ‘Euromaidan’ to a ‘Revolution of Dignity.’” In our email correspondence, Risch pointed out that sympathizers in Lviv were already arming themselves with intent to come to the aid of the Maidan protesters even before the sniper shootings, and that the Maidan self-defense volunteers he interviewed “were planning on making use of explosives to attack security forces with if the Maidan continued to be under assault.”

Lastly, some non-forensic details found in Katchanovski’s last paper on the Maidan shootings suggest credibility issues. He mentions that “a leaked intercepted telephone call” in which then-Estonian minister of foreign affairs Urmas Paet claimed that Olha Bohomolets, the head of the Maidan doctors’ team, not only talked about the “similarity of the wounds among the protesters and policemen” but suggested that “some Maidan leaders hired ‘snipers’”; but Katchanovski does not mention that Bohomolets strongly denied making any such statements. Katchanovski also points out that two politicians on the Euromaidan side, Davyd Zhvania and Nadia Savchenko, have made claims that the Maidan massacre was not just carried out by far-right elements but actually staged by Maidan leaders—but he leaves out details that show both of them to be highly unreliable: Zhvania had a complicated and bizarre history with both pro-Russian and pro-Western politicians in Ukraine (and a dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship); Savchenko, a militant who thought the post-Maidan leadership wasn’t hardline enough, made her accusation when she was targeting her political enemies (and in such an erratic way that she initially named then-parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy as the culprit, then said she misspoke and meant a different lawmaker with a similar-sounding last name).

Such research methods, I think, place Katchanovski much closer to a conspiracy theory peddler than a reliable scholar.

The conspiracy theory isn’t the most jaw-dropping part of Noah Carl’s post. That would be the passage where he mentions “the atrocities carried out by far-right paramilitaries in the Donbas—which have been documented by the UN, the OSCE and Human Rights Watch” and then parenthetically adds, “Separatist paramilitaries also committed atrocities, it should be noted.” Yes, it’s true that in 2014-16, the United Nations and human rights organizations criticized both sides in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine for unlawfully imprisoning and mistreating people suspected of working for the “enemy.” But a 2020 update by Human Rights Watch noted that the Ukrainian side had taken effective steps to end these abuses, with no new cases recorded since 2016—while the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk had “continued their practice of unlawful deprivation of liberty and torture and other ill-treatment of individuals” while making investigations more difficult. Carl’s summary of the situation is akin to fulminating over a few Democrats calling Donald Trump an illegitimate president and then throwing in a parenthetical acknowledgment that, by the way, Republicans in 2020 also engaged in election-result denialism.

And this is, mind you, the relatively decorous version of the anti-Ukraine narrative. Carl doesn’t call Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky a “pimp” like Tucker Carlson or an “international welfare queen” like Donald Trump Jr., or channel Putin talking points about “this war against Russia in Ukraine” like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. And Carl’s post is the voice of reason itself compared to a January screed on the MAGA site American Greatness, which asserted that Ukraine’s parliament today consists entirely of Nazis and that Zelensky and other prominent Jews in Ukrainian public life are Nazi whitewashers. The author—Maurice Richards, a former local police chief from West Virginia who has written opinion articles for several right-wing websites—also found evidence of Zelensky’s contempt for his Jewishness in the fact that during his years as a comedian he once performed a bawdy skit involving the famous Hebrew folk song Hava Nagila.

(By the way: If you look at actual American antisemites these days, you will not find them, by and large, on the pro-Ukraine side.)

The American Greatness post is pretty loony even by the standards of anti-Ukraine opinionating. But those standards really are pretty low: Consider the repulsive anti-Zelensky chorus during the Ukrainian president’s visit to the United States in December. One of the few relatively classy comments in that chorus came from Newsweek deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, who tweeted that one can “admire President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people’s bravery” while still believing that their interests are not ours. I was ready to hold up Ungar-Sargon as an example of how to be a sane, decent, and good-faith Ukraine skeptic. (Disclosure: I wrote for Ungar-Sargon when she was an editor at the Forward.) But a look at her past Twitter commentary on Ukraine proved disappointing: Ungar-Sargon has mischaracterized a March 2022 CNN report as claiming that “Ukraine’s Azov battalion is a white nationalist neo-Nazi brigade” and peddled conspiracy theories about sinister American “biolabs” in Ukraine and their alleged Hunter Biden connection.

If you can’t argue against American support for Ukraine without resorting to such intellectual fraud, then maybe you don’t have much of an argument. And you’re likely to paint yourself into embarrassing corners, as when Ungar-Sargon crowed about Germany’s refusal to allow Leopard tanks to be sent to Ukraine in January on the eve of Germany’s reversal on this question.

A piece on “The Rise of the Right-Wing Peacenik” by Isaac Grafstein posted last week on the Free Press, Bari Weiss’s recently revamped Substack publication, argues that the new “anti-war” sentiment on the right has to do with several things: post-Iraq mistrust of pro-democracy American interventionism as well as more partisan mistrust of “the security state”; the perception that Ukraine is Democratic and progressive cause; and the view that China is the real threat. But there are several caveats. For one thing, it’s not so much an anti-war sentiment as an anti-Ukraine one—in response to a situation extremely different from Iraq. For another, Grafstein’s largely complimentary piece leaves out some of the more unsavory aspects of this supposed peace movement, such as the anti-Americanism and pro-Putinism. As essayist Noah Millman points out on his own Substack:

A certain fraction of the socially-conservative right opposes America’s support for Ukraine, and more generally opposes an internationalist framework for American foreign policy, less because they fret about corrupting America with foreign entanglements (something Jeffersonians have always worried about), than because they think America is already too corrupt, and can only make the world worse. This perspective overlaps but isn’t identical with outright enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditionalism and Christianity against secularism and decadence, which is also a phenomenon. Some of these people transparently long for American humiliation as a necessary prelude to national reconstruction on lines they prefer; others long for the overthrow of the existing international order in favor of an alliance with Russia, willfully ignoring the absurdity of this idea.

Millman also notes that Ukraine seems to be a bad test case for anti-interventionist war skepticism, since “it is a clear instance of defensive opposition to an act of blatant aggression.” But that’s probably why the “peaceniks” keep contorting themselves into such elaborate pretzels to prove that it’s not.

For many people, anti-Ukraine animus seems to be a vehicle for knee-jerk hostility toward an “establishment” often dubbed “neoliberal” or “neoconservative.” (The question of whether those terms still mean anything nowadays is worth exploring further.) Hence the horseshoe meeting of far-left and far-right radicals, left-wing and right-wing populists, libertarians and even “anti-wokeists,” for whom the fight for freedom in Ukraine is more “fake news” from the “woke” media. It’s no accident that reader comments on pro-Ukraine articles on “heterodox” websites that lean “anti-woke” or populist, such as Unherd or the Free Press, are invariably filled with people who think Ukraine’s defense is a globalist project, echo Kremlin tropes about the carnage of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine, and often gripe about being fed mainstream media lies in a place where they expect to find dissent from establishment orthodoxy.

Good-faith critics of American and Western strategy in Ukraine need to acknowledge, engage, and condemn this ugliness if they want to contribute something useful to the debate. Should we talk about what our endgame is in Ukraine, or on what terms Ukraine can realistically win, or whether Russia should be given some version of a face-saving off-ramp? Of course we should. But first, let’s establish some basic ground rules of truth and decency.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.