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Where Are the Anti-Putin Anti-Imperialists?

Putin’s corrupt, conservative, chauvinistic aggression should raise the ire of progressives everywhere.
February 16, 2022
Where Are the Anti-Putin Anti-Imperialists?
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Now would be a nice time for some anti-imperialism. Russia has mobilized a massive contingent of forces on the Ukrainian frontier—fully half of all Russian combat troops, according to some reports—threatening to annex and incorporate more Ukrainian territory than seized at the outset of its hybrid war in 2014. In addition to the “frozen conflict” being waged by Russian forces and Russian-backed insurgents in east Ukraine for nearly a decade, Moscow is responsible for mounting cyberattacks against Ukrainian infrastructure. As ransom, Russia wants the power to dictate what security agreements Ukraine and other independent states can join. In a different century, such an arrangement would have been called a “protectorate.” It’s about as clean-cut a case of imperialism as can be found in the world today.

And yet, from Berlin to Berkeley, there has been a conspicuous dearth of protests against this undisguised display of imperialism. To some, the imperial power galloping around the world with abandon is not Russia but America, and its old stalking horse, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The tale goes something like this: After the collapse of Soviet communism, the “sole superpower,” in its imperial hubris, permitted—no, compelled!—the satellite states of the USSR to join NATO. Spurning the opportunity to include Russia in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, the United States seized the “unipolar moment” to advance its hegemony. The folly of extending NATO to the Russian frontier, we are told, stoked fear and insecurity in a reduced but resilient great power, eventually inciting it to challenge the liberal order.

The response from those who are usually most vociferously opposed to imperialism has been somewhat confused. While a few progressive commentators have seen through Putin’s rhetoric, the typical response has been disappointing. The progressive writer Peter Beinart has argued that the United States ought to recognize a capacious Russian “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe and urged a “Finland model” of a neutral Ukraine. The Congressional Progressive Caucus called for “compromise.” Diplomacy, de-escalation, peaceful conflict resolution—good! But compromise with a hostile, imperialist power? Compromise means giving each side part of what it wants. In this case, that would mean giving Russia partial dictatorial power and quasi-imperial control over Ukraine. Those don’t sound like progressive values.

Somewhat surprisingly, these voices from the old left have formed a phalanx with the new right. Following the example of Donald Trump’s chronic moral capitulation to Putin, many of the president’s acolytes openly lobby on behalf of the Kremlin. Even those who stop short of blatant sycophancy fix the blame for instability in Europe and beyond on Uncle Sam. In a recent essay, Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin impugn the right, past and present, for its “neo-neoconservatism.” Without defining that term, these nationalist doves argue that America has no stake in the freedom of Ukraine and must pursue narrowly construed national interests. Nationalist integralists like Ahmari, Deneen, and Pappin are, to say the least, strange allies for committed anti-imperialists.

Of course, there are internally valid reasons to oppose any sort of confrontation with the world’s largest nuclear power. At first glance, the suggestion that ignoring some hostile actions by Russia is favorable to the possibility of thermonuclear war is not ridiculous. But if the great virtue of progressivism is impatience with injustice, then a certain amount of risk and thumos should be called for in defense of democracy and national independence.

Stability, defined as the avoidance of conflict, is the animating goal of self-styled “realists.” In isolation, it is a noble goal, and a broad cross-partisan movement has formed espousing precisely this point. But today’s “realists” push a legitimate idea too far by embracing or at least acquiescing to Russian imperial ambitions. “Realism” of this sort not only preaches American passivity in the face of Russian aggression, but abominates the Western alliance as a force for division and great-power war—a position that is not borne out by the historical record (as I have pointed out before). Moreover, “realism” is inherently conservative, willing and often eager to overlook or defend chauvinism, xenophobia, and, yes, imperialism in the name of stability. It is a morally stunted system that abhors all change.

In addition to its parochialism, there is a profoundly illiberal tendency ascendant in the “realist” camp. Those who oppose military aid to Ukraine and punitive measures against the Russian elite designed to deter Moscow claim that “the taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” In other words, the Russian regime is not only hostile to the overarching liberal order, but it’s abundantly justified in its hostility. (A coterie of Russian intellectuals who oppose any further violation of Ukrainian sovereignty at the risk of imprisonment or death appear to disagree.)

With one hundred Russian battalion tactical groups within striking distance of Ukraine, these implacable foes of U.S. global leadership believe it necessary to imagine the American response if Mexico attempted to join a military alliance backed by a rival power. (Never mind that the historical record reveals that Russia’s anti-American turn predated NATO enlargement, having more to do with ideological identity than strategic considerations.) No wisdom is to be gleaned on this matter from Kremlin apologists and “realists” cloaking their quest to end American hegemony with appeals to internationalism. Moreover, NATO showed no signs of seeking to admit Ukraine any time soon. But to answer the question: America’s response to Mexico joining a defensive alliance with Russia or China would depend on whether or not the United States intended to invade Mexico. Anti-imperialists can take sober satisfaction in the enormous progress since the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, and turn their attention to the true revisionist powers posing extreme challenges to global security.

Putin and his camp believe, with good reason, that a retrenchment of American power presages the restoration of Russian preeminence in Europe. The Russian strongman announced his fears and ambitions at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. He assailed the “unipolar model” of American global leadership as “not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.” He said that NATO expansion was “a serious provocation” directed against Russia. In the long history of his country—spanning “more than a thousand years,” he noted—Russia “has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy.”

Less than two years later, Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia, a fledgling democratic neighbor of Russia, and the de facto annexation of one-fifth of its territory. He doesn’t object to American power because it’s power, but because it’s American. As Angela Stent has noted, Putin’s “doctrine holds that only a few states should have this kind of authority, along with complete sovereignty, and that others must bow to their wishes.”

U.S. global leadership is flawed, often counterproductive, usually confused and more than a little ham-fisted, and inconsistent in advancing American ideals and American interests. But it is scarcely a classic imperial project seeking to coerce or subjugate free nations in the world. However, there is a brigand empire, ruled by the world’s richest man, that contravenes every liberal principle at home and abroad. The future peace of Europe hinges on that man’s loathsome design, based on his own ethno-religious prejudices and imperial chauvinism, to destroy and absorb a free nation which has no desire to be a satrapy of an autocratic and kleptocratic foreign power.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.