By Charles Pierson
Note: The following article was submitted to Counterpunch as a reply to the article mentioned in the paragraph below. Counterpunch has refused to publish it.
“Victory against Russia,” is the wrong goal in Ukraine, writes Binoy Kampmark (“Vicarious Zeal: Fighting to the Last Ukrainian,” Counterpunch, Jul. 15, 2022). Kampmark, a frequent contributor to Counterpunch, worries that Ukraine and the West are demanding what amounts to Russia’s “unconditional surrender.” Instead of demanding Russia’s surrender, Kampmark recommends peace talks. A negotiated peace, he writes, will shorten the war and save lives. Unfortunately, “Hard-headed peace talks, let alone anything approximating to negotiations have … become taboo.”
I respect Binoy Kampmark. I believe this is the first time I have disagreed with something he has written, but I do disagree. Strongly. Here’s why.
Russian-Ukrainian Peace Talks Since the Russian Invasion
Kampmark appears to have bought into the myth propagated by the “anti-imperialist left” that Ukraine refuses to negotiate. That puts the onus on Ukraine for rejecting peace. The truth is that negotiations between Russia and Ukraine began even before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Russia and Ukraine, together with France and Germany, met in January and February to attempt to defuse the growing crisis.
And after that? An exclusive report from Reuters said that “as the war began” Russia’s Ukrainian-born envoy Dmitry Kozak brought an offer to President Putin: Ukraine would satisfy Putin’s principal demand by pledging not to join NATO. Kozak recommended that Putin accept the offer, but Putin rejected the deal. (“Exclusive—As War Began, Putin Rejected a Ukraine Peace Deal Recommended by His Aide: Sources,” REUTERS, Sept. 14, 2022)
Reuters said that the story was based on “three people close to the Russian leadership.” These sources said that Putin rejected the deal because his military objectives had broadened to include annexing swathes of Ukraine. Putin’s rejection of Ukraine’s offer should give pause to those who blame NATO expansion for “provoking” the Russian invasion.
More peace talks took place on March 3, March 7, March 14-17, and March 21. A meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine under the aegis of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum took place in Istanbul on March 10, mediated by Turkey.
By March 16, according to the Financial Times, the parties had drafted a tentative 15-point peace plan. The tentative plan has not been publicly released, but according to the Financial Times the tentative plan included a ceasefire, withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, security guarantees, Ukrainian neutrality, and limits on Ukraine’s armed forces. In any event, the tentative 15-point plan was not adopted.
On March 15th and 22nd, Zelensky said that Ukraine would not join NATO.
On March 15, in an address by video link to leaders of the recently organized UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, a rapid deployment force of 10 North Atlantic nations, Zelensky “acknowledged” that Ukraine would not be joining NATO then or in the future.1
Then on March 22, President Zelensky offered explicitly to never join NATO in exchange for security guarantees and total Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. Zelensky said that the status of Crimea and Donbas could be decided at a future time. Zelensky’s offer was more than generous, but Putin turned up his nose at it.
Since the collapse of peace talks in April, Zelensky’s position has understandably hardened. Zelensky said in July that Ukraine would resume negotiations only after all Russian forces withdraw from territory Russia seized since the invasion. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Agence France-Presse on July 20 that peace talks “don’t make any sense in the current situation.”
The possibility of negotiations reemerged in September. On September 30, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s annexation of four regions partially occupied by Russian forces in Donbas in eastern Ukraine.2 Putin’s September 30 speech included an offer to negotiate peace with Ukraine. That wasn’t surprising. If the war had ended then, Putin would have walked away with almost 15% of Ukraine’s territory.
Zelensky, however, was having nothing to do with Putin’s offer of negotiations. That same day, September 30, Zelensky said that Ukraine would not negotiate with Russia so long as Putin is in power. Putin had had his chance at negotiating.
The Stupidest Slogan
Kampmark repeats the tired accusation made by the “anti-imperialist left” that the West is “fighting to the last Ukrainian.” It’s a silly slogan. It implies that the West, and above all, the US, are cynically exploiting the Ukrainians as cannon fodder in a US imperial assault on Russia. According to Kampmark: “Ukrainians have become surrogate democrats and freedom fighters.”
Ukrainians aren’t anyone’s “surrogates.” Or “proxies.” Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous writes that “The decision to oppose the Russian occupation was not made by Joe Biden, nor by Zelensky, but by the Ukrainian people, who rose en masse in the first days of the invasion and lined up for weapons.”
This is Ukraine’s struggle. The “anti-imperialist left” doesn’t get that. They see the war as a contest between the US and Russia in which Ukraine is incidental.3 I saw a comment on Facebook that “This [war] is not about Ukraine.” Has anyone told the Ukrainians this? Any Ukrainian who has lost family or home to Russian bombs may be excused for thinking that the war is indeed about Ukraine. Ukrainians are not fighting Russia in order to advance US or NATO interests. Ukrainians are fighting because the alternative is their deaths and the death of their country.
If anyone is being used as cannon fodder, it’s Russian troops. The UK Ministry of Defence estimates that Russia has lost one-third of its initial invasion force. Russian forces in Ukraine have suffered 75,000 casualties, including 15,000 dead troops. Putin is doing such a good job of killing and maiming Russians that you’d swear he’s a Ukrainian mole.
Are Western Arms Prolonging the War?
You may think that Russia is prolonging the war. If so, Binoy Kampmark is here to set you straight. Kampmark, like the rest of the anti-imperialist left, blames Western arms for prolonging the war. So does L. Michael Hager. Hager writes: “What may be the greatest roadblock to war-ending diplomacy is the unabating flow of weapons to Ukraine from the U.S. and its NATO allies.” Hager adds: “Now is the time to pursue diplomacy and stop stoking an endless war with weapons.” Peace group Code Pink: Women for Peace agrees. Code Pink’s website asks supporters to “Tell your congressional reps to vote NO on the next Ukraine weapons bill,” and slams Congressional progressives who “want to pair more weapons with negotiations.”
They’re right. Cutting off arms to Ukraine will bring peace—the peace of an immense graveyard. Depriving Ukraine of arms will have no effect on the arms available to Russia. Russian forces will roll over Ukraine and slaughter God only knows how many Ukrainians. Arms shipments to Ukraine must continue until peace talks are successful.
Are the US, UK, and other countries arming Ukraine out of altruism? Of course not. But when you’re drowning, it doesn’t matter who throws you a life preserver. As Michael Karadjis writes, “the Ukrainians have every right to receive weapons from whoever wants to send them, regardless of the aims of those countries doing so, or the extraordinary hypocrisy of these imperialist powers.”
And the hypocrisy is extraordinary. The US, the same country which invaded Iraq in 2003, condemns Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, the US aids and abets Saudi Arabia in its genocidal aggression against Yemen, a war in which an estimated 100,000 human beings have died.
Solidarity with Ukraine and the Way Forward
Ukrainian socialists (yes, there are socialists in Ukraine) cannot understand why so many leftists in the West refuse to stand with them and instead defend Putin’s aggression. The explanation is that a section of the left—the so-called “anti-imperialist left”—has bought into the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” US opposition to Putin magically turns Putin into an anti-imperialist. This line of thinking has been dubbed “campism” because it divides the world into two camps: an imperial camp (the US and its allies) and an anti-imperial camp (everyone else).
The “anti-imperial left” cannot wrap their minds around the idea that the left should oppose both the US and Russia. Instead, they believe that anyone who criticizes Russia (or China, or Iran, or North Korea, or Bashar al-Assad’s Syria) supports the US.
The left urgently needs to outgrow campism and support Ukraine’s right to resist Russia. This includes supporting Ukraine’s right to accept weapons from any country willing to provide them. Kampmark decries “the imperial spear-holders in Washington and some allies,” but there is nothing to suggest that he sees anything “imperial” in Russia’s attempt to conquer its neighbor Ukraine. We cannot with any consistency oppose US imperialism while turning a blind eye to Russian imperialism. In this war, the enemy of the US is the left’s enemy too.
Oaklandsocialist comments: The main thing that the so-called anti-imperialists (they are only opposed to U.S. imperialism!) miss is this: Putin cannot afford to come out of this without territorial gains. He is proving this over and over by now attacking the Ukrainian infrastructure, hoping to demoralize the Ukrainian population. Given that, what can negotiations possibly accomplish? Some on the “anti-imperialist left” are perfectly willing to give away some Ukrainian territory to Putin. They were willing to do so in 2014 and since when they supported Putin’s annexation of Crimea and effective annexation of parts of Luhansk and Donetsk. In this, the “anti-imperialist left” joins with the far right – Trump and Kissinger included. All they are doing is paving the way for Putin to go after even more territory further down the road. Also see Oaklandsocialist’s article: The Call for “Diplomacy” to End the War in Ukraine: A Reply to L. Michael Hager.
1 Zelensky said: “It is clear that Ukraine is not a member of Nato; we understand this. For years we heard about the apparently open door, but have already also heard that we will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged.” Zelensky’s bitterness toward NATO is unmistakable. For years, most recently at NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO has promised to make Ukraine a member, but has failed to take any action towards this goal. See Bucharest Summit Declaration at para. 23 (Apr. 3, 2008).
2 Putin said that the people of the annexed territories—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—will “be [Russia’s] citizens forever.” What Putin has brought together, let no one set asunder.
“Nor am I surprised that many people who have called themselves antiwar and even anti-imperialist in the past reject the possibility that the conflict is mostly just another battle in the war for full spectrum dominance that Washington has been fighting since the end of World War Two.”