socialist movement

Review of Medea Benjamin’s book on Ukraine

by Bill Weinberg.

Note, this is the transcript of an audio of Bill Weinberg’s “Countervortex”. That audio can be heard on his blog here.

Against pseudo-left disinformation on Ukraine
From the CounterVortex podcast, Dec. 9, 2022

Putin is bathing in the warmth of propaganda like the book of Benjamin and Davies.

You may have noticed that Medea Benjamin of Code Pink is on tour promoting her new book, War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict—a rather inappropriate title, as we shall deconstruct at length on this rant. Published by OR Books, based here in New York. I note happily that her gig in Berkeley, California, was protested by a small contingent from the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign.

Now, I have to say this book is much more sophisticated than what we’ve come to expect from Medea Benjamin, who favorably re-tweets the crude spewings of Marjorie Taylor Greene. This is significantly slicker, perhaps due to the efforts of her co-author Nicolas JS Davies. It’s actually pretty well done propaganda.

But there are so may distortions—practically on every page there is some really egregious distortion. So I had to exercise some triage, and I’m just singling out the worst ones here.

Most annoyingly, we get the occasional lip service about, for instance, Russia’s “illegal brutal assault”—when everything in this book is aimed at making excuses for and justifying Russia’s invasion, and getting Ukraine to capitulate to Russia.

They write that they are attempting to “clear up the confusion”—which is extremely ironic, this book is an intentional exercise in muddying the moral and political waters.

On page 20 they set up some questions they’re going to explore, with a pretense of objectivity: “We have tried to answer a range of key questions people have asked since the invasion: What happened in Ukraine in 2014? Was there really a ‘coup’? What role did the United States and Russia play in those pivotal and complex events, which Western corporate media deceptively abbreviate as ‘the Russian annexation of Crimea’?”

But they’re not objectively exploring these questions, they already have their answers. In their version of reality, yes for Benjamin and Davies the Maidan Revolution was a “coup”—which actually, no it wasn’t (we’ll get to that later). And note how the completely accurate and objective phrase “Russian annexation of Crimea”—which Putin himself would not contest—is dismissed as media propaganda. So objectivity, my sweet patootie.

Right away, they betray their hand—and this is the most critical point—by accusing Western politicians of “flooding Ukraine with weapons that were bound to prolong and exacerbate the war.” (Meaning after the Russian invasion of this year.) What this obviously means, although they aren’t so impolitic as to state it forthrightly, is Ukraine should surrender territory and capitulate to Russian demands. If you think about it, it can’t mean anything else.

There is, still in this introduction, the requisite railing against NATO—in grossly inaccurate manner. They write on page 15 that after the Cold War, “The United States and its allies developed new rationales to use military force even more freely and widely across the world, leading to catastrophic wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.”

Now it is ridiculous to paint all these conflicts with the same broad brush—and including Syria is utterly Orwellian, because that was and is Russia’s destructive war far more than that of any other outside power, including the US, in fact.

On page 17, they write:  “In 2011, the United States and its allies began supporting and arming Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria in a proxy war to overthrow President Assad, a close Russian ally. In its first military response to Western war-making, Russia intervened militarily to defend its Syrian ally.”

So making excuses for Russian massive aerial bombardment of Syrian civilians as “defending an ally,” and dismissing the Syrian revolutionaries as mere proxies in condescending manner—and, it’s not even accurate. The US was supporting (if indeed the reports of support to the rebels are to be believed, of which I am very skeptical) the Free Syrian Army—which was secular-nationalist and led by defectors from the Assad regime itself. And when al-Qaeda-linked elements later got involved in the conflict, with the formation of the Nusra Front, the US didn’t back them—the US bombed them. Not as aggressively as Russia was bombing the Free Syrian Army and its allies—but nonetheless bombed them. Not backed them. A reversal of reality.

In the next sentence we get this: “Putin worked with Obama to resolve the crisis over Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.” So even now, we’re casting doubt on Assad’s chemical attacks, Medea? Really? Of which there have been hundreds more in the nine years since then.

On page 20, we get this: “How did NATO, a military alliance build to defend Europe from attack by the USSR, outlive its purpose, expand beyond its borders, or any borders at all, and end up invading Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya?”

It just amazes me how these fictions are accepted. Now, the only one of these three cases which can even arguably be called a NATO invasion is Afghanistan—and even there, it isn’t quite right. NATO Article 5 was invoked after 9-11 and Afghanistan was in fact invaded—but by the US and the United Kingdom (with Russian cooperation, I will point out), not as a NATO operation. NATO would only become formally involved in overseeing the international force in Afghanistan in August 2003, almost two years later. But the other two examples, Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Libya in 2011—OK, they were NATO operations, but they weren’t invasions. Sorry, words have meanings. Aerial bombardment, whatever you think about it, isn’t an invasion. And the NATO troops eventually introduced in ex-Yugoslavia, first in Bosnia and later in Kosova, were as part of political deals worked out with Belgrade—with the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. And in the latter case, Kosova, Russia also introduced troops as part of the so-called policing operation under the same deal. So, not an invasion. You can oppose it if you want, but you don’t get to make up facts. Sorry.

OK, let’s go deeper into this litany of inaccuracy. As they discuss the collapse of the Soviet Union, on page 25 they write: “The largely Russian population of Ossetia found themselves split in two between North Ossetia, now a part of Russia, and South Ossetia, within the new border of Georgia.” Nope. There was never a unified Ossetia under Soviet rule—North Ossetia was an autonomous oblast of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, and South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. That’s how they wound up in separate countries after Georgian independence. Nor is the population of Osssetia ethnic “Russian.” Ossetians are their own distinct ethnicity, and their language much closer to Persian than to Russian.

Also on page 25, they discuss Crimea: “In Ukraine, the first disagreements were over the status of Crimea, which had been part of Russia since 1783. Crimea was transferred administratively from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954, after Nikita Khrushchev, who was from Ukraine, succeeded the late Josef Stalin as Soviet leader.” Now this is more or less factual, although the emphasis echoes Putin’s grievance about how Russian nationalism was undermined by the commies. But it does contain an error. Khrushchev was born Kalinovka, Kursk oblast, Russia—near the border with Ukraine, but not in Ukraine as implied. And he certainly wasn’t Ukrainian, although Stalin did make him party secretary for Ukraine, and he led the Red Army advance that retook Ukraine in World War II. But emphasizing this at all, even in accurate terms, loans legitimacy to Putin’s complaint that Russia was betrayed by Khrushchev giving Crimea to Ukraine and that aggressive war to retake it is somehow justified.

I’ll point out that in December 1991, the people of Crimea voted, as did the rest of Ukraine, for Ukrainian independence—by a less overwhelming majority in Crimea than elsewhere in the country, but still a majority. Benjamin and Davies don’t mention this, but they do mention the referendum in Crimea several months earlier, in January 1991—which they inaccurately say was for Crimean “independence.” Not so. It was for re-establishment of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a status the territory had as a constituent entity of Russian Soviet Socialist Republic before World War II, but which was dissolved by Stalin. And the idea in early 1991 was to revive it again under an abortive proposal by Gorbachev to re-establish the internal borders of the USSR on more democratic lines so as to shore it up. This was abandoned, and the USSR was formally dissolved in December of that year. So, totally dishonest to mention the January referendum—in inaccurate terms—and then not mention the Crimeans voting for Ukrainian independence later that same year.

And what about the Tatars? No mention in the book whatsoever of the Crimean Tatars—the Turkic and Muslin indigenous people of the Crimean Peninsula who were forcibly deported to Siberia by Stalin, and only recovered their homeland and were granted a local autonomous government there by an independent Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR. And have now had that autonomous government dissolved, and its leadership arrested, under Putin’s rule. Not a mention anywhere in the book; its like the Crimean Tatars don’t even exist.

On page 17, we’re told that Kyiv and eastern and southern Ukraine were “part of Russia and the Russian Empire for centuries.” Well, more a part of the Russian Empire than Russia exactly—there was always a distinction between so-called Great Russia or Russia proper, that is the ethnic Russian heartland, and its conquered territories like Ukraine. But you do understand this is rather like saying that Palestine was for centuries “part of Turkey and the Turkish Empire.” So what? It doesn’t mean either the Palestinians or the Ukrainians aren’t entitled to self-determination today.

OK, then we turn to a very detailed if not always very accurate account of the 2014 Maidan Revolution against the Moscow-tilting president Viktor Yanukovic, to make the case that it was a “coup.”

They do acknowledge the months-long protest occupation of Maidan Square in Kyiv, but they really play up the role of Right Sektor, the far-right party, which formed a kind of militia to ostensibly protect protesters after they were repeatedly attacked by security forces. And of course they engage in “false flag” theorizing that Right Sektor was really behind the Feb. 20, 2014 massacre of some 50 protesters by the security forces. The supposed “false flag” evidence is footnoted to a study by one Gordon M. Hahn of The National Interest advocacy group and the Center for Strategic & International Studies—so an exponent of the so-called pragmatist or realist wing of the beltway elite, better termed paleo-conservatives or neo-isolationists. Who are deeply reactionary and just as dangerous in their own way as the neocons they love to hate. So, strange allies for the left, as I’ve said over and over. And not exactly an objective source on this question.

Benjamin and Davies acknowledge that Yanukovic’s removal was ultimately effected through a vote of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament—but they still portray it as a “coup,” because the Maidan self-defense force, in which Right Sektor was supposedly hegemonic, had seized government buildings after Yanukovic fled and his security forces essentially collapsed.

Now, here is where the actual contradiction in the Maidan movement has to be understood. On one hand, it was essentially pro-democratic, pro-EU and pro-West in its politics. But there was also a hardcore Ukrainian nationalist element around Right Sektor that was on board simply because they were anti-Russia, but most certainly not pro-democratic, pro-EU. And this was a minority current in the movement, even if they were disproportionately represented in its armed wing.

And this contradiction was evident in the choice of so-called “Yats,” Arseny Yatsenyuk, as prime minister after the fall of Yanukovic. Yats having been previously named as the choice for this post by US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland in the famous leaked phone call, about which the authors of course make much. But there isn’t any effort by Benjamin and Davies to parse this contradiction. Rather, in Orwellian manner, they simply hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously: that the Maidan Revolution was a Nazi “coup,” and that it was a US-orchestrated regime-change “coup” that put Yats in power—despite the fact that Yats was not a right-wing militant of the Right Sektor variety, but a pro-European centrist, and only remained in power until 2016. And as prime minister, not as president—that is to say, not as top dog.

On page 33, Right Sektor is portrayed as inheritor to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of the 1940s, the UPA, which is arguable. But they then add that the UPA “killed thousands of Jews and Poles” in World War II, which is questionable. This is a reference to the Lviv pogrom of June 1941, in which thousands of Jews and Poles were indeed killed, and which was carried out by the Nazi occupation and collaborationist forces. But the existence or degree of UPA involvement is disputed by historians, as we discussed on our podcasts of July 3 and July 10, 2022, citing, among other works, the recently published The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University—who presumably knows a little something about the subject matter.

Getting back to Maidan, the protesters are blamed for “unleashing” riots—so interesting to see these supposed leftists on the side of law and order.

And then we turn to the Russian-backed separatist rebellion in the eastern Donbas region in April 2014 and the independence votes that were held in the self-declared “people’s republics” of Donestk and Luhansk the following month. We’re told on page 44, “the government in Kyiv and its Western backers dismissed the votes as illegitimate and rigged.” Uh, they weren’t? So the same people who want us to believe that a vote of the Ukrainian parliament was a “coup” also want us to believe that these pseudo-elections, hastily organized by armed separatists who had seized control in Donbas, with no recognition from Ukraine or any other government and with no juridical legitimacy, were somehow… legitimate? Uh, OK.

Then we begin with the inevitable obsession with the “openly neo-Nazi” Azov Battalion, which emerged to fight the Donbas separatists. There is no mention of the purge of its leadership that took place later that same year, 2014, when the Azov Battalion was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard and its far-right politics ostensibly disavowed.

Much is made of fact that Kyiv never followed through on commitments under the Minsk II accord of February 2015 to recognize internal elections in the Donbas republics and change Ukraine’s constitution to allow the region greater autonomy. What they don’t say that is the separatists never lived up to their commitment to relinquish control of the border to Ukrainian forces. Additionally, as the authors do acknowledge, the Donbas republics went ahead and held their elections unilaterally in October 2015 without first coming to accommodations with Kyiv. And then, which they don’t mention, in August 2016 the separatist forces mounted numerous attacks against Ukrainian troops with weapons barred under Minsk II, and that was that—effectively putting an end to the accords. And it is Putin who has now declared the Minsk agreements dead and annexed the Donbas.

And this was the contradiction in Minsk II from the very beginning. The accords, brokered by the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe, whose member states did not recognize the independence of the Donbas republics, was aimed at integrating the “people’s republics” back into Ukraine. And the “people’s republics,” having declared their own independence, had no interest in this. Nor did Russia, whose covert (or barely covert) and proxy forces in Donbas still had control of the border. So you tell me why Minsk II failed. All Kyiv’s fault? Not by any objective reading.

Much is made of US military advisors sent to Ukraine in this period, but there is no mention of the so-called Little Green Men, Putin’s military troops that were sent into the Donbas on an unacknowledged basis but as an almost entirely open secret. They are referred to only as Russian “veterans and volunteers.” And, in fact, the separatists in their initial uprising and seizure of power in April 2014, are referred to as “protesters”! So, pretty euphemistic terminology when talking about the actors on the Russian side.

OK, now I’m going to read a couple of selections that betray both the actually somewhat skillful subtlety and deep cynicism of the authors’ propaganda.

First this from page 55:

For the United States, the civil war in Donbas was an unintended result of the 2014 coup against Yanukovych, which it had strongly supported and to some degree engineered, although the full extent of that engineering remained shrouded in secrecy.

So now we are asked to unquestioningly accept not only that the Maidan Revolution was a “coup,” but that it was “engineered” by the US, although the details are “shrouded in secrecy.” How convenient! This is like the conspiracy freaks who believe in invisible UFOs and think the proof of their existence is that we don’t see them.

OK, here’s another gem of slimy obfuscation. From page 71:

After Biden’s election, Victoria Nuland resurfaced as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, the number three position at the State Department. Based on her frequent visits to Kyiv as Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and the leaked audio tape from 2014, Nuland was widely believed to have been deeply involved in the coup against Yanukovych.

So, you get that? “Widely believed.” Nice use of the passive voice there! By whom? Not by me, and certainly not by most Ukrainians! And again, we are asked to accept that it was a “coup.” Continuing:

That operation led to Russia’s takeover of Crimea, a bloody civil war in Donbas and ever-rising tensions with Russia; yet none of that deterred Biden from appointing Nuland to an even more senior position in 2021.

For starters, this is the blame-the-victim propaganda device, as if Ukraine deserved to be invaded and dismembered for having had a popular revolution against a corrupt and undemocratic leader. But especially note use of the word “operation.” So now we’ve gone from “coup” to “operation,” as if the Maidan Revolution were on the same model as Iran 1953 or Guatemala 1954 or Chile 1973—CIA-instrumented military coups d’etat that ousted democratic leaders and installed dictatorships. Despite the fact that the Maidan Revolution was a grassroots and Ukrainian-led movement that ousted a consolidating dictatorship and led to democratic renewal. A reversal of reality! Again, so fucking Orwellian, and all the more insidious for being subtly done. I have to hand it to them, this is again fairly sophisticated propaganda. Because if they explicitly spelled out what they are implying here, people would be like, “Wait a minute, that’s not right.” Instead, they kind of slip the distortions under the radar, so to speak, so unwitting readers can be swept along in spite of themselves. Outrageously cynical.

On page 59, they write:

Despite the Democrats’ efforts to smear Trump as a puppet of Russia, he reversed Obama’s prohibition on lethal military aid for Ukraine, and other NATO countries followed suit. Large quantities of new modern weapons started arriving in Ukraine. The far-right Azov Regiment (formerly the Azov Battalion) was one of the first units to receive US training on new US grenade launchers.

First, “smear” is an interesting word to use when referring to Trump, as if his soul were pristine, although personally I think he was more colluding with Putin than being directly controlled by him. But note that this also means that no such lethal aid was going to Ukraine from 2014 to 2018—which does not exactly square with the thesis of the Maidan Revolution having been a US-instrumented coup. Did the US deny lethal military aid to Iran after 1953? Get outta here.

They also don’t mention that Trump was reversing himself here, that at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, the Trump team (notoriously lax about policy positions) specifically intervened to remove one, and only one, plank from the GOP platform: that calling for military aid to Ukraine. I’m not entirely clear myself why Trump reversed himself, but it would good to mention that he did, thank you.

And if you follow the footnote for the claim about US training and weaponry making their way to the Azov Battalion, it goes to an article on Medium, which is basically a self-publishing platform, and the claim in the article is sourced to Facebook posts, where there is nobody minding the store at all. Benjamin and Davies do note that Congress in 2018 passed a measure explicitly barring US aid to the Azov Battalion. They don’t mention, I will point out again, that by 2018, the original far-right leadership of the Azov Battalion had long since been purged, as the battalion became a formal regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard. Now, if you want to be skeptical about how far-reaching this purge really was—fine. You can be skeptical. I’m somewhat skeptical. But to not even mention it is just dishonest.

Now, note how Russia’s illegal position is implicitly legitimized here. On page 67, when they get around to discussing Ukraine’s effort to join NATO, they write:

This meant that, from Russia’s perspective, if they were going to have to fight to defend Donbas and Crimea, every year they waited to do so would reduce their escalation dominance, tipping the military balance in favor of Ukraine…

Did you catch that? “Fight to defend”! What legitimate business does Russia have “defending” a piece of Ukrainian territory? Anything that Russia did in Donbas and Crimea was by definition aggression, not self-defense. Would you say that in the Bay of Pigs, the US was “defending” Cuban territory? And I don’t want to hear about Russia’s historical claims, because from the standpoint of international law, they’re irrelevant. You don’t try to win redress for an historical grudge through aggressive war. That’s not in the UN Charter, thank you.

Yet they write that the US and NATO were the “instigators” of the Ukraine conflict. On page 39 they state that a Washington Post op-ed by Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, on Sept. 26, 2013 called for “regime change” in Russia—although they don’t put that term in quotes, because if you check the original text of the op-ed, he certainly did not use that term. What they do quote verbatim from Gershman is: “Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents.” Now, are we really so conditioned to just respond in reactionary manner to anything said by an exponent of US imperialism that we cannot recognize that the demise of Russian imperialism would indeed be a good thing? I say “regime change” in Russia couldn’t come fast enough, thank you.

Then we come to the world-changing events of February 2022. On page 79, they quote sections of Putin’s pre-invasion speech, in which he refers to Ukraine as a potential “bridgehead” for a NATO strike on Russia. This is loaning legitimacy to pre-emptive aggressive war—exactly what Bush did in Iraq in 2003. And there isn’t much more legitimacy to the notion that NATO was preparing to use Ukraine as a “bridgehead” for an unprovoked attack on Russia than there was for Bush’s claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the quote is also cherry-picked. They don’t mention that in that same speech, Putin railed against Vladimir Lenin for “separating, severing what is historically a Russian land,” and against “Bolshevik, Communist Russia” for creating “a country that had never existed before,” meaning Ukraine. So, great: reactionary anti-communism and explicit denial of Ukrainian sovereignty in favor irredentist Russian nationalist claims. In other words: Russian fascism. This is what Benjamin and Davies are attempting to clean up.

And of course we are not told of Putin’s repeated comments over the years that Ukraine is a “colony” and “not a real country.” Those are verbatim quotes, just Google ‘em.

The results of the mass atrocities in Bucha. According to Benjamin and Davies, this is just corporate media propaganda.

On page 84 we’re told the “corporate media were amplifying allegations of serious Russian war crimes in Bucha and Mariupol.” Yeah, you mean airing credible claims of serious Russian war crimes! Really, Benjamin and Davies? You think mass graves can be uncovered in formerly Russian-occupied territory like Bucha, or be detected by satellite in Russian-occupied Mariupol, and the media shouldn’t report it? Just cover it up? Really?

On page 90, they complain: “A May 2 New York Times report claimed that US-provided intelligence helped Ukrainian forces locate some of the four to eight Russian generals whom they had killed.” Uh, this is bad? Would you guys have opposed OSS aid to the resistance partisans in German-occupied Europe in World War II? Really?

On page 91, they decry “calls for the West to ‘do more’”… Uh, once again—why is that a bad thing, exactly? Do you think the world should just acquiesce in the face of an illegal annexationist war of aggression? But on the next reference, on that same page, we get “near-hysterical calls to ‘do something’”… My god, what an embarrassment! “Hysterical” is one of those words that is never used honestly. It’s only the other side that is “hysterical”; your side is never “hysterical.” Your side is passionate! The other side is “hysterical.”

And then we immediately get to the whataboutery, the litany of US crimes, “far outstripping what Russia had done so far in Ukraine.” As if anything the US has done excuses Russia! And, as noted, these US adventures are presented by the authors in inaccurate and distorted terms. Of US military adventures over the past generation, the only ones in the same class as what Russia is now doing in Ukraine were the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The others may have been criminal, but not nearly on the same scale.

Later, on page 127, we get this reference to US crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan:

One of the consequences of the impunity enjoyed by senior US officials in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts was that it encouraged Putin to believe that he, too, could get away with aggression and war crimes against Ukraine. Another is that much of the rest of the world would see any Western-led effort to hold Russia criminally accountable as a flagrant double standard—and they would be right.

And my response is: Yeah, no shit! You want to revive efforts to bring Dubya Bush and Dick Cheney to justice? OK. And I’ll note that criminal charges over the Iraq war were brought against Donald Rumsfeld in Germany, and he remained constrained from traveling there until his death last year. And, I will note, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the Afghanistan war, over the vociferous objections of the United States. But you want to revive such efforts? Fine, I’m down! Let’s do it! But to imply that if they got away with it Putin should be able to is reprehensible. With every such case, the hole gets deeper and the precedent becomes further established that war criminals can get away with it. Pointing to the double standard to let Putin off the hook is inimicable to serving justice, if that’s what were actually concerned with.

On page 131, we get the inevitable invocation of the embarrassing propaganda phrases “fake news” and “false flags.” They dredge up the notorious false testimony before Congress about Iraqi troops committing atrocities in Kuwait in 1990, to imply that the extremely well-documented and open Russian atrocities in Ukraine are suspect. Such utterly sinister garbage. They mention a couple of examples of unsubstantiated atrocity claims in Ukraine, but they spend more ink on the few unsubstantiated atrocities than the great many very real and obvious ones. This as mass graves are being exhumed, civil populations forcibly deported, and cities bombed to ruins. Sick.

On page 134 they whine about how Chris Hedges (who provides a jacket blub for the book) and Lee Camp were deprived of platforms when Russian state propaganda outlet RT was blocked on YouTube and other streaming services in the US. Now, I’m not sure how I feel about blocking even sinister propaganda; a part of me feels like people have a right to view it. It’s a real dilemma. But they don’t even mention how Hedges and Camp were implicitly legitimizing RT as some kind of alternative voice and giving it the cachet of their progressive credentials, and were thereby laundering war propaganda. Sorry guys—that’s what you were doing.

And I’ll point out, by the way, that YouTube is still chock full of voices that echo the Russian line—including Medea Benjamin’s, as well as Hedges and Camp. They are still all over YouTube even without RT as a platform. I wish I had the most minute fraction of their reach.

Benjamin and Davies acknowledge the widespread censorship and shutting down of independent media in Russia, but engage in a false equivalence with Ukraine’s shutting down of pro-Russian media in response to the invasion. Sorry, this does not imply any moral equivalence. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. That doesn’t mean the Civil War was a morally neutral affair. FDR placed Hawaii under martial law and press censorship throughout World War II. That doesn’t mean World War II was a morally neutral affair

Then we get to the so-called “Russophobia.” On page 147 they complain that “FIFA suspended the Russian national team from the World Cup competition.” Now, we support that kind of thing when it comes to Israel, don’t we? Isn’t that exactly what we’ve been calling for with the cultural boycott campaign all these years? Now, again—you want to point out the double standard, that’s legitimate. But you don’t get to call for it one case and then protest it another.

They also protest that Netflix stopped a production of an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which actually would seem to be a pretty stupid thing to do—if they were telling the whole story. But they aren’t. If you actually go online and look into the facts, this was going to be Netflix’s first Russian-language production, intended for audiences within Russia, and they couldn’t come to terms with Moscow over conditions for operating in the country. This from the Hollywood Reporter of March 2:

Netflix said it would not carry any Russian state channels on its platform despite a new Russian law that went into effect Monday [Feb. 28]. In December, Netflix was added to Russia’s “audiovisual services” sector, which requires all members…to comply with broadcaster regulations set by the Russian government, which includes carrying 20 major Russian federal TV channels that often broadcast pro-Putin propaganda.

So the decision to suspend production of Anna Karenina wasn’t about Tolstoy being Russian. It was about Putin being an asshole.

Over and over, they attempt to downplay Russian crimes.

On page 93 they favorably cite a US Defense Intelligence Agency report from very early in the war, in March, claiming that Russia was not intentionally targeting civilians. Meanwhile, which they don’t tell us, the International Criminal Court has found enough credible evidence that Russia is doing so that they’ve opened an investigation. I love how a Pentagon source is suddenly taken as authoritative rather than dismissed as propaganda when it tells the authors what they want to hear!

Also on that page, they implicitly cheer Republican lawmakers who voted against aid to Ukraine. And then on page 95, they cheer the New York Times for its disgraceful editorial of May 19, “The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready,” which openly called for Ukraine to surrender territory to Russia and stated: “Does the United States intend to hold Putin accountable as a war criminal? Or is the goal to try to avoid a wider war….?” Implicitly justifying precisely the kind of impunity that brought us to this point.

I counter this assertion by quoting Ukrainian Nobel-wining human rights activist Oleksandra Matviichuk, who told Public Radio International on Dec. 6:

All this hell which we now face in Ukraine is a result of total impunity which Russian troops have in Chechnya, in Moldova, in Syria, in Mali, in Libya, in Georgia, in other countries of the world.

And it’s interesting that she mentions Libya, because Benjamin and Davies certainly will not mention Russian military and mercenary support to the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who besieged Tripoli from April 2019 to October 2020. We’ve noted elsewhere the horrific massacres attributed to the same Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali. Of course, Benjamin and Davies never mention the massive Russian aerial bombardment of Syria beginning in 2015—only referring antiseptically to Russia’s “military intervention.” They barely touch on the Chechnya wars, or Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and support for Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists on Georgian territory. They overlook entirely Moscow’s ongoing support for ethic Russian separatists in Moldova, where Russia continues to maintain some 1,500 troops in the unrecognized breakaway enclave of Transnistria.

On page 102, we’re told of “promises” to Russia at the end of the Cold War that NATO would not expand east. The authors admit these promises were never codified. But they barely mention—and then only in patently distorted terms—the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russian guarantees for Ukraine’s sovereignty and security were codified, in exchange for Ukraine surrendering to Russia the Soviet nuclear weapons that were left on its territory. The only mention of the Budapest Memorandum is in perversely Orwellian manner, on page 38, where they write that in response to US aid to Ukraine, a Russian presidential advisor “reminded a Ukrainian interviewer that the United States and Russia are joint guarantors of Ukraine’s security under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and said that Russia might be obliged to intervene.” That’s the only mention of it. My god, how cynical! The utterly Orwellian exploitation of the Budapest Memorandum, which was intended to secure Ukraine from Russian attack, to justify… a Russian attack! I mean, it’s the most shamelessly twisted garbage imaginable.

On page 105, they write: “In 2004, seven more Eastern European countries joined [NATO], including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These countries had not only been part of the Soviet Union, but were already a part of the Russian Empire during the Czarist era.” Yeah, thanks to military conquest by Putin’s hero Peter the Great! It’s not like they joined Russia of their own free will! And, dishonestly, no mention is made of the interwar independence of the Baltic republics from 1918 to 1940—before they were again gobbled up by Russia (then the Soviet Union, actually).

On page 107, we get the usual distortions about the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s: “In 1992, NATO deployed ships and planes to enforce UN sanctions against Yugoslavia, which was disintegrating under pressure from largely Western-backed nationalist movements.” Right, no mention of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who launched the first and most aggressive nationalist movement, and died facing war crime charges at The Hague. There is no mention of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the following discussion of the NATO intervention there. Now, you can oppose the intervention all you want. But to not even mention the ethnic cleansing of Muslims by the Bosnian Serb forces while discussing that intervention betrays their lack of seriousness. I will add, by the way, that US naval forces were sent to the Adriatic in 1992 not to enforce sanctions against Yugoslavia, but, more specifically, the arms embargo against all the warring parties in Bosnia—including the victims, the Bosnian Muslims.

On page 109, we get even worse distortions about the Kosova war of 1999. Writing about the US bombardment of rump Yugoslavia, they state: “NATO claimed that this level of force was necessary to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars, but the Yugoslav government insisted that the mass exodus from Kosovo took place as a direct result of the bombing.” And my response is: Ask the Kosovars what they were fleeing! Find any Kosovar Albanians who say they were fleeing NATO bombardment and not Serbian paramilitary forces. I’ll be waiting. Now, there’s a case that those Serbian forces escalated their attacks in response to the bombardment, and that the bombardment was counterproductive—you can make that case. You’d be hard pressed to find a Kosovar Albanian who agrees with you, but you can make that case. But that’s not what Benjamin and Davies say. This is dangerously distorted.

On page 111, discussing the NATO intervention in Libya, we get this total fiction: “They covertly invaded the country and dropped thousands of bombs, leading to the brutal assassination of Gaddafi and the removal of his government.” Again: you’re entitled to your opinion about the NATO bombardment of Libya, but there was no NATO “invasion”—no massive NATO ground force introduced, ether “covertly” or overtly. It was not an invasion. Words have meanings. And of course, there’s no mention of Qaddafi’s victims, I guess they’re what Chomsky calls “unworthy victims” when the mainstream media play the same game.

And then, by way of contrast, on page 143 they refer to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine as an “incursion”! So NATO’s non-invasion of Libya was an “invasion,” but the very real and massive Russian invasion of Ukraine is a mere “incursion.” Again, just get dafuq outta here.

On page 115, they discuss Finland and its move to join NATO after the Ukraine invasion, and write: “Russia would be particularly threatened by Finnish membership , as the two countries share an 800-mile border.” Is it Russia that has been invaded by and lost territory to Finland repeatedly over the past centuries—or vice versa!?

But this double standard is much worse when it comes to Ukraine, of course. Over and over, we get verbiage about Russian security concerns. On page 78 we are told that NATO was creating “genuine security concerns for Russia.” On page 100, there’s a reference to Russia’s “obvious and legitimate security concerns.” On page 106, they invoke the “threat that NATO poses to Russia.” And on page 113, they write: “For Putin, the idea that Ukraine, a pillar of former Soviet Union with strong historical ties to Russia would join NATO, was anathema.”

Nowhere in the book is there any such verbiage about Ukraine’s security concerns. And there isn’t a single mention in the book of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led military bloc, which has from its founding in 1992 half-encircled Ukraine—Russia to the east and Belarus on the north. A much more a complete encirclement of Ukraine than NATO has ever had of Russia—not even close. Why is there such concern for Russian “security,” but none—zero—for that of Ukraine, the smaller and weaker nation?

And on page 115, and elsewhere, we are told of NATO’s role in “provoking” the war.

And this “provocation” talk so dangerous because, no matter how much lip service about Russia’s “illegal war” they employ as escape clauses, so to speak, it inevitably implies that the invasion isn’t really a war of aggression, and that it has some legal validity.

And I’ll respond to this insinuation by again reading this quote which was much bandied about by anti-war types when Dubya Bush was preparing his Iraq invasion. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, US prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, said in his opening statement to the tribunal in November 1945:

Our position is that whatever grievances a nation may have, however objectionable it finds the status quo, aggressive warfare is an illegal means for settling those grievances or for altering those conditions.

That is the point that needs to be emphasized now, with missiles coming down on Ukraine and the country going into the harsh winter with its heating and electrical plants being intentionally put out of operation by Russian bombs.

Finally, I’m going to quote the Ukrainian socialist and left-opposition figure Yuliya Yurchenko, who writes in her book Ukraine & the Empire of Capital: From Marketisation to Armed Conflict:

What advocates of Russia’s “right to defend its interests” fail to acknowledge is that Ukraine is a sovereign state, and that Russia’s disagreements with its foreign and trade policy choices do not grant the Kremlin rights to violate Ukraine’s borders.

And I’ll close by noting that Benjamin and Davies even expend much ink arguing against sanctions on Russia—so they support no pressure on Russia whatsoever, neither military nor economic. But they implicitly call upon readers to pressure Ukraine to cede territory to Russia, which essentially means selling out the inhabitants of those territories to persecution, deportation and likely massacre and genocide. And these supposed leftists are explicitly on the same side on the question as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the New York Times editorial board, the paleocons, and the MAGA Republicans.

This book is dishonest propaganda which is loaded with distortions and inaccuracies, on virtually every page, and OR Books should be roundly condemned for having published it.


Categories: socialist movement, war

6 replies »

  1. “Why is there such concern for Russian “security,” but none—zero—for that of Ukraine, the smaller and weaker nation?”
    yes, really, why? why are the authors, like so many of the peace activist left, so sensitive to russophobia while so freely spreading ukrainophobia? some strange knee jerk response from them, this gut hatred for ukraine and love for russia no matter what. even loving russian imperialism as long as it is in the service of destroying ukraine.

  2. Thank you for writing this painstaking rebuttal. I hope it gets widespread distribution. The position of Code Pink on Ukraine is an embarrassment to the left. They are on the wrong side of history. If their position is adopted by the US government, we will once again become bystanders to genocide.

      • Not to cherrypick–there is lots in this analysis with which I agree–but, good grief, don’t just slide over the UPA and ignore their mass killings of Jews. Just don’t.

        And claiming that massive aerial bombardment (of Serbia and Libya) wasn’t an invasion because only sovereign airspace was violated, not the land below) is just playing with words.

        By the way, I am by no means an apologist for Putin and his criminal invasion. But you make it all sound like some kind of metaphysical eruption of pure evil. Are you seriously arguing that concern about an expanding NATO has nothing to do with any of this?

        Anyway, I hope Ukraine cleans Russia’s clock. But there are no angels in this conflict.

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