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Ukraine Crisis: Time for Thorough Overhaul of the International Left

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When they are not prattling on about lost Malaysia flight 370, the mainstream media try to uncover the unfolding Ukrainian crisis as best they can. In practice, that usually means giving over precious air time to foreign policy wonks, insiders and aging Cold War dinosaurs who are now given a new lease on life. On CNN and even the supposedly liberal-leaning MSNBC, John McCain is routinely consulted on how the Obama administration has made "us" weak and failed to stand up to Russia.

Speaking with CNN host Candy Crowley, McCain said Russia was a "gas station masquerading as a country," and suggested that there were a host of measures that "we" and our European friends could take to rein in Putin's foreign policy maneuvers. Other pundits are less shrill, though all seem to adopt McCain's bogus frame of reference. How will Putin's gambit in the Crimea affect "our" interests in Europe, they ask? What can "we" do to stop Putin in his tracks and exert pressure on Russia?

Such semantic sleight of hand is not only silly, but also severely limiting in that it tends to conflate "U.S. interests" with those of every single American. While such shortcomings are to be expected from the mainstream media, the international left has been no less disappointing. In a recent column, I discussed the bizarre intellectual evolution of Russian scholar Stephen Cohen, a figure who is frequently called upon to present "the leftist alternative perspective" on the major media. Like other pundits, Cohen employs semantic terminology which vastly over-simplifies east-west conflict. In contrast to his media peers, however, Cohen bends over backward to understand Putin's point of view, which is frequently and preposterously conflated with the interests of all Russians.

Russia and Ukraine: Civil Society Mobilizes

Yet we know from media reports that large swathes of Russian civil society are opposed to Vladimir Putin and surely don't want a return to Cold War tensions over Ukraine. Though you wouldn't know it from listening to partisan hacks like Cohen, Russia has recently witnessed large scale anti-war protests. Indeed, one day before Putin called for a referendum at gun point on Crimea, 50,000 people turned out on the streets of Moscow to protest Kremlin handling of Ukraine.

Brandishing both Russian and Ukrainian flags, protesters expressed solidarity with the EuroMaidan demonstrators of Kiev. At the end of the rally, activists gathered at Prospekt Sakharova, the scene of large anti-Putin rallies that shook Russia in 2011-12. The anti-Putin demonstration dwarfed another pro-Kremlin rally across town which only numbered some 15,000 people.

In light of growing civil society opposition to Putin's agenda both in Russia and Ukraine, you'd think that the international left would be staging solidarity marches in both London and New York. Yet save for a few small rallies organized by foreign expatriate communities, the activist response to Putin's power grab has been anemic. Why is this so? Unfortunately, as I explain in my earlier column, the left is caught up in ideological and geopolitical contortions that make it virtually impossible to develop a radical yet independent movement.

The Perils of Ideological Simplification

While it's perfectly clear that John McCain and other right-wing hawks represent a political danger, and could even inflame age old Cold War tensions, it's no less true that Putin is engaged in a naked power play in Ukraine and Crimea. Why can't one criticize both Washington's foreign policy machinations while also decrying Putin's excesses? Adopting such a position seems clear as day and a "no-brainer," yet the left cannot seem to get beyond the narrow confines of its own ideological fixations.

In the leftist world view, the Kremlin has stood up to U.S. imperialism and thus Putin's opponents must be on the wrong side of history. Such prejudices lead the left to regard EuroMaidan, as well as Moscow protesters, as politically suspect and certainly not deserving of any international solidarity or support. Needless to say, however, such rigid positions lead to surprise and dismay amongst actual left activists on the ground in Kiev who deserve more from their western counterparts.

Independent Left of the EuroMaidan

So, just what do EuroMaidan activists want from their compatriots? It wouldn't even occur to the likes of Stephen Cohen and fellow ideologues to ask, though it's hardly such a difficult task to locate such folk. Take, for example, Denis Pilash, a post-graduate student at Kiev National University. In a recent e-mail, Pilash remarked, "It's worrying that some Western leftists view Putin as 'anti-imperialist' while he carries out an adventurous intervention in Crimea and our comrades from the Russian left (members of Russia's Socialist Movement, Left Front, anarchists and anti-fascists) are being persecuted and jailed by his regime."

Pilash, who has been working as an activist in a variety of different organizations including the socialist Left Opposition, a student labor union called Direct Action, and Commons/Spil'ne, a journal of social criticism, says it's time for western activists to start organizing a peace movement which would mirror the earlier yet short-lived anti-Iraq war protests of 2003. This time, however, activists should advance a more nuanced critique as anti-war forces must oppose not only Washington's foreign policy but also speak out forcefully against Russian aggression.

A Difficult Political Milieu

It's a pity that Pilash and his colleagues aren't receiving Western activist support, which they so need. In his e-mail, the student described a rather challenging political milieu in which local independent leftists must confront a variety of adversaries. All Ukrainian parties, Pilash adds, are essentially rightist and favor a "neo-liberal" economic agenda. At the same time, the parties are socially conservative and do their utmost to steer political unrest away from progressive values. Trade unions meanwhile are weak, while the local Communist Party pushes a mixture of Pan-Slavism and "nostalgic Stalinism."

Pilash says newer but small leftist groups have arisen to challenge the status quo. In addition to Left Opposition and Direct Action, other outfits include the Autonomous Workers' Union, which is anarchist in orientation, and some feminists, environmentalists and anti-fascists. During the Maidan protests, these forces organized a hospital guard which helped to protect injured protesters from the police. Unfortunately, far right fascists attacked and brutally beat up three trade unionists during EuroMaidan demonstrations.

If Cohen and other ideologues perched at The Nation magazine and other dogmatic leftist venues were curious, they could easily reach out to the likes of Pilash and other independent activists. For the latter, organizing a new and radical international left has become something of a political imperative. In the days and weeks ahead, I will continue to write and explore these pressing issues so as to foster greater dialogue and discussion.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.