Putinism, the anti-imperialism of fools

German socialist Agust Bebel is supposed to have called antisemitism the “socialism of fools” (“der Sozialismus des dummen Kerls”). By that he meant people who recognize capitalist exploitation only if the exploiter happened to be Jewish but who would otherwise turn a blind eye to the economic realities. The German Nazi party did call itself “national socialist” but the only businesses it expropriated were those of Jewish owners while other big industrialists benefited from government contracts for rearmament and from cheap slave labour during World War II.

A similar phenomenon is at play in the response to Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. Russia is receiving support from people around the world, both on the far left and the far right. These Putin apologists spread Russian talking points and other propaganda. They often paint Ukraine as a mere pawn of an imperialist West dominated by the USA, which according to them is using the war to marginalize Russia and push it aside in the post-cold war order. These people will accuse the US of past crimes and other immoral actions in Iraq, Serbia, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere while ignoring torture, rape and killing perpetrated right now by Russia. According to them, your right to criticise Russian crimes in Ukraine depends on you first joining their condemnations of past actions of the west.

Let’s be real: These apologists of the Russian war of aggression are not anti-imperialists, far from it: These people are not guided by a moral compass or by concern for the victims of imperialism but by suspicion and hatred of specific countries. They are merely anti-western. Russia is an imperialist power of its own that over several centuries grew from the small Muscovite principality to the largest country in the world by intimidation and military conquest and even genocide. From the Holodomor genocidal famine in Ukraine in the 1930s to the deportation of Crimean tartars to deportations of Poles and Balts in the 1940, it has used utmost brutality. To this day Russia treats its neighbours not as a sovereign countries but as the “near abroad”, a sphere of influence in which governments can make independent decisions only at their own peril. Should their choices run counter to Moscow’s wishes, anything can happen!

Any “anti-imperialism” that is blind to Russian or Chinese acts of imperialism is anti-imperialism in name only. It must therefore be called anti-imperialism of the fools. Anyone who can condemn acts of imperialism only if they are committed by western countries but not if the perpetrator happens to be Russia or China is not really anti-imperialist but merely anti-western. Claiming the mantle of “anti-imperialism” for supporters of a post-fascist aggressor such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is laughable.

Ukraine is a sovereign democratic country. On multiple occasions Russia committed to respecting its existing borders from the 1991 breakup of the USSR, which include Crimea and the Donbas. By first threatening and then invading Ukraine, Russia has violated the UN Charta, the Budapest memorandum and other obligations under international law. Wars of aggression are a war crime, separate from any crimes against humanity committed in their course. The Russian government should remember that leading Nazis and Japanese militarists were charged, convicted and executed after the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials for preparing a war of aggression.

Past US governments have made many bad and sometimes criminal choices, such as supporting anti-democratic coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, the bombing of Cambodia or the invasion of Iraq under flimsy and made-up evidence. However, no country gets a free ticket entitling it to commit war crimes every time some other country violates international law. That’s not how it works in domestic criminal law and that’s not how it works in international law either. Ukraine needs our solidarity to defend its borders and citizens against an imperialist aggressor.

I am thankful the US is stepping up to help Ukraine as much as they have, regardless of their own checkered past.

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