“Pacifism has its place, but not here and not now,” writes David Gutnick
David Mandel and I share much more in common than our given name. We’re both French-speaking Anglophones who live in Montréal. Like professor Mandel, I worked for decades at a publicly funded institution: he taught at universities, while I produced documentaries for CBC Radio. We both consider ourselves humanists who want to help build a kinder, more democratic and socialist world.
But while reading Mandel’s August 2 piece in this publication, it became clear that we profoundly disagree on how to get there.
In a nutshell, Mandel calls for Ukrainians to accept a ceasefire and negotiate with Russia immediately, while I—following the lead of Ukrainians—believe the country needs more arms: the deadlier the better, unfortunately.
Mandel—like Vladimir Putin—says his position is the humanist one, as it will save lives.
I think that is wrongheaded. A wealth of evidence proves Volodymyr Zelensky’s position is right: Russia’s present leadership is bloodthirsty, intent on building an untrustworthy imperialist power. Putin slaughtered Chechens and Georgians when they would not submit to Russian domination, and now he is slaughtering Ukrainians. He will not hesitate to slaughter whoever is next to get in his way.
Humanists think of peace-building in the long term, and that means standing up to aggression now, not turning the other cheek.
Pacifism has its place, but not here and not now.
Unless Putin pulls back his army, Ukrainians have no choice but to fight.
Mandel writes that over the decades he has been “opposed to the policies of the regimes of these states, which were and remain deeply hostile to workers’ interests.”
We share that view.
But since the first Russian tanks illegally crossed Ukraine’s border into Crimea on February 20, 2014, then again into Kyiv on February 24, 2022, it is not just “workers’ interests” which have suffered: tens of thousands of Ukrainian trade unionists, kindergarten monitors, university students, mothers and fathers and innocent children have been killed by Russian invaders.
You would assume that as a socialist humanist, Mandel’s first response would be to tell the invaders to turn around, to drive their tanks home, to stop killing fellow Slavs.
You might also assume Mandel would agree that victims need to be heard, that Ukraine’s 10-point plan for ending the conflict—which includes securing nuclear facilities, food and energy and territorial security, along with the establishment of an impartial criminal war crimes tribunal—at least merits discussion involving the international community: exactly what has just taken place in Saudi Arabia.
You’d be wrong.
Mandel never comes within a country mile of defending the legal right of Ukraine to territorial sovereignty.
Mandel takes the same line as the Russian government: he demands Ukrainians give up defending their country; he insists that NATO, not the invading army, is the global threat.
Mandel calls for NATO to be disbanded, not the Russian army, not the Wagner Group, not the Russian Imperial Movement—a public, neo-fascist nationalist militia also killing in Ukraine.
“[T]here is not the slightest prospect that Ukraine can regain its lost territory,” writes Mandel, gazing into his personal crystal ball, “or possibly even avoid losing more, through continued military action, unless, of course, NATO forces directly enter the war—a move that would threaten the world with nuclear Armageddon.”
The words are Mandel’s; the message, nearly identical to that of Konstantin Kosachev, a senior Russian politician, as reported by Russia’s state news agency Tass under the heading “The Ukraine Crisis.”
“Any reasonable politician would view the stubborn demand for Russia to fully surrender, presented under the guise of ‘a peace plan,’ as evidence of Kiev’s complete unwillingness to engage in talks,” writes Kosachev. “Zelensky’s ‘peace formula’ is absolute proof that talks are impossible at this point, and it’s not Moscow’s fault.”
Using the same logic, Mandel blames Zelensky for allowing the Russian military the opportunity to kill civilians. He says by standing up to Russia, Ukrainians are sabotaging their own best interests.
So much for Mandel’s own avowed opposition to “the policies of the regimes of these states, which were and remain deeply hostile to workers’ interests.”
Mandel wants Russia’s borders and Russian workers protected. Ukraine’s borders and the dreams and aspirations of Ukrainian workers do not count.
Ukrainian socialist and historian Vladyslav Starodubtsev dismisses the arguments of Western leftists that the Russian invasion was a logical and legal reaction to a NATO threat.
“Such people are actually arguing for peaceful settlement with Russian imperialism, thinking that if they are compromising with the fascists, they will build a more progressive world order,” he told The Real News.
Starodubstsev is not accusing people like Mandel of being Kremlin flunkies. He just thinks they are naïve, tangled up in wishful thinking, confusing their own dreams for reality.
“They’re for some reason thinking that building the world based on the rule of the strongest and based on the multipolar interests [inaudible] for world power. It’s actually a more progressive and democratic world that we have right now, but there is nothing progressive in the world where a status quo can be destroyed by the rule of the strongest against the weakest nations. There is not anything progressive or democratic, and that these beliefs and views are the same as Henry Kissinger tells something to the left… especially the American left.”
When I first read Starodubtsev’s interview I was skeptical. Who on the Canadian left would ever dare venture that the opinions of centenarian war criminal Kissinger could be trusted when it comes to ending Russia’s war on Ukraine?
And then I read David Mandel’s article, and he does exactly that.
Mandel complains that Zelensky called Kissinger’s peace proposals a “stab in the back of Ukraine.”
Mandel calls Kissinger “a comparative voice of sanity.”
Take a deep breath, Dimension readers, as you digest that.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Let’s go back to the title of Mandel’s article, “Myths and reality about the Ukraine war”—a title which he may not have written but he has not insisted be changed.
It is not the Ukraine war.
That is false, and purposely misleading.
It is “Russia’s war against Ukraine,” or more precisely, “Russia’s war against Ukrainian civilians.”
Of course, Putin doesn’t call it that.
Nor does the Russian government news agency Tass.
Nor does professor Mandel.
Using the same logic, does he refer to “Palestine’s war against Israel,” “Grenada’s war against the United States,” or “The Falkland Islands’ war against Great Britain?”
Sadly, we in the West still refer to the Vietnam War, while the Vietnamese, calling a spade a spade, remember that conflict as the American war.
Calling the Russian invasion the “Ukraine war” is not an error, it is Mandel’s subtle attempt to reframe reality.
An American conspiracy?
Mandel looks back at decades of failed agreements between the Soviet Union—read: present-day Russia—and Western powers. He is rock-solid certain that Russia has always been at the losing end, that time and again the United States and all other NATO member countries have shown they have it in for Russia. Mandel offers up names and quotes to bolster his positions. Of course, there is some truth here: no need to persuade Dimension readers of the horrific and illegal attacks by the US and NATO over the decades of the Cold War, some of the most brutal engineered by Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.
Throughout his article, Mandel ignores the complexity of disagreements among scholars and participants about what was promised to Gorbachev in the February 1990 meeting concerning the limits to NATO expansion, disagreements about who to blame for the failed Minsk accord, disagreements about failed arms treaties.
Mandel is of the school that believes the US is responsible for a coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014. There is, of course, much evidence that the Americans were influencing civilians and political actors, blackmailing and lying. This is hardly surprising: the US has long tentacles, so goes imperialism.
There is also much evidence leading to a contrary conclusion: that the push for a radical change in government in Ukraine was led by a young, healthy and growing democratic nationalist movement upset with leaders perceived as too pro-Kremlin and deaf to the streets. Many scholars, union and community activists believe that, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians had found a way of harnessing the popular will.
In the streets of Kyiv, socialists celebrated their country moving in a democratic direction, while back in his Montréal university office, professor Mandel saw nothing but an American conspiracy.
That is surprising, given that Mandel is a scholar of the Russian Revolution. He has written extensively and well about how working class Russians put their lives on the line to fight for freedoms. Mandel is an expert on the period in the “red capital” when “the deep and genuine preoccupation with democracy and freedom that the Petrograd workers so strikingly displayed in 1917 stand as testimony to the potential of a working class movement to lead a popular revolution towards a democratic socialist society.”
Now, in 2023, when Ukrainian workers are preoccupied with democracy and freedom, giving up their lives to fight an imperialist invading army, inexplicably and illogically, Mandel is defending the other side.
Resistance on two fronts
I am no Russian nor Ukrainian or NATO military expert, but I have done enough reading to be rock-solid certain that there are vast disagreements among experts. All manner of respected scholars at prestigious universities—indeed, a vast majority—take exactly the opposite position to Mandel on the whole range of complex issues he lists.
Like Mandel, I, too, can offer up quotes by the bushel, all just as thoroughly documented as his.
He never quotes, however, Ukrainian socialists and Russian dissident intellectuals who are virtually unanimous in their critical support of Zelensky’s war government. They, too, are rock-solid certain that without the help of NATO, Russian imperialism would by now be totally unleashed.
These folks, too, are critical of NATO. They know the horrors of American foreign policy. They, too, are critical of Zelensky’s opening of the country to raw capitalism and of his clampdown on workers’ rights. They suffer from Ukrainian corruption and band together to denounce and oppose it.
“The left can both stand on the same side as Zelensky in the resistance and oppose his reactionary neoliberal laws and attacks on union rights,” says Alona Liasheva, an academic and member of the Ukrainian democratic socialist group Sotsialnyi Rukh (The Social Movement). The subtitle of her interview with Truthout is “Leftists in Ukraine are simultaneously resisting Russian imperialism and the domestic imposition of neoliberalism.”
As we say in French, la voilà!
This is the true socialist and humanist position.
We must trust Ukrainians to know their own best interests. And even if they struggle and get them wrong, so be it.
Governments and their citizens have the sovereign right to act within their own borders in the ways they see fit.
I bet dollars to doughnuts that Mandel believes that is true for Canada, true for the United States, and true for Russia.
But not, according to Mandel, true for Ukraine.
And so Mandel would have Ukraine submit to a colonial power, one that considers the Ukrainian people to be lesser—even non-existent, as Putin himself has written.
Quoting from a 2022 interview with Ukrainian left-wing activist Maksym Eristavi in Instickmedia.com in early August, Terrell Jermaine Starr, an African-American journalist and Eastern European scholar, writes that since Ukrainians are not seen in the West as people of colour, many Westerners don’t see Russian colonialism for what it is.
“The experiences that you have to deal with linked to colonialism, even if you’re not a person of color, very eerily resemble the dynamic,” Eristavi tells Starr. He continues, “Russians don’t see Ukrainians as white enough and now many Westerners don’t see Eastern Europeans as white enough or as white trash. I think this is something people should be more open about. It doesn’t mean if we introduce this to the narrative about colonialism, it makes [the] suffering of people of color less. But we face similar shit that other nations face under colonial rule: genocide, war, exploitation, pillaging, rape.”
Professor Mandel writes that “the US has consistently blocked, and continues to reject, a diplomatic settlement that would stop the killing and destruction.”
At a first reading, this sentence jumps out for its shock value: no Canadian Dimension reader wants to see any more Ukrainian babies mutilated by Russian bombs, nor any more Russian soldiers rape grandmothers using the barrels of their AK-74M assault rifles.
However, Mandel has no proof the US has blocked negotiations. With so many players involved, how would that happen, exactly? Does Mandel really believe that, acting for the Americans, Boris Johnson, in a lightning visit to Kyiv on the morning of April 9, 2022, laid down the law that Zelensky was not allowed to negotiate with “war criminal” Putin? That Zelensky from that point on was only following NATO’s orders to disastrously fight on?
Then how would Mandel explain that a month later, speaking to the British think tank Chatham House, Zelensky said “not all the bridges” to a peaceful settlement with Russia “are destroyed.”
Mandel has zero insight into the goings-on in the back rooms that led to the early August peace summit in Saudi Arabia that, crucially, included China.
Mandel’s entire article crudely attempts to build a logical narrative of American and NATO bullying of Russia that finally provoked Putin into invading Ukraine.
Another Zelensky critic who shares Mandel’s view of Russia’s war, American political scientist John Meirsheimer, told The New Yorker: “If you take a stick and you poke a bear in the eye, that bear is probably not going to smile and laugh at what you’re doing that bear is probably going to fight back.”
While the analogy is clear, it is cruelly insensitive.
When professor Mandel writes that “Moscow’s goal was to force a diplomatic solution, evidently on terms that it could find satisfactory,” he is being no less cruel, no less ready to see the disastrous bloody consequences of imperialism.
Sleight of hand
In constructing his narrative, Mandel picks and chooses from a few sources: quotes from President Biden and an American general, something from the CIA and something else from the Rand Corporation. He only cites such sources when they bolster his narrative; he ignores them when they do not.
What Mandel is doing here is sleight of hand. Without saying it overtly, he blames the victims of an invasion for allowing fellow citizens to be killed because they refuse to acknowledge that Russia has already won.
Mandel is right when he points out Zelensky’s government has been infiltrated by—and consistently panders to—a powerful group of far-right, even Nazi-idolizing citizens. There’s no question that the infamous Azov Battalion is dangerous. The widespread corruption within all of the 15 states that made up the Soviet Union has not disappeared in the transformation to capitalism. Internal Ukrainian politics have literally been a blood sport: Ukraine has had its own civil war; the fight between the central government and various separatist movements continues to be horrific.
But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. So cliché, yet so true.
One cannot write honestly about the “Myths and reality about the Ukraine war” without also writing about the large number of Russians who hold similar far-right and neo-fascist views.
Mandel never mentions Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenary Wagner Group, funded, according to Putin, by the Russian government. Mandel never quotes Putin, who said that “Ukraine is not a legitimate state,” that Ukrainians and Russians are “one and the same people,” nor Putin’s Prime Minister, Dimitry Medvedev, who has said Ukraine has “neither industry nor a state.”
Mandel never utters a word about Russia’s iron-clad clampdown of the media, never nods in the direction of the thousands of dissidents tossed in prison or forced into exile.
Reading Mandel’s article, you get the strange sense that he knows that a critical view of Putin’s authoritarian regime is missing from his analysis but that he has chosen his side, and there is no way in hell that he is going to give the US or another NATO member country any credit whatsoever for ever being even slightly correct in their approach. World politics are incredibly complex. Mandel seems to have become tangled up in his neo-Marxian dialectical materialism view of an increasingly fractured, multi-polar world.
In plain English, that means “your enemy’s enemy is not necessarily your friend.”
“However one views Russia’s invasion,” writes Mandel, as if one can condone an invasion, “to support pursuit of the war by Kyiv until victory, until all lost territory has been regained, and to call for Russia’s strategic defeat—the current position of that regime, supported by the US and NATO—is to support a profoundly criminal policy, since the goal is unrealizable.”
Reader, please consider this.
Mandel is accusing every single Ukrainian defending their country from a foreign invader of supporting a “criminal policy.”
Do Ukrainians have the right to decide who their friends are? To decide how to build alliances?
Nope, not according to professor Mandel.
Mandel doesn’t question the right of the democratically elected Finnish government to choose to become a member of NATO, despite the fact that Finland shares some 1,340 kilometres of border with Russia, nearly half the length of the Ukraine-Russian border.
He doesn’t question the right of the Swedish parliament to decide to join NATO, either, after Swedes, spooked by the Russian invasion, gave up their long-held neutrality and told their politicians they needed protection.
Mandel writes, “NATO’s expansion up to Russia’s borders, its arming and training of Ukraine’s army, the US’s abandonment of key arms control treaties, its stationing of nuclear-capable missiles just a few minutes from Moscow—these, in my view, were genuinely and legitimately viewed by Moscow as serious security threats.”
What Mandel has done is this: subtly mix two issues concerning NATO, so as to hide his real intentions.
He cannot say that Ukrainians do not have the same rights as Swedes and Finns, so instead, he makes the Ukrainian government out to be illegitimate and Nazi- infiltrated, nothing more than a puppet of the United States.
Here’s Liasheva again:
Instead of listening to us about our experience, instead of identifying with our struggle, too many on the left construct complicated narratives about geopolitics, which frankly do not hold up under close examination. The main problem is that 44 million people are being denied their nationhood, political subjectivity, and agency.
Professor Mandel’s article is chock-a-block full of those “complicated narratives about geopolitics,” and Liasheva is right: they do not hold up under close examination.
Twenty-five years, for speaking out
In April, Russian journalist Vladimir Kura Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison for criticizing the war.
“I know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will be gone,” Kura Murza told the judge, “when the war will be called a war, and the usurper will be called a usurper; when those who have ignited this war will be called criminals instead of those who tried to stop it… and then our people will open their eyes and shudder at the sight of the horrific crimes committed in their names.”
“[P]rogressive Canadians,” writes Mandel,” as citizens of a NATO state, should be mobilizing, as they did against Canada’s participation in the US war against Iraq, to press their government for an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated end to the war.”
That is both absurd and wrong.
Why absurd? Because Mandel blames the victims and demands that they accept the abusers’ offer of a settlement—exactly what Putin is demanding Zelensky do.
Why wrong? Because it is not up to Canadians to stop Ukrainians from fighting back, just as it is not up to Canadians to stop Americans from re-electing Trump.
Ukrainians alone, and with partners and allies of their choosing, will decide if and when to declare a ceasefire and how negotiations will happen.
“In the case of Ukraine, ” says Liasheva, “it’s far simpler than many on the left think. Ukraine was attacked by an imperialist army, and as a result we are in a struggle to defend our lives and our very right to exist as a sovereign nation.”
After reading Mandel’s article three or four times, I kept asking myself why there was something in it that made me feel so uncomfortable. I seemed to be missing the key to what was driving his thinking. Where exactly is the professor coming from?
So I read the piece once more, and at last, I found it.
It’s well into the article, where Mandel describes how he thinks that in late March 2022, NATO and complicit MSM (“mainstream media,” in other words, the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC, CBC, etc.) were looking to find ways of avoiding negotiations with Russia, in order to prolong the war.
“At the same time, the Ukrainian government announced the discovery of alleged Russian war crimes in the nearby town of Bucha,” writes Mandel.
It is that word “alleged” that irks.
More than a year after deep, serious and thorough investigations into the cold-blooded execution of civilians in Bucha, Mandel still cannot sit down at his computer and admit that the Bucha massacre was real and horrific.
There are pictures, forensic examinations, satellite images tracing troop movements. Participating soldiers and commanders from the regiments have been identified. There are recordings of Russian cell phone messages and military radio intercepts. There is video footage. There are autopsy reports. There are reports totalling thousands of pages from a range of independent, credible international organizations, including the UN Commissioner for Human Rights that reports the summary executions of 73 civilians. A team of New York Times journalists spent a month investigating what transpired.
There is ample evidence of war crimes.
Putin says what happened in Bucha is fake. All propaganda.
And with that word “alleged,” professor David Mandel leaves the distinct impression that he has no faith in any of that documentation, that after all those investigations, there is still room to believe the executions in Bucha were faked, too.
By way of conclusion
Dear reader, I apologize for my wordiness. This text was written in a weekend haste. I had no time to make it shorter, as the visiting children needed a hike, time on the beach, and I had promised sourdough-crust pizza, made from scratch.
My tone is combative. An editor commented I had “gone for professor Mandel’s jugular.” He meant that figuratively, thank goodness, as in no way do I want to cause harm.
Yes, my disagreement with Mandel on how to end this war is profound. I am not alone in believing that the outcome of this European conflict may well influence the health of democratic movements all over the globe for decades to come.
I am well aware of the thousands of Ukrainian citizens killed by their own government in the Donbas. The shelling and abuse were as brutal as that carried out by Russia today. Our own government and opposition parties, community organizations of Ukrainian-Canadians and many on the left, including myself, have been negligent, deaf to the voices of people who warned of the dangers of the Ukrainian ultranationalist extreme right.
Yes, in part, Mandel is right: Putin may well have invaded Ukraine because he wanted to protect those Ukrainians whose cultural identity was first and foremost Russian.
The Soviet Union is still alive in the memories of many. More than a million Ukrainians are now refugees in Russia.
That said, we on the left have to stand firm when it comes to the rights of sovereign countries.
No political experts, no matter how brilliant and experienced, have access to the Russian president’s innermost motivations or thoughts.
Before February 2022, few civilians on either side of the Ukraine-Russia divide believed a full-scale war would ever happen. Putin’s invasion and the resulting devastation have managed to nourish a mutual hatred between Ukrainians and Russians that will last for generations.
Enough already. Russians, return home.