David Harvey’s February 25 FocaalBlog post is presented as “An Interim Report” on “Recent Events in the Ukraine”. Harvey’s essay effectively covers some of the core forces that have led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, from the devastating impact of 1990s shock therapy in Russia to Russian reactions to NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 and NATO’s incorporation of new members in central and eastern Europe.
As a response in real time to the full-scale invasion of a nation of 40 million people by a nuclear-armed great power, however, it is analytically inadequate and misleading and politically and ethically flawed.
The first aspect of Harvey’s piece I critique is the way that the specific explanations he gives for why the invasion happened focus overwhelmingly on the actions of the US and the West. While he does state that “None of this [past Western actions] justifies Putin’s actions” (2022), he presents no explanations for what Russia is doing other than the way the West has treated Russia and Russian reaction to that treatment.
He says nothing, most notably, about the way the characteristics of the Putin regime might have led to this war (for an essential contrast see Matveev and Budraitskis 2022); indeed, his analysis of the Russian political economy seems to be stuck in the 1990s. Putin’s systematic crushing of all possible political opposition in Russia, the Russian state’s stranglehold over information, and Russia’s massive propaganda machine go unmentioned. No contrast is drawn between the way ‘millions of people all around the world took to the streets’ against the Iraq War in 2003 and the fact that all Russian protesters against this war are immediately arrested.
Harvey lists many wars that have taken place around the world since 1945, but omits Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014-15 and the Russian proxy war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Putin’s conservative ultra-nationalism, his denial of the existence of the Ukrainian nation, his ludicrous statements about the threat Ukraine poses to Russia, and his claims that Ukraine, a country with a Jewish President, is run by ‘neo-Nazis’ are all ignored. So is the fact that Russia’s repeated claims over the last year that it had no intention of invading Ukraine were clearly lies.
Perhaps the most startling thing about Harvey’s article is that while it of course opposes the war (and any war), nowhere in it does Harvey directly condemn Russia for invading Ukraine. That the article is called “Recent Events in the Ukraine” is of a piece with this approach; what, I wonder, would Harvey have made of an article published on 20 March 2003 under the title “Recent Events in Iraq” that found all of its explanations for the US invasion in the actions of countries other than the US?
The second major problem with Harvey’s analysis is that while he, like many other Western leftists (Ali, 2022; Marcetic, 2022; The Nation, 2022), displays great solicitude for the security interests of an authoritarian great power that may have the world’s largest nuclear arsenal (FAS 2022), he pays no attention whatsoever to Ukraine itself. Harvey is presumably unaware that his repeated references to ‘the Ukraine’ (the name of a geographical region) rather than ‘Ukraine’ (the name of a state) implicitly deny Ukrainian statehood. But his usage fits in with a broader failure to see any of what’s happening from the perspective of Ukraine or the other countries and nations liberated from Soviet domination in 1989-91.
All leftists justly celebrate the victorious Asian and African national liberation struggles of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. For left analyses like Harvey’s, however, the fact that 1989-91 marked the end of an empire and a massive moment of decolonization is invisible.
The possibility that the liberated states might have desperately wanted, and might now want more than ever, to be protected from the re-imposition of a Russian imperialism from which they have suffered grievously in the past is not raised. NATO ‘expansion’ is thus presented entirely as a Western threat against Russia rather than as in part a response to the desire of central and eastern European countries for protection against a Russian threat that has turned out to be entirely real.
The goals, aspirations, initiatives and fears of Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, and many other countries are ignored in favor of a narrative in which all agency is attributed to ‘the US and the West’.
This is not to say, of course, that admitting central and eastern European countries to NATO was the right way to address those concerns, or that it did not have real and major negative consequences. The alternative that Harvey proposes, however – that “inter power-bloc armaments races need to be dismantled today and supplanted by strong institutions of collaboration and cooperation” – is pure hand-waving and, as a response to an ongoing invasion, spectacularly inadequate.
These first two aspects of Harvey’s piece, then, make it distressingly similar to the kinds of analyses that have been movingly and trenchantly critiqued in a piece written by Taras Bilous (2022) from a Kyiv under Russian siege. Bilous’ piece should be read in full, but I quote just one part of it here: ‘a large part of the Western Left should honestly admit that it completely fucked up in formulating its response to the “Ukrainian crisis”.’ Ilya Budraitskis (2022), too, points out to the left that “It is necessary to say clearly who started this war and not to look for any excuses for it.”
A February 11 article by Terrell Jermaine Starr (2022) develops a progressive response to Russia’s threats to Ukraine by centering exactly the things Harvey misses: the concerns of Ukraine and the history and current reality of Russian imperialism.
I also want to respond to a third element of Harvey’s piece, the arguments he makes about Russia’s ‘humiliation’ by the West after the Cold War and the contrast with the treatment of Germany and Japan after World War II. Harvey is absolutely right to emphasize humiliation as a key object of study in international politics, and right to point out that Germany’s humiliation at Versailles helped cause World War Two.
The principle that adversaries should not be humiliated in defeat is of enormous importance. Harvey’s treatment of humiliation, however, suggests that it is an objective condition, a matter of fact. I argue that it must also be treated as a discourse, as a matter of interpretation.
I develop this argument through a discussion of Japan, given Harvey’s claim that humiliation of West Germany and Japan after World War II was avoided by western political elites “by way of the Marshall Plan.” A first problem with this position is factual: the Marshall Plan was not implemented in Japan. Japan did receive other economic support from the US, but was also subjected to harsh austerity in 1949 under the Dodge line. A major contributor to Japan’s improving economic situation from 1950 was the outbreak of the Korean War, with American war procurement accounting for 60 percent of Japan’s exports from 1951-53 (Gordon 2014: 239-40).
A second problem is that many Japanese would disagree with Harvey’s contention that Japan was not humiliated after World War II. They have a lot of objective material to work with in making that case. After having its cities (including Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo) reduced to rubble, surrendering unconditionally, and being stripped of its empire, Japan was occupied by the Allies (effectively the US) for close to seven years.
The Americans created a new political system for Japan by writing a new constitution, not one comma of which has been altered since it took effect in 1947. Japan, too, went from being a great power with an empire to being absorbed into the American empire as a junior partner, a ‘semi-sovereign state’ incapable of and indeed constitutionally prohibited (under the famous Article 9) from providing for its own security.
Those are the facts of the case; the question is whether they were humiliations. I side with Japanese on the left who see the 1947 Constitution as the source of cherished democratic and political freedoms that were denied to them under the Meiji state and of Japan’s institutionalized (though rapidly degrading) pacifism. Many Japanese on the right, however, take a different stance, with prominent political figures among them. Tobias Harris (2020: 51, see also 312) writes as follows in his definitive biography of Shinzō Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister:
“Abe has expressed many reasons for wanting to revise the constitution – lamenting the role played by ‘New Dealer’ liberals in drafting the document and the humiliation of Japan’s basic law arising from a period of national humiliation – but his most fundamental reason is that Article 9 is the most enduring symbolic and practical constraint upon the Japanese state’s ability to fulfill its duties to defend the Japanese people.”
What the Japanese case brings to an understanding of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is, first, that in analyzing humiliation in international politics we should not assume that we know how people in the humiliated country will interpret (what we see to be) the objective facts of the case; and, second, that we must carry out our own ethical evaluation of their interpretations.
Harvey also misses the extent to which Putin’s sense of Russia’s “humiliation” is a response not just to 1990s shock therapy and NATO enlargement but to the break-up of the Soviet Union – that Putin feels humiliated by decolonization. Surely, we on the left should not be validating this side of Putin’s ressentiment or his blood-drenched nostalgia for empire.
My concluding points are much simpler. At this specific moment, the western left must stand in full solidarity with Ukraine as a nation fighting for its independence and self-determination against open imperialism. Ukraine’s independence must be defended; Russia’s invasion must be unequivocally condemned and resisted.
Derek Hall is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He does research on international political economy, critical agrarian studies, and the theory and history of capitalism, with particular focus on Japan and Southeast Asia.
Ali, Tariq. 2022. “News from Natoland”, Sidecar, February 16, https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/news-from-natoland
Bilous, Taras. 2022. “A letter to the Western Left from Kyiv”, Commons, February 25, https://commons.com.ua/en/letter-western-left-kyiv/
Budraitskis, Ilya. 2022. “Should we have seen this coming? Ilya Budraitskis on the invasion of Ukraine”, Verso, 25 February, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5280-should-we-have-seen-this-coming-ilya-budraitskis-on-the-invasion-of-ukraine
FAS (Federation of American Scientists). 2022. “Status of world nuclear forces.” https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ (accessed February 26, 2022).
Gordon, Andrew. 2014. A modern history of Japan: From Tokugawa times to the present. Third Edition. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press.
Harris, Tobias S. 2020. The iconoclast: Shinzō Abe and the new Japan. London: Hurst & Company.
Harvey, David. 2022. “Remarks on recent events in the Ukraine: An interim statement”, FocaalBlog, February 25, https://www.focaalblog.com/2022/02/25/david-harvey-remarks-on-recent-events-in-the-ukraine-an-interim-statement/
Matveev, Ilya and Ilya Budraitskis. 2022. “Ordinary Russians Don’t Want this War”, Jacobin, February 24, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2022/02/ordinary-russians-war-outbreak-ukraine-vladimir-putin
Starr, Terrell Jermaine. 2022. “Why progressives should help defend Ukraine”, Foreign Policy, February 11, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/11/progressives-defend-ukraine/
Cite as: Hall, Derek. 2022. “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Response to David Harvey.” FocaalBlog, 28 February. http://www.focaalblog.com/2022/02/28/derek-hall-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-a-response-to-david-harvey/