by Yva Alexandrova
As Russian tanks roll into Ukraine and their cluster bombs fall on residential areas, violating international law and killing children and civilians, NATO has become the target of outrage—not only from Vladimir Putin, but also from factions of the anti-war Left in the West. This comes despite the fact that both NATO and US President Joe Biden have announced that the alliance will not be sending troops to Ukraine.
“This war is NATO’s fault,” some on the Left say, because the alliance threatened Russia with its eastward expansion. They call for recognition of Russia’s security concerns and, whether or not by intention, end up repeating Putin’s main propaganda points. Kremlin apologists on the Left are nothing new and have reared their heads for years, especially during the war in Syria. And although criticisms of NATO operations in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, as well as the US-UK-led war in Iraq, are justified, this condemnation should also extend to Russia’s role in Syria and Ukraine, where Moscow is clearly the aggressor.
During the Cold War, the USSR and the US had their respective spheres of influence, and Eastern Europe was part of the Soviet Union’s. What today is meant by “Eastern Europe” is a conceptual term broadly applied to the countries that previously formed part of that Soviet sphere of influence in Europe: from the Czech Republic to Ukraine, from the Baltics to the Balkans. But despite this common history, these countries have different languages, cultures, and historical alliances and have often fought among each other. In Inventing Eastern Europe, anthropologist Larry Wolff argues that Western Europe invented Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century as a complementary other half—“in shadowed lands of backwardness, even barbarism.”
At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union “liberated” these countries, toppling their governments and installing Soviet-friendly regimes. Anyone who disagreed was either killed or sent to the Gulags. This led to half a century of totalitarian domination in the realms of politics, economics, and culture. It also included two military invasions by the Warsaw Pact—the military alliance of the Communist bloc—that crushed pro-democracy movements in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
It is this memory of Russian invasions that sent a shiver down our collective backbone on the night of the 24th of February and prompted a response of solidarity from Eastern European countries. And it is this memory, I believe, that is behind the warm welcoming of fleeing Ukrainians, something that sadly stands in stark contrast to the unjust discrimination against and mistreatment of previous refugees. It was so unsettling for Hungarians that mounting public outrage forced even Viktor Orbán, a staunch Putin supporter, to also condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine.
When the Cold War ended and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, there were discussions about also disbanding NATO or creating an alternative European security arrangement that would not involve the US. If any promises were made to Russia, they were made without the participation of Eastern Europeans. There was a different memorandum signed at the time—the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances—which included security assurances against threats or the use of force against the political independence or territorial integrity of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. In exchange for these guarantees, the countries handed over their nuclear weapons to Russia. Signed by Russia, the US, and the UK, that security agreement has been ignored by all.
In the meantime, many Eastern European countries joined or applied to join NATO. We did not join because we wanted to fight imperialist wars. Instead, we joined because the freedom we had achieved in that historical moment when the Berlin Wall fell was fragile and insecure. Because the memory of Soviet troops across our lands, the capture of our states, the suffocation of our dreams, and the relentless interference in our internal affairs that continues to this day weigh heavy. The process of joining NATO ran parallel to accession and membership to the European Union, a process many of us Eastern Europeans saw as taking our rightful place in a united continent.
Ukraine has had a turbulent history since the end of the Cold War. Its efforts to emancipate itself from Russian control included the Orange Revolution and the poisoning of its president in 2004. In 2008, Ukraine applied for NATO membership, but it was only following the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 that the newly elected pro-European government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy made joining NATO and the EU a priority. Initially, public support for NATO membership was low, with a 2012 poll putting it at 28%—but in June 2017, that share rose to 69%.
The gradual expansion of NATO was indeed protested by Russia. Yet it is not just NATO that Russia dislikes, but the European Union, a united and strong Europe, and anything else that provides an alternative to Russian influence and control over our countries. And it appears to need spelling out that these countries—Ukraine included—are sovereign states with democratically elected governments, who have the right to choose their political alliance, whether that be the European Union or NATO. Bulgaria’s newly elected prime minister Kiril Petkov said as much: “I really don’t like the idea of somebody taking up a map of Europe and, drawing with a pen, saying this can happen up to there.” Everyone, including anti-imperialists, will be best served to respect that.
It is no coincidence that many of the same people and groups on the anti-imperialist Left also supported Brexit (or “Lexit”-the left version of it). These groups also saw the European Union as the main enemy and completely disregarded the loss of rights for Europeans and particularly Eastern Europeans, who are majority working-class. This Left’s analysis of the world is still based on the end of the Cold War, when there was one global power: the US, and Britain was its lapdog. But this is no longer the world we live in. In this new multipolar world, imperialism does not just come from the US; and simply opposing American imperialism is not enough. An analysis of the changes that are taking place must recognize the emerging threats and new centers of power, as well as the right to self-determination and agency of Eastern European countries and their people. Although this really is a small minority within the Left and the wider progressive movement—one which has otherwise stood both firmly against Brexit and in support of the people of Ukraine—these groups have established communication networks and positions of influence. They would do the progressive cause well to step back and start listening to Eastern Europeans and those directly affected.
Right now, if you are sitting anywhere between Tallinn and Sofia, you are waking up in the middle of the night to check if Kyiv has fallen. You are terrified that if Ukraine falls, the next on Putin’s hitlist is your hometown. You want this war to end, but you cling onto the hope that NATO will not abandon you because the alternative is too familiar. The Ukrainians are showing that Putin’s Russia is not the mighty power it thinks it is. They are showing that sides must be taken, that to stand united and in solidarity is our only chance to stop Putin’s aggression.
Yva Alexandrova is a Bulgarian writer and international migration expert. She is the author of Here to Stay: Eastern Europeans in Britain.