The trouble with tankies

There is a disturbing tendency among some leftists and progressives—derisively called “tankies”—in America, Britain, Germany, and other Western countries to defend Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. To do so, they often echo Putin’s lies about wanting to “denazify” and “demilitarise” Ukraine. But Putin’s goal is not merely to “denazify” and “demilitarise” Ukraine. It is the product of a tsarist wet dream. Well before the invasion, Vladimir Putin made his intent loud and clear. In July 2021, just over half a year before his invasion, he wrote:

I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. (emphasis mine)

And Putin isn’t the only Russian official to make these kinds of claims. More recently, Oleg Stepanov, the Russian ambassador to Canada, said in Russia in Global Affairs:

Russia reaffirms the goals of the special military operation. And they all will be achieved. Ukrainians will live in a federal, multilingual, multicultural, democratic, stable, prosperous country free from internal conflict where every citizen feels free and safe. And Russia will provide it. (emphasis mine)

Kiev shall announce that it ceases hostilities, orders its troops and nationalistic units to lay down arms, voluntarily subjects itself to demilitarization and denazification. This is the only way to build a healthy society in Ukraine in accordance with the interests of its people. (emphasis mine)

Stepanov is even blunter than Putin: the “special military operation” is not intended merely to defeat Ukrainian Nazis or ensure its military neutrality. It is to reabsorb Ukraine into the Russian state.

Tankies defend Vladimir Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine, blame the Russian invasion on the United States and its NATO allies, and ignore or outright deny Russia’s oppressive acts against its own people and the people it has conquered. Time and again, they defend Russia’s government and spread its propaganda.

Tankies: happy to support brutal autocrats as long as they’re opposed to the US, EU, and NATO

Russia is not the only autocracy to which some leftists are inexplicably drawn. I am similarly disgusted by those who support North Korea and the Kim dynasty, though North Korea’s influence on Western political discourse is negligible. China, like Russia, is an oligarchy with an imperial hangover that many leftists defend. Russia, however, has forced itself into Western political conversations in a way these other countries have not. I do not encounter Chinese or North Korean propaganda in Western publications very often, but Russian propaganda is distressingly common.

The Russian Federation is not a leftist workers’ paradise. It is a nationalist, right-wing, capitalist, oligarchical state that has subjugated Indigenous peoples, deprived its neighbours of their autonomy, suppressed critical journalism within its borders, and sown discord about democracy and free speech abroad. It has used Indigenous people like the Buryats as tools to attack Ukraine. It derives its income from climate-destroying fossil fuels. If you are a leftist, if you care at all about equity and social justice, if your leftist analysis goes beyond class reductionism or “campism,” you must not support the Russian Federation and its actions.

It is possible to be a critic of the actions of the United States and NATO—the disastrous Iraq War comes to mind—without making excuses for Russia, North Korea, Iran, China and other states that rank state authority over human rights. I have no love for the military–industrial complex. I am frequently horrified by the actions of the United States, especially in Middle Eastern, Central American and South American countries, as well as to immigrants, Black people, Latinos, Indigenous people and Asians within our borders. The American press, however, frequently condemns these actions, even if it is often too late to make any substantive policy changes. An entire cottage industry of alternative websites sprang up after we went into Iraq. Mainstream news outlets have given positive coverage to Black Lives Matter, and even the archetypal Establishment newspaper, the New York Times, published the 1619 Project. Every day, Republican talking heads hurl invective at President Biden, but he has not called for the shutdown of Fox News or OANN.

We are allowed to have an alternative press that shares Russian propaganda, even though Russians do not have the same right. Putin has forced media outlets critical of his regime, such as Novaya Gazeta, out of the country. Many Russian journalists who have challenged the Putin regime have fled to Latvia and other friendlier countries to escape political persecution for daring to speak out against their government’s actions. Ordinary Russians who challenge the war against Ukraine risk arrest thanks to the government’s anti-“fake news” legislation. Russian media must make laudatory remarks about Putin and his coterie or face severe punishment.

As a queer person, I am especially horrified by the far left’s Putin love affair. The Russian government is viciously homophobic and transphobic. Last year, Putin praised the noted transphobe JK Rowling and saw her as an ally against the “woke agenda.” Several months ago, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spread the “groomer” conspiracy theory in a splenetic rant (available in three languages!) about Russia’s inclusion in the top five countries with high HIV infection rates. Would they defend Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump so wholeheartedly as they do Putin?

It is possible, too, to oppose the actions of the Russian Federation as a political entity while upholding the dignity of the Russian people, just as many condemn the actions of the United States, United Kingdom and other Western countries without condemning Americans, Britons, Germans, or Italians. I do not support the Russophobic drive to treat all Russians and everything Russian as synonymous with Vladimir Putin. We can oppose governmental injustice without dehumanising the governed, especially when a government does not have its people’s consent. After all, I did not support the Bush administration’s military adventurism in Iraq, Obama’s use of drones in Yemen, or any of the Trump “administration”’s domestic or international atrocities.1

There’s no excuse for supporting Putin on the left

Even the most cynical view of Western countries’ supplying Ukraine with weapons to defeat Russia does not excuse Russia’s actions or the threat that Russia poses to its own people and the Ukrainians who have been subject to its violence over the past nine years.

Even if you believe the Russo–Ukrainian War was provoked by NATO, even if you think that Russia is justified in protecting its interests by fighting Ukraine, even if you think that Russia is legitimately denazifying Ukraine, it is unacceptable to ignore Russia’s repression of its own people. To do so is to valorise Russia’s geopolitical stance over the the lives and rights of those who live in Russia, including Indigenous and queer people.

Moreover, the defences these pro-Russian leftists use are the same ones the United States used when it invaded Iraq. “We are liberating Ukraine from the Nazi-infested Kiev regime” is similar to “we are invading Iraq because we must free the Iraqi people from the dictator Saddam Hussein and stop him from using weapons of mass destruction, even though there is no evidence of those WMDs.” Saddam Hussein was indeed a brutal dictator. Ukraine does have a serious problem with neo-Nazism and far-right movements. Be that as it may, however, Russia has no right to invade Ukraine and occupy its territory, just as the United States had no right to invade Iraq and occupy its territory. The “liberation” of Ukrainians is little different from the “liberation” of Iraqis. Many of these pro-Russian commentators were vehemently opposed to the Iraq War, and now they sound like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. It is possible to condemn the actions of both the United States and Russia. One does not contradict the other. I am no lover of the regime in Kiev. But this in no way justifies Putin’s actions, and it is still possible to protect Ukraine on principle without supporting its domestic policies.

Russian propaganda has no place on the left—or anywhere else

By all measures, the Kremlin is unworthy of leftist support. And yet there are leftists—people who are supposed to be on my side, people who are supposed to stand against oppression whether at home or abroad—who unwittingly or consciously spread Russian propaganda. I cannot stand idly by when they take their hatred of American policy too far and make excuses for a neoconservative oligarchy like Russia. The Moscow regime is the Trump-era Republican Party on steroids. If I had a choice between staying here or living in Russia, I wouldn’t even consider leaving.

Russian propaganda is rarely aligned with leftist interests. Kremlin-linked sites like the the far-right, antisemitic Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF) routinely post pro-Trump and pro-Republican content. An SCF article called “A Puzzling Purge in Kiev” questions the validity of the 2020 US elections, saying:

With Biden most probably fraudulently coming to power after Donald Trump was viciously ousted from office in 2020, it became rather uncomfortable to talk about this plaguing issue in Ukraine.

This is just the kind of conspiracist nonsense that Marjorie Taylor Greene and other extreme Republicans spew. Whether you support Biden or not, he was legitimately elected president. Monthly Review Online, an online news aggregator hosted by a leftist journal, has posted at least four articles from the SCF. Even leftists with strong anti-Western orientations should be wary of propaganda that boosts the Republican Party.

Closing remarks: For the last time, stop defending Putin!

The actions of the Russian Federation are indefensible. Western Europe and the United States are not the only bad actors in geopolitics. Russia has done the same things Britain, France, Belgium and the United States have done, though with less accountability. Only now is Russia being held accountable for its misdeeds.

You can be a sharp critic of the Ukrainian regime, as I am, without defending Putin’s invasion.

Again: If you are opposed to imperialism, settler colonialism, cultural genocide, the expropriation of Indigenous peoples, anti-LGBTQ discrimination, capitalism, and oligarchy, you must not support the Russian government. If you believe in freedom of expression, if you want to oppose your country’s actions, if you want to protest peacefully, you must not support the Russian government. If you care at all about human rights abroad, including Russians’ human rights, you must not support the Russian government.

  1. Admittedly, I do vote Democratic even though I am to the left of most, if not all, Democrats. The Republicans are a greater threat, both domestically and internationally. In the US two-party system, abstaining from voting or voting third party enables far-right politicians.