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Why Do Some on the Western Left Support Putin?

Putin’s Russia is a right-wing, ultra-conservative, nationalistic, and authoritarian state. The Western far-right broadly supports Russia in the Ukraine War. This is hardly surprising and would make for a one-dimensional article. Much more surprising are the fervent Putinists on the Western left. Despite few ideological synergies with the left, a significant number seem to be sympathetic to Putin’s false narratives. Why is this?

Explicitly pro-Putin Western commentators are few and far between, but some do parrot Kremlin narratives. Such narratives include the idea that NATO and EU expansion eastward “poked the Russian bear” and that Russia had legitimate security concerns outside of Putin’s conspiratorial “Colour Revolutiondelusions and the Ukrainian neo-Nazi excuse for invading - even though the Russian military has incorporated dozens of neo-Nazi and fascist paramilitary groups. Myriad further reasons have been used to justify Putin’s blood-and-soil-esque irredentist ambitions.

Left-leaning figures (or at least those claiming the epithet ‘leftist’) who spread Kremlin talking points - whether intentionally or not - include former Democratic now independent US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Russel Brand, the Stop the War Coalition (which has been criticised as being pro-Putin by socialist outlets), the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and, of course, George Galloway. This is by no means an exhaustive list as there are dozens of Youtubers and other social media commentators who wholly support Putinism. One of the most egregious is HasanAbi whose views on Ukraine have thankfully been well debunked by other leftist commentators

Prime facie some on the anti-imperialist left are soft on, and even supportive of, Putin’s extreme imperialistic ambitions in Ukraine. Leftist sympathy for Putin comes in two flavours: tankies and campists. Even then they can be further split into those who explicitly support Putin’s invasion and useful idiots.   

Tankies are far-left Stalin / Soviet apologists. The term "tankie" was originally coined by Marxist-Leninists who opposed the Communist Party of Great Britain's alignment with the Soviet Government after the USSR sent in tanks to brutally crush the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring uprising. Since then, it has been used by anti-authoritarian leftists to call out authoritarians on their side of the political spectrum. Authoritarianism whether on the left or right needs to be called out regardless of whether one is capitalist or socialist.

Some tankies are anti-Putin because Putin isn’t a Marxist-Leninist. Others support Putin because they mistake him for a communist, believing that as Russia was a part of the USSR therefore modern Russia must have the same political structure as its “communist” forebear. However, this could not be further from the truth. Putin is the worst kind of capitalist. He privatised almost everything in Russia and used what was left of the state to protect the corporate interests of his loyal oligarchs. This is the opposite of what Lenin would have wanted, but I’m sure Stalin would be happy to see Russia’s tradition of murdering political opponents in Siberian prison colonies still going strong. 

Tankies are thankfully rare. Occasionally one will pop up on YouTube, say something ahistorical and openly genocidal against Ukraine (usually with a heavy dose of Holodomor denial) only to be dissected by the likes of the YouTuber Vaush.  However, campists are disturbingly common. They are often less extreme than tankies but are far more prevalent.

Campists view the world through an almost childishly simplistic “America bad” looking glass. Through such a narrative any action or actor America supports must also be bad and anything America opposes must therefore be good. Because America and its allies oppose Putin, Putin must therefore be good or at least a misunderstood victim of Western imperial ambitions. This worldview fails to understand that Russia is itself imperialistic. Even if they do acknowledge Russian imperialism, they will often employ whataboutisms to distort the facts and make Russia seem like the lesser of two evils. Despite this, campist rarely support Putin but rather think that Ukraine should be left to fend for itself. This is a highly inconsistent stance, as it involves proclaiming opposition to the Russian invasion whilst denying the Ukrainians access to the requisite weapons for resisting Russian aggression.

Campists often view any US and NATO action abroad as imperialist and as a product of the necessary logics of US state capitalism. It is a profoundly America-centric view of the world. Despite claiming to reject American exceptionalism, campists often fall into the America-centrism they criticise. By arguing that the Ukraine war is a proxy war between two camps (Russia and NATO) campists minimise, if not outright deny, the Ukrainians’ agency in fighting for the defence of their people and territory. Several independent polls show that a large majority of Ukrainians support NATO membership. Furthermore, were the war a proxy war, would Western support be this limited? Would securing this support in legislatures be so torturous? Campists further ignore that Russia begin incursions into Ukraine a decade ago after the Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych was forced out of office by the UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT after the UKRAINIAN PEOPLE wanted rid of a Putin-puppet who abused his position and opened his country up to be raided by Russian oligarchs during the Revolution of Dignity. Putin got upset that his puppet state was slipping away from him and so annexed Crimea and started the war in the Donbas. When all this was going on western leaders more-or-less made their protests and left Ukraine to get on with it. Even after FSB agents under Putin’s direct orders used chemical weapons in Salisbury, the Western response remained muted.

It’s important to remember that most of those in western nations, whether they be leftists, liberals, or conservatives, support the Ukrainians in their struggle against an invading fascist power.  To avoid the pitfalls set out by campists and tankies, the left and the rest of the political spectrum across the democratic world needs to adopt a consistent and united stance against Putin’s aggression and support Ukraine’s right to exist.  

Image: Getty Images/via Bloomberg

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