How is the Buffalo shooter connected to fascism in Ukraine?
The US has empowered fascism in Ukraine. And in Russia. And, in the US.
Less than five minutes after news broke that a teenager in New York had murdered ten victims in a mass shooting, Twitter found a way to blame it on Ukraine. The line seems to have originated from a series of tweets by pro-Russia account UkraineMaps:
Shortly thereafter the same account added “inspiring lone wolf shootings” to its list of “war-crimes by Ukrainians”. This narrative was dutifully promoted by Russian state media, of course, and it’s not hard to understand why: blaming the killing on Ukraine is meant to further justify Russia’s invasion as a necessary campaign of denazification.
Neither is it hard to understand why the US’s hard right has eagerly played along:
The shooter’s manifesto is saturated with a fascist politics that is deeply American: he explains that his road to radicalization began on 4chan, he obsesses over the supposed Jewish control of US media networks, and as Eoin Higgins notes, his anxiety over so-called “white replacement theory” paraphrases Tucker Carlson almost verbatim. The US right is hyping this connection to deflect blame away from itself onto Ukraine, and ideally, onto the left:
Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron is a far-left activist who vowed to ‘seek justice for Ukraine’ and expressed hatred for conservatives opposed to war, according to his leaked manifesto… Gendron supports the far-left globalist agenda in Ukraine and sympathises with the neo-nazi groups Russia is trying to fight.
Everything in this paragraph, down to the supposed quote from the manifesto, is a complete fabrication. But these are convenient fabrications if all you care about is turning public scrutiny away from Russia and the American right.
There is, despite all of this, a worthy point to be made about the hypocrisy of US liberals who wring their hands when they see a sonnenrad in a domestic shooter’s manifesto and then spend $40b arming Azov militants in Ukraine who wear the same sign. Let’s consider a few more worthy points:
The Biden administration has requested $782b to arm our own military, even as the Pentagon itself warns that these weapons are likely to fall into the hands of domestic extremists connected with or enlisted in the military: “Access to service members with combat training and technical weapons expertise can also increase the probability of success and the potency of planned violent attacks.”
The soaring military budgets overwhelmingly supported by US liberals haven’t merely armed US extremists: as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, they’ve also created US extremists. “Militarized policing creates a feedback loop,” Cassie Miller writes: “state suppression or violence intended to tamp down on political organizing or protest – whether the focus is on far-right extremists or others – emboldens and mobilizes the far right, thereby justifying more violence at the hands of the state and further fueling the cycle.”
US militarism and economic imperialism both bear direct responsibility for the rise of Russian ultranationalism. The vulture capitalism that gutted Russia’s economy in the nineties, the national humiliation inflicted by the fall of the Soviet Union and NATO’s subsequent expansion, and the Western-abetted elevation of a siloviki faction that relies on revanchist and imperialist rhetoric to cultivate popular support — all of this created fertile ground for the nationalist and neo-Nazi forces that have proliferated throughout Russia. And the west is deliberately recreating these conditions today through its sanctions regime and through a military strategy in Ukraine focused less on providing Putin with a off-ramp for ending the war than on crushing his military as thoroughly as possible (despite the inevitable cost to Ukraine).
All of these points directly highlight the hypocrisy of US liberals who decry fascism even as they support its proliferation. All of them are directly relevant to current events — indeed, all of them are specifically relevant to the war in Ukraine. And the left has long recognized that domestic militarization and radicalized reaction to imperialism play such a direct role in the emergence of fascism that we might as well be arming those militants just as we are arming Azov. These are all serious, relevant, and interrelated vectors in the emergence of fascism that implicate the antifascist rhetoric of US liberals in profound contradiction.
Which leads me to ask: why, then, have so many on the left confined their response to the Buffalo shooting to the narrow problem of arming fascists in Ukraine? Sending guns to Azov militants is dangerous and hypocritical — but it is certainly not uniquely dangerous or uniquely hypocritical. And yet if you look at the response of much of left media to this shooting, you could be forgiven for concluding that the entire machinery of US imperialism is captured in a $40b budget that’s routed through Lviv.
I’m resigned to folks who don’t like this point misreading it in a very predictable way, but let me spell it out for anyone who genuinely misunderstands. The US must stop arming Azov; the hypocrisy of liberals on this point is obvious and deserves criticism.1 This was a point I was making eight years ago, and it’s a point I’ll be making long after the US left has forgotten about Ukraine and moved on to the next thing. But I am an opponent of imperialism and fascism everywhere, not just in Ukraine. And that makes me wonder: why have so many on the left avoided posting pictures like these as well?
Personally I have some speculation about why recurring guests on Tucker Carlson or on Russian state media might be inclined to avoid talk about Charlottesville Nazis, PMC Wagner, and the role US capital has played in cultivating these problems. It’s also not difficult for me to see why ultraleft activists who have a shaky grasp of anti-imperialist analysis might fall into the trap of imagining that Azov is somehow the only or the most consequential contribution our country is making to the rise of global fascism.
And I can also imagine how a socialist — stepping into a discursive flood of right-wing goons and Russian state media employees cynically blaming Ukraine, all arguing with Democratic loyalists who insist that there are no Nazis in Ukraine at all — might just passively accept this bourgeois frame of debate.2 If you see one side speaking a half-truth, it might not even occur to you that socialists have to tell the whole truth about imperialism. The whole truth, in this case, doesn’t map cleanly onto the camps of national or partisan struggle; if we are saying what we need to say about fascism and imperialism, it’s going to be inconvenient for Americans, Ukrainians, Russians, Republicans, and Democrats alike.
What happens if you won’t challenge their frame? In this case, it means that we don’t talk about reactionary forces in the United States. And we don’t talk about how US imperialism radicalizes Official Enemies, not just Official Allies. And we end up advancing a selective critique that opportunistically empowers some fascists for the sake of attacking others: we play, in other words, the exact same dangerous game of proxy war that imperialists always play.
So I am concerned about the way socialists are navigating the politics of international fascism because I want to see the fascists lose everywhere. But more broadly, I am concerned by how easily the socialist critique of fascism and imperialism slips into the nationalist, partisan framework of bourgeois discourse. The points we make about these issues shouldn’t sound exactly like what Republican capitalists say, or what Democratic capitalists say, or what capitalist militaries fighting nationalist wars have to say. We’re socialists, and we should sound like it.
UPDATE: Somehow I missed this during my original read-through, but I just came across a crucial passage in the shooter’s manifesto:
There are well known enemies of our nations…[who] must pay for their disgusting attacks upon our race… [Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan] must bleed his last… removing a prime enemy of Russia and destabilizing and fracturing NATO.
These are not the words of someone who is particularly inspired by Azov fascism or who counts himself an ally of the NATO-Ukrainian alliance. If it indicates any foreign influence whatsoever, it is clearly operating within the framework of Russian fascism. But the most likely explanation, in my view, is that the shooter is probably rehearsing a vague paleoconservative objection to the US funding Europe’s defense coupled with a generalized white nationalism that may very well include Ukraine, too. The stew of reactionary narratives, grievances, and sympathies one finds in the online spaces where he was spending his time isn’t exactly famous for its coherence or consistency.
And that, again, is why socialists need to advance an expansive critique of fascism. There is value in calling out liberal hypocrisy on Azov, but if your analysis of the Buffalo shooting ended there then you missed something very important about what drove it.
I thought Mark Ames did a very good job in articulating this as a point unambiguously about liberal hypocrisy, which stands in stark contrast to the more common format of just posting sonnenrads from the the shooter Manifesto, from Azov insignia, and opaquely asking, “See?”
One of the biggest points of evidence that something like this is going on, in my view: look around at all of the folks in left media who have uncritically repeated the claim that the Christchurch shooter, who inspired the Buffalo shooter, trained with Azov. This is just factually incorrect, but if you watched the claim percolate out from Russian state media yesterday, it’s pretty easy to see how so many people came across it.