On February 24 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine, a nation that declared independence from Russia on August 24 1991. This is not the first time in Ukraine’s 30 years of independence that the Russian Federation has attacked Ukraine, having annexed the Crimea region back in 2014. Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact that he believes Ukraine has been ruled by forces hostile to Russia. Whilst many were surprised by the Russian government’s decision to take this hostile action toward Ukraine, there were plenty of warning signs that this may happen.
It is not my view that war is inevitable, be it in the Ukraine, Palestine, Syria or elsewhere. However, there are often only small windows of opportunity where a lasting peace can be built or negotiated. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, there have been plenty of warning signs over the last 30 years and potentially different responses to these may have produced a different result. What-if-isms are of little comfort or help to those now forced to flee Ukraine or those who are now staying to defend their homeland against Russian invasion.
Russia is the aggressor in this conflict. The targeting of civilians and shelling during a so-called Cease-Fire are acts committed by the Russian forces, and the US President is correct to call President Putin a ‘war criminal’. Those who justify or use moral equivocation by citing the presence of the far-right in Ukraine or that this was in response to NATO expansion miss the point. Yes, the far-right does have a presence in Ukraine and yes they also have joined the resistance to the current invasion. But the logic that this somehow justifies the Russian invasion is incredibly warped. For one, the war gives the far right in Ukraine space to recruit and win support by being part of the resistance. Secondly, if the correct response is for Russia to invade every European country that has an active far-right then very few nations are not at risk of invasion.
On the left, many are still influenced by the analysis of Lenin during the First World War and just before the 1917 Russian Revolution that in an inter-imperialist conflict socialists should be standing up to their own ruling class. During the First World War, there were strong arguments for working people not to align with the Tsar in Russia or other imperialist leaders in that conflict. It is dangerous to simply apply this idea to the current conflict without understanding that the context is different. There is a strong argument that people should be holding their own government or ‘ruling class’ to account during any situation like this. Ultimately, the decision to invade Ukraine was Russia’s, but there is still a question of what the governments and in particular NATO members could have done to help prevent this and what they can do now. Sadly, some on the left and drawn both bizarre and quite dangerous conclusions based on the premise that their role is to stick it to their own ruling class. Bizarrely, some socialists still mistake Russia to be some sort of socialist/anti-imperialist power, thinking that there is some residue influence of the 1917 revolution.
In my late teens, a became involved with radical left politics largely influenced by opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq. I began studying the history of US foreign policy in places like Chile in 1973 or Iran in 1953. In 2001, just before the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, Australian journalist John Pilger released a documentary called The New Rulers of the World, which clearly outlined the role played by the US in installing the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. This in turn meant that country allowed western manufacturers to move production to that country where labour standards were very low and clothing and other items could be produced cheaply. Whilst Pilger has always been prone to being an evangelist for his cause and being a polarising figure, in the past, he has played an important role in highlighting the shortcomings of western governments. Pilger’s bizarre article written days before the Russian invasion is selective with which facts it includes and effectively paints President Putin and the Russian state as victims of Western propaganda. Pilger like many others on the left is so determined to expose their own ‘ruling class’ that they’ll downplay or ignore the countless human rights abuses committed by Russia under Putin’s leadership.
Many on the left, and some on the right or centre focussed their attention on NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a Cold War military alliance designed to stand up to the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, there is a legitimate question as to whether this alliance should have continued. Many continued to be nervous about Russia, a nation that is resource-rich and historically has been very influential. It also does not have a strong history of democracy and instead has had a brutal history of state control both under Tsarism and later when it was the USSR. Certainly for the nations like Lithuania and Ukraine which were ruled by Russia for many years this nervousness is justified. Whether retaining the NATO alliance was the best way to counter this is a fair question. However, to say that the threat of Ukraine joining NATO provoked or even justified the Russian invasion is just wrong. Kier Starmer’s threat to withdraw the whip from any UK Labour MP who supported the Stop the War coalition who is calling for No NATO Expansion is an overreaction. That said, the optics of the coalition’s slogan are really bad. Whatever faults there are with NATO, it is Russia that has just invaded a sovereign country resulting in death, destruction and people being displaced. Trying to deflect from this is not a credible position at all.
The other argument put forward is moral equivalence, whereby people argue that the decision of the US and its allies to invade Iraq was just as bad so who are we to go criticising Russia. The decision to invade Iraq was wrong and few would still defend that action. That does not mean Britain or the US should not criticise Russia for what it is doing in Ukraine, if anything it places a greater responsibility on these governments to uphold human rights now. This is even more important when there is a real chance of forces more sympathetic to Russia taking power. Former US President Donald Trump continues to describe Vladimir Putin in glowing terms. Trump continues to exert considerable influence and control over the Republican Party, who currently stands a strong chance of gaining at least one house in the midterm elections later this year. In such a scenario there are no guarantees that the current pressure being applied to the Putin regime will hold up.
One of the problems has been the inconsistent approach to Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. The recent pressure for Roman Abramovich to sell Chelsea Football Club has brought to light some of the corrupt practices he and others used to make their fortune including the purchase of an oil company from the Russian government in a rigged auction in 1995. The UK allowed these characters to invest this ill-gotten gain into its economy, right up till earlier this year. When the current Russian regime attacked Chechnya in 1999, invaded Georgia in 2008, invaded Crimea and parts of Donbas in Ukraine in 2014 and engaged in a proxy war in Syria it was met with only mild responses including limited sanctions against Russia or mealy-mouthed speeches. Meanwhile, the city of London continued to be awash with ill-gotten money from Russia. That the current UK Prime Minister gave a peerage to Lord Lebedev, owner of two major UK newspapers and friend of Boris Johnson and other senior Conservatives despite security concerns being raised at the time indicates the level of influence Russian money now has in the UK.
Back when the Eastern block fell, the priority was to integrate them into global markets. This was of course at the end of the free market 80s where the naive view was that through economic liberalism democratic political reform would also occur. This maybe a generous view, for many, access to Russian markets and resources was an opportunity for profit. Whilst opportunistically making money from this new market, the political response was to leave NATO intact and treat Russia as a potential foe. Whilst trying to impose Western-style democracy into Russia rather than letting the people of that country decide on their own future would have been an error, to assume that a country with a history of little else than totalitarian regimes would be quick to embrace liberal democracy, free speech and human rights was foolish. What the best approach would have been in hindsight is still unclear, but it seems to profit from post-soviet Russia whilst at the same time treating it as a potential military and political threat has not led to a good outcome.
The invasion that began just over two months ago will have a profound impact on global politics for many years. The conflict is unlikely to end quickly and will take a toll on everyone involved. In the end, it will likely result in a military defeat for Russia and humiliation for Putin. This could mean a much more volatile situation in dealing with a state that has a permanent seat on the UN security council and has nuclear weapons. Much of Europe currently relies on Russia for oil and gas and moving away from this will cause considerable economic upheaval. And Ukraine will take years to recover from this invasion even once the conflict has ceased.