Image: "Saber Guardian 2017" by U.S. Army Europe is licensed under CC

Russia invading Ukraine has united opinion in the West. Putin has gone too far. He needs to be taught a lesson. The only disagreement is on how severe that lesson should be. There will be no boots on the ground. When it comes to war, NATO has made it clear that Ukraine is on its own. But all the major UK parties support economic sanctions. The only argument is about the severity of the sanctions we impose.

Vince Cable is less gung-ho than most. Writing in The Independent, he worries that this could escalate out of control and favours continued negotiation. There is little evidence that Putin plans to use the invasion of Ukraine as a staging post for further military action to rebuild a Russian zone of influence in Eastern Europe. It is not even clear whether he intends to conquer Ukraine or to limit military action to the occupation of the majority Russian speaking provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, whose independence he recognised in a speech on Monday.

Lessons from Crimea

Even there the result is not a foregone conclusion. In 2014 the annexation of Crimea was fairly straightforward. It had been part of Russia since the time of Catherine the Great and only became part of Ukraine in 1954, as a sweetener to the Ukraine Communist Party leadership from Nikita Khruschev in exchange for their supporting his bid to succeed Stalin.

Donetsk and Luhansk are more complicated. It is too simple to see Ukraine as an ethnically divided country with a pro-Western majority in the north and west, and a pro-Russian minority in the south and east. Since 2014 the pro-Russian separatists have only prevailed with covert Russian support in a civil war that has seen 14,000 dead and many Russian speakers staying loyal to Kyiv.

Putin is supposed to have said to George W Bush

You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.

Who Lost Russia? page 165. Peter Conradi (2018)

Even Russian dissident and cold war warrior for the West, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, declared:

a separate Ukrainian people, existing since something like the ninth century and possessing their own language is a recent falsehood.

Rebuilding Russia. page 17. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1991)

Ukrainian Nationalism

Despite Putin and Solzhenitsyn, Ukrainian nationalism is a real and potent force. Pro-Russian sympathisers point to the fascistic tendencies on the right of Ukrainian politics, as evidenced by Nazi symbols openly worn by some of the Ukrainian militias. But that is not typical of the Orange Revolution in 2014, when mass demonstrations by ordinary citizens forced Russia to abandon its attempt to fix the presidential election in favour of their preferred candidate. This helps to explain Putin’s caution so far. It is three months since the Russian build-up began. Putin has plotted a careful course, seeking to extract the maximum benefit from each escalation. Overt military intervention in the Donbass is a significant escalation and nobody knows what will happen next.

Taking Sides

So what should the left be saying? Some argue that this is a simple matter of NATO expanding into Eastern Europe to press home its advantage after winning the Cold War. Russia is the victim and deserves our solidarity. There are elements of truth in this but it is not the whole story.

On the other hand, those who claim Putin is a right wing ideologue who has broken international law, who has to be opposed rather than appeased, conveniently forget the right wing ideologues engaging in fascistic behaviour that our government continues to arm and support.

Appeals to international law and upholding human rights also run counter to the experience of the many who have experienced misery as a result of Western intervention. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, anybody?

Unless this crisis triggers a socialist revolution (unlikely), and providing it does not lead to a destructive war between Russia and the West, there has to be a diplomatic solution and the most likely outcome would be a negotiated settlement based on the Minsk-2 Agreement as argued by Stop The War. When we first discussed this in Critical Mass in December I wrote:

Russia sees itself as a nation under siege, defending itself against incursions from the West. While the Western powers respond that this is evidence of Russian expansionism. Our leaders invoke memories of the old Soviet empire and the Cold War to justify their hostile stance and deflect from their own imperialist ambitions to dominate the world.
It would be a mistake for socialists to take sides in this dispute. But we have a duty to point out the disastrous outcome of every military adventure we have supported in the Middle East, in Africa and in Afghanistan in recent years. If there is conflict in Eastern Europe we should oppose any UK involvement in direct or economic warfare, or by arming one side in the conflict.

I see no reason to change that assessment, although it is worth pointing out that the prime movers in this dispute on the West’s side are the USA and UK, both of whose leaders are under increasing domestic pressure due to their mishandling of the pandemic. More importantly, both economies are entering a downward spiral which means investors are nervous. A war would both provide the nationalistic tub-thumping that elevates the poll ratings of the war leader and is an opportunity for a major economic realignment that, whilst unlikely to prevent the downturn, might slow it long enough to see Biden and Johnson through to their respective elections. There are plenty of reasons to go to war. Saving the careers and egos of inept politicians should never be one of them. It won’t be Biden or Johnson, or for that matter Putin, who lay dead at the end of this, but as usual ordinary citizens who neither want a war nor stand to gain whoever wins.

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