Vladimir Putin speaking in September 2022. Photo: Wikimedia/Konstantin Zavrazhin Vladimir Putin speaking in September 2022. Photo: Wikimedia/Konstantin Zavrazhin

Lindsey German on an ever-escalating global crisis   

Those of us opposing British and Nato involvement in the war in Ukraine are often told that there is no chance of the war escalating. Putin may claim that he will retaliate even to the extent of using nuclear weapons but he will do nothing despite threats. Simon Tisdall in the Observer repeats the claim this week, in an article which excoriates US president Joe Biden for being too indecisive and which is a paean of praise to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. Tisdall writes:

‘Biden should listen to Antony Blinken. His secretary of state has spotted a pattern over the past year: Kremlin warnings of retaliation and direct confrontation rarely amount to much in practice. The Russians huff and puff but mostly bluff. Putin is not entirely stupid. He knows he’d never win a fight with Nato, let alone survive nuclear warfare.’

It’s a remarkably insouciant view of Putin, given that the western press image of Putin is that he is a brutal and deranged war criminal (but don’t worry he’s just bluffing). It’s also remarkable to see the US as dragging its feet over weapons provision when it has provided $37.3 billion in arms since the Russian invasion last year, including, as listed by the British government:

‘Stinger antiaircraft systems, Javelin and other anti-armour systems, tactical unmanned aerial systems (UAS), counter-UAS systems, air surveillance radar, helicopters, self-propelled howitzers, coastal defence vessels, high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), national advanced surface-to-air missile systems (NASAMS), missiles for HAWK air defence systems,104 Avenger shortrange air defence systems, high speed anti-radiation missiles, armoured vehicles, tactical secure communications systems, a Patriot air defence battery, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and non-lethal equipment such as helmets and body armour’.

That doesn’t include the provision of Abrams tanks, the training of Ukrainian military personnel, the agreement to train pilots on F16 fighter jets. But the problem is it’s never enough for those who want to push the war to its very limits. The pro war liberals who refuse any talk of peace have to both underestimate what is being sent to Ukraine – and it’s eye-watering, a huge movement of arms – and to pretend that the Russians will not or cannot respond.  

Similarly the range of ‘unofficial’ exercises are admired from afar. The missile attack on the Kremlin earlier this month (likely carried out by Ukrainian forces acting unofficially but claimed to be a Russian ‘false flag’ operation by some politicians), the various acts of sabotage, the assassination in Russia of right-wing political figures, are all lauded and applauded without any consideration of where they might lead. The most dramatic example of this was the incursion into Russia itself by pro Ukrainian Russian forces, the Freedom of Russia legion, led by a fascist, using US military equipment. There are plenty of examples from history where such events have led to wider conflict, which no doubt would lead to more calls from liberals to send arms.

The risk is much too high over Ukraine, which as I argued last week is also inextricably linked to the second front in which western imperialism is engaged, the Indo-Pacific with the growing threats to China. The alternative – and the only alternative, as there is highly unlikely to be a decisive victory for Ukraine in the coming counter offensive – is a ceasefire and peace talks now. 

These have become dirty words in western political discourse – regarded as naïve and pacifist at best, and apology for Putin at worst – but this development is in itself political. Zelensky is touring the world demanding more weapons and characterising those who don’t agree with him 120% as helping Russia because he knows that if the counter offensive is not successful, or even partially successful, then there will be growing calls for peace talks from a number of European governments and also from the US as another election year looms. That’s what is behind the pressure for more offensive arms now.

Socialists in the imperialist countries should see this for what it is, rather than cheer their own rulers in the bidding war of weapons provision. This is nowhere more so than in Britain, where our government is leading the demands for more arms, and where an incredible £4.6 billion will have been provided by the end of this financial year. It is an area where the left – critical enough over NHS spending, the environment or scapegoating of refugees – simply refuses to criticise. The war can only be understood in its wider political context. Any other approach involves putting down the shutters on the role of the major powers and the growing threat of war internationally.

The left and the trade unions are divided on this, sometimes bitterly. Those who refuse to accept that their government’s agenda is about the humanitarian concerns of the Ukrainian people find themselves in a minority, and this can be tough going, especially when the media and politicians allow no dissenting voice to disturb their narrative. But it is necessary to continue this argument for two reasons. It is increasingly obvious that US imperialism and its allies are prepared to fight a war on two fronts – both in Europe round Ukraine and in the Pacific where there are growing military alliances against China.

The second reason is more complex. Allying with our own government over war weakens working class politics considerably. It prevents working class organisations from acting independently, because they are subordinate to their own ruling class on this question. That weakens them over other questions and – just in case anyone has forgotten – we are faced with the most brutal, corrupt and vicious Tory government. This is a government which refuses to raise living standards for the poorest, which is denying working class people decent pay rises and so cutting their wages, which permits the dumping of sewage in seas and rivers, which rewards landlords and profiteers.  Are we seriously supposed to believe that it has questions of solidarity and self-determination at heart when it comes to Ukraine? But that is exactly what the left proponents of arming Ukraine are expecting us to believe.

The problem is that when you side with your own government on this you are making it harder to win over strikes, because when you suspend your own criticism of their actions on one issue you make their position stronger. The government relies almost exclusively on militarism, nationalism and scapegoating to maintain even the level of support that it has.

We are at something of a hiatus in the strike wave, which began a year ago. More generally the unions have yet to show that they are up to the multiple challenge from the government: wage restraint, further repressive anti-union laws, cuts in public spending, and repeated assaults on working conditions. Union membership fell slightly last year – which shouldn’t be happening with this level of industrial action. The Labour Party under Keir Starmer is resolutely neoliberal and pro war and will pursue policies against working-class interests if in government. The TUC has proved itself singularly ineffective in opposing Tory policies and will ally with Starmer on his version of them. The working-class movement must have a serious discussion and strategic orientation on how to win and how to strengthen our organisation.

It can’t just be about strikes and the cost of living – militarism, arms spending and support for war weakens the movement as a whole.

This week: On Wednesday I’ll be part of a delegation to Downing St calling for ceasefire and peace talks over Ukraine. Then on Friday I’m speaking at the Engels 200 conference in Eastbourne – a bit late because of lockdown but should be interesting!

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.