President Zelenksy at Nato, Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine, licensed under CC BY 4.0, linked at bottom of article President Zelenksy at Nato, Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine, licensed under CC BY 4.0, linked at bottom of article

As the war in Ukraine carries on and Europe rearms, stopping militarisation and immiseration go hand in hand, argues Kevin Ovenden

The terrible war in Ukraine is getting worse it seems on all fronts. News of Russian fire hitting a mosque in the Black Sea port of Mariupol will have brought to the minds of many similar atrocities in the US-led wars of the last 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ongoing today in Yemen. 

The frenzied attempts by western states and mainstream politicians to make it unacceptable even to consider these comparisons seem to be increasing, yet at the same time breaking down. 

When football fans on chat sites compare the sanctioning of the Russian-Israeli national and billionaire Roman Abramovich with the billionaire owners of Newcastle United who back their kleptocratic state in Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen and its repression of all dissent at home you know that there is more thinking and skepticism going on than our rulers are comfortable with. 

That is borne out in opinion polling which continues to show both huge support for the Ukrainian refugees and suffering people alongside grave doubt or outright opposition about escalating the war. 

And it is dawning that the war may go on for a considerable time, with further escalation already happening and at each stage the chance of dramatically more. No one knows. Most of the news is of little help with a lot of it simply reproducing Ukrainian government claims of inflicting huge losses on Russian forces. How true that is we don’t know. Russian media channels are blocked in Europe and the US. 

Doubtless, they have their inflated claims. The war is being fought in the information sphere as well as in trade, finance and actual physical combat. It is in no way to endorse pro-Russian media channels to register huge concern at the decisions by Big Tech and broadcasters in the West to block, ban or limit what it is we get to see. 

These are run by a small number of immensely wealthy men exercising huge, unaccountable power. If they were Russian, they would be denounced as oligarchs. 

As foreign affairs expert Anatol Lieven wrote in an extensive piece in the Financial Times this week that now ubiquitous term has served to obscure understanding of what Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and those at the top of the Russian state represent. It is not simply the super-rich. That was true of the previous government under Boris Yeltsin, notoriously corrupt and looting the country alongside western corporations. 

Putin clashed with some of the wealthiest and most powerful of that group. Those in power now are rather a subset of the capitalist elite that is driven and justifies itself – to itself and publicly – as patriotically standing up for Russia and recovering from the humiliations of the 1990s and 2000s. 

It is intensely nationalistic, but it can also draw on the recent memories of those humiliations, the economic collapse and the other crooks stealing the nation’s assets but only to take them abroad. 

It is for these reasons that boasting of sanctions that will devastate the lives of ordinary Russians and promoting outright Russophobic propaganda work directly against the potentially huge force of Russian antiwar, working-class opinion that can speed the end of this invasion. 

Instead, there is a fixation in official western politics on looking to some palace coup at the top to “oust Putin”. But that disregards that he represents a powerful ruling class bloc that is just as much committed to Russia playing a global imperial role as the US ruling class is. 

Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, in practice governments and blocs such as the EU are recognising this and undertaking a major shift that is already leading to a much more dangerous world. While anti-left journalists write attack pieces on anyone mentioning how wrong Nato expansionism and the US-led wars of the last 25 years have been, EU leaders gathered this week to agree what is nothing short of the major rearmament of the continent. 

It is not just the increase in military spending and coordination in association with Nato membership that most EU states have. It is also a doctrine that the EU will seek to have self-sufficiency in food and energy. But in this world of corporate capitalism and competition between imperialist states and blocs that is not going to mean anything like socialist policies of nothing short of a revolution in renewables, food production and distribution, democratic control and throwing the cost onto capital. 

It is going to mean having to use or threaten to use that increased military apparatus to secure food and energy supplies beyond the EU bloc. And despite the EU and governments feeling forced to welcome to an extent Ukrainian refugees, it is going to mean keeping others out who fall victims of wars, environmental breakdown and economic pillage. 

The same meeting rejected point blank the demand from the Ukrainian government for immediate fast-tracking of membership of the EU. President Zelensky should not be surprised. The EU is not going to engage in the transfer of hundreds of billions of euros to a very poor country, which is what membership would mean. Money that would come from European capitalism. That is not what the EU or Nato are for. 

Instead, what is taking shape is squeezing working people across Europe, and Britain, to pay for rearmament and the cost of what threatens to be a world-historic economic shock. 

Energy bills were already soaring before the Ukraine invasion. Everyone has a story of the increase in their fuel bills and memes about the cost of petrol are multiplying. 

It is not only Britain and it is not only fuel. That in any case knocks on into the costs of production and transport as a whole. But there is also a surge in the prices of other commodities from Russia and Ukraine. From wheat to strategic metals. 

Whatever the course of the war, the Russian government is threatening to hit back with sanctions of its own against those imposed on it. It may be the weaker partner in the trade and financial relationship. But it is not without clout, especially as the call rises to move to regional supply and security rather than extended global trade networks. 

If globalised trade did not prevent this war and possibly worse, rival trade and military blocs certainly will not. 

Meanwhile the cost is already hitting working people across the globe. Keir Starmer in parliament this week dutifully proclaimed,

“We will face economic pain as we free Europe from dependence on Russian gas and oil and clean our institutions of money stolen from the Russian people, but the British public have always been willing to make sacrifices to defend democracy on our continent, and we will again.”

Let him speak for himself on over 100k a year, a flash house and a knighthood. A better example for workers in Britain is being provided right now by counterparts in Albania. Today is the fourth day of large and militant protests against price rises and the cost of living. There are protests in the south of Iraq, a country where increased profits from higher oil prices go to the rich but the poor pay the cost of increased bread prices. Protests and movements over pay and prices are likely to spread. Just one example, Cyprus imports most of its wheat from Russia. It has only a 70 day reserve. It is not only traders on the wheat market who are talking about what might happen. It is just about every Cypriot household, Greek and Turkish.

Now is most certainly not the time to draw back from strikes, protests and actions over the cost of living. It was a big mistake for the TUC to call off its protest outside the Tory Party conference next week. Better would be to follow the example of the Fire Brigades Union that has agreed an excellent statement opposing the war, escalation and Nato expansion, and insisting that working people should not pay for the consequences.

Stopping this war is now intimately connected with struggling against militarism and immiseration at home. This, unfortunately, is likely to be the shape of the “new normal”, whatever happens in the immediate conflict. We need a fighting left that can rise to that and help make a difference, not one that collapses now in the hope of speaking out later. A better “later” is very far off indeed, if it might arrive ever or at all.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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