MPs against Trident, Trafalgar Square 2016. Photo: Flickr/Garry Knight MPs against Trident, Trafalgar Square 2016. Photo: Flickr/Garry Knight

Lindsey German on the unfolding Ukrainian crisis  

Whenever a war involving imperialist powers starts, it changes everything. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, that in Ukraine has already had and will continue to have a major impact on world politics.   

The Russian invasion is a horrific escalation and must be condemned by all socialists. Already there have been many deaths, huge movements of people trying to escape the war, and a situation of fear and danger for millions. It seems from what reports we are getting that the Russian troops are not advancing as quickly as they wanted, and that they are meeting widespread resistance. This has all the makings of a long and drawn-out conflict and Putin must withdraw immediately.

The resistance is not surprising – it is what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is a factor which major military powers often don’t take into account, assuming that their superiority in weaponry will be sufficient. Important too has been the level of opposition to Putin’s war in Russia itself. A number of prominent celebrities have condemned it and many thousands have very bravely taken to the streets across the country. Reports say 3,000 protestors have been arrested already, and the anti-war movement deserves our full solidarity and support.  

Russia’s invasion will have long term consequences for the western imperialist powers and their rivalries, especially with the growing economic and military power, China, which has been supportive of Russia, but which abstained in the UN security council vote over the invasion, and has urged Putin to negotiate. The blocking of the Swift financial payment system will have a very serious effect on the Russian economy but also on many businesses elsewhere. Sanctions on oil and gas will hit Russia but will also lead to shortages and further price rises across Europe.

This conflict has been a long time in the making. There is a great deal of talk about this being a war in Europe, as if wars in Baghdad or Sanaa or Kabul don’t matter. But there has of course already been a major series of wars in Europe since the Second World War – in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. These culminated in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, a ‘humanitarian intervention’ led by Nato. It’s worth remembering two events from that war which impact today.

The first was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by US forces in May 1999 – regarded by many as a deliberate targeting of a state opposed to Nato. The second was a Russian move the following month to occupy the airport in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, right at the end of the war. A joint Nato-Russian peacekeeping force in the disputed province was set up but Russia was not allowed its own sector. That stand-off ended in negotiation, but it demonstrated the growing conflict as Russia lost its influence in Eastern Europe.

Fast forward more than two decades and the overall picture has been one of much greater Nato expansion and more isolation for Russia. While Putin was regarded by the west as a potential ally, and Russia supported the war in Afghanistan and later the bombing of Libya, the latter led to greater estrangement as both Russia and China felt they had been duped into supporting regime change.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to being kicked out of the G8 meetings of world leaders – a bitter blow to Putin, further support for Ukraine from the west, Nato military exercises on Russia’s borders. Putin intervened in Syria to demonstrate that Russia still had an important role to play internationally. No doubt encouraged by the defeat for US and British imperialism in Afghanistan last year, he has now made his move on Ukraine. Ironically if Putin succeeds in his aims, he will find himself right up against Nato states on his borders – the fate he wanted to avoid.  

Nato is not going to fight directly against Russia, or not yet. The prospect is of course terrifying given both sides are nuclear powers, but we should be aware that this war can escalate in all sorts of dangerous ways. Britain and other countries – including Germany which has so far resisted this – are sending more weapons to Ukraine, and more troops and weapons into Nato member states in Eastern Europe. These are storing up the likelihood of future conflicts. The sanctions, especially over Swift, will hit ordinary Russians hard. Already the EU and Britain are prevaricating over Ukrainian refugees, who should be welcomed, but instead we’re told by one Tory minister that they could apply for fruit picking visas.

Our government, which supplies arms and personnel for the Saudi bombing of Yemen, which invaded and occupied two sovereign countries over the past 20 years, and which is refusing money to starving Afghans through sanctions, has absolutely no right to lecture anyone else on these matters. There must be an end to this war but as long as we have a system of imperialism that dominates the world the drive to war gets ever greater.

Those putting arguments against war but against Nato and our own government are under attack. Stop the War has been accused of being the enemy within, traitors, fifth columnists, apologists for Putin. Keir Starmer demanded that 11 Labour MPs who signed a STW statement the week before the invasion happened should withdraw their names or they would have the whip suspended. The MPs and three Labour members of the House of lords withdrew – a bad mistake in my view, and one which will impact on ordinary Labour members, as it is already on Young Labour.

Starmer is saying that Labour MPs are not allowed to criticise Nato – an incredible attack on free speech and thought. So 11 MPs who oppose war are pilloried – and abused and given death threats – while who knows how many Tory MPs (and some Labour) get a free pass for their cosy relationships with the Russian billionaires and money launderers in Knightsbridge and Kensington?

In times of war there is always the demand that we keep quiet and back our own ruling class. This has reached a crescendo this week and we will see further smears and more authoritarian calls – like blaming all Russians for Putin and demanding their removal from Britain. It is very important that our rulers try to give the impression of unanimity. We should expect no different from the right, but this is also coming from the liberals and some of the left.

I see some of this as the legacy of the EU argument. Many liberals and some socialists became so convinced that the EU was a force for good and even liberation that they ignored the capitalist nature of the institution and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Some also tended to blame the referendum result and Trump’s election on Russia. They now seem to have transferred that sentiment to supporting its imperialist and military aims in the form of Nato.

But it goes deeper than that. War is always a dividing line on the left. It was in 1914, when most left parties collapsed in support of their ‘own’ imperialism. It has been in my experience more recently with the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In every case individuals have gone over to supporting the war – and moved to the right eventually on other issues. Today the pro-imperialist left lines up behind its own ruling class to demand it wages war more efficiently and ruthlessly. The denial of Nato’s role is truly remarkable, some even believing it can be democratised.  

The anti-war left has to stand up and be counted. We are not going to be silenced by the government, or by Labour, or by those who now parrot ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ (a slogan many of them long disagreed with) but who concentrate all their fire on Moscow.

There is a Global Day of Action against the war next Sunday, calling for Russian troops out and no to Nato expansion. It focuses on the immediate threat of war and on our government’s wider role. For socialists however we need to go further than protest. The German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht said in 1915 that the main enemy is at home. Our own government is not our only enemy but the one that we have to fight against primarily. The same is true for those in Russia, the US and anywhere else. The working class in Russia has the power to bring down Putin and end the war and needs every level of support to do so.

That means refusing to get behind the patriotic fervour, the desperate desire to punish Russia. It means telling the truth about the conflict and the wider imperialist system. And it means fighting our government over the NHS, student loans, housing, pay, and everything else they are attacking us for.

No one knows where this war will end. It will change politics fundamentally and the rulers everywhere will expect working-class people to bear the brunt of its economic and human costs. Our opposition now is central to our ability not just to end this war, but to end the system of imperialism which creates it.  

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

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’.