Anti-war placard, London Anti-war placard, London. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked below article

The struggle to stop the war in Ukraine and ensure the conditions for peace means solidarity with the people in Russia who oppose this war, not sanctioning them, writes Kevin Ovenden

Ukrainian president Voldomyr Zelenskyy issued a statement yesterday about talks with the Russian government and outlining a preparedness to discuss a full range of issues regarding the security of everyone in the region.

As well as of course demanding Russia halts its invasion and withdraws it acknowledged the contested questions that have fuelled this conflict. It referred to the “collective security of Ukraine and its neighbours”.

It is impossible to tell whether this opens a door to a ceasefire and peace talks. And it runs counter to the war hawks urging on a wider confrontation. 

The reckless games being played in that regard were exposed today as the US rejected grandstanding by the right-wing government of Poland. It had sought to build its prestige through a scheme to provide old, Russian-made, warplanes to Ukraine but without the regime in Warsaw taking responsibility for it or the consequences. 

It wanted that to be shared by Nato. But that would mean not only escalation but confirmation that behind this proxy war is a contest between two imperialist powers. The US is reluctant to do that. Its bureaucrats seem more alert to the potentially rapid and catastrophic escalation than a number of Eastern European politicians and large numbers of commentators. 

There is a good account in the Guardian of what became an open division between the US and Poland. They reveal a little of the jockeying for position and selfish motivation of various states and the corporations associated with them in this conflict. 

The need for the Putin government to achieve something it can call a victory is clear. The invasion has not gone well for it militarily and it already shows mixed signals over its war aims.

The Ukrainian government is simultaneously demanding of its benefactors in the West actions that could lead to all-out war between nuclear-armed powers, while also indicating significant room for talks that go beyond just Russian withdrawal.

And Nato powers are threatening fire and brimstone while having to face, unlike liberal war hawk Twitter handles, the potentially devastating consequences of their actions.

So we have the ever-present danger of rapid and catastrophic escalation with inhibitions on all sides from seeking a ceasefire and settlement and escalating sanctions and war by non-military means.

The language over sanctions has shifted over the two weeks from initial focus on Russian billionaires to what the French finance minister intended as “the collapse of the Russian economy”. 

It would not be for the first time. These fabled oligarchs, and Putin himself, made their fortunes out of the collapse of the post-Soviet economy in the 1990s. That was when there was a devastating collapse in living standards and both male and female life expectancy.

But none of that is mentioned in North American and European corporate media coverage. Instead there is a frenzy about punishing sanctions “on Russia”. As this piece in Jacobin makes clear what that means is hitting ordinary Russians hard not only the super rich.

Coincidentally, there has been a marked drop off of any coverage of the anti-war movement in Russia. And there is none in the transatlantic media of those in Ukraine who are opposed to the Russian invasion but also against the right-wing and chauvinist politics of their own government, which also has its preferred oligarchs.

The Russian state is banning its dissidents. The Ukrainian state is doing the same to its, even when they are fighting against the invasion. 

Just crying “more sanctions” is not going to solve any of this. Anatol Lieven is a respected foreing policy expert, particularly on Eastern Europe and Russia, and a former journalist for the Financial Times

He spelled out in an interview on the US online channel Democracy Now, his view of the potential for a peace deal and the role of sanctions. 

He is strongly for widespread sanctions, but even he asks “what is the purpose?” and he points out that if that is not to seek a negotiated settlement but toppling the Putin government in Russia then we are looking at years of suffering. 

That is suffering in Ukraine, for ordinary Russians and as outflow for working people across the world due to the economic effects that are already being felt. 

He points out that “devastating sanctions” did not produce the effects desired by the western powers capable of applying them on Iraq, Iran, Venezuela… There has been untold suffering among the mass of people, but not upon the elites.

Indeed, with oil and gas shooting up to record prices there are the most extraordinary moves by the US state to try to compensate by getting more supply. So it has opened discussions with Venezuela, which both Republicans and Democrats had blackballed as a recalcitrant challenge to US dominance in the Americas. 

It is also trying to renew the Iran nuclear deal – though there is less actual talk of lifting sanctions. 

So – in the name of sanctioning Russian oil, which President Joe Biden announced yesterday, the US has to do a volte face and intimate undoing oil and other sanctions on Venezuela and Iran.

This has nothing to do with the interests of ordinary people in any of the countries concerned, still less of the much vaunted commitments of nearly every government to reducing carbon emissions.

Still less does the collapse of the Russian economy and currency help ordinary Russians and their anti-war movement. It seems no accident that calls for more sanctions have gone hand in hand with less coverage of the struggles of working people in Russia. 

The anti-war movement should do the opposite. The billionaires – Russian and otherwise – can look after themselves. We look to solidarity with anti-war and working-class forces in Russia. Not lining up with our governments to punish them – and, as Lieven raises – for purposes way beyond Ukraine and much to do with global power and wealth. 

Meanwhile, we are seeing a rapid and dangerous spread of this war already, via military, semi-military or economic means, such as sanctions. 

The government of Bangladesh abstained on a vote at the UN General Assembly condemning Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. The government of Nato member Lithuania has responded by stopping 400,000 doses of Covid vaccines going to Bangladesh. It, unlike Lithuania which is part of the richest region on the planet, is one of the poorest countries on earth.

Does anyone think this helps ordinary people in Ukraine or anywhere else?

All the iniquities in this world are being raised by this crisis over Ukraine. At the same time it is being used to obscure them. Did Covid disappear at the start of this month? Is there no malnutrition? Has the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent just narrowed? Are the environmental crises diminished as a threat?

On that last note, George Monbiot in the Guardian today sadly demonstrates what happens when the left and social movements get wrong matters such as the Ukraine war and the escalation that is already pulsing out from it. 

An activist-commentator with great political capital in the environmental movement ends up writing this:

“Why does Germany need Russian gas so badly? Partly because in 2011, after the Fukushima disaster, the federal government decided to shut down all its nuclear plants, owing to the risk of tsunamis in Bavaria. The nuclear shutdown is to Germany what Brexit is to the UK: a needless act of self-harm, driven by misinformation and the irrational allocation of blame.”

So out with a principled environmentalism that is opposed to dangerous and damaging nuclear power and in, via an opportunist embrace of “sanctions” comes a call to end “addiction to Russian gas” while the oft-cited system change and radical transition to zero carbon is put off. 

This is not quite as bad an example of the reaction emanating from this war as the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra banning the long-dead Russian composer Tchaikovsky from its programme. But it is on the ramp to that. 

This is why we need to struggle to stop this war and ensure the conditions for peace. That means solidarity with the mass of people in Russia who oppose this war, not sanctioning them. 

Solidarity with those in Ukraine opposing invasion but refusing to be uncritical of their own right-wing government. 

It means at home resisting attempts to make us pay for the economic and other costs of our leaders’ actions that are set to get worse and worse. 

And it means having some principle and sense – not turning things upside down for cheap and wrong reasons. 

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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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