John Rees looks at what’s at stake in the Ukraine
The danger of all-out war in the Ukraine is now real and present. There should be an immediate ceasefire and Russian troops should return to their own country. That is the beginning of sanity, but it is not the whole story by a long way.
If we want to understand what’s happening, we need to get away from the simplistic Hitler-Munich metaphors that are the stock in trade of mainstream politicians and media pundits. In fact, if we want an historical parallel then it would be better to look at the effects of the Versailles Treaty that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War.
Then a punitive economic settlement and the annexation of German territory fuelled German national resentment and led directly to the rise of ultra-nationalist politics, including the Nazis.
The economic and military isolation of Russia after its defeat in the Cold War is having an analogous effect. It’s fuelling Russian resentment, encouraging Great Russian chauvinism, and cementing Russia’s alliance with China.
Pouring fuel on this fire will not help, and the very last people who should be listened to are the warmongers of the last 25 years.
Those of us who stood against war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have a right to criticise Putin. Anyone who supported the invasion and bombing of those sovereign nations by Nato and the West is a hypocrite if they criticise Putin for taking precisely the same actions.
Putin has lashed out because a generation-long Nato expansion up to Russian borders has given many Russians, not just Putin, the feeling that they are under threat from the best armed, economically dominant, alliance on the planet.
Russia has been deliberately isolated. In 2014 it was expelled from the G8 over the annexation of the Crimea. ‘Fair enough’ some might say. Except no one has been expelled from the G8 for the illegal occupation of Iraq or the bombing of Libya.
What we are seeing now is much more dangerous than the wars in the Middle East. Those were conflicts between major industrialised economies with the most modern weaponry, on the one hand, and much weaker former colonies on the other.
The Ukraine conflict is shaping up to be a clash between major industrialised economies armed with the most modern conventional arms and with nuclear weapons, even though Russian economy is, with a GDP the size of Spain’s, never going to be an equal of the Nato alliance. Ukraine’s request that Nato member Turkey block Russian access to the Bosphorus shows how rapidly this could spiral out of control.
So what should happen next? The West should give an undertaking that Nato will expand no further. There will be enormous pressure to allow Ukraine, and currently neutral Finland and Sweden, to join Nato. This will not help. It will fuel Russian fears and stoke great Russian chauvinism, thus strengthening Putin’s base.
Nor will sanctions help because there is no way they will not hurt ordinary Russians, once again sustaining Putin’s chauvinist politics. Sanctions are not an alternative to war, they are war by other means. The entire experience of sanctions on Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1990-91 show that they are a prelude to, and preparation for, military conflict. They never work, and when they don’t military action is then proposed as ‘the only solution’.
Moreover, economic sanctions are going to rebound on the West, immediately raising prices even further. Workers in this country will pay the price while the super-rich avoid the pain.
So are we saying that nothing should be done about Putin? No, of course not. Putin is an authoritarian nationalist and, if there were any doubt, his recent tirade against Lenin’s policy of national independence for the Ukraine, shows that he has a lot more in common with the Tsars than with the Bolsheviks.
But the task of dealing with Putin is one that can only be performed by Russian workers and the Russian anti-war movement. They are the only people who can be trusted with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Russians. Our rulers care only for their own imperial advantage and they will happily sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Ukrainians, Russians, and working people in this country in pursuit of that aim.
So we stand in full solidarity with those fighting Putin in Russia. But the best chance we can give them is to confront our own government. Some on the left make the terrible mistake of condemning other imperialisms more loudly than they condemn that of the state where they are actually a citizen. This always brings forcefully to mind Marx’s comment about capitalists and wage rises.
Marx made the point that capitalists are always in favour of wage rises...in other capitalists' factories. They increase demand for their goods and increase the production costs of their competitors. Of course in their own factories they are ruthlessly opposed to wage rises.
It’s the same with imperialism. The imperialists are always against imperialism in other countries, just not at home. Those fragments of the left who focus on other states' imperialism and downplay their own are like workers who say ‘don’t bother giving us a wage rise, just say you’d like other factories to get one’.
The trouble is, if everyone followed their example no one anywhere would be asking for a wage rise from their own boss. Similarly, how ridiculous would it be if the left in Russia opposed Western imperialism, but not Russian imperialism, while the left in China opposed US imperialism, but never the imperialism of its own state, and then the left in Britain wanted to condemn Russian imperialism but never mention the long, bloody, and continuing imperialism of the British state.
Of course the left who want us to condemn Russian imperialism and ignore British and US imperialism don’t actually want the left anywhere to condemn Western imperialism. They just want everyone, everywhere to get behind Biden and Johnson. In short they are a left echo of their own imperialism.
We have a different approach. We support the anti-war movement in Russia and they have our full solidarity in their efforts to prevent Putin plunging them into war. But we are first and foremost citizens of the most powerful imperial alliance the world has ever seen. That alliance, simply because of its power, has the main responsibility for the condition of international relations. Its relentless campaign since 1990s to demonise and isolate Russia is at the root of this crisis.
We demand that our government represent the interests of working people and stop playing imperial games with our future. We demand a renewed peace initiative, a ceasefire, a return of Russian troops to Russia, that there will be no sanctions, and a clear statement that Nato will not incorporate Ukraine, and will declare a halt to any further expansion.
The alternative, which will be the direct responsibility of our government if it comes to pass, will be more death and destruction, a spiral of chauvinism on both sides of the new Cold War, attacks on the left and freedom of speech, worsening standards of living and attacks on strikers and trade unions, and an infinitely more dangerous international situation.
That is a prospect which the entire labour movement must move might and main to prevent.
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John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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