Thursday, 24 February 2022

Against Putin

I was wrong. Given the size of the military forces Russia had in the field versus the larger Ukrainian army plus irregulars and reserves, I didn't think Vladimir Putin would prove stupid enough to launch an invasion of Ukraine. He has calculated the lack of enthusiasm for war in the West, divisions among the Western powers, and the armed forces of Ukraine themselves aren't much of a deterrent, and so here we are. As of 5am local time Thursday morning a barrage of missiles, air strikes, and cross border shelling were followed by armoured incursions and helicopter drops. Putin has brought large scale war to Europe for the first time since 1945.

Following the government's previous tepid response, in the Commons this afternoon Boris Johnson announced a further round of sanctions that will exclude big Russian firms from the City. No word on sunk assets yet, which are still too close to the Tory bone. On this specific issue it was difficult to disagree with Keir Starmer when he said "For too long our country has been a safe haven for money Putin and his fellow bandits stole from the Russian people", echoing but not acknowledging words made by his predecessor during a less serious crisis four years previously. Johnson also announced that a similar sanctions regime is also now in force against Belarus, who has allowed its soil to be used as a firing post against targets in Ukraine. Presumably it's Lukashenko's payback for Putin's valued support during the uprising 18 months ago.

The violence unfolding on our screens is an open and shut case of big power bullying. Not content with lopping bits off Ukraine eight years ago, Russia is back for another bite. Putin has simultaneously described the country as an invention of Lenin and a nest of Nazi vipers, while his useful idiots - knowing or otherwise - wax lyrically about the self-determination of the peoples of the east, namely the Donetsk and Luhansk "peoples" republics. Putin cries foul over NATO's expansion, citing a non-existent agreement not to take on former Warsaw Pact nations and soviet republics as members at the end of the Cold War. But all of this is complete flim-flam. It is a straightforward case of land grabbing to stabilise the region under the hegemony of Europe's largest military power. Something that should be straightforward if we borrow the thinking of a certain Ukrainian Marxist well known to the British left: in the conflict between an imperialist power and a country it's trying to take into vassalage, the left have a duty to oppose that imperial power. Whether Putin aims to occupy Ukraine in its entirety, sling out its government and replace it with friendly faces, or carve out more territory for his puppet republics is immaterial: none are justifiable, all should be opposed.

"But", says those for whom Russia will never cease being the USSR, "the West have pushed Putin into it. They've expanded NATO and supported the so-called Orange revolution that overthrew a democratically elected president and replaced him with another congenial to their interests." And? Wasn't the whole point about the schism on the European left over a hundred years ago that inter-imperialist tensions and conflicts weren't a matter for taking sides, except our own? The encroachment of NATO to Russia's frontiers were a matter for the left in member countries to oppose the alliance and its expansion, but that does not mean governments joined NATO because fears of Russian revanchism were fake. And it certainly doesn't mean there is an "anti-imperialist duty" to side with Putin and provide his machinations left cover. The alternative to NATO membership in the east is the acceptance of Russian hegemony, neither of which carries forward the socialist struggle.

No doubt some small sections of the left will be favouring "military support" for Russia, imagining they have their own equipment and personnel they can parachute into the breakaway republics to strike a hammer blow against "imperialism" - or at least sell a few papers to the front line troops. But meanwhile, in real world politics the labour movement in this country finds itself confronted with a set of practical tasks. Building solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russian labour and civil society movements, mobilising the largest numbers possible against war - with this Saturday's demonstration a start, and opposing our own war hawks while continually worrying the Tory party over its Moscow Gold - and what influence this cash bought those who splashed it out. We have to be modest about our ability to direct the course of events, but these are good places to begin.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

I can understand that you don't like the Russian government, like most Western leftists. Therefore I can understand why you soft-pedal the Westerh machinations which led to the current disaster. (Although this is actually something which a Westerner would be able to protest about meaningfully, whereas protesting about the war accomplishes nothing.)

However, building solidarity with Ukrainian and Russian workers is a) not useful, since it's not clear what their actual stance is, and b) runs the huge risk that you will end up building solidarity with Western-sponsored front organisations pretending to be trade unions, of which there are not a few.

I think your hostility to the Russian government is blinding you to the enormous problems which would be faced by anyone trying to take a "plague on both houses" stance, and incidentally is probably leading you into backing Lynne Truss and Boris Johnson, if only by accident.

Sorry about this.

Anonymous said...

German expansionism was often excused by the imposition of post-WW1 reparations, but this did not excuse them.

It is thus with Russian expansionism, and the playbook is direct from 1938, only with nukes and fuel dependency thrown into the mix.

Putin is a classic - almost too classic for the post-modern world - despot, and the West flaps around in shock. There is nothing new under the sun, and the price the West will pay when it finally wakes up to the fact will be high.

Blissex said...

I did not expect this either, but it is somewhat understandable: the "Atlantic" powers had already decided to punish the Russian Federation, so in for a pound, in for several dozen billion pounds, I guess.

The real importance of this story is not that it will bring to power the large pro-russian faction in Ukraine, but that it marks the end of Putin's delusions that the "Atlantic" powers will ever reach an accomodation with the Russian Federation: they will never stop their long term (centuries!) strategy of surrounding, isolating, breaking up and partially occupying any rival powers, most importantly Russia, but also currently China and eventually it will be the turn of India too (and in the distant future Indonesia and Brazil).

Besides after Putin's invasions of Serbia, Lybia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, Kuwait, Nagorno, Yemen, West New Guinea, etc. in the past 20 years, why be surprised? :-)

Jay said...

Here's Chomsky on "non-existent agreements". He doesn't have the same to say as you on this.

Additionally see a section from a longer talk by John Mearsheimer on your binary of NATO or Russian hegemony.

I think @8:35 is spot on that there's plenty of condemnation of Russia to go around, and that leftists don't need to deny the western imperial factors that have led to this point, in order to be considered "acceptably critical" of Russia.

Robert said...

I always believed that Putin might be a KGB bastard but he was a rational player. I don't see this latest stunt as rational. What can he hope to gain that's worth the cost? I fear Putin is out of touch with reality surrounded in his Kremlin with sycophants and KGB officers feeding him with false intelligence. It's very concerning considering the man with his finger on the nuclear code may have lost his marbles.

Anonymous said...

Blissex, nice of you to show your true colors as an apologist for fascism. For all your (endless) diatribes, scratch the surface and there's little more than a totalitarian fanboy.

Jim Denham said...

People who want to go into history (for purposes other than whataboutery) in the context of Ukraine, should consider that for the majority of their history the Ukrainian people were occupied, controlled and savagely repressed by Russia. For hundreds of years, under by Czarism and then Stalin there was a policy of Russification, discriminating against the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. In the 1930s Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death (the holodomor), an act of genocide to break the Ukrainian national movement. The decade after the Russian Revolution and the years between 1991 and the present (or maybe 2014) have been relatively brief interludes of national freedom. People who want "context" need to consider all this as well as obsessing about the (real and imagined) crimes of "the west" and Nato.

Anonymous said...

The left should not allow ourselves to be forced into accepting the simplistic binary options of either making excuses for Putin's war of aggression or unconditionally and uncritically supporting NATO. That one is bad doesn't mean the other is therefore good.

The irony is that, politically, this invasion is a gift to NATO.

Jim Denham said...

Being clear that Russia is the aggressor in this situation and that our first duty is to defend Ukraine's right to self determination need not necessitate being uncritical of Nato - but using Nato as an excuse to equivocate on clear defence of Ukraine (like the so-called Stop the War Coalition and the Morning Star) is simply a wretched cop-out. Nato is not threatening Ukraine at the moment - Russian imperialism is.

Blissex said...

«making excuses for Putin's war of aggression [...] The irony is that, politically, this invasion is a gift to NATO»

Just like Putin's other wars of aggression against Cyprus, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, but then what did change after those? He got away with all of them! :-)

In practice, there are two layers of politics:

* In "realpolitik" if he manages to do something like north Cyprus or Kosovo and get away with it, it will enhance a bit the Russian Federation's stature as a regional power, after 20 years of disastrous defeats.

* In western domestic propaganda politics, it does not matter, because until the Russian Federation is dismembered and its economy is taken over by USA transnationals the propaganda in anti-russian countries will continue, as it has continued for 1-2 centuries, regardless of whatever good or bad Russia did; and in russian domestic politics it will be hard to change the gratitude of most russians to Putin for stopping that process initiated by Yeltsin.

«That one is bad doesn't mean the other is therefore good»

"George Orwell" wrote already in 1945:

“The Daily Worker disapproves of dictatorship in Athens, the Catholic Herald disapproves of dictatorship in Belgrade. There is no one who is able to say - at least, no one who has the chance to say in a newspaper of big circulation - that this whole dirty game of spheres of influence, quislings, purges, deportation, one-party elections and hundred per cent plebiscites is morally the same whether it is done by ourselves, the Russians or the Nazis. Even in the case of such frank returns to barbarism as the use of hostages, disapproval is only felt when it happens to be the enemy and not ourselves who is doing it.”

Jim Denham said...

While we're on the subject of Orwell, how about:

"These things really happened, and that is the thing to keep one's eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened. The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads - they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late."


- Looking Back on the Spanish War (Autumn 1942).

Blissex said...

«That one is bad doesn't mean the other is therefore good»

«"George Orwell" wrote already in 1945: “The Daily Worker disapproves of dictatorship in Athens, the Catholic Herald disapproves of dictatorship in Belgrade. [...] disapproval is only felt when it happens to be the enemy and not ourselves who is doing it.”»

Just to be more explicit: how many of the people today supporting the right to independence and self-determination of Ukraine supported the right to independence and self-determination for the Donbas and Crimea? How many of them campaigned against the Ukraine for their military attack and attempted invasion of the Donbas? How many of them campaigned for the Ukraine to implement the treaty the Ukraine signed in Minsk to give a reasonable amount of independence and self-determination to the people of Donbas after failing to ethnically cleanse them?

The answer is blowing in the wind someone said :-).

David Parry said...

Jim Denham,

I don't think that the Holodomor was an act of genocide. I think the death of millions during the Holodomor was a product of callousness rather than outright malice on Stalin's part. Stalin was set on the pursuit of a policy of rapid industrialisation, which meant forcing peasants off their land in order to facilitate the building of industrial infrastructure and, in conjunction with confiscating their crops, strip the peasants of their self-sufficiency and compel them into becoming wage labourers for state-owned enterprises. The expropriation of land and confiscation of crops gravely aggravated the effects of a subsequent drought, leading to mass starvation. Many also perished due to the physical toll exacted upon them by forced re-settlement. Stalin was hellbent on industrialising the USSR at breakneck speed, even if it meant slaughtering millions in the process - not a genocide, in other words, but certainly an instance of barbarity on a gargantuan scale.

(As an interesting aside, even the right-wing historian Ann Applebaum rejects the idea that the Holodomor was a genocide, as does Alexandr Solzhenytsin, the rabidly right-wing author of The Gulag Archepelago. Make of that what you will.)

Blissex said...

«I don't think that the Holodomor was an act of genocide»

It is pointless to argue about that, because it is a standard claim (e.g. the tripling of their numbers in a few decades is proof of the "genocide" of the uyghurs). It is just like in the middle ages popes and anti-popes accused each other of satanism, child murders, spreading plagues etc.; today's standard claims are genocide, white supremacism, putinism, misogyny, antisemitism etc.; this has devalued those terms so much that several people I know have come to think that the stories of massacres of gypsies, jews, "deviants" during WW2 must be wildly exaggerated propaganda, just like so much else today. That is quite disturbing.

Anonymous said...

'Putin cries foul over NATO's expansion, citing a non-existent agreement not to take on former Warsaw Pact nations and soviet republics as members at the end of the Cold War.'

Gorbachev was given assurances that NATO would not expand eastwards though:

Anonymous said...

Was the Irish potato famine an act of genocide?

The intention may not have been there but the effect was, as it was in Ukraine.

I think the key thing is that the respective peoples felt they uniquely were suffering - and dying - and in turn, this created a narrative in which to define themselves. Ditto of course the Armenians.

It's not dissimilar to the trans issue - if the victims feel like it is genocide, then shouldn't it be considered as such, or not?

Jim Denham said...

With regard to the use of the word "genocide" in the context of the Holodomore, I'd be quite willing to accept David Perry's formulation of "barbarity on a gargantuan scale" (and I'd accept that description in any argument with those who don't think the Chinese regime's treatment of the Uyghurs fully meets the criteria for "genocide").

With regard to Blissex's claim that Donbas and Crimea have the same right to independence and self determination as Ukraine: the supposed “popular anti-fascist uprisings” in Donetsk and Lugansk (in the Donbas region) in 2014 are a political myth. The creation of the “People’s Republics” was part of Putin’s response to the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovich by the mass protests of early 2014.

The two “People’s Republics” could not have been created, and could not have survived, without Russian political, financial and military support, including Russian troops on the ground.

Putin’s aim was to weaken and destabilise Ukraine, in order to draw it back into Russia’s sphere of influence. As the Ukrainian socialist organisation “Social Movement” explains in a recent statement:

“Contrary to the myth popular among some Western leftists, the regimes in the ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ are not the result of popular will. The heads of the ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ are integrated into the ranks of the ruling elite of the Russian Federation and have become the mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s most aggressive predatory sentiments.”

Was the referendum held in the Crimea in March of 2014, which led to its absorption by Russia, an expression of the democratic rights of the peninsula’s Russian population?

No. Although some — but certainly not all — opinion polling indicated majority support for accession to Russia at the time, the referendum was neither free nor fair.

The referendum was held at just ten days notice, after Russian troops had occupied the peninsula, seized the Crimean Parliament building, dissolved the regional government and appointed a new one which obediently agreed to call a referendum.In the run-up to the referendum Ukrainian television channels were blocked and replaced by Russian channels, only pro-Russian-accession campaigning took place, the Ukrainian government was consistently portrayed as Nazis, and the referendum voting paper did not even contain an option for maintenance of the status quo.

The referendum provided no more than a pseudo-democratic veneer for a decision already taken in Moscow: annexation of Crimea, to ensure Russian control of the naval base in Sevastopol.