The Anti-War Left and Ukraine

March 23, 2014 in Connor Woodman, Politics & Economics

Supposedly based on universal principles of peace, diplomacy and anti-authoritarianism, the anti-war Left, most clearly in the form of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain, have ended up playing the role of apologists for Putin’s aggressive actions. They desperately need a rethink of their political strategy and how they apply their principles. 

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The anti-war Left appears to be doing itself a great disservice over events in Ukraine. I have yet to hear a more than half-hearted condemnation of Russia’s aggressive annexation of Crimea and reckless refusal to rule out military force against the rest of Ukraine (the threat of military force against another nation is itself a crime under international law, and a war with Ukraine would almost certainly be a humanitarian catastrophe). Putin is a vulgar authoritarian with a heinous foreign policy, giving strong support to the incredibly vicious Assad regime, continuing to occupy parts of Georgia initially invaded in the 2008 war (as well as housing a military contingent in the internationally-unrecognised break-away state of Transnistria, once a part of Moldova), and he waged a brutal war in Chechnya, now run by essentially a Russian proxy. Worryingly, NATO has just reported that “[t]he (Russian) force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready”.

Putin’s Argument

Despite the fact that, so far (and let us hope it stays this way), it has been a fairly bloodless affair, the use of military force in territorial disputes is illegal, and for good reasons. It’s immoral and dangerous. The arguments underlying Putin’s invasion are entirely invalid and unsound. The fact that there are populations which share an ethnicity with your state does not give you the right to use force to take over Vladimir Putin takes part in a news conferencethe regions they inhabit. Firstly, it sets a precedent in international relations which has led to war countless times over the centuries. In post-colonial Africa, it was collectively agreed at the 1963 Addis Ababa conference that established the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) that colonial borders would be respected, lest the continent descend into endless border wars – and this was despite colonial borders cutting straight through multiple ethnic groups. To take one example: Somalia, under the dictatorship of Said Barre, sought to reclaim 5 pieces of land that were inhabited by ethnic Somalis but resided in states outside of Somalia. One of these regions was the Ogaden in Ethiopia, and after Somalia attempted to annex the land a bloody war erupted between Ethiopia and Somalia. There is a major difference between self-determination and forced annexation.

Secondly, there may be minorities in the region which don’t want to be ruled by the invading power. In Crimea, the Tartar Muslim minority (>12%) is appalled at the annexation, collectively remembering Stalin’s horrendous 1944 deportations of the minority from Crimea. Ukrainians living in Crimea (24%) are similarly disturbed; both groups boycotted the referendum, making the supposed 83% turnout figure all the more absurd. Overall, then, the fact that there are ethnic groups of your country under the rule of another state is not a sufficient reason for military action, even if they are neglected or threatened somewhat (as the Somalis in the Ogaden were).

So much for validity. The main premise of Putin’s argument is that the Russian populations of Crimea need protecting from the new regime in Kiev, propelled to power by the protests which overthrew the corrupt Yanukovych. As outlined above, even if this were true it wouldn’t be sufficient reason to invade another sovereign nation (except perhaps in the most extreme of cases, such as during a genocide), but it’s patently false in this case. There is no plausible threat to the Russian population in Ukraine from the new government. The oft-cited law that sought to remove Russian from Ukraine’s national languages was swiftly dropped by the new regime, for instance.

The (non)response of the anti-war Left

This is where the anti-war Left comes in. Instead of swiftly condemning the Russian intervention, reasserting their principles of non-aggression in international affairs, a commitment to diplomacy, and a general opposition to authoritarianism, there was mainly silence. And where there wasn’t silence, there were some bizarre statements. Stop the War Coalition (STWC), the main anti-war group in Britain that has campaigned, rightly, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, released a statement of which the only line which seems to condemn Russia is one that says meekly that “[w]e oppose all foreign military intervention”. It then proceeds to, as a friend of mine memorably put it, “blame the U.S. when Russia invades a country”. The statement was based on a longer article by the convener of STWC, Lindsey German. She writes that “it is clear that many Russian speakers, [in Ukraine] and in the Crimea, do not oppose Russia. These countries have the right to independence, but the nature of that independence is clearly highly contested”. It is not “clear” what she means by this, and it is not exactly a strong contestation of Putin’s right to invade and annex another territory. A blogger at The Economist, of all publications, released a relatively strong rebuttal of German, writing slightly uncharitably that “she delights in listing Western flaws (real and imagined) while unquestioningly accepting anti-Western dogma. For one who leads an organisation committed to “stopping the war”, it is a fatal error”. As Nick Cohen put it, “when the Economist can look down on you from that exalted height anyone from the left should know that they are in trouble”. I’m no fan of Cohen’s views on international affairs, but for once he actually has a point. (For those who are interested, Stop the War released a not entirely convincing 10-point rejoinder to The Economist’s piece, available here.)

The anti-war movement has some things to say in favour of their refusal to comment upon or condemn the actions of other states. As Cohen points out, they are mainly based upon the arguments of famous dissident Noam Chomsky. Put simply, if we are serious about helping make things better in the world, we had better focus our efforts on challenging our own government, where we can hope to have the largest impact. Merely condemning the crimes of others is pointless moralising, and serves to feed into the narrative that the West is a superior, internationally law-abiding civilisation. This is an essentially utilitarian argument, based on predictable consequences. It does not, in fact, rule out the possibility of condemning crimes of other nations or showing support for activists and populations in areas outside of Western influence. If that could have conceivable positive consequences, it would be permitted to do it.

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“Hands off Ukraine, Putin”

However, the anti-war Left have taken this argument and turned it into a principle of the movement. Lindsey German declares that “[t]he job of any anti-war movement is to oppose its own government’s role in these wars, and to explain what that government and its allies are up to”. Owen Jones of The Independent argues that “[p]rotests normally happen to pressure one’s own government: either to stop an action or to compel them to act”. But that isn’t necessarily the “job” of anti-war movements at all. It is only the “job” insofar as there are clear priorities that you can have an impact on domestically. It looks more like a sophisticated defence of inconsistency, and given the authoritarian legacy in the Left, it looks highly suspicious. Furthermore, even at a purely tactical level, it is a poor strategy. Nikolas Kozloff, a decent leftist commentator, points out that in refusing to say anything about the crimes of “others”, the Left is “providing the right with a lot of fodder and political ammunition”. Looking inconsistent and refusing to condemn the crimes of other states harks back to the bad old days of Leftist apologism for Soviet totalitarianism. Crucially, the utilitarian argument may not even work. I think Nick Cohen is more-or-less right when he argues that codifying this principle “rules out the idea of solidarity” with the oppressed around the world. And “solidarity” is meant to be a principle at the heart of the Left. A friend of mine was in Prague the other day and photographed a banner with “Hands off Ukraine, Putin” hanging off a building in the city (see picture, right). Those who have been on the receiving end of Russia’s brutal army know only too well the importance of solidarity.

Delegitimising the Protests

Besides, even it were the case that the anti-war movement’s arguments for concentrating solely on the actions of one’s own government held, this is only part of the problem. Distorting the facts for a clear political agenda and allowing other inconsistencies to creep in is not an ethical or practical political strategy. Following the analysis of the STWC-types whenever there are protests in foreign countries is quite revealing. When the protests occur in Western-backed dictatorships (e.g. Egypt), they unanimously come out in favour of the freedom-loving protestors. When they occur in areas in the sphere of another Great Power (e.g. Eastern Europe),  and the protests are backed by the West, they seek to delegitimise the rebels. During the Arab Spring, the anti-war movement regularly lambasted the US and UK for their support of Saudi Arabia’s crushing of the protest movement in Bahrain, and was absolutely right to do so. However in Syria, a nation more closely allied with Russia and Iran than the US, they often seek to focus attention on the less savoury elements in the rebels’ ranks. The story was fairly similar in Libya. And in Ukraine, they have jumped upon the “fascist” narrative.

Read nearly any leftist writing on Ukraine and you would get the impression that the protesters who removed the authoritarian and corrupt Yanukovych were predominately fascist and far-right. German twice mentions “far right and fascist” forces in her article. The Stop the War website has posted articles about the far-right presence in the new government. Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York and Princeton universities, took to the media to denounce the protests as “out of control” and full of fascists. Note that when there is a protest in the West, the Left despises those who seek to tar the protesters by pointing out a few violent actors.

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Russian propaganda portraying the new government in Kiev as Nazis

And it’s not even true that the far-right forces are predominant. Svoboda, a highly dubious nationalist party, and Right Sector, a neo-Nazi skinhead militia, did play a role in taking down the government, and have been given posts in the new government, no doubts there. Channel 4 in particular has been following that closely. But to paint the whole movement, which was overwhelmingly liberal and multicultural, as a fascist one, is to play right into the hands of Putin. His propaganda machine has been working overtime to portray the protesters as far-right and the new government as fascist. A petition on Change.org, signed by literally dozens of academic specialists on Ukrainian nationalism and far-right groups, bemoans how “an increasing number of lay assessments of the Ukrainian protest movement, to one degree or another, misrepresents the role, salience and impact of Ukraine’s far right within the protest movement”. They note that “[t]he demonstrators include liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, nationalists and cosmopolitans, Christians, non-Christians and atheists”. Written prior to the annexation of Crimea, they saliently point out that “such reports help to provide a pretext for Moscow’s political involvement, or, perhaps, even for a Russian military intervention into Ukraine”. That is exactly what has happened. One of the experts on far-right radicalism, Anton Shekhovtsov, who spent time in Kiev observing the protests, wrote an extensive, and I think, persuasive blog revealing the network of Kremlin-linked propagandists trying to spin the “fascist” story in the Western press.

The new government, too, is a broad church. It is unfortunate that some of the old oligarchic establishment and some far-right elements have made their way into the government, but it is a diverse transitory government at heart. Housum Professor of History at Yale Timothy Snyder is worth quoting at length:

The prime minister is a liberal conservative, one of the two deputy prime ministers is Jewish, and the governor of the important eastern province of Dnipropetrovsk is the president of the Congress of Ukrainian Jewish Organizations. Although one can certainly debate the constitutional nuances, this process was not a coup. And it certainly was not fascist. Reducing the powers of the president, calling presidential elections, and restoring the principles of democracy are the opposite of what fascism would demand. Leaders of the Jewish community have declared their unambiguous support for the new government and their total opposition to the Russian invasion.

Hardly the second coming of the Third Reich. In fact, Right Sector, the most extreme of all the groups, have only one position in the new government, that of Deputy of the National Security Council. One of Svoboda’s main positions is head of the National Security Council, taken by Andriy Parubiy. A few days ago Parubiy came out and proposed a demilitarised zone in Crimea. “This formula is the best for de-escalation We hope that common sense will prevail”, he is quoted as having said. This is from the group that the Left has worried so much about taking power in Ukraine. The respected Associated Press reports:

observers say it has little real clout or support in the polls. The Associated Press and other international news organizations have found no evidence of hate crimes. Ukraine’s Jewish leaders have also spoken in support of the Maidan protests and the new government they have brought to power, and some Jews have served in the Maidan’s self-defense units side-by-side with the Right Sector.

In fact the restraint from the new government has been surprising, and to be applauded. No doubt partly a function of their relative weakness in the face of Russia, they have nonetheless done well to make sure none of their servicemen have fired back at the invading Russians. Only recently did they authorise them to shoot back in self-defence after one of their soldiers was shot in the head by Russians. Skimming through the Stop the War website I find no mention of this: one of the latest articles they posted bemoans the “stupidity and intransigence and sheer bloody-mindedness of the new Ukrainian government”, astonishingly asking “Will the loons and war hawks conducting US foreign policy provoke a war in Crimea?” Apparently Russia invading is not “provoking a war in Crimea”. That same article also declares that “[r]egardless of Russia’s role in helping to set up the referendum, the Crimea… has [a] right to determine its own future”. Holding a referendum under military occupation and running a propaganda campaign in the country making the Ukrainian government out to be Nazis is hardly a legitimate exercise. The Economist and Al Jazeera have both reported on how Putin has clamped down on independent media both at home and in Crimea in an attempt to brazenly control and distort the narrative.

Not “Stopping the War”

I have long defended Stop the War and other radical anti-war activists against those who claim that they are inconsistent and full of supporters of anti-Western authoritarian regimes. I have even been to several STWC marches and events. I was almost willing to chalk this russian crimeawhole episode down to misplaced intentions to refuse to feed into an anti-Russian narrative. But as I wrote this, Stop the War posted an article which claimed that “[i]t might be a close run thing, but in this instance Russia has more right on its side than the West – which is the same thing as saying, more simply, that Putin and Russia are right”. They have officially declared themselves in favour of Russia, shortly after Russia invades part of a country and threatens to launch war against the rest of it. So much for stopping the war. To be clear, I am categorically opposed to a multitude of aspects of Western foreign policy, and you have to be blind not to see that the United States and United Kingdom have historically played the role of major imperialist states, destabilising smaller nations and contributing to the deaths of millions. And most of those shouting loudest about Russian aggression today were in favour of US aggression in the past, most clearly during the Iraq War (which was, so far, greatly more destructive than Putin’s annexation of Crimea). But to take this fact and use it to justify the actions of another major imperialist state is illogical, inconsistent and immoral. I shouldn’t even have to point that out. But by buying into this narrative for dubious political reasons, the anti-war Left have actually helped to legitimate the very thing they are supposed to be against.

Connor Woodman is The Warwick Globalist‘s Perspectives editor, President of Warwick International Relations Society and writes a regular blog for the website. He can be reached at C.D.Woodman@warwick.ac.uk