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Hypocrisy and war

The Ukraine war is a graphic case study of the pitfalls of playing the geopolitical game

EuropeWar Zones

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the Prosecutor General’s Office Board, 2019. Photo courtesy the Kremlin/Flickr.

“The first casualty of war,” as the famous dictum coined by American Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917 has it, “is truth.” What fuels militarism is the belief that your side is completely in the right while the enemy is entirely in the wrong. Simple-minded posturing rules the day. While disheartening, it is hardly surprising that Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has given rise to hypocritical posturing on almost all sides. First, for the Russian regime itself, the notion that a full-scale attack on another country is purely a “defensive” effort to beat off NATO aggression is dubious and limited. At the time of the collapse of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev warned (a warning ignored by both Bill Clinton and George Bush) that constant pressure on Russia (mostly through NATO’s eastward expansion and pressure to privatize the Russian economy) would lead to an unsavory nationalist revival. While this proved true, it is the rise of Putin himself that has been the main consequence of this dangerous Western game. Still it takes a big dose of hypocrisy for the Kremlin to maintain that the world’s largest country and a major nuclear power is under such dire threat that it needed to launch a war of aggression against a neighbour.

Many in the Russian dissident community, including renowned socialist dissident Boris Kagarlitsky and the leftist community around him, believe that Putin’s motivation for the war has as much to do with domestic issues as it did with geopolitics. In their view, flagging electoral support and a failed “great Russia” nationalist vision were significant factors in an enfeebled Putin’s decision to drive Russian troops across the Ukrainian border. But it would be foolish not to recognize that the attack on the status of the Russian language in Ukraine as well as continuous NATO military posturing provided a pretext for Russian aggression. Still, it seems obvious that the war is being used as a springboard for Putin to remake Russian society in keeping with his own imperious aims: more patriotism; limited room for free speech (consider the shuttering of quality media outlets like Novaya Gazeta and the Moscow Times); a further campaign to buttress traditional values built on homophobia, misogyny and masculinist militarism. A lot of this is aimed at the peace movement that emerged in Russia following the invasion and was brutally suppressed. An estimated 13,500 activists are in prison with many facing sentences of up to eight years, and over a million Russians have left the country to escape the draft and the asphyxiating authoritarianism that has overtaken the country. This repression is simply an extension and ramping up of the more selective repression that has always been part of Putin’s political playbook. Peace activism can earn you four to 10 years in a Russian prison.

Still, it is too easy to paint Ukraine as part of the “free world” in contrast with enslaved Russia. Since the conflict over Donbas started in 2014, the cost of dissent and opposition in Ukraine has been on the rise. As the Zelensky government has centralized power there have been restrictions on the press and many of the parties critical of him. A dozen altogether, especially a number of small ones on the left, have been dissolved. There has been a hunt for pro-Russian traitors, which, while understandable in the midst of a war, has cast a net far wider than what is necessary to deal with actual fifth columnists. It has often targeted those who are in no way connected to Russia and mostly support the Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s invasion, at times running afoul of international journalist rights organizations and Amnesty International. There is confusion between Russian-language and culture rights and the ins and outs of Ukrainian national resistance to the Russian military. This is perhaps understandable given Putin’s Sudetenland-like justification designed to eliminate Ukraine full stop. But any durable peace would need to involve a delicate balance between the two communities.

The military mind, particularly when it is at war, leans strongly towards a simple-minded authoritarianism. This is obviously true of Putin’s Russia—from which over a million people have fled—so it is not surprising that it should affect Ukraine as well.

The geopolitical game

The political discussion of the war has become dangerously polarized between those of pro Russian/anti-US views (designated “campists” by their detractors on the left) and those who support Ukraine’s resistance unconditionally. There are those on the left who have tried to steer clear of this polarization, but not always successfully. What tends to get lost in the clash is that the real face-off today is one between different forms of capitalism: the American imperial variant, an oligarchic kleptocracy in Russia, and a state-centered form of autocratic Chinese capitalism. Pick a side and ignore the creeping and not-so-creeping authoritarianism that is destroying any vibrant politics from below on which the rule of the working class (which is what a viable socialism demands) must be based, wherever that might be. Geopolitics replaces the vibrancy of working class struggle with the sterile chess board of self-serving political classes each trying to stake a claim to being the world’s saviour.

The Ukraine war is a graphic case study of the pitfalls of playing the geopolitical game. On one side Zelensky backers ignore the squeeze on their own limited democracy that almost inevitably accompanies any war-time polarization. In this case it is sadly undercutting the post-Maidan hopes for a freer and more just Ukraine. In an interview with Workers’ Liberty, the late Ukrainian leftist political commentator Marko Bojcun commented:

There’s a range of political parties, which by and large, are instruments of powerful financial and oligarchic groups. There is no mass social democratic or labour movement party. However, contrary to the fantasies of the pro-Russian left in the West, the far-right is a fairly marginal force. It has attracted no more than 2.3% of the popular vote in any national election. Compare that to Germany, to Austria, to France.

The polarization and overwhelming sense of outrage over the invasion by most Ukrainians and their focus on resistance almost by definition leaves unexplored areas of potential compromise: the re-establishment of Russian language and cultural rights in the country; the legitimate right to self-determination in Donbas and Crimea despite the Russian-sponsored fake referenda that supposedly validated the Russian occupation. From Catalonia to Scotland to Québec to Xinjiang the issue of the democratic affirmation of minority rights requires a better solution than the heavy-handed assertion of coercive sovereignty. The unqualified Ukrainian right to join NATO is another area where ground could be given in order to save lives. Surely neutrality is preferable to death. On the Russian side, Putin has staked his political (and probably personal) future on the claim that Ukraine does not really exist as a real state but only as part of Russia, regardless of what Ukrainian people actually want. Thus, he exaggerates the strength of fascism in Ukraine in order to spin his “special military operation” as World War Two redux, all the while ignoring his own constant courting of right-wing populism in both Europe and the US. In seeking to undermine NATO, he threatens whatever shrinking democratic space remains under neoliberal capitalism. His ultimate grand design, possibly inspired by Putin’s Rasputin—the philosopher Alexandr Dugin with his Slavophile white supremacist views—remains murky at best.

Peace movement contradictions

The Western peace movement remains largely divided into two camps: an anti-NATO faction and an anti-Putin faction. The latter, horrified by the Russian invasion, has compromised its credentials as an advocate of peace with its often uncritical support for a massive rearmament of the Western alliance to support the Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. It has abdicated the duty to push for immediate negotiations to stop the slaughter. To do this, it would need to explore the areas of cultural rights and regional self-determination referenced above. It also stays silent on the consequences of massive global militarization in a period of cascading crises: pandemics, natural disasters precipitated and exacerbated by climate collapse, refugees, food and potable water scarcity, and deepening inequality. Bigger military budgets for states in conflict will only aggravate these desperate crises.

The anti-NATO faction of the peace movement is, if anything, even more illogical. It calls for immediate and unqualified Western disengagement from Ukraine which would mean allowing the country to be overrun by the Russian military. It portrays Ukraine in the most negative terms as a playground of corrupt fascists run by politicians who are mere puppets of NATO or EU neoliberals fighting the West’s proxy war. Its reading of Ukrainian history is partial and also largely dismal, emphasizing reactionary nationalism and downplaying the suffering associated with constant invasion and the Stalinist-imposed famine of the early 1930s. It is as if the Ukrainians were the aggressors and Russian civilians were doing the dying. This faction often claims to be even-handed and critical of all sides, but it seems to have little to say about the autocratic nature of the current Russian regime with its proclivities for “traditional” values (read homophobia and white male dominance). Convinced of the popularity of Putin’s war, it sometimes goes so far as to glorify Russian military superiority and gloat over the hopelessness of Ukrainian resistance in the face of this much stronger power wielding nuclear weapons.

Neither the anti-NATO nor the anti-Putin faction is long on nuance or empathy. It’s as if each is fighting its own version of a proxy war, both invoking the claim of anti-imperialism. If these groups cannot reach agreement on a thoughtful and even-handed proposal for peace, the chances of the actual combatants doing so are slim indeed.

Richard Swift is a freelance journalist and activist based in Montreal. He is a founding member of Between the Lines and worked for many years as an editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine. He is the author of a number of books including SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism.


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