There have by now been a plethora of analyses of the Russian invasion of Ukraine—some thoughtful and many simply rhetorical. There are two main lines of argument, at least on the left: one that primarily blames NATO expansion for provoking Russia, and the other pointing the finger directly at Vladimir Putin. It is as if ‘blame’ is in short supply and needs to be carefully rationed. It is also worth noting that few believe any more that there is anything but different forms of capitalism at play here—US and European corporate capitalism, Russian oligarchic capitalism and Chinese state-directed capitalism. All have witnessed galloping economic inequality (particularly since the COVID crisis) to the benefit of billionaires and their entourages.
The invasion should have been pretty straightforward at least on the surface. A large authoritarian nuclear power launches an all out assault on a vulnerable and militarily weak neighbour to recover its regional hegemony and eliminate any semblance of a political alternative that allowed a modicum of civil freedom and space for social movements to operate. This should be a no brainer for peace activists, or so you would think. But that assumption has turned out to be wrong.
Fill in the names Russia and Ukraine and all of a sudden everything gets a lot more complicated. Now its all about the allotment of various levels of blame and not just in this conflict. Throw in NATO (the US-dominated militarized security apparatus) and we are into geopolitical side-taking where it becomes almost beside the point that some people are getting to play soldier boy and other people getting to die. Say something critical about the invasion and up pops a channel changer who wants to talk about Saudi atrocities in Yemen or sanctions on Venezuela or NATO and the Serbs. You’d better uncritically pick a side or you will be run over by the stampede. That said, there is little doubt that Eurocentric racism is at play with Afghan and Syrian lives not meeting the whiteness test of those in Europe.
Cold warriors from both sides of the divide are fighting to establish the old certainties of good guys and bad guys. One problem with this is that it quickly becomes a game of geopolitics that is played by politicians over the heads of ordinary folk and their desire for peace. It is easy to feel that peace movements, with their rallies and petitions, are beside the point once the big boys start moving armoured divisions around and firing rockets at each other. The old saying that “truth is the first casualty in war” is never truer than when people start uncritically diving down the nearest geopolitical rabbit hole.
As a journalist who has worked in both the Soviet and post-Soviet spheres, my main concern is the civilian activists: human rights defenders, environmentalists, feminists, anti-corruption campaigners, social justice organizers and of course peace activists. In my limited attempts to do ‘journalism from below’ it is these folks from whom I took my analytical insights whether in Moscow or Kyiv, Tbilisi or Yerevan. These are the same people who are being rounded up for demonstrating against the Ukraine invasion throughout Russia (more than 2,000 at the time of writing) and will certainly be ‘mopped up’ in the likely event of Russian post-invasion ‘normalization’ in places like Kyiv or Lvov. These are after all the ‘usual suspects’ that any regime will want to eliminate to make the difficult task of occupying a hostile country slightly easier.
The danger is that the forces of peace become divided in the rush to pick sides. True, there are some who uncritically support Putin’s invasion, but they are few in number—and that’s a good thing. However there are many that jump quickly to explain to the credulous that Putin had no choice as he was pushed into a corner by NATO’s aggressive expansion. They are joined ironically by the far-right that gathers around Trump and Bolsonaro, desperate to make the right-wing populist case for tough masculinist boss-like domination everywhere. Despite Putin’s charge that neo-Nazis control the whole of Ukraine and its government, it is the far-right in much of the West that is likely to be his most dependable ally, wrapping itself in anti-interventionist and isolationist sentiment. As one Trumper Republican bluntly proclaimed at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida, “What American can even find Kyiv on the map?”
Then there are those who pick sides the other way, declaring their will to fight Putin down to the last dead Ukrainian. This part of the peace movement stands in danger of ignoring the role of NATO as a belligerent force that acts as a global gendarmerie to decide political outcomes. It should have been obvious from the outset that an independent Ukraine needed to be a neutral Ukraine. The NATO enlargement lobby clung to the notion that the country had the God-given right to join NATO, citing that most slippery of concepts—‘sovereignty’—to justify it all. At this point this rash manoeuvre must be sticking in the craw of the obviously very courageous Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Neutrality trumps mass killing any day of the week. But the fact is we are well beyond playing this blame game and we need to stop the killing and maintain a semblance of self-determination for Ukrainians by rolling back the invasion.
The divisions in the peace movement seem to rotate around the motivations of Vladimir Putin. Is the former KGB officer from East Germany preoccupied with recovering the superpower status lost when the USSR collapsed and the bi-polar world of the Cold War came to an end? A kind of nostalgia for Empire, Russia-style. Or was he pushed and prodded and humiliated by NATO to the point of exasperation and personal insult? For his deep love of the Russian people he just had to stand up and invade Ukraine. It’s very hard to know. Maybe both things may be true at the same time. The injustices built into the Treaty of Versailles are widely held to have stoked German nationalism, providing fodder for the rise of Hitler.
The contemporary peace movement has two basic roots: the left and various activists motivated by religious inspiration. Once the bodies start piling up and peoples’ lives become a question of deadly hide-and-seek the ranks against militarism start to swell. At this point it is the left that is proving the most disoriented and confused part of the movement. Any one paying attention sees that a significant portion of the left is obsessed with not becoming dupes of the American Empire and instead is buying into the most dubious disinformation about Ukraine.
For example, all of the sudden people who have never previously given a thought about Ukraine now know for certain that every second Ukrainian is a neo-Nazi and that the Maidan revolt was actually a fascist coup manipulated by sinister Western forces. It often seemed enough to just assert these things with no proof provided. In this scenario, the former pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych became a kind of Ukrainian Salvador Allende with no hint of the corrupt despotism that characterized his regime. Cartoon history seems a staple of conspiracy thought. For those really interested in the actual rather than the mythical Ukraine you could do a lot worse than reading Anna Reid’s fine history, Borderland.
This war was undoubtedly preventable with a modicum of give and take; but alas, everybody wanted to take and nobody wanted to give. Dealing with the Putin regime is mostly guess work and things have become very unpredictable and messy. Back in the days of the USSR there was a good deal of left attention that went into analyzing what kind of beast the Soviet Union was. Tomes were written describing it as state capitalist, a deformed worker’s state, bureaucratic collectivism, actually existing socialism or some other variant (frozen or not) on the Marxist trajectory to ‘inevitable’ communism.
There was a much greater sense of the formal predictability of things in Soviet life. Post-Stalin, at least, party factions could be identified and Soviet watchers could speculate on the direction of a collective leadership. From these structures emerged the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and his faction in their vain attempt to democratize or at least reform Soviet socialism. Now Russia has shifted from a collective leadership to an individual dictatorship. Some of this is a consequence of ‘shock therapy’ delivered by Western policy advisors and backed by multilateral institutions in the 1990s to create a market society in Russia. What they got was Putin and oligarchic capitalism rather than an Ayn Rand wet dream.
Today there is comparatively little analysis of the kind of society Russia has become. Two of the more creative exceptions are Peter Pomeranzev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia and Mark Galeotti’s We Need To Talk About Putin. One useful hint uncovered by Galeotti came from talking to a Russian tax official monque about Putin’s personal wealth, estimated by some to be in excess of $200 billion—which would make him the world’s richest person by a long shot. According to Galeotti, the former tax policeman:
Looked pained at the usual question from a dumb foreigner, but then he burst out laughing “Listen you don’t understand it’s not the 1990s. Putin doesn’t go looking for money—money goes looking for him. He probably doesn’t even know how much and where it is—why should he? He’s just…” he paused searching for the proper metaphor “Swimming in it” he concluded with a smile.
Not the kind of fellow likely to take what he regards as disdainful humiliation lying down—more likely to keep his finger on the nuclear trigger.
This is of course the big elephant in the room. The Russian invasion and its many fallouts will undoubtedly make an already intractable problem much worse. Military carbon emissions are not even counted as part of the total in evaluating how close countries have come to their carbon reduction targets. Now every country in the world, with few exceptions, will be increasing their military and security budgets.
Hardly anyone noticed when during the invasion the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a 3,600 page report showing we weren’t going to meet any of our climate targets and that our failure to adapt to the mounting number of climate disasters is going to make several large parts of the world unlivable over the next couple of decades.
Who knows how much the high-tech invasion of Ukraine, with its explosions and intense use of carbon-based fuels, will aggravate this collapse. During the US’s losing effort in Afghanistan the amount of fuel used by the American military amounted to 16 gallons per soldier per day. Geopolitics and militarism are handmaidens of climate collapse. What we desperately need is an unheard level of international cooperation and an end to geopolitics as usual. In the end, it doesn’t matter which geopolitical rabbit hole we choose, we won’t be able to escape drowning in the tsunami of climate collapse.
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.