There is no force more destructive in human society than war. With every day and every mile it advances, it tears apart the fabric of life around it. Schools close, transport stops, the streets empty, and that is the deep breath before the plunge. When the wave itself arrives, it brings with it fear like few of us who do not live in war zones can truly understand: the sounds of bombs, the images of destruction in places just minutes from your home, then the sight of blood and injury and death. In the end, that is what war is: organised killing.
That is the reality facing millions of people across Ukraine today. It is brutal and tragic and heartbreaking in equal measure. There should be no equivocation on the Left in condemning Vladimir Putin’s invasion and the murder it brings in its wake. Context matters when it comes to conflict, but there can be no justification for sending tanks and planes into a sovereign country. It is a historic crime. We must do what we can to support the Ukrainian refugees who are its victims, and to show our solidarity with the brave protesters in cities across Russia who insist that it is not carried out in their name.
Yesterday, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, elected with an overwhelming mandate by the Ukrainian people in 2019, called on the Putin government to end the violence and negotiate. Everyone who thinks of themselves as a democrat should back that call.
It is precisely because war is so devastating that we need an anti-war movement. This is especially the case in a world in which unipolarity, and the unquestioned dominance of the United States, is quickly unraveling. The geopolitics of the 2020s, ’30s, and ’40s will not look like those of the 1990s or 2000s. They will look a lot more like the twentieth century, with major powers competing for influence across the globe. If we want to avoid the worst episodes of the last hundred years from repeating themselves, we need to learn their lessons once again — and swiftly.
A Record of Complicity
One lesson is this: we must be able to criticise our own governments. The path to war is paved with the nationalist mythologies of great powers and the impunity of their leaders. In Russia’s case, this has been on clear display in recent days, with Putin’s hour-long lectures laying out a distorted version of history. But it isn’t only in Russia where great powers have mythologies and leaders go to war with impunity.
In Britain, our leaders have invaded sovereign states without provocation. They did in Iraq in 2003, taking part in the killing of hundreds of thousands. The people who lied to take us into that war faced no consequences. Their careers continued, as did their luxurious lives, as an entire region of the world was plunged into the depths of hell for decades. We are still living with its consequences today, including here in Britain, whether it be the refugee crisis or the restriction of civil liberties brought about by the War on Terror.
But they did not only do it in Iraq. We hear very little today about Britain’s role in the NATO-led war in Libya in 2011, which demolished that state, left its people in the hands of warlords, and pushed thousands to flee and drown in the Mediterranean. Nor do we hear about Britain’s complicity in the ongoing war in Yemen, conducted by our ally Saudi Arabia with our weapons, £17.6 billion of which have been provided by BAE systems to the Saudis since 2015. The United Nations estimates that 377,000 Yemenis have died in that conflict.
These lives are not any more or less important than the lives of Ukrainians. We should fight to end all of these wars, and all of the wars yet to come.
One thing is for certain: we will not end war by simply saying our side represents virtue and the other side represents evil. But that is the mythology we swallow from our leaders and media in the West every day. Ever since the Cold War, the West has framed itself as a defender of democracy and freedom of expression across the globe. Liberal opinion in our home countries has repeated this ad nauseam. But it was hardly ever true.
Even in Russia, when the Cold War ended and the West reigned supreme and unchallenged across the face of the earth, the West could not and would not stand up for democracy. It intervened brazenly in the 1996 Russian election to help the fraudsters who won it for Boris Yeltsin, a result that in many ways paved the way for the Russia we see today.
How many people in the West know about their governments’ role in that election? How many know that the mass privatisation that followed under Yeltsin resulted in millions of excess deaths in the former Soviet Union? This academic study is not from some fringe journals; it was a 2009 finding published in the Lancet. Life expectancy among Russian men fell from sixty-seven in 1985 to sixty in 2007. That is a social catastrophe, and we helped to cause it.
Is it any surprise, then, that when the dream of capitalist democracy we sold the Russian people turned out to be a fraud, they turned to a nationalist demagogue like Putin? It is not, but they didn’t do it alone. Britain’s intelligence services helped to facilitate Putin’s rise and Tony Blair even flew to St Petersburg to attend the opera at his side in order to bolster his credibility. Even more damning, our leaders supported Putin in his brutal slaughter in Chechnya, ignoring the war crimes he committed in order to further the interests of British Petroleum.
Around the same time, British politicians were facilitating the flow of Russian oligarch money on a massive scale into London. Soon, the Tory Party alone was receiving over £2.3 million in political donations from the very people who had benefitted from Russia’s mass privatisation in the first place. How can these people claim any authority as critics of Vladimir Putin?
Against War Everywhere
This is the same political class that bloviates in Parliament now, making grandiose statements and rattling sabres. None of it should provide any solace to the people of Ukraine. For our leaders in the West, they were just as much a pawn on a geopolitical chessboard as they are for Putin. But unless that reality — the fact that our governments do not represent justice, democracy, or peace on a global scale — dawns on people living here, they will never be held to account for their actions.
In 2008, NATO invited Georgia and Ukraine to join its alliance. The logic for Georgians and Ukrainians, with an overwhelming and increasingly hostile military superpower next door, was obvious enough. But what kind of a game were Western leaders playing? Did they ever intend, as NATO membership requires, to go to war with Russia if it invaded these countries? The answer to that question was clear almost immediately when Russia invaded Georgia. It is even clearer today.
But onward our leaders pushed, encouraging the Ukrainian government to continue down a path of military integration with the West. (It is often forgotten that this is what NATO membership means, and why it is opposed.) They sold the Ukrainian people a lie that their democracy and freedom would be safeguarded with US and British and French military might. It was never going to be — and nor should it. Would the world be a safer place today if nuclear powers faced each other head-on in Eastern Europe? What would the prognosis be for freedom and democracy anywhere on earth under those circumstances?
And so, what was all this for? Why were the Ukrainians walked up a garden path only to be effectively left to their fate? Did anyone really believe that Russia would permit American missiles to be placed on its border? They didn’t, for the same reason we all know that the United States would never permit China to place its missiles in Guadalajara. In fact, we don’t need the hypothetical: when the Soviet Union tried it in Cuba, we got the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war.
It is correct to damn Vladimir Putin for his role in the bloodshed in Ukraine today. It is an unjustifiable slaughter and a violation of international law. It is also important to account for our own governments’ role in the crisis — the point at which we had real leverage and could have changed the course of history. The fact is, Britain could have spent recent decades building a multilateral international order of cooperation, dialogue, and peace. Instead, it spent its time fighting and funding wars and pursuing the interests of its corporate elite.
The only people who will tell you that story, amid the constant self-aggrandisement of the political and media class, are the anti-war movement. That is why their voices matter. They may not always get the analysis correct, but their perspective is invaluable. And it is exactly at moments like this that the establishment tries to shut them up, because their own approach to the world stands so exposed.
The hawks scoff at the idea of multilateralism or a world of genuine dialogue. They see it as naive. They say it could never contain a leader like Putin. But what has their bellicose rhetoric achieved? How naive does their approach to Ukraine now look? Why is it that these figures, who actually influence foreign policy in this country, are never held to account for their failures?
Part of the answer is that they find scapegoats. They line up eleven left-wing Labour MPs who signed an anti-war statement and offer them up as examples of national traitors or Putin puppets. They threaten to purge them. They turn their bellicose rhetoric on the enemy within, people who they know had absolutely no influence over the decisions that led to this war in the first place.
And the cycle goes on. Meanwhile, the same government that claims to support Ukrainians denies their refugees visas and pushes through a raft of anti-refugee legislation. The arms sales to authoritarian regimes around the world that wage wars of aggression will continue. The mythology about the West’s defence of freedom and democracy will endure, even as it offers illusions to peoples it never cared about or intended to protect.
The only alternative is a principled anti-war movement that can build solidarity against warmongering leaders across borders – and we need one more than ever.