Ukraine and Progressive Foreign Policy

by Paul Thompson & Frederick Harry Pitts

Unless signs of diplomacy or de-escalation prove to be anything more than disinformation or wishful thinking, Western intelligence reports forecast that Russia will imminently continue a new and dangerous phase of its existing war against Ukraine.

In spite of the facts on the ground, some on the left, epitomised by the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and its spokespeople, such as Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, persist in a fantastical invocation of a world in which Russia is not the aggressor and the crisis is somehow the fault of NATO, ‘the West’ and even the UK in particular.

The vituperative reaction to Abbott and Corbyn’s recent comments has now drawn an attempted clarification from StWC. Rhetorically, it recognises Ukraine’s right to self-determination as equivalent to, and equally as legitimate as, the paranoid ‘security concerns’ that mask authoritarian Russia’s imperial ambitions. Practically, however, the statement suggests that Ukraine’s sovereign capacity to determine its own future must be limited by respecting Russia’s demands for a moratorium on Ukrainian membership of NATO.

In a 2020 pamphlet for Labour Campaign for International Development and Open Labour, we criticised the deep-seated theoretical worldview that leaves the StWC, and the wider hard-left it represents, fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with the specificities of situations like that unfolding in Ukraine.

The criticisms must have struck a nerve because the StWC issued a pamphlet of their own in response, with a foreword by none other than Corbyn himself. The riposte rested on the idea that we were part of a new wave of ‘warmonger internationalists’ in the Labour Party symbolised by Keir Starmer and his then Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy.

In the LCID/Open Labour pamphlet, we associated StWC with a ‘campist’ mentality that, when faced with the choice between Western liberal democracies and their authoritarian enemies, throws in its ideological lot with the latter.

We also noted a parochial mindset that sees the capacity to act in support of human protection and harm prevention constrained by national borders on the misguided basis that, as StWC’s supporters put it, ‘the main enemy is at home’.

These features are underpinned by a mechanical, deterministic understanding of conflict focused on national blocs calculating and scheming on the basis of material and economic interests. This elides the role of politics in shaping the good and bad intentions of the actors involved, and wipes away the agency and centrality of humans on the ground.

Owing to these flaws, the StWC’s reaction to the present situation in Ukraine bears witness to the absence of any serious engagement with the strategic intent of the main actors or the wider context. Given this glaring lack of analysis, it is worth reminding ourselves of the real situation at hand.

Invasion or intimidation?

Over a long and unchallenged period, Russia has assembled at the Ukrainian border a vast array of troops and hardware transported by road and rail from as far away as its eastern edge, aswell as naval forces stationed at sea.

The erection of field hospitals and transportation of engineers and military police suggest that this is not just for show. By means of an apparent military exercise with its puppet regime in Belarus, and taking into account already-occupied territory in the Donbas and Crimea, Russia has now established a heavily militarised bridgehead into Ukraine.

The intelligence reports – which themselves play a role in pre-empting and disrupting Russian action – suggest that any incursion would probably be sparked by a fabricated pretext or staged provocation in the parts of Ukraine already forcibly occupied following the 2014 landgrab.

A massive Russian air and missile assault, the reports predict, would target military and civilian infrastructure, followed by a ground invasion unprecedented in post-war Europe. The morale and capacity of the Ukraine people to subsist and resist would be degraded by bombing, shelling, cyberattacks and disinformation.

The Ukrainian military, battle-hardened and equipped with technology and training from the UK and its allies, would fight the aggressors adeptly. But, should Putin’s campaign of psychological and physical terror succeed, it could culminate in regime change and the enforced installation of a pro-Moscow, anti-democratic autocrat in power who will tramp down the flourishing rights and freedoms won by Ukrainian reformers, trade unions and social movements in recent years.

Based on the criminally transgressive way Russia has bombed and shelled Syrian civilians and hospitals in support of Assad, any invasion would be widely expected to result in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of potentially millions of refugees fleeing Ukrainian cities and towns.

At the time of writing, it is still unclear whether Putin’s plan is to invade or merely to intimidate. Even if the best case transpires and the intelligence reports prove overly pessimistic, however, the underlying politics and strategic intent at play remain much the same.

Whether achieved through invasion or the extraction of concessions through sheer intimidation alone, the transparent aim is, as the Federation of the Trade Unions of Ukraine puts it, to ‘prevent realisation of Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations’ by destroying the ability of the Ukrainian people to democratically self-determine their future. As Gregory Schwartz has written of the struggles of Ukrainians to move the country in a more European and democratic direction,

rules-based political democracy, transparent institutions and the supremacy of the law….however imperfect, leave workers room to realise many of the rights they actually have and to use freedoms they possess to seek beneficial outcomes. In short, Ukraine today is on the frontline of the struggle for workers’ liberation. A struggle for the workers’ ability to have rules that are respected, to mobilise freely and seek the democratisation of both their workplaces and their polities and a struggle to have those liberties many in the West take for granted or have stopped valuing.

In seeking to obstruct the success of these struggles, Russia’s actions represent imperialist aggression and belligerence of the most brutal and unreconstructed kind, combining conventional military might with postmodern hybrid warfare in pursuit of a revanchist myth of national and ethnic unity.

The wrong side of history

Exemplified in recent statements by the likes of Abbott and Corbyn, StWC’s response to this unfolding situation has been to present the West as the real aggressors in eastern Europe based on the protective presence of NATO forces in the allied democracies that border Russia and its Belarusian proxy.

StWC recommends the West accommodate Russian demands with ‘serious diplomatic proposals’ that would effectively deprioritise protection of the rights and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian people. These would result in the country’s ‘Finlandisation’ or, even worse, its forced entry into an enlarged Russian ‘sphere of influence’ currently populated by despotic vassal states like Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Such positions represent little more than a superficially left-wing sheen on the same fabricated grievance of ‘encirclement’ Putin’s regime uses to distort the democratic ambitions of the neighbouring countries it sees as its rightful property.

It strikes many as deeply incongruous that StWC, an organisation auspiciously concerned with opposing imperialist wars of aggression and generously supported and funded by the labour movement, should seek to explain away Russia’s actions as unproblematic and diminish the struggles of Ukrainian workers and citizens for democracy and self-determination.

In this way, the potential imminence of a conflict with such catastrophic consequences for the Ukrainian people and the European continent has definitively exposed the practical and ethical inadequacies of the StWC position.

Indeed, in recent weeks, many on the left – including those persuaded on the basis of past conflicts that StWC somehow stood for world peace – seem to have woken up to the realisation that, were Jeremy Corbyn still leading the party, some variation on this craven, complicit position would be Labour’s current policy on the crisis.

An internationalist alternative

The current set of foreign policy positions being espoused by the StWC are far from an aberration, having been exposed in longstanding critiques levelled by left internationalists long before Corbyn’s leadership thrust them into the limelight.

These critiques gained ground among a much wider section of the left once the organisation’s apparent record of finding itself ‘on the right side of history’ started to unravel – namely, in its opposition to Western support for the Kurds and Yazidis struggling against ISIS and the implicit blind eye turned to Assad and Putin’s brutal repression of the Syrian revolution. It was not enough to have been right on Iraq – as were many others on the left – whilst being wrong about so much else since.

In unsparing terms familiar to partisans of these debates, Keir Starmer’s intervention last Thursday, timed to coincide with his trip to NATO, summarised many of these existing criticisms.

Addressing the StWC’s role as standard-bearer of the so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ hard left in the Labour Party, Starmer pointed to the inherent conservatism and absence of concrete solidarity that characterises its isolationist worldview. It represented a clarifying moment in the Labour Party’s intellectual and moral renewal, highlighting just how far the party has travelled on foreign policy from what went before.

In directly calling them out, Starmer forced StWC’s pernicious influence on the left out into the open at the exact point that Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine definitively exposed the logical and ethical absurdity of their ‘anti-imperialist’ worldview.

This complete collapse in credibility has meant that even formerly Corbyn-sympathetic figures like the journalist Paul Mason are now among the strongest voices condemning the continuing appeal of StWC’s simplistic campism among some parts of the left.

And the more open-minded, internationalist wing of what remains of the Corbyn movement have begun to articulate an alternative approach providing a different path than that advocated by the ex-Labour leader and his friends in the StWC. This augments the important existing work done by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign to rally support on the left of the labour movement for Ukrainian self-determination against Russian intimidation.

In short, there is a clear consensus forming that those content to condone the appeasement of naked aggression when waged by anti-West authoritarians must no longer be afforded legitimacy within the ethical and moral mainstream of the labour movement.

The costs of inaction

A course correction in the Labour Party is cold comfort to civilians in Ukraine, however.

What should be done about the situation is a difficult question precisely because of what the West failed to do before. Rather than too much Western intervention being the cause of the Russian offensive, as StWC seem to think, it is arguably the absence of a clear vision of the causes of Russia’s belligerence and resolute action to counter it that has brought us to this point.

A litany of Western errors has encouraged Russia to test the limits of its resolve today. As its capital cities rolled out the red carpet for Russia’s wealthy elite, the West failed to anticipate and adequately challenge the initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014; ceded space for Russia’s intervention in Syria by sitting on its hands as Assad attacked his own people; and avoided confronting Russia as it criminally bombarded Syrian civilians.

The West’s reluctance to challenge Russia may now have consequences more dangerous and unpredictable than had it taken a more robust stance at any of these previous junctures. Whilst the UK appears to be waking up to this uncomfortable truth, some of its allies seem to have been slower to learn, and China will be watching the American reaction closely as it eyes its own possible revanchist invasion of Taiwan.

In this context, Keir Starmer is absolutely correct to recommit Labour to NATO as a stabilising component of the post-war liberal order and a vital security mechanism for Central and Eastern European states threatened by Russia.

He is also correct to pledge Labour’s support for UK and US measures to protect Ukraine from Putin’s aggression and assist its forces in repelling and defeating a Russian invasion with the provision of military hardware, intelligence and training, as well as troops to other allied countries bordering Russia.  

Contrary to the naïve and disingenuous assertions that Starmer’s position – or ours – represents a ‘warmonger internationalism’, these are measures to deter war, not promote it.

The way to ‘stop the war’, in this sense, is not by legitimising Russia’s false narrative of ‘encirclement’ and its so-called ‘security concerns’. Rather, it is by challenging it, and making clear the substantial political and economic costs that would follow a partial or full invasion, or indeed any number of ongoing hybrid attacks against Ukraine.

Labour also needs to be prepared, where necessary, to call upon the government to do much more, including providing safe corridors and refuge to as many as possible of the people who would be displaced in the wake of a full-scale invasion.

The coming days and weeks will clarify whether Russia intends to invade or intimidate its way to a weaker Ukraine. In either case, Labour’s priority must be to help keep open the space for the continuing struggle, by Ukrainian activists, workers and citizens, for freedom, democracy and self-determination.

14th February 2022

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