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WAR IS BACK IN EUROPE
Image by Markus Spiske
By Mike Hembury
As Russian tanks and troops head into Ukraine in an attempt to seize the capital Kyiv, along with other major cities, anti-war demonstrators around the world are taking to the streets to express their solidarity with the Ukrainian people and their opposition to the Russian invasion.
In Berlin alone, half a million people recently took to the streets to stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Countries such as Romania, Poland and even far-away Ireland have opened their borders to Ukrainian refugees.
Meanwhile, adult male Ukrainians are barred from leaving the country. The administration has issued automatic weapons to anyone who wants to join the resistance. The interior ministry has published instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails. One Kyiv brewery has even switched its entire output to the production of Molotov cocktails. The defensive strategy of the Ukrainian government seems to be to turn the war into one of popular mobilisation, basically a people’s war against invasion.
Judging by what we can tell of reactions on the ground, this is something that is being broadly welcomed by the Ukrainian population. People from all walks of life are joining the resistance forces, from young women to pensioners, along with trade unionists, workers, artists, civil servants, in a display of defiance and heroism that has taken the world by surprise. And besides the many hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country, there are also many thousands of Ukrainians returning from abroad to join the fight.
I consider it pretty uncontroversial to say that we should not just applaud the resistance of the Ukrainian people, but actively support it in whatever way we can.
At the time of writing, Ukraine is a sovereign, non-aligned, non-imperialist country. It is neither a member of NATO, nor of the EU (although it has just applied and been granted candidate status). It is the poorest country in Europe, with a GDP equivalent to New Zealand’s, and a population ten times the size. It has no vassal states, and is not engaged in military activity anywhere else except on its own territory. This is a classic case of a country suffering an unprovoked attack by a belligerent imperialist power. In this case: Russia.
You don’t need a doctorate in political theory to instinctively grasp the right thing here: support the underdog, support the victim. Support resistance to invasion. Demand the withdrawal of all foreign forces and call for Ukraine’s borders and sovereign territory to be respected.
This is not just Anti-Imperialism 101. As it stands, international law recognizes the right to a war of defence. There is no corresponding right to military invasion.
Yet apparently, even a matter as simple as this is something that many on the left, and the revolutionary left in particular, have difficulty agreeing on. I would go further and say that it has actually produced a rift, a split that cuts across traditional socialist/anarchist/communist perspectives.
The rift goes like this.
On the one hand there are those, like myself, who call for support for a popular anti-imperialist mobilisation against an invading army.
On the other hand, there are those who call for abstention in what they already see as an inter-imperialist conflict.
The internationally active Rosa Luxemburg Foundation has stated that “violence cannot be answered with violence”, and has called on the Ukrainian people to “lay down your arms”.
Progressive International founder Yanis Varoufakis has called for “both sides to take a step back”.
The CNT-AIT France has published a call by Russian anarcho-syndicalists for combatants on both sides to refuse the orders of their officers and to lay down their arms.
And the New Orleans Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America managed to call for an anti-war demo “against US and NATO aggression in Ukraine” with no mention of the Russian invasion.
The war in Ukraine is not yet an inter-imperialist conflict. But it certainly has the potential to turn into one. This is absolutely something we must be alert to and fight to avoid. But the crux of the problem right now is a simpler, more urgent one. Neutral Ukraine is under attack. The left should support the Ukrainian people, and particularly the organisations of the working class, women and the oppressed in their self-defence and evacuation efforts.
Of course, NATO long ago reneged on its post-Cold War security assurances to Russia guaranteeing no eastern expansion. It goes without saying that such an expansion would inevitably be regarded as provocative by any post-Soviet Russian government. Yet right now this is of secondary significance. There are no NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine. In spite of the relatively negligible NATO forces stationed in Eastern European states that share a border with Russia, there is no direct threat to Russian sovereignty. The current invasion of Ukraine is the sole responsibility of the Russian leadership.
There is no equality of responsibility here. This is not a case of both sides being equally guilty of starting a conflict. In this case there is a clear aggressor, and a clear victim. As such, it would be wrong for our anti-war sentiment to amount to no more than “a plague on both your houses”.
As one anti-war demonstrator’s placard read in recent days: “If Russia stops fighting: no war. If Ukraine stops fighting: no Ukraine”.
Of course, as western progressives we have no cause to put our faith in the militarism of our own governments.
Here in Germany, the social-democrat led coalition government has, more or less overnight, decided to double its military expenditure, creating a 100-billion Euro “fund for the German army”. To put this in perspective, this is 3 times greater than the current health budget, and 37 times greater than spending on the impending climate catastrophe, and makes the German military budget the third largest in the world.
The war in Ukraine feeds into the playbook of western militarism. It is difficult for western governments to lecture Russia on the sanctity of national sovereignty when the list of western military interventions is long: from Iraq to Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Grenada, Panama, Mali and Libya.
It’s a thin line to tread: Supporting Ukrainian resistance to Russian invasion, and Russian anti-war forces, whilst opposing NATO involvement and the further militarisation of our own societies. But in the biggest conflict on European soil since the Second World War, I think it is paramount that we as progressives express our solidarity with the people of Ukraine against a bloody invasion, at the same time as resisting any drive towards further militarisation of our own societies.
Mike Hembury is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England. He’s a writer, translator, musician, coder, sailor, environmentalist and guitar nerd in no particular order. He is the author of New Clone City, nominated as a “Hot Berlin Read” by Exberliner magazine. You can follow Mike on Twitter here: twitter.com/schnappz