In his latest piece for Labour Hub, Mike Phipps argues that it would be better to have an anti war movement that is not actually against the war aims of our own ruling class. His argument, and attempted intervention into the anti-war movement, rests on two dubious assertions.
- That NATO expansion and US militarism have nothing to do with the origins of this phase of the war in Ukraine and therefore the anti war movement should ignore it.
- That Ukrainian nationalism is a progressive “anti-colonial” current fighting for liberation from Russia as an imperial oppressor and therefore the anti war movement should support it.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The NATO summit that has just concluded has agreed to expand its membership, increase its arms expenditure, get 300,000 troops at a permanent state of “readiness” and forward deploy more of them to the frontier with Russia and to sustain a long war in Ukraine.
This is motivated as a way to “defend” members of the alliance from a Russian threat that they are very careful not to quantify. That is because Russian military expenditure is less than Britain’s and one twentieth that of NATO. The projected expansion of the alliance and large increases in expenditure will make NATO’s military dominance even more extreme. So, a reasonable question might be, who is threatening whom?
So, when the new chief of staff for the British armed forces, Sir Patrick Sanders, argues that we have to be ready to fight World War 3 in on land in Europe, its quite clear what that “readiness” is for, and who is on the offensive. His argument that if you want to preserve the peace you have to prepare for war, was exactly what all sides were arguing in 1914. It was an argument that worked very well. Until it didn’t.
Mike doesn’t engage at all with what NATO has been doing in Eastern Europe since 1991, or more particularly in Ukraine since 2014. Simply ignores it and tries to waft it away with an airy “I don’t see this as a central factor at all”. Jens Stoltenburg, NATO Secretary General, however, is very proud of what they have done and quite candid about it. “The reality is that we have been preparing for this since 2014…that is the reason we have increased our presence in the eastern part of the alliance, why NATO allies have started to invest more in defence, why we have increased our readiness”. My emphasis. I suspect that Stoltenburg has a better grasp of what he’s doing – and the significance of it – than Mike does, unless there is some conscious disavowal going on; seeing, understanding, but choosing not to acknowledge.
Stoltenburg’s comment is underlined by the remark of Sir Richard Shirreff, former NATO Deputy commander, on Radio 4 recently that “this war started in 2014”.
2014. Not on February 24th 2022. It has been noted widely that while Ukraine has not been in NATO, NATO has certainly been in Ukraine: training, re-equipping, getting the Ukrainian army ready to go beyond the shelling of the Donbass to try to retake it.
It takes a real act of will not to look at NATO, or the USA, and what it is trying to do, and how the war in Ukraine fits into it. Mike draws rage from the horrors of the war – in a determinedly one sided way that implies total barbarity on one side and saintliness on the other (because no lies have been told, butter wouldn’t melt in the Azov battalion’s mouth, issuing a decree to arm civilians en masse doesn’t erase the distinction between them and combatants, and no oppositionists have been “disappeared” or assassinated) – and is averse to looking up at the strategic picture because it is so obvious what’s happening when you do.
He reflects least of all on what NATO is.
NATO is a military alliance of the world’s major predatory imperial powers, under the aegis of the United States, pledged to defend a “rules based” imperial world order in which the rules are written in Washington. The European powers are part of it because they can’t take the US on, and do better being subordinate members of its global gang than trying to act as lone wolves. This maintains domination of the Global South, with $2 trillion flowing from it to the Global North in 2013 alone. NATO is the armed guarantee that that will keep happening. That’s why people like Paul Mason, who thinks that the working class in the rich countries should prosper at the expense of the peoples of the majority world, support it.
That means that taking active steps to join NATO – as US influenced Ukrainian governments have done -is not a neutral act. It is the repudiation of neutrality by definition. It is also a self limitation on national sovereignty. It is ganging up with the USA – essentially taking up a job as a henchman – and will be understood as a threatening act by any country in its sights, especially any nearby.
NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe to pressure Russia serves two purposes – setting up the preconditions for a regime change colour revolution in Russia itself, so a more compliant Yeltsin like leadership can be brought in – and in the immediate term also to decouple Russia from the EU; the better to cement control of the rest of Europe, particularly Germany.
This explains the refusal of the US and NATO to even discuss Russia’s proposal for mutual security guarantees when the Ukraine crisis started brewing up from November last year onward. You’d think we’d all have an interest in that. But mutual security and reduction in tension – which would be good for all of us – would increase Russia’s weight in Europe with the EU, and make it harder for the US to dominate it. No chance to deploy those troops, sell those arms, export that fracked Liquid Natural Gas. So, we can’t have that, can we?
The demonstrative mobilisation of the Russian armed forces throughout the winter in response, was an attempt to show how seriously they took what they saw as an existential threat. It seems to me that what triggered the actual invasion was the NATO summit the week before in Munich, at which those European powers, principally Germany and France, that had been pushing for easing off on confrontation and continued negotiations within the Minsk framework, were very visibly brought to heel by the USA. A partial withdrawal of Russian forces in Belarus that week was taken not as a welcome gesture that could lead to a reciprocal step towards negotiation; but a sign of weakness to be exploited. Watching the news of that, I had a real sinking feeling. It sent a very clear message. Crowing on the news combined with Russian fears that the Ukrainian military build up in the Donbass heralded an imminent intervention to snuff out the Donbass republics with NATO backing. It seemed that war was inevitable. It was just a matter of when, and who struck first.
This war was generated in neither Kyiv nor Moscow, but Washington.
2 Ukrainian Nationalism
Mike’s attempt to ignore the entire geo-political context of the NATO build up and the self subordination to it by the Ukrainian government, means that he simply buys into the narrative of Ukrainian nationalism – effortlessly erasing from historical significance the large Russian population living in what is now part of Ukraine, but was Noviya Rossiya (New Russia) from the eighteenth century onwards – that the whole Ukrainian people have been engaged in a long term struggle to liberate themselves from Russian oppression. Small left currents in Ukraine put this in anti-colonial terms, and Mike quotes one of them. But the mainstream dominant tradition here is not anti colonial, but pro colonial; the far right. These were the hegemonic street forces in the Maidan movement. They have since become entrenched in the Ukrainian military; and wield an influence on the streets far greater than their formal electoral representation.
Again, it requires real disavowal to ignore this, to look and not see. But to give an indication of just how bad this is, here are some headlines from western media from before February 24th, when they weren’t trying to cover this up.
Ukraine celebrates Nazi collaborator; bans book critical of pogroms leader.
Ukraine’s got a real problem with far right violence (and, no, RT did not write this headline).
Hundreds march in Ukraine in annual tribute to Nazi collaborator.
Violent Anti-Semitism is gripping Ukraine – and the government is standing idly by.
Ukraine conflict: “White Power warrior” from Sweden.
Ukraine conflict: child soldiers join the fight.
Far- Right fighters from Europe fight for Ukraine.
Nazi symbols. salutes on display at Ukrainian nationalist march.
Yes. Its (still) OK to call Ukraine’s C14 neo Nazi.
A new Eurasian far right rising.
Far Right extremists in Ukrainian military bragged about Canadian training.
German TV shows Nazi symbols on helmets of Ukrainian soldiers.
Ukraine designates national holiday to commemorate Nazi collaborator.
Kiev’s far right groups refuse to disarm.
FBI: Militia trained by US military in Ukraine now training US White Supremacists
Ukrainian Neo Nazi C14 vigilantes drive out Roma families, burn their camp
Ukraine underplays role of far right in conflict
New “Glory to Ukraine” army chant invokes nationalist past
Britons join neo Nazi militia in Ukraine
Neo-Nazis and the far right are on the march in Ukraine
How the far right took top positions in power vacuum
Ukraine’s far right menace
With axes and hammers far right vigilantes destroy another Romany camp in Kyiv
“Defend the White Race” American extremists being targeted by Ukraine’s far right
Paints a picture that the BBC and others are now trying to consign to the memory hole.
A leader of the C14 far right militia group expressed a core belief of this movement when he said that the problem in Ukraine is that “certain people” had too much power and money. When pressed on who he meant, he said, “you know, Russians and Jews”.
Nationalism takes many forms. When fighting imperial domination, it can be progressive. When allying with a dominant imperialism against others, it is reactionary. Ukrainian nationalism – in its dominant tradition – lionises Stepan Bandera; who was a Nazi collaborator. Since 2014, he has, grotesquely, been celebrated as a hero across the country, had statues put up and the road leading to Babi Yar named after him. This is like, but even more offensive than, renaming the Finchley Road up to Golders Green Sir Oswald Mosley Way. Similarly, the renaming of the Molotov Cocktail as the Bandera Smoothie, is comparable to an Italian movement calling them Mussolini Milkshakes. Ukrainian nationalism, in its conscious subordination to greater imperial powers, Austria Hungary, Nazi Germany and now the USA, is not a progressive movement; and the small left wing currents that tried to take part in the Maidan were smashed out of it as surely as a Lexit contingent would have been on an EDL march.
It was when they took this south and burned down the trade union HQ in Odessa, killing 42 people, that the Donbass rebelled, Russia annexed Crimea with overwhelming local popular support; and the war in the East started.
The debacle of the “broad anti war movement”
In pursuit of the “broad anti war movement” that Mike proposed, a demonstration was called for 9 April with Paul Mason, recently exposed for having connections with the intelligence services, Peter Tatchell and others speaking, and supported by currents like the AWL. This was intended to eclipse Stop the War, so there could be an “anti war” movement at peace with the ruling class. One of the main chants was “Arm! Arm! Arm Ukraine!” – which is exactly what the British state is doing, what the Tory government and Labour front bench want to carry on doing. This is not “anti war”. It is pro war. A comparable position in 1991 would have been to support the 1991 war after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, and organise demonstrations with chants of “Arm! Arm! Arm Kuwait!” Despite having the formal support of a number of unions, it was very small. A couple of hundred. This is not a “broad anti war movement”. It is a fig leaf for the ruling class and has no independence from it.
As such, it is comfortably aligned with the Labour front bench which, instead of calling for a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement, and a redirection of “defence” spending to meet the cost of living and climate crises, never misses an opportunity to try to polish its patriotic credentials by calling for guns not butter. John Healey, Shadow Defence Secretary bemoaned a short term cut in army numbers like this.
“Now, this is embarrassing. It’s not responding to the growing threats we face, and it is putting into question Britain’s ability to fulfil our NATO obligations when I want Britain to continue to be the leading European nation within NATO” noting that the 1,000 additional soldiers committed to NATO’s new 300,000 strike force “might not even be based on the border with Russia, but back in Britain”. Forward, he cried, from the rear.
The Left – all of it, whatever its views on this war – should be opposing these increases in military expenditure and the deployments that go with them.
As the NATO war drive ups a gear, with no end in prospect, with the UK an enthusiastic participant, with “war austerity” already with us, and hitting the Global South very hard indeed, the anti war movement here will gain strength from opposing it, and clarity from analysing it. Hopefully we will build up enough strength to divert it from killing us all.
I sent this Blog to Mike suggesting that it could go up on Labour Hub as a contribution to debate. This was turned down on the grounds that the views expressed were very much a minority on the Hub WhatsApp: which begs the question; who do you debate if not a minority? We had a thoughtful exchange of emails over whether I had misrepresented Mike’s view. I don’t believe I have. This Blog is open for any comments Mike, or anyone else, wishes to make.