14 Questions for John McDonnell (and others) on Ukraine.

John McDonnell’s article for Labour Hub The Ukrainian Question for Socialists has so many missing dimensions its hard to know where to start. It is a story with a middle, but no explanation of the beginning, nor any projection of where the course of action he supports might end.

John’s judgement on the war is oddly flat, missing whole dimensions of the conflict and lacking any sense of causation beyond a kind of moralism, the 21st century equivalent of WW1 “German War Guilt”. The assessment of the conflict as Five Wars in One in the most recent New Left Review Editorial gives a fuller picture, every aspect of which has to be grasped to understand the dynamics of it.

  1. There is a civil conflict within Ukraine itself.
  2. The Russian intervention after February 2014, which NLR defines as having “a double character”, interventionist against Ukraine, and defensive against NATO at the same time, leading to
  3. A Ukrainian war of national self defence combined with
  4. What former CIA chief Leon Panetta describes as a “proxy war” against Russia carried out by the US using Ukrainian soldiers on the ground, but also imposing global sanctions that have had a terrible blowback on food prices in the Global South and energy prices in Europe. NLR describes this as “unambiguously imperialist” in that “it aims at regime change… (in Russia) …and the assertion of American hegemony over the Eurasian continent”.
  5. “The prospect of a Sino-American conflict, the real focus of the last three administrations in Washington, is the final lock determining the Ukraine war’s dynamic”.

John only looks at 3 and half of 2. Does he recognise that he’s missing the determining forces driving this process?

In the context of a “civil war in Ukraine itself”, John’s article acknowledges fighting since 2014, but does not acknowledge that there is any popular legitimacy in the pro Russian side of the civil war. This disorients him from the off, as important facts have to be denied to maintain his posture.

The Guardian last week quoted a Ukrainian junior officer fighting around Vuhledar on the southern Donetsk front complaining that troops recruited locally didn’t want to fight. Most Ukrainian troops are conscripted. Some are unwilling. Aleksey Arestovich, an adviser to the office of the Ukrainian president, said in January that many Ukrainian soldiers fighting in Soledar simply fled and there were “a substantial number” of refuseniks who declared they “cannot fight any longer in this terrible war”. Arestovich said, “We have people who refused to dig trenches, and when they were led into ready-made trenches, they just stood still. Many said the enemy (Russian soldiers) were too close and it was better to move several miles back from the front lines.” This has meant that that month President Zelenskyy in January signed into force a punitive law introducing harsher punishment for deserters and wayward soldiers, even stripping them of their right to appeal.

At the same time Ukrainian dissident Dmitriy Kovalevich reports that refugees and residents in the south of Ukraine …are attending protest rallies organized by the wives and mothers of servicemen.

Perhaps more significantly, the soldier in Donetsk went on to note that “about half” of the local population was “pro Russian” anyway. Does John acknowledge this?

NLR describes the uprisings that led to the formation of the Donbass People’s Republics in 2014 like this.

  • After the Maidan events “opposition to the new government was broad. In late February, some 3,500 elected officials gathered at an anti-Maidan conference in Kharkiv. The following day, the Kiev parliament repealed protections for Russian as a regional language. The anti-Maidan uprisings in Eastern Ukraine copied the Kiev model of occupying central squares and taking over government buildings. The security forces were also divided; in some areas the local police made no effort to stop the anti-Maidan protestors. In cities like Kharkiv or Odessa, Kiev’s authority prevailed. In hardscrabble towns like Donetsk and Luhansk, popular militias made up of miners, truck drivers, security guards and the local unemployed stormed the regional-administration offices and declared peoples republics…”

In Odessa, Kiev’s authority “prevailed” through far right thugs trained in from the capital for a football match burning down the local trade union HQ with anti-Maidan protestors inside it, killing nearly 50 people. Is John unaware of this?

This division in the country is widely recognised inside it. NLR notes a student in Kiev remarking of workers rebelling in the Donbass, “They can’t help it. They’re all Sovoks over there”. Sovoks being a term applied to people nostalgic for the Soviet Union. “All Sovoks over there“. Does John think that these people should be occupied against their will?

In the context of this civil war since 2014, has John not noticed the steady stream of fighters from the European and North American far right who have signed up to fight in the Donbass, and get tooled up for future fights at home once they’ve gained the combat experience? While John mentions people in Ukraine that he knows and identifies with who are not like this, there are a lot of people fighting on the Ukraine side who are; some of them local, some from all over in a kind of fascist foreign legion.

John also does not note what happens when the Ukrainian army reoccupies an area and carries out “cleansing” operations against “saboteurs and collaborators”. Some of the dead bodies are posted on Instagram. Is that ok?

The same applies to Crimea. I don’t think there’s anyone even amongst the most gung ho Ukraine Solidarity Campaign supporters who argue that the population of Crimea is clamouring to be reconquered by Ukraine.

And there is a recognition now being freely expressed by the United States that, given the concentration of Russian armed forces, including nuclear weapons, on the peninsular, pushing to retake it could trip over the threshold into nuclear war, so best not try. Would John agree with that assessment, that surrendering territory will be necessary to avoid of tripping nuclear thresholds?

If so, would he be prepared to concede that this is a principle that may have to be applied more broadly; and that there is no level of escalation that is capable of reconquering the Donbass without pushing through nuclear red lines; so that has to be ruled out too?

In the first month of the war, President Zelensky called for a NATO enforced No Fly Zone. Arguing for Ukraine to be able to “defend” itself with all possible means would imply support for that. As this is an obvious invitation to Armageddon, it hasn’t been taken up, so far. Am I wrong to presume that John would be against that?

I hope so, but he doesn’t mention it, so its hard to say. The problem is that that’s where we are heading. The latest USC statement – signed by John – lists lots of additional sets of equipment that could be supplied by the British Army, including fighter jets. Where does this end?

Its important to be clear on this, because starting from the need to pull back from escalation to World War 3 requires the Labour movement to push for peace and a negotiated settlement, rather than going along with the step by step escalation in munitions. And pressure for that has to start with the Left.

There is a domestic dimension to this too. The UK government and Labour front bench support an increase in military expenditure at a time of collapsing public services and impoverishment of the working population. That means “hard choices” to build up the military at the expense of the population in a country that already spends more on it than any other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. In fact the per capita burden on the UK population is already double what it is for Russian citizens and five times that on the Chinese. Does John support that?

To have an idea of how this could end short of escalation to mutually assured destruction, you need to go back to why it started in the first place and how it could have been avoided. John does not examine this at all. He just gives the invasion a pair of labels – “illegal” and “imperialist” – and leaves it at that. Any closer examination can’t help but look at NATO, and whether the Russians have any legitimate security concerns about it. I wonder if John thinks they do? He doesn’t say.

Just taking the months in the run up to 24th Feb,

  • the Russians were asking for NATO to rule out Ukrainian membership and for mutual security guarantees that could defuse the crisis – and implementation of the Minsk accords that would have gone some way to restoring a peaceful modus operandi; with autonomy within Ukraine for the Donbass Republics.
  • It also would have allowed Europe to sustain its supply of relatively cheap Russian natural gas, instead of being forced to buy expensive LNG from the USA and Qatar.
  • Just to spell out the obvious, NATO outspends Russia on its military by a factor of 19 to 1 – and that’s before the current proposed increases.
  • NATO is the core alliance of global imperialism centred on the USA.
  • “The West” is the same place as “The Global North”. It has armed forces to maintain its system of global dominance and exploitation.
  • Russia has never been included in this core because doing so would set up the potential for a Russo German bloc that would edge the USA out of its dominance in Europe.
  • So, Russia is not at the table (despite asking to be let in on numerous occasions). And, as they say, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
  • What this might look like is Dick Cheney’s 1991 plan to balkanise Russia into three more easily manageable countries, the European part, Siberia and the Far East.
  • A less drastic bottom line might be the replacement of Putin with a more compliant oligarch who knew his place in the US world order. more like Yeltsin.
  • The Russians are acutely aware of this. Which is why they feel under threat. And why the Ukrainian oligarchy being so eager to sign itself up as a US henchman in NATO feels like an existential threat.
  • The refusal of NATO to even discuss their proposals, couldn’t help but confirm the impression in Moscow that NATO was preparing for war.

Does John think that these concerns on the part of the Russians should have been negotiated about then and, more to the point, should addressing them be an essential aspect of any attempt to secure peace?

We should be clear here that framing the war as simply one of national defence in which NATO is just helping out, implies that the tail is wagging the dog. The power in this situation is in Washington not Kyiv. The Americans are now beginning to argue about the risks, costs and advantages of a long war versus a short one with a diplomatic off ramp. This is all within the framework of US national interests of course – which the UK political establishment will go along with; whatever it is.

The phrase “proxy war” was coined by Leon Panetta long before anyone in Stop the War started using it. But whatever its origin, it is a very accurate description of what’s happening. All the finance for the war and to sustain the Ukrainian state is coming from NATO powers. All the training for the army, targeting for missiles and artillery systems, is coming from NATO too. The USA will be perfectly happy to destroy Ukraine in order to save it. Does John not realise that that is what his position is supporting?

John’s call for a new Marshall Plan to rebuild Ukraine is the opposite of what’s on the cards. Since 2014 Ukraine has become increasingly neo liberal, with “Sovok” holdovers in state property sold off to multi national capital, including Monsanto in agriculture and negotiations around EU convergence noting that Ukraine is moving away from EU standards on regulations and labour standards. Were it to be fast tracked into EU membership it would act as a Trojan Horse to undermine them in the rest of the continent. The plan for reconstruction agreed at Geneva last Autumn sets Ukraine up to be asset stripped, with Blackrock presiding over the dismemberment. Fighting for a “victory” for the Kyiv government, is fighting for that.

The views of the Social Movement will count for nothing in that context. Does John really think that because there are small groups of left wingers who wanted to be part of the Maidan -but were marginalised and driven off by the right sector – and have opposed the neo liberal dystopia that Ukraine has become – but failed to make any headway – and are hoping that, in the event of a military victory by the world’s most powerful imperialisms, they will be in a position to move the country towards “socialism” that this is remotely realistic?

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