A recent article in the Financial Times puts things very starkly, albeit in very restrained language.
“This coming winter will bring a reckoning. Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country, or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended.”
Put more bluntly, this means that the cost of energy is now so high – a recent email from Octopus Energy to its customers stated that wholesale natural gas is now eight times more expensive than it was before the war – that unless it is stopped soon, the economic and political consequences will be catastrophic.
We can have war, or social stability. We can’t have both.
This is already unfolding in parts of the Global South, which has nothing to do with fuelling this war either way, but as always suffers the blowback first and hardest. Sri Lanka is an example.
This means that “Western governments”, should they decide to keep fuelling the war with loans, munitions and rhetoric, will face the blowback of an economic crisis beyond their control; with unpredictable political consequences and an unprecedented level of turmoil.
A straw in the wind for this is advice given to their workers by the Austrian Supermarket chain SPAR, not to intervene to try to stop mass looting in the event of energy blackouts this Winter, on the grounds that the looters would then become enraged and smash the shops.
Governments, like Italy’s, or, in Boris Johnson’s case, Prime Ministers, are already beginning to topple. Olaf Scholtz is looking shaky. Ukraine is the Trojan Horse for the Latin Americanisation of Europe. Local instability the price for an increased US grip.
Recent moves, reported in the FT but not much more widely, that the US had pressured the EU to ease off on sanctioning insurance for Russian oil shipments, indicates that the impact of the price of gasoline at petrol stations on how people vote in the mid term elections is a material consideration for the Biden administration. So, they will soft pedal aspects of sanctions which are too much to bear; for them.
But, this is a tactical nudge within a framework of seeking a long war “to weaken Russia” on the lines of the Afghan war in the 1980s; so, there’s the tension.
The problem for the “West”/Global North/NATO is that anything less than a sudden Russian collapse this Autumn will see such a severe level of economic blowback that they may not be able to sustain it.
There is no sign that such a Russian collapse is on the cards. Quite the contrary. The most optimistic assessment from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence this week is that the war is at a “strategic stalemate”. This is not the case, but, even if it were, Winter is coming, and a frozen conflict would freeze the economic crisis into place; with everything that flows from it. There needs to be a quick resolution.
Even when looking through the filtered reports in the media here, the military situation on the ground appears to be one of continuing incremental Russian advances in the Donbass, where they seem to be punching through both flanks of the fortified Ukrainian defences opposite Donetsk City, with the infantry trying to hold the line taking heavy casualties; as well as making advances around Kharkiv in the North. The massive Ukrainian counter offensive to retake Kherson in the South, that was widely broadcast as in the offing at the end of July, has not materialised, and is unlikely to; being replaced with small but spectacular sabotage operations, or possibly drone strikes, in Crimea. This could continue for a horribly long time.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy is in a state of collapse (60% down even from the beginning of the year, when the Ministry of Finance was warning of its then unviability). The response has been to organise a massive fire sale of state assets to the private sector and cement in place legislation that removes the trade union and contract rights of the workers the government is conscripting to fight at the front. While the military conflict is going badly for Ukrainian oligarchs, the class war within Ukraine is all in their favour. But short term gains of this sort have no long term viability if the war continues to degrade the country.
More to the point, aiming to reconquer the Donbass and Crimea is beyond Ukraine’s current capacity. It implies a war without end, requiring permanent Western loans to keep the economy functioning on life support level. This would reduce Ukraine to even more of a client/frontiersman state than it already is – a source of raw materials and foot soldiers, and assets to be gobbled up, but not a genuinely independent sovereign nation on any part of its territory.
So, a continuation of the war is far more disastrous to Ukraine than it is to Russia; in the short, medium and long terms.
The G20 in Indonesia on 15/16th November, with the NATO powers, Putin, Xi Xinping and the Presidents of the BRIC countries and Turkiye attending could be a point at which the outlines of a cease fire and peace deal could be set up, global tensions reduced, food and energy supplies boosted, the suffering in the war stopped and the world’s attention turned back to cooperation to deal with climate breakdown and global poverty. Or not.
For that to happen, we need countries currently pushing and fueling the war to start pushing for a solution to it instead. This is difficult, because they have invested so much face in it – and bluff is nine tenths of power. The first instinct of government’s like the one we can expect from Liz Truss will be to brass it out – having already signalled that they will promote the war, expect workers to see their living standards fall “in the national interest”, face down any domestic unrest, pass laws to make lawful strikes or protest harder. And that’s just for starters.
The issue for the labour movement therefore, is whether it allows itself to be dragged behind such a policy. We can expect enormous pressure to be put on “enemies within”, dissent interpreted as treason, peace campaigns put on proscription lists.
We can also expect an even louder emphasis on atrocity stories, as, if you are going to mobilise a population behind a war, you need them to fear and loathe the other side. The argument is essentially that the suffering in the war has been, and is, so bad that we should keep it going until the Russians are punished for “starting” it. The continuing suffering of everyone involved as the fighting drags on is somehow collateral damage that can be disregarded. News of the last atrocity fuels the next one, and the one after that.
It is essential in stories like these to project the other side as the sole source of atrocities, or morally culpable for all of them. Hence the need to talk about “Russia’s unprovoked attack” – a constantly repeated phrase used by everyone from President Biden to the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign aimed to mesmerise anyone listening into ignoring everything that happened in Ukraine from 2014 onwards.
You don’t have to agree with Sergei Lavrov that all accusations of Russian atrocities are made up – because all armies commit atrocities in war, which is why the UK government recently passed legislation making British soldiers immune from prosecution for the war crimes the same government likes to pretend they wouldn’t dream of committing – to recognise that many of them have been exaggerated (in exactly the same sort of way that those committed by German soldiers in Belgium in 1914 were) to moralise the public response behind the war drive. But it is helpful to be oblivious that the scale of Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine has been limited compared to what the Americans do in “Shock and Awe” attacks – in which all power stations and water treatment plants are smashed on Day 1.
The need to moralise the public response also requires that people are guided away from any awareness of atrocities committed by the side that “we” support. In the interests of balance, here’s four.
In recent weeks the Ukrainian army has taken to firing thousands of petal mines into Dontesk City. This is an anti personal mine designed to maim; essentially to blow people’s legs off. Firing them into a city is targeting civilians in an indiscriminate way. Thousands of them. We can be sure that any victims of this won’t be given the full Feargal Keene treatment. No instrumentally useful sympathy due there.
In the last fortnight, Ukrainian artillery has been shelling the Zaporozhzhia nuclear power station. The potential consequences of this hardly need spelling out. This is unhinged. But, instead of a simple demand that this stops, we have had surreal reports in the press here echoing Ukrainian claims that the Russians themselves are actually shelling a power station that they control, before moving quickly on before anyone has a chance to reflect on how absurd this is; the same sort of ludicrous stretch in credulity that conspiracy thinking depends on. Everything bad must be done by the bad people so we can stay comfortable in our moral certainty.
In the case of the Bucha massacre, the public claim by the Press Officer of the Azov battalion that their troops were moving through Bucha after the Russian withdrawal to “cleanse” the town of “saboteurs and collaborators” would account for why so many of the victims were found with Russian ration packs or water bottles. This does not mean that no civilians were killed by the Russians, but it takes a real act of will not to conclude that many of them were killed by Azov. This is dismissed in Western media, but, as its a public statement by them on Twitter, I think we can take them at their word.
And there are over 1000 warrants out for treason, and dissidents have been “disappeared” or just shot (and their bodies posted on social media with tags like “one less traitor”).
The bottom line here is that war brings out the worst in everyone. Which underlines why we need to end it.
To conclude. The war is slowly going Russia’s way. Ukraine’s economy is collapsing. Continued NATO arms and financial support won’t change the dynamic of either. Without a resolution – or basis for it – at the latest by the G20, we face a scale of economic and political crisis – even in the wealthiest countries – that is off the map.
We need to campaign for opposition Parties to break with the government line of fuelling the war if we want to avoid economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics.
Sometimes in these discussions, people put the argument that Ukraine has been struggling for independence against Russia for over 100 years. This map from time of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in 1918 is very interesting when you compare it with the map showing votes in the 2010 Presidential election. Leaving aside the parts of Western Ukraine that were still parts of the Austro Hungarian Empire in 1918, the division between the rest of Western Ukraine and the areas in the South and East that formed Soviet Republics foreshadows almost exactly the political/national fault line shown up by the way people voted in 2010. This shows that the Nationalist movements that are presented as the representation of the people of Ukraine as a whole are not representative of all of it, and never were.
This map from 2019 showing an aspirational Greater Ukraine, incorporating both Novaya Rossiya and the lands of the Don Cossacks as far as the Caspian Sea, shows that inside every thin nation struggling for self determination, yearning to breathe free, there can be a bloated expansionist version busting to get out and impose itself on others if given the chance.