Russian-Ukraine: who is the aggressor?

A reply to Stop The War’s Andrew Murray by Paul Mason

Russia is pouring military hardware into Crimea and its border with Ukraine

“We have nowhere further to retreat,” Vladimir Putin says told his generals today. “Do they really think we’ll sit idly as they create threats against us?”

With Russia massing troops on Ukraine’s borders, triggering fears in of a large-scale invasion, the international labour movement’s objective should be clear: to prevent a war between Russia-Ukraine.

I hope this would be the priority of the Stop the War movement: calling out one of the clearest examples of military aggression since the US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003.

But not according to Andrew Murray, a former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, in an article published on 10 December on Stop The War’s website. Murray argues that the USA, not Russia, is the aggressor. It is Joe Biden, not Vladimir Putin who is making the threats, aimed at “extending US hegemony”.

“If there is conflict in Ukraine,” writes Murray, “the West bears most of the blame”.

The framing is similar to that of Putin himself, who today warned:

“In the event of the continuation of the obviously aggressive stance by our Western colleagues, we will take appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures.”

“Who is the aggressor?” is not the only question socialists ask, when confronted with the possibility of war. The more fundamental question is: what is at stake; what kind of regime would the aggressor impose; is the war being threatened to enforce relations of economic or ethnic dominance.

But painting the USA and NATO as aggressors has become the dominant rationale for Putin’s threat to attack Ukraine. So let’s examine the facts.

Is NATO trying to ‘seize’ Ukraine?

The charge that the US is perpetrating aggression against Russia rests on the fact that, since 2008, NATO has left the door open to Ukraine becoming a member, and is now threatening major economic sanctions in response to a Russian invasion.

Andrew Murray claims, in addition, that:

  • “NATO … is trying to seize Ukraine by means of moving NATO right up to Russia’s borders”.
  • Biden is “arming Ukraine to the hilt to resist”
  • “already British troops are stationed in the Balkans and NATO military have moved eastwards towards Poland”.

None of this is supported by the facts.

First let us be clear about the troop deployments, which Murray describes as “allegations”. They are well evidenced, both by Russian nationalist TikTok users, and by Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) journalists.

The Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, for example, has published evidence from satellite imagery and social media users to show a massive and rapid concentration of equipment from at least three Russian Combined Arms Armies into assembly areas within striking distance of the border. No serious commentator denies that Russia has amassed troops.

Pink areas show recent Russian troop deployments. Red area shows Russian-held Donbas. Source: DFRLabs

As to Biden’s alleged “aggression” against Russia, by way of “seizing Ukraine” the facts are that:

  • NATO has consistently refused to allow Ukraine to begin a fast-track “membership action programme”, despite recent requests by Ukraine’s current president Volodymyr Zelensky. This is despite Ukraine making significant progress towards the criteria laid down for membership. There is no prospect of Ukraine joining NATO.
  • As a result, there is no mutual defence guarantee (Article V) between NATO and Ukraine. That means NATO will not willingly go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine. It has neither the armed forces nor the logistical infrastructure to do so.
  • Echoing briefings coming out of all other NATO capitals, including Washington, the UK’s Conservative defence secretary Ben Wallace said last week:

“It’s a fact it’s not a member of Nato, so it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to send troops into Ukraine to challenge Russia… We shouldn’t kid people on that we would.”

  • US arms sales — though sped up after Putin mobilised an invasion-sized force against Ukraine in April 2021 — are limited to man-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, wheeled vehicles, defensive radars, missile patrol boats and surveillance equipment. The USA has provided no long-range or heavy weapons, (though Russia’s sometime ally Turkey has supplied Kiev with armed drones). If you want to know what “arming to the hilt” looks like, this is not it.
  • As to the Balkans, Britain has around 35 troops stationed as part of the KFOR peace keeping force, deployed there since 1999. How these troops could be constituted a threat to Russia is hard to fathom if you are familiar with geography (see map).
Kosovo: 2000km from Russia
  • However, it may be that Murray means Britain has froops in the Baltic. The UK has 800 troops (with tanks and heavy weapons) stationed in the Baltic state of Estonia close to Russia’s border, and around 80 with an American force in Poland as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP). The eFP was created in response to the invasion of Crimea in 2014, at the request of the Baltic states, to deter Russia from invading them in a similar fashion. The brigade-sized eFP contains roughly four battalions (compared to the >80 battalions Russia has deployed opposite Ukraine), and is nowhere near Ukraine.
  • Both the KFOR and the eFP deployments are very clearly a) token, b) defensive. It would take a very large leap of logic to interpret their presence as part of “US aggression against Russia”.
  • The NATO military has not systematically “moved eastwards into Poland”. NATO certainly expanded eastwards in the 1990s— and you can debate the wisdom of that. But Poland chose to be a NATO member. It fields four times as many tanks and armoured personnel carriers as the British Army because it has a deep (and probably justified) fear that the rest of NATO cannot/would not send meaningful forces to defend it in case of a Russian attack.

There is, in short, no NATO plan to “seize” Ukraine; no possibility of Ukraine joining NATO; no “arming to the hilt”; no significant number of British troops in the Balkans; no major deployment of NATO troops “eastwards towards Poland”.

Above all, amid the present crisis, NATO is not pushing to expand into Ukraine: it is actively avoiding doing so.

The reason is that there is no political consent for military action in defence of Ukraine among NATO member electorates, nor any will to do so among NATO governments, nor public support for the level of defence spending that would need to sustain such a plan.

There is, however, every possibility that Putin will decide to invade Ukraine.

If that happens, it will trigger the first large-scale conventional war on European soil since 1945 — presumably an act of aggression Stop The War would want to protest, warn against and deter?

Putin’s threats are real

If Russia attacks Ukraine, it will win the initial battles easily. The most likely form an attack would take is:

  • paramilitary destabilisation by covert special forces, as happened in Crimea in 2014;
  • a full-scale armoured invasion towards one or more cities, and the destruction of Ukraine’s army, causing thousands of casualties.
  • strategic air and missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy and transport infrastructure, aimed at forcing Kiev to surrender amid power blackouts;
  • a major naval engagement in the Black Sea, with likely destruction of ships and personnel on a scale not seen since the Falklands War;
  • a large numbers of Ukrainians would then actively resist any occupation using guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s aim would be to install a puppet government in Kiev, reversing the 2014 colour revolution that deposed Kremlin ally Victor Yanukovich, and getting Kiev to recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea and the Donbas.

This would be the first major conventional war in Europe since 1945, putting the collapse of Yugoslavia into the shade. It would cross a psychological red line globally: showing that war between “peer adversaries” — ie developed countries with tanks and modern jets — can be fought and won.

Such an attack would, by all international legal standards, be a war of aggression. It would be a violation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and of its right of its to self-determination. With 8% of Ukraine’s 42 million people saying they would flee the country if Russia invades, it would also trigger a large scale refugee crisis in Romania, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

It would bring Putin’s dictatorship — in which all democratic opposition movements are banned — into the flawed but functional democracy of Ukraine. It would remove such pressures currently exerted by the EU and other Western governments for greater democratisation, freedom and rule of law in Ukraine.

Such a war would, in all probability, put the nail in the coffin of any viable, rules based geopolitical order.

This, in short, is a war the left really needs to stop happening, if we can. Since we don’t have the means to launch a cross-border general strike, and we want don’t our own states to go to war with Russia, we can only stop it by backing democratic states’ attempts to deter Russian aggression.

Practically that means, if asked, Labour, PSOE, the German SPD and any other social-democrats in government in NATO countries should support the Biden administration’s threat of sanctions against Russia to deter the military attack — because the threat of sanctions is the only leverage Western democracies currently have.

At the same time the left should urge Western governments to pursue diplomacy to restrain both Kiev and Moscow, reviving the Minsk II peace process, which stabilised the region after 2014, and both sides are trying to walk away from.

Instead Murray’s article basically justifies Vladimir Putin’s argument that Ukraine is not really a country with a claim to sovereignty in its own right.

Accepting Putin’s logic

Andrew Murray urges us to:

“recognise the truth in [Putin’s] assertion that ‘inside the USSR, borders between republics were never seen as state borders; they were nominal within a single country’.”

Similarly he urges us to accept Putin’s argument that after 1991:

“people, found themselves abroad overnight, taken away, this time indeed, from their historical motherland”.

This is Putin’s view of history, but it is not the one accepted by a large majority of Ukraine’s people.

Since 1991 Ukraine has been a sovereign, independent country, albeit with a Russian-speaking, and in some cases Russian-identifying minority concentrated in the Donbas and Crimea.

It became a separate country because, as the USSR collapsed, it turned out the Soviet bureaucracy was divided into intensely nationalistic criminal oligarchies. And because, at its birth, the USSR was designed as a union of national republics, not a linguistic mono-state with “nominal” internal borders. (This latter vision of Russia is what Great Russian chauvinists in the Stalin era dreamed of, and Putin’s view is clearly a hangover from that).

In 2014, after the Ukrainian people decisively overthrew the pro-Moscow puppet government, Russia annexed Crimea by force, and then sent paramilitaries into Donetsk and Lugansk to create the breakaway “people’s republics” there. In the process, it was implicated in the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner, killing 298 innocent people. It is worth remembering that the trigger for this was Ukraine’s desire to sign a trade treaty with the EU — and had nothing to do with NATO.

If Murray were simply asking the left to accept that the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine has a right to self-determination, as the Catalans have in Spain, and that the status of the Donbas and Crimea needs to be regularised, the argument might have merit. But he asks much more.

First, he whitewashes the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. He claims the Euromaidan revolution of 2014 gave Putin the pretext to “return the Crimean peninsula to Russian sovereignty” a process that was “relatively peaceful and ratified by a referendum of the people of the peninsula”.

But Crimea was “returned to Russian sovereignty” by an illegal, armed invasion. That is the position expressed in numerous UN General Assembly resolutions: that the Crimea annexation was “illegal and a violation of international law” and a violation of the 1994 agreement whereby Ukraine was induced to give up nuclear weapons.

The referendum that ratified the annexation was, by all objective reports, rigged and subject to massive fraud. The official 97% turnout was revealed, in a leaked Russian foreign ministry document, to be actually 40% — making the 55% majority for annexation represent just 22% of Crimean voters. There is no doubt that Putin won the referendum, but it was a travesty of democracy, which no socialist could make excuses for.

The outcome of the annexation of Crimea was the collapse of its agricultural production (due to closure of access to an irrigation canal linking to Ukraine’s Don River), the pollution of its drinking water, collapsing healthcare systems and the severe depletion of human rights, including for its Tartar ethnic minority.

As the European Council said this year:

“Residents of the peninsula face systematic restrictions of their fundamental freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, religion or belief and association, and the right to peaceful assembly. Journalists, human rights defenders and defence lawyers face interference and intimidation in their work. The Crimean Tatars continue to be unacceptably persecuted, pressured and have their rights gravely violated”

That is what “returning the Crimea to Russian sovereignty” means in practice. However, Murray wants the anti-war movement to go further than simply recognising Putin’s “might is right” approach.

He wants us to accept Putin’s argument that Ukraine itself is a state that cannot realistially exercise sovereignty. That was the thrust of Putin’s July 2021 essay On The Historical Unity of The Russians and Ukrainians.

Putin regards any independent, sovereign Ukraine, as an essentially anti-Russian project. He sees aUkraine that is democratic, and not subjugated to Russia, as an existential threat to Russia itself. Putin wrote:

“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources…for we are one people.”

No matter how fervently Putin and some Russians believe this, it is clear that the majority of Ukrainian citizens do not. They have formed a sovereign state and, under international law, and it has the right to exist.

The international left has a duty to support that right, regardless of the quality of democracy in Ukraine itself, or the presence of fascists, anti-Semites and historical revisionists in the Ukrainian nationalist movement — which Murray points out, and is clearly evidenced.

Putin aims to destroy Western democracy

Of course, the socialist attitude to war is about more than “who started it?” So it’s worth considering Putin’s long-term aims as he mobilises forces to threaten Ukraine’s 42 million people.

The long-term goals behind Putin’s repeated military mobilisations, disinformation campaigns and assassinations were spelled out by Kremlin mouthpiece Sergei Karaganov in March 2021.

The goal is to destroy Western democracy through a new Cold War:

“Modern Western democracies, apparently, are not imperishable either […] The political systems of most countries that have decided to challenge us and China are not adapted to a long and fierce confrontation […] At the end of the previous Cold War, the intellectual state of the West was its strong trump card. Now the situation has changed dramatically.

While the Western left — rightly — opposes those who use Cold War rhetoric against China and Russia, this key Kremlin advisor believes a “Third Cold War” is already under way, and that Russia can win it. The reason? The West is being destroyed by:

“…all manifestations of LGBTisms, multisexuality and ultrafeminism; denial of history, roots, and faith; and support for black racism, including its anti-Christianity and anti-Semitism. The list also includes democracy as a religion and not simply as a way of governing.”

Putin, in short, is running an ultranationalist, racist, homophobic anto-democratic dictatorship. He intends to resist democracy and social liberalism at home, by fighting them in the West. His proxies and allies in the West — the French far right, the Italian far right, the Austrian far right, Victor Orban and Donald Trump — are already mobilised around that objective.

Our own country has perpetrated illegal wars, torture and failed state-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that’s no excuse for whitewashing the aims of a bellicose dictator, whose strategic intention is to attack the very values the left has fought for.

It is unthinkable that anyone on the British left would actually support a Russian invasion of Ukraine. So Murray’s article can only discredit both Stop the War and Labour, and sow confusion. If the shooting starts, we are going to need a broad anti-war movement, capable of both recognising Ukraine’s rights and protesting against any drive for the West to retaliate militarily against Russia.

But if you follow Murray’s logic, then on the day Putin invades Ukraine, the anti-war movement should picket the US embassy calling for an end to Biden’s “aggression”. What it would demand of Russia is not clear.

Murray’s article is already being used by the left’s critics to claim — wrongly — that “if Corbyn were PM, Labour would be backing Putin”. I, together with numerous left members of the PLP and Shadow Cabinet under Jeremy, worked hard to ensure this could not happen. The outright apologists for Putin among the Labour left were always in a tiny minority. Labour’s policy positions under Corbyn remained supportive of NATO membership, of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and indeed of both KFOR and the eFP deployments (despite a freelance attempt by someone on Corbyn’s staff to undermine the latter).

Murray’s argument stems from a world-view shared by both the ex-Stalinist left and parts of the young, identity-focused left, which see “the West” — and specifically the USA — as the primary enemy of progress. Russia and China, despite the totalitarian direction of their governments, are seen as in the “anti-imperialist” camp. It’s a message continuously amplified on left-oriented Russian state media outlets like RT, Sputnik and Redfish.

Stop the War did sterling work mobilising mass opposition to the Iraq and Afghan invasions. But however critical we are of the West and NATO’s actions — in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond — we should reject “campism”, together with any idea of a solidarity with Russia in the present crisis, or support for its illegal annexations. Our solidarity is with the democrats and journalists and gay rights activists Putin has thrown into jail.

How to actually stop the war

The principled course of action for Labour, the left, European social-democracy, and the left of the US Democratic Party is to say:

  • No to Russian military aggression in Ukraine.
  • No to NATO military action in defence of Ukraine
  • Yes to comprehensive sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine
  • Support for arms sales to Ukraine, in defence of its national sovereignty, conditional on Kiev meeting human rights and anti-corruption standards
  • Resist the expansion of NATO, except to countries with stable and mature democracies (eg Finland and Sweden, should their populations ever wish to join)
  • Promote multilateral talks to restart the process of peace and stabilisation in the breakaway republics in the Donbas
  • Russia and its proxies should withdraw from DNR/LNR and Crimea, in accordance with international law

Hopefully this will all subside, and turn out to be yet another trolling excursion by Putin designed merely to foster diplomatic splits within the West. But the tide of pro-Putin propaganda and disinformation is relentless, and maintaining an embarassed silence over it is not helpful. Sooner or later he will pull something more serious than Crimea, the Skripal assasination and MH17.

The British labour movement should, together with the Party of European Socialists, the European Left and the global trade union federations, support the democratic, left and progressive movements in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Our ultimate aim should be a popular democratic movement that sweeps away both Putin and Lukashenko, and to strengthen both democracy and a democratic labour movement in Ukraine.

Republished from How to Stop Fascism

Paul Mason·Dec 21, 2021

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