The “Stockholm Syndrome” has been succinctly explained by Wikipedia: “This term was first used by the media in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. The hostages defended their captors after being released and would not agree to testify in court against them. It was noted that in this case, however, the police were perceived to have acted with little care for the hostages’ safety, providing an alternative reason for their unwillingness to testify. Stockholm syndrome is paradoxical because the sympathetic sentiments that captives feel towards their captors are the opposite of the fear and disdain which an onlooker might feel towards the captors.”
The Stockholm Syndrome has had a dramatic revival. Where? No place other than in Stockholm, Sweden, itself where the Left Party now embraces arms shipments to Ukraine. Who are the hostage takers? Not your average criminal, but rather the Swedish military industrial complex comprised of defense contractors, leaders of the armed forces, the parliament, various parts of the media, and a small army of “security experts.” Who are the police who have perceived not to have not cared for the hostages’ safety? The analogy here only partially breaks down but relates to the supposedly indifferent view of the peace movement, anti-militarist intellectuals, and others opposed to the militarist hostage takers. So, you say, “it is obvious that police oppose criminals!” So I say, “it is obvious that anti-militarists oppose militarism.” We could end the story here, but the devil is in the details.
The Militarism-War-Arms Transfer Circuit
The transfer of weapons is simply the end of a larger exchange system. On the Ukrainian side, the start of the circuit is the deepening of military cooperation with NATO, which itself may reflect Russian-backed military incursions into Ukraine, incursions associated with various Russian grievances such as maltreatment of Russian Ukrainians and a countermove to NATO’s eastward expansion.
In the Fall, Andrew Murray of Stop the War reports, the U.S. and Ukrainian governments signed an agreement to deepen “strategic defence co-operation.” This treaty, aimed at Russia, sought to enhance “US-Ukraine strategic defence and security co-operation and the advancement of shared priorities, deepening co-operation in areas such as Black Sea security, cyber defence, and intelligence sharing, and countering Russian aggression.” It is not simply NATO that may have helped trigger NATO aggressions Murray reports, but “something else — the bilateral US-Ukraine military relationship…which could appear just as threatening viewed from Russia as full Ukrainian integration into the NATO alliance.” This treaty provided “Ukraine with state-of-the art weaponry and military support.”
Murray writes: “The agreement included ‘a framework for pursuing bilateral armaments and military-technical co-operation,’ a pledged continuation of a ‘robust training and exercise programme in keeping with Ukraine’s status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner’ as well as co-operation in cybersecurity and space security.” Murray points to observers who argue that this agreement helped trigger Putin’s agreement: “The Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders began directly after the treaty’s conclusion.” The agreement not only left the door to Ukraine’s NATO membership open, “but the US military was moving into the immediate neighbourhood.” Given the lack of any “immediate rationale for Russia’s invasion in February — no direct fresh provocation,” Murray argued that “it is…plausible” to make a linkage between this military expansion and the Russian invasion.
A prelude to the Russian invasion, Murray reports, was March 2018, when “the US provided anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, starting the supply of lethal weaponry, and in October 2018 Ukraine joined the United States and seven other NATO countries in a series of major air exercises over western Ukraine.” In addition, NATO members engaged in “military training missions.” In sum, Ukraine’s escalating move towards NATO has taken place over many years, even if Ukraine never joined NATO. Murray can’t be called a “useful idiot” for Russian militarist aggression. The underlying point is what could an aggressive, militarist Putin/Russia be triggered by? Does the immorality of Putin explain all of his motivations? Do states cease having strategic or military interests even if we think them to be unreasonable, unjust, and unjustifiable? I argue that the answer is no; they do not cease having these interests. Is the probabiliity of Russian militarism and expansionism increased in response to NATO expansionism? I argue that the answer is yes; the probability of one form of managerialism or paranoia is expanded in response to another form of managerialism or paranoia.
The origins of the militarism-war-arms transfer circuit relate in part to U.S. interference in Ukraine, not simply Russian imperialism. Yuliy Dubovyk, a Ukrainian American peace activist, argues that “the US government has meddled in Ukraine for decades” which has led the Ukrainian people to suffer. Dubovyk argues that the U.S. helped destabilize the Ukrainian government “twice in a decade, imposed neoliberal economic policies that made our country the poorest in Europe, and has fueled a devastating civil war that in the past eight years took the lives of 14,000 Ukrainians and wounded and displaced many more.” While some may find Dubovyk’s analysis problematic, the underlying argument being made here is that Ukrainian history is far more complicated than the mass media and mainstream (and even “left”) political parties communicate. So I present Dubovyk’s analysis to show that while Russia is engaged in imperialist militarism, the story is far more complicated than that. The ability to explore such nuances is often vehemently opposed by reducing them to Russian propaganda. In any case, we proceed to Dubovyk’s analysis to explore other ways to interpret the Ukraine tragedy.
Dubovyk writes: “In a shockingly honest 2004 report titled ‘US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,’ Britain’s establishment newspaper The Guardian admitted that the ‘Orange Revolution’ was ‘an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing,’ bankrolled with at least $14 million.”
While some point to Russian incursions in Ukraine’s east as a potential reason for Ukraine’s moves towards NATO, Dubovyk explains that “from 2014 to 2019, in five years of civil war in Donbas, the geographic region that encompasses the Luhansk and Donetsk republics, more than 13,000 people were killed, and at least 28,000 were wounded, according to official Ukrainian government statistics. This was years before Russia invaded” (emphasis added). The vast majority of civilians were killed by “the Ukrainian army and its far-right paramilitary allies.” In January 2022, Dubovyk explains that the UN reported that “between 2018 and 2021, 81.4% of all civilian casualties caused by active hostilities were in Donetsk and Luhansk.” These victims were “Russian-speaking Ukrainians being killed their own government” and “not secret Russian forces.” In fact, “the vast majority of rebel forces consist of locals—not soldiers of the regular Russian military,” according to an article (published January 21, 2022) by Samuel Charap and Scott Boston (of the Rand Corporation) in Foreign Policy cited by Dubovyk.
Charap and Boston then argued (prior to the Russian invasion) that “military assistance now will at best be marginal in affecting the outcome of the crisis. It might be morally justified to help a U.S. partner at risk of aggression. But given the scale of the potential threat to Ukraine and its forces, the most effective way Washington can help is to work on finding a diplomatic solution.”
The Party of Arms Transfers as Solidarity and Democracy
Originally the Swedish left party voted down arms transfers to Ukraine. Then by March 1st, the party leader Nooshi Dadgostar announced: “With the support of international law and the UN Charter, the principle of the right of attacked states to defend themselves has been a key part of Swedish foreign and security policy as well. When reality changes, it is important to be able to reconsider decisions. Sweden must be able to stand united behind our support for Ukraine.” She also said, “there are many objections to arms exports, that we should not send weapons to the war zone, I understand that even if I think it was wrong.” Dadgostar explained that the decision to ship weapons to Ukraine involves risks and threats for Sweden and Swedish citizens, but argued “it is a time when you have to stand up for international law and for each country’s right to defend itself.” The pro-arms transfer decision revealed a deep split within the party, with some arguing against sending weapons to Ukraine.
One background to this vote was that the “party received and receives harsh criticism from other parliamentary parties for its decision to vote no in the Riksdag,” according to an analysis by Lars Larsson published in Svenska Dagbladet. Larsson explained that “the party is part of the peace movement and its opposition to arms exports and military solutions to conflicts.” Larsson’s article cites Tommy Möller, a political scientist, who argues that “foreign policy has been the decisive reason” why Social Democrats “rejected any idea of closer cooperation” with the Left Party. Foreign policy is probably still a major obstacle to closer cooperation, especially in government, he says.
A recent editorial in Expressen by a group of persons in the Left Party criticized the Swedish Left Party’s initial decision not to support arms shipments to Ukraine. Part of the argument ran as follows: “The Left Party is generally critical of arms exports, but this is not about exports but about showing solidarity with arms aid to a neighboring country that has been hit by an illegal and violent military aggression. It is important that there is no doubt that the Left Party is in the forefront for Russia to leave Ukraine. Therefore, the party board’s position is unfortunate.”
The editorial argued that arms can promote democracy: “It is important that there is no doubt that the Left Party is in the forefront for Russia to leave Ukraine. We believe that it is in line with our party’s policy to stand up for the right of the Ukrainian people to rule over their own country. Putin’s expansionist line must be stopped quickly, effectively and resolutely. We think it is a matter of course that Sweden, as a friendly democracy in Europe, should also assist the Ukrainian army with weapons.”
Like various persons in the Swedish left party the former President of the Italian Democratic Party, Gianni Cuperlo, also links arms transfers to self-defense, solidarity and sovereignty. In an interview in the left newspaper, Il Manifesto, Cuperlo said: “A request for military support came from the government in Kyiv, and, faced with that, there were two ways one could proceed. Either refuse that support in the name of the principle that rejects the logic of arms because it always leads only to a spiral or more intense warfare, or accept the request of the attacked country and help it defend itself. I do not have any political or moral authority to proffer truths, but I can say that, as we are dealing with innocent victims, I consider the second path a legitime one, because it is part of the right of a people to protect itself and preserve its independence and sovereignty.” He added, “Offering every support to Ukraine with a wide range of actions is also the way to press Moscow to desist from the strategy they have followed so far.”
Deconstructing the Swedish Left Party
Let’s unpack the Left Party statement and Larsson’s analysis (with implications for Cuperlo’s views as well).
The United Nations
First, it is based on the false assumption that the framework of the United Nations is somehow sufficient for legitimating intervening in a war. In the 2011 UN resolution 1973, aimed at Libya, a “No Fly Zone” was established, prohibiting a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians.” This resolution was associated with NATO intervention in Libya to enforce the “No Fly Zone.” NATO’s Libya intervention was followed by a political vacuum, which was filled in part by ISIS over a certain time interval. In Horace G. Campbell’s book, Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, we learn that “the NATO campaign caused many civilian deaths and destroyed the nation’s infrastructure.” This campaign also “unleashed…instability” taking “the forms of militias and terrorist groups,” whose actions included an attack on the U.S. embassy and its personnel, leading to the death of ambassador John Christopher Stephens. In the journal International Security(Vol. 38, No. 1, Summer 2013), Alan J. Kuperman argued that NATO’s intervention in Libya “extended the war’s duration about sixfold; increased its death toll approximately seven to ten times; and exacerbated human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.” A year later, Fredrik Doeser, a Swedish security analyst would go on to publish an article entitled, “Sweden’s Libya Decision: A case of humanitarian intervention,” in the journal International Politics (Vol. 51, No. 2). In sum, the United Nations sanction was the prelude to disaster, not simply a stepping stone to universal beneficence.
Second, while the Left Party is opposed to NATO, its support for arms transfers to Ukraine can’t be separated from a political trajectory of NATO expansionism towards Ukraine. During the ill-fated Libya episode, NATO’s Secretary General was Anders Fogh Rasmussen. In a March 12 interview, Rasmussen explained the military, managerialist logic which motivated NATO: “What we did back in 2008 was to guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO…. And then we established the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission. So instead of a Membership Action Plan, we pursued other paths onward. But still, now in hindsight, I think it was a mistake not to grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans back in 2008. Because it sent the wrong signal to Putin. He calculated that there is disunity within NATO, he considered that a weakness, and he exploited that weakness by attacking Georgia.” In this interview, we can see hints of how NATO expansionism was tied to potential Russian expansionism: “In 2008, we had a NATO-Russia summit [and] Putin left that summit furious because we had decided that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. And during that meeting, he argued that Ukraine, in general, and Crimea, in particular, was not really independent, they were as part of history an integrated part of Russia. He called Kyiv the mother of all Russian cities. If we had listened at that time, if we had taken him seriously at that time, we would be better prepared for what we have seen in the last 10 or 20 years.”
Third, arms transfers are not simply “defensive measures” for countries defending themselves from external attack. They are also part of the logic and reality of military expansionism. Cuperlo acknowledges this point, but neither he nor the Swedish left party provide sufficient explanations for what this expansionism means. For example, weapons transfers keep the conflict going, but as the Ukrainian side has faced setbacks there have been demands for a “no fly zone,” exactly as occurred in Libya. In contrast, Putin has warned that any country promoting such a zone in Ukraine will be considered a participant in the Ukraine conflict. Even if the Left Party does not back a no fly zone, they may have endorsed a policy of using military means that are insufficient for protecting Ukraine, but rather prolong a military conflict. The idea that military means always achieve desired results is contradicted by theories about “the limits of military power.” Are the risks of escalation worth the price of “solidarity”? In Sweden, arms shipments were followed by incursions by Russian military fighters into Russian territory. Swedish leaders argue that if we don’t stop the Russian military in Ukraine, they will escallate. Yet, arms shipments are part of what trigger Russian escallation.
A preview of escalation was seen when Russian jets entered Swedish air space. On March 12th, Russian Foreign Ministry Second European Department Director Sergei Belyayev told the Russian news serviceInterfax that “Finland and Sweden’s possible accession to NATO would have serious military and political consequences and require Russia to take retaliatory measures.” He added, “‘But we cannot ignore the growing intensity of Helsinki and Stockholm’s practical interaction with NATO, including participation in military exercises of the alliance, the provision by Finland and Sweden of its territory for such maneuvers conducted in close proximity of the Russian borders, including the United States’ imitation of attacks using nuclear weapons against the so-called ‘comparable enemy.’”
There are various forms which escalation can take even without the Russian bombardment of cities addressed below.
+ The Russians can bring in new troops, from allied nations. A report in The Guardian on March 11thdescribed a Syrian commitment to Russia’s imperial war in Ukraine could involve as many as 16,000 volunteers who would be paid fifty times a Syrian soldier’s monthly salary.
+ On March 12, another news story published in The Financial Times explained that “Russia has warned that it will fire on western armaments shipments to Kyiv, raising the risk of a direct military confrontation between Moscow and NATO during the war in Ukraine. Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Saturday that ‘pumping up [Ukraine] with weapons from a whole range of countries’ was ‘not just a dangerous move — it’s something that turns these convoys into legitimate military targets.’”
+ In March, Pavlos Roufos in Jacobin wrote that “Spain’s foreign minister José Manuel Albares…nonchalantly suggested the need for a ‘serious discussion’ about a no-fly zone at an upcoming Western summit. Less direct but equally unsettling, the leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, Friedrich Merz, publicly wondered if we should consider the possibility that NATO itself will have to be ‘forced to take decisions to stop Putin.’”
+ On March 21, William J. Broad explained the possibility of various nuclear weapon exchanges in an article, “The Smaller Bombs That Could Turn Ukraine Into a Nuclear War Zone,” published in The New York Times. He cites James R. Clapper Jr., “a retired Air Force general who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence” who “said he was unsure how he would advise Mr. Biden if Mr. Putin unleashed his nuclear arms. ‘When do you stop?’ he asked of nuclear retaliation. ‘You can’t just keep turning the other cheek. At some point we’d have to do something’” A U.S. response to a small Russian blast, experts say, might be to fire one of the new submarine-launched warheads into the wilds of Siberia or at a military base inside Russia. Mr. [Franklin C.] Miller, the former government nuclear official and a former chairman of NATO’s nuclear policy committee, said such a blast would be a way of signaling to Moscow that ‘this is serious, that things are getting out of hand.’”
+ Broad cited Ulrich Kühn, at the University of Hamburg, who argued that “Putin might fire a weapon at an uninhabited area instead of at troops” and in “a 2018 study” Kuhn “laid out a crisis scenario in which Moscow detonated a bomb over a remote part of the North Sea as a way to signal deadlier strikes to come.” Kühn said, ““it feels horrible to talk about these things…But we have to consider that this is becoming a possibility.” Others argue that we can’t rule out Putin turning the Ukraine war into a nuclear crisis.
+ Some international relations experts may argue that Putin “won’t” invade NATO or use nuclear weapons in a way that triggers a NATO response. The problem, however, is that even prior to the Ukraine invasion, there have been numerous times when an accidental nuclear conflict was possible, with academics explaining how such accidents occur. More importantly, there are numerous ways in which human error and other problems of oversight can accelerate dangeorous outcomes, particularly during times of war.
Fourth, arms transfers are about political signaling as much as they are about taking the moral high ground. One central problem with left arguments that support arms shipments is that they seem to be based on a conceit that “our, moral weapons” will stop “their, evil weapons.” While there is no doubt that Russia is the party closer to “evil,” we cannot reduce morality to politics. For example, some will say that the West or country X should not bend to Putin’s will. If one even considers making a position based on what Putin thinks, then you are “giving in to evil.” In social media, this kind of argument appears. When you ask such people, “then why shouldn’t we send troops in to fight Putin?” And “if we don’t, then isn’t that giving in to Putin’s considerations?” At that point, the person you contradict, disappears. Or, they argue that we should not take such “risks.” Yet, the idea that arms transfers are not sufficiently risky (in contrast to sending troops which is too risky) simply ignores the various dangers of escallation previously enumerated. These risks are partially tied to how the movement towards arms shipments and sanctioning militarism are part of an hysterical political climate which allows the kinds of dangerous statements made by José Manuel Albares and Friedrich Merz cited above. There are a lot of self-serving and self-contradictory comments about what is risky and what is not.
What is political signaling? Basically, Swedish supporters of arms transfers are saying, “we will help Ukraine up to the point where the risks to Sweden are not very high,” i.e. we will not send in the Swedish army to fight Ukraine. Yet, if defending Ukraine is the moral litmus test, why not send in Swedish troops? The answer is that it turns out these arms transfers are—by their proponents’ admission and logic—about a morality that must be balanced by realist security concerns. Yet, even the Left Party leader admits that the arms transfers represent a potential threat to Sweden. In sum, the debate about arms transfers partially relates to how various individuals and organizations assess this balance between morality and threats. In other words, sending weapons to Ukraine is never simply about morality but it is also a political and military calculation. Therefore, could it be that sending weapons to Ukraine is less about solidarity, sovereignty and morality and more about a mistaken political and military calculation? The absurdity of Swedish political signaling is most apparent when we consider the idea that Putin is only “moderately” dangerous.
Arguments against diplomacy sometimes fall back on the idea that Putin is crazy. There are various types of argument made by those backing weapons transfers that don’t fit together. One says Russia is led by a madman or stubborn imperialist leader who does not or will not make concessions. The other says Russia will (rationally) make concessions in the bargaining table, particularly as it faces military resistance. One says Putin is very dangerous, arms shipments to Ukraine will stop him. But that position is usually associated with another, Putin is not so dangerous that he would actually attack us or that our sending weapons would lead to any blow back. Apparently, Putin is rational and dangerous enough so that it is safe to send weapons to oppose him. In Swedish, Putin is lagom rational and dangerous, i.e. not very rational and not very dangerous but also not just a little rational and not just a little dangerous. Putin is as rational and dangerous as those who support arms transfers want him to be; he is assumed to be just rational and just sufficiently undangerous as makes the arms transfer decision wise.This viewpoint appears to be the result of wish fulfillment and another example of how morality is alienated from politics. Or as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Why then does the Left Party engage in such signaling? Why doesn’t the Left Party support a greater diplomatic role for Sweden, rather than devaluing Swedish diplomatic power by supporting arms transfers? One must not rule out the basic belief that arms transfers will help a nation under a brutal siege. Yet, given that such transfers also involve political calculations, one must probe deeper. Some of these considerations might be domestic. Essential reading here is David Stavrou’s article in 2010, “The Debate over Swedish troops in Afghanistan,” published in The Local. His analysis highlights Möller’s point cited earlier about how anti-militarism helps marginalize the Left Party politically. Stavrou shows how the Left Party’s criticism of Swedish commitments helped get the party to then be labeled as extremist. Such a label hardly helps this party gain votes. Stavrou quotes Robert Egnell from The Swedish National Defence College who compared the Left Party (VP) to the Swedish Democrats (SD), a party founded by Nazi sympathizers. Egnell then stated, “It’s common that extreme parties mirror each other.” Egnell argued that while these two political rivals, VP and SD, reached the same conclusions, they differed in their reasons for doing so: “The Sweden Democrats want more focus on national defence and the Left Party is anti-militaristic.” Today both parties are aligned with every other party in the Swedish parliament in taking the short-term road to militarism which provides domestic political dividends.
Given the superficial character of much of the debate on militarism, arms exports and transfers, the best political move is to harvest that superficiality for votes. If one, however, is unaware of the trade-offs associated with arms transfers, then one can come up with a politically useful (in terms of voter harvesting) position, without being consciously opportunistic. No doubt many have “altruistic” motives. The lowest common denominator in politics is driven by the assassination of nuance. Was any political debate organized about arms transfers to Ukraine held in Sweden? To my knowledge, these debates are restricted to social media, with a few critiques slowly or periodically emerging in the mass media.
Weapons Transfers as the Bridge to Urban Bombardment
Fifth, even if Swedish weapons are effective in repelling Russia (or constraining its military power), the costs extend far beyond short-term security concerns for Sweden, i.e. these weapons are a bridge to the bombardment of Ukrainian cities. One key weapon that has been very effective in blowing up Russian tanks and killing Russian officers are so-called Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAWs). These weapons “are the result of decades of weapons research dedicated to building small lightweight guided missiles that may have evened the balance of power in combat between the fearsome tank and the soldier.” An analysis in The New York Times explains, the Saab (Sweden’s primary arms contractor) developed the NLAW and sold them “to a number of NATO countries — including Britain, which assembles the missiles at a factory in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the British Army.” The British Army “began purchasing NLAWs about 10 years ago and has been sending them to Ukraine in ever greater numbers.” One source “said Britain had sent more than 4,200 NLAWs to Ukraine.”
Sweden has sent 5,000 Pansarskott (Armor Shot) 86 anti-tank weapons directly to Ukraine. The security analyst Joakim Paasikivi, described this weapon “as a grenade in a reinforced fiberglass tube.” This weapon can “strike through armored shooting vehicles and lighter vehicles…from the front, rear and from the sides.” It can also destroy “tanks if you are lucky in the side and from behind, above all.” One limit is that “tanks…have too strong protection in the front for Armor Shot 86 to penetrate.” While the Robot 57 is a far more effective weapon for destroying tanks, Paasikivi explains that “every anti-tank weapon means that the Russians must take action and be more careful.” In other words, “a limited number of Robot 57s, would perhaps knock out numerically more tanks, but the threat from 5,000 Armor Shots 86 may be just as great.” A separate analysis concluded, “the explosive power is not fully sufficient to knock out modern tanks, but can destroy or deactivate armored vehicles and fortifications.” In theory then, if a column of tanks is bounded by such armored vehicles then knocking them out would facilitate destroying tanks with other weapons, e.g. the NLAWs.
Anders Holmer in an article in Hallandsposten provides further useful details about the weapons Sweden sent to Ukraine. He cited Major Jan Thorsson of the Swedish armed forces who explained that while the Pansarskott 86 “is a less sophisticated weapon than the robots that Ukraine has longed for…it is by no means an obsolete weapon.” These weapons “come in handy against lightly armored troop transports” which comprise “the majority of the Russians’ advancing vehicles.” In other words, the Swedish weapons probably were useful for resisting the Russian advances. The weapon is not necessarily inferior to more advanced anti-tank weapons, according to Master Sergeant Karl Danielsson who stated that he “would rather have chosen many Pansarskotts than fewer robots,” with American soldiers using the weapon extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan under the export name AT-4.
The Politics of Aerial Bombardment: Weapons Transfers ≠ Solidarity?
The Swedish weapons sent to Ukraine are part of what has contributed to stopping Russian advances on the ground, but such Russian setbacks may have accelerated Russian bombardment of cities:
- An analysis in Al Jazeera on March 2nd explained: “The attacks on urban areas signal a shift of Russian tactics amid Western assessments that Moscow’s six-day invasion had stalled. They raised fears the invading troops may now fall back on tactics that call for a crushing bombardment of built-up areas before trying to enter them.” The article continued: “The Russians have been surprised not only by the scale of Ukrainian resistance but also by poor morale among their own forces, some of whom surrendered without a fight, the official said, without providing evidence. Many Western military analysts fear that Russia may be shifting tactics, and using artillery and air bombardments to pulverize cities to crush fighters’ resolve.”
- An article in USA today on March 10th by Alexandra Vacroux, Harvard University: “As we seek to avoid World War III, we must remember that Putin will use his own definitions of what constitutes escalation and direct NATO intervention in the war. Putin cited ‘aggressive statements’ by NATO countries and financial sanctions when raising Russian military readiness levels. He might decide that supplying more weapons to Ukraine constitutes escalation by NATO and respond more aggressively.”
- A report on March 20th in The New York Times by Marc Santor and Steven Erlanger based on assessments by analysts and U.S. officials stated that the war had “reached a stalemate after more than three weeks of fighting, with Russia making only marginal gains and increasingly targeting civilians.” This dispatch quoted the Institute for the Study of War which stated that “Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war.” Santor and Erlanger cited the Institute’s findings that the “Russians do not have the manpower or the equipment to seize Kyiv, the capital, or other major cities like Kharkiv and Odessa.”
If arms transfers slow the Russian advance, but that leads the Russian military to bomb cities, that suggests a diminished value of such weapons.
Weapons that empower Ukrainians not only help slow the Russian advance and provide resistance to an invasion, but indirectly trigger Russian tactics which increasingly look like prior Russian attacks on Chechnya. Here is the range of damage from that conflict provided in a Wikipedia entry: “In the Second Chechen War, over 60,000 combatants and non-combatants were killed. Civilian casualty estimates vary widely. According to the pro-Moscow Chechnya government, 160,000 combatants and non-combatants died or have gone missing in the two wars, including 30,000–40,000 Chechens and about 100,000 Russians; while separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov (deceased) repeatedly claimed about 200,000 ethnic Chechens died as a consequence of the two conflicts.”
Michael Clarke at the military think tank RUSI explains the Russians’ strategy: “It’s an attempt to create terror in the population and to break civilian morale. In Mariupol, they just want the city to give in. Usually they offer people a way out, but they aren’t offering any genuine escape routes in Mariupol – they just want them to surrender. Essentially, it’s a medieval siege…Flesh and blood can only do so much without food, water, electricity and hospitals. They want to break the city down so they can walk in with their tanks and their armour and claim it as their own. The Russians use the misery of a population as a weapon of war.” This is a “deliberate policy of displacement – so they can empty parts of a city they want to occupy.”
Max Fisher at The New York Times writes these tactics “emerged from Russia’s experiences in a string of wars that led its leaders to conclude, for reasons both strategic and ideological, that bombarding whole populations was not only acceptable but militarily sound.” Therefore, counter Cuperlo, even if weapons transfers are part of a system to pressure Russia, or speed negotiations, a lot of death and destruction occurs along that path.
The military tactic of bombardment of cities can’t be separated from the political environment of isolation created by states like Sweden sending weapons to Russia, joining with NATO, or even sanctioning Russia. Fisher writes: “they also reflect the circumstances of an authoritarian state with few allies, enabling the Kremlin to ignore and even embrace revulsion at its military conduct — or so Russian leaders seem to believe.” Fisher quotes Russian military strategist Alexei Arbatov from 2000: “Massive devastation and collateral fatalities among the civilian population are acceptable in order to limit one’s own casualties…The use of force is the most efficient problem solver, if applied decisively and massively.” Arbatov added that international horror about what Russia does should be “discounted.”
Fisher argues that Russia’s tactics feed sanctions which potentially limit Russia, however: “Global outrage did not turn back Russian advances in Chechnya or Syria. But it is now driving the sanctions and military support that are devastating Russia’s economy and miring its invasion in quagmire — underscoring that Moscow’s way of war may not be as ruthlessly pragmatic as it believes.” Yet, even if Russia should fail in Ukraine, there seems little doubt that the bombardment of cities and civilian targets occurs despite or because of limits on ground troop advancement. The “despite” suggests the limits of military power and arms shipments as deterrents to Russian aggression. The “because” simply illustrates how weapons transfers accelerate atrocities. In neither case can we then conclude that the magical formula of “solidarity = weapons transfers” is a problem-free notion, i.e. the opposite may very well be the case.
Weapons Transfers as Diplomatic Leverage for Ukraine?
The setbacks facing the Russian military might argue for weapons transfers as diplomatic tools. A contrasting picture emerges when linking the essential observations of James M. Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Stephen Kinzer, visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Acton wrote that, “Ukraine’s plan to end this war is probably not to vanquish the invading forces. Rather, its goal appears to be to make the prospect of continuing the war, and the occupation that could follow it, exceptionally painful for Russia—so painful that Putin comes to view a settlement agreement that preserves Ukraine’s independence as the lesser of two evils.”
The logic here is that the more power the Ukrainians have the greater leverage they can gain in diplomacy or control over the situation. The Russian turn to urban bombing does argue in part against increased Ukrainian control in one sense. What about diplomacy?
On March 17, Kinzer wrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe entitled, “U.S. military aid to Ukraine guarantees more suffering and death.” Kinzer explained the impact of “the Niagara of armament…flooding into Ukraine” by writing, “if Russian President Vladimir Putin needed any more evidence for his conviction that the West wants to use Ukraine as a battering ram against Russia, we are providing it.” Rather than see diplomatic utility, Kinzer saw U.S. weapons transfers as violence accelerators: “They will not only be used to kill Russians, but also provoke Russia to respond by killing more Ukrainians. Given the number of mercenaries that both sides are recruiting from around the world, some of these weapons will almost certainly leak onto the global black market. Look for them to turn up in the arsenals of terrorists around the world.”
Kinzer argued that weapons transfers actually thwart diplomacy: “It’s bad enough that the United States and NATO have joined Putin in a mad escalation, recklessly fueling war and making no serious effort to reach peace. Even worse is that the peace formula is clear for all to see. It’s mind-numbingly simple: a non-aligned Ukraine without foreign troops or weapons.”
Acton suggests that what’s good for Ukraine might not be what the U.S. and European states acting in concert with the U.S. believe to be a good thing: “if Zelensky wants a negotiated settlement, he will likely have to make significant concessions to Russia—as he has acknowledged. Any such concessions will probably be bitterly opposed by many in the United States and Europe.”
A key problem emerges. A state like Sweden might think it sends weapons to promote diplomacy or slow Russia, but it is not Sweden that decides the end game here. Acton again explains why: “it is virtually inconceivable that Russia would agree to a settlement without sanctions relief.” Therefore, “the United States and its allies must be prepared to lift sanctions—including on Russia’s central bank—if Russia and Ukraine negotiate and implement a settlement agreement.” Therefore, even if the Left Party had the best intentions in the world when supporting arms transfers, it is not their version of the world that will determine the trajectory of what their weapons contribute to. The alleged or real “gains” to Ukraine from receiving weapons, can easily be diminished if not thwarted by U.S. government strategic and diplomatic moves.
One can then argue, “well, why shouldn’t Sweden try to do good despite what the U.S. does?” This assessment fails to recognize that Ukraine is stuck between two large militaristic blocs, NATO and the U.S. on one side and Russia and its allies (Belarus and possibly China) on the other. In such a situation, both power blocs may help thwart diplomacy which represents the best deal Ukraine can get. Therefore, it would help to have a non-aligned bloc which pressures the two others. Yet, Sweden sacrificed this role, aided and abetted by the Left Party’s turn around.
Acton shows that the pressure system on Russia (and by implication any forces that contribute to it) can easily thwart diplomacy: “To date, the United States and its allies have sent out mixed messages about sanctions relief. U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland indicated an openness to it. By contrast, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has declared “economic and financial war on Russia” with the goal of causing “the collapse of the Russian economy.” In a similar vein, British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss stated that “the purpose of the sanctions is to debilitate the Russian economy.” This ambiguity is dangerous because it risks obscuring the existence of an off-ramp for Putin and could thus prolong the conflict and increase the small but real chance of nuclear escalation.”
Those who argue for weapons and against diplomacy argue that Putin is a militarist madman who won’t engage in diplomacy. In contrast, Acton explains: “as everyone who has haggled over anything knows, you end up paying a higher price if you make it clear from the start that you’re desperate to buy.” Similarly, “Putin may be trying to extract greater concessions at the negotiating table by claiming that he has no interest in talking. Ultimately, it is impossible to know whether there is a deal to be had unless we try to get it.”
What constrains diplomacy in Ukraine? Dubovyk provides part of an answer: “all forces that normally oppose fascism or would oppose the civil war have not existed en masse for eight years in Ukraine: following the 2014 coup, many left-wing parties and socialists got banned by the Ukrainian government, and were assaulted in the streets by the fascists.” While “Zelensky ran on” and was elected on “a platform of peace,” he quickly “changed his tone,” after being elected: “Zelensky was told that he was risking losing Western backing, and the loyalty of the far-right, which could threaten to kill him. So Zelensky did a 180 on his peaceful rhetoric, and he continued to support the civil war.” In sum, “Kiev has been actively pushed to confront Russia by every US administration, against the will of the majority of Ukrainian people.” Dubovyk argues that “the reason US media outlets and politicians are all backing Ukraine now is because they want to use the Ukrainian military and civilian population as cannon fodder in a proxy war with a political adversary.”
Pressure on NATO, not just Russia, is Needed, but Arms Transfers Back the Swedish and European Military Industrial Complex
Acton and Kinzer illustrate why we need pressure not just on Russia, but also NATO. In contrast to the now dominant factions in the Left Party, the Democratic Socialists of America have a completely different line. A recent article in The New York Times spelled out their position. This group has argued “that NATO promotes a militarized response to conflict at the expense of diplomacy, and that economic sanctions too often victimize working people.” Ashik Siddique, a member of the D.S.A.’s National Political Committee explained: “There is a longstanding tradition with the U.S. left as well as in Europe that NATO has played a role, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in emphasizing militarized solutions when diplomacy could lead to more long-term stability.”
By supporting arms transfers which trigger Russian aggressive moves against Sweden, the Left Party has indirectly supported the political movement to put Sweden in NATO. More directly, the Left Party has embraced military budget increases to address what is classified as a Russian threat to Sweden. Does Sweden’s proximity to Russia make the Swedish Left Party more militaristic than its U.S. equivalents, e.g. D.S.A.? This party’s legacy is that it was once a Communist Party aligned with the Soviet Union. Here, “proximity” earlier aligned the party with Communist militarism (or its legitimation through guilt by association). In any case, proximity might argue against militarism and for diplomacy given Sweden’s very own military vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia. Interestingly, the Left Party wants to both provoke Russia (through arms transfers) but stay out of NATO. This suggests that their position has zero to do with proximity.
The Russian attack on Ukraine and Russian escalation to Sweden have empowered both pro-NATO forces in the country, with polls showing increased support for NATO, and a move to increase military spending so that it is 2% of Gross Domestic Product. While 30% to 35% percent of Swedes had supported NATO since 2014, a poll taken in March showed that this proportion had increased to 46%. The 2% figure is what NATO requires of its members. This military spending is an opportunity cost on Sweden’s social welfare, social inclusion, and ecological goals and upsets the balance between the Swedish welfare and warfare states.
Therefore, while some on the left are attracted by humanitarian militarism, they have been entrapped to support what will end up to be the right-wing parties’ scarcity politics goals. This scarcity politics involves crowding out national funding for progressive goals, concentration of spending on police, weapons, and a diminished ecological budget. It is true that the so-called “bourgeois parties” also advocated funding for ecological goals. The problem is that the horizons of all parties are based on quickly eroding conceptions of how much should be spent and how fast that money should be spent to avoid ecological catastrophe.
Consider a recent interview with John Bellamy Foster in Monthly Review. Foster explains:
“The trouble is that if we go beyond a 1.5°C increase, and especially beyond a 2°C increase, more and more climate feedback mechanisms, such as the loss of arctic ice and thus the weakening of the albedo effect (the earth’s reflectivity), the release of methane and carbon dioxide from the melting tundra, the burning of the Amazon, and the degradation of the ocean as a climate sink will compound the climate problem and create an irreversible situation, increasing the possibility of runaway climate change that would in effect feed on itself, to the extent that the very existence of humanity would be in question…There is still a possibility of avoiding absolutely catastrophic climate change on the level that would threaten human existence altogether. But to accomplish this would require revolutionary changes in social relations, as well as in technology and ways of living.”
Left advocates of military transfers want to engage in a Faustian bargain. They want to legitimate the Swedish military industrial complex, the entanglements that prop up military budgets, the resulting scarcity politics, the choice of weapons over windmills. They may think they can advance two competing goals, guns and butter, but historically that’s impossible. Parts of the left have been seduced by a very short-term view of what is moral at the expense of a longer term vision of what turns out to be less than moral. Sweden is racing to catch up with the newly awakened German militarism, a country whose failure to plan properly wed it to suicidal coal. One might reframe an old slogan, “Short-term Morality = Death.”