The Left and Ukraine

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Ever since Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on February 24 the Western Left has been uncharacteristically subdued.  The biggest and bloodiest crisis in Europe since 1945 is unfolding before our eyes yet the Left has had nothing significant to say.

It is not that leftists support Putin’s war.  On the contrary, just like people in the moderate mainstream, most leftists see it as illegal, criminal and a blatant violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.

It is true that most people on the left believe the expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders since 1999 was disastrously wrong and unnecessary, and that Washington and its European allies bear most of the blame for poisoning relations between Russia and the West over the last thirty years.  A few people on the left argue that Nato’s enlargement strategy provoked Putin’s invasion,  but the vast majority have avoided the trap of claiming that Putin’s aggression was legitimate and justifiable.   They condemned it and still condemn it unreservedly.  However angry Russia may be about Nato nothing justifies invading a neighbouring state.

Leftists also accept that Ukraine has an absolute right to defend itself against foreign invasion and enlist help from other states to resist occupation. By the same token foreign states have the right to respond to Ukraine’s appeal for help, economic, political and military.  Those states include the United States, Britain and most members of Nato.

This is where the Left’s silence begins.   The Left finds itself on the same side as the United States and rightwing governments in Britain, France, Italy and other European countries.  It is an embarrassing position.  We may well have differences with the US over Washington’s ulterior motives.  Evidence suggests that Nato’s hawks have turned the crisis into a proxy war which aims to humiliate and bankrupt Russia and remove it as a respected player on the international stage.

Some want to use the war in order to break Russia apart in the same sort of way as the Soviet Union was destroyed.  US neocons welcome the chance to embed Nato more firmly into Europe’s security architecture and strengthen US hegemony over Europe.  One can suspect all sorts of US motives but the fact remains that on the basic principle of US military support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion we are on the same side as Washington.   It makes things very awkward for the Left.  In fact I can’t think of many significant occasions since 1945 when the Left has found itself as aligned with the Americans as it is today.    There have been scores of military interventions by US imperialism in the last six decades, in South-east Asia, the Caribbean, Central America and the Middle East.  Virtually all were vigorously and loudly opposed by the Left.

I can cite only two exceptions, and both are tenuous.  One occurred in 1956, and it was not so much connected to a US-led war but the opposite: a refusal of the US to go to war.   In 1956 Britain and France invaded Egypt, alongside Israel,  in a bid to seize control over the Suez Canal.   President Eisenhower denounced the adventure and forced the British and French to withdraw their forces.   The Western Left supported Eisenhower’s position and applauded the British and French retreat. The second  occasion was during the crisis over Kosovo in 1999.  This time the Left was divided.   Some supported Nato military intervention to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo.   Others opposed it.   The split was often quite painful.   I got into fierce arguments with comrades over Kosovo which took months, in some cases years to patch up.  Suez and Kosovo were exceptional, the only previous  occasions when I found myself applauding the US response to a military crisis.

Ukraine is the third case.  But doubts have now started to creep into my mind over how far to support the Washington line,  particularly over the issue of how this terrible war can be brought to an end.  Some US officials, including senior military men like Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently began to advocate negotiations on the basis that Ukraine will not be able to drive all Russian forces out,  whatever extra military aid the US and its allies pump in.   This is a welcome point of view.   But it is still swamped by the Biden administration’s majority position which effectively gives the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy a veto over whether to accept negotiations.

This sounds democratic, but it would be more convincing if Zelenskyy and his colleagues allowed Ukrainians an open debate about whether to continue the war.  On the contrary in recent months, virtually unreported in the almost universally pro-Zelenskyy Western media,  the Ukrainian government has shut down eleven opposition political parties.  It has brought in legislation to give the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting unprecedented power to control the print media on the lines of the controls it already has over broadcasters.  Zelenskyy apparently wants to suppress discussion and conceal the fact that millions of Ukrainians believe the hope of complete victory is an illusion in spite of recent military successes and that it is better to sue for peace and save the country from further death, destruction, displacement and misery.

The Gallup organisation organised a telephone poll of Ukrainians in September.   It found that masses of respondents did not share the official line of flag-waving support for the military.  Although 76 per cent of men wanted the war to continue until Russia is forced to leave all occupied territory including Crimea, and 64 per cent of women had the same view,  the rest — a substantial number of people — wanted negotiations.

When the survey results were analysed according to Ukraine’s regions they were particularly telling.  In areas closest to the front lines where the horror of war is felt most keenly people’s doubts about the wisdom of fighting until victory are highest.  Only 58 per cent support it in southern Ukraine.  In the East the figure is as low as 56 per cent.

Gallup’s findings are significant.   What people tell pollsters in the privacy of a telephone call is more reliable than what they say when interviewed face-to-face by reporters, especially when the dominant media narrative consists of morale-boosting messages about Ukrainians’ resilience and impressive courage.

It is time for the Left to find its voice.   We should publicise these opinion poll findings and call for a ceasefire.   Let the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, by himself or through the appointment of an authoritative envoy,  contact Kyiv and Moscow and try to broker an immediate cessation of hostilities.  Take advantage of winter and the general reduction in military activity and freeze the conflict where it is.

At some point there will have to be negotiations about a political end to the war and a withdrawal of Russian forces but it will take months, if not years to achieve agreement.   The priority is to stop the killing and this can be done at once.  Let the Western Left, in solidarity with progressive forces in Ukraine and Russia themselves, take up the burden of campaigning for an armistice, in other words for peace.

Jonathan Steele is the former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Guardian.