As the world gazes in horror at the mass tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, it is often framed by a certain kind of story, a story about the clash of two diametrically opposed forces: an autocratic, ruthless, aggressive Russia, oppressor of minorities, facing off against a democratic, progressive, inclusive West which respects human and civil rights, which fights only to protect them.
There is truth to this story – Vladimir Putin is no doubt a brutal chauvinistic tyrant, violently suppressing all dissent, trampling human and civil rights as well as international law. Yet although Russian citizens can rightly envy political conditions in the West, it should also go without saying that states in the Western camp do not necessarily meet the enlightened standards they pretend to stand for.
However, the problem with this story is more basic: the truth is that for all their differences, the states on both sides in this showdown are playing the very same game. We are told we have no option but to choose a side – but the left must oppose the whole game.
Symmetry and Asymmetry
In this game they play together, Russia and the Western powers all seek to mobilize their considerable political, economic, and military power to bring smaller countries into their sphere of influence and thereby improve their economic, military, and political position.
Despite contrasts in politics and rhetoric, for years both sides have been sparring with covert and overt threats and an escalating brinksmanship – leading the world into an era defined by a new arms race.
We must however acknowledge two significant aspects of asymmetry between them. First, even considering the preceding history, the Russian attack on Ukraine is a criminal initiative of Putin’s reactionary government. It is not a reasonable, inevitable response to any prior action. It is an unforgivable crime, and it cannot be justified.
Yet on the other hand, in the grand scheme of things, Russia is a small, almost minor player compared to the Western powers; in terms of military spending, the NATO states command 18 times Russia’s power. Even if we add China to the Russian side, the Western alliance controls three times as much military power. Were we to subtract the United States’ monstrously oversized military, the rest of the NATO states’ military expenditure would still outstrip Russia’s and China’s by billions.
The past decades have seen a creeping arms race: the states which see themselves threatened by this balance of power have made great efforts to close the gap, while those seeking to maintain their advantage sacrifice more and more resources on the altar of “security”, even as their people’s food security goes downhill.
With the war in Ukraine, this arms race is now going into overdrive.
Just days after the Russian invasion, the German government broke a historical taboo and suddenly announced it will give its military a one-off special fund of 100 billion euro – twice its military budget for 2022. This massive budget will fund a permanent increase in German “security” spending, which the government plans to anchor in the constitution. Future German governments will be forced to allocate at least 2 per cent of GDP to military spending, as per NATO recommendations. This currently represents an increase in the annual military budget of about 42%, some 20 billion euro in current terms.
Considering how vastly NATO already outspends Russia and even China, it is an insult to our collective intelligence to suggest a military shopping spree is necessary to ensure European security. It is likely to achieve the very opposite: while armament is invariably presented as defensive, those it is supposed to defend against naturally perceive it as an open threat – and therefore a reason to close ranks and increase their own armament efforts. Nothing could bolster Russian anti-Western militarism better than this explicitly anti-Russian Western militarization.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said he believed foreign leaders are preparing for war with his country. It will be difficult for peace-seeking Russians to argue against that.
The silence of reason
No arms race has ever led to peace. This is not a new insight.
But when the cannons are heard, reason is silent; in our networked age, the cannon roar drowns out voices of peace even far away from the line of fire. Everywhere we are now submerged in the kind of discourse typical of wartime: dichotomous, simplistic, moralistic; anyone who mentions a fact which has had the misfortune of being weaved into the thicket of lies and delusions in Putin’s speeches or his regime’s propaganda is liable to be called a Russian agent.
The dominant discourse is also trapped deeply in the cycle of escalation: we must applaud even the most aggressive action presented as aid to Ukraine; those who do not are immediately anointed Putin supporters, appeasers, useful idiots. Even the basic left position of rejecting military “solutions”, opposing escalation and militarization, and demanding immediate diplomatic solutions – is denounced as aiding the aggressor.
Facing the horror of war, stunned by the invasion, we are all, I think, coping with a terrible sense of powerlessness. We are shocked and trying to process, to react, grasping for anything that might stop the terrible things happening, might give relief to the victims.
We dare not consider the terrifying possibility that at this point, nothing we can do could swiftly end this horror, the possibility that the “solutions” we are presented with might be anything but.
Desperately grasping, the Western public clamors to support Ukrainians by any means necessary – providing for continued escalation, strengthening the militaristic undertow, and spurring on the arms race in ways that we will hardly be able to roll back.
The prevailing moralism suggests our first duty is to voice a correct, principled position. But important as this is, our position alone helps nobody unless we account for how it relates to what is happening in practice. Instead of merely declaring our principles, we must take a stand from the particular place where we find ourselves, in relation to the real forces in action.
The New Forever War
Let us examine the actual actions taken by our Western governments to “support Ukraine” and “stop Russia.”
Within days of the invasion, unprecedented economic sanctions were placed upon Russia by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.
The central lever of economic power in Russia is well-known: Russia’s oil and gas exports, the central source of the ruling elite’s wealth and power. Yet instead of using this lever, which means paying a real price for anti-Putin posturing, for two weeks after the start of the war sanctions carefully excluded the energy business. The West’s first moves against Russian oil were only announced on March 8.
So while Muscovites have been unable to get cash from their ATMs or use a Visa or Mastercard, while small businesses across Russia are cut off from the global payment systems and major multinationals shutter their Russian operations – oil and gas continue flowing west, and the West has been paying more than ever, fueling Russia’s war economy with as much as 720 million USD per day.
The sanctions thus far, then, fail to focus on decision-makers, largely designed instead, as Kissinger once said of similar measures, to “make the economy scream” – to devastate the general population in the hope that it will rebel and force a change in policy. Failing that, they amount to collective punishment.
In relation to these real existing sanctions, what is the meaning of proclaiming “support for sanctions”? What options are Western governments truly willing to entertain? Does “supporting sanctions” change how they are implemented?
As for military aid, far from being the next step after exhausting non-military options, the flow of arms began in parallel with sanctions. After years of steadily arming Ukraine in the shadow of the Russian threat, the US and Europe are now flooding the country with state-of-the-art military hardware to great fanfare. The longstanding German rule against shipping arms directly to war zones has been shattered to pieces.
Before even trying their sharpest non-military tools, Washington and Berlin, London and Paris appear to be charting a course by which Ukraine will become a new Afghanistan, ground to dust in a new forever war. This is the actual context of debates about military aid and sanctions. What does it mean to support military aid on principal, when this is how it is being implemented in practice?
The left especially must be conscious of how power shapes the options presented to the public. The contours of these policy options are predetermined by the interests of the powerful; they are realized only so far, and only in such form, as they fit ruling interests. If they are suitable, if they are just, this is usually by coincidence.
We ought not harbor illusions that by cheering them on, we are doing the right thing. It is no great moral act to egg on the powerful as they do what they wanted to do anyway. When you legitimize a destructive policy, it matters little if you fervently wish it were more constructive.
Resistance and hope
Latching on to the policies of the powerful can give a sense of power, relieve the sense of helplessness. But in practice, reactively supporting pre-selected measures means relinquishing our power and acting as a mere rubber stamp.
To proactively make the world a better place, the left must first see things for what they are. Since the “solutions” being put forward by the state are not what we might wish they were, we must push back against them. At the same time, we must take a broader view and mobilize people power against escalation and warmongering.
Many in the West lump all Russians together and treat them collectively as perpetrators and enemies. We must bear in mind, however, that the Russian public was not consulted about this war and is still being lied to about its very reality. And while our governments collectively punish them, we who fight for peace know we still have many allies in Russia. Under harshening suppression, their civil society has been mounting unexpected and inspiring opposition to the war.
Since the invasion, Putin’s government has made it a criminal offense to even call it “war”. Independent journalism has been almost completely stamped out. Demonstrating bears a real risk of arrest and imprisonment, but after thousands of arrests, many thousands more continue to protest. Twelve thousand Russian healthcare workers have courageously denounced the war, as have hundreds of municipal council members, scientists, and others.
If there is to be any hope of de-escalation, we need their resistance. And if there is to be any hope for their resistance, they need our support and solidarity. We must draw attention to them, echo their voices across the web and maximize their media visibility. We must continue sending them moral support and find any ways possible to materially aid their efforts.
The Russian opposition fights an uphill battle not only against state repression and misinformation but also against the sharpening of geopolitical battle lines. When we show up against the war and against the West’s belligerence, are also lending them a hand – an olive branch.
The potential of rebuffing violence with peace is not lost on Ukrainians, it seems. Immediately after the invasion, the Ukrainian government set up a compassionate hotline for the families of Russian soldiers; and though the focus has been on armed resistance, some of the Ukrainians’ successes in repelling Russian forces have reportedly been won by non-violence.
Such measures do not instantly dissolve the invading army – but nor do so-called military solutions. Because nothing can simply end the horror, we are left with the hard work of undermining the political forces which make it continue.
Doomsday and Collapse
In the present conflict, even more than before, we face multiple doomsday scenarios at once.
A great deal of attention is turned to the threat emanating directly from the Kremlin: that Russian forces might succeed in conquering Ukraine, imprison or murder Ukrainian opponents en masse, and perhaps not even stop there.
The ultimate doomsday scenario of full military conflict between nuclear-armed powers seems closer than ever, though the West appears to be willing to sacrifice Ukraine before risking it.
However, even if peace is quickly restored, as we must hope, the danger will not have passed. The rally to the flag, international militarization, an unbridled arms race – these currents are already shaping political and geopolitical conditions and will continue shaping them long after the Ukrainian catastrophe.
While we argue about how to help Ukraine, while our governments bluster and prevaricate, the arms corporations are celebrating a bullish market and planning ahead.
We must be deeply suspicious of any narrative which leaves no option but military force. Even when draped in the noble rhetoric of standing up to bullies and protecting the weak, militarism is poison. Proliferating across camps and borders via arms races, it rots societies from within. Instead of solving problems, bloated “security” budgets turn our hard work into means of destruction, wielded to threaten and murder our siblings abroad and standing ready to oppress us at home.
Disastrously, this militaristic turn comes just when precious few years remain for humanity to veer off course from terminal climate breakdown, precious few years to start repairing the damage and stabilizing the climate before it is too late. To now divert the best of our resources towards means of destruction – this could spell the end for humanity.
Instead, we must urgently create a massive wave of protest, across borders and sectors. Instead of escalation and destruction, demand a just, sustainable peace. Instead of rearmament, disarmament.
Organizing for peace may not have the allure of power carried by the state’s pre-selected “solutions”, but unlike them, it is entirely in our hands, entirely within our power. It means building power, rather than relinquishing it or submitting to it. It is something no government can do for us.
Organized, tenacious collective action, based on the power of everyday people to reshape their world; far-sighted, transnational, internationalist. This is what left power must be like, the only real power which can make the world a better place for everyone.
Against the new forever war, against nuclear apocalypse, against climate collapse – let us mobilize a global peace movement!