Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Johnson In Kyiv: We Need To Oppose Nato

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Chris Bambery argues that we in the west need to focus our opposition on Nato in the present standoff with Russia.

With Boris Johnson meeting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, it’s time to take a wider view of events. Of course he arrived in Kyiv both as a staunch supporter of the Nato western military alliance, and as a PM badly needing a distraction from his embarrassments at home.

In the latter, he shares something with Vladimir Putin. And like Putin, he is not a champion of the right of nations to self-determination. Neither are Johnson’s allies, like Biden and Macron.

The British government is sending elite forces and hi-tech arms to Ukraine, as well as providing training and other support to Ukrainian troops, to oppose Russia. That must be the highest concern of those who oppose war in this country. We must also keep in mind, and explain, the backdrop to this stand-off.

Since 2014, when the pro-Russian government in Kyiv was overthrown, Russian speaking areas have resisted the new government, establishing a degree of autonomy, and engaged in persistent clashes with Ukrainian forces. They have been backed by Russian assistance. But the roots of the present tensions go deeper still.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was promised by the Americans that the former Soviet satellites and republics would not be allowed membership of the Nato Alliance. That promise is a dead letter. We now have Nato forces in the Baltic States and US missile “defence” systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Western propaganda, of course, focuses on Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and his seizure of Crimea, but ignores Russia’s claims that it was lied to over Nato expansion.

Nato has carried out recent naval exercises in the Black Sea, entering Russian waters and visiting Ukraine and Georgia, now also touted as potential Nato members. You don’t have to buy into Putin’s propaganda to grasp Russians feel encircled and that letting Ukraine into Nato would mean Nato forces would be just a few hundred miles from Moscow. Georgia instigated a war with Russia in 2008.

There is no need to pick a side between Russia and the west. Russia acts in its own imperialist interests, as a regional power. The Nato powers serve their interests also – and those are not for national self-determination, peace or democracy. But nor does this mean equivalence for those of us who oppose war in the Nato heartlands. Opposing the escalation by our own governments is the practical and consistent approach to internationalism.

We should remember also that Putin’s Russia is not the USSR. It is a regional imperialist power, albeit having inherited a nuclear arsenal. Russia’s key concern is protecting its own borders and freedom of action by putting as much distance as it can between those borders and the Nato sphere.

The ridiculous claims that Russia is an expansionist power like Germany in WW2 (wheeled out time and again against western enemies) completely obscure the real dynamic. It is Nato which has expanded across vast swathes of territory, right up to Russia’s borders.

Russia is not democratic, nor a respecter of human rights. The same could be said for so many Western allies. Ukraine has plenty of problems of its own in this regard.

Since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution Ukraine has been allied with the US, Nato and the European Union. All praise it for becoming a democratic state. The truth is that it mirrors Russia in so many ways. Oligarchs dominate the economy, corruption is rife, the judiciary is far from being independent, there are glaring human rights abuses, not least those faced by the LGBT community. National minorities are discriminated against, and in 2017 a law prohibited all other languages from being used to teach in secondary schools, generating protests from Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia – an unusual alliance.

The ignorance of this reality from Labour and SNP politicians is profound. Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that Ukraine is “a state that has resolutely set itself on a path to integration with the liberal democratic order” is pure fantasy.

Putin’s propaganda suggests Ukraine is run by open Nazis. That’s not true but it cannot be denied fascist militias have influence. So, Josh Cohen reports:

“According to Freedom House’s Ukraine project director Matthew Schaaf, ‘numerous organized radical right-wing groups exist in Ukraine, and while the volunteer battalions may have been officially integrated into state structures, some of them have since spun off political and non-profit structures to implement their vision.’ Schaaf noted that ‘an increase in patriotic discourse supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia has coincided with an apparent increase in both public hate speech, sometimes by public officials and magnified by the media, as well as violence towards vulnerable groups such as the LGBT community,’ an observation that is supported by a recent Council of Europe study.”

Cohen introduces a careful caveat:

“To be clear, the Kremlin’s claims that Ukraine is a hornets’ nest of fascists are false: far-right parties performed poorly in Ukraine’s last parliamentary elections, and Ukrainians reacted with alarm to the National Militia’s demonstration in Kiev. But connections between law enforcement agencies and extremists give Ukraine’s Western allies ample reason for concern. C14 (a far right paramilitary) and Kiev’s city government recently signed an agreement allowing C14 to establish a ‘municipal guard’ to patrol the streets; three such militia-run guard forces are already registered in Kiev, and at least 21 operate in other cities.”

But it’s also the case that the former Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov (who resigned only last year), has close ties to the fascist Azov Battalion leader Andriy Biletsky. Sergei Korotkykh, an Azov veteran, has worked as a high-ranking police official. No one really knows how widespread fascist penetration into governing circles goes.

Since 2015 the CIA has been running a covert programme, named Ground Branch, with secret intensive training for elite Ukrainian special operations and intelligence forces in the U.S. This began under President Obama, was expanded under Trump and Biden has increased it again. CIA instructors have also been training Ukrainian forces in their own country.

In November 2015, the US Congress reversed its previous, unanimous support for an amendment to the House Defense Appropriations bill (HR 2685), which limited “arms, training, and other assistance to the neo-Nazi Ukrainian militia, the Azov Battalion.” The bill was passed by Congress without the amendment.

All of this should be born in mind when comparisons are made between Putin and Hitler.

Claims that Russia’s stance on Ukraine is similar to the Nazi manoeuvres over Czechoslovakia or Poland are already reappearing and will probably increase. Hitlers so far have included the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Argentinian Dictator General Galtieri, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, and then Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gadaffi, Bashar al-Assad and the list goes on.

Though many of these were brutal leaders, they were not Hitler and their military capacity was not that of the Third Reich. These claims are a blatant attempt to justify ‘humanitarian intervention’ – predatory war behind the gloss of ethical concerns.

The idea that the US, along with its British and French governments, are motivated by concern for human rights flies in the face of the reality of the last two decades. So does the idea of them championing the rights of small nations. Their actions against Palestine, Kurdistan, Kashmir, Western Sahara and so many more forbids such a conclusion. If Biden, Johnson and Macron had a humanitarian bone in their bodies they would stop arming Saudi Arabia and providing it with the expertise to wage brutal war in Yemen, where a Saudi drone strike last week hit a detention centre killing around 100 people.

Great powers don’t act out of consideration for anyone’s interests but their own. So in 1914 Britain went to war to protect “plucky little Belgium.” German troops did carry out atrocities when they invaded, though not on the scale that Britain claimed. Britain went to war because the French alone could not stop Germany dominating Western Europe, including the Channel ports; the same reasons why they went to war with Philip 11 of Spain, Louis X1V of France and Napoleon.

As in WW1, our job is to oppose our state in any inter-imperialist conflict. In 1914 German social Democrats said they had to opposed Czarist autocracy, while their British and French counterparts said they must fight Prussian despotism. The danger is a repeat: a Russian left pressured to focus on opposing Nato encirclement of their country, and a western left moralised into placing the emphasis on Russian actions, would mean the effective death of internationalism and anti-war politics.

This must be resisted with the slogan of anti-war socialists in WW1 – “the main enemy is at home”.

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