David Jamieson argues that the west is fighting a proxy war in Ukraine, and is fully prepared for a long conflict at the expense of the Ukranian people.
It’s a sorry truth that public interest in the war in Ukraine never recovered from Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. Modern attention spans may have been curtailed by social media, and Twitter opportunists hop from one cause du jour to another.
But despite the intensity of the media campaign in the west, the intended war fever didn’t advance very deeply into the population in the first place. Many in the public may be picking up on a tragic reality – peace has few friends among the powerful. And so this war, like so many others in recent decades, is likely to draw on for some time.
There is a perverse unity between Moscow and Washington. Both seek to extend the war.
Moscow launched an invasion of choice in its own perceived geostrategic interests, and against western encroachments. It can withdraw troops, but won’t, because the state’s prestige now depends on success (whatever that may eventually look like).
The west could be pressing for a negotiated settlement – as it had done (at least officially) in the previous 8 years of fighting. But it stopped this demand with Russia’s latest invasion, because it spied an opportunity to bleed Russia in Ukraine. The theory in western capitals is that Russia has over-played its hand, and left itself vulnerable to counter-moves. So diplomacy is firmly out of favour.
What we now face is a protracted proxy war. It will be waged within the territory of Ukraine, over the bodies of the Ukrainian people. Ukraine lacks the capacity for a war of manoeuvre – there is no prospect of its forces sweeping into Russia and overthrowing the government in Moscow. Western governments calling for some military victory for democracy against Russian autocracy, and flooding the war zone with increasingly powerful weapons, know this. They are not working towards peace through arms, but protracted war from which they seek to benefit, at the expense of the Ukrainian people.
Hope for the defeat of Russia would lie with the Russian people themselves, and perhaps especially with Russian and Belarusian troops – who have reportedly mutinied in some instances. But western policy militates against these movements, by sanctioning the Russian people and thus increasing resolve around nationalism and isolating anti-war feeling.
‘Forever war’ has become a pattern in the modern world system. Consider the 10 years of war in the former Yugoslavia, which left the Balkans in a state of permanent instability. The 20 year Nato war in Afghanistan, which concluded only last year, has ended in starvation and an Islamic State insurgency. The Syrian civil war, begun in 2011, is still ongoing, and has repeatedly spilled into neighbouring countries stimulating yet more violence. As noted, fighting in Ukraine has continued since 2014, and shows no sign of abating. Entire peoples have names that only mean war – Palestine, Yemen, Kashmir.
All of these wars have been proxy conflicts between rival powers who do not fight each other directly for fear of a nuclear confrontation (of course Russia is fighting alongside its proxies in Ukraine, the western powers are not). Syria is perhaps the archetypical modern war zone. The west, gulf states, Russia, Iran and Turkey did most of the arming, and the Syrians did most of the dying.
These are politically cheap wars for western powers. British troops aren’t killed in number (though small detachments of British forces are typically present, as they are in Ukraine today – a matter that is subject to a ‘D Notice’ in the British press, meaning I’m not supposed to be writing this and you aren’t supposed to be reading it). Western states buy proxies with arms and other support, and gain a foothold amid the chaos. From all over the world, interested parties fell on Syria and promoted conflict to advance their own geostrategic interests.
Even politicians who lack control of armies and foreign policy can help drive these proxy wars. This is the case with Nicola Sturgeon, who has consistently been more hawkish than the hawks since the war began. She has called for the imposition of a no fly zone, a form of escalation that threatens direct war between nuclear armed states. She has called for tougher sanctions on Ukraine, despite these adding to the cost of living crisis faced by Scots, and her Westminster defence spokesman, Stewart McDonald, is lobbying for Britain and Germany to send tanks and other heavy weapons into the maelstrom.
This is all part of a truly squalid diplomacy: constantly ratchet-up the war in Ukraine to prove that you are a trusty ally of western power. It costs the Scottish Government nothing, as it will take no responsibility for the outcomes of all this, which are likely to be dire.
There are some on the left who imagine that a just peace in Ukraine can come about as an incidental by-product of western state interests. The argument goes that more weapons to Ukraine may allow it to extract such a heavy toll from Russia that she will withdraw, or at least come to the negotiating table with more humility. This recasting of imperialism as an accidental source of good outcomes stretches credulity past the tear. It indicates that some now have so little faith in popular initiative that they view the state and its war machine as the only viable agency for social change.
What we are witnessing in Ukraine is the grim reality of current and future war. It calls out for movements which oppose proxy wars and the obfuscations and propaganda that accompany them, by refusing the right of our own states to engage at a distance. The alternative is a general profusion of these conflicts, until they threaten peace and life on an even greater scale.