Ukraine, the Crisis of the West and Britain’s Decline
Scottish Review, 26 January 2022
The situation in the Ukraine is a high-level international crisis. It has not come out of the blue but been slowly escalating for years; Putin’s long track record of threats and aggression towards neighbours of Russia have been well documented.
Yet the West has been caught again and again off-guard and unsure of how to deal with Putin and Russia. It has been consistently divided and indecisive about how best to collectively respond and oppose Russian aggression.
There is the war weariness of the US and the UK; the unsure touch of the Biden administration trying to accommodate both American isolationism and internationalism; the chaos and incompetence of the Boris Johnson Tory Government, and the German Government’s softer approach to Russia informed by its reliance on Russian gas supplies.
Take the UK Government. Twenty years of Afghanistan engagement along with the Americans; billions of pounds and dollars spent; hundreds of UK and US military killed along with thousands of Afghan military and civilians. Two humiliating military reverses over the period – Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is but one part of the crisis and drift that is the reality of post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ – which, stripped of the hyperbole and blown-up rhetoric, is a ship adrift with no clear direction. The UK has rent asunder its main strategic international alliances – voting for Brexit and tearing up long-term UK policy towards Europe – and found itself after Trump facing a US administration which has little investment in bigging up the UK and this Tory Government.
Last week French and German foreign ministers met with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Berlin on 20 January to discuss the Ukraine and Russia. Where was the UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss who is busily projecting herself as having Thatcherite steel and the next ‘Iron Lady’? Rather than showing her mettle in this international crisis, she was posted missing, not able to meet Blinken because she was in Australia talking trade. And being dismissed by former Australian PM Paul Keating as ‘demented’.
The missing UK Prime Minister
Similarly, Boris Johnson has been AWOL, hiding from the public and only seeming to make pronouncements to explain away the latest revelations about the serial parties held at Downing Street during periods of lockdown. And which he never thought to think were parties including even a birthday bash for him with cake and song.
At a time of international crisis the UK has a Prime Minister in name only. He has never been a serious person or politician and never pretended to be. Such is the delusional nature of sections of the Tory Party that one MP could try to say seriously as the drumbeats of war rose that: ‘If you look at what’s happening in Ukraine, I don’t think now’s the time for a leadership contest.’
A short historical point. The UK changed PMs in the First World War and the Second War – bumping Asquith and Chamberlain and bringing in Lloyd-George and Churchill. We even had a UK election before the end of the Second World War and the voters in their wisdom threw out Churchill and elected Attlee. The UK changed leaders in the midst of the Korean War, while the Tories ejected Thatcher in the run-up to the invasion of Kuwait. As the international storm clouds darken surely that is another reason to evict Johnson from Downing Street?
The anti-imperialist left and the logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’
If UK and US political elites are feeling a little lost at the moment spare a thought for that segment of opinion that believes it is shaped by its moral judgement and poses as having a moral superiority over mere mortals. This is the anti-imperialist left or to be accurate the self-proclaimed anti-imperialist left.
In the UK alongside lots of good, principled folk there is the ‘Stop the War’ group who are highly visible in every anti-war march held the length and breadth of the country in the past twenty years. They made their presence and built an organisation on the backs of the opposition to Tony Blair and the Iraq War in 2003. They are basically a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) front – meaning they use their anti-war activities to advance the cause of their small Trotskyite party and gain more influence than otherwise would be possible. All of this is widely known, and various Labour and former Labour figures including Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone have chosen to give them a little more respectability when they had some.
‘Stop the War’ predictably think the Ukraine-Russia crisis is about ‘Western aggression’ and ‘militarism’ because everything always is. They are happy to align with the Kremlin’s view of the world, being silent on Russian threats and military expansionism, instead seeing all of this as a response to Western imperialism.
Andrew Murray, former Corbyn adviser, wrote on the ‘Stop the War’ website: ‘If there is conflict in Ukraine, the West bears most of the blame.’ And that: ‘NATO … is trying to seize Ukraine by moving NATO right up to Russia’s borders.’
The West in this argument has committed the original sins by expanding NATO eastwards into former Warsaw Pact countries and even parts of the former Soviet Union in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
There are sadly too many who take a similar sympathetic line towards Moscow because of their detestation of all things to do with Western foreign and security interests. For example, independence campaigner Craig Murray, a former UK Ambassador (who was dismissed from his post), has consistently taken a pro-Moscow position, questioning whether the Russian authorities were involved in the Salisbury attacks, and challenging the West’s interpretation that Russia is the aggressor. Taking similar stances on the West’s stances are the likes of George Galloway and Alex Salmond.
The left-wing writer and commentator Paul Mason last year wrote the timely How to Stop Fascism – about the rise of a virulent fascistic authoritarianism on the fringes of the right. He thinks too many elements of the left are dangerously wrong-headed on the threat that Putin poses and the need to stand up to his military aggression and threats.
Mason wrote at the weekend: ‘[Andrew] Murray’s argument stems from a world-view shared by both the ex-Stalinist left and parts of the young, identity-focused left, which see “the West” – and specifically the USA – as the primary enemy of progress. Russia and China, despite the totalitarian direction of their governments, are seen as in the “anti-imperialist” camp.’
A Russian invasion of the Ukraine would be an international disaster, an attack on democracy and an attack on all Europe. It would be a major crisis unparalleled in recent decades on the European continent, marking the first all-out conventional war since 1945. It would potentially make the bloody Yugoslavian civil war seem small-scale in its carnage and human loss, and could easily escalate.
Putin has to be opposed by all democrats. The UK needs a serious government committed to standing with and assisting Ukraine, working with NATO and our European neighbours including the EU. The forces of the left have to take a stand in solidarity with Ukrainian democracy and independence, and can have no truck with sympathising with the Putin line that nation-states like Ukraine, the Baltics and Georgia, which broke away from the Soviet Union are not real states, but false creations of the implosion of the Soviet Union. That is Russian state propaganda, the line spun by the likes of Sputnik News and RT (which Alex Salmond continues to have a show on), and one bought by parts of the British left.
All this is a major challenge to the UK when one considers the state of the UK Government, the tawdry nature of Boris Johnson’s Premiership and how he is clinging to power for the sake of it, reinforcing the relative decline and marginalisation of the UK internationally. You do not need to agree with Tony Blair to note he is right when he says of Johnson and the Tories that ‘the real problem is the absence of a government plan for Britain’s future’ and that without one the UK faces ‘steady, inexorable, compound decline similar to the 1960s or 70s.
It also poses serious questions for Scottish independence and how the SNP think of defence, foreign policy and security. For too long these are areas that the SNP have tended to avoid or reduce to soundbites about Trident and Iraq. This has slowly begun to change with the SNP’s defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald addressing these issues and in particular the threat of state sponsored disinformation – which Putin’s Russia does on an industrial scale.
This is a positive development and one which has met with pushback from parts of the SNP who have something in common with the simplicities of the anti-imperialist left – and who think that Trident should be removed from Scottish waters in the first days of an independent Scotland – when the reality is it will be subject to a negotiated agreement.
Military aggression, threats and destabilisation by Putin of his neighbours for which he has a long record – with the invasions and occupation of parts of Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine – has to be opposed and democracy, the rule of law and human rights championed.
The wrong-headed idea that embracing Putin’s imperialist rhetoric and actions because it confronts and could harm Western imperialist interests is a frighteningly stupid take on the world in 2022. Such a stance merely reduced such left-wingers to being apologists and stooges for another country’s imperialism: namely Russia.
These are serious and difficult times when the governments of the West are not exactly strong, and we face the rise of brutal authoritarian and dictatorial regimes the world over. In such circumstances we have to stand for clear principles, which in times of turmoil and instability down the years many equivocate on and abandon, that of democracy and the right of nation-states to be independent and choose their own path. The West, the UK and US, France and Germany and the wider EU need to speak and act with one clear, strong voice.