By Lindsey German
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The anti-war movement is no supporter of Putin. But we can, at the same time, criticize our government’s dreadful war record.
Not since the immediate run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 has there been such a disinformation blitz about the anti-war movement. In the overheated atmosphere today, we are accused of apologizing for Putin’s brutal invasion and of being “fifth columnists” and “traitors”. In 2003 we were “friends of the Taliban” or “allies of Saddam”. It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.
What is true is that there seems to be a permanent glitch in the matrix of the minds of war enthusiasts that prevents them from understanding that it is possible to oppose the policy of your own government and still oppose the actions of other governments. Our critics want to make it either/or. But it’s not. Unlike many of our detractors, we are consistent in opposing the misery, death, displacement and disruption that affects any country consumed by war.
We feel horror and sickness when we see Putin’s invasion, his attacks on civilian populations and the shelling of a nuclear power station. We have welcomed, supported and publicized the actions of anti-war protesters in Russia. We wish our critics were as consistent, but we wait without expectation for the praise showered on anti-war protesters to come our way. We want to welcome the refugees’ queuing at the Polish borders and think that our government should do much more to let them into one of the richest countries in the world. And again, we hope our critics will be as welcoming to refugees fleeing western wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya.
The hypocrisies of the war supporters are only possible if we forget the context and history of modern wars. Ukraine did not come out of a clear blue sky. We cannot accept a narrative that ignores context and history and simply puts this invasion down to Putin’s designation as the latest “new Hitler” or to his mental state. To willfully ignore the past, including the recent past, is a disservice to all those who want to end this war.
The roots of this conflict lie in what has happened since the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved, whereas its western opposite, NATO, was not. Despite assurances to the contrary, NATO expanded ever closer towards the Russian border, incorporating 14 new member states, mainly in Eastern Europe. It has also expanded into “out of area operations”, including central involvement in Afghanistan and Libya. It now plans further expansion into the Indo-Pacific as part of an increased military presence against China.
It is not repeating Kremlin propaganda to point out these facts. And the anti-war movement is far from alone in doing this. George Kennan, the doyen of US foreign policy, has said the same. So did William Burns in 2008. He is now head of the CIA.
This is not the first war in Europe since 1945. That was in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, culminating with the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. This marked a key turning point in relations with Russia. The next NATO operation was Afghanistan in 2001, initially supported by Russia, as was the bombing of Libya in 2011. These, plus the war in Iraq in 2003, have shaped the present.
Former Yugoslavia war (1991-1995)
The features now so widely and correctly condemned in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – from cluster bombs to targeting of civilians to besieging cities – have all been part of western wars, but with very little comment or opposition from the British political class. There was no referral to the international criminal court for the US following its use of depleted uranium in the Iraqi city of Falluja; no sanctions when Trump ordered the dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan; no outcry at Britain’s continuing support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing of Yemen.
The anti-war movement has a better record of consistency in opposing wars than those who applaud and justify our own government’s wars while decrying the same behavior by Putin.
If the first casualty of war is truth, then the second must be the increasingly intolerant, repressive and anti-Russian sentiments across sections of British society. Keir Starmer’s threat to remove the whip from 11 MPs if they criticized NATO is an astonishing piece of thought policing, and something that even Tony Blair never attempted to do over Afghanistan or Iraq. Are we seriously saying that there can be no criticism of our government’s foreign policy or of its dreadful record of wars over the past 20 years, culminating in the defeat last year in Afghanistan?
In some ways even more chilling are the reports of Russian films being removed from festivals, of Russian cats being banned from shows, and of the proposed removal of the statue in Manchester of Friedrich Engels (a German), who always opposed Russia as a Tsarist autocracy and whose political beliefs are roundly denounced by Putin.
Talk of no-fly zones has so far been rejected, but we should be aware that any such move would be a declaration of war on Russia by NATO, with terrible consequences. I have no problem with condemning imperialism of any sort. I regard Russia as an imperialist power, although considerably lesser economically and militarily than its opponents.
The system of imperialism leads to economic rivalry, which turns into military competition. We have seen a huge increase in military spending throughout the world in the past decades. This war is leading to calls for even more: Germany announced this week it will double its spending, and there is a growing militarization across Europe.
The attacks on the anti-war movement will continue. We will continue to campaign against this war in Ukraine – but we will take no lessons from the warmongers on any side.
Lindsey German is convener of the Stop the War coalition.