We won’t die for Zelensky

Is a sentiment increasingly strongly felt in Ukraine. An unwillingness to die for Grant Shapps is also a majority sentiment in the UK, with just 17% being prepared to “fight for their country” in recent polling (and just 14% of 18-24 year olds).

We are now at a very dangerous point in the war in Ukraine. NATO is having to contemplate a defeat. The Ukrainian armed forces are suffering terrible losses and retreating all along the line of contact. There are increasing reports of surrenders, sometimes whole platoons sent to occupy suicidal forlorn hope forward positions (who are asking the Russians not to include them in prisoner swaps so they don’t get sent back to the front). There are also now a lot of videos of men being press ganged by Ukrainian recruitment officers, involving chases down the road and punch ups. Sometimes they get away, sometimes they don’t. The new conscription bill, to draft younger age groups is deeply unpopular and has been a political hot potato for months. The days of eager recruits is long gone. There have been whatsapp groups used by men to warn each other when the press gangs are around, so they can keep their heads down, for quite some time now. The latest visit from US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is reported to have offered Zelensky a deal; pass the conscription law as the quid pro quo for the US unblocking its latest tranche of aid. Essentially, this translates as Sullivan saying you provide the men to fight and die, we’ll supply the weapons that keep them in harms way. Zelensky’s own standing is undermined by the expiry of his Presidential term this month. Elections have been cancelled until the war is “won”.

There are two problems with this.

1. “Winning” for Kyiv/NATO means;

  • reconquering parts of pre 2014 Ukraine that rebelled against the US/EU backed overthrow of a government they had voted for. 30% of the pre-2014 Ukrainian population spoke Russian as their first language. Calling for an end to “the Russian occupation” would actually require most of the population of Crimea and Donbass to become refugees heading for Russia. Calling for “Russian troops out” means driving the locally recruited Donbass militia, which is now integrated into the Russian armed forces – out of their homes and the land they have been fighting to defend since coming under Ukrainian attack in May 2014.
  • integrating Ukraine fully into NATO – the world’s dominant alliance of imperial predators – as “a big Israel in Eastern Europe” (President Zelensky). A military frontier henchman state for a US dominated bloc that, as we know from long experience, or should, applies the principle recently restated with alarming candour by Anthony Blinken at this year’s Munich Security Conference: “if you’re not at the table in the international system, you’re going to be on the menu.”

Neither of these are outcomes that anyone on the Left should support.

Even if you think that being against “campism” means that you have to defend “principles” like the “right” of a state to join an imperialist military alliance; if you find yourself agitating for that bloc to be more aggressive in supplying arms, there is no basis on which you can oppose the militarisation of our society, and the war drive that our ruling class is engaging in, because you have become a cheerleader for it. This is revealed by the argument in a recent article on Labour Hub from the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign that the impending defeat in Ukraine “has arisen from the self-limiting approach by the democracies providing aid.” My emphasis. Who does he mean by “the democracies”? The world’s richest, most powerful economies, coralled into a military and political bloc that exploits the rest of the world under the leadership of the USA? Those “democracies”? For the author, the core of world imperialism are “the democracies” engaged in a “key battle for democracy with the new authoritarianism.” This is straight State Department terminology and framing.

This way of thinking possibly explains why USCs contribution to the war drive of the countries that account for 75% of global military spending, launched the “war on terror” that killed 4.5 million worldwide and are currently arming Israel in its genocidal assault on Gaza, is to produce wild and lurid propaganda about Russia’s “barbaric methods” that are the contemporary counterpart of those penned by Horatio Bottomly in John Bull during WW1. They have reduced themselves to a descant chorus to the relentless drone of the ruling class narrative in the dominant media. Karl Leibknecht did not say “The enemy is at home – but for the Russians, Chinese, Syrians, Libyans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Afghans, Haitians (add whoever the next target is) we’ll make an exception”.

2. “Winning”, as described above, is impossible and the attempt to do so will destroy what is left of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian offensive last year was a debacle. The Western supplied equipment, and the tactics they advised, failed appallingly. Incremental gains were won at a terrible cost in men and equipment. There is no chance of a repeat. No one now seriously envisages punching through to the Sea of Azov, let alone a march on Rostov on Don. So, what, or who, is the war for?

For NATO, sustaining the war, at the cost of thousands more dead Ukrainians, is worthwhile to “weaken the Russians”, or at least stave off a very visible defeat. NATO is the core imperial alliance. “Losing” in Ukraine would be a loss of face even more severe than that suffered when its Afghan proxy regime collapsed within weeks of direct withdawal. Can’t have that. However, this requires Ukrainians to be willing to keep fighting, with no chance of winning, no light at the end of the tunnel, the only fuel being the sense of keeping faith with the dead, whose sacrifice cannot be aknolwedged to have been in vain. As noted above, this is beginning to wear out. People need, and deserve, a future that is not an endless war.

There are two possibilities in the current situation.

  1. The Russian armed forces continue to make steady incremental gains on the ground and thousands of Ukrainians die in a futile attempt to stop them; leading, eventually, to political collapse in Western Ukraine leading to partition and neutralisation. No amount of Western weaponry short of nuclear war is going to stop this. The argument in the latest article from Labour Hub – Labour and Ukraine: Oppose the Tory arms sales and demand the weapons to win! endorsing a proposal from John McDonnell and Clive Lewis that the UK Ministry of Defence should stop selling off its old inventory, and donate it to Ukraine instead, peddles the face saving delusion that a bit more second hand equipment would magically do in 2024 what it spectacularly failed to do in 2023. In so doing, it postpones coming to terms with what is staring us all in the face. To try to “win” would involve a level of escalation that would not only militarise society – and require “sacrifices” by the working class to pay for it – it would also threaten a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia; which would be suicidal for all of us. We should all oppose that.
  2. NATO escalates? It is not at all clear what they are going to do. NATO intelligence already provides the UAF with satellite data. There are advisers on the ground, Some of them were killed in a recent Russian missile strike on Odessa. The Black Sea operations are being run by a Royal Navy Admiral. There are also some Special Forces and “volunteers” engaged, like the former French Foreign Legion soldiers who took part in the recent UAF incursion across the Russian border (another costly debacle). “Mission creeep” is always on the agenda. There is currently a massive NATO military exercise going on, that started in January and is scheduled to last until May, largely focussed on the area to the West of Ukraine – part of an annual series of rehearsals for a war with Russia that have been going on for decades. This is in addition to increased permanent deployment since February 2022 into the countries that border Ukraine to the West. As NATO puts it itself, “allies reinforced the existing battlegroups and agreed to establish four more multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. This has brought the total number of multinational battlegroups to eight, effectively doubled the number of troops on the ground and extended NATO’s forward presence along the Alliance’s eastern flank – from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.” So, there are forces poised. Sabre rattling from President Macron, proposing to send NATO troops into Odessa and other parts of Western Ukraine to secure it for “the West” and release Ukrainian reserves to fight and die at the front for many, many more months, kicking a resolution to the war bloodily down the road, has not been endorsed across the bloc, but has led to the deployment of sigificant French forces into Romania in recent days. Doubtless for USC this is another example of “the self-limiting approach by the democracies (sic) providing aid”. It should go without saying that this is incredibly dangerous and I wonder if USC would cheer them in if they marched across the border.

Put very simply, for NATO to attempt to “win” in current circumstances risks nuclear war, which we should all oppose. Sustaining the conflict, even with army surplus goods from the MoD, means many thousands more deaths and the destruction of whats left of Ukraine; with the war as an end in itself that has no end. A peace on the basis of accepting the self determination of both peoples in Ukraine, and securing Ukrainian neutrality could have avoided the war in the first place, and remains the best result now.

Personal post script.

In the early 1960s there was a popular record request programme on the BBC Light Service called Two Way Family Favourites. Well before the internet and mobile phones, this was primarily aimed at allowing service personnel deployed overseas a chance to connect with their family back home by way of requesting a record to be played during Sunday Dinner. A lot of requests came in from BFPO 39 (the Forces Post Office for the British Army on the Rhine) and a regular favourite was the 1812 Overture; Tchaikovsky’s triumphalist celebration of the debacle of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. They would always play the last part; depicting the snow swirling down and enveloping the Grande Armee as it limped West, and ending with the old Russian national anthem played as an up tempo riot, punctuated with cannons going off, heavenly choirs singing and church bells ringing. As a child, I thought at the time that the soldiers were requesting it because of the cannons, but (along with the equally frequent requests for the US President’s phone call to the Soviet General Secretary from Dr Strangelove) I think this was a way of sending the message that contemplating a war with Russia was a really bad idea.