Show caption Thousands of people protest in Trafalgar Square against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 27 February. Photograph: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock Opinion Putin’s aggression makes clear the case for an anti-war movement Owen Jones Activists should champion Ukraine’s right to resist and an international order based on shared values and peace Wed 2 Mar 2022 08.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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Do we ever learn? Vladimir Putin joins a cast of monsters – from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Gaddafi – who were once blessed by western patronage. His regime was forged in the ruins of Grozny, and legitimised in the property portfolios of Highgate and Chelsea. Twenty-three years ago, the then largely unknown Putin surfed a national wave of jingoism to become Boris Yeltsin’s successor, after a series of supposed terrorist bombings in Russian apartment buildings provided a pretext for the country’s second Chechen war. Never mind that there is compelling evidence that Russian security services carried out these bombings to provide a casus belli for the invasion, never mind that tens of thousands of Chechens were slaughtered amid horrendous war crimes: Putin was lauded and embraced.
The former MI6 chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, expressed his regret in 2018 for our security services’ role in Putin’s rise to power, including the time Tony Blair was offered up to the Russians for a photo op in 2000. The following year the former prime minister also drew parallels between Chechnya and the west’s “war on terror”. Putin’s descent into unapologetic authoritarianism didn’t lead Blair to revise his opinions – instead, he urged the west to put aside its displeasure at the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to ally with Putin against “radical Islam”, a plea he repeated in 2018, just three months after the Salisbury poisonings.
Today, complicity largely lies within the ranks of the Conservatives. The coffers of our governing party are flush with Putin-linked cash. According to a letter written by David Lammy and Rachel Reeves: “Donors who have made money from Russia or have alleged links to the Putin regime have given £1.93m to either the Conservative party or individual Conservative associations since Boris Johnson took power in July 2019.”
Putin’s Russia has been one of several human rights-abusing recipients of British arms sales. When Nigel Farage – like so many of his rightwing populist brethren in the western world – declared his admiration for Putin, was he really so far outside the mainstream?
An economic model forged by Thatcherism transformed London into one of the world’s premier tax havens and a hub for “dirty money” from Russia and other human rights abusers: no wonder so many oligarchs have snapped up real estate in London and the home counties. From football clubs to newspapers to tennis matches with our now prime minister, it’s no exaggeration to describe the Russian and British elites as profoundly entangled.
This is why there is a need for an anti-war movement that unapologetically fights for a world that isn’t a playground for brutish great powers: in the here and now, that means focusing on Russian aggression. Despite some claims, there is no significant sympathy for Putin on the left; no widespread repetition of the bankrupt apologism for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which led the Daily Worker’s correspondent Peter Fryer to abandon the Communist party and denounce Stalinism as “Marxism with the heart cut out dehumanised, dried, frozen, petrified, rigid, barren”. It is true that anti-war protesters – whether in Britain or Russia – have most leverage over the actions of their own rulers, but they should back peaceful alternatives to military escalation, including sanctions and curbs on “dirty money” from aggressor states such as Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Anti-war activists should not obfuscate: Putin’s war is unprovoked and no mitigating circumstances exist. That doesn’t mean failing to understand how we ended up here. We should understand why so many eastern Europeans see Nato as a necessary bulwark against Russia – which they understandably fear more than the west. We should also understand how Putin exploited Russians’ avoidable sense of humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we should be able to dispute the human rights credentials of a Nato whose members include authoritarian Turkey as it wages war on the Kurds.
In the nuclear age, the role of an anti-war movement is to emphasise alternatives to a military escalation that could, all too swiftly, lead to the annihilation of human civilisation: above all else, an international order based on shared rules, diplomacy and cooperation. That means consistency. David Miliband is right to condemn an invasion breaching the UN charter and killing civilians in breach of international law as a “return to dark ages”, but he should reflect on his own vote for an Iraq war in which hundreds of thousands of civilians perished, which was condemned by the then UN secretary general Kofi Annan as breaching that same charter. The flouting of international rules by great powers legitimises violent anarchy.
The anti-war movement fights for a heart in a heartless world. It resists a racist narrative summed up by one US news correspondent – “This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan … This is a relatively civilised, relatively European city” – by emphasising that the invasion of Ukraine matters because they’re a people under attack, not because they’re Europeans, and that this empathy must be applied more universally.
It also calls for a universal application of rules: if we stand against one aggressor, we should stand against them all. Arguing for consistency on international issues is often condemned as “whataboutery”, but at its heart is the belief that all victims of injustice are of equal worth. If we understand Ukrainians’ right to resist occupation, we should extend that courtesy to Palestinians; if we are repelled by the slaughter of children in Ukraine, we should feel equally appalled by the Saudi carpet bombing of kids with western bombs; and we should equally condemn atrocities committed by other anti-western regimes, from the barrel bombs of Syria’s Assad to China’s oppression of the Uygher Muslims.
As Putin wages his war of aggression, the need for an anti-war movement that is as consistent as it is courageous is more urgent than ever. In the here and now, it condemns a criminal war of aggression, champions Ukraine’s right to resist, and demands those same principles are universally applied. It will find itself friendless among those who seek to gain politically or financially from war, but it should seek alliances instead from the grassroots of each country. It may not be popular, for now at least, but it will be right.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist