A mushroom cloud of testosterone has descended on social media; would-be Dr Strangeloves are even demanding military action against Russia, otherwise known as “stage 1 of the nuclear extermination of the human race”. The approach of Western governments, thankfully, has been rather more restrained, though hardly for peace-loving reasons: the City of London-funded Conservative party wants Russia’s money to keep flowing into financial institutions, and the German government wants its gas.
But bluster and self-interest aside, Russia’s invasion helps hold up a mirror to the West’s foreign policy, however much that makes us flinch. “The first casualty when war comes is truth,” US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson was reported to have said in 1918; in the Ukrainian crisis, the first casualty has been irony. “You just don’t invade another country on a phoney pretext in order to assert your interests,” declares John Kerry, Secretary of State for a country which infamously did just that almost exactly 11 years ago. “The world cannot say it’s OK to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way,” solemnly proclaims William Hague, who merrily waltzed through the division lobby in support of the Iraq war in 2003.
Let’s just think through how both the Russian government and Russian civilians are rationalising aggression in Ukraine. A democratically elected government has been violently overthrown. Prominent among the victorious uprising are right-wing extremists, who have been handed key government posts. There was an attempt to scrap Russian as an official language, moves to ban political parties, and unelected oligarchs have been imposed on Ukraine’s regions, indicative of a growing threat to the Russian minority, many of whom have Russian passports. Russia’s security needs are informed by the fact it has been repeatedly – and catastrophically – attacked from the West, and an agreement with Ukraine allows for the stationing of thousands of troops in Crimea.
Such rationalisations can be easily challenged, of course. A democratic mandate does not grant a government carte blanche to act as it wishes. This was not a coup, but a genuinely popular uprising in the country’s western and central regions, if not in its east and south. It is true that the AK-47-wielding far-right Right Sector did play a decisive role in the revolt’s success, and won respect from more moderate factions for doing so: there is a frightening tradition of conservatives and liberals helping fascists into power.
The new government has seven far-right ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Sych of the neo-fascist Svoboda party, which the World Jewish Congress says the EU should ban. But they do not own the whole revolt, and will only be strengthened by Russian intervention.
There have been no systematic attacks on Russian-speakers; the attempt to scrap Russian as an official language has so far failed; and neither is it true that all Russian-speakers want unification with Moscow. Past barbaric invasions of Russia do not justify sacrificing the right of neighbouring countries to self-determination.
But the rhetoric of Russian intervention mirrors that of our own leaders when they send “Our boys” into action: defending democracy, taking on modern-day fascists, protecting the rights of minorities, supporting self-determination. It is easy to question the motives of foreign powers and disregard their justifications: it is taken as read. Do so with your own rulers, and you are dismissed as a peddler of conspiracy theories, or for playing into the hands of the enemy.
Supporters of Western foreign policy attack those who draw attention to our own record at times like this for “whataboutery”, or the “look over there!” approach to debate. A foreign power does something wrong, and anti-war types are said to go, “ah, but what about the West?”, supposedly to suggest that our faults make theirs all OK. That is not the point of this argument at all. Russia is ruled by an authoritarian government that attacks civil liberties and discriminates against LGBT people. It has no noble aims in Ukraine. “What is happening in Crimea these days is a classic act of imperialist intervention,” as the radical Russian group Open Left puts it. Great Powers have always exploited or promoted genuine grievances to justify their self-interest: even Mussolini rationalised his invasion of Abyssinia as liberating the country from the tyranny of chattel slavery.
But this should force us to consider how the rest of the world looks at us. Our nation joins the United States in invading Iraq on a false pretext, effectively destroying the country and killing hundreds of thousands in the process. Israel is allowed systematically to violate UN resolutions, building illegal settlements and annexing Palestinian land. Our great ally, the “witch”-beheading, hand-chopping dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, invaded Bahrain (at the request of Bahrain’s dictatorial regime, of course) to help suppress a struggle for democracy and human rights. The United States launches drone attacks in sovereign nations like Pakistan, in direct defiance of the country’s Parliament, killing countless civilians.
If Russia, or other countries deemed unfriendly, acted in this way, the calls for action would be deafening. When foreign nations commit acts of aggression, it provokes a sense of “we have to do something” in the West; so it does in other countries when we commit similar acts, too. But “rogue state” is not a term that applies to countries that violate international law, but rather to those that have failed to bend to the will of the West.
That is not to suggest that these attacks on the international order provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It would undoubtedly have happened anyway. But they are all symptoms of the same phenomenon. International law is treated by Great Powers as a convenient stick to beat opponents with, to be discarded when it is inconvenient.
Neither can Western leaders claim with a straight face that elected governments must be removed by the ballot box, rather than violence. They were complicit in the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate, President Morsi, and the establishment of a junta that has jailed and killed its opponents. They endorsed the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Yanukovych. Both of these administrations abused human rights. But the West’s clear official position is to support the violent overthrow of elected governments in certain circumstances.
Supporters of Western foreign policy bait anti-war activists: you are the first to take to the streets when the West drops bombs, where are your placards in Trafalgar Square demanding: “Russia out of Ukraine?” It is an odd line of attack. Protests normally happen to pressure one’s own government: either to stop an action or to compel them to act. Protesting to echo a government’s line seems odd, and could be used to promote escalation rather than peace. As Ilya Budraitskis, a Russian socialist who took part in Moscow’s suppressed anti-war demonstrations on Sunday, puts it: “I believe that anti-war activists in every country should criticise their own government first.”
That’s not a cop-out from solidarity. Democracy, human rights and peace are universal, global causes. They are continually threatened by Great Powers. That is why all of us – whether in Moscow, London, Beijing or Washington – need to fight for a new global order that prevents Great Powers simply throwing their weight around. An old cause, yes: but all of our futures depend on it.
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