WAR WATCH – I expect the war will go on for a while until the generals and politicians get tired of it.
An international antiwar movement with significant numbers could hasten that moment. One does not demand peace because there’s a war on. Indeed, that’s why one demands peace. The movement against the Vietnam war was organized and expanded while the war escalated, not before or afterwards.
Since the example of the USSR arming Vietnam is being used as a reason to support arming Kyiv by some on the left who support NATO arms shipments, I think it is useful to turn that comparison upside down, as it were. This argument understands that Ukraine’s history is much longer than South Vietnam’s was and that it does meet criterion for a nation (we’ll leave my distaste for nationalism out of the conversation). However, it rejects this element of the left’s argument that the war is a Ukrainian anti-colonial struggle.
I would argue that modern Ukraine’s situation is closer to that of what Washington named South Vietnam than Vietnam in general That country was nominally independent, but fiercely determined to stay in the sphere dominated by Washington. In fact, it’s very life depended on Washington’s largess. Modern Ukraine has a different genesis, having been established in the wake of the disintegration of the USSR. Since then, its government has switched back and forth between favoring the Russian economic sphere and that of the US-dominated west. Since the US-assisted overthrow of the elected government in 2014, the government in Kyiv has given itself to the latter. It is firmly in Washington’s grip, even making its desire to be part of NATO an article in its most recent constitution. Of course, this came with a price. While it seems unlikely that Zelensky and his government knew that the price would include the destruction of many of its cities and the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians, there were certainly those Ukrainians who understood this possibility.
Anyhow, back to that comparison with South Vietnam. Like South Vietnam, Ukraine is dependent on the continued support from the US and its allies/clients. It depends on them for arms, logistical support, food, and goodwill, to name just a few things. While Kyiv certainly has a considerably more legitimate claim to actually being its own nation than southern Vietnam, the truth is that if Washington/NATO ended its support for the Ukraine government and military, its defense would crumble fairly quickly, much like the Saigon military did in 1975. This is reason aplenty to demand a ceasefire and negotiations. Escalating conflicts kill a lot more people than those that aren’t allowed to escalate.
Most readers understand that there are men and women in the Pentagon, the RAND corporation and other think tanks in the pay of the US war machine who are weighing the probabilities in this conflict and how much the US should invest in it. At the same time, if the same hubris exists in those environments that existed in them in the decades after World War two, we are all in for a long and ugly war; a war which could become more dangerous than any conflict since Vietnam, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger seriously considered using nuclear weapons. They say the thing that stopped them was the international antiwar movement.
In other words, that movement was a player in the conflict. Unfortunately, it cost millions of lives before the war ended. However, many more might have been lost if the international peace movement had not existed at the level it did. This example is why a new international peace movement must be built. Lives are at stake.
Upon further debate, some leftists supporting Ukraine argue that while they have no issue with NATO arming Ukraine’s military, they do oppose a no-fly zone or the use of NATO combat troops. The problem with this approach is that pretending that one can proscribe NATO’s involvement is naive at best. I find it difficult to believe that these politically sophisticated folks cannot see that giving an inch to NATO means giving it a mile. As anyone who studies US military involvement overseas knows, Washington is ready with multiple contingency plans based on their perception of the situation on the ground and their objective in any particular conflict. All of those contingencies are based on Washington getting its way, either in the short term or in the long term. If this position limiting US/NATO involvement is an attempt to salve the consciences of those liberals and leftists holding it, that makes sense in its own way. Indeed, it is reminiscent of those in the 1990-1991 movement against the US war on Iraq who supported sanctions while opposing military action. Those sanctions went on to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, a half million of them children. Personally, I find accepting the limitations as set by the US war machine to be a fool’s errand.
A simple and direct call for ceasefire and negotiations is a good place to begin building a movement against this conflict. The hope would be that the negotiations proceeded something along these lines. After the ceasefire was established, a primary goal of the negotiators would be to facilitate a Russian withdrawal to where their troops were before the invasion and a halt to arms shipments to the Ukrainian forces. The next steps would include devising a solution for disputed regions in Ukraine and a security arrangement for Kyiv that excludes NATO and Russia from any direct role. The ultimate goals would be the dissolution of NATO and the closure of foreign military bases in Europe.
I began my opposition to the US war in Vietnam by joining those who called for negotiations and a US withdrawal. How that withdrawal was to occur was not within my power to decide. Eventually, once it became clear that Washington had no intention of withdrawing, I joined those who wanted a NLF victory. The template for Vietnam is not transferable to today’s Ukraine, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s exaggerating facts to pretend that the small numbers of progressive Ukrainians fighting Russians will be respected any more than the left partisans were in Italy, France and Greece were after World War Two. If they are truly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, however, one wonders why their battle is not also with the crony capitalist government in Kyiv. Those in Europe, the US and elsewhere who are on the left and are rejecting calls for ceasefire and negotiations outright are accepting the terms of those who prefer war- Russia and Washington and Kyiv. Building a movement demanding a ceasefire and negotiations adds a dimension to the conflict that can potentially end it sooner and in a more just manner. Certainly, less deadly. Refusing to join that call removes the power of people around the world, who are already feeling the negative effects of this war. Making any ceasefire conditional, as Zelenskyy wants to do, is a non-starter. Most recently, he stated that in order for any talks to begin, Russia must leave all of Ukraine, including the disputed regions. In other words, he doesn’t want talks. There are those in certain segments of the left who support Zelenskyy’s demand. Many of these folks also supported the jihadist and other groupings fighting the Syrian government since 2011. These same elements consider this war a war of national liberation and insist that Ukraine’s borders are not mutable. Besides flying in the face of history—where national borders change all the time—this argument contradicts these people’s defense of the partitioning of Syria. If Ukraine’s borders are not mutable, why would Syria’s be? Conversely, if Syria’s borders are changeable, then why not Ukraine’s?
The one certainty in this conflict is that Moscow miscalculated Washington’s power of persuasion. Virtually every European government has lined up behind the US war machine and joined the economic attack on the Russian economy. More dangerously, most of them are also sending weapons to Kyiv. While there’s money to be made in the latter action, the economic sanctions and embargo against Russia will end up hitting the average working person in the wallet. Like always, it will hit some more than others. One assumes most of those in the upper economic strata will end up profiting. The economic fallout from the conflict may be the nexus with which a movement to end the war could coalesce. Unless, of course, governments start sending their troops into the conflict—in the air and/or on the ground.
NATO, which was never truly the peacemaking endeavor it claimed to be in so much of its literature, first took off its velvet gloves in 1999 when its forces (mostly US, of course) bombed Serbia and Kosovo in the Yugoslavian civil war. This was after a few years of infiltrating European governments that had once been part of the Warsaw Pact with the USSR. The closer NATO got to Russia’s western border, the more nervous Moscow became. In response, Washington/NATO pushed further east, provoking crises in the form of Washington-supported and sponsored “color revolutions” and enlisting the IMF and other financial institutions in schemes designed to incorporate those countries’ economies into the economic sphere dominated by Washington and Wall Street. This process served at least two purposes: the aforementioned economic expansion and the resurgence of NATO, an alliance whose raison d’etre was being challenged from the left and the right. I wrote a piece in 2015 titled Creating a Crisis—It’s NATO’s Way where I wrote “Talk about a contrived crisis. NATO, in its ongoing struggle to create enemies and thereby provide itself with a reason to exist, is now calling Russia its greatest threat.” (2/13/2015) Seven years later, that struggle to create enemies has reached fruition and there is a war in Europe. Now, even Finland wants to join NATO, as if joining an alliance that binds one’s military to defend other more war-inclined nations is a guarantor of peace. At a recent news conference, Jen Stoltenberg, the current Secretary General of NATO, could barely contain himself when he was quoted saying “Ukraine can win this war.” He went further, saying the potential expansion of the Western military alliance would provide Europe with greater security (Nyt 5/15/22), when in actuality it is Washington that will reap gain greater security and not countries bordering Russia. Indeed, most of the benefits from any expansion–from increased arms profits to more US military funding–will go to Washington’s military-industrial economy.
While Washington may think it has the power it had immediately after World War Two and can force its will on the world, that assumption is founded only in its arrogance, not in the reality of the situation. This makes an always uncertain situation a dangerous one. Every weapons shipment to Ukraine and every rejection of a ceasefire only exacerbates that danger.
(Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: [email protected]. This article was featured in CounterPunch.)