ON THE very night Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities to protest.
By some accounts even the number arrested at such demonstrations runs into the thousands. Reports indicate some Russian employers have warned staff that they understand public criticism of the war will be treated as “treason.”
War has unleashed a carnival of reaction in this country too. Tory Tom Tugendhat demands in the Commons that Britain updates its own treason statute from 1351 to deal with disloyal subjects. Labour’s Chris Bryant calls for loyalty tests to be imposed on those with dual Russian and British nationality.
Labour threatens to remove the whip from any MP who signs a Stop the War Coalition statement — one which condemns the Russian invasion — on the grounds that under Keir Starmer “there will never be any confusion about whose side Labour is on — Britain, Nato, freedom and democracy.” Though not the freedom to criticise Nato, it seems.
Now it targets Young Labour because its chair Jess Barnard bravely refused to remove her signature from the Stop the War statement. The consequences of failing to stand up to this bullying are clear.
Soon it will be dangerous for Labour members to speak at anti-war rallies or associate with an organisation which in 2020 was rated the most popular campaigning organisation among the membership.
Attacks from the right will keep coming, and having given in, MPs will find it harder to make the anti-war arguments we need to keep us back from the brink of devastating war, or point out, accurately, that by ripping up the international rulebook with illegal assaults on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya the US and its allies set an example that Russia is now following with appalling consequences for the people of Ukraine.
The drumbeat at Westminster is to escalate, escalate, escalate. Fortunately Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has had the sense to dismiss demands from some MPs that Britain tries to impose a no-fly-zone over Ukraine, which would mean attacking Russian aircraft and precipitating a general war between Russia and Nato.
But it is ominous that demands are being made in all seriousness which could start all-out war between combatants with thousands of nuclear missiles between them.
It is vital that Russia’s attack on Ukraine stops, but how is that to be achieved? There’s no reason to expect ever harsher sanctions to work, especially since China has indicated it is prepared to increase purchases of Russian goods to make up for Western reprisals — itself a sign of how far the US’s military encirclement of both countries has forged an alliance between them. The process will probably just accelerate what Washington called “decoupling” with regard to China — a more divided world in terms of trade and less co-operation on everything from the pandemic to climate change.
But the protests in Russia show Putin has taken a big risk. The response from many Russians to the war ranges from bafflement to anger. Their sentiment echoes that of so many in this country. The peoples of the world want peace.
It is our rulers who seek to silence that demand. Those condemning the arrests of anti-war protesters in Russia should ask what will happen to anti-war protesters over here once the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives police sweeping powers to shut down demos.
There is a path to ending this conflict through negotiations, and guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity. If it means adopting the neutral status enjoyed by countries like Austria and Finland during the cold war that is hardly the affront to Ukrainian sovereignty some in the West seem to think. But neither Nato nor Russia is going to pursue the only sane course of action without the power of popular protest. Solidarity with anti-war movements everywhere.
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