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The shifting sands of war

The possibility of a renewed diplomatic solution in Ukraine could be opening up – but will a hawkish Labour front bench get the message, wonders NICK WRIGHT

ANY illusions that the European Union is a force for peace in the world, or even on its own doorstep, vanished on the final day of the Munich Security Conference. 

Convened in great luxury in the Bayerische Hof Hotel, dozens of new cold warriors heard Estonian premier Kaja Kallas propose that the EU collectively buy artillery munitions for Ukraine and, in lockstep, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell gave it the imprimatur of the EU hierarchy.

The significance of this stand lies not in the talk about ramping up production — which is presently insufficient to meet Ukraine’s demands and the delivery of which is further threatened by the collapsing US consensus about supply — but in the fuller integration of the EU into the Nato war-fighting strategy.

Two years after the Russian invasion of the already divided Ukraine, the messaging around the Russian “threat” has changed. 

Unconstrained by any compulsion to bamboozle a plebeian readership, the Financial Times led with “Russian victories shake global leaders’ faith in Ukraine war prospects.” 

Decoded for the FT’s patrician subscribers, this reads as Western leaders realise they have played a poor hand and that, rather than a moral crusade to defend sovereign Ukraine from its rapacious neighbour, they have transmuted a nasty civil conflict into a continental war. And one that is not going as expected.

The BBC reports that Nato boss Jens Stoltenberg — always more attuned to US interests than might be suggested by his earlier existence as Norway’s “social democrat” premier — warns that the US failure to approve ongoing military supplies to Ukraine is weakening Ukraine’s fighting capacity. 

And on cue the Russian military closed the Avdiivka trap as the retreating Ukrainian armed forces abandoned their wounded. 

When the Establishment media changes its messaging it is always wise to look beyond surface rationalisation to understand the change in outlook this signifies.

The swift Russian retreat from the initial advance on Kiev, the retreat to behind the Dnieper river and its defensive posture as the front stabilised around the Donbass were advanced as proof that the Russian army had limited offensive capacity.

The flip side of this analysis was that Ukraine could defeat Russia on the battlefield and retake the breakaway Russian-speaking industrial Donbass region that the early Bolshevik government gifted Ukraine.

Now the rhetoric is changed. When Britain’s top army officer opines that Russia is now aimed at “defeating our system and way of life,” he signifies not so much a change of strategy as an adaptation to new circumstance.

Far from challenging our “system,” Russia’s robber capitalist ruling class aspires more to emulate the privatised economies of the developed capitalist world, educate their privileged offspring in our private schools, rehome in Mayfair mansions and Cotswolds country houses while hoping that a war in Ukraine is sufficient to divert the anger of the Russian people at the theft of their collective property by Putin’s licenced gang of oligarchs. This war is not a competition between systems but within the capitalist system.

Where Russia possesses something of a strategic and diplomatic advantage over the Western alliance lies in the indifference of many in the global South towards the Ukraine conflict. In some cases this borders on sympathy for Russia’s resistance to Nato’s advance and expresses residual sympathy derived from the Soviet Union’s solidarity with the liberation movements. 

CNN reports that Russia is entering its third year of war with an unprecedented cash pile bolstered by a record $27 billion of crude oil sales to nominal US ally India. One billion dollars’ worth of this finds its way to the US domestic market.

That the global line-up over Western support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza puts the West on the wrong side of morality and history compounds the West’s isolation.

One expression of the anxieties this creates in Europe surfaced when Borrell himself urged Israel’s backers to cease weapons exports to Israel as “too many people” are being killed in Gaza.

As fissures open up in the Atlantic alliance over Israel’s genocidal assault on Palestinians, the Nato military elite has a reliable champion in pundit Paul Mason. In The European, house journal of last-hope Remainers, he writes: “On the second anniversary of Putin’s invasion, the time for talk is over. If Ukraine is defeated, an entire continent will be next.”

If a well-worn copy of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme still nestles in lance corporal Mason’s knapsack it will be, no doubt, alongside a field marshal’s baton.

Born-again brasshat Mason’s new pitch is to advise Keir Starmer on the foreign policy stance of an incoming Labour government.

While most Labour folk would like to see an unequivocal call for a Gaza ceasefire from Labour’s front bench, Mason has other priorities.

He wants Labour to make the case “that Ukraine is the front line of a conflict that we cannot escape from and which — if we don’t stop the aggression here — will engulf us.”

And in an expression of the anxieties created by the failure of the cold war tendency to gain traction outside Establishment circles, he blames voters who “don’t realise the severity of the situation and are concerned with the cost of living and the NHS.”

It is not that people in Britain are unengaged in foreign policy questions. The comparatively weak turnout for “Ukraine Solidarity” demonstrations (not to mention zionist rallies) despite Establishment support and media boost contrasts with the massive and sustained demonstrations for Gaza, despite media hostility, and shows that the mass of people spot a flawed prospectus when they see one.

It is not that there is any lack of sympathy for the human casualties of the Ukraine war, or of Israel’s dead, but people usually know when they are being played.

While he wants to double Britain’s £2.3 billion spend of arms to Ukraine and spend more on “defence” than the Tories’ 2.5 per cent of GDP, Mason’s other priority is to “aim for active bipartisanship with those Tories who genuinely support Ukraine.”

In this he joins the most reactionary circles in the US and the EU who want a war of attrition aimed at weakening Russia with the financial cost borne by taxpayers in Britain, the US and Europe and the human cost paid by what remains of Ukraine’s fighting-age population.

It is tempting to simply echo what informed opinion among US military and intelligence sceptics says about the prospects for success of such a strategy.

The reality is that the while the front line remains broadly static, the significant movement, aside form the Avdiivka  collapse, is for sustained pressure from the Russians whose supply is consistent and production capacity enhanced, with air superiority, a substantial artillery advantage and a bigger pool of conscripts.

Not surprisingly, war weariness is becoming a factor in the politics of both Russia and Ukraine, and if allied to a serious international initiative to resolve the conflict through negotiations, the room for those who want to prolong the conflict would be reduced.

In the aftermath of Ukraine’s stalled offensive, Volodymyr Zelensky replaced army commander General Zaluzhnyi. The perception is that the relatively popular Zaluzhnyi was reluctant to commit his troops in unsupported assaults on the Russian positions without adequate armour, artillery and air support and in the face of declining material support from the US and European Nato states.

This was reflected in his Economist article before Christmas when he argued that the the war was at a stalemate. For uttering this uncomfortable truth he was replaced. This was by Colonel-General Oeleksander Syrsky, old enough for his military career to have begun in the Soviet army, whose family is in Russia and whose task is to make an impossible strategy, grounded in Zelensky’s fantasy rhetoric, work without the tools he needs.

This is not the only post-Soviet irony. Estonian PM Kallas’s father Siim Kallas was deputy chief editor of the Communist Party of Estonia newspaper, chairman of the Central Union of Estonian Trade Unions and a member of the Supreme Soviet before becoming prime minister of the restorationist government.

Amid the rumours and counter-rumours that flow around such events it is hard to work out what the real balance of power is. But the very existence of stories that internal security forces were put on alert, that riots were predicted in Kiev, that recruitment is dependent on press gangs and that public opinion was shifting more decisively in favour of a negotiated peace are reflections of a broad understanding that both sides are wearying of the human costs of this unnecessary war.

Public opinion polling in both Ukraine and Russia is, of necessity, an imprecise science. Opinion about the war in Russia is likely more diffused than the Western media narrative suggests. It certainly cannot be shoehorned into the deceptive presentation of the right-wing nationalist-turned-liberal hero Alexei Navalny as its standard bearer. The mothers and wives of the fallen are more certain forces for peace.

The changed battlefield geometry begins to open up the possibility of a renewed diplomatic solution in which those forces in Europe, including in Ukraine, reluctant to fight US wars, can find partners for peace in both the US and Russia.

Because it was Boris Johnson who infamously intervened to sabotage the last opportunity for a negotiated end to the fighting and a satisfactory regional settlement, it is our particular responsibility to effect a change of government that might become a force for peace.

As a very minimum it demands a change of approach from Labour’s front bench.


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