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Editorial: We need the freedom to dissent – and to campaign for peace

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S war is having a chilling effect on freedom of expression — and not just in Russia.

Though Western governments express grave concern over the crackdown on Russian TV and radio stations which have been critical of the invasion of Ukraine, they are engaged in analogous censorship under the banner of opposing Russian propaganda and “disinformation.”

A serious effort is under way to shut down critical thinking about the geopolitical causes of conflict.

Putin’s aggression is ascribed to psychological tics — opinion pieces speculate that he may be on steroids, or even that he has been unhinged by social distancing during Covid. Russia’s actions cannot be understood — it is simply mad, bad and dangerous to know.

That last point is leading to a frenetic rush to denounce and boycott all things Russian that sits uneasily with the simultaneous praise for Russian peace protesters. 

Russian cats are banned from a feline beauty contest; a Russian oak tree has been disqualified from European Tree of the Year. There are threats to a Soviet-built statue of Friedrich Engels in Manchester, despite the great German revolutionary who lived and worked in this country having died in 1895 and Russia having been capitalist for more than three decades.

A concerted Establishment and media assault targets Britain’s peace movement, with attack pieces misrepresenting the Stop the War Coalition as pro-Putin and trying to discredit giants of international journalism such as John Pilger and the late Robert Fisk.

The Labour leadership’s crackdown on anti-war voices is far more draconian than anything under Tony Blair. But this reflects the residual paranoia of an Establishment that still comes out in a cold sweat at the thought that from 2015-19 a major political party was led by a man of peace, and that his forthright attack on Britain’s aggressive foreign policy went down well with the public when he voiced it in 2017. 

Democratic forces must take courage from the Establishment’s fear. It points to its knowledge that there is a solid base of scepticism in this country about foreign wars.

The crisis sparked by Russia’s attack on Ukraine has brought us dangerously close to nuclear war. Currently “official” politics can see no way through this — calls for de-escalation and sanity must come from below.

On the left, that means pushing for an end to war through talks. 

The “arm Ukraine” line being pushed in some quarters is understandably popular given Russia’s aggression. 

But Russia is much stronger militarily than Ukraine. It cannot be beaten on the battlefield, unless Nato gets involved, which would lead to all-out nuclear annihilation for all parties. 

The “arm Ukraine” argument rather rests on making the Russian invasion so costly in terms of attrition that Putin retreats or is overthrown. 

But these are remote prospects and bleeding Russia to the point where its morale collapses is a plan modelled on the US experiences in Vietnam or Afghanistan — defeats that took decades and imposed an appalling cost in human life and destruction. 

Nobody genuinely concerned about Ukrainians can see this as a reasonable option, though it would be ideal from the point of view of arms firms profiting from weapons supply. 

Instead we must push for what one leading peace campaigner has called an “off ramp” — a way to convince Russia to pull out of Ukraine. 

We know that Russia has made all kinds of security demands to the United States, such as a mutual reduction in missile deployments, that could be put on the table in return for a withdrawal. 

Warmongers will object that this is “rewarding” Russia for its violation of international law. 

But the reality is that the West cannot intimidate Russia into backing down — it has, after all, been trying to intimidate Russia for years. Nor have sanctions generally proved effective in undermining hostile governments. Only through talking can we hope to end this nightmare.

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