With Russia’s seizure of the Crimea, one European state has annexed the territory of another through force of arms for the first time since the Second World War. While since 1945 there have been cases of European states sending in their troops to occupy the territory of their neighbours — Turkey in Cyprus, Serbia in Croatia and Bosnia, Armenia in Azerbaijan, Russia in Georgia — this has always been done by the establishment of proxies and a proclamation of “independence” of these puppet states, never through the formal annexation of another state’s territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behaviour has broken what had seemed a very solid, unbreachable taboo.
One might have imagined that this would have been universally condemned by British politicians and opinion-formers. Putin has, however, found his defenders, or at least apologists, across the political spectrum. They include the usual suspects — those who can be relied upon to stand up for the West’s enemies whoever they may be — but also more unlikely converts. It encompasses figures who have consistently been pro-Moscow and who now have great influence upon the decisions of the Labour party and also former Conservative party leadership hopefuls who had been strong Cold Warriors. These apologists for the Kremlin have not been bribed, blackmailed or otherwise cajoled; they are taking the positions they are due to misguided ideology.
The London-based Australian journalist John Pilger has since the Sixties and the Vietnam War been seen by some as an intrepid lone voice willing to uncover the machinations of powerful, opaque vested interests and to stand up bravely to the perfidy of the United States — a journalistic Noam Chomsky with an Antipodean accent, if you will.
So what did Pilger have to say in the Guardian about the overthrow of the brutal and deeply corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych after its forces had opened fire on protesters? “In February, the US mounted one of its proxy ‘colour’ coups against the elected government of Ukraine . . . Since Washington’s putsch in Kiev — and Moscow’s inevitable response in Russian Crimea to protect its Black Sea fleet — the provocation and isolation of Russia have been inverted in the news to the ‘Russian threat’.”
In Pilger’s world, the United States is the aggressor and Russia’s invasion of the Crimea-Ukrainian, not Russian territory whatever he might imagine — is merely an act of self-defence. The “Russian threat” — all too real when parts of your state have already been annexed, Russian forces, albeit without insignia, have entered the east of your country and are supporting surrogate militias there and the Russian army is massing on your borders — is merely a US-contrived chimera.
A month later Pilger wrote, again in the Guardian, “Why do we tolerate the threat of another world war in our name? . . . For the first time since the Reagan years, the US is threatening to take the world to war . . . Having masterminded the coup in February against the democratically elected government in Kiev, Washington’s planned seizure of Russia’s historic, legitimate, warm-water naval base in Crimea failed.” There was I thinking that Crimea had been seized by Russia — but no, Pilger tells us that Russia had merely resisted the US’s nefarious plans. This article was so outlandish — quoting supposed victims of “pro-Ukrainian Nazi radicals” from spurious, since deleted Facebook pages — that the Guardian‘s own Moscow correspondent, Shaun Walker, described it as “inexcusable”.
Pilger is not the only Guardian columnist to have sprung to Putin’s defence. Seumas Milne, the paper’s Old Wykehamist erstwhile comment editor who started his journalistic career on Straight Left, the paper of a hardline, some would say Stalinist, faction within the Communist Party, wrote, “Putin’s absorption of Crimea and support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine is clearly defensive. . . the east of Ukraine, at least, is not going to be swallowed up by Nato or the EU.” No — it might well be “swallowed up” by Russia instead.
Pilger and Milne have organised supporters for their standpoint. The Stop the War coalition — the people who planned the massive demonstrations in London against the Iraq war in 2003 — and its leading lights have taken a stand, this time seemingly on the Start the War side.
Andrew Murray, its chairman until 2011 and a leading member of the Communist Party of Britain, has launched a new campaign, Solidarity with the Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine. This is solidarity not with the Ukraine or with those opposing Russian aggression but solidarity with Russia’s proxy forces in the eastern Ukraine illegally occupying Donetsk and Luhansk. Murray only appears to have a problem with the use of force if it is wielded by the West, never if employed by the West’s enemies.
Nothing about Murray should surprise us. In his column for the Communist Party of Britain-controlled newspaper, the Morning Star, Murray reflected some years ago on the anniversary of the death of Josef Stalin:
His career is the subject of a vast and ever-expanding literature. Read it all and, at the end, you are still left paying your money and taking your choice. A socialist system embracing a third of the world and the defeat of Nazi Germany on the one hand. On the other, all accompanied by harsh measures imposed by a one-party regime. Nevertheless, if you believe that the worst crimes visited on humanity . . . have been caused by imperialism, then [Stalin’s birthday] might at least be a moment to ponder why the authors of those crimes and their hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others. It was after all, Stalin’s best-known critic, Nikita Khrushchev, who remarked in 1956 that, “against imperialists, we are all Stalinist”.
Not a word of criticism, of course, of Soviet or Russian imperialism; imperialism is here meant in Lenin’s sense as he extrapolated in 1916 when contemplating the then imminent collapse of capitalism in his pamphlet Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
The 56-year-old “we are all Stalinists” Murray is a passionate advocate for the North Korean regime but he should not be lightly dismissed as a figure on the outer periphery of political life who had a brief success with the anti-Iraq war campaign. He is now chief of staff to Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest trades union and the largest affiliate to the Labour party, indeed the party’s largest donor. Unite cast 47,439 votes in support of Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership election in 2010, helping him to win.
The union has been explicit in its attempts to move Labour in a leftward, workerist direction and has been accused by others in the party of dubious machinations, most notably in the constituency of Falkirk in Scotland but also elsewhere, in seeking to ensure that its favoured candidates would be selected to stand in safe Labour seats at next year’s general election. Informed observers have argued that Murray is the most influential person in Unite, the power behind its strategy, with much day-to-day management and decisions left to him, while McCluskey is the union’s public face.
In their defence of Russia over Ukraine, Pilger, Milne and Murray stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain’s homegrown fascist, BNP leader Nick Griffin. For all the attacks on the Ukrainian government by British leftists for being a cauldron of fascists, virtually all of Europe’s far-right parties — from Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece to the Front National in France — are cheerleaders for Putin’s adventures in Ukraine. One might feel rather sorry for the genuine fascists that do exist in the Ukraine, for however hard they try to prove their credentials their ideological soulmates in the rest of Europe nearly all support their deadly enemy.
Putin’s leftist apologists must face the anguish of making common cause with dedicated followers of fascism. What may however be even more galling for them is that they also find themselves comrades-in-arms on this issue with a phalanx of Conservative MPs. Milne wrote in the Guardian, “The reality is that, after two decades of eastward Nato expansion, this crisis was triggered by the west’s attempt to pull Ukraine decisively into its orbit and defence structure, via an explicitly anti-Moscow EU association agreement.” It is a view that could just as easily have been expressed by a number of Tory MPs.
Whether intentionally or not, the Eurosceptic Bruges Group has become an apologist for Putin. The group was established in 1989 to support the views expounded by Margaret Thatcher in her Bruges speech of the previous year calling for an end to the federalist project and a more decentralised Europe. It has now produced Someone Had Blunder’d, a 30-minute film attacking UK and EU policy on Ukraine for provoking Russia, indeed for being the cause of the current crisis. It is fronted by Bruges Group director Robert Oulds and features Conservative MPs Peter Bone, Bernard Jenkin and John Redwood, twice a leadership candidate, as well as erstwhile party chairman Lord Tebbit. They are now exploring a follow-up film with Sir Bill Cash MP.
The argument of these critics is that, in the phrase of Bernard Jenkin, the Euro-neocons — surely as mythical a beast as any yet imagined — running the EU have pursued an aggressive policy of eastward expansion which has encroached on Russia’s sphere of influence and thus made it feel threatened. In their view it is the EU’s rather than Russia’s expansionism which has provoked conflict. Jenkin argues that the EU has been “fomenting divisions in order to bring Ukraine into the European orbit”. Redwood says: “It was EU action seeking to expand their empire to the West [sic] which first started the reaction of Russia.”
It is true that the demonstrations against Yanukovych began last November when he announced that he would not be signing an Association Agreement with the EU but would instead throw in his lot with Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union.
The critics are right that the Association Agreement is much more than a free-trade agreement. In Article Seven it commits Ukraine to “promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy”. Article Ten of the agreement provides for “increasing the participation of Ukraine in EU-led civilian and military crisis management operations” and exploring the potential of military-technological cooperation.
The agreement may indeed undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, but surely is nothing compared to the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union. While the latter may on paper be nothing more than a customs union does anyone seriously believe that it will remain as such? Has Putin’s aggression in Ukraine not rather proven the point that Ukrainian sovereignty is not high on his list of priorities?
Until Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Conservatives and Putin’s party, United Russia, have been institutionally linked. Both the United Kingdom and Russia are members of the Council of Europe, a body wholly separate from the EU but including its 28 members along with 19 other non-member states.
This body has its own talking shop of parliamentarians drawn from the members’ legislatures, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. In this body the 18-strong delegation of British Conservatives, which includes one Democratic Unionist from Northern Ireland, sits in a faction, the European Democratic Group (EDG), which includes Putin’s party, United Russia.
Before the Ukraine crisis the EDG was chaired by a parliamentarian from United Russia, Alexey Pushkov, with British Conservative MP Christopher Chope as its first deputy chairman. Its other deputy chairman, Reha Denemeç, is from Turkey’s ruling authoritarian and soft-Islamist Justice and Development Party. With the occupation of Crimea, the parliamentary assembly voted to censure Russia; this led to its delegation withdrawing. Chope thus finds himself acting chairman of the EDG with Denemeç as his deputy.
When I asked Chope if he was comfortable with the alliances they had made, he explained that the alternatives to the EDG would have been sitting alone or with the main centre-right group of the European People’s Party (EPP). The EPP are European federalists whereas the members of the EDG believe in national sovereignty — presumably in the case of United Russia its own national sovereignty rather than that of any other country.
Chope further claimed that at least one faction of the EPP is heavily influenced, if not controlled, by the Pope, and sitting alongside such people would be rather difficult for an instinctive liberal like himself — presumably more difficult than sitting alongside supporters of those instinctive liberals Putin and Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdoğan.
The Tory apologists for Putin are not in the pay of the Kremlin; none of them have any declared business interests which would put them in hock to Russia. Instead, they seem to have been so blinded by their hatred of the EU that they have persuaded themselves that in any conflict the EU is always at fault.
They seem to have failed to grasp there are threats to the sovereignty of European nations that are far more serious than anything emanating from Brussels.