When a country or region is invaded, I am overcome by one duty: To take the side of the people facing troops with direct orders to violate their homes, to bombard their neighbourhoods, to destroy the circumstances of their lives. Without hesitation. Unconditionally. When I see civilians in Kharkiv or Kiyv preparing Molotov cocktails with which to defend their homes from the advancing Russian tanks, I cannot but cheer them on. And, at once, painfully to note that, on the same day, when a 15-year-old kid in the occupied Palestinian territories throws a stone at aν Israel Army bulldozer about to demolish her home, the West’s leaders brand her a terrorist. Double standards, not truth and solidarity, should be this war’s first casualty.
Today we must stand with Ukraine, unconditionally. And we must say it out loud: Putin is a war criminal whose campaign sits in the same category as the Hitler-Stalin invasion of Poland or the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. No ifs, no buts. Our task must be one: To help Ukrainians gain their independence against a ruthless invader.
To help Ukrainians morally, we first need to demonstrate that we use the same moral compass. Universally. Οnly the other day, the Saudi Arabian air force bombed Yemen thirty-seven times! I feel that to ignore its Yemeni victims is to diminish humanity’s capacity to show solidarity with Ukrainians and to chastise Putin’s regime. Treating some victims of invasions as more deserving than others lessens our capacity to stand with any, and all, victims of invading armies. Nothing strengthens Putin and his ilk more than the West arming pro-West invaders (like Saudi Arabia) to do (in places like Yemen) that which Putin is doing in the Ukraine.
To help Ukrainians find a path toward peace and freedom, we must also choose to put their interests above our ideologies and fixations. I am a left-winger. But, while people in the Ukraine are dying, I do not have the right to focus on whether the economic ideology or political biases of President Zelensky are to my liking. I must support him – to the extent that Ukrainians are looking to him for leadership now. Period. And I hope that those whose politics differ from mine do the likewise: place the task of pushing Russian troops out of Ukraine above their ideological preferences (e.g. a Ukraine that is a NATO or an EU member).
To help Ukrainians stop the carnage and breathe again, the only question that I need to ask myself is: How do we get the Russian troops to withdraw? This is the question I have a duty to focus on. Any other questions must wait. We know how Russian troops will not withdraw: NATO will not come to push them back. There won’t even be a no-fly zone over Ukraine, despite President Zelensky’s understandable pleading. That sounds like a betrayal of the Ukrainians, but it is not. Escalating the war, by pitching nuclear armed combatants against each other in the heart of Europe, is a sure way of destroying humanity (well before climate change gets a chance to complete the task).
So, how do we stop Putin from, eventually, occupying large parts of the Ukraine, with immeasurable medium and long term economic, political and human costs for the people of Ukraine? Given that NATO will not intervene, and that sanctions take a long, long time to succeed (if at all), the only way of driving Russian troops out of the Ukraine is through a diplomatic solution. The only other possibility would be if the Putin regime were to be toppled quickly, and replaced by a pro-Western one. Alas, anyone who is prepared to gamble the medium and longer-term welfare of the people of Ukraine on such a wager clearly does not have their interests at the top of her or his list of priorities.
Here, I must confess to a serious ethical conflict in my heart and mind: I am desperate for Ukrainian fighters to not give in, to continue to fend off Russian troops heroically – as they have been doing so far. I salute and celebrate them. But I know who Putin is. Putin is a ruthless killer. He has proved that in the early 2000s when he flattened Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, killing more than 250 thousand people so as to solidify his hold over the Russian government. I shudder to think what he will do if the brave Ukrainians continue to resist his army of occupation: He is perfectly capable of turning Kiyv into Grozny, like he turned Grozny into Dresden.
This is not to suggest that the Ukrainian fighters should surrender. No, if I were them, I would keep fighting come-what-may, to the bitter end. What I am saying is something different: That a diplomatic solution needs to be found as soon as possible. That we, from the comfort of our own peaceful surroundings, must push for a solution that spares the lives of thousands and prevents the occupation of Ukraine.
What would an agreeable diplomatic solution entail? Three things: First, an immediate ceasefire followed by the withdrawal of Russian troops. Second, the opportunity for Putin to portray any such agreement as a form of victory – a deal that gives him something close to what he wanted. Third, it must be an agreement guaranteed jointly by Washington and Moscow, guaranteeing an independent and neutral Ukraine as part of a broader agreement that de-escalates tensions with the Baltics, Poland, around the Black Sea, across Europe.
Is there a chance that Putin would accept such a deal now, after his army has taken so much territory? I think there is. Putin maybe ruthless (remember Chechnya?), but he is not stupid. As a well-trained KGB strategist, he knows that he does not have the military might to occupy Ukraine for long. With his smallish economy (Nb. the Russian economy is smaller than the economy of Texas) hemorrhaging money and capital, and his regime facing a possible revolt at home, he cannot invade other countries (e.g., the Baltics). In this light, Putin will be tempted by any deal has Washington’s support that ends the sanctions and allows him to claim that he stopped America’s eastward expansion. A US-Russian summit would seal such a deal, which Putin can present as Russia getting the respect it deserves.
Such an agreement would leave everyone a little dissatisfied but also grant Ukrainians the chance to re-build a free, democratic and independent Ukraine. Many issues will have to be settled but, once de-escalation begins, a healing process can commence. For example, the EU can pour investments into Ukraine, well before any move to admit it into the EU. Once Washington and Moscow jointly guarantee a de-militarized zone along the Russian-Ukrainian border, the contested Donetsk-Luhansk region could be administered along the lines of the Northern Irish Good Friday agreement in a manner that guarantees the rights of all ethnic communities under the supervision of Kiyv, Moscow and the European Union.
Will Putin accept this? I cannot second-guess a ruthless killer. What, I do know is that the alternative is a long-term occupation spelling, in the long run (too long for Ukrainians to benefit), Putin’s end. The option of an independent-neutral Ukraine offers Putin a way out and grants Ukrainians the best chance of freedom. If Austria, Sweden and Finland could build successful democracies on the basis of neutrality (during the Cold War), nothing prevents Ukraine to do likewise in the future. In sharp contrast, continuing to focus (as most of Western commentators and politicians are doing today) on the theoretical right of Ukrainians to join NATO and the EU as a prerequisite of a diplomatic solution is a sure way of leading the brave Ukrainian people to a brutal decade and possibly longer.
To conclude on a positive note, the only good news I have encountered in recent days came from Russia in the form of a Manifesto of Russian socialists and communists sent to our Progressive International. It was, indeed, the brightest glimmer of hope to have pierced the clouds of war and propaganda. Here is a heartwarming extract:
“We are told that the opponents of this war are hypocrites and that they stand not against the war, but for the West. This is a lie. We have never been supporters of the United States and their imperialist policies. When Ukrainian troops shelled Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, …, we were not silent. Nor will we be silent now that Kharkov, Kiev and Odessa are being bombed on the orders of Putin and his camarilla.
There are so many reasons to fight against this war. For us advocates of social justice, equality, and freedom, they are especially important. This is an invasion. No threat to the Russian state exists… This war produces incalculable disasters for our peoples. Both Ukrainians and Russians are paying for it dearly with their blood. Long after the dust has settled, poverty, inflation, and unemployment will affect everyone…
This war will turn Ukraine into rubble and Russia into a prison. The opposition media have already been shut down in Russia. People are placed behind bars. Soon Russians will have only one choice: Rise up or end in prison. This war multiplies all the risks and threats to our country. Even Ukrainians who a week ago sympathised with Russia are now enlisting to fight our troops. Finally, fighting for peace is the patriotic duty of every Russian. Not only because we are the custodians of the memory of the west war in history- Second World War, when 20 million Russians died or Soviets- but also because this war threatens the integrity and very existence of Russia.
Putin is seeking to connect his own fate with the fate of our country. If he succeeds, then his inevitable defeat will be the defeat of the entire nation. Then we may indeed face the fate of postwar Germany: occupation, territorial division, the cult of collective guilt. There is only one way to prevent these catastrophes. We, ourselves, the men and women of Russia, have to stop this war. This country belongs to us, not to a handful of distraught old men with palaces and yachts. It is time to take it back. Our enemies are not in Kiev and Odessa, but in Moscow. It is time to kick them out.
War is not Russia.
War is Putin and his regime.
That’s why we Russian socialists and communists are against this criminal war.