In the first of a series on western war propaganda around Ukraine, Chris Nineham takes apart the lie that these wars are fought for human rights

Wars are times of opportunity and danger for ruling elites. Every conflict comes with its own propaganda offensive, a fact captured in the saying, ‘truth is the first casualty of war.’ The war in Ukraine is no exception. The Western powers, the Ukrainian government and the Russian authorities are working flat out to maintain popular support for the deadliest military mobilisations in Europe since the Second World War.

Criticism of industrial-scale Russian disinformation is routine. But the Western propaganda machine, run by a hawkish US government, a right-wing Tory administration, the EU establishment, and the military industrial complex on both sides of the Atlantic, does not exist for the commentariat. Its claims are blindly accepted by virtually the whole of the media and, in Britain at least, almost the whole of the political class, as well as an alarming array of normally left-wing figures. While its arguments are widely rejected in the global south, and at least debated in some European countries, any questioning in Britain is met with McCarthyite-style denunciation.

The central justification for Western support for the war is that our leaders are set on defending the rights of the Ukrainian people. There is a long and dishonourable history of going to war in the name of the rights of nations or peoples. Britain’s entry into in the carnage of the First World War was pitched as defending ‘poor little Belgium’ against the German invaders. The US couched its war in Vietnam as a defence of the South Vietnamese against the ‘threat of communism’ from the North. The US and its allies first invaded Iraq in 1991 to ‘restore the integrity of Kuwait’ and the estimated 50,000 casualties of the West’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 were regarded as ‘necessary’ to protect the national rights of Kosovans.

The exact dynamics differ, but the argument for supporting any of these wars and for backing NATO in Ukraine involves signing up to the idea that the Western powers work their foreign military policy around the interests of foreign peoples. Given their long colonial and imperial histories, this is something of a leap of faith. It’s a particular stretch when you consider that the blood is barely dry from the invasion, occupation and mass bombings of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya and the West’s enthusiastic backing of the dreadful Saudi- led assault on Yemen.

Drivers of War

In the case of Ukraine it involves believing that the governments of Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the top enthusiasts for the war in the West, have the well-being of the Ukrainians at heart. The Russia invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was an act of aggression which the anti-war movement rightly condemned. The movement continues to demand an end to Russian military action. The militaristic response from the West however has only deepened the suffering of the Ukrainians.

The Western powers responded almost overnight with the biggest military Western mobilisation in the region since the Cold War and the biggest transfer of weapons to a foreign country since World War Two. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, by May this year, the US had spent an astonishing $76 billion in aid to Ukraine, the majority of it military. This is nearly forty times the amount given to the next biggest recipient, Afghanistan, a country devastated by twenty years of western occupation.

Britain has been leading the European war drive, sending drones, depleted uranium shells, cruise missiles, and tanks; promising a training scheme for Ukrainian fighter pilots; and putting special service troops into Ukrainian territory. At least 150,000 Ukrainians have died in the fighting and whole cities have been flattened. Life for millions more has been blighted by power outages, food shortages and periodic bombing raids.

You don’t have to dig deep to find the real driver of this historic mobilisation, as, Western leaders, advisors and academics can be quite frank about it. Weeks into the war Joe Biden himself admitted this was a war for regime change, saying quite simply that Vladimir Putin ‘cannot remain in power.’ When challenged he insisted he ‘was not walking back on anything’.

As Hal Brands, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University and a supporter of the war, wrote for Bloomberg, Russia is the target of one of the most ruthlessly effective proxy wars in modern history’. He went on:

‘The key to the strategy is to find a committed local partner — a proxy willing to do the killing and dying — and then load it up with the arms, money and intelligence needed to inflict shattering blows on a vulnerable rival,” Brands wrote. “That’s just what Washington and its allies are doing to Russia today.’

Brands’ view was confirmed last April by Biden’s two most senior foreign policy officials, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. In Austin’s words, ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.’ Blinken concurred, ‘We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.’

The aid is of course not being provided to any kind of popular movement but to a state war machine run by an authoritarian government in conditions of martial law. As we will see in a future article, Zelensky has ruthlessly crushed all dissent. Given this massive military pile-on and the fact that Ukraine’s campaign pivots on Western intelligence, targeting and training, the Ukrainian authorities are dependent on the Western powers and their strategic and tactical decisions. What is happening here is that the Ukrainian government has been drawn into what is by far the most powerful military alliance in the world, headed up by the US. And it is the Ukrainian people who are suffering most of all.

Blocking Peace

One way Washington and Whitehall have imposed their priorities has been by blocking peace efforts. Contrary to the relentless claims of the relentless war propaganda, other ways of responding to the crisis have been available from the start. President Zelensky was elected as a peace candidate in 2019, with a mandate to end the civil war by reviving the Minsk Accords, an attempt to resolve the issues dividing the country. The West refused to back him in that effort.

At various points since he has been positive about negotiations. On the same day last March that he took Ukrainian membership of NATO off the table, he signalled he was ready to talk with Russia about the status of Crimea and the Donbass. The Western powers ignored the offer. As Russia expert Richard Sakwa put it:

‘In the Cold War, the US would have taken the lead on diplomacy in a situation of the sort we have today. Instead, now the US is clearly not interested in peace negotiations – it is waiting for a Russian defeat, however many Ukrainian lives are lost in the process.’

The US and its allies continued to talk down peace negotiations. One month later, in response to an Israeli-backed peace plan, Zelensky publicly announced that the war would end in negotiations. Within 48 hours Boris Johnson turned up in Kiev to tell Zelensky that ‘no negotiations are possible’. According to sources close to Zelensky quoted in the Ukrainian media:

‘Johnson brought two simple messages to Kyiv. Putin is a war criminal. Pressure must be put on him. No negotiations are possible. And secondly, if you are ready to sign any agreement with him, then we will not be part of it. We can have agreements with you, but not with him. He will let everyone down in any case,’

As the Financial Times has reported, another peace plan headed up by leaders of six African nations has also been given the thumbs down by the West in the last few weeks. While both Putin and Zelensky have been prepared to meet the delegations, former Nigerian president Obasanjo told the paper that the US State Department and the UK Foreign office ‘made it clear that this is not the right time’.

This is a war that is being conducted by some of the most powerful military powers on the planet, in their own interests. The movement here should be supporting voices for peace in Russia and Ukraine, not backing our own governments’ war effort. The West’s talk of total victory is deranged and has nothing to do with any concern for the Ukrainian people, only with their geopolitical interests. If it doesn’t lead to a wider catastrophe, the war will, as Zelensky himself has said, end in negotiations. Those content of those negotiations must be a matter for the people of the country. But any people’s solution to the countries’ problems depends on an end to the killing. And the sooner it comes the better.

08 Jun 2023 by Chris Nineham

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