Chris Nineham: No-one should take the warmonger’s rhetoric at face value

Joe Biden meets Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Mariinsky Palace, during an unannounced trip to Kyiv in February 2023.

‘There is no higher aspiration than freedom…Democracies of the world will stand guard over freedom today, tomorrow, and forever. For that’s what’s at stake here: freedom’.

Joe Biden’s speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw one year after the war in Ukraine recalled something Noam Chomsky wrote about war propaganda back in the 1990s:

‘You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everyone is going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.’

For this reason, ‘freedom’ is a favoured war cause for the Western powers. Who would possibly be against it? ‘Defending the free world’ was central to US messaging during the Cold War. The so-called War on Terror began with ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ – the 2001 invasion which kicked off the disastrous twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan.

As the civilian death toll soared seven months into the 2003 invasion of Iraq – ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – US President George Bush still had the nerve to claim that the occupation was being conducted in the pursuit of Iraqis own freedom. ‘We’re working closely with Iraqi citizens’ he said, ‘as they prepare a constitution, as they move toward free elections and take increasing responsibility for their own affairs.’

‘Freedom’ is back front and centre as the Western war aim in Ukraine. The war there is pitched as part of a continuing global struggle between freedom and autocracy. According to US President Joe Biden, freedom is winning out, ‘The democracies of the world have grown stronger, not weaker. But the autocrats of the world have grown weaker, not stronger.’

A War Alliance

The moment you start to examine the claim that the West’s war effort in Ukraine is part of a ‘forever’ struggle for freedom, it begins to fall apart. To start with, NATO is anything but an alliance of freedom loving countries. Even the EU recognises that NATO member Hungary is ‘no longer a full democracy’. Victor Orban’s government there has suppressed freedom of speech, rigged elections and harassed political opponents. Long term NATO member Turkey is a deeply coercive state that jails regime critics including journalists and opposition politicians and is regarded as a ‘competitive authoritarian’ regime even by the US Council on Foreign Relations.

Militarism and war in fact favour authoritarian politics. Spiralling militarisation and tension in Eastern Europe are strengthening existing autocratic trends. Poland, the country in which Biden made his ‘freedom’ speech, has been sliding away from democracy for years. Now President Andrzej Duda is using anti-Russian sentiment associated with the war in Ukraine to introduce draconian powers to attack political opponents. The French newspaper Le Monde has called these moves ‘the final blow to the country’s democracy’.

The truth is democracy has never been remotely a priority for NATO. Greece, Portugal and Turkey were all members in good standing during their various periods of military rule in the Cold War. NATO’s more recent out of area interventions in Serbia, Afghanistan and Libya have of course done nothing to spread freedom but have accelerated national crisis and deepened reaction in all the target countries.

Glance outside of Europe for a moment and the idea that the US is heading up an alliance for freedom against autocracy looks laughable. The big democracies in the global south including Brazil, India and South Africa are refusing to back Western warmongering in Ukraine while the US counts some of the most repressive regimes in the world amongst its closest military allies. The West is so isolated on their Ukraine policy that even many of these countries including the Gulf States and Israel, which have loyally backed the West’s recent military adventures, are not signing up this time around.

The Real Deal

The talk about freedom is used as cover for the relentless pursuit of Western foreign policy interests. In diplomatic documents the Western powers make no bones about the fact that priority number one is weakening Russia and drawing more and more of Eastern Europe into the US orbit. The association agreement which the EU began negotiating with Ukraine in 2008 called for the “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever deeper involvement in the European security area,”.

In 2014, NATO began training roughly ten thousand Ukrainian troops annually, kickstarting Washington’s program of arming, training, and rebuilding Kyiv’s military. The State Department’s 2021 U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership is open that this effort was always about Ukraine’s “full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.” All this is of course accompanied by the growing involvement of Western big business in the region, on full show at the London Ukraine Recovery Conference in June this year where hundreds of international investors met up to discuss business opportunities in the war torn country.

The second, connected priority, has been to forcibly break Germany’s relative foreign policy independence from the US and to end its deepening ties with Russia. The US has been pressuring Germany for years to replace Russian natural gas with American liquid natural gas, and expressing deep hostility to the NordStream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. The war in Ukraine has provided the opportunity to move decisively and successfully against Germany’s eastward orientation. In Wolfgang Streeck’s words:

“Before one’s eyes, an apparently democratically governed mid-sized regional power is being turned, and is actively turning itself, into a transatlantic dependency of the Great American War Machines, from NATO to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon to the NSA, and the CIA to the National Security Council.”

Whose Freedom?

The counter-argument of course is that whatever the actual aims of the West, its massive military intervention in the region has helped protect the liberty of Ukraine itself. Motivation, however, shapes outcomes. As argued in a previous installment of this series, Ukraine is hardly being empowered by a military operation against Russia under control of the West.

Washington is in the driving seat when it comes to the political dynamics of the conflict too. There have been moments during the war for example when even President Zelensky has been keen to pursue peace proposals. They have all been blocked by the Western powers. To all intents and purposes Ukraine has become embedded in the world’s most powerful and aggressive military alliance.

Unsurprisingly, this has been accompanied by an assault on civil liberties in Ukraine itself and the further opening up of the country to foreign capital. President Zelensky has used martial law to clamp down on freedom of speech. A series of attacks on media freedom has led to complaints from journalists’ unions and free speech campaigns. Selective bans have been imposed on journalists visiting the front lines and whole TV stations have been seized by the government.

One of the reasons why the support of some on the left for arming the Ukrainian government is so misguided is that Zelensky is using the war to crack down on the left and smash independent Ukrainian unions. One month into the war, 11 parties, including the largest parliamentary opposition party and the biggest left wing groups, were closed down by decree and all their property and assets seized by the state. A few months later in August last year, Zelensky ratified Law 5371, which removed union rights for workers at small and medium-sized companies. In practice, this means that around 70% of workers in Ukraine have been stripped of labour protections.

The government claimed that it introduced the law to alleviate the difficulties faced by companies in wartime. However, it first tried to introduce the new law in 2021 long before the war began, arguing that it was necessary because of the “the extreme over-regulation of employment”. A further law brought all publicly owned property under the control of the Ukrainian state and led to the state confiscation of trade union property. The international labour movement including the International Trade Union Confederation has backed Ukrainian trade unionists’ protests.

The terrible outcomes of the West’s recent wars should be a lesson to us all. No-one should take the warmonger’s rhetoric at face value. The US and its allies fight wars in pursuit of their interests, and freedom is not part of the package.

03 Jul 2023 by Chris Nineham

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