The conflict initiated by the Russian invasion has escalated from a localised act of aggression into a full-blown proxy war between NATO and Russia

It is scarcely hyperbole to say that the world is closer to a great power war – even a nuclear one – than it has been for sixty years.

Already, in just two months, the conflict initiated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has escalated from a localised act of aggression into a full-blown proxy war between NATO and Russia.

Arms are pouring into Ukraine, and the bellicose rhetoric has inflated to match. President Biden has urged “regime change” in Russia. His Defence Secretary has stated that the US war aim is to “weaken Russia” for years to come.

Britain has marched in step. Boris Johnson has said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin because he is a “crocodile”. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey has said it is fine that British weapons are used to attack targets in Russia itself.

And, most dramatically, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has declared that the full defeat of Russia is a “strategic imperative”, and that this must mean its full military expulsion from all Ukrainian territory, presumably including Crimea.

No wonder Ukrainian President Zelensky has said that there is within NATO a camp which “don’t mind a long war because it would mean exhausting Russia, even if this means the demise of Ukraine and comes at the cost of Ukrainian lives.”

That is the camp the British government is in. It does not even make a gesture of saying that any peace terms should ultimately be the responsibility of the Kiev government. It is denied that sovereignty and agency by the ultra-hawks. Ukraine has become a pawn in their battle.

As Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian this week “Johnson and Truss have not declared that a Ukrainian deal is for Zelensky and his people to decide. They want him to keep fighting for as long as it takes for Russia to be utterly defeated. They need a triumph in their proxy war.”

Jenkins rightly suggests that Truss is posturing one eye on the Tory leadership battle assumed to be forthcoming, fighting for the Conservative crown “on the frontiers of Russia”. A worthwhile opposition would be calling out this staggering amorality, but Starmer is characteristically mute and supine.

Nor has the Russian government been backward on the rhetorical front. It continues to float the idea of military escalation and has been keen to remind the world that it has plenty of weapons it has not yet used – nuclear ones presumably. It has warned the British government of retaliation.

This ramping-up of war talk reflects the fact that the expected swift Russian military victory has not materialised. This has created an opportunity for NATO to bleed Russia’s armed forces and extend its own control over Ukraine.

So, the last thing the Anglo-American axis wants is a peace agreement right now. It would rather fund and equip an open-ended war, even though it remains extremely unlikely that the Ukrainian army can evict Russia from the territory it controls and implement the full Truss programme. If that is possible at all, it would be the work of years, unless there is indeed regime change in Russia, which may be an aspiration but is certainly not a policy.

The Ukrainian people will pay the price for this strategy. No matter that Putin bears the responsibility for the aggression, it is civilians across Ukraine who will endure the consequences for every week the conflict lasts – it is their lives which will be lost and their communities destroyed.

Ordinary people across the world who suffer the results of sanctions in higher food and fuel prices, and pay for the war through higher arms spending will also be indirect victims.

Moreover, every day the war continues the risk of its spreading grows. Other states could be drawn in by accident or design, and clearly Washington and London are seeing how far they can push their involvement without triggering wider war. Miscalculation is all too easy to envisage. Johnson and Truss are playing with fire.

The alternative – and urgent – perspective is of a ceasefire and peace talks. The outline of an agreement on Ukrainian neutrality, without membership of NATO but with some form of international guarantees, seems to exist.

Resolving the position of the Donbas “republics” is clearly more challenging. Putin has now made that the focus of his war, having back-pedalled on earlier demands for regime change in Kiev, while it is also a red line for Ukraine’s potent far-right, which is quite capable of moving against Zelensky if it feels too many concessions are being made.

Nevertheless, the issue will have to be negotiated, and far better sooner rather than later. That is what the US and British governments are trying to obstruct for their own ends.

So, the division now is between those in Britain urging a fight to the finish in Ukraine, pouring in arms to fuel the conflict and as good as instructing Zelensky not to settle – and those who recognise the urgency of peace.

The first camp includes not just the government, but the Labour Party and the left apologists for NATO and the Pentagon who always emerge on such occasions. That is an extensive coalition, but it is weakened by the macabre nature of its perspectives.

Its strength – in Labour at any event – rests not only on revulsion at Russian conduct but also on Starmer’s authoritarian clampdown on any dissent from his pro-NATO line, an echo of the earliest days of the Cold War. That is not a stable basis for winning a political argument.

The peace camp is growing because of the seriousness of the situation. It does not pretend that Putin is blameless – indeed, it condemns his invasion and demands that his troops withdraw. However, it recognises that all conflicts end with peace talks – the alternative, which has been suggested, is that they could end as the 1945 war with Japan did, is not a reassuring one – and that our priority in Britain is to get our government out of the way.

Johnson and Truss need to be forced to abandon their war policy and join the majority of the world in seeking an early resolution to the crisis through negotiations. This is not a demand that can wait for another day. The time to mobilise is now.

29 Apr 2022 by Andrew Murray

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