During the run-up to the war against Iraq, the US antiwar movement maintained that a US invasion of Iraq would be illegal – would constitute a “crime of aggression” – if it did not have the UN Security Council approval, or if it did not constitute a short-term defensive war against an attack from Iraq or a “pre-emptive” attack against an imminent threat from Iraq. As neither of these requirements was met by the US attack against Iraq, we rightly decried the war as (among other things) an illegal war, a crime of aggression.
Though the situation in the Ukraine today is admittedly very complex, surely we should hold the Russians and their military action in Ukraine to the same standard. Did it receive the approval of the UN Security Council? Does it constitute self-defense against a Ukrainian attack on Russia, or a pre-emptive strike against an imminent attack? In both cases, the answer is No.
It is, of course, bizarre to hear President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry going on about the Russian violations of international law in regard to Russian military action in the Ukraine. Do they have no shame? And yet, on the basis of the standards of the world antiwar movement that rose up in 2002-2003, the Russian attack is a violation of international law. And this is important. And we should not engage in debating the US-Russian-Ukrainian imbroglio without acknowledging this.
In a sense, the Russians are justifying their military intervention into Ukraine on the grounds of “humanitarian intervention.” They are making several claims. The first is that the government of Ukrainian president Yanukovich was legitimately elected, and that his overthrow was a coup by a minority of disaffected voters. The second claim is that the ethnic Russian population in the eastern half of Ukraine is endangered by the new government, or by lawless forces within Ukraine. And a third claim is that the uprising in Ukraine was in fact a form of external aggression, in that fascist and other groups that bore the brunt of the fighting against the government were supported by, or even were creatures of, outside forces, most particularly the United States and the CIA.
Of course, each of these claims needs to be examined on their merits. There is some truth to all of them. And yet do they give legitimacy to Russian military intervention? When the same defenses are made by supporters of US military intervention, we have been (rightly) skeptical. We reject “humanitarian intervention” as simply new clothes for the same old imperialism. We are on dangerous grounds if we concede that Russian “humanitarian intervention” is OK, while that of the United States or the European (former) colonial powers is not.
A third concern that I have when reading some of the writing on the Left about the US-Russian-Ukrainian situation is the disappearance of actually-existing people. For example, Bruce Gagnon has been a stalwart in the US antiwar movement for decades. Yet in his piece on Ukraine posted on his website and circulated on the UFPJ list today, the people who live in the Ukraine are invisible. They are not part of the story. Max Blumenthal piece on Alternet (“Is the U.S. Backing Neo-Nazis in the Ukraine?”) was similar, in that the 99 percent of Ukrainians who are not neo-nazis were not part of the story. Millions of Ukrainians protested the corrupt regime of Yanukovich; and a large proportion of them also want nothing to do with the Opposition, who robbed the country blind when they were in power. The US antiwar movement needs to keep the aspirations and needs of Ukrainians in our minds and hearts, even as we are protesting US attempts to manipulate Ukrainian politics and US military threats against Russia.
Finally, we need to recognize that the Russians are not united on the wisdom of military intervention in Ukraine. Boris Kargarlitsky has written several important articles about this that are now up on ZNet; and I understand that Russian dissidents have posted petitions on Russian-language websites protesting the military intervention. We need to learn more about this activity and reach out to our antiwar allies is Russia.
What should the US antiwar/peace movements do re: the US-Russia-Ukraine? Needless to say, there is not a sound-bite answer. Combating a US military response to the events in Ukraine is obviously of the greatest importance. So too is exposing and opposing US “covert” intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine. And we must recognize that the aspirations of people in the Ukraine are widely divergent, and will not be reconciled in the short term. But we cannot be part of a peace movement without acknowledging the illegality and recklessness of Russia’s military intervention. The binaries of the Cold War era need to be put into the trash can of history; the real world has moved on, and so must we.