The Left - Corbyn Included - Should Lead the Resistance Against Putin's War-Mongering
The sticks being used to beat Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn include portraying him as sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rather than anything he has actually said, this slur is based on an ill-advised appearance on the Kremlin’s “Russia Today” propaganda channel and comments made by other members of organisations in which he is involved, such as the “Stop the War Coalition”. But tackling his characterisation as a naïve fellow traveller with Putin presents an ideal opportunity for Mr Corbyn. By recognising that the Russian regime is the antithesis of the left’s most cherished beliefs and taking a tougher line against it, he would both be doing the right thing and improving his political standing.
As the award-winning Russian writer, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, says, the Russian state “has declared a war on culture, a war on the values of humanism, on the idea of individual freedoms and human rights”. Putin’s crushing of the freedoms of assembly, expression and the media in Russia has been accompanied by multiple murders of journalists, politicians and other opponents of his regime. Arbitrary imprisonment of civil society activists is commonplace and Russia’s state directed judicial system is illegally extending its reach beyond Russia’s borders. The Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, is just one recent victim of cross-border kidnap and imprisonment. Ken Loach and Amnesty International are amongst those who have condemned the conduct of his case, which the latter described as being “redolent of Stalinist-era show trials”.
In contrast to the repression inflicted on democrats of all stripes, the Kremlin deploys a range of racist, far right organisations to do its political bidding, such as the LDPR and the Hitler Youth-esque “Network”. Some state sponsored attacks are carried out by extremist organisations like “God’s Will”, which specialises in the intimidation of opposition or avant-garde artists, and the ultra-nationalist “Night Wolves” motorbike gang. The Night Wolves assisted in the annexation of Crimea and are committed to crushing protests against Putin. They are also prominent in stirring up the climate of violent homophobia that underpins Putin’s enactment of some of the world’s worst anti-LGBT laws.
Corruption is an intrinsic part of Putin’s system of governance
The purpose of this repression is to serve the Putin regime’s only real objective: to protect the dubiously acquired wealth of its leading figures by remaining in power at all costs.
Corruption is an intrinsic part of Putin’s system of governance. He and his closest cronies have abused their political power to seize control of Russia’s main industries, including oil and gas, which makes up over 60% of the country’s exports. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics provides just one notorious example of the billions of dollars that have been stolen from public funds under Putin. Sochi cost over $51 billion - the most expensive games ever organised. By comparison, the bill for the previous winter games in Vancouver was $8 billion and the next most expensive Olympics in history, the $44 billion 2008 summer games in Beijing, hosted three times as many events. These vast sums being stolen from the Russian people could be spent on shoring up the country’s creaking schools, hospitals and infrastructure instead.
The damage caused by Putin’s regime has now, of course, extended far beyond Russia’s borders and it is the left’s response to Russian actions overseas that leaves it most exposed to the charge of equivocation. The left was loudly and correctly appalled by the US’s recent bombing of a Medicins sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. But it has been much quieter about the repeated atrocities perpetrated by Russian forces against civilians in Syria, including at least four attacks on hospitals.
This quietness is of a piece with the left’s generally muted response to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, in contrast to its vociferous opposition to intervention by the democratic world. This is, at best, inconsistent, particularly as it is clear that Russia’s bombing of Syria is not even intended to counter ISIS’s violent extremism. As Putin has said, his forces are in Syria to support the Assad regime. The Russian military’s bombing raids have mostly targeted the non-ISIS, grass roots opposition groups that rose up against Assad and present the greatest challenge to him (and which have been fighting ISIS far harder than have the regime’s forces). Russia’s attacks are augmenting Assad’s barrel bombing and chemical weapons atrocities, which have turned far more Syrian civilians into refugees than any other force fighting in Syria.
humanitarian considerations mean little to Putin
Such humanitarian considerations mean little to Putin in comparison with his desire to preserve his own power. The fall of Russia’s only long-standing ally in the Middle East would severely curtail its influence in the region and wipe out one its most important arms customers. Perhaps even more significant for Putin psychologically is his visceral fear of seeing another fellow dictator being overthrown by the people.
This dread of the demonstration effect was by far the biggest reason for Putin’s other ongoing military intervention; the invasion of Ukraine. Mr Corbyn, amongst others on the left, seems to have swallowed the Kremlin propaganda that the invasion was sparked by NATO expansion. This claim is rendered nonsensical by the fact that no former Warsaw Pact country has joined NATO for over a decade. Nor, at the time of the invasion, was there any prospect of Ukraine being invited to join NATO – a step that looked less likely than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
The Ukrainian people’s “Revolution of Dignity” against a corrupt and brutal Russian-backed ruler particularly terrified Putin because of Ukraine’s proximity and elements of shared history with Russia. Many Russians feel an emotional or, in some cases, family connection to Ukraine and find it difficult to accept its status as a separate country, despite that being the settled will of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens. Consequently, events there have a uniquely powerful resonance in Russia. The Kremlin is acutely sensitive to how short a step it is from Russians seeing their neighbours achieve democracy and clean government to demanding it in their own country. The aim of the invasion is to stop that example being set.
The only explanations for the meekness of the left in condemning Putin’s international actions appear to be lingering socialist romanticism
The only explanations for the meekness of Mr Corbyn and others on the left in condemning Putin’s international actions appear to be lingering socialist romanticism about the Soviet Union and shared anti-Americanism. The former makes little sense because Putin’s sorrow for the demise of the USSR stems from a hankering for lost power, not any attachment to its founding ideology. And after many leftists were discredited by their support for Stalin in the 20th century, we should never again fall for any simplistic “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” arguments. As proven by his own abuses and international law breaking, Putin’s anti-Americanism is not fuelled by moral or ideological convictions. It is an entirely self-interested posture to distract attention from his domestic political failings and stir up nationalistic support.
The left does not need to debase its arguments against US excesses by allowing itself to be identified with Putin. Associating with him should be left to his natural bedfellows like Silvio Berlusconi and the far right parties he funds such as the French Front National.
Indeed, the left must do more than merely distance itself from Putin’s assaults on human rights and ordinary people in Russia and overseas. It should be standing up for its values by leading the resistance against him. Jeremy Corbyn could confound expectations by campaigning for more NATO forces to be posted in the member states that border Russia to deter Putin’s war-mongering. Even if that is too much of a stretch, he would not be compromising his long held principles by demanding further, personally targeted sanctions against the Russian regime and its associated oligarchs. These should include visa bans, asset freezes and investigations of the financial institutions, lawyers and estate agents who profit hugely from helping them to hide their ill-gotten gains in the UK. Such a stance would not only be useful and right, it would transform his political reputation into the bargain.
Paul Knott is a writer on international politics, music and sport. He has twenty years of experience as a British diplomat and his new book about life in the Foreign Office, “The Accidental Diplomat”, is out now.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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