British Antiwar Movement and Russian Antiwar Protesters

The argument against Western imperialism can only be strengthened
by a firm opposition to other imperialisms

By Mike Marqusee

It really should be easy enough to condemn Russia’s action in Ukraine while at the same time rejecting and campaigning against U.S.-EU military intervention. Sadly, there are some in the antiwar movement who see this as an awkward proposition.

Russian imperialism is as unacceptable as U.S.-EU imperialism. In this region it has a long and brutal history. The British antiwar movement should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with antiwar protesters in Russia, who face serious dangers, not equivocating about Putin.

The Maidan movement cannot be reduced to an imperialist plot. There were more than enough good reasons for people to be angry at the Yanukovich government; it didn’t need “outside agitators” of any kind. There were and are various elements within the Maidan movement, including, but certainly not restricted to, far-right nationalists. Their actions in recent weeks have been frightening and their role in the new government does indeed make a mockery of Western claims to be defending human rights.

Nonetheless, the demand of the Maidan for an end to corrupt oligarchic government was just and necessary. That claim is not vitiated by the fact that at the moment a particular branch of the ruling class (as venal as those they have replaced) has reaped the spoils. Like other protest movements in recent years, the Maidan’s politics and ideology were and are ambiguous and inevitably still in formation.

Outside interference, from either Russia or the West, blocks or distorts this necessary process of political development. It solves nothing and generates only further problems.

The main enemy?

Those who want the antiwar movement in Britain to condemn Russia’s actions have been reminded that “the main enemy is at home.” The assumption seems to be that condemning Russia’s crime will undermine opposition to war. But what will undermine us far more are unreal descriptions of events, evasive positions and “special pleading.” If people are led to believe by our own behavior that we are not really an antiwar movement but Russian apologists, “the main enemy” will be strengthened.

It is perfectly possible to challenge Western imperialism without justifying the Russian variety. Making your own government the immediate focus of campaigning does not entail ignoring the rest of the picture. Yes, Western imperialism poses more dangers to more people, globally, but that does not make Russian imperialism any more acceptable or Ukraine’s right to self-determination any less urgent.

We will be asked in public, by the public: “What about Russia?” In this context, to answer simply that “the main enemy is at home” will be seen as stonewalling.

There’s a patronizing notion that we can’t do “two things at the same time,” that we can’t handle complexity, that there must be a hierarchy of identifiable good guys and bad guys. The antiwar movement is seen as a fragile ensemble. Actually, it’s more robust and more sophisticated than that.

The need for unity is cited as a reason not to dwell on Russian misbehavior. But will evading or exonerating the Russian action really enhance unity in opposition to U.S.-EU warmaking? It’s an approach that many are bound to find objectionable.

Western military intervention in Ukraine seems unlikely, but the rhetorical indignation of Western leaders plays an insidious role: part of a long-term effort to repair an imperial ideology discredited by Afghanistan and Iraq. When liberals lament the “impotence” of the West, they’re setting the stage for a reassertion of Western “masculinity”—as and when convenient. Mirroring Western rationales, Moscow characterizes its military intervention as a humanitarian mission of protection. At this moment, in relation to Ukraine, imperial hypocrisies, Western and Russian, seem boundless.

We won’t be able to offer an alternative to this hall of mirrors by matching one double standard with another. It’s always a corrupting practice, as a left wing version of realpolitik takes the place of a politics of solidarity.

The argument against Western imperialism can only be strengthened by a firm opposition to other imperialisms. This is a common human cause, isn’t it?

Mike Marqusee writes a regular column for Red Pepper, “Contending for the Living,” and is the author of a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan., March 5, 2014