Mick Antoniw is the Labour member for Pontypridd in the Welsh Parliament, counsel general for Wales and minister for the constitution. He is also a second generation Ukrainian who is regularly engaged with Ukrainian civic organisations and trade unions. The war in Ukraine is deeply personal for him. In an exclusive interview with LabourList today, Antoniw compared Vladimir Putin now to Adolf Hitler in 1941, and said those on the left who blame NATO expansionism for Russia’s actions “discredit” anti-war movement.
The Welsh politician recently led – along with Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price – a delegation of Labour, Plaid Cymru and trade union representatives to Kyiv, with the aim of hearing from Ukrainian workers, LGBTQ+ people, ethnic minorities and human rights defenders.
Antoniw today told LabourList that the group met with trade unions in Ukraine, civil activists from the gay and lesbian community, human rights and civil liberties organisations, and people whose family members have been imprisoned and tortured in Luhansk and Donetsk.
He and Price were reprimanded by Conservatives for going on the trip on February 19th when everyone in the UK had been advised against all travel to Ukraine. But Antoniw defended the visit, calling the criticism “really pathetic” and “an attempt to distract attention from the weakness of the sanctions and the really poor performance of Tory ministers during negotiations”.
“There was criticism of us going,” Antoniw told LabourList. “But I have to say, we made exactly the right decision being there. Some of these people that we have met with will probably not survive this war. They will not survive because of either the fighting that they will be involved in, or they will be picked off and arrested by Special Forces from Russia, which we know are heading and probably already in Ukraine now to take out and to liquidate the civic, political and military leadership of Ukraine.”
Of Vladimir Putin’s record and the UK response to it, he said: “He’s done it in Belarus. And what did we do? Very little. Kazakhstan, what did we do? Very little. When the Chechen war was on, and Grozny was being flattened, what did we do? Very, very little. And for eight years after the seizure of Crimea, and after the invasion of the eastern parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, what did we do? Nothing. And the sanctions Boris Johnson’s been talking about up to now have been absolutely pathetic.”
Antoniw today called for a tougher response from the UK, saying: “I think there has to be a cultural blockade of Russia, I think they have to be removed from all the international committees they’re on. It is absolutely shameful that there are football matches that are still taking place whilst Russia is invading another country. I think all those football matches, and those sporting events, should be cancelled, and Russia should be excluded from them. I may sound harsh on this. But people have to understand the scale of what is actually happening.”
His cousins in Ukraine are “going to fight”, Antoniw told LabourList. “My own cousin said to me, [quotes in Ukrainian], ‘I’m going to stay here until the end’. He’s 74 years old.” But the Welsh Labour politician called on the West to “make sure that refugees can get into areas of safety”.
“I think those of us that have connections with families in Ukraine, we should have a fast-track arrangement to be able to get them here without bureaucracy. There are real issues now on communications, the telecommunications system may well go down. So we have to be able to tell people, ‘yes, if you come across the border to Poland or wherever, you will be able to come and stay with families’. We can’t have the bureaucracy,” he said.
While concerned about what could happen to communications, Antoniw said he had been “talking on and off all morning” to family members in Ukraine. “I talked to one cousin whose husband is a helicopter pilot in the Ukrainian forces. I asked how her husband was. She just said, ‘I don’t know’. She’s gone back to the village in western Ukraine as being a safer place. There is no safety for anyone at the moment. There are literally millions of people who have now been distributed with arms to form civil defence units.”
He added: “Once the major invasion has been completed, and that will continue for some time no doubt, with all forms of military strikes, the fact of the matter is then that the Russian army has to be able to hold its position, and it has to take on the civilian population. So this will be a war. Putin is acting in the same way as Hitler acted when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. You wonder whether this is where Putin has learned his lessons from, because this is a very similar escalation. You go in now and this now turns into a war against the civilian population.”
Antoniw is on the left of the Labour Party and endorsed Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, but he has been critical of those who blame NATO expansionism for the developments in Ukraine. “We’re a free country. People can express views. But I think those who hold that view have become such an unrepresentative and irrelevant minority. And they even discredit the anti-war movement by that position,” he said.
“Earlier today, someone sent me a message saying, ‘really sorry to hear what’s happening in Ukraine, we’re thinking of you and your family, we’ve got to stop NATO imperialism’. I cannot believe that level of stupidity actually exists. And quite frankly, people who still think like that, after what they can see now, these same people who said, ‘no, no, Putin will never do it’ et cetera, I think they’ve become irrelevant to what is happening. And they are certainly not part of any solution at the moment.”
As well as economic and cultural sanctions, Antoniw also called for economic support for Ukraine. “Write off Ukraine’s capital debt, for one,” he told LabourList. “Look also at what’s going to be needed, the medical aid and the medical support that’s going to be needed, and the support that’s going to be needed for refugees.”
Asked whether he supports Keir Starmer’s call for Russia Today to be banned from broadcasting, the Labour MS replied: “I do. RT has no role within any democratic media structure. It is purely Putin’s mouthpiece. It is funded for one purpose, and that is to give credibility to the political message that Putin has.
“When you have an invasion like this, it would almost be tantamount to saying that if during the Second World War there’d been a sort of a Germany Today programme, we should have said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s okay, because it’s about freedom of information’. It isn’t.
“There’s an information war and that has been weaponised by Russia Today. So it’s not about clamping down on people with different views or criticisms. Russia Today has a specific political purpose and objective. Keir Starmer is absolutely right that Russia Today should be shut down and removed from our shores.”