We have one chance at this: we cannot afford to fail the Ukrainian people

Mick Antoniw
© Oleksandr Polonskyi/Shutterstock.com

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is probably the most serious act of aggression in Europe since the Second World War. As one Ukrainian said: “This is not 1938… it is 1939.” After the invasion of Georgia, the Chechen war in which Vladimir Putin razed the city of Grozny to the ground, after the illegal seizure of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine and after events in Belarus and Kazakhstan, it is more like 1941 – when Nazi Germany invaded Eastern Poland (now Western Ukraine).

There are many other similarities. Putin, like Hitler, was also elected and has also become in effect an elected dictator. His political control of the Duma and the justice system is absolute. Nearly all oppositional media has been suppressed or become subservient with only a few exceptions that in all likelihood have a limited lifespan. He controls the electoral system ensuring no effective candidate can succeed against him. He is now the head of a gangster clan operating a model of gangster capitalism to which the rule of law no longer applies or even exists.

He is an extreme Russian nationalist who, together with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, sees Belarus and Ukraine as part of a greater Russia. With his massively superior military resources and air power, he may win the short-term military war against Ukraine, but there is little prospect of holding the country in the long term against a population where the majority hate him and what he stands for and are prepared to resist.

I was in Ukraine for four days with a trade union and socialist delegation. We only managed to exit the country just 48 hours before the full-scale invasion. Everyone we met – from trade unions, socialist and human rights groups, Crimean Tartars to the families of prisoners in the temporarily occupied territories, civic and government organisations – all told us the same thing: they did not want to live under Russian rule and they would fight to defend Ukraine’s independence.

There was in fact an eerie sense of unity amongst all the people we met, calm but under the surface a knowledge that something terrible was about to happen. I am glad we went because I know that many of the people we met are now fighting for their freedom and I don’t know how many we will see again. Civilians have taken up arms and will fight for their homes and country. Many may not survive, and they know it, but they will fight all the more.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not just a breach of international law, it is a rejection of it and the rule of law. Under international law, an ‘act of aggression’ by the armed forces of a state for any purpose other than national or collective self defence is an offence against the peace and the security of mankind. It includes invasion and bombardment – both of which Russia is guilty. (This probably explains the ludicrous narrative, being used by Putin to attempt to justify his actions, that he is purportedly defending Russia.)

Such a finding by the UN security council would enable it to make recommendations to maintain or restore international peace and security. Undoubtedly, Russian and China will block such a move. Russia, after all, currently chairs the security council – but it leaves Putin open to subsequent allegations of war crimes. Russia does not recognise the International Criminal Court, but it could have the effect of preventing his travel to any country where the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court applies. Remember Pinochet?

Putin must now be called out as a war criminal and an international pariah, and Russia a rogue state. Maybe this is of no concern to him, but it may have similar consequences for other senior Russians, who have broader interests. The task for Labour over the coming days is to ensure that sanctions are effective. Even last night in parliament, Boris Johnson was still vague and equivocal about what exactly his new and developing sanctions would mean and vague about other supportive measures that need to be taken.

Labour must now unequivocally demand the removal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. We must reiterate our complete support and solidarity with the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian sovereignty. Ukraine needs financial support. We must cancel Ukrainian debt and provide financial aid. Russia must be excluded from international trade. In effect there must be a complete economic, trade and social boycott until troops are removed. Russian must be removed from all financial exchange systems and their assets frozen.

Until the troops have been removed, there should be no compromise or negotiation with Russia. Anything less than this will be seen as a sign of weakness and disunity. We have to get real about the scale of his actions and what it means in the long term for world peace and economic security. There can be no room for ambivalence.

Finally, we must provide medical and other material support to Ukraine. There is already the start of a refugee crisis. There are Ukrainians who are fighting, who have joined civil defence units who want to send their families abroad for safety. To be able to resist people need to know that their families are safe. We need a mechanism to enable this to happen. As well as working collaboratively with other countries we must use our own initiative.

There are many families in the UK with Ukrainian links who would readily accommodate and support them until it is safe to return. There is currently no provision at all to enable this to happen. We must change this. People fleeing for safety need to know what to do, where to go and how they will be supported.

This is a test for us as much as for Ukraine. We may not be the ones fighting and dying but our international reputation and credibility is at stake. And there are other countries in the world with similar aspirations to Russia, who are looking to see what happens and how the world reacts. We only have one chance at this. We cannot afford to fail the Ukrainian people.

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