Clearing out Azovstal is a rare piece of good news for the Russian government, writes Paul Demarty, in what is a grim strategic picture
The Ukrainian war continues its grisly course.
On the battlefield, the big news is certainly the surrender of a few hundred soldiers defending the Azovstal complex in Mariupol, likely bringing to an end the most viciously contested battle of the war so far - the Ukrainian side has formally announced the end of their “combat mission” in the city. The fighters were largely from the notorious Azov battalion - a group of neo-Nazi fanatics now incorporated into the Ukrainian military. (The increasingly farcical attempts in western media to downplay the Azov worldview in its reports of the war has become one of the few amusing subplots of the war.)
Victory in Mariupol will be valuable to Vladimir Putin and co - any victory anywhere would be at this point. The captured Azov fighters may prove to have some propaganda value; a public trial of any such individuals will certainly burnish the supposed war aim of ‘deNazification’ at home (though we expect the western media to shrug off any such exposés, just as it has already shrugged off a thousand stiff-arm salutes and SS emblems).
Beyond that, the tactical picture is murkier. It seems another attempt to encircle substantial Ukrainian forces around Kharkiv has failed, and the city itself remains under firm Ukrainian control. Western media are reporting that the Donbas front itself is proving more difficult than expected. Russian casualties appear to be high. Of course, the picture is very partial, since the Ukrainian government and its western partners have imposed an impenetrable media blackout on ‘bad news’ for the Ukrainian side: military casualty figures for the Ukrainian army are simply not available, and journalists looking into the matter have been stonewalled.
If the tactical picture is murky, however, the strategic one is crystal-clear. Russia has lost badly so far. The objective was to Finlandise Ukraine, but the outcome has been to Ukrainise Finland, which has now applied to join Nato, along with Sweden. (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey objects, presumably as a result of Scandinavian hospitality to Kurdish exiles, but will no doubt be bribed into line one way or another.) Nato has needed such a shot in the arm for decades: the disastrous escapade in Afghanistan most certainly failed to provide it. The relentless strategy of tension in eastern Europe, however, has done the trick nicely.
When the history of this sordid episode is written, we will hopefully learn what made the core of the Russian state think this was a good idea, and the extent to which this was an unforced error. You would have to be a complete sycophant not to think it an error of some sort: an error which has already led to many thousands of deaths, of soldiers and civilians, and - thanks to the increasingly deranged political culture of the west - continues to escalate in, roughly, a nuclear direction.
US government officials boast about providing the intelligence that - for example - sank the Russian warship, Moskva. House majority leader Steny Hoyer suffered a Bidenesque slip of the tongue in a debate on energy policy - “I know there’s a lot of politics here, but we’re at war”. Who is at war now - with whom? But, of course, this is, now - and has always been - a proxy war fought with desperate intensity by Ukrainians on behalf of the western powers. How much the conflagration widens may depend on forgetful octogenarians like Biden and Hoyer keeping their rhetoric straight, and this remains to be seen. In any case, the total official unanimity on the question remains unbreached: an overwhelming majority in Congress voted to send another $40 billion of arms to Ukraine, including the supposed ‘socialists’ of the Squad.
Songs of love
The poor state of the political situation in the west is highlighted by, of all things, last weekend’s Eurovision song contest, in which an apparent tidal wave of support from the voting public in various countries pushed the Ukrainian entry to victory. We could look at the Kalush Orchestra and its Eurovision entry, but really why bother? Never has the aesthetic dimension been so utterly irrelevant to the award of some prize than Saturday night. Try as we might, we cannot disagree with the washed-up media pillock Piers Morgan’s tweets on the subject: “The world’s most absurd, pointless, politically-motivated ‘contest’ excels itself. Ukraine could have sent one of its heroic bomb-sniffing dogs to bark the national anthem and still won.”
One finds conspiracy theories that the whole thing is a fix, and perhaps it might be, but perhaps there is simply no need to fix it. The Eurovision song contest has successfully transcended its history of cringe-inducing kitsch to reach the dizzy heights of camp; its primary audience is the same youngish liberal professional who religiously watches RuPaul’s drag race. And such people are fanatically pro-Ukrainian, on balance, in the current situation.
This is a kind of ‘ideal type’ of the public response to the Ukraine war. Our rulers have sold it as basically a Star wars fable of plucky resistance against an evil empire; agenda-setting elites are near-universally on board with this framing; and so what is being approved in a ‘cultural’ gesture like this is, in fact, the policy of relentless escalation pursued by the western powers in relation to Russia. One sees it also in the Ukrainian flags hanging from windows in ordinary houses on ordinary streets across the country (and continent), the proliferation of World War II rhetorical modes, and everything else.
I mean the Star wars comparison not as a snide remark, but in deadly earnest. We are all essentially spectators of this war. Those on the anti-imperialist left (or indeed isolationist or Putin-friendly parts of the right) merely do not like the movie; we find the plot altogether too implausible to engage, but, for all our objections, we cannot alter the words of the screenplay or the director’s organisation of shots and scenes.
What would be required to overcome this powerlessness? The ‘obvious’ answer to common-or-garden leftists of the present day is a revived anti-war movement. Such, unsurprisingly, is the take of the Stop the War Coalition: “There is a widening understanding that the west is fighting a proxy war. We need to build on this and turn opinion into an effective movement,” reads a press release.
This is clearly wishful thinking. There probably is ‘widening understanding’ that the west is fighting a proxy war, because the western powers more or less state it openly (Iran-Contra this ain’t). The problem is that people do not automatically view that as a bad thing, provided that they can be convinced that the proxy war is a just war and the sacrifices required by those in the ‘sponsor’ countries will not be too great.
The problem for the anti-war movement - or whatever else - is to win that argument. On what basis? Not pacifism: that works if your own state is the immediate aggressor, invading some country and bombing its cities and so on, but not when your state’s proxy adversary is doing that. Open Putin-apologism is rightly creepy to people, so that is out too. In practice, many forces have fallen back on a kind of foreign policy ‘realism’, arguing that stability can only come to eastern Europe if Russia’s ‘legitimate security interests’ are met. This bloodless argument has some truth, but is open to the naive objection that interests cannot be ‘legitimate’ if they can only be secured in such a barbaric fashion. There is a certain truth also to this ‘naive’ objection: after all, by the same kind of argument the US has ‘legitimate security interests’ in Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba … Would the newly-converted ‘realists’ of Stop the War concede that point?
An anti-war movement as such cannot transcend this kind of tactical argument; to do so requires some idea of a total alternative to the social world in which these kinds of proxy wars are endemic - which immediately in turn poses problems of political economy and the nature of the state. An organisation with such a programme is by definition not a single-issue activist campaign, but a party (or something aspiring to become a party). The anti-war movement leadership’s endless attempts to repeat the great moments of 2003 have helped prevent such a party arising, resulting in total paralysis today.
Singling out the anti-war movement is, in a sense, unfair: the general approach to politics on offer from the left has consisted in placing itself at the service of a series of single-issue campaigns, aiming to build them and then link them up. The trouble is that prioritising building such movements turns out to mean suppressing disagreement (since divisions are ‘demoralising’ …), and therefore means capitulation to whatever the governing bourgeois interpretation of such and such a movement’s aim is - eg, pacificism in the anti-war movement, liberal anti-racism in the Black Lives Matter movement, and so on. This in fact makes it mpossible to take the second step and ‘link’ the issues together, however, since a fully articulated linking of the issues would entail a critique of the particular governing ideology. Instead, we merely get a reduction of each issue into the next, as when (for example) Stand Up To Racism urges its supporters to attend a COP26 demo because climate change is a racial justice issue!
It is in the anti-war movement, however, where the consequences of this political failure are most dire. We have witnessed the successful cooption of anti-war sentiment by those whose strategic brinksmanship and tactical bloodlust have made this war possible at all, and will continue to grow the body count at their own leisure. For our part, we badly need the thing we did not build when the anti-war movement briefly swelled to many-millions strong - a principled party.