23 August 2022
Ukraine is Russia's Ireland.
Britain and Ireland have a tortuous shared history. Their cultures and language have developed more or less in parallel, often interacting, sometimes intersecting and sometimes diverging. Over the centuries the great works of Irish literature, and the folk culture of Ireland have been welcomed into the cultural heritage of England. At the same time the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture have been jealously preserved in Ireland as a counter to the political, economic, military and cultural dominance of England. One of the principal sources of conflict between Ireland and England - the struggle between Catholic and Protestant faiths - was also the subject of conflict within England, and from the seventeenth century within Ireland itself there was conflict between Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist.
The English considered Ireland to be an intrinsic part of Great Britain, along with Scotland, Wales and England itself. Each of these parts of what came to be known as the United Kingdom had a more or less distinct identity, traditions and culture but were held together as a single political entity, by military force if all else failed.
The historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine is remarkably similar to that between England and Ireland and can also be traced back to wars of conquest in the seventeenth century. Out of conquest there has been a long history of shared culture and a common orthodox religion but there has also been a long-standing and strong drive by Ukrainian nationalists for either autonomy or complete independence from Russia.
In the twentieth century after the fall of the Tsarist Empire Ukrainian nationalists declared an independent republic which was shortly thereafter incorporated as an autonomous state into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Poland then opportunistically took over western Ukraine while from 1922 onwards eastern Ukraine was subject to Soviet rule under the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1939 the Soviet Union took back western Ukraine from Poland, but in 1941 Germany invaded Russia and Ukraine entered into a brief but bitter period of Nazi rule. At this time some Ukrainian nationalists allied themselves with the Nazi forces and carried out pogroms of Jews and Poles living within Ukraine. Following the defeat of the German Reich by Soviet and allied forces, Ukraine returned to the Soviet Union. The pro-Nazi Ukrainian nationalist forces were suppressed by the Red Army, but Ukraine emerged from the era of Stalinist rule with a Ukrainian, Nikita Khrushchev as head of government in the Kremlin. Ukraine then enjoyed a relatively benign social and political environment until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, at which point it declared itself to be a fully independent state. Since then Ukraine has been enmeshed in its own "troubles". Revolutions, coups, ethnic and political strife have dominated the political landscape and set the scene for the present conflict with Russia.
This is where the Irish comparison becomes germane. Ireland was involved in a violent struggle against British rule at the time of the First World War. Just as some Ukrainian nationalists allied with Nazi Germany in the Second World War, certain Irish nationalists aligned with the German empire in the First World War. Unsurprisingly, Britain ruthlessly suppressed the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland, and hung the German collaborator Roger Casement. Russia was equally ruthless in its dealings with Nazi collaborators in Ukraine, but notwithstanding both Ireland and Ukraine went on to form independent states.
The crucial difference in the policies then followed by the independent states of Ukraine and Ireland was that the Irish Free State chose to remain neutral through the next war between Britain and Germany, the Second World War. If Ireland had taken advantage of the war to seize Ulster from Britain, or made itself an ally of the Third Reich, then it is a certainty that Ireland would have ended the war in ruins, just as Ukraine is in ruins today.
Ukraine's great mistake, indeed the criminal folly of its leadership, was to ally with the NATO powers against Russia and to attempt to suppress the large ethnic Russian minority (in an equivalent position to the Anglo-Irish and Ulster protestants) within Ukraine. This policy made no sense. It was not necessary and there was nothing Ukraine could gain from it. What is more, the people of Ukraine had given Volodymyr Zelensky's government a peace mandate. In return he gave them a war which benefited no one except the NATO powers which are perceived as an existential threat by Russia.
To put things in historical context, in the twentieth century Russia has been invaded by forces from Germany (twice, in 1914 and 1941), Poland, Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Britain, France, the United States and Japan. In the nineteenth century Russia was invaded twice by the French Empire, supported by many other European states, and once by Britain in league with France. These historical enemies of Russia are all currently NATO powers or NATO partner states (with the exception of Austria), so Russia had reason to fear Ukraine's move to join NATO.
NATO has stated that its war aim is to "weaken Russia". It perceives that the best way to achieve this aim is to have Ukraine and Russia bogged down in a prolonged war of attrition and this is exactly what has happened. To the west, this is a good outcome. NATO and its partners win the spoils of war. A trillion dollars worth of assets seized from the citizens and institutions of the Russian Federation, to add to the billions previously seized from the people of Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. The price of energy and food has soared, resulting in a massive transfer of wealth from consumers in the west and the nations of the south (South and Central America, Africa and much of Asia) to the capitalist elites of the west - and quite possibly to the Russian oligarchy as well. There has been a cost, in supplying arms and other forms of aid to Ukraine, but to date for the western elites the benefits of the war outweigh the costs.
However there is another problem with NATO's war aim. Weakening or severely wounding an opponent has never constituted a sane ultimate objective in war. An enemy must either be completely destroyed and broken into a thousand pieces so that it can never rise again, or alternatively it must be brought into the orbit of the victor as friend and ally. Germany weakened and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War was provoked to seek vengeance in the Second. The same mistake was avoided in the case of Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War, but it would seem that NATO now thinks that it can permanently "weaken" Russia without provoking a drive for revenge.
The war aims of Ukraine are no less problematic than those of NATO. Ukraine wishes to regain full sovereignty over Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. In other words, it wishes to deny those regions the rights of self-determination which it claims for itself. It makes no more sense than a determination by the Republic of Ireland to invade and reclaim control over Northern Ireland. Ukraine cannot suppress its ethnic and national minorities in perpetuity. It needs to find a way to accommodate minorities that does not rely on the use of force. Ukraine also wishes to become part of a military alliance directed against its neighbour, the Russian Federation. That also makes no sense unless there was a reasonable presumption that NATO can destroy the Russian Federation. However given that Russia is a militarily powerful state armed with nuclear weapons, that presumption cannot be categorized as reasonable.
On the other hand Russia's war aims were not unreasonable. A neutral Ukraine and self-determination for Crimea and the Donbass. Yes, these demands infringe on Kiev's own claims to absolute sovereignty over the whole of Ukraine, but Ukraine and the world could live with them.
The great cold war warrior, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, has denounced the war aims of both NATO and Ukraine as misguided and fit only to bring on a global catastrophe. Regrettably, the west is now led by men and women of lesser intellect than Kissinger - people like Boris Johnson, Joe Biden, Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern - who adopt a superficially moral posture but have little grasp of either realpolitik or principled politics.
Ukraine's war against Russia also has economic implications. Ukraine's economy remains closely entwined with Russia. Russian capitalists have invested heavily in Ukraine, and Ukraine's major trading partners are China, Russia, Poland and Turkey, so while Ukraine has become politically aligned with the United States and NATO, economically it has been dependent on nations which are either hostile, like Russia, or whose friendship is conditional, such as China, Turkey and Poland. The United States in particular, and also Britain and Germany, would like to see this situation turned around, so that US capital supplants Russian capital within Ukraine, and the US is able to control Ukraine's trade with the rest of the world. In other words, the US looks to a change very similar to the change that took place in Ireland after independence from Britain, in which American capital slowly but inexorably replaced British capital in command of the "controlling heights" of the Irish economy.
The problem is that the United States strongly competes with Ukraine in the global market for grains and other primary produce, while China is a natural trade partner. Alliance with the United States against the SCO group of nations (Russia, China and others) is being driven by the politicians in Kyiv against the nation's long term interests. This is another point of difference with Ireland, which had much to gain and little to lose by switching its economic focus from Britain to the United States. It is of course a point of similarity with New Zealand which under Jacinda Ardern has attached itself firmly to the cause of US imperialism while remaining economically dependent upon China for its exports of primary produce which the US and NATO states refuse to allow in to their markets
So what has happened to the Realm of New Zealand? This is the state which brutally put down its own "separatist" rebellions in the nineteenth century, staunchly supported British policy in Ireland, fought a turn-of-the-century war against the South African nationalists who wished to break loose from Britain, fought in two world wars for the declared purpose of defending British imperialism, participated in the French and American invasions of Vietnam, the "illegal and unprovoked" invasion of Iraq and the senseless invasion of Afghanistan, was complicit in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and so it goes on.
Has New Zealand now had a change of heart? Is it now opposed to imperialism in all forms? Does it now stand for the rule of international law, the rights of peoples to self-determination and adherence to the rules of war according to the Geneva Conventions?
The short answer is that the Realm of New Zealand never has, and does not now stand for any of these values. It remains committed, as it always has been, to the global hegemony of the "Five Eyes" Anglo-Saxon powers, nothing more and nothing less. To that end New Zealand condoned and has been complicit in brutal war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Ukraine.
In the space of a few weeks the government of Jacinda Ardern moved from "humanitarian assistance" through "non-lethal military aid" to "lethal military aid" to Ukraine. It effectively abandoned New Zealand's false claims to "honest broker" status, an "independent foreign policy", working for "global consensus" through "multi-lateralism" and the agency of the United Nations. It overturned the "non-nuclear" policy by becoming a "partner" of the world's preeminent nuclear weapons alliance, NATO and is preparing to join a new nuclear alliance in the Pacific, AUKUS, which is directed towards nuclear war against China.
All this was done without reference to its people who demanded and continue to support the concept of an independent nuclear-free Aotearoa. There was no serious discussion in parliament. No in-depth background information to the Ukraine situation was provided through the mass media. Foreign media channels were banned from the New Zealand airwaves and any controversy was effectively suppressed with the help of the state-led Media Freedom Committee. Consequently the mass of New Zealanders know less about what is happening in Ukraine than their counterparts in other western nations, in particular those in the United States of America and western Europe.
The Ukraine war is a shameful catastrophe in the making, but only a harbinger of things to come. Russia is the back door to China, and the NATO end game is war with China. The Realm of New Zealand has committed itself to global war on behalf of its old imperial masters. This threatens to bring on an even greater catastrophe for the people of Aotearoa.