Western anti-war campaigners have failed to notice Russia’s descent into extreme nationalism and kleptocracy.

Almost exactly 19 years ago, some of the biggest demonstrations in modern history were held across the world. Millions of people in Europe, America, and elsewhere went out into the streets to protest against the coming invasion of Iraq. Peace movements across the world were mobilized and left-of-center political parties were inflamed.

Now, as Russia masses troops and warships near Ukraine on a scale not seen since the Cold War, there is an eerie silence in the West. How can this be? Russia has already waged war against Georgia in 2008 and has been fighting against Ukraine since 2014. It is a known aggressor. Why are there no mass protests in the West?

It is fair to point out that for many, the COVID-19 pandemic is sufficient reason to stay away from crowds (though this has not deterred anti-mask and anti-vaccine protesters.) But it is also the case that there is unlimited space on social media and online, and that the peace movement is silent.

The UK’s Stop the War Coalition, for example, which helped organize the anti-Iraq war marches in 2001, says it “opposes the British establishment’s disastrous addiction to war and its squandering of public resources on militarism,” and organized an online meeting for February 10 to discuss the UK and US government’s efforts to “ramp up the threat of war.”

It made no mention of the threat to Ukraine but — perhaps significantly — did not attempt to organize a mass demonstration, despite its supporters’ chosen greeting, “See you on the street.” By February 10, only 44 of its 53,000 Twitter followers had liked the meeting’s announcement. In the US, a demonstration in Minneapolis on February 4 by the United National Coalition to denounce US imperialism attracted about 100 people.

Stop the War’s moral relativism was this week (February 10) described by the UK Labour party leader Keir Starmer as naïve, at best: “At worst they actively give succor to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies. There is nothing progressive in showing solidarity with the aggressor when our allies need our solidarity and — crucially — our practical assistance.” The group, one of whose leaders is Starmer’s far-left predecessor, responded that NATO had sided with “the aggressor” in Libya and Afghanistan.

In France, most protests have been focused on pandemic issues like mask mandates, but the Russian point of view is well-understood and sympathetically described by the extreme-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her extreme-left counterpart, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, both of whom advocate the country’s withdrawal from NATO.

A unifying feature among self-described peace activists is an unwillingness to place the sovereignty of small or newly restored countries on a par with that of larger and longer-established entities, a view succinctly put by Putin to President George W. Bush in 2008 when he said, “George, you have to understand Ukraine isn’t even a country.” It is a statement now widely repeated in the West.

This indifference to the fate of a major European state is not new. It dates back to the Cold War era when the student rebellions of the1960s were deeply influenced by socialism and Marxism, and linked to anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. Less well-known, Soviet and satellite intelligence services worked hard to use, and sometimes even control parts of the Western left and the peace movements. When students rebelled against a conservative society, they did so under red flags, buying into a view of the world that described the US as the home of capitalism, imperialism, and unjustified warfare.

As far back as 1945, George Orwell noted one of the key distinguishing markers of Western pacifists was apportioning blame for international crises “almost entirely against Britain and the United States.” Such people did not “as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defense of the western countries.”

While the Warsaw Pact invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia (which also drew some protests), as well as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, made clear that the Cold War was not a battle of good Soviet vs. the bad US, it did little to alter a seemingly instinctive response from the European left. That was reinforced by Ronald Reagan’s rearmament program in the 1980s and the positioning of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe following Russia’s deployment of SS-20s. This spawned a new era of protests in Germany and the UK.

The Cold War ended, but much of the far-left has struggled to understand Russia’s evolution into a murderous kleptocracy where social justice is not a goal of state policy. Putin’s use of military and intelligence services for state-sanctioned acts of aggression abroad — think Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, Salisbury, Berlin, plus numerous other attacks — dovetails with a domestic social conservatism designed to make life difficult and dangerous for liberals, gay people, and others, while sanctioning a raw form of capitalism which rewards super-rich individuals closely tied to the Kremlin. Russia might be different from the Soviet Union in many ways, but its security services are not.

It is of course entirely legitimate in a free society to campaign against military action, or steps taken to help a friendly state against outside aggression. But the Western peace movement might reflect on the words of 40-year-old Maryna Tseluiko, a baker and Ukrainian reservist: “We don’t want to fight Russians. It’s the Russians who are fighting us.”

Anders Östlund, a native Swede, has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, since 2009. He was active on EuroMaidan and he has followed the geopolitical dynamics in Eastern Europe ever since.


Photo: Protesters attend a rally against what they consider aggression by the US and NATO, February 5, 2022, in Washington, DC. Protesters demand the abolition of NATO, no US was in Russia, and reduction of the US defense budget to address problems at home. The rally was sponsored by anti-war groups CODEPINK, ANSWER Coalition, Black Alliance for Peace, and Popular Resistance. Credit: Allison Bailey/NurPhoto

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Anders Östlund

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February 11, 2022

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.