The Ukraine War: Arguments for Non-Intervention
We are told by the politicians and media people, and increasingly by each other, that the Ukrainians are victims of a wholly unjustified attack and that we have a duty to assist them. Such debate as I see turns on the nature and degree of what assistance we should provide.
I disagree. This country has no legitimate interests in the territories of the former Soviet Union. Whether the Russians bomb these places flat or call on them to become free love communes has no bearing on the security of the United Kingdom. The duty of the British Government is to protect our own people and our own territory. We may have less critical interests elsewhere in the world that are worth protecting – but this is not protection that involves finding by trial and error what lines we can safely cross before the Russians declare war on us.
A nation is a partnership across generations. Where the use or possible use of armed force is concerned, those now alive in a nation, and particularly those governing the nation, have no business acting as they feel personally right. They are not the whole nation. They are not the agents of the nation. They are its trustees. Their duty is to act in a manner that does not endanger the nation now, or harm the interests of the following generations. We can regret that our ancestors did not consult our interests when they acted as they did in 1914 and 1939. This does not lessen our obligation to avoid acts or courses of action that will bring similar harm to our descendants. Risking the hostility of a great power because it is doing things we dislike inside its own sphere of influence is no part of any legitimate agenda for those who sit above us as our trustees.
I think this deals with repeated claims that we have a duty to assist because the Ukraine is a democracy and Russia is not. But I will emphasise that what form of government some other people adopts is none of our business. Once we announce as a principle that we will intervene elsewhere in the world for or against particular forms of government, we step outside the bounds of our legitimate interests. And if this repeated mention of legitimate interests may sound unfeeling, its general acceptance is likely to end fewer lives than the self-righteous meddling that so many now confuse with a moral foreign policy. The reason drunks and lunatics should keep from driving is because they are unpredictable. They will, because of this, cause more accidents that other drivers whose moves can reasonably be predicted. A foreign policy that defends stated or predictable interests that are themselves limited will avoid both war and those actions that fall short of war, but bring about patterns of hostility between states that may lead to war.
On the matter, though, of democracy. The Ukraine strikes me as just another post-Soviet mafia state. In February this year, its President banned three opposition television stations. Last May, he had one of the opposition leaders put under house arrest. In 2016, The Huffington Post described the country as “a known hub for human trafficking,” and reported how its orphanages were doubling as brothels. I could supply a mass of further detail. I think this will do, however, to raise doubts of its propriety in the present case, even if we accept the generality of the claim that we have some duty to defend those countries that are democracies against countries that are not.
Or, turning to those formerly Soviet territories that do qualify within reason as liberal democracies, we have the argument that abandoning the Ukraine will endanger the Baltic States. This may be so. My answer again, though, is that the independence or enslavement of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia is none of our proper concern. In their case, I will allow the principle of an exception. Within reason, one good turn deserves another. But in 2019, many good turns needed one return. A majority in the House of Commons wanted to nullify the 2016 referendum result and to keep us in the European Union. It was able to pass Acts of Parliament requiring the Ministers to ask for extensions in Brussels to our departure date. I know that the Ministers asked round all the East European member states for just one of them to veto our compelled request for an extension. That would have checked the Europhile majority in Parliament and forced the French and Germans and Irish to negotiate with us in better faith. The governments of these countries owed us. We had pressed and pressed for them to be let in to the European Union. When the French and Germans had closed theirs we had opened our borders to their emigrants. They owed us, and they looked the other way when we needed something that would have got them no more than a few hard looks from Berlin. So long as we remain in NATO, we are committed to their defence. We have no obligation to be enthusiastically committed. Our obligation, indeed, is to show an absolutely minimal commitment. It seems to me a good principle that, if one good turn deserves another, no good turn deserves nothing.
Then we have the matter of hypocrisy. I will not defend the Russian invasion. But I do note that, so far, the Russians have been eager to avoid civilian casualties. Many of our own politicians now howling about Russian atrocities made no fuss about civilian casualties when they or their elders invaded Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. I think of Gordon Brown, who was in government during the invasions of Serbia and Iraq and is now calling for the Russian President to stand trial for war crimes. Or I think of Liam Fox, who supervised the destruction of Libya – from a Spanish hotel – and is now spamming Facebook with his imitations on video of Winston Churchill. I have no idea how many hundreds of thousands or millions of people were killed. In these invasions, but I will not forget those pictures from Iraq in 2003 of little children with their arms and legs blown off. The Russians will need to hurry between now and the end of this present war if they want to match our catalogue of horror
Or is this hypocrisy? The saving grace of hypocrisy is that it does some occasional good. A man may himself be an adulterer. His lectures to the young on the virtues of fidelity may bring about a net reduction of unhappiness. If we look below the candle-waving sentimentality promoted by our political and media classes, I see no wish to minimise the loss of life, but only a policy directed, over many years, to producing unlimited death and other suffering.
The central truth in relations between states is that the strong take what they will and the weak give what they must. This is not desirable, but it is the truth. Perhaps it should not be stated very often, or followed too bluntly. But it is the truth. The Ukraine is in the Russian sphere of interest, just as Cuba in 1962 was in the American sphere of interest. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian State that succeeded it was temporarily weak. It accepted the loss of the territories conquered in 1945, and the political independence of the non-Russian territories conquered before 1917. But the deal at the end of the Cold War was that the East European countries should not be taken into any anti-Russian alliance, and the new post-Soviet republics should be left under a loose Russian control. Whether this was a formal or informal deal is unimportant – so too whether it was raised in discussion. The long term strength and the predictable interests of the Russian State made it an obvious implication of what was agreed.
The rulers of the West immediately broke this part of the agreement. The East European states were recruited into NATO. Then our rulers began meddling in the affairs of the post-Soviet republics. At first, the Russians were too weak to make effective protest. But the meddling became more intrusive even as Russian strength recovered. Since 2014, Western efforts have been focussed on detaching the Ukraine from the Russian sphere. We can discount the claims that the Ukraine is a sovereign country, at liberty to make such arrangements for its own defence as it may feel convenient. Or I hope we can discount them. If I believed our rulers were as stupid as their frontmen sound, I would not be writing this, but digging up my garden to build a fall-out shelter. It is possible that they were planning to use the Ukraine as a base from which to overawe the Russians. Again, though, I doubt they are that stupid. A half minute with a political and contour map will show that Russia without the Ukraine is indefensible. Everyone should know the sacrifices made by the Soviet peoples in the 1940s. No doubt, these were compelled sacrifices. But they were sacrifices made, and the fact of their making is now part of the Russian national character. The Russians would never allow the Ukraine to be occupied by any but themselves.
A more likely explanation of what is happening is that the Ukrainians have been manipulated into provoking a Russian invasion. Unless things run out of control, there will be no NATO intervention on their behalf. Instead, they have been armed to make some resistance, and they will continue receiving arms until they have been conquered. After that, arms will continue flowing into the country to enable a civil war and insurgency. Boris Johnson is crying this up as a cartoonish version of the French Resistance – never once admitting that an insurgency and a terrorist campaign are different names given to the same thing, and that any Russian willingness to avoid civilian casualties will not survive the first wave of car bombings. But the purpose is to suck Russia into a financial and military trap it is too poor to afford. The preferred outcome of that is to replace Vladimir Putin with someone as pliable as Boris Yeltsin. Even otherwise, Russia will have been made impotent. Syria will then be first on the list of countries to have done to them what was done to Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. After Syria, it will be Iran. After that, the Chinese may smile stiffly and give up their ambitions to be a great power.
I was against fighting the Cold War, but I never had any doubt which side I was on. For all its faults, Western liberal democracy was preferable to Soviet tyranny. I feel no such conviction this time round. The external ambition of those who rule the West appears to be close and permanent domination of the world. There is to be one financial and trading system, and one international legal order enforcing the usual biased rules, and one military able to bomb and starve the non-compliant into submission. The internal ambition appears to be a dissolution of national identities and the cancelling of what have so far been seen as untouchable rights. These things are to be achieved by a controlled media and education system, both given over to moronising propaganda – and by outright censorship and the jailing of dissidents. The withdrawal of electronic banking services from Russia is an experimental precedent. What can be done to the Russians can be done, once cash has been abolished, to those of us in the West who may give offence.
And, though it is slightly outside the purpose of this summarised case, I am curious about those laboratories in the Ukraine. Russia Today has been talking for the past week about alleged biowarfare laboratories, and how the Americans and Ukrainians have been destroying these before they can be captured by the Russian Army. Wars involve propaganda from both sides, and there is no video footage or captured documents that cannot be forged. However, the Americans have now admitted the existence of some biological research collaboration with the Ukrainians. Victoria Nuland is not very bright, and her admission seems to have been a serious mistake, repaired only by keeping it out of the controlled media. I will say no more, except that I am curious.
Here, then, are my objections to any involvement in the Ukrainian War. Of course, so far as our rulers have brought it on, we are involved. But I can hope for enough Ukrainians to realise they have been tricked, and for peace to be made between Russia and the Ukraine, and for the Eurasian powers to continue pulling themselves together, and for America to be revealed as what its rulers have made it – one big casino surrounded by a rustbelt. The future now offered by the rulers of the West, we can have no reasonable doubt, is a boot stamping on a human face forever. All the Eurasians offer is business as usual. But that comes with the chance of something better.
[…] Bickley has written about the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine from a UK perspective. Here are some […]
From a nation-state-centred point of view, this is a fine analysis. It makes some excellent points, even for those of us who are not so enamoured of the nation-state. Even better, it will make a lot of readers think.
But I cannot agree with everything here. In the first paragraph, Alan Bickley assesses the point of view that the Ukrainians are victims of a wholly unjustified attack, and that we have a duty to assist them. He disagrees, presumably with both statements. Personally, I go against him on the first. For me, the attack by the Russians on Ukrainians, like any other warlike aggression, is unjust. But I do follow him in disagreeing with the second. There certainly is no duty, individual or collective, for English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish people to help Ukraine, the state. I would say only: “If you want to help Ukrainians, do what you can.”
Then he says: “The duty of the British Government is to protect our own people and our own territory.” Indeed so. If government is to have any utility at all, it must defend what John Locke called “the public good.” That is: “the good of every particular member of that society, as far as by common rules it can be provided for.” And that applies doubly and more for any government that claims to be democratic. I agree, too, that: “Once we announce as a principle that we will intervene elsewhere in the world for or against particular forms of government, we step outside the bounds of our legitimate interests.”
Alan Bickley is entirely right when he says: “Risking the hostility of a great power because it is doing things we dislike inside its own sphere of influence is no part of any legitimate agenda for those who sit above us as our trustees.” It is no defence of the public good to do anything that can foreseeably be expected to result in nuclear strikes on that public! That said, he does not make it clear how far he thinks the Russian sphere of influence has a right to extend. If he considers it tolerable for Russia to invade Ukraine, or Latvia, or Lithuania, what about Poland, or Finland, or even Germany?
He also says: “The Ukraine strikes me as just another post-Soviet mafia state.” The Ukrainian state may indeed have violated the rights of some of those it considers to be pro-Russian. After all, violating rights is one of the things states do. But Ukrainians – and I have been to Ukraine four times, and got to know many people there – are, in my experience, not at all post-Soviet mafiosi. Euromaidan was real. The people demonstrating, and a large swathe of Western Ukrainians in particular, wanted change for the better. And that, for them, meant a westward outlook rather than an eastern one. I think the author should be careful to distinguish Ukrainians, the people, from Ukraine the state.
Then, he criticizes the invasions that have been ordered by Western nation-states, such as those of Syria, Libya and Iraq; and the hypocrisy of Western politicians in condemning Russia without also condemning themselves. Yes, indeed. Hypocrisy, for me, is a sure sign of bad faith. And when he says: “The external ambition of those who rule the West appears to be close and permanent domination of the world,” he is correct, but I think he understates his case. In my view, the ambition of the ruling classes, not just in the West, but in Russia, and China, and other powerful countries too, not to mention in the United Nations, is to shape the world to fit their own particular idea of what is right. And they don’t care what atrocities they have to commit to bring it about.
We can, of course, hope that someone in Moscow with a bit of nous may see an opportunity to remove or sideline Putin, and so to defuse the immediate threat of a major conflagration. But to solve the underlying problems of geopolitics is a wholly different ball-game. In my opinion, that will require a large-scale change of attitude among many people, and a consequent re-structuring of the political system, both in terms of individual nations and of how they relate to each other.
David Webb is probably our resident expert on the Ukraine, since he’s been there several times and is fluent in Russian. I will therefore say nothing more about the country and its people. But I will answer your point on spheres of influence. A sphere of influence is a loose kind of dominion that a powerful state imposes on its weaker neighbours when it would otherwise feel threatened. There is no justice in these matters. It is simply Thucydides will-to-power stuff. The Soviets brought most of Eastern Europe into their sphere in 1945. They did that because they wanted to and could. They were unable to hold it after 1989. Perhaps they will be able to make new demands on Poland and the others once NATO has collapsed. We shall see what happens.