Ukraine – what can internationalists do?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine requires urgent action. Vanessa Baird asks what we can do. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Emerging from a bomb shelter on the first day of Russian’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Avalaina gets a signal and joins a live Twitter event hosted by the progressive UK-based civil society organization, Another Europe is Possible.

She tells the 1,000 or so participants what it’s like waking up to the sound of her country being invaded by a giant and hostile neighbour. She says the West needs to show Putin that the price of what he is doing is too high and he has to stop.

Yulia, speaking from Kyiv, calls for strong sanctions and urges: ‘Tell the world Ukraine is not a Nazi ghetto. I am tired of Ukraine being used as a pawn in Left anti-US discourse. Russia is not an ideological counterweight to the US. Russia is not the USSR. It’s an oligarchy that must be sanctioned and the world must stand against Putin’s invasion.’

The Kremlin’s line that Ukraine is run by ‘neo-fascists’ and that the Russian intervention is on behalf of its Ukrainian brothers and sisters, may be risible to those on the ground. But it still gets repeated by some prominent figures on the international Left abroad. Others have a more nuanced view. 

What to do?

So, how can internationalists, concerned about human rights and democracy, campaign on Ukraine?

First and foremost, we need to stand in solidarity with Ukrainians as they face an extraordinarily powerful aggressor. ‘War is a massive violation of human rights and we have to draw attention back to this,’ says LSE professor of global governance Mary Kaldor. 

‘But, also, we need to be in solidarity with the many Russians who are against the war. It’s very important that we do not isolate the Russian people. It’s essential to have sanctions on oligarchs but we need to be on the side of Russians who are against the war.’

Thousands of anti-war protesters took to the streets of 54 Russian cities on the first day of the invasion, in spite of laws banning demonstrations. Around 1,500 were arrested, a Russian human rights group reported. 

Roman Kiseylov, head of the legal department at the Moscow Helsinki group, told the Another Europe is Possible event: ‘My condolences go to Ukrainian colleagues on this most terrible of days. I never thought that as human rights activists we would be sharing guilt for starting a war. Russia is definitely not a democracy. 

‘Since 2021 [and new laws cracking down on opposition politicians and protesters] people in Russia are really frightened. The invasion of Ukraine does not bring security. People are concerned about the Russian economy and families receiving the bodies of loved ones from Ukraine.’

As the reality of the invasion sank in, sanctions against Russia were strengthened and expanded by the European Union, the G7, the US and the UK. But they still failed to exclude Russia from the SWIFT international banking system, which would have a strong and immediate impact. Targeting Russian oligarch ‘dark money’ in countries such as the UK, where Putin cronies have laundered money, accessed ‘golden passports’ and allegedly funded the ruling Conservative Party, requires transparency measures that are still not in place.

It’s essential to have sanctions on oligarchs but we need to be on the side of Russians who are against the war.

The war will destroy Ukraine’s economy, already battered by eight years of conflict and Russian intervention in the East of the country. Ukraine’s foreign debt must be cancelled, say activists. And countries providing arms to help Ukraine defend itself should supply them for free so as not to incur more debt.

A considerable humanitarian aid effort will be needed, as people are injured or made homeless and destitute as a result of war. Many may be forced to migrate. Welcoming refugees is a major duty of the international community.  

On the international stage, Putin has committed a crime of aggression under international law and should be indicted at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. 

Given its reckless warmongering, Russia’s continued position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is hard to defend – but it wouldn’t be the first time a major superpower has been in that position. A more radical demand would be to do away with the antiquated and unfair system of there being any permanent members on the Security Council.

Anyone who thinks that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is Ukraine’s problem alone, should listen carefully to Putin’s sinister threat to retaliate against any seeking to help Ukraine in a way they have never known before. Note the speed with which Russian forces seized control of the still contaminated nuclear facility at Chernobyl, holding hostage workers whose job is to keep the site safe.

But Western militarization and NATO expansionism must bear some responsibility for bringing the world to the brink – and providing authoritarian leaders like Putin with excuses for their actions, however cruel or disproportionate.