I have a history of opposing and voting in parliament against illegal invasions and bombings of countries: from Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to Syria. With such a consistent track record of opposing wars launched by imperial powers, it is completely understandable why I have opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
My involvement with Ukraine goes back nearly a decade. I was approached nine years ago to offer support to Ukrainian miners striking in opposition to the 50% fall in the real value of their wages that had been imposed by mining companies that had fallen into the hands of profiteering, tax-dodging Russian oligarchs.
I met delegations of miners from the Independent Mineworkers Union and convened a briefing session for MPs, Labour activists and trade unionists. The determined campaign by the miners secured a breakthrough with a 20% wage rise.
The miners’ union and Confederation of the Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) worked to show that workers’ power, not military power, was the force to overcome chauvinist nationalism and to unite all workers in the struggle to secure social justice and promote a united and multi-ethnic Ukraine.
Ukrainian Social Movement
Through the miners I came into contact with Ukrainian socialists, anarchists and anti-fascists, who went on to form Social Movement. These, mostly young, people had linked up with independent trade unions in the 2014 Maidan protests to back the toppling of corrupt Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovich and oppose the growth of fascist groups.
Trade unionists formed the base of this new socialist party, joining militants from a variety of left groups, feminists, ecosocialists and human rights defenders.
Defining itself as a broad left coalition, Social Movement’s stated aim is to replace the existing system of oligarchic capitalism with democratic socialism. Its program includes socialising the economy through nationalisation and workers’ control, tax justice, equality for all and opposition to imperialism.
From Maidan onwards, it was this formation of free trade unions and Social Movement that has consistently been at the front of supporting progressive, trade union and environmental campaigns, strikes and demonstrations, and has mobilised against any moves by the Volodymyr Zelensky government to curtail employment rights, trade union freedoms and civil liberties.
Although there had been fighting in the Donbas for eight years, before February 24, 2022, I remained sceptical that Putin would be so reckless as to launch a full-scale invasion. Events proved me and many others seriously and tragically wrong.
The question then for socialists and trade unionists in Ukraine was straightforward and immediate. Do they defend themselves or allow the invasion to succeed?
Ukrainians were faced with the realistic prospect of the subjugation of their country by an imperialist aggressor. They did what I believe many of us also would be forced to do in these circumstances and which we have supported elsewhere where imperialist wars are waged.
My Ukrainian socialist and trade unionist comrades, who believed in nothing more than internationalism, solidarity and peace, joined the territorial force to halt the aggressor.
For those who question their decision, I ask: what else could they do? Where non-violent protests against the invaders were attempted, they were met with brutality, arrest and deportation to camps. From the evidence emerging, the brutality escalated into indiscriminate killings, torture and rape.
Defence to stem the tide of violent aggression was judged to be the only option for members of Social Movement and KVPU to save themselves, their families and their country.
Socialists, trade unionists and peace campaigners in Britain rightfully condemned the invasion and called for peace, the supply of humanitarian aid, and the opening up of pathways for Ukrainians to seek asylum.
This still left open the question whether the left should support sending weapons to Ukrainians to defend themselves. From the outset I could see no other realistic option but to support their right to defend themselves.
A year on
The war has now dragged on for a year and a new Russian offensive is inevitable — if it has not commenced already. With no peace deal in sight and Russian missiles raining down upon Ukrainian towns and cities again, I met with comrades from Social Movement and the miners union once more to ask their views.
In Zoom meetings in which you can hear the sirens sounding the alarm of an incoming missile, I listened to the assessment of the current situation by socialist and trade union comrades. All so firmly want peace, but they do not believe peace can be achieved until the invasion of their country is ended.
All wanted a reunited country based upon respect for the languages and cultures of all its citizens. They reject what they describe as the imperialism of East or West. All that I heard from them was a basic argument for self-determination, and for Ukrainians to be allowed to decide their own future.
But to achieve that they had a simple plea, that is to be given the weapons to fend off the next wave of attack from Russia. For them, this is a defensive war that, if successful, could force a negotiated settlement. They see no other way of achieving the political space for an agreement.
They want to return to peace to rid their country of the oligarchs that have profiteered from the exploitation of workers and natural resources. They aim to put socialism on the agenda of Ukraine.
What to do
Many have argued against this, but I have not heard a convincing argument against supplying the weapons that Ukrainian comrades need to protect their freedom.
There is the straightforward pacifist position that relies upon people from all sides refusing to fight. I respect this view but gently say that at present I deeply regret that there is no prospect of that call being listened to in sufficient numbers to halt this war.
Some have argued this is just a proxy war between two imperialist powers — NATO and Russia — and that socialists should have no part in it. I understand the point, but as Taras Bilous of Social Movement has pointed out, virtually every war since the Cold War can be seen as a proxy war between imperialist powers. Yet that has not stopped the left making a judgement about individual cases and supporting liberation struggles in this context.
Others have argued that sending more arms risks escalating the war. It is true that the arms sent are certain to be used. However, for Ukraine, this is a defensive war and the arms argued for are for defence.
What is certain is that a refusal to provide weapons the Ukrainians need means the chances of Russia’s invasion succeeding are significantly increased. A peace would be secured, but an unstable peace imposed by the Russian occupying force.
There has been a renewed call for peace negotiations that I wholeheartedly support. Despite attempts by various interlocutors, no talks have been brought about and the prospects of both sides coming together are bleak. Years of negotiations over the numerous Minsk protocols demonstrated how difficult it is to secure adherence to a peace agreement.
Nevertheless, every opportunity should be pursued, no matter how unexpected, including the recent offer from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as long as it is explicitly clear that it will be for Ukrainians to determine the acceptability of any peace agreement.
In the meantime, with no acknowledgement by Russian President Vladimir Putin of even consideration of a ceasefire, and with a build-up of Russian troops and weapons and the return of missile fire over Kyiv, Ukrainians need weapons to defend themselves against renewed attack, if only to secure the breathing space for talks to start.
Ukraine, however, needs more than arms. The war has devastated its economy and many consider that a Marshall Aid-scale plan is needed to provide basic immediate humanitarian support and to rebuild its physical, industrial and environmental infrastructure when peace is restored.
The aim of the trade unions and Social Movement is to ensure that a peace is created based on trade union rights, workers’ control and public ownership.
There is a great opening for socialists and trade unionists in Britain to work in solidarity to back our Ukrainian comrades’ campaign for this new Ukraine. Above all else now though, our duty is to provide the material means by which they will secure that opportunity.
[Abridged and edited from Labour Hub. John McDonnell is a British Labour MP who was Shadow Chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn.]