Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reconquer what he calls “Russian space” in Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), enlarged to include Finland and Sweden, is on the road to recovery from what French president Emmanuel Macron in 2019 termed its “brain death”.
The alliance, which the peace movement and left forces in the main countries of Mediterranean Europe have always fought, is now supposedly indispensable for defending “democratic values and a rules-based international order” — not only in Europe but everywhere.
This turn of events helps explain why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has generated such debate amongst southern Europe’s pacifist and progressive forces.
The pressures were visible on November 5 in Rome, at the Italian Peace and Disarmament Network-organised “Europe for Peace”, the biggest anti-war march in Italy for a decade.
It confirmed that, despite the Russian invasion and Ukraine’s persistent calls for arms, with which to repel it, a clear majority of progressives and anti-war activists simply reject their governments’ hypocritical posturing about the need for a ‘rules-based order’ and an expanded NATO and oppose further weapons shipments to Ukraine.
The 100,000-strong protest, which Italy’s biggest trade union confederation, the General Confederation of Italian Labour (CGIL) played the key role in building, won the support of the entire peace movement, including its Catholic component.
Unlike the demonstrations immediately after the February 24 Russian invasion, in which the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag prevailed, the event largely took its colour from the rainbow banner of Italy’s peace movement.
More than 500 civil society organisations sponsored the march, which was held under three slogans: “Ceasefire Now — Negotiate for Peace”; “Ban All Nuclear Weapons”; and “Solidarity with the Ukrainian People and the Victims of All Wars”.
The call for the march deplored the disastrous impact of the war on food security, especially in Africa and the East, on the cost of living for poorer people everywhere, as well as the “appalling choices it determines for the climate and life on the planet”.
It “condemned the aggressor and respected the Ukrainian resistance”, while committing to “help, support and aid the Ukrainian people”, but did not demand the withdrawal of Russian forces.
The call also opposed — by implication — NATO members (including Italy) arming the Armed Forces of Ukraine, stating: “Wars and weapons aim at victory over the enemy but do not lead to peace: they tend to become permanent and only cause new suffering for populations. […] There is no just war, only peace is just. War is made by armies; peace is made by peoples.”
That statement allowed demonstrators with various anti-war perspectives on the Russia-Ukraine war to take part in the march.
Range of views
The web site Infoaut summarised the general mood on November 5: “The impression is that of facing a collective liberating ritual, a moment of decompression in which, after months of one-sided media bombardment [proclaiming the need for NATO and rearmament], anti-war voices can find a public space in which to express themselves.
“The impression is that of a demonstration that feels like a majority within the real country, a majority that has been 'silenced' until now.”
The march was representative of all generations and all parts of Italy, and with strong presence of working families mobilised by their unions or peace associations.
Infoaut conducted numerous interviews, including with some whose home-made placards read “Putin Go Home!” and others, for whom the disarmament of the “Nazi regime” in Kyiv was the priority.
For Infoaut, the consensus gathered from its interviews ran from “condemnation of the Russian invasion, to opposition to the sending of weapons, to the need to open diplomatic avenues, to the [negative] role of the West in the conflict, to the fear that things could escalate further out of control”, including into nuclear war.
It added: “There are few voices expressing themselves differently, although the attitude towards NATO, for example, is more ambiguous.”
Among the comments gathered by Infoaut were:
“I’m here to stop sending arms to Ukraine. More arms means more deaths and an increasing cycle of violence. So stop the war, stop sending arms.” (Unidentified)
“I’m here to demonstrate against the war, against all imperialist wars, and the increase in war spending.” (Alessandro, unemployed, Piedmont)
“This is a war between two imperialist blocs in which there is not a good side and a bad side, and the only force that can stop this war is the movement of working people and the oppressed and exploited on a world scale acting against the respective imperialisms. So, we have to demonstrate above all against Italian imperialism, which sends weapons and sustains a shameful war.” (Paolo, activist with BandaPOP)
“I’m here to demand an end to this absurd war, that the parties engage in a real negotiating process and that the UN play its proper role and that we not allow a dictator like [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to assume a leading role in this conflict.” (Mattei, Veneto)
“There are 59 wars running at the moment, and the thought that all attention is on this one makes me think of all the money that is wasted on war and how much could be devoted to defeating hunger in the world, and the other problems that afflict society.” (Unidentified)
The two points of greatest consensus at the demonstration were thus in tension: opposition to Putin’s invasion combined with opposition to sending arms to Ukraine.
Driving the prevailing sentiment is a perception that the neoliberal policies of the former “technocratic” government of Mario Draghi, as well as the anti-refugee and racist policies of new far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni, have combined with militarism and a “war economy” in a package designed to make working Italians pay for the economic crisis.
The answer? Stop sending arms to Ukraine and spend the money on people’s needs, especially at a time of rising inflation and decaying public services.
The October 13 Ipsos poll caught the mood: support for Ukraine has fallen from 57% in April to 43% while support for sanctions has fallen from 55% to 42%. 69% believe that it is necessary to maintain dialogue with Putin while only 25% support sending arms to Kyiv.
The poll also found that nearly one in three believe a nuclear strike is “probable”, while 40% believe it is not.
Little wonder Five Star Movement leader and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti said on November 5: "We believe that now there must be a ceasefire and a turn towards negotiations must be made. We do not believe that it is right to follow the strategy of supplying new weapons. We have fully armed Ukraine, now we need the turn towards a ceasefire and peace negotiations."
Concern over militarism is pervasive in the Italian peace movement and already led Italian airport workers to ban arms shipments to Ukraine in March.
In the run-up to the demonstration, Anticapitalist Left (Sinistra Anticapitalista, SA) reaffirmed its call for the withdrawal of Russian troops and self-determination for Ukraine. It also called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to sending arms to Ukraine.
The SA statement added that those who support sending arms to Ukraine “have failed to give adequate consideration […] to the role and action of NATO in the war and the choice of the western bourgeoisies to use the conflict for a strong acceleration of rearmament policies and a massive ideological campaign in support of their anti-people policies.”
The issue then posed is whether the undeniable ideological exploitation of Putin’s Ukraine invasion by the Western imperialist powers justifies not sending Ukraine the arms it says it needs as Russia prepares a new offensive.
Writer Francesco Brusa expressed a minority viewpoint when he wrote in the November 11 edition of MicroMega: “It would seem legitimate to say that in order to‘fill the streets’, to rebuild a mass movement that aspires to be ‘for peace’ or ‘against war’, one cannot escape vagueness in the demands and a certain degree of moral ambiguity, so that solidarity with the victims remains something conditional […]
“The doubt left by the demonstration is precisely this: where is the conflict and against whom is it being waged? And, conversely, what principles and values are being defended and against whose attack, exactly?”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]