Mining wage

The West must wage an economic war against the Putin regime

“I’m panicking,” said the trembling young man behind me in the queue at Kiev’s Boryspil airport. We were trying to buy the last tickets on the only available flight out. It was 36 hours ago.

At 3 am today (February 24), Russian paratroopers stormed this airport. The polite young border guards who checked my ticket could now be dead or prisoners of war. Everyone I encountered during my five-day visit to Ukraine – politicians, reservists, miners, human rights activists – faced the danger of death, injury, kidnapping, torture and the trauma that ensues.

Vladimir Putin’s declaration of war was pre-recorded on Monday evening (February 21). It is therefore the scripted cancellation of the sovereignty of an entire country – a country that had not even mobilized its army, nor posted armed guards in its ministries. Putin warned: “To anyone who would consider intervening from the outside: if you do, you will face greater consequences than you have faced in history.

On behalf of everyone I have met, I believe we must step in – not with combat, but with massive sanctions and a systemic political counteroffensive. At the headquarters of the independent trade union federation, an official told me about the conditions in the Russian-backed separatist areas: “Our union has been banned in the occupied regions of Donbass; our members have been tortured, kidnapped and even killed. The miners who fled to nearby towns on the Ukrainian side tell us: “We fled once, this time we will fight”.

It will be the same for the reservists of the 112th territorial brigade, whom I met on Tuesday morning (February 22). They plan to hold the towns – both against raids by special forces and possible encirclement – while the regular Ukrainian army of some 28 mobile battalions battles more than 100 Russian equivalents.

An army intelligence officer told me that they expected a four-pronged attack, on Kyiv from the north, Kharkiv from Russia, Mariupol from now-occupied Donetsk and Odessa from Crimea and the sea Black.

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[see also: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything]

The strategic danger for the Ukrainian army is that while defending Mariupol, it will be surrounded by Russian troops attacking from the northeast and from Crimea.

But just as important as conventional warfare is the asymmetrical warfare that Putin will wage. UK government sources have told us to expect the assassination and abduction of key Ukrainian political figures by Russian special forces. I assume that long before the army is defeated, Putin will install a puppet government somewhere on Ukrainian territory, and that government will make “peace” with Russia, offering exile to the democratic political class.

Watching this unfold, you might be wondering: what can we do in the UK? For an entire generation trained in liberal thinking, where there is always a market-based technocratic solution, or a diplomatic gimmick, or a can to kick the road, the answer is nothing. You have rendered yourselves powerless by tolerating the emergence of an inhuman dictatorship in Moscow, allowing it to degrade your democracy through culture wars and electoral manipulation, and accepting its money.

Don’t make a mistake. It’s the end of the post-war order. Not the post-Cold War order, the post-1945 order. Putin made that clear. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994, guaranteeing Ukraine’s existence in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons, was itself unilaterally abandoned by the Kremlin’s macabre waxwork. If the war in Iraq was illegal under international law, this one goes further: it is a war to end international law.

How did we come here? I covered this fiasco in real time and the brief summary is as follows: the collapse of the neoliberal economic model has created a fragile democracy in the United States, which can no longer be relied upon to deliver on its geopolitical promises.

Putin saw the void and made a century-long pact with China to end the rules-based world order. The Ukrainian government has gone too far in its attempt to force NATO to give it guarantees and to speed up its accession.

What shall we do now? Having refrained from outright sanctions, in the hope that Putin will take Donbass as a consolation prize, the West must hit Russia with sanctions that will cripple its economy. Forget targeting “only oligarchs”. There is a lot of pain the West can inflict as long as it understands the goal: Putin’s ousting from power, either through an elite coup or a democratic revolution.

But much of the Western financial elite is enmeshed in the rent-seeking operation: bankers, hedge fund managers, public affairs firms and commercial law firms. Today they have to decide which side they are on. The job of democratic governments is to help them make that decision.

In response to the sanctions, Putin will shut off gas supplies to Germany and likely seize BP’s stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest state oil company. It is therefore already a world conflict, at the economic level. It is therefore rational to ask: could we get out of this by compromise? The answer is no. Putin declared war not only on the 41 million people of Ukraine, but on the entire system of laws and structures governing our lives.

NATO should not go to war against Russia. It would mean a nuclear confrontation in which the nihilistic Russian government would be quite ready to immolate itself. But the West must mobilize and be ready to draw a line.

I won’t waste words on Putin’s apologists – left and right – who backed the dictator’s claims that Ukrainian nationality was bogus, that NATO was encircling Russia, and that the Ukrainian people were a bunch of Nazis. These defenders are now facing a reputational catastrophe.

The Ukrainian left and progressives will resist. As the activists of Sotsialnyi Rukh, a left-wing social movement, said on Tuesday February 22: “Only a socialist and democratic Ukraine can resist the oligarchic authoritarianism of the Russian Federation. The preservation of the independence of our country passes by the abandonment of the model of oligarchic capitalism.

Reluctantly, and with little faith in their government, Ukraine’s youth, working class, left and progressive movements will resist the aggressor. Support them and pray for them.

[see also: “There is no enforcement”: the awkward truth about the UK’s sanctions on Russia]

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