A new anti-war movement is gaining traction in Russia and Ukraine

I wrote this article for the Morning Star, who published it in their issue of Satruday 12th March 2022.

There’s a new joke going round Russia. What’s the easiest way to clear the snow from your street? Write “No To War” in the snow – and the police will clear it for you.

Footage on social media shows police obliterating anti-war messages written in the snow. But the Russian peace movement will not be so easily stamped out.

The size of anti-war protests in Russia has taken everyone by surprise. Russian police have carried out over 13,000 arrests of peace protesters since the invasion of Ukraine. Over a million people in Russia have signed petitions against the war.

Vladimir Putin accuses Russian peace groups of being friends of NATO. They are not. Anti-militarist groups in Britain are accused of supporting Putin. We do not.

The imperialism of NATO and the imperialism of Putin are two sides of the same coin. The real division is not between Russian capitalists and western capitalists but between the world’s ruling classes – whether Russian oligarchs or US billionaires – and the mass of the population in all countries, who never benefit from war.

As the Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg put it, “Any war is destruction, blood, violence, innocent victims”.

Presidents and prime ministers will not save us from war. Putin sits pompously at his absurdly long table, looking like he is auditioning for the role of a Bond villain. Zelensky is hero-worshipped by Western commentators who disregard his actual policies and record of militarism. Johnson is sighing with relief that the headlines are no longer about Downing Street lockdown parties.

Meanwhile, working class people are resisting war in Russia, Ukraine and around the world. They, not politicians and generals, are the people who offer hope of an end to war.

Hope amidst the horror

Like millions of people, I watched with horror as Russian tanks entered Ukraine on 24 February. I have no time for hypocritical ministers who condemn atrocities in Ukraine while providing weapons and military training to Saudi forces killing children in Yemen. Recognising this is no reason to feel less concerned about people in Ukraine. It was difficult to feel anything other than fear and sadness on the day the invasion began.

At the Peace Pledge Union, we quickly published a statement condemning Putin’s aggression and pointing to the background of militaristic policies pursed by both Russia and NATO.

It was not until that evening that I was uplifted by glimmers of hope. News came through of anti-war protests in Russia. I was cautious, aware that US or Ukrainian authorities could exaggerate or even fabricate such stories. But soon longstanding Russian peace groups, known for opposing NATO as well as Putin, were posting footage of thousands of people protesting in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Protests in Russia are now too big for politicians to ignore.. A law passed in Russia on 4 March provides for jail terms of up to three years for “discrediting” the “use of Russian troops”. It allows jail for 15 years for people guilty of spreading “fake” information about Russian military operations. Last week, I heard from Boris, a Russian activist who had been visited by police every day since the war began, putting pressure on him not to speak out. He said he would continue campaigning

Putin would be impressed by the Police Bill that Priti Patel is pushing through the British parliament, similarly suppressing rights to nonviolent protest. The ruling classes of supposedly opposing countries can be remarkably similar.

Rejecting militarism

In the Russian Duma, two members of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party have proposed a law to conscript anti-war protesters and send them to fight in Donetsk and Luhansk – so that they can “see with their own eyes” what the Ukrainian authorities have done.

But Russian peace campaigners are already aware of such things. Amongst all the anti-war statements produced by peace groups in Russia, I have not come across a single expression of support for the Zelensky regime or NATO.

As the Russian group Feminist Anti-War Resistance puts it, Putin has “never been concerned about the fate of people in Luhansk and Donetsk”. Russian Communist MP Vyacheslav Markhaev, who initially supported the recognition of the separatist republics, now accuses Putin of being “motivated by entirely different intentions” leading to a “full-scale war”.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Zelenksy has handed out rifles to untrained volunteers, incorporated the neo-nazi Azov battalion into the Ukrainian army and banned men aged 18-60 from leaving Ukraine, so they can be conscripted.

Thankfully the resistance of Ukrainians on the ground has been much more creative and effective. “Reporting on conflict focuses on warfare and almost ignores nonviolent resistance to war,” notes Yurii Sheliazhenko of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. He points out that “brave Ukrainian civilians are changing street signs and blocking streets and blocking tanks, just staying in their way without weapons”. In the mostly Russian-speaking city of Melitopol, residents are marching daily in protest against Russian military occupation.

I suspect it is only a matter of time before we hear stories of individual Russian soldiers following the advice of the Russian Movement for Conscientious Objectors and refusing to fight.

An international struggle

A demonstration by the Moscow group of Food Not Bombs was violently broken up by police a few days after the war began. Food Not Bombs also has groups in the West, who challenge NATO militarism as their Russian members challenge Putin’s militarism. Members of Food Not Bombs in Southampton were physically assaulted as they protested against Armed Forces Day in 2018. It is a reminder that resistance to militarism must be as international as war itself.

Coverage of Russian anti-war protests – which should be one of the big stories of the war – has been minimal in British media. The establishment tends to think that news is about the actions of powerful individuals, and to assume that such people determine the political future alone. They do not. Change comes from below, and war will end when people refuse to go along with it.

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