In Kyiv, Ukraine, on August 05, 2022, they said goodbye to volunteer soldier and poet Hleb Babich. (Photo: Oleg Pereverzev/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ukraine Conflict Intensifies as Progressives Abandon Diplomacy Call

Republicans are capturing antiwar sentiment as progressives continue to duck.

The Russia-Ukraine war continued to intensify in the past weeks, as both Russia and Ukraine, supported by the US and NATO, are escalating their efforts to gain the upper hand. No longer a conflict between two neighbors, it is now a global crisis.

Meanwhile, 30 Progressive Democrats who called for a diplomatic initiative were squashed by the hawkish consensus in Washington. They withdrew their letter a day after issuing it. For now, Republicans are capturing antiwar sentiment as progressives continue to duck.

The Cycle of Escalation is Underway

After a Ukrainian offensive reclaimed territory that had been conquered by Russia, Russia annexed four Ukrainian regions in September following a hastily-organized referendum.

The Republican bid to capture antiwar sentiment is already reaping results, and all the Democrats plan to do about it is discipline their left flank into conformity and claim that antiwar voters are Trump dupes.

The Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which deliver gas from Russia to Germany, were seriously damaged by undersea explosions Sept. 26. The U.S. has long sought to shutter Nord Stream 2, with Sen. Ted Cruz' effort to sanction companies building it having been turned back narrowly in January on a partisan vote in the Senate.

Ukraine's drone attack on Sevastopol Oct. 29, following an attack on the bridge connecting Crimea to Russia, resulted in Russia's cancellation of the UN-brokered grain export deal which had temporarily reduced the war's impact on food supplies and prices.

As Ukraine prepares to attack Kherson, the largest Ukrainian city captured by Russia since the start of the war, Russia reported that its newly mobilized troops are now inside Ukraine.

Nuclear threats rose from both sides, as Russian officials spoke of use of nuclear weapons while NATO carried out a 12-country nuclear war exercise in Belgium and the US prepared to moved newly upgraded nuclear bombs to Europe. Threats to the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia also attracted international concern.

The fight against climate change is out the window as a result of the war. Europe is reopening coal plants as the US/EU boycott of Russian oil and gas takes hold. Prices have skyrocketed as energy companies make record profits, and people in the EU and US are looking at an extreme winter without enough heat or food. Some people may die.A Ukrainian, and Global, Conflict

Massachusetts Peace Action opposes U.S. military support to Ukraine - which amounts to $20 to $40 billion already in 2022 depending on how you count it. We support humanitarian assistance to war victims, cuts in the military budget, and a focus on a negotiated settlement.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a crime of aggression, a threat to Ukraine's sovereignty whose first offensive was an attack on the capital, Kyiv. The war's toll on the Ukrainian people has been horrendous. Ukraine, a founding member of the United Nations, has the right to resist the attack and other UN members have the right to assist it.

At the same time, the US and NATO provoked the war by moving NATO up to the Russian border over three decades, supporting Ukraine and arming it as it failed to implement the 2015 Minsk 2 accords, signing a strategic partnership with Ukraine in November 2021, and refusing to seriously negotiate over draft treaties presented by Russia in December calling for an end to NATO enlargement.

Ukraine's resistance is justified, but the conflict is not only about the fate of Ukraine; it concerns the whole world. It is a proxy war in an escalating geopolitical struggle in which the US seeks to maintain its world hegemony against challenges from Russia and China. US and UK intelligence are deeply involved in Ukraine's war effort, the US is essentially financing Ukraine's economy and military, and US special forces are on the ground. Russia is weaker than the US, economically, militarily, and diplomatically, and if it is squeezed beyond the breaking point, escalation to nuclear war is not impossible.

European dissent against the war is becoming serious. Right wing parties have already taken power in Italy and Sweden, while Britain is on its third prime minister this year. Large protests against inflation and the war economy are rocking Paris and Prague.

The Democrats as War Party

Inflation is hitting the US working class hard, and with a global recession predicted for 2023, antiwar sentiment is already rising in the US.

57% of Americans support diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine.

But who will lead the rising antiwar sentiment?

While antiwar voices are gaining significant traction among Republicans, they are only a whisper on the Democratic side.

68 Congressional Republicans voted no on Ukraine aid back in May, and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in October that if the Republicans take control of Congress, they would not write a "blank check" for Ukraine. President Trump offered his services as a mediator, and reactionary, racist member of Congress Paul Gosar (R-AZ) offered to host talks in Arizona.

Progressive Democrats led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) released a letter Oct. 24 calling for President Biden to initiate diplomacy with Russia to settle the conflict, even while they supported more military aid. It had taken three months for them to muster 30 signers on the letter, but when it was released, some of them said they had changed their minds. Jayapal retracted the mild letter the next day, saying she didn't want progressive views to be confused with those of Republicans.

Establishment Democrats like Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) attacked the progressives, saying "This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who's losing his war." Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi blasted Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), the only Massachusetts signer, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) promised more Ukraine aid "until victory is won".

Progressives Face a Choice

For most of the past 50 years, Democrats, or some of them, have usually been at least a little bit better than Republicans on issues of war and peace. Some Democrats pushed to end the Vietnam war; Democrats generally favored arms control agreements during the first Cold War; many Democrats opposed the Iraq War; Obama made a nuclear deal with Iran and partially relaxed sanctions on Cuba; and Biden last year withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

But these comparatively peaceful policies have always been part of a hegemonistic strategy. When the economy was good, Democrats offered the working class and American people "guns and butter", relative prosperity for a portion of the population at home together with an imperialistic foreign policy. JFK and LBJ initiated the Vietnam war, Bill Clinton responded to the end of the first Cold War by expanding NATO, and Obama launched the "pivot to Asia" to contain China. President Biden's national security strategy and nuclear posture documents, released in October, take a clear position in favor of long-term geopolitical confrontation. Domestic industrial policy is now to be harnessed to the goal of society-wide confrontation with China and Russia.

Progressives face a choice. They can fight for social justice within a cold war framework, or they can widen their scope and fight that framework. In April 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faced the same choice and spoke out against the Vietnam war. Many of his liberal supporters deserted him, and a year later, he was assassinated.

Longer term, a social justice coalition that accepts relentless confrontation with China and Russia, and international conflict as the norm, is doomed. Resources are not infinite. The economy is headed for recession. Climate change will not wait. A fight with China means intensified Asian hate.

On October 26, progressives blinked and opted not to challenge the war drive. This will end badly for Democrats. Public opinion often supports wars when they start, but enthusiasm fades as the cost and lack of progress becomes apparent. The Republican bid to capture antiwar sentiment is already reaping results, and all the Democrats plan to do about it is discipline their left flank into conformity and claim that antiwar voters are Trump dupes.

Can Diplomacy End the Conflict?

Regardless of politics, the Ukraine war still has to be settled if the country is not to be reduced to ashes. Many respected voices are calling for urgent diplomacy to calm the fighting.

Pope Francis, UN Secretary-General Guterres and Henry Kissinger are among world figures who have called for a negotiated settlement. Former diplomat Jack Matlock, international economist Jeffrey Sachs, and military scholar Andrew Bacevich have made similar calls.

Ukraine-Russia negotiations in March, mediated by Turkey, produced a draft agreement with 15 points, but talks broke down.

Diplomacy should have three tracks: US-Russia, NATO-Russia, and Ukraine-Russia.

The US and Russia have serious issues between them, totally apart from the Ukraine war. The US walked away from the INF and Open Skies treaties well before the war started, and Russia has ended implementation of the New START treaty. The US and Russia have no working deconfliction hotline, like the one which kept the lid on hostilities in Syria, so their militaries can communicate to clarify threat perceptions.

Russia rightly perceives NATO as an anti-Russian alliance. NATO should talk to Russia to reduce the NATO threat to Russia and, after a ceasefire, demilitarize the border between them. NATO should commit not to admit new countries and it should be replaced by a new European security architecture, including Russia, as was envisioned by some in the 1990's.

Can Ukraine and Russia reach an agreement that respects the concerns of both sides? After the 2014 insurrection or coup deposed a pro-Russian president with a pro-western one, fighting in eastern Ukraine was calmed by the Minsk 2 accords, which called for regional autonomy and language rights for the eastern provinces, many of whose residents sympathize with Russia. Ukraine, with US support, never implemented the bargain, but this example shows that hard bargaining can reconcile seemingly incompatible positions. Regional autonomy of the eastern provinces, internationally supervised referenda to determine their status, or simply a ceasefire followed by a 10-year cooling off period, are possible tools to find a peaceful and democratic future for the disputed territories.

Unfortunately, the Ukraine war is becoming a partisan issue in the U.S., which means that common sense may be hard to find in Washington. If the Republicans take Congress on Nov. 8, neither party will likely be able to focus on Ukraine diplomacy. As happened during the 20-year Afghanistan occupation, they are more likely to try to outdo each other in being seen to support the war. It is going to be a long winter.

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