Branko Marcetic: Ukraine crisis – what Kiwis should know

Branko Marcetic: Ukraine crisis – what Kiwis should know

Lately, with Europe seeming on the brink of war, there’s been talk in New Zealand about what exactly our government should do. A recent Radio NZ segment, later re-reported elsewhere, suggests this should be an “us too” moment where New Zealand shows “a concrete sense of unity with our partners,” presumably by backing the US and UK position, which has so far been to send weapons, troops, and military trainers into Ukraine. Victoria University’s Robert Ayson says that New Zealand has “an interest in having a strong United States committed to supporting other democracies,” and in avoiding “a world where the strong bully the weak.”

This is no doubt a common takeaway for Kiwis looking at the crisis unfolding a world away, especially with New Zealand media tending to take its cues from US and British reporting on the subject. But this also means there’s far too much Kiwis aren’t being told about the crisis, increasing the risk we make the wrong decisions on foreign policy.

Here is what you won’t be told about the crisis.

For one, a Russian invasion of Ukraine is not imminent, which we’ve been hearing now for months. That’s a claim made all but exclusively by officials and intelligence agencies in the US and UK, both of which have a history of using dubious assertions to justify escalating conflict, including recently, and both currently run by embattled leaders needing to shore up their standing. The New Zealand media would do Kiwis a greater service by explaining that this view isn’t shared by Germany, France, the EU, as well as Ukraine’s president, defence minister, and foreign minister, along with a leading security think-tank in the country run by a former defence official. In fact, Ukraine’s defence minister reiterated this point just this week, and the Biden administration itself is now hedging its language, too.

That doesn’t make Russia’s troop build-up any less threatening. But it’s important for discerning Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intentions, and deciding how to respond.

Second, many Kiwis would be shocked to know that Ukraine is a breeding ground for violent white supremacist extremists. No less than the US military academy of West Point has reported that “prominent individuals among far-right extremist groups in the United States and Europe have actively sought out relationships with representatives of the Far Right in Ukraine,” and openly discussed “how the training available in Ukraine might assist them and others in their paramilitary-style activities at home.” Their leading point of contact is the Azov regiment, a neo-Nazi militia that was made an official part of the Ukrainian National Guard in 2014.

It’s not just extremists in the West and Europe. The terrorist who murdered scores of Kiwis in the 2019 Christchurch mosque attack was directly inspired by Azov, wearing a symbol used by its members as he carried out his atrocity, and he in turn inspired fascist would-be terrorists back in Ukraine.

As Washington floods Ukraine with weapons and supplies it with military training, at least some of it will end up in the hands of white supremacists in the Ukrainian armed forces — something we can be certain of, since it’s well-documented this has already happened. Backing the arming and training of — or even, god forbid, sending New Zealand troops to fight alongside — the extremists who inspired one of the most heinous crimes in our country’s history should be an obvious line that New Zealand mustn’t cross in its foreign policy.

Such extremists are by no means confined to Ukraine’s armed forces, as bad as that already is. There’s few other countries were the Far Right has held as much influence as in Ukraine, where its members have both held seats in parliament and key government posts, shifting the country’s entire political centre in a more ultranationalist direction, and leading to government policies glorifying Nazi collaborators in public monuments and schools, and undermining the use of the Russian language, which roughly 30 percent of the country speaks. Their poor electoral showing disguises the powerful impact they’ve had on Ukraine’s politics.

That’s another thing. While RNZ listeners are being told about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to “emphasise Ukraine’s democratic credentials,” democracy has very little do with this conflict. Ukraine is, in reality, an oligarchy awash in corruption, where many politicians, parties, judges and media outlets are controlled by rival ultra-rich patrons, and Zelensky’s attempts to tackle this have been fairly superficial. It’s also a markedly authoritarian political system, where presidents, including Zelensky, have used their power to attack dissent, concentrate their own power, expand security powers, and go after their political opponents.

Nor should we take seriously the idea that the conflict is about defending national sovereignty and international norms. A Russian invasion would, of course, be an outrageous violation of both, and the sanctions threatened in response are no joke. But this principle isn’t Washington’s concern.

How can it be, when just in this century, US officials have serially turned countries into disaster zones through wars in countries like Iraq and Libya? The Biden administration alone is right now supplying a borderline genocidal war in Yemen, engineering an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, and is continuing to recognise Morocco’s illegal annexation of West Sahara, just to name a few.

It’s worth noting that as horrific as all of these examples are, it would be foolhardy and reckless to have supported a, say, Russian or Chinese war on the United States because of them, just as it would be now to go to war with Russia over whatever it ends up doing in Ukraine.


So what is this conflict about? Simply put, Ukraine is caught in the middle of a much larger process of geopolitical jockeying between Washington and Moscow. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Washington has sought to dominate the region and contain a future, resurgent Russia by violating a key verbal promise and expanding NATO eastward right up to Russia’s borders. George Kennan, the father of the US Cold War strategy of containment, warned at the time this would inflame Russian nationalism and provoke its aggression, becoming its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Biden’s own current CIA director noted how “hostility to early NATO expansion” was “almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum,” and criticized the move as “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.”

In fact, Moscow has consistently objected to NATO’s expansion into ex-Soviet states, including in February 2008, when it explicitly told Washington it considered Ukraine’s entry into the military alliance a security threat, which successive presidents blithely disregarded. We in the West are primed to see Russian statements like these as empty rhetorical cover, but the concerns are well-founded. Washington would never countenance a similar military alliance headed by Russia or China making Mexico a member, let alone a series of countries south of its border, and nor would it shrug off either of them placing troops, missiles and nuclear weapons in its vicinity. In fact, the last time that happened, when the Soviet Union put nukes in Cuba, US officials were ready to start a nuclear war in response.

So what should New Zealand do here? Our core interests lie in preventing a war in Europe that would disrupt trade and the global economy more generally, protecting ourselves from any future Far Right terrorism, and avoiding a global nuclear war that any US-Russia confrontation could easily escalate into. Backing up, whether with rhetoric or something more concrete, Washington and the UK’s current escalatory measures undermines every one of those goals.

The solution lies in the exact thing Washington has so far refused to consider: setting a hard limit on NATO’s eastward expansion. This is far from a radical idea. Besides Kennan and Biden’s CIA director, the alliance’s move toward Russia was also at one point opposed by establishment foreign policy thinkers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Tom Friedman, Henry Kissinger, and even Robert Gates, former defence secretary under Bush and Obama, said it “aggravated the relationship between the United States and Russia.” An unthinking backing of current US national security consensus, when the Washington establishment is lurching into further and further extremes, places Kiwis way outside what was reasonable policy only a few decades ago.

New Zealand should keep raising its concerns about an invasion with Russia, but it needs to also urge its ally, the US, to take Moscow’s NATO concerns seriously, as both Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley — two senators on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum — are calling for. Ideally, our government would open up political space for this, by linking arms with other, like-minded governments, some of which could include France and Germany, who have been distinctly less enthusiastic for conflict over Ukraine than the US and UK. It should also push for a real, good faith attempt to apply the Minsk accords, which the Ukrainian Far Right has serially undermined through anti-government violence.

Both of these things would require some real talk with our allies in the US and UK — not reflexive “Me-tooism” that backs their position no matter what.

The New Zealand media, meanwhile, needs to take less of its narrative cues from the Washington and British political and media establishments, which aren’t necessarily representative of reality. The tussle over Ukraine is as complicated as it is dangerous, and Kiwis deserve to be informed about it in its full, messy nuance—and not just a simple tale of good and evil meant to rally them around a foreign flag.


Branko Marcetic is co-host of the podcast 1 of 200 and a staff writer for Jacobin magazine

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.