On 24 March this year, the Financial Times editorial board printed an exceptionally revealing article headlined ‘Holding Russia to account for war crimes’.
Revealing because it gave away something that has been missing from the imperialists’ discussion of international affairs for (at least) the entirety of the post-cold war period – the key information that the Nuremberg tribunals which followed the second world war set legal precedents that were globally accepted and which constitute, along with the Geneva Conventions, most of what is referred to as ‘international law’.
For the first time in decades, an imperialist mouthpiece has displayed a knowledge of these laws and where they came from – a knowledge the entire western establishment has kept silent about during the last 30 years of aggressive warmongering by the imperialist powers.
Let the Financial Times’s editors speak for themselves: “Efforts are now afoot to create a special tribunal to investigate whether Russia has committed the particular war crime of aggression …
“A strong argument for an ad hoc tribunal focusing on the crime of aggression – dubbed the ‘accumulated evil of the whole’ of war crimes – is that Ukraine is calling for it. The crime is recognised in both Ukraine’s and Russia’s penal codes; it was a Soviet jurist who helped to introduce the concept to international law in 1945, and it has remained on Russia’s statute books.
“The crime of aggression is contentious because of its political dimensions; it has not been successfully prosecuted internationally since the 1940s’ Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals. But its attraction is that it allows prosecutors to target Putin and his inner circle … It is a ‘leadership’ crime that can be pinned to those devising strategy, not just executing it. It could also be quicker to indict, without recourse to in-the-field investigations.” (Our emphasis)
So our rulers and their spokesmen are absolutely aware that there is such a thing as international law. They know where it originates; they know what it holds to be the supreme crime (ie, aggressive war); and they know that it is leaders and not foot soldiers who should be held responsible for such crimes.
This important admission by the FT is greatly to be welcomed, and must be brought to the attention of workers everywhere. But if international law is to mean anything, it must apply all the time, and not only when it suits (or appears to suit) a particular interest.
If our rulers do indeed acknowledge the necessity of holding to account those who launch unprovoked and aggressive wars, why have no calls been made to try the warmongers who brought us Palestine, Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and all the other criminal operations that humanity has endured over the last 77 years?
Moreover, by disappearing the context for the present situation in Ukraine, the FT has turned reality on its head. It is not Russia but Nato (the international wing of the US military) that, in Ukraine as elsewhere, is guilty of the supreme crime of aggression. It is not Vladimir Putin but Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Barack Obama and their war ministers and warmongering media mouthpieces who should be in the dock.
Who is really guilty of aggression in Ukraine?
Ukraine’s war did not start last month but in 2014, when the imperialists sponsored a fascist coup to remove the government of Viktor Yanukovych. His crime? Attempting to maintain friendly relations with both east and west, and to strengthen rather than sever his country’s trade links with Russia – an approach that was wholeheartedly endorsed by the majority of Ukraine’s population.
The war that followed Yanukovych’s overthrow was a defensive war by the parts of the country that would not accept the imposition of this fascist junta – a regime that was determined to facilitate the total transformation of the country into a neocolony of western imperialism, and of the USA in particular, and to scapegoat and demonise Ukraine’s sizeable Russian-speaking population into the bargain.
The 2014 coup was not the first such event in modern Ukraine’s history. In 2004, another government was toppled by the west in an operation dubbed the ‘Orange revolution’, and for much the same reasons.
Nor did Ukraine’s significant neo-nazi force appear from nowhere. Today’s Azov battalion, Svoboda, Right Sector and myriad other fascist and ‘ultranationalist’ parties and militia are directly descended from the traitorous Ukrainians who fought with the Nazis in WW2, enthusiastically assisting in the massacre of jews, gypsies, communists et al.
It is no accident that the hero of today’s nazi thugs is the Ukrainian Nazi Stepan Bandera, a war criminal who has been rehabilitated and elevated to national sainthood by the post-2014 regimes.
After the defeat of fascism in 1945, Bandera’s forces were sponsored by the west to engage in ongoing anti-Soviet guerrilla warfare that lasted nearly a decade. Their leaders were then given comfortable exile in the west, encouraged to keep their ‘traditions’ alive, given access to western media for the purposes of rewriting their history as ‘freedom fighters’ rather than collaborators, and then brought back to Ukraine in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The success of the coup put the nationalists’ efforts to divide the Ukrainian population along ethnic lines onto steroids. They have worked assiduously to rehabilitate Bandera and his Ukrainian Nazis by rewriting the country’s history, in the process reopening old wounds that go back to Ukraine’s years in the white hot crucible of the antifascist war and even before those to the early 20th century and to the post-WW1 revolutionary period.
Most living in Ukraine before 1991 would have considered these wounds to have been successfully healed by the prosperity and fraternity of the Soviet era, but the immiseration of the population caused by imperialist looting of the country’s resources and superexploitation of its people, and by the destruction of the its once thriving industry and agriculture, have created fertile ground for a culture of grudge and grievance to take root where once there was fellowship and harmony.
The war of the fascist junta against the people in the eastern Donbass region has been going on for eight years. Some 14,000 people have died under the bombardment of Ukrainian fascist-aligned forces, the vast majority of them civilians. The peace agreement signed in Minsk seven years ago turned out not to be a path to ending the war but a means for stalling those who genuinely wished to work for peace.
So why did the Russians finally take military action? Because seven years of trying to facilitate the peace process had got them nowhere and meanwhile Russians in the Donbass were dying.
Because they saw a massing of Ukrainian forces on the border of the besieged eastern breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, threatening the lives of the people there and a spill-over of the assault onto Russian soil.
Because alongside the massing of troops, there was a huge new injection of armaments and advisors from the west, making clear the intention of the comprador government to tear up the peace process and retake the Donbass by force.
Because proxy president Volodymyr Zelensky was making repeated declarations about Ukraine’s intention to join not only the European Union but also to become a member of Nato, and its aspiration not only to be a base for Nato’s weapons but to become a nuclear power itself – to possess nuclear weapons that would be aimed squarely at Russia just a few minutes flying time from Moscow and in the hands of madmen who would be more than willing to use them.
This operation by Russia is therefore not an unprovoked war of aggression, but a manoeuvre in defence of its own people as well as those of the Donbass against the ceaseless aggression of the west.
In their attempt to find a justification for the further vilification of President Putin, the imperialists may well have scored a tremendous own goal.
The admission by the FT editorial board that they are perfectly well aware of the existence and the content of international law is of far more value to their enemies than to themselves. Ever since the illegal aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999, our rulers have sidestepped the issue of universally recognised international law by talking instead about a unilaterally imposed ‘rules-based order’, about their ‘right to protect’, the ‘defence of human rights’ and so on.
They have buried the precedent of a truly international tribunal and tried to replace it with imperialist-controlled kangaroo courts (the ICC et al) – puppet institutions that only ever prosecute the enemies of imperialism, but which the USA still refuses to sign up to, for fear of public pressure being brought to bear against itself through even these tame and toothless mechanisms.
Given the great efforts being made by western powers to reverse the 1945 victory over fascism in Ukraine, we should not be surprised that they also want to reverse the outcome of the postwar trials, attempting now to put the aggressors on the judge’s bench and the defenders in the dock.
But in so doing, they are drawing attention to a history that, in their own interest, it would be better to keep buried. To paraphrase the great Chairman Mao, they may find they have lifted a rock only to drop it on their own feet.