Corbyn and Russia: hysteria and hindsight


Talk of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘ties to Russia’ reveals how the media present us with false choices. There must be a space for criticising both austerity politics and Russian state aggression – and for international solidarity.

Maxim Edwards Thomas Rowley
17 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn is a political activist in the sense that no other modern Labour Party leader has been. Elected National Chair of the Stop the War Coalition in 2001, Corbyn has a long and distinguished history in advocacy for the Palestinian cause. While the British left is well informed and experienced in understanding conflict in the Middle East, the conflict in Ukraine sadly demonstrates a rather different approach to the post-Soviet space, with the primacy of 'NATO encirclement' overriding any appreciation of local dynamics. 

At the same time, there has been an increasingly angry – at times, hysterical – discussion of Corbyn’s views vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine, with accusations of 'useful idiocy', pandering and myopia with regards to the west’s relationship with Putin. Corbyn's factual inaccuracies on the Ukraine crisis – and they are numerous – testify more to ignorance than apologetics. 

With recent declarations by leading figures such as Michael Fallon that Labour now represents a 'security threat to you and your family’, Corbyn may now face a media onslaught of truly staggering proportions, and allegations of ties to Russia will play a part. 

In this situation, one thing is clear: informed and analytical journalism on Russia and the post-Soviet space is crucial for Britain's domestic politics.

Talk is cheap 

In the past month, commentators, Russia-focused and otherwise, have come out to talk about Jeremy Corbyn’s views on Russia. This has verged on hysteria at times, and frenzied finger-pointing is hardly a constructive means of holding a debate. There are questions – real questions – to be asked of Corbyn's foreign policy (or rather, inclinations: no policy is yet to be formulated or finalised), though it is likely to be balanced by Hilary Benn, whose voting record suggests a preference for intervention

Press attacks on Corbyn will not cease until he is gone, unceremoniously, and they will studiously ignore the fact that dubious links to and naïve views on Russia are not the monopoly of the left.

The Russian media response has been minor, pausing only to suggest Corbyn opening up another internal faultline in the fabric of a Europe beset by refugees and migrants. Most people are indifferent, whether in the UK or in Russia.

Meanwhile, there are inaccuracies to debunk. First off, Corbyn has not called for ‘closer ties with Russia’. Instead, he has called for de-escalation and de-militarisation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict on several occasions in the past year as a means to achieving a political solution. He has also called for ‘dialogue’. Idealistic, perhaps, but not completely crazy.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks on Ukraine on BBC One's 'Big Questions', 9 March 2014. Still via YouTube

Many of the press's assertions on Corbyn and Russia are hyperbolic – many more are completely baseless. Yet to dismiss them all as 'slurs' is ultimately counter-productive.  Jeremy Corbyn speaks on Ukraine on BBC One's 'Big Questions', 9 March 2014. Still via YouTubeIn true peacenik style, Corbyn is highly sceptical about NATO, during the Labour leadership debates repeating the ‘expansion’ metaphor (NATO accession is a two-way process, at least) but then stating that he is ‘not an admirer or supporter of Putin’s foreign policy, or of Russian or of anybody else’s expansion. […] NATO expansion and Russian expansion—one leads to another, and one reflects the other.’ 

With regards to Ukraine’s potential membership, he claimed in a recent Guardian interview that ‘To recruit into membership a divided country means you either accept the division or you intend to do something about it. That is dangerous.’ This line of thought is difficult to follow, unless ‘divided country’ is code for ‘country at war’. Ukraine is no more a divided country than any other, and when Corbyn echoes the mapping of political affiliation onto linguistic preference, he falls into a trap laid for him by Ukrainian oligarchs.

The way the new Labour leader describes Ukraine’s historical trajectory in the (now notorious) March 2014 article ‘Should the west go to war over Ukraine?’ also belies his ignorance. References to how Ukraine’s ‘national borders have ebbed and flowed with the tides of history’ and it being ‘the original heartland of Russian civilisation’ read as if straight out of the chauvinist textbook. 

Controversial Russian Marxist commentator Boris Kagarlitsky has endorsed Corbyn's statements. ‘Corbyn,’ Kagarlitsky writes, ‘simply understands that Russia, just like everybody else, has legitimate interests which need to be taken into account.’ That Corbyn’s views are interpreted as a vindication of Russia’s right to interfere in the affairs of its post-Soviet neighbours should trouble any progressive. Not least Corbyn himself.

Instead of dabbling in ‘geopolitics’ (read: conversations about how anthropomorphised nation-states should act) and rehashing tired clichés about Ukraine, Corbyn might benefit from taking a closer look at the degradation of the Putin system, the Russian citizens affected by it, and how the Poroshenko government is reforming its way towards authoritarian austerity

What we are currently witnessing is the gradual political and economic disenfranchisement of people in Russia and Ukraine. This, instead, should be the focus of Corbyn’s solidarity. As blogger Paul Canning notes, there are Ukrainian socialists and trade unionists fiercely critical of both the Poroshenko government and the self-styled 'People's Republics' of the Donbas to whom Corbyn could listen. 

The view from Russia 

It is entirely likely that, whether he understands its necessity or not, Corbyn simply does not see criticism of Russia as his job. Compared to many of the other causes Corbyn has championed, human rights in Putin's Russia are frequently addressed in the British media. An 'establishment position', no doubt – no place for an anti-establishment politician. The imperative to prioritise criticism of one's own state – and the state which acts in our name – is a noble one. However, it need not eclipse the principle of international solidarity.

In contrast to their full-throated support for the Palestinian right to self-determination or Maduro's Venezuela, the British left’s approach to Russia appears to be largely absent of actual conviction. Instead, Russia is the devil's advocate incarnate – a staging post for their own persuasive criticisms of the political and economic status quo.

Vladimir Putin's Russia offers no compelling alternative vision of a progressive and egalitarian society. Despite themselves, the British left is acutely aware of this: their praise for Russia begins and ends with its opposition to American imperialism.

RT, on which Corbyn has appeared, and praised for its 'objective reporting' on Libya, understands these desires all too well, employing sledgehammer whataboutism and edgy pseudo-leftist sound-bites to obvious, if sometimes overestimated, effect. Call Corbyn an idiot in the Kremlin's service, but he is not conclusively a useful one. His appearances on RT, just like Nigel Farage’s, speak of political marginality rather than a Kremlin plot. To gloat at Corbyn's victory as a presumed symbol of Europe's disarray and disunity is not to endorse him. 

We are presented with a choice: either robust opposition to austerity politics or firm opposition to Russia's actions in Ukraine

While the headlines and editorials of RT and Sputnik do take neoliberals in their sights, more frequently it is the 'neocons' who are their favourite targets. This is a telling dynamic. Corbyn's calls to regulate the City and rein in the UK's dependence on finance capitalism would find no favour with corrupt Russian elites. 

A 2014 report by Oliver Bullough for the Legatum Institute concluded that 'Western money-laundering and offshore operations supported Yanukovych and continue to support Putin, and thus maintain regimes inimical to the values that Western governments profess to hold'. There are no convincing reasons to believe that the current Conservative government is eager to tackle the structural dependence on finance capitalism that allows such relationships to thrive.

Once again, the press presents us with a choice: a well overdue and robust opposition to austerity politics and the received wisdom of neoliberalism versus firm opposition to Russia's actions in Ukraine. Many Russia-watchers seem prepared to sacrifice the former to be assured of the latter, but it is a binary that only serves to benefit both Russian soft power and neoliberalism in the United Kingdom.

We needn't choose between opposition to both – and it is up to people like Jeremy Corbyn to prove it. If fear of Russia discredits every attempt at political and economic moves towards a peaceful and egalitarian Europe, then haven't the autocrats won?

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