We are not neutral observers

Andy Kilmister continues the debate on the usefulness of sanctions.

While we are not decision-makers in Downing Street with regard to sanctions, but that doesn’t remove the need for us to take a position on their use, just as we have taken positions on refugee rights and the provision of arms despite the fact that we are not policy makers in those areas either. When we do look at sanctions I don’t think either the examples of South Africa and Palestine (where we have supported them) or Cuba, Venezuela and Iran (where we have opposed them) are of much use in the current context. This is a very different political situation and needs to be assessed in its own right. The Ukrainian resistance is heroic but is not going to be able to win without external assistance – not just arms but also sanctions. To equivocate on the use of sanctions is essentially to equivocate on supporting that resistance – this is a war in which we are not simply neutral observers but support a particular side. 

A number of reasons have been put forward either for opposing sanctions or for adopting the position put forward by Gilbert Achcar. They do raise important issues but I don’t think they are fully convincing:

1. Sanctions will be ineffective

This certainly may well be the case and as Oliver Bullough (the author of Moneyland) has said, sanctions will not work without associated measures enforcing transparency of asset holdings. But these are measures we should support and demand. And to work they will have to apply not just to Russian oligarchs but to oligarchs from elsewhere, including the UK. Consequently the British government and other imperialist governments will be very reluctant to do what is required to make those sanctions effective but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be demanding that they do what is needed.

2. Sanctions will hurt the Russian people

Given the interlinked nature of capitalist economies it is true that it is impossible to restrict the impact of sanctions entirely to the ruling class. And the sanctions that have already occurred have obviously hit living standards in Russia sharply already through the fall in the rouble. But I think there are two important issues to consider here. Firstly, the Russian ruling class is deterritorialized to an exceptional extent. It is very important to it to be able to move its money abroad, to buy property abroad, to educate its children abroad (and so on). None of this is open to ordinary Russians – these are elite privileges and cutting them off will make no difference to the lives of Russian workers. But it will help to fragment the unity of the Russian elite around an imperialist project. Secondly, people are already suffering as a result of this war – not just Ukrainians but also Russians whose family members are being sent to fight and die in Ukraine and who are being arrested on the streets for opposing the war. If sanctions can help to end the war (obviously a big if) then the suffering that will be avoided by that needs to be balanced against the suffering they will cause.

3. Sanctions will extend imperialist influence

Unfortunately the political influence of imperialism across Europe in general and in Central and Eastern Europe in particular has already been massively enhanced by the disaster of the Russian invasion. Dan talks about the `negative consequences of a strengthened western imperialism if Ukraine wins’. But as many comrades have said, we’ve already seen a massive shift to the right in Germany, support for NATO membership growing sharply in Scandinavia and a situation where it has become completely impossible to argue against NATO in countries like the Baltic States and Poland. That isn’t a possibility for the future if Ukraine wins, that is the reality in the region now. And it is the Putin regime that bears the primary responsibility for this. A Russian victory in Ukraine is not going to lessen imperialist influence elsewhere in Europe, it will strengthen it and will be a tragedy for the European working class. Certainly, sanctions are under the control of imperialism but as many comrades have also pointed out, arms are never given freely and we support the arming of the Ukrainian resistance. The struggle against imperialist influence in Ukraine and elsewhere is crucial but it can only be strengthened by defeating the Russian invasion.

4. We must not condone imperialist policies

This seems to be a central element in Gilbert’s position and of course it is correct. We need to say at every point that our analysis of what has caused the war and our perspectives for the future are opposed to those of imperialism. We support the dissolution of NATO, we support workers’ rights and socialism in Ukraine and Russia, we oppose the looting of the region that has taken place since 1991 (and before) by imperialism and the Russian and Ukrainian kleptocracies in collaboration. But our opposition to imperialism should come through our politics as a whole, we should not, and do not need to, withhold support for sanctions in order to demonstrate that opposition.

Of course, support for sanctions is fraught with danger – this is not a situation in which there are any good options available. But I believe that the consequences of dropping sanctions would be worse, given the concrete situation we face, than facing those dangers.

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Andy Kilmister is a member of Oxford Brookes UCU and a delegate from that branch to Oxford and District Trades Council

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