Russia's war on Ukraine: Ukrainians are fighting and dying for an ordinary, peaceful life and fundamental principles of freedom – Stewart McDonald
It’s easy to forget, raiding the fridge for leftovers and watching Home Alone for the umpteenth time, that there are fellow Europeans marking Christmas and New Year against a backdrop of thudding artillery.
This time last year, Mariupol was brightly lit in green and red. The trees that lined the streets of its centre were draped in Christmas lights and an enormous Christmas tree stood proudly outside its famous theatre – a grand neoclassical building that celebrated its 100th anniversary at the height of the Cold War.
There are no Christmas lights in Mariupol this year. There is not much of anything. The theatre was bombed to the ground by Russian missiles, killing up to half of the 1200 women and children who were sheltering inside in what the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe called “an egregious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime”. The rest of the city – up to 95 per cent of it, according to the Red Cross – has been razed to the ground by Russian bombardments with over 25,000 non-combatant civilians killed.
This is life in Ukraine now. Over 300 days since the invasion of Ukraine, a war provoked only by Vladimir Putin’s colonial delusions, fighting has transformed the face of the country and the people within it. Beyond that, it has also forced us in the West to confront the false assumptions about the international system and false beliefs about peace and security which led us here.
At the highest level, we – those who support the principles of the rules-based international order – need to reflect on how it has been allowed to erode and degrade to the extent that Putin could convince himself that waging an imperialist war of territorial expansion would ever result in a net-positive outcome for himself and the Russian state.
The crimes we are now witnessing are the clear and direct consequences of myopia and inaction in response to Russia invading eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014. However, we also need to look back at those places and peoples where international law has been overlooked or unenforced – to Rwanda, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, as well as Ukraine – and reflect on how international rules have slowly morphed into international norms.
There is no better forum to begin that process than a special tribunal tasked with investigating Russian aggression in Ukraine. This tribunal, which would be the first international criminal trial for the crime of aggression since the years immediately following the Second World War, would hold Russian criminals to account for their role in ordering and carrying out the atrocities in Mariupol and across Ukraine, and show would-be despots the world over that international law will no longer be broken with impunity.
Politicians and policymakers also need to reflect on how we collectively came to have such a poor understanding of the contemporary security environment. This time last year, as Russian troops began to mass on the border with Ukraine, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson sat in front of a panel of MPs and told them with confidence that they had “to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over, and there are other, better things we should be investing in… in cyber, this is how warfare in the future is going to be”.
Whilst some of us were raising the alarm, I’m left asking how on Earth did this come to be? Why have European states allowed themselves to become dependent on governments hostile to our values and our interests? Why has defence procurement capacity been allowed to wither on the vine? Why has whole-of-society resilience been neglected for so long? There are many simple answers to these questions, but no simple ways of learning from them.
We in the West must reckon with our failures closer to home and be honest with ourselves about where we got things wrong and give space to our opponents to do the same, so we can make sure Europe never finds itself so vulnerable on so many fronts again.
That means reflecting on how we have allowed vast swathes of our economy, from education to the energy sector, to grow reliant on hostile states and authoritarian regimes. The lesson we learn from the Ukraine war cannot simply be to swap one dependency for another, but to make sure that our citizens and societies are resilient to shocks of all kinds.
Today, we must commit to beginning a new year as we end this one: we must continue to do all we can do support the Ukrainian people currently fighting in an existential war – not only for the survival of their families, their communities, and their nation, but for the fundamental principles of freedom and human rights that underpin our way of life.
And so, as we prepare to bring in the bells, in our quiet north-western corner of Europe, let us think of those in eastern Europe who are the victims of Russian aggression today and recommit ourselves to their tomorrow.
The Ukrainian people are fighting not for glory or riches or honours, but for a day when they can sit on the sofa and watch a rubbish film and eat too much chocolate. They are fighting for a day when they can argue with their partner about spelling their cousin’s name wrong on a gift label. They are fighting and dying for the lives that we take for granted. We can help ensure that next year will be different.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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