Russia's war on Ukraine: Western apologists for Vladimir Putin, 'Putinversteher' on extreme right and left, must be ignored – Stewart McDonald MP

From Hegel’s Aufhebung to Kant’s Ding an sich, German has long been a language known for articulating new concepts into existence.

It is Vladimir Putin, not Nato, who is responsible for the war in Ukraine (Picture: Mikhail Tereshchenko/Sputnik/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
It is Vladimir Putin, not Nato, who is responsible for the war in Ukraine (Picture: Mikhail Tereshchenko/Sputnik/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Alongside words like Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods – or Kummerspeck – the excess weight put on from emotional over-eating – the war in Ukraine has now created a new term to join this linguistic pantheon.

This new word was born in German newspapers after the first Russian invasion in 2014 as swathes of well-meaning Germans, from the left-wing political party Die Linke to the centre-left former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, rushed to explain and contextualise Putin’s actions.

The West, some have argued, should not rush to condemnation, and must respect the Russian Federation’s “legitimate interests in the region”. One can only imagine the reaction if the same argument were to be made about Palestine or Yemen.

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We anglophones might have called them apologists for an autocrat, or defenders of a government which shows no sign of respect for other states’ interests. The German press had a better word: Putinversteher.

Literally meaning "Putin understanders”, the phrase, which we might better translate as “Putin whisperers”, seeks to promote a sympathetic – veering into naïve – understanding of the Russian government and its motives. Driven temporarily into an embarrassed silence by an unprovoked war of colonial conquest waged by the Russian government, the Putinversteher are now back out in full force – on the right and the left.

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As far back as 2014, one academic argued that the Putinversteher “serve as Putin’s first line of defence against meaningful European sanctions for the annexation of Crimea”.

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This continues today, with the founder and convenor of the Stop the War Coalition recently arguing that the UK had gone too far in its support for Ukraine, calling for cash to be diverted away from Ukraine into the pockets of UK citizens hit by the cost-of-living crisis.

Progressives across the UK, Chris Nineham said, should “push for a negotiated settlement and challenge the West’s policy of military escalation".

This was a sentiment echoed by Lowkey, a British rapper praised last month by former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn for the “good messages” he carries and who once, along with Diane Abbot, shared a stage with speakers denying the atrocities being carried out against Uighurs in Xinjang – something for which Ms Abbot later apologised.

In a tweet to 125,000 followers last week, Lowkey said that “people in England will freeze to death this winter for Nato’s war in Ukraine. The poorest will pay the most for the militarism of the richest”.

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These views are found among the extreme right just as often as they are on the left, such as Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host whom the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as having been “recognised for his successes in helping to bring far-right viewpoints and vocabulary into the mainstream of American politics through… his embrace of white nationalism, his support of authoritarian leaders of other countries, and for his regular reliance on arguably false or misleading claims” has voiced similar views.

Carlson told a recent audience that the “solution to this catastrophe is very straightforward: end the war in Ukraine and re-establish energy flows into Europe” while his ideological bedfellow Nigel Farage – true to form – prophesised that “European support for Ukraine is going to dwindle” as the energy crisis worsens.

Support for Ukraine must continue for three reasons.

Firstly, and most simply, you cannot negotiate a lasting peace with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has spent almost a decade bombing hospitals, water stations, schools and bakeries run by international aid agencies in Syria and his frequent use of abhorrent ‘double-tap’ strikes – where a target is bombed once and then bombed again once paramedics and civilian first responders have arrived to help the injured – show that he has little respect for already existing international agreements.

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And, as has also been observed in Syria, Russian forces have a long and established record of using ceasefires to reinforce and re-equip troops or agreeing to ceasefires they simply do not comply with.

Secondly, as the emotional scenes we have recently seen coming from Ukraine have demonstrated, the Ukrainian people do not want to negotiate with Russia. Ukrainians do not want to live under Russian rule.

The joy with which civilians have greeted members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces upon the liberation of their towns and villages – much of which we have seen over the past few days in Kharkiv – should put paid to the idea that armchair extremists in the West should be the ones decide their fate.

When in Kyiv last week, I had the privilege to meet Andriy Poksara, a 15-year-old teenager who, as Russian troops surrounded his village, used his drone to take photographs of Russian positions to send to the armed forces of Ukraine. Those positions were swiftly destroyed.

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The bravery and skill of a Ukrainian teenager helped stop the advance on Kyiv. I’d like to witness someone tell Andriy that he should have instead negotiated with the Russian troops at the end of his street.

We in the UK are in a crisis of our own making, with the war in Ukraine exacerbating problems caused by years of economic mismanagement by successive governments in Westminster.

We are facing this energy crisis because of Putin, but its effects are so onerous because a Conservative Government was told by David Cameron to “cut the green crap” over a decade ago and has never looked back.

Households are struggling because they have lived through a decade of stagnating wages and low growth which has left with them with little or no savings to ride out the coming storm. Why should the people of Ukraine pay the price for our own government’s failures?

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Finally, the ongoing conflict is more than a war on Ukraine. It is a war on liberalism, democracy and the principle of territorial sovereignty, a war on everything we have cherished since 1945 because we learned that the decline of this trinity led to the horrors of the wars which ravaged Europe in the 20th century.

As the Putinversteher rear their heads to explain why, actually, we should give Putin everything he wants on a plate, they should be ignored.

A Russian victory, as historian Timothy Snyder recently made clear, would not only cause irreparable damage to the political future of the European Union, but would also legitimise genocide in Europe and embolden tyrants the world over. A Russian victory in Ukraine would sound the death knell for liberalism and democracy in Europe.

Stewart McDonald is MP for Glasgow South and SNP defence spokesperson

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