Lula's views on Ukraine

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By CHRIS THORNHILL*

Current political debate in most democratic states is shaped by a consensus that silences or marginalizes criticism of Western military motivations.

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (PT) has become the object of criticism, both in Brazil and in the international arena, for his statements about the war in Ukraine. Instead of receiving a harsh condemnation, however, he should receive positive recognition for expressing a response to the conflict that reveals that politicians with clear international credentials in promoting democracy are capable of critically reflecting on the hegemonic Western position in relation to military conflict.

The current political debate in most democratic states is shaped by a consensus that silences or marginalizes criticisms of Western military motivations, especially those related to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

In many contexts, politicians and intellectuals face ostracism and even professional harm for presenting opinions that challenge or question the solid anti-Russian democratic consensus. Thus, Lula's views are a welcome sign that politicians with a strong history of commitment and democratic improvement can hold views that are at odds with the views that have acquired the status of orthodoxy in the global security arena.

On two fundamental points, Lula's analysis proves to be entirely reasonable.

First, even if we question proportional degrees of responsibility, Lula's claim that the war in Ukraine was partially caused by the Ukrainian government's policies towards NATO is perfectly tenable.

Operating in a highly sensitive security environment, in which NATO's activities can induce extreme uncertainty, the policies of the Ukrainian president and — to a greater extent — those of NATO itself have demonstrated a clear lack of accountability.

This is reflected, generally speaking, in Volodymyr Zelensky's persistent overtures to NATO and, in particular, in the little-reported fact that, when addressing the world's most important security conference in Munich earlier this year, Zelensky hinted that , if Ukraine were not accepted as a member of NATO, he would consider developing an independent nuclear program.

The Ukrainian leadership's long attempts to position itself within the NATO camp have taken place against a security backdrop in which NATO's role is manifestly ambiguous, and its initial definition as a defensive security organization no longer explains its functions or activities.

In any other international context, given the emergence of such an international constellation, the Russian government would be seen as a government exposed to a tangible security threat. The implications of this need not be accentuated in Latin America. From the US-Mexico border to southern Chile, most politicians in the region are acutely aware that national governments do not have a simple, inalienable right to set their national security agendas, and potentially aggressive reorientation processes in the the field of international security pose important risks.

To be absolutely clear, it should not be necessary to emphasize here that discussions of this nature are centered on the chains of causality that led to the war in Ukraine and matters pertaining to the actual conduct of the war belong to a different moral sphere, requiring different modes of ethical classification. .

In my opinion, Russian aggression in Ukraine cannot, under any circumstances, be justified, and there is no tenable moral position that could justify the conduct of the war so far.

Clearly, full details are yet to emerge regarding the range of atrocities committed during the war. However, Lula himself is clear about this analytical distinction and he is not an apologist for war. To prevent further atrocities, indeed, a stronger causal analysis is essential, as Lula has done.

Second, Lula is justified in suggesting that the Western position has given rise to policies that may trigger an escalation of the conflict and weaken the preconditions for peace negotiations.

Indeed, in some cases, the Western position seems to increasingly demonstrate a willingness to exploit conflict for the purposes of internal publicity and self-legitimation. It is now hard to dispute that the war in Ukraine has become a proxy war in which some Western governments, at little immediate cost in terms of their own troops, are engaged for reasons determined by their strategic interests, both international and domestic.

This fact means that, for Western powers with some involvement in the conflict, the negotiation of a peace agreement can easily assume a contingent position and can depend on a series of considerations that are external to the war itself.

For example, many governments at the forefront of the international anti-Russia coalition – the UK, US and Poland – have serious domestic legitimacy problems. In the United Kingdom, the British people are represented in the conflict by a Prime Minister who has a weak governing mandate in an increasingly divided society and whose actions on the international stage are, it seems, in part designed to strengthen domestic loyalty, both among the electorate and among members of parliament.

In the US, the foundations of inter-elite consensus that shaped the trajectory of post-1945 politics have long since fractured. Nostalgia for a once-reliable source of political consensus — the Cold War — appears to be a factor shaping US foreign policy in the current situation.

A war involving low collateral damage helps in such circumstances, and some Western governments, or at least some members of some Western governments, have a lot to gain from a protracted war.

Governments that are most emphatic in their support for Ukraine are also operating domestically with depleted welfare systems, so the classic legitimization strategy of engaging in international hostilities in order to mitigate domestic experiences of deprivation and exclusion can be seen as a political determinant.

Furthermore, both the US and the UK have a recent history marked by deeply undermining military embarrassment, which can now be symbolically remedied around Russia's borders.

To better understand the facts, it is worth bearing in mind that Ukraine is a product of the dissolution of one of the most important empires in the modern world. The Soviet Union was not a typical empire, as it shifted resources from the center to the periphery to a much greater extent than Western European Empires.

However, the formation of the states that succeeded the Soviet Union in the 1990s took place in a process very similar to post-empire state formation, or even, in some respects, to decolonization. This process, at the time, was defined by a striking fact: compared to other de-imperialization processes, it was extraordinarily peaceful.

In summary, it must be seen as an extremely successful process, although it constitutes an eloquent example of precarious territorial reconfiguration. Far from gaining external support, this process was often conducted in an atmosphere of international mockery, in which political spectators gleefully watched Russia's domestic cataclysm under President Boris Yeltsin.

Lessons should have been learned from earlier processes of imperial dissolution in Europe—for example, the dissolution of the German-Prussian empire in 1918-19 or the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire at the same time—that created the conditions for World War II.

The restructuring of Russia in the 1990s should have been accompanied by strong international economic and political support and an understanding of the vast economic, territorial, institutional and ethnic challenges resulting from the reconstruction of the post-Soviet space.

Instead, liberal complacency and conservative supremacy malicious joy were the order of the day. This was most emblematically expressed in the willingness of the US and its associates to extend NATO's borders, effectively continuing the Cold War after Russia had (for a time) left the theater of conflict.

The current articulation of modes of military conflict that normally accompany experiences of de-imperialization can be attributed in part to such attitudes. At the heart of the Ukrainian disaster is a terrible failure of historical learning, and the blame for this goes far beyond Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.

It should also be noted that the devastating violation of international law perpetrated by Vladimir Putin is a moment in a sequence of military acts, in which the foundations of the international legal order, based on the prohibition of interstate aggression, were eroded.

Previous aggressions against the international legal order were not led by Russia, but by the states that now stand against Russia and assert unshakable ethical principles to sustain and legitimize their position.

In this respect, once again, any causal analysis of the war must take us back much earlier than the actors most immediately involved in it. War emerges as a disaster that is clearly linked to aggressive acts committed by other states, with the US and UK at the forefront of such hostilities.

Lula's prudent interventions must be received as entirely valid contributions to the analysis of what is perhaps the most pressing problem in the world today. An international security environment in which such claims are simply marginalized is itself causally implicated in the perpetuation of conflict.

*Chris Thornhill is a professor at the University of Manchester School of Law. Author, among other books by Democratic Crisis and Global Constitutional Law (countercurrent).

Translation: Rafael Valim & Walfrido Warde

Originally published on Portal UOL.

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