Woman and child look out the window from inside a train station, turned shelter.
Women and children, many of them from the besieged city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, shelter in a waiting hall at the train station in Lviv on March 7. Credit: Ivor Prickett, Flickr / The New York Times/Redux

‘If Russia stops fighting, there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no Ukraine.’

This is a common phrase going around about Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.

Though seemingly simple, the phrase actually tells us a lot about the current situation.

We must understand Russia’s most recent invasion as part of its long history of colonizing Ukraine. The territory and people that make up Ukraine were freed in 1991 with the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, known as the USSR. 92 per cent of its population voted for independence at that time.  

Thirty years later, President Vladimir Putin has invaded the former colonial territory under the auspice of representing Russians in Ukraine’s eastern region who are facing rampant Nazism and genocide.

Putin publicly declared he does not respect the independence of the Ukrainian people in an essay last year. He believes Ukrainians are not a real people. His conclusion is that Ukrainian statehood itself ultimately depends on Moscow’s consent: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and helped form two Russian-backed separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine – the self-proclaimed republics Luhansk and Donetsk.

Kyiv saw vicious street riots starting in late 2013 where 108 Ukrainians died and almost 1900 were wounded, as ordinary citizens fought off Russia’s political advances through the then pro-Russian Ukrainian government. 

And on February 24, 2022, Russian troops began their most recent invasion.  

Activists debate sanctions, armed resistance

Online activists in the west are debating the ways Ukraine should defend itself. Some pacifists claim any defense, including armed resistance, should not be supported by the progressive left.

That position sounds like this: ‘Arming civilians in Ukraine will only lead to a pro-gun culture like the U.S.’ and ‘Spending money on missiles and planes won’t make ordinary Ukrainians feel any safer.’

Others claim sanctions alone should be enough to stop the Russian assault. The U.S. banned Russian banks’ access to the SWIFT international payment system. Canada banned imports of Russian oil. But that has not yet stopped the hungry Russian bear from tearing through more of the country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is begging world leaders to do more. He is begging for shipments of armaments. Zelenskyy recently addressed U.S. congress and other world leaders, asking them to implement a no-fly zone over his country to protect his citizens and critical infrastructure from air bombardment.

Billion dollar support from NATO, U.S.

A no-fly zone would require other European countries to agree. But most are hesitant because it is effectively an action that enters them into war with Russia. Russia would retaliate and it might trigger an all out European war.

Since Russia’s invasion began, 14 countries have sent security assistance to Ukraine. NATO members have sent Ukraine 17,000 anti-tank missiles and 2,000 stinger anti-aircraft missiles so far, a senior US official told CNN. The U.S. seems to be the biggest exporter of weapons to the nation, with Congress giving final approval two days ago to a $13.6 billion Ukraine aid bill, divided up between $6.5 billion to the Pentagon for military assistance and $6.7 billion to care for refugees. [Figures in USD]

The U.S. just announced an additional $800 million in defense spending, including drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. U.S. President Biden branded Putin a ‘war criminal.’ Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded, saying these comments were, “absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable.”

The Ukrainian foreign minister has predicted that 60,000 Ukrainians living abroad have returned to fight for Ukraine, as well as 20,000 troops from fifty-two countries have signed up to join the armed forces.

Ukrainians taking up arms against Russian invaders

Zelenskyy called on Ukrainian citizens to take up arms. He urged citizens to do more than simple tactics of civil disobedience; he advocated for arming individual civilians and encouraging community defense activities such as making Molotov cocktails. Ukrainians showed their willingness to fight during the Euromaidan demonstrations and the Revolution of Dignity, which started in November 2013 against the then pro-Russian president Yanukovych.

At a recent Ukrainian solidarity rally in Toronto, the call for a no-fly zone was most often chanted. Aleksandr Bzovsky, who has relatives in Ukraine, stated that anything less than full military support would mean blood on its allies’ hands.

But the exact nature of the support its allies should offer is contested.

Some pacifists claim any action with a military element would ultimately harm the Ukrainian people. This argument is rooted in the pacifist movement’s sense of the greater social justice community, where violence is a forbidden against any oppressors, under any circumstances.

Peter Zherdev, a Canadian citizen with family in Ukraine, stated firmly, “Of course they are fighting back. Their friends and family are being killed, their homes and businesses are being destroyed. What kind of moron would expect them to sit down and get blown up and shot?”

Zherdev believes that sanctions are not enough – while Putin has railed against them in the media, they have done nothing to stop him. Historically, the west’s sanctions to pressure against the occupation of Chechnya, Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and the Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine, were not effective. Those regions are still firmly under Russian control.

If the west does not want to impose a no-fly zone and defend Ukraine than at least allow the Ukrainians to arm and defend themselves.

Ukraine’s right to self-determination

Ukraine is under attack and its people are fighting against their former colonial ruler. It is Ukrainian civilians who are dying in the streets, in the basement of hospitals and in shelters clearly marked as housing children. They should decide what assistance is required.

Our moral politics should get in the way and lead to even more people getting killed. And let me remind you, most online commentators I see advocating for a sanction-only approach are white middle-class Canadians. So who are they to judge what a formerly colonized community should or should not do?

A Ukrainian supporter and post-Soviet-Jew, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “it’s a lot more nuanced than: support the military or not support the military. Any notion of EuroWestern saviourism stemming from the U.S. or other EuroWestern imperialism should also be critiqued. We should call for an end to all empires, Russian, U.S. or elsewhere.”

Settlers on Turtle Island cannot and should not chose how to fight back against this colonial system that lets young men freeze to death in police custody or ignores murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. The people being oppressed, not the oppressors get to choose the form of resistance. It’s that ability to choose that makes a people free.

Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...