The crisis in Ukraine is fast escalating into a civil and proxy war. Over 150 people have died in clashes between Ukrainian Soldiers and anti-fascists in eastern Ukraine, many of them civilians..
In the bloodiest incident, more than 30 people were killed in Odessa when Neo-Nazis set fire to a trade union building. Most recently jets have dropped bombs on the city of Lugansk.
Given these circumstances, it is quite extraordinary that NATO is planning war games in Ukraine this July. UK and US troops are due to participate alongside Ukrainian troops in joint military exercises as part of NATO’s ‘Rapid Trident’ manoeuvres.
Stop the War, CND and a number of politicians and celebrities, including Caroline Lucas MP, Mark Rylance and Ken Loach have submitted a Downing Street petition calling on the government ‘to urge the US and other NATO governments to cancel the exercise, and to give a plain and public undertaking that Britain will not participate.’
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the petitioners argue that military exercises organised by a nuclear-armed alliance with a first-strike policy can only further destabilise the country, making it more difficult to achieve a political resolution to the crisis.
This latest move fits the pattern of NATO’s eastward expansion. At the end of the Cold War, the US gave public assurances that NATO would not move ‘one inch to the east’ if the Soviets agreed to NATO membership of a unified Germany. But since then, NATO has assimilated 12 countries across Eastern Europe and doubled its total military budget. The existence since 1997 of the Rapid Trident exercises, their forerunner ‘Peace Shield’, and the associated ‘Sea Breeze’ naval exercises in the Black Sea, indicate that NATO seeks to include Ukraine as part of this expansion.
In the long term, NATO is looking at establishing permanent military bases in the country. More immediately the alliance has bolstered its military presence around Ukraine. NATO air drills are taking place over the Baltics, and the UK and US are sending extra jets to patrol the skies. Meanwhile Poland has requested 10,000 NATO troops to be stationed on its territory.
One might think that the decision to send UK troops to such a tense theatre of conflict should be a matter for public debate. And yet for 3 weeks the government refused to publish the petition opposing the ‘Rapid Trident’ exercise, even when the Leader of the House of Commons’ office intervened on the petitioners’ behalf.
Last week the petitioners went to the press. As soon as journalists started phoning the Ministry of Defence, the government backed down and published the petition. The aim now is to gather 100,000 signatures, which will trigger a debate in Parliament.