First Vladimir Putin sent for the Chechens, whose leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, led 2,000 troops into Ukraine sporting a pair of £1,135 Prada boots. Then he sent for the Syrians: up to 40,000 veterans of a 10-year civil war are said to have signed up to fight for Russia. Next, he sent for the Libyans – forces loyal to rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar. Soon he will scour the conflict zones of sub-Saharan Africa.
Why recruit so many foreign fighters, from so many non-European countries? Putin’s reasons go beyond the heavy losses inflicted on the Russian army by Ukraine.
It was a classic feature of all imperialisms in the 19th and 20th centuries to levy “native” troops and mercenaries.
At the Battle of Jarama in the Spanish civil war, in 1937, the British and Irish battalion of the International Brigades, composed of antifascist leftwingers, were shocked to find they were fighting Arabs from Morocco. The Moroccan units were famous for raping and torturing their prisoners, and their superb fighting skills.
They were deployed, overtly, by their fascist commanders as a signifier: that the “natural” order of imperialism – consisting of a white, Catholic, Spanish aristocracy and an Arab, Muslim servant class – could defeat and humiliate the “unnatural” Red republic, with its values of atheism and women’s liberation.
The reappearance of Chechen and Arab mercenaries in Putin’s project of fascist domination is part of the same pattern. It means we have to relearn what the French Marxist Aimé Césaire declared in the 1950s: that fascism is simply colonialism done to Europe.
Césaire, a black poet and politician born in Martinique, scandalised western liberalism when, in 1950, he insisted that the route to Nazism, and its acceptance by European populations, had been plotted by centuries of colonialist atrocities.
“They tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them… they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimised it, because until then it had been applied only to non-European peoples,” wrote Césaire. “I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.”
As we watch this happen to Ukraine – the shelling of theatres and hospitals, the forced relocation of Ukrainians to Russian work camps – we need to remember with humility what has been inflicted on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen in the past 20 years by the West and its allies.
There should be little wonder that, across the global south, populations that have been bombed, tortured and displaced are reacting gleefully to seeing America’s allies on the receiving end.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Afghan and Iraq interventions (and I believe they were both mistaken), they were executed with scant respect for human life and dignity, a fact that seems obvious in every coffee shop south of Belgrade, but controversial in every newspaper office north of it.
So when Ukrainians, rightly, launched a war of resistance against Russia, for their right to be part of the western world, the totalitarian elites of Russia, India, China and Myanmar were able to revel in schadenfreude.
Putin and Xi Jinping are engaged in a long war for the hearts and minds of people across the globe. Give away democracy, freedom, the rule of law and human rights, is their offer, and you get economic development and stability. As a bonus feature, you get to watch the heartlands of 19th-century imperialism burn.
The offer, unfortunately, has found takers even among the anti-imperialist left in Europe and North America, and will find more in the countries whose democracies were undermined, and whose human rights were treated as valueless, both during the cold war and the so-called war on terror.
The fightback has to begin with atonement. I can feel the hackles of western liberalism rising as Putin’s apologists spray whataboutery across social media: what about Palestine, what about Yemen etc. But these are legitimate questions. They don’t make what Russia is doing right. They do explain why otherwise decent people are drawn to Putin’s arguments.
Practically, Nato will not be solidified into an effective, defensive military alliance until there is some level of admission that the “out of area” philosophy that led it into Afghanistan and Libya was a mistake.
Beyond atonement, however, there has to be principle. If we are defending a concept called liberal democracy, or “western values”, these have to be on offer to all those prepared to align with us against the totalitarian dictatorships in Beijing and Moscow. Liberal democracy has to mean more than the arrival of McKinsey to privatise your public realm, McDonald’s to colonise your cuisine and McDonnell Douglas to sell you overpriced munitions.
Because this is an existential conflict. Putin is rallying both Russians and foreign auxiliaries to a cause: a Russian ethno-state to bestride Eurasia, with a place at the table for every local warlord and mafiosi who wants to play ball. He is using all the tropes of fascism – dehumanisation, depopulation, shameless breaches of the laws of war – to tell a story: might is right.
Don’t be surprised if he finds a receptive audience among peoples of the global south who have seen that doctrine preached by America for 20 years. Western outrage is not going to win them over. Changing what the West does, what it stands for, what it offers to the peoples of the global south would be a start.