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Former U.K. Labour Leader Corbyn: Ukraine War Is 'Disgraceful' And Russia's 'Wrong At Every Level'

Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the U.K. Labour Party from 2015 to 2020. (file photo)
Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the U.K. Labour Party from 2015 to 2020. (file photo)

Jeremy Corbyn, the former British opposition leader, says the UN and the West should have been tougher on Russian President Vladimir Putin early on, and expanding alliances like NATO isn't "the best way forward."

Known for opposing the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as for being sharply critical of NATO, Corbyn told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in late April that the priority in war-torn Ukraine is to "just get a cease-fire" to stop the killing.

RFE/RL: How would you rate the United Kingdom's efforts and policy toward the war in Ukraine?

Jeremy Corbyn: I think there should have been a much earlier intervention in relation to Ukraine to try to prevent the war ever happening in the first place -- mind you, that goes to the whole of Europe and particularly of the United Nations. I think there's been a lamentable lack of action. And whilst I welcome the [UN] secretary-general's [Antonio Guterres] visit to Moscow and Kyiv -- and that has to be a good step -- frankly that should have happened six weeks [earlier]. The war is obviously disgraceful, and the Russian invasion is wrong at every level and conclusively.

RFE/RL: Could the war have been prevented, and if yes, in what way?

Corbyn: Obviously, it's hard to know what the cost would have been on that, but it seemed to me that there was a need to intervene much earlier on, diplomatically, as a way of putting pressure on Russia. It might not have worked, I don't know. But I just think there has to be anything [done] that can save life.

RFE/RL: Is the United Kingdom doing enough at this moment to help Ukraine?

Corbyn: We're giving a lot of aid, yes, and humanitarian aid is also important. I don't think the U.K. is doing enough for refugees at the present time. The numbers of refugees leaving Ukraine are enormous -- we're talking [more than] 10 percent of the entire population of Ukraine has left. And I was looking at some figures the other day: Poland has taken in a huge number and, in Warsaw, the school population has gone up by 40 percent in six weeks. And that's because they've taken in so many children. Well done, Poland, on taking them in, and well done on educating and supporting them.

Britain has taken in, I think, 20,000, which is a tiny number. And there are 200,000 people in Britain that offered to host refugees. And so the government in Britain is totally out of line with public opinion on this.

RFE/RL: If you were to pinpoint one reason why the war is happening, what would that be?

Corbyn: I think it is Russian, particularly President Putin's, aggression against Ukraine, and a belief that somehow or other a Russian military presence [in Ukraine] is a longer-term protection for Russia. I think the opposite is the case. I think that the invasion has cost the lives of thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of totally innocent people, has led to an economic effect all over the world, and will now lead to a food shortage for many of the poorest people in the Middle East and North Africa, who won't be able to get grain that would have been grown in Ukraine or sold from Russia. So the results are disastrous in every respect.

RFE/RL: Do you think that if European integration -- Ukraine's European and NATO aspirations -- had had more momentum in the past, would this have made it possible to avoid the war? Or is that one of the reasons why Russia...?

Corbyn: I suspect that those in Russia that advise President Putin became more and more alarmed at the integration of Europe with Ukraine and felt it was some kind of threat to Russia. I don't agree with that, but I think that's what they would have thought. And I go back to my point that this war is wrong, it's illegal, and it has to stop.

RFE/RL: We now see Finland and Sweden trying to apply for NATO membership. In the past you've been skeptical of NATO enlargement. Do you still remain skeptical?

Corbyn: Well, it's a matter for Sweden and Finland whether they decide to join or not. But joining military alliances is a very big step, and it will have a big effect on their defense expenditure. Because NATO requires 2 percent of GNI [gross national income] to be spent on defense. And that's a matter for them.

RFE/RL: Don't you think it's a sound enough investment to make sure Russia does not do to them what it did to Ukraine?

Corbyn: Obviously, you don't want Russia invading anywhere. You don't want anybody invading anywhere. And therefore the growth of military alliances, in the long term, is not necessarily the best way forward.

As the bodies of young conscripted soldiers come home, as they did after Afghanistan -- that can have a massive political effect in Russia.

Let's just look at the historical perspective. In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up and the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. There was a reduction in defense expenditure across Europe and by Russia as well, mainly for economic reasons in Russia at that time. There was some serious thought -- it wasn't just the Left -- from everybody, who at the time said, "Well, actually, this is the time to wind down military alliances." It didn't happen. And we ended up with NATO expanding into a global role, including its activities in Afghanistan and obviously its involvement in the Balkan war, and that has not always been a good thing.

And so it's up to countries whether they join or not, but my view is that I want to see a cease-fire in the case of Russia and Ukraine. That will, I am sure, lead to huge political changes in Russia, because the opposition to this war in Russia is pretty strong, even if people are a bit frightened to speak out. Although how strong, [is] very hard to know.

RFE/RL: You urged us to look at history. But in the history of Russia: it never deterred Russia from action if its neighbor was less well-armed than before. So what does this mean for your argument that if we wind down military alliances, Russia would be more inclined not to attack?

Corbyn: We could all build up more and more military stuff. It's almost unlimited the amount of military hardware either side can build up -- the war will then get worse. There are nuclear weapons available to Russia; there are nuclear weapons available to NATO. I never want us to descend into anything even threatening nuclear war happening. That means there has to be real pressure on Russia for a cease-fire, real pressure for some kind of longer-term [solution].

RFE/RL: How do you see that pressure happening? Russia doesn't want to return to diplomacy.

Corbyn: No, of course they don't. It comes as a combination of political pressure and what's happening on the ground. But in the meantime, we have [5.5] million people who are refugees, [and] many other refugees from other conflicts around the world. Is this a time when we're just going to plan one more war after another, or are we in a position to actually use the language of peace and try and bring about a cease-fire?

RFE/RL: On NATO expansion, we have covered Sweden and Finland. But Ukraine and Georgia have also been longtime aspirants to join NATO. Do you see them ever joining? Would you welcome them being part of NATO, considering what has happened?

Corbyn: From everything I'm hearing, it seems very unlikely that NATO would take either country into membership. That's everything I'm hearing. Because of the obvious dangers of an escalation with Russia. Although I do obviously support the decisions that have been made [inaudible] in the case of Georgia, for example, as with Ukraine, what I don't understand is why Russia, having accepted through the Minsk agreement the independence of Ukraine and indeed [being] prepared to discuss a degree of autonomy within Ukraine for parts of the Donbas -- that surely should have been the way forward, and Russia has chosen to go down the route of invasion and war. And that...just starts another war.

RFE/RL: You are famously a proponent of nuclear disarmament. Has this war in Ukraine changed the way you look at it at all, in that it might be good to have a nuclear deterrent when you are dealing with Russia?

Corbyn: A nuclear war will kill us all, you and me included.

RFE/RL: The key word here is deterrence -- that nobody resorts to war.

Corbyn: A nuclear war will kill us all, you and me included. That is what nuclear wars do. I support the global ban treaty (also known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or TPNW), which was voted on by the majority of the [UN] Security Council. I support the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And we have been through a process, up until about three years ago, where there was a general reduction in the numbers of nuclear warheads around the world by the U.S.A., France, Britain, Russia, China -- India and Pakistan have small numbers but nevertheless do possess them, [and] likewise, Israel and North Korea. Any talk that moves towards nuclear war just ends the planet.

RFE/RL: What do you make of the admiration of Ukrainian people for [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson and his leadership in this crisis? He's seen as a hero in my homeland as well.

Corbyn: Well, it's an interesting natural reaction, actually, that when a country is under threat, they rally around whoever their leaders are. In World War II, Winston Churchill, who became the prime minister during the war, he was not actually a particularly popular figure for many people in Britain [before the war]. They rallied around him because of the situation they were facing in the war. And I think people do rally around leaders in that case. Sadly, it happens on both sides.

Jeremy Corbyn attends a protest rally in London in April 2021.
Jeremy Corbyn attends a protest rally in London in April 2021.

RFE/RL: Let's take a hypothetical scenario of you and your [Labour] Party being in charge, then. What would your approach be? What would you do differently?

Corbyn: I would be putting as much pressure as possible at the very beginning on the United Nations and on Russia -- from the very beginning, during the time of that enormous buildup of troops on the borders of Ukraine. Whether that would have stopped the war, I don't know any more than you do. But I feel that the process would have [led to the] isolation of Russia.

But I would also have been much tougher on the Russian oligarchs and their money, huge amounts of money, which basically was stolen at the end of the Soviet Union by the oligarchs who just moved in -- [Roman] Abramovich, etc. -- and have corrupted the politics of Western Europe in many, many ways, including the huge amounts of money given to political parties in Western Europe. And I opposed Putin from the beginning on Chechnya and a number of other places, while at the same time British politicians -- [former U.K. Prime Minister] Tony Blair included -- were welcoming Putin into Britain and taking him to the opera. Some of us have been consistent.

RFE/RL: Do you think it's Russia's war or Putin's war? If you look at the polls in Russia skeptically, bearing in mind that people are afraid to speak out, so with the idea that you don't believe that there is this staggering 80 percent in support of the war and Putin. So let's halve that number, or take even one third -- so we are left with a nation where one third of its population approves of what is now happening in Ukraine. What does that say about that nation?

Corbyn: It says something about the way in which the propaganda has been driven into them that this is a war to protect Russia for the future. And that's essentially what Putin's message is. Now I don't trust opinion polls in Russia -- I don't trust a lot of opinion polls -- but your point earlier about war and wartime leaders -- in fact, it goes both ways. And there has to be a cease-fire and a de-escalation. I also think that the longer term in Russia -- well, as the bodies of young conscripted soldiers come home, as they did after Afghanistan -- that can have a massive political effect in Russia. Is there any reason to suppose that it will be different this time?

How Should Money Spent On War In Ukraine Really Be Used? Russians Respond
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RFE/RL: If you want dead bodies…to change [policy], a cease-fire won't help with that...

Corbyn: Listen, I don't want anyone to die in this war. And that means you have to get a cease-fire.

RFE/RL: At what cost?

Corbyn: You have to get a cease-fire.

RFE/RL: No matter the cost?

Corbyn: Well, you get a cease-fire. Both sides agree a cease-fire. You then start negotiations at that point.

RFE/RL: Both sides agree, or one side is forced to agree?

Corbyn: This war is killing thousands and thousands of people.

RFE/RL: That's what wars do.

Corbyn: Yes! That's why I want to stop them!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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