Editorial: Open letter to John McDonnell on Ukraine

IssueApril - May 2023
Comment by Milan Rai
John McDonnell
John McDonnell. Image: Rwendland, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Dear John McDonnell,

I’m sure every reader of Peace News is aware that you are a man of principle with an impressive record of standing up for peace and justice – and that your are an outstanding Labour MP.

I’ve read your long, thoughtful statement explaining why you support the British government arming Ukraine.

Putting aside the fundamental issue of the right of armed self-defence, which I know you are committed to and no one will change your mind on, I would like to put forward two concerns about your statement.

Firstly, I was surprised that there did not seem to be any limits to your support for supplying weapons to Ukraine. This is more extreme even than the US government’s position!

Secondly, and more importantly, I was surprised by your lack of interest in peace negotiations. It seemed as though you were dismissing peace talks – at least until Ukraine has won more military victories.

Not exactly logical

Before we get onto the main issues, I do want to point out that you start your statement with a misstep. You write, absolutely correctly, that you have ‘a history of opposing, speaking against and voting against illegal invasions of countries from Iraq to the sending of troops into Afghanistan and the bombing of Libya and Syria.’

The problem comes when you go on to say that ‘with such a consistent track record of opposing illegal wars launched by imperial powers’, it is understandable why you have condemned the Russian invasion ‘and why I have supported arming Ukrainians fighting the invasion of their country’.

This doesn’t actually follow.

When you opposed military action against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, you did not, so far as I know, call on anyone (especially in Britain) to supply weapons to the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria.

It is, of course, entirely open to you to support arming Ukraine, but it is not accurate to claim that this stand follows your previous track record.


In your 2,000-word statement, I was surprised that you could spare only a few scattered sentences to the subject of negotiations. It seems likely this war will either end in peace negotiations or in a disaster for the people of Ukraine.

If the war eventually goes Russia’s way, that would be a disaster for Ukraine.

If the war turns into a frozen conflict like Kashmir, that would be a disaster also.

If, on the other hand, the war goes Ukraine’s way... it seems impossible to believe that Russian president Vladimir Putin would accept a humiliating defeat and he might well use chemical and nuclear weapons.

Do you accept this logic, or do you see things differently?


Your scattered references to peace talks were quite negative, and there was one serious error. You wrote: ‘Despite attempts by various interlocutors, no talks have been brought about....’

This ignores the fact that there were serious peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in March – April 2022 that brought the two sides to the brink of agreement in Istanbul. In Ukraine’s Ten-Point Peace Plan, Ukraine did not give up its claim to any of its territory, and Russia withdrew to its pre-24 February positions. Ukraine would have given up on NATO membership and Russia would have given up on regime change.

The Western powers, with Britain in the lead, pressured Ukraine to stop negotiating. (The talks are discussed more here.)

You write, absolutely correctly, that it should be ‘explicitly clear that it will be for Ukrainians to determine the acceptability of any peace agreement.’

No one could disagree – except Boris Johnson and Liz Truss who, as prime minister and foreign secretary, pressed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to stop negotiating in Istanbul, and who said that Britain would not sign up to be guarantors of Ukraine’s security in the peace deal that Zelenskyy was designing in partnership with Russian president Vladimir Putin (PN 2661).

Maybe the Istanbul talks would have fallen apart even without such Western pressure; we will never know. What we do know is that it is incorrect to say ‘no talks have been brought about’.

Military realities

In your article, you also did not mention the fact that the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, Mark Milley, waged a sustained public campaign for peace negotiations last November, saying: ‘When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.’

Milley based his position on his analysis of the military situation of Ukraine. Surely, this is something that should make you take peace negotiations more seriously as something to pursue urgently? (Milley’s campaign is also discussed at more length here.)

Ukraine’s ban on talks

I was also surprised that you did not mention, in relation to peace talks, that the Ukrainian government’s official position is that peace talks with Russia are illegal until Putin has been overthrown. Zelenskyy signed that decree last October and then came up a with a much longer list of preconditions.

Whether or not you agree with the Ukrainian preconditions, shouldn’t you mention them if you are talking about possible peace negotiations?

Russia’s official position is that there should be no preconditions to negotiations (some complications are discussed here).

A blank cheque?

You also write that there is ‘a strong pragmatic argument that Putin will not negotiate whilst he sees the prospect of military victory and yet he will also want to avoid the humiliation of a defeat.’

This could be read as saying that the West should support Ukraine militarily until it has almost defeated Russia, and then (when Ukraine has Russian troops on the run) the West should ask Zelenskyy to sit down at the negotiating table.

That doesn’t sounds realistic. In that situation, it would be difficult to persuade Ukrainian forces to stop advancing, which might lead Russia to escalate the conflict.

You base your stand on arming Ukraine on the calls from left-wing Ukrainians you know for ‘the weapons to fend off the next wave of attack’ in ‘a defensive war’; ‘the arms argued for are for defence’.

You acknowledge that there are dangers of escalation, but you don’t acknowledge that certain weapons carry with them a greater risk of escalation.

For example, some analysts believe that advanced ‘main battle tanks’, such as the Challenger 2s that Britain is sending, may make it possible for Ukrainian forces to break through Russian lines at night in ‘shock actions’. These are not ‘defensive’ weapons in the simple sense. They are about retaking Ukrainian territory and forcing Russia back.

I would ask you to acknowledge that inflicting humiliating defeats on Russia brings with it a serious risk of escalation – the main costs of which would fall on the Ukrainian people.

Then, there is Crimea. The Ukrainian government has made it very plain that it intends to retake Crimea (occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014).

However, as many observers have pointed out, trying to recapture Crimea might well trigger nuclear war.

Your statement does not set any limits on the weapons that could be supplied to Ukraine, breaking with the NATO policy of not giving Ukraine the long-range weapons it wants in order to attack Russian military installations in Crimea

More widely, NATO does not supply long-range weapons that could strike targets inside Russia.

In both cases, NATO judges that the risks are too high that the Ukrainian government might use such weapons in ways that bring disaster.

I urge you to make clear that you oppose sending weapons to Ukraine that risk escalation and that you oppose Ukraine trying to retake Crimea militarily.


After you wrote your statement, the news came out that the British government is sending depleted uranium (DU) weapons to Ukraine. On 21 March, Putin said: ‘Russia will have to respond accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component.’

Whether or not they lead to Russian escalation, DU weapons will inflict long-lasting damage to Ukraine’s environment and possibly to many of its people, as you know, having signed early day motions on DU weapons in 1999 and 2005, and having written to the Tory government in 2011 asking for assurances that they would not be used in Libya.

You wrote then: ‘The stated purpose of our actions in Libya is to protect civilians. This will not be accomplished if we, or our allies, use depleted uranium weapons.’

I urge you to speak out against the supply of DU rounds to Ukraine.

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