- By Stavroula Pabst and Max Blumenthal, The Grayzone.
- February 28, 2023
Europeans are storming the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine and their own declining living standards.
The Grayzone has covered demonstrations and interviewed protest leaders in several countries since the war erupted.
Athens, Greece –– This February 21, several thousand Greeks filled Athens’ streets to denounce NATO and the United States in the wake of Antony Blinken’s Greece visit, where the US Secretary of State applauded the Mediterranean country for being amongst the first European countries to support Ukraine, thus leading to way for “the support of democracy.”
It was just one action among many protest actions across the continent as the NATO proxy conflict in Ukraine approached its first anniversary. European citizens are growing agitated as their leaders appear set on extending the war at least another year: they’ve approved several rounds of sanctions on Russia, provided billions of euros in assistance to Ukraine, and have agreed to train thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.
Such actions have blighted living standards for average Europeans. Although the continent has avoided a widely feared energy collapse thanks to successful efforts to secure energy alternatives and unseasonably warm weather, European governments had already prepared for possible power outages and mobile blackouts earlier this winter due to the severing of Russian energy.
As the war escalates, so too are protest actions in core NATO states, from Greece to Britain to the Czech Republic to France and Spain. The recent wave of demonstrations builds on sizable displays of opposition to the war throughout the winter in cities from Chișinău to Paris to Brussels to Tirana to Vienna.
In Germany, where Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has declared that “we are at war with Russia” amid reports that the US military destroyed the country’s Nord Stream pipeline connecting it to Russia’s gas supply, demonstrations against the NATO proxy war are surging as well.
The rising tide of protests across the continent appear to have have rattled European leaders, triggering police repression, demagogic denunciations, and even prosecution of protest leaders for publicly criticizing their governments’ military support to Ukraine.
Unlike Western mainstream media, which has treated the protests with contempt when it has not ignored them altogether, The Grayzone attended several protests and interviewed the labor and antiwar activists who have mobilized their fellow citizens against NATO’s proxy war.
Popular resistance builds in Europe as leaders grovel to Washington
By the arrival of the February 24, 2023 anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a growing number of German citizens had begun to bristle at their government’s submissive attitude to Washington. Not only had Chancellor Olaf Scholz acceded to US demands to send Leopard tanks to the Ukrainian military, setting up what could be the first confrontation between German and Russian armor since World War Two, he seemed studiously disinterested in determining who was responsible for destroying the Nord Stream pipelines.
An antiwar manifesto authored by Sahra Wagenknecht of the Die Linke (Left) party and feminist writer Alice Schwarzer has provided a vehicle for German outrage at their government’s military support for Ukraine. Calling on Scholz to “stop the escalation in arms deliveries” and “lead a strong alliance for negotiations,” the open letter had garnered over 700,000 signatures at the time of publication.
On February 25, Wagenknecht and Schwarzer summoned supporters of the manifesto to rally in central Berlin. Over 15,000 protesters, and possibly many more, heeded their call, flooding Brandenburg Gate to hear speeches by the two authors and speakers including Jeffrey Sachs and former German Brigadier General Eric Vad.
Wagenknecht framed the delivery of German tanks to Ukraine against the ghosts of country’s past, proclaiming, “We don’t want German tanks firing on the great grandchildren of Russian women and men. This is complete historical amnesia! Have you forgotten German history?”
While participants in the Berlin rally belted out the East German anthem, “Ami Go Home!”, calling on US Army personnel to leave German soil, hundreds of protesters surrounded the US military’s Ramstein Airbase, which serves as headquarters for Air Forces activities in Europe and Africa. There, they demanded their government end its participation in the US-led coalition against Russia.
Activists picket near the Ramstein airbase in Germany, headquarters for the United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa and also for NATO Allied Air Command. They protest against further arms supplies to Ukraine and demand peace talks. pic.twitter.com/bgC0UTWVwx
— Mats Nilsson (@mazzenilsson) February 26, 2023
Also on February 25, the UK’s Stop The War Coalition held a march in London against shipping arms to Ukraine and escalating NATO’s proxy war. On the same day in London, a No 2 NATO, No 2 War conference organized by former MP’s George Galloway and Chris Williamson opened to a packed crowd despite intimidation campaigns that prompted two venues to cancel on the event’s planners.
Escalation is not the solution.
Peace talks now. pic.twitter.com/iWjJC2alfh
— London CND (@LondonRegionCND) February 25, 2023
The London rallies were supplemented by substantial protests against NATO’s proxy war in Paris and Brussels, where thousands marched outside European Parliament to demand immediate negotiations with Russia.
“Ceasefire now! Support peace talks! No nuclear escalation! Stop NATO expansion! Negotiate peace!”
1000s on the streets of Brussels yesterday demanding deescalation and peace talks.
The European peace movement will not be silenced.pic.twitter.com/2dPBMjDf0E
— Clare Daly (@ClareDalyMEP) February 27, 2023
The February 25 rally in Paris was convened by a group called The Patriots, which has demanded French President Emmanuel Macron immediately resign.
Recent protests build on months of antiwar activity across Europe
The recent spate of demonstrations follows protests in Italy, where tens of thousands demonstrated in November 2022 against PM Giorgia Meloni’s decision to send arms to Ukraine, and burned their electricity bills in a display of civil disobedience.
A poll of Italians taken this February shows that a major of the country’s citizens oppose sending arms to Ukraine, and favor an immediate negotiated solution.
In Leipzig, Germany, meanwhile, mass protests against skyrocketing food and energy prices have been surging since last Fall. As in Berlin, where Wagenecht openly declared that anyone was welcome regardless of their political persuasion, these demonstrations presented a show of unity against the war between the left-wing Die Linke party and the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Leipzig’s protests have been portrayed as a revival of the “Cold War Mondays” held in the city throughout the late 1980s, where the public demonstrated against a faltering German Democratic Republic. This time, however, the protest target is a centrist, neoliberal regime that is hellbent on conflict with Russia.
100s of citizens protest in Leipzig, Germany against Berlin’s supply of weapons to Kiev
People are outraged by the ever-increasing heating and electricity bills and record inflation, and the fact that Germany has become a puppet of the United States and NATO – Financial Times. pic.twitter.com/p2ENA2WNwH
— Bethany cox # (@ARTESOSCURASBOO) January 9, 2023
Czech protesters reject serving as “subcontractors to foreign capital”
In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, some 70,000 people gathered in Prague in early September for a “Czech Republic First” demonstration. There, they called for Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s coalition government to resign over its pro-Western and pro-NATO policies.
The country’s center-right PM Petr Fiala responded by tarring the demonstrations as pro-Russian, “extreme,” and “against the interests of the Czech Republic.”
A large-scale rally called “The Czech Republic first of all” was held on Wenceslas Square today.
From 70,000 to 100,000 Czech citizens gathered for it, according to local publications. pic.twitter.com/LsNnKVSnjt
— Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil (@ivan_8848) September 3, 2022
Fiala’s comments did little to faze Czech protestors, who returned to the streets in late September and October, and continued to organize smaller events across the country. The anti-EU and anti-NATO protests channeled the sentiment best encapsulated by a banner entitled, “The best for Ukrainians and two sweaters for us.”
To better understand the Czech Republic First demonstrations, The Grayzone spoke with Josef Skála from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, or KSČM). A prominent Czech Republic First supporter, Skála ran for President of the Czech Republic last year, but withdrew his candidacy in November after failing to collect enough signatures for the ballot.
Skála emphasized the Czech Republic First protests’ unique nature; while participants spanned the political spectrum, they united around their frustration with the country’s sagging economy and the government’s refusal to heed popular opposition to the Ukraine proxy war. “We have in the Czech Republic, a government which is totally Pro-American, Pro-EU, Pro-Brussels and so on,” he complained to Τhe Grayzone. “They do not care about [our] national interests.”
Skála explained that inaction over high prices is ushering in an “absolutely unprecedented era of [Czech] history, which is creating the demolition of the living standards of the people and demolishing most of the sectors of our economy.”
“And, no, the government is doing nothing against [these problems]. The government is assisting such dramatic policies…We are subtractors of foreign capital.”
Skála’s comments highlight an issue looming behind the proxy war: while today’s European protest demands focus on the current energy crisis, many demonstrators are infuriated by their governments’ willingness to prioritize EU dictates over the national interest.
As protests continue, Skála hopes he can bring more from the left to the demonstrations by emphasizing the Ukraine proxy war’s threat to the economy and to human survival. “The danger of war… is imminent,” he explained to The Grayzone. “And what is missing is an urgent and well-organized anti-war peace movement.”
The view from Greece: “Americans are the killers of the people”
As the conservative Mitsotakis government bends over backwards to please Washington, average Greek citizens struggle with impossibly high living expenses and energy bills. Protesters I spoke with in Athens on February reflexively linked their government’s support for NATO’s proxy war with their own eroding living conditions. Their anger is widespread throughout a country where anti-NATO and anti-EU sentiment remains relatively high.
Banners at the February 21 protest denounced US Secretary of State Blinken, while slogans like “Solidarity is the peoples’ gun!”, and “They killed Lambrakis and Beloyiannis — Americans are the killers of the people!” reverberated through the crowd. (Grigoris Lambrakis and Nikos Beloyiannis were prominent twentieth century Greek leftists killed by right-wing extremists and executed by the Greek government respectively.).
The February 21 demonstration concluded at the American Embassy, despite warnings of repression by heavily militarized police. Later in the evening, clashes between police and those still protesting erupted in Athens’ Exarchia neighborhood, as is common after major demonstrations in the country’s capital.
The sentiments expressed in late February echoed those at earlier protests in the Greek capital.
Each November 17th, Greeks take the streets to commemorate the historic 1973 Polytechnio uprising against the country’s former military junta, where anti-imperialist and antiwar student organizations were crushed and, in many cases, disappeared by the US-backed dictatorship.
Like the 1973 uprising, the annual Polytechnio demonstrations convey a distinct antiwar character, and usually result in face-offs between police guarding Athens’ US Embassy and protesters – with many drafted and uniformed military personnel fighting on the demonstrators’ side.
This year, Greece’s November 17th tradition took on a new conflict: the NATO proxy war in Ukraine, which European leaders appear set on extending for at least another year.
When the Polytechnio anniversary arrived in 2022, protesters aimed their action directly at the US-dominated military alliance, with participants waving signs reading “Ή με το ΝΑΤΟ ή με την ειρήνη” (Either with NATO or with peace) while passing by the US Embassy in Athens.
Greek general strikes set the stage for antiwar protests
The Greek rallies against NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine have capitalized on the momentum of labor actions against the cost of living crisis. On November 9th, 2022, about a week before the antiwar rally, labor unions convened a general strike, demanding wage increases, a ban on electricity and utility stoppages in homes, and for an abolition of consumption-based taxes and VAT taxes for energy sources.
Sotiris Lapieris is a municipal councilor in the Athens suburb pf Chalandri and a member of Λαϊκή Ενότητα (Popular Unity), a breakaway left coalition founded after Syriza capitulated to international creditors in 2015. Lapieris told The Grayzone that the November 9th strike was likely the biggest in Greece since the 2015 bailout referendum, if not the largest since the 2012 anti-austerity strikes. “There’s a widespread despair about the cost of living and [low] wages,” he explained.
Lapieris emphasized that while the current energy crisis has exacerbated material hardship in Greece, the situation is symptomatic of the calamitous Greek-EU relationship. “The cost of living crisis in Greece is the product of three different …things,” he explained. “One is the memoranda that destroyed the Greek economy a decade [ago]. Second, the energy stock market that was started in 2001 [the Greek Energy Exchange Market, as part of the EU Target Model for electricity markets] pulled the prices of energy [up] to the sky. And third, those two things were met by the sanctions of the European Union on Russia. This is a disastrous mix.”
Speaking with The Grayzone shortly before the November 9th strike, trade union front Π.Α.Μ.Ε. (Πανεργατικό Αγωνιστικό Μέτωπο, or All-Workers Militant Front) secretariat member Nikolas Theodorakis explained how the energy crisis and war had worsened living standards in Greece.
“The percentage of the Greek budget [allocated to] military armaments… especially for NATO, is number one or number two in the NATO alliance,” Theodorakis said. “At the same time, Greek schools will not have heating and hospitals will not have doctors [this winter]. So we say it’s a clear contradiction” in how EU funds are being used, he further explained, highlighting Greece’s bloated military budget. “One of our basic demands on the conflict is the budget, and that our financial priorities must be changed in order to protect and serve the people.”
Nikos Chistodoulakis, a member of Greece’s communist revolutionary action front (Κομμουνιστική Επαναστατική Δράση, or ΚΕΔ), observed that many of the protests seen across Greece, including November’s general strike, had not made substantial war-related demands, instead focusing on economic relief and corporate greed. He added that many leftists were afraid to make demands or statements that could be construed as Pro-Kremlin. Indeed, much of the November 9th strike signage and messaging was limited to economic demands, including calls for higher wages and guaranteed electricity and heating for winter.
“If you don’t touch the elephant in the room, which is the European Union and the Greek government’s stance towards Russia and their alliance with the US, you can’t demand wage rises or price stops,” Lapieris agreed. “This [cost of living crisis] is an obvious consequence of all this policy.”
Below: Protesters throw red paint on a warship at an anti-NATO demonstration in the city of Patras, Greece
Antiwar protests face police violence, anti-free speech state repression
Europe’s cost-of-living and anti-NATO demonstrations are often sidelined by police brutality, mass arrests, and mainstream media silence alike. As they did to repress protests against the draconian Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020, militarized French riot police dispersed protestors at October anti-NATO and cost of living rallies with violent tactics, including with truncheon beatings and tear gas.
French police have been repressing marches across the nation in response to widespread protests over rising costs of living.
French workers called for a General Strike over the weekend. pic.twitter.com/ytFxrvBnNr
— MintPress News (@MintPressNews) October 20, 2022
During the February 25 mass demonstration in Berlin, German police deployed 1400 officers to enforce recently instituted speech laws criminalizing public displays of support for Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, forbidding everything from the display of the St. George’s Cross to the letter “Z,” the letter “V,” and the Soviet flag.
According to Reuters, German “police mobilised 1,400 officials to keep the peace and to enforce bans on military uniforms, Russian and Soviet flags, Russian military songs and right-wing symbols.” https://t.co/ZnQ9qBn7lX
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) February 27, 2023
The German state is also prosecuting Heinrich Bücker, a leading Berlin-based antiwar activist, for criticizing his government’s support for neo-Nazi regiments of the Ukrainian military like the Azov Battalion. Bücker stands accused by the German state of having made statements with the “potential to shake confidence in legal certainty and to incite the mental climate of the population.” Because he is unlikely to pay the 2000 Euro fine, he will go to jail for a mandatory 40-day sentence.
When Western media has not ignored Europe’s antiwar protest wave altogether, its coverage has alternated between dismissive and contemptuous. German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle sneeringly characterized the February 25 demonstration in Berlin as “naive” while providing glowing coverage to smaller shows of support for the war by the Ukrainian diaspora. The New York Times, for its part, mentioned the European protests in just a single generic line buried in an article on minuscule anti-Putin protests held by Russian emigres.
For those organizing on the ground, the stakes are too high to submit to state repression or media demonization. “We are going back to the Dark Ages; our leaders are demanding we live without electricity. So, how can you accept this?” exclaimed Nikolaos Theodorakis of the Greek ΠΑΜΕ union. “For us, the only alternative to these conditions is to struggle, to organize, to demand better conditions.”