It seems scarcely believable to be talking about war taking place in Europe once again, now in the year 2022, and yet that has been the recent reality. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is unjust, violent, and colonial. To inflict the terror of full scale warfare on anyone, let alone a whole country, is a crime against humanity.
How did we get here? There have been a huge number of factors at work, just some of which are explored below and in this issue of Nonviolent News. And what lessons can be learnt? The most perceptive lessons are not those which have tended to be expressed most dominantly in the media since the invasion of Ukraine when bellicosity has been dominant. If the first casualty in war is truth, actually trying to establish what is ‘truth’ is a very difficult task. But one truth is indisputable; invading Ukraine was unjust and unjustifiable.
The militarist approach has failed; it could not protect Ukraine from a Russian invasion. Bellicose responses from the EU are not helpful though strong opposition, sanctions and so on are appropriate. A strategic analysis is needed, even within military thinking, as to the extent to which Ukrainian military opposition to Russian invasion can or could succeed or whether it will simply lead to more deaths of Ukrainians and destruction in a war which, as this is written, is getting more violent and lethal. This also raises questions about the supply of arms to Ukraine at this stage. Of course it is for the Ukrainian people to decide how they resist Russian invasion but the ‘fighting to the last man’ (woman and child) approach may be brave but also foolhardy.
There is the danger that Ukraine falls into the trap of what a French general said during the battle of Balaclava in 1854 during the Crimean War of 1853–56, “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre” – ‘It’s magnificent but it isn’t war’ – when he watched the ill-fated British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, due to a misunderstood military order. In other words, there are certain things you do in war and certain things you don’t; taking a course of action which is certainly leading to your death and destruction is not wise and is not ‘war’. Continuing to resist militarily by Ukraine when they cannot defeat the Russians is not wise if it leads to their death and destruction. Ending the fight at this stage does not mean accepting defeat in the longer term; it may be to accept reality and ‘live to fight another day’, whether militarily or nonviolently. We need to think outside the militarist box. Ukrainian pride in standing up as a nation can take a different path.
When Ukraine is defeated militarily, and accepts or rejects whatever terms are meted out to it, despite whatever resistance is put up, the focus should switch to nonviolent resistance which can, of course, also be disguised disobedience. They may of course choose guerrilla military action. The Ukrainian people face a hard time indefinitely and it is difficult to see that Putin-controlled Russia will permit Ukraine to escape its orbit again in the near future. It is impressive that in the many demonstrations that have taken place against the war, large numbers of Russians have taken part – and those within Russia who have done so will pay a high price including loss of employment in cases.
Opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine must be medium to long term to succeed. What Putin’s plans are we can guess but presume will include the incorporation of some majority Russian speaking provinces into Russia. How Putin will try to control or instal a puppet government in the remains of Ukraine remains to be seen. But the effects of Russia being made a pariah state will be hard on the Russian people and difficult to cover up with propaganda about ‘the west’ out to get Russia when the vast majority of the globe has the same view.
Nonviolent resistance is difficult to deal with for military and militarist leaders; they don’t know how to respond. See e.g. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2022/02/ukraine-secret-weapon-civilian-resistance/ and https://mailchi.mp/320ff13d52bb/press-release-nonviolent-alternatives-must-be-pursued-in-ukraine-to-deescalate-war?e=c8353e9ef5 The power of various forms of nonviolent resistance is well established, even in Nazi occupied Europe in the Second World War, though not necessarily popularly known. The problem is largely that when people think of resistance to invasion they think only in military terms. This can be disastrous and when there is a major power imbalance, as there is between Russia and Ukraine, there is likely to be only one victor, certainly when they are neighbours, i.e. supply lines are close.
With nonviolent resistance it is much more difficult to justify repression, or, in the case of Ukraine, to attempt to justify action on the basis of ‘denazification’; there are fascists in Ukraine but their number is small even if they have been active and visible, and their significance is disputed. But it is also highly ironic that Putin should accuse Ukraine, which has relatively free elections and a fairly thriving civil society, of being fascist when Putin does not permit free elections and has decimated civil society in Russia. However atrocities have been committed against Russian speakers in Donbas, Odessa for example, by the Ukrainian regime and its allies, so it is not all a one way street and there was enough there for Putin to support separatism militarily.
There was a viable peace deal agreed in Minsk in 2015 which would have given autonomy to the east of Ukraine. Such measures are a standard practice and relative autonomy for different ethnic or language groupings is one way to deal with such inter-group tensions. But it never happened and if it had had support from the USA – which had its own ambitions in the area – and others then Ukraine could have been at peace now.
However it needs clearly stated that in Ireland we do not have our hands clean. It is difficult to even express the irony of Ireland closing its airspace to Russian planes (we are not saying they shouldn’t) when the Irish government gives carte blanche to the US military to pass through and use Shannon airport as a base en route to its illegal and neo-imperialist wars which have been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions. Clearly there is one law which applies to some people and another entirely different law which applies to others – others when the wars involved are outside Europe it might be said — even when both are engaged in highly destructive wars without justification.
Where were the boycotts of the USA and UK when they invaded Iraq? Where was there action taken against the USA when it invaded Afghanistan? What is the difference in terms of death, destruction, displacement and human misery to what is happening in Ukraine? Is it simply ‘our’ wars are just and theirs not so? And to say such wars were ‘altruistic’ in intent is simplistic in the extreme; they were illegal in international law, and arms and security companies made a mint, apart from, for example, US and UK oil companies taking a slice of the action in Iraq. The USA and UK acted against massive worldwide expressed opinion wishing to avoid war in Iraq; ‘they’ knew better and contributed to horror and destabilisation on a massive scale.
And where is ‘Irish neutrality’ in any of this reaction in Ireland, let alone the Irish constitutional commitment to the pacific resolution of conflicts? Even if not ‘buying in’ directly to the EU supply of arms to Ukraine, as a net contributor to the EU, Ireland is helping finance them and this new military departure for the EU.
Many mistakes have been made by ‘the west’ and NATO in relating to Russia. Weak and impoverished after the fall of communism, the regime in Moscow was initially favourable to the west. But the promises given by NATO and the USA not to expand NATO eastwards were forgotten, and a weak Russia was ignored. NATO helped to turn a friend or potential friend into an enemy. In all of this, too, there was an expectation that Russia would accept what the USA certainly would not; ‘enemy’ arms on its doorstep. The USA threatened global annihilation in 1962 to avoid Russian missiles being based in Cuba.
You can certainly understand why countries bordering Russia might want to be part of NATO as a bulwark against Russian expansionism – and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made more likely what he was trying to avoid, a NATO build up on Russia’s borders. But why would anyone think that Putin’s Russia, in nationalist mode and remembering not just the Second World War but other western military incursions, would accept this, something which the USA would not? We are not excusing anyone’s militarist thinking but saying ‘the west’ expected Putin’s Russia to react in a way which they (i.e. the USA) would not accept. Russia’s demand for Ukrainian neutrality was not unreasonable in the context of power politics..
On a relevant but also slightly tangential note, transition to a green economy is essential to rid ourselves of dependence on fossil fuels which are highly tainted not just by their contribution to global warming but also for giving profits to those who do not need our money. The faster we can transition, the faster we will avoid the risk of a woefully overheated world and a contribution to despots and autocrats (whether in Russia or the Gulf states).
It is time to try a different approach. And for Ireland the message is that a smaller country cannot defend itself militarily against a highly militarised larger one so that again imagination is required in taking a different path; the path of active neutrality, peacebuilding and peacemaking, and civilian-based defence.
We have a choice in the world. Militarisation and highly charged stand-offs between armed blocks and countries is the way the world is going. In this approach there will be periodic wars but also, even in peacetime, enormous waste of resources which are needed to establish real human security against global warming and the risk of pandemics, as well as all the other human needs that exist. The risks include global destruction in nuclear war. With climate change the risk of resource and other wars increases, and highly armed countries make this prospect more likely. The other, rather different, possibility is that countries, whether armed or not, use non-offensive defence and neutrality, or perhaps sophisticated civilian-based non-violent defence, as their territorial security.
The world can be a dangerous place. It may be counter-intuitive for most people, but arming ourselves to our teeth is the way to risk war and invite war to take place, because our perceived enemies also feel they have to arm themselves to the hilt and in this dangerous balance it only takes one slip to unleash the terror of war. In no way are we saying we should roll over to violence and aggression; we are saying that we need to be clever in how we confront it. At the moment we are simply reacting in ways which encourage the violence and war which we say we want to avoid.