Ukraine: The agony goes on
The often quoted sentence that ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it” from the US military in the Vietnam war is somewhat apocryphal (though in relation to destroying villages in that war, see https://bracingviews.com/2021/08/02/destroying-the-village-in-vietnam/comment-page-1/ ) However the quote could be transferred to Vladimir Putin’s take on Ukraine: “We had to destroy the country in order to save it”.
Putin has (we must hope if we are going to have a future) made the biggest miscalculation of his life in relation to the invasion of Ukraine. Believing your own propaganda is dangerous for yourself and others; he didn’t talk to Ukrainians or even try to persuade them. He thought that most Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops or at worst that his action would bring a surly but ineffective response. But in invading Ukraine he has a) proved that Ukraine is no ‘fake’ nation and has no desire for unification with Russia (and the ancient entity Putin refers to, Kievan Rus, was just that and not ‘Rus-ian Kiev) and b) given NATO perhaps its biggest fillip ever, especially for states bordering Russia. It can also be stated that c) he has very considerably damaged Russia’s image around the world as he has exposed his ruthlessness and Russia’s shortcomings, politically and militarily.
Sanctions of various kinds and other actions have been appropriate to bring the seriousness of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to their attention, though sanctions are not necessarily very effective in bringing change, and, depending on their nature can be violent (e.g. in causing child deaths in Iraq prior to the 2003 Iraq war); they should be regularly reviewed. But in the long run an isolated Russia is much more dangerous than a Russia which is integrated and well related to other parts of Europe. It is isolation which has led Putin to act on his fantasy of uniting Ukraine with Russia. (See Edwin Markham ‘Inclusion’ poster at https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/posters/ )
So it is not just a question of providing, in the much used US English term, an ‘off ramp’ for Russia from the current situation. It is also a matter of ‘thinking ahead’ as to how Russia, probably post-Putin – he is 70 in the autumn of 2022 – can be brought into more normal relations with Europe and the world. It is not easy. But it was the disasters of the post-communist transfer to oligarchal capitalism which facilitated the Russian drift back to authoritarianism, and a lack of support from the west. If Russia is kept isolated in the longer term there is more cause for projecting it all as a Western conspiracy against the Russian people and therefore a further reason for internal repression and denial of human rights and democracy.
Putin is also a typical macho politician of the old school; self centred, ruthless, trusting his own judgement without consulting others, prepared to divide society in any way necessary to get his own way. In a recent speech he ridiculed “so-called gender freedoms”. His belief in a different Russian way to the west is a dangerous hodge podge of Russian nationalism, authoritarianism, machismo and anti-feminism. Violence is the way to achieve things where necessary, he believes, and also, in Stalin’s words, that it is not the people that vote that count but the people who count the votes.
However we should be wary of thinking that Putin is the only mass murderer around or the only one starting wars. He cares not a jot for the people of Ukraine and is prepared to kill as many as he feels necessary to achieve whatever he defines as his minimum aims. There might be the idea that such violence is the prerogative of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes who feel they can’t get their way. This is totally false.
The democracies of the USA, UK and elsewhere have participated in – and started – wars this century with much higher death tolls than Ukraine, in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have left traumatised societies with even bigger problems than when they started. President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are, in reality, also mass murderers. Subsequent presidents and prime ministers (USA and UK) continued killing through drone strikes. But where were the sanctions imposed on them???? Oh, “they were working from good intentions and were on the side of democracy” – what rubbish. The effect of death, destruction, trauma and chaos was the same. If we go back another generation or more from the Iraq war to Vietnam the USA was in effect trying to do something very similar to what Putin has been doing in Ukraine, only far worse in terms of destruction and death, and the effect of carpet bombing in Cambodia was to facilitate the emergence of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
That is why we have to erase the cancer of militarism from human society. It is the belief, prevalent in most societies and most political orientations, that might has a certain right and that when you don’t get your way through politics and diplomacy you then try military might.
But the belief in military resistance extends to progressive movements and wronged societies too. Ukraine has been a very courageous example of military resistance to Russian imperialism in the current war. But whether that was, or is, the best choice for Ukraine is another matter. It is for the people of Ukraine to decide how they resist Russian imperialism but if they continue their military struggle, and Russia continues to pound their cities to beat the civilian population into surrender, then they are likely to have a very high death rate and the burnt out shell of a country.
Nonviolent resistance and civilian defence is explored elsewhere in this issue, in ‘Readings in Nonviolence’, in an article on “Nonviolent resistance to invasion, occupation and coups d’états”.
The idea promulgated by NATO is of a humanity divided into armed camps; it refused to disband when its original casus belli, the Cold War, evaporated. The hopes and dreams of the end of the USSR and its military domination of eastern Europe are now a distant memory. And there were opportunities: Michael Randle in his 1991 book “People Power: The building of a new European home” (page 83) wrote in the context of western and eastern Europe, including Russia, that “If in due course a pan-European alliance takes shape, its role would be to provide reassurance and collective security for all the member states. Unlike NATO and the Warsaw Pact it would not be directed against a supposed external enemy but at ensuring that inter-state relations within the area are conducted according to agreed principles…” Why can that not be a dream to hold on to for the future?
However NATO has now played its role in the emergence of a new Cold War, once again ‘turning friends into enemies’. (See Len Munnik NATO poster at https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/posters/ ) If this is the best that humanity can aspire to then we will continue to live in a world which risks nuclear or other annihilation and there is a very real risk that, through accident or design, we will eventually achieve that armageddon and the destruction of most or all of humanity
The Céide Fields in north Mayo (5,000 years ago) indicates that at least in some places, perhaps universally, humanity once lived a peaceful, relatively settled life (which was also generally in tune with nature though in some places, both there and the Burren, it had ecological effects). At some point there developed an ‘arms race’ from which humanity has never properly recovered; there have been oases from this, of course, but what we tend to think of as ‘civilised’ society is far from that. It is not a matter of getting back to some ‘Garden of Eden’ but arriving at a world where conflicts, at whatever level, are dealt with though nonviolent means arriving at relative justice for both parties.
Of course justice is in the eye of the beholder but compromise is also part of the name of the game, and compromise is also something which we need to learn to live with while still struggling for better. Homo sapiens has many good qualities, and killing is not something that innately comes easy (as Rutger Bregman’s ‘Humankind: A hopeful history’ shows). We can build on the best of life and eliminate the worst, of which war is the nadir. If we don’t eliminate war then war will, eventually, eliminate us.
Building the mechanisms to deal with conflict constructively is a vast task which needs undertaken at every level – interpersonal, local, national and international. But it is a task which is already engaged in by many people in many different ways. What is needed now at the state and international level is the transfer of resources from the war machine which currently holds the majority of countries in thrall to a budding peace machine, a panoply of approaches and methods which can gradually build the capacity to intervene, support as necessary, and build peaceful resolution or outcomes for conflicts – and provide support afterwards so any cycle is not repeated. As Ban Ki-moon said, “The world is over-armed and peace is under-funded”; substantially correcting that imbalance can build a momentum to work for eliminating the scourge of war.
Electing for impasse or change
Stormont Assembly elections in Northern Ireland take place on 5th May. The reality that the North is not at war but not properly at peace remains a backdrop to these elections which are most likely to see Sinn Féin as the largest party on either side. There is also the fact that the whole exercise may be a futile one insofar as MLAs will be elected but will have no power and no Executive as the DUP (and of course the TUV) will refuse to play ball with electing a first and deputy first minister – and therefore there will be no government and no decisions made.
Sympathy has been expressed in these pages before for unionists and loyalists who object to the Northern Ireland Protocol as causing a divide between Northern Ireland and the island of Britain. They have felt, and been, betrayed by a lying prime minister. While minimising controls on imports to Northern Ireland from Britain should be on everyone’s agenda, the chances of replacing the Protocol are extremely slim, and the British government has no real interest in expending energy on this matter beyond trying to point a finger at the EU. But the NI Protocol is a direct result of Brexit. And the price of Brexit – a hard variety of which the DUP supported and organised for – is the Protocol. It can cause inconvenience but to portray it as pushing Northern Ireland out of the UK is simply not true. But there is still an issue about how to deal with loyalists’ concerns on the matter, and symbolism can matter.
While there are good people in different political parties who want to make things work, the system instituted in the Good Friday Agreement is clearly unstable and needs rejigged for a number of reasons, not least that it ignores and excludes the strengthening ‘middle ground’ who are some degree neither nationalist nor unionist. But the Good Friday Agreement cannot be abandoned until something else is agreed, and achieving that would be another marathon effort; there is no stomach across the board for that currently.
However there are ways in which positive decision making in a Northern Ireland (or any other) Assembly could be facilitated, including the voting methodologies promoted by the de Borda Institute which have built in safeguards for minorities. But politics is so divided at the moment in the North, with so many different points of view, that arriving at a new agreement would be extremely difficult. Perhaps if unionists come to terms with the fact they are no longer a majority – but neither are nationalists – there might be some chance of moving forward in ways which protect everyone but also allow decisions to be made.
Sinn Féin’s pressing for a border poll in the near future is not a wise move for a variety of reasons. Of course they are entitled to do so, and under the Good Friday Agreement 50% +1 in a border poll would bring about ‘some kind’ of united Ireland. But there are far too many questions and issues to be clarified first, and there would be likely no change in the status quo if such questions about the economic future and an all-island health service were unanswered. And if there is “50% +1” for a united Ireland that should mark, as we have said before, the start of a process of engagement with unionists who were not previously involved in the discussion but who now would want to be involved to arrive at the most equitable result.
In the mean time, at the May elections, there is not much that Northern voters can do except support progressive candidates who are prepared to move forward and be inclusive. The North has a long road to travel yet.
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