Tag Archives: Violence

Readings in Nonviolence: Ukraine by Peter Emerson

What follows is an edited version of a talk given by Peter Emerson at a demonstration on Ukraine in Belfast in late July 2022. It has not been updated in relation to certain facts that have changed – .e.g. the ‘referendums’ in Russian held regions to the east of Ukraine which Russia is attempting to annex into Russia. To update it in this way would have made it a substantially different piece so it was decided to leave it ‘as was’ since the points made are still salient..


by Peter Emerson

Mariupol. The name Mariupol has now entered the litany of cities that humankind has first created… and then destroyed, cities like Guernica, Warsaw and Grozny. How Russia can do to others what it too has suffered, as in Leningrad, is difficult to comprehend. Sadly, however, there are still many people in this world who think problems can be solved by the threat or use of force, not least today’s, and yesterday’s leaders in the Kremlin.

In Red Square in Moscow, in 1968, when Soviet tanks went into Prague, seven individuals protested. Only seven. In stark contrast, today, with Russian tanks in Ukraine, the protesters in Russia are in their hundreds – not least the mothers of sons, soldiers, boys, who are now dead. Like the seven in 1968, today’s hundreds recognise that the Kremlin has made a horrible mistake. So we should be doing everything possible to help them… and that includes asking our ambassadors and others to join them in their peaceful, non-violent demonstrations. I’ll talk a little more on this in a moment.

Putin could hardly be more wrong. Mariupol is not a Russian word; if it were Russian or Slavic, it would be ‘Mariugrad’ or ‘Mariusky’. But it is Mariupol, like Sevastopol and Simferopol in the Crimea. And the suffix ‘pol’ is Greek; it goes back 2,000 years or so, long before Russia was concocted, and long before even the City State of Muscovy was founded. Putin distorts his history, and even his geography. Russia is not only a Slav nation: today’s Russian Federation includes Samis in Lapland, the Tartars near the Urals, the Dagestanis and North Ossetians in the Northern Caucasus, and over 50 different ethnic groups in Siberia, from the Buryats near Lake Baikal to the Chukchis on the Pacific coast. Meanwhile, other nations or regions like Slovakia, Slovenia, Slavonia and Poland, for example, are also very Slav. And in the main, so too is Ukraine.

First of all, however, I want to go back 100 years and more, to the beginning of the First World War, when Bertrand Russell sent a letter to The Times, along the following lines: if yesterday I killed a German, he wrote, I would likely be arrested, charged, tried… and punished. But if I kill a German tomorrow, I might well be praised and be called a hero. And all because someone has declared war.

Putin has declared war, or a “special military operation,” and apparently, he thinks this gives him the right to maim and murder. So we who think he is wrong should ‘declare peace,’ and until Russia withdraws its forces, our ambassadors and others in Moscow should ignore all the usual ‘peace-time’ niceties of diplomatic protocol, and they should indeed join the indigenous protesters on Moscow’s Pushkin Square or wherever, and engage in any and every peaceful, non-violent act of civil disobedience against this war. Such a tactic may well put their liberties or even their lives in some danger, but better that, surely, than policies which put the lives of hundreds or thousands of Ukrainians at risk.

More than that. Maybe certain famous individuals, preferably old people, should go to Moscow, or Minsk, or at least the Belarus border, and protest. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a rabbi, an imam, Barack Obama, Mary Robinson, Joan Baez and others – anyone who is famous and old. Maybe they should even fast, as would perhaps, if he were still with us, Mahatma Gandhi, to demand the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.

In 2004, I was an OSCE election observer in Kharkiv, an election fought between just two candidates – Yushchenko and Yanukovich – so everything was binary, and very divisive. Yushchenko was pro-EU, Yanukovich pro-Russia. Needless to say, as in many binary contests, lots of differences were highlighted: Yushchenko preferred the Ukrainian language, Yanukovich favoured Russian… but these two languages are very similar. Western Ukraine is more Catholic or Uniate, the East opts more for the (now split) Orthodox Church… but these denominations are all Christian. (Well, as here in Northern Ireland, little differences can all too easily divide and antagonise.) In the election, both candidates had their parties of course, and in the count, their party agents. They were sitting next to each other, and I asked them, what was it like to compete against each other. “Oh today, we are opponents, yes; но завтра опять таки будем друзьями – but tomorrow, we’ll be friends again.”

How dangerous it was, we may say if only in retrospect, to use such a divisive voting procedure.

Ten years later, in 2014, in the neighbouring county or oblast of Luhansk, there was a referendum. In the same year, you will remember, Scotland had its referendum… and it is sobering to recall that the word Shotlandiya, Scotland, was used by Russian separatists to ‘justify’ the unjustifiable.

So what can we do, here, to help our fellow human beings there, in Ukraine? Yes, we can supply them with weapons; that’s quite a difficult thing to say for a pacifist… but there’s no contradiction: I believe in the principle of minimum force, I have myself used force here in Northern Ireland, and we should do what we can to allow Ukraine to defend itself.

And generally speaking, we should not be resolving our disputes in the way Putin thinks he can resolve his. Accordingly, we here in Northern Ireland should not be using weapons of war, as we did throughout the Troubles (albeit on a far smaller scale), and nor should we be using any ‘false flags’, provocations, excuses for violence. I refer in particular to binary referendums.

Donetsk is now planning another one; so too Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, (or they were until the recent Ukrainian advances around Izium). Donetsk had one already, in 1991, as did Luhansk… and Crimea of course, when they and every other ‘county’, oblast, in Ukraine voted in favour of Ukrainian independence – and we should note that in Crimea, the Crimean Tatars abstained: neither of the two options catered for their aspirations. But in 2014, these three counties then had a second vote, to reverse that earlier decision, and referendum decisions can be reversed, apparently: it is catered for in the Belfast Agreement, it is what some in Scotland now want to do.

The history of conflicts is often all very similar. In 1920, when Ireland opted out of the UK, Northern Ireland opted out of opting out and opted back in again, (albeit without referendums). In like manner, when Bosnia opted out of Yugoslavia, Republika Srpska tried to opt out of Bosnia. When Georgia opted out of the USSR, South Ossetia tried to opt out of Georgia. And a similar fate befell Kiev: Ukraine opted out of USSR, in 1991; next, in 2014, Donetsk tried to opt out of Ukraine; and then, part of Donetsk – it’s called Dobropillia and Krasnoarmiisk – tried to opt out of opting out and to opt back into Dnepropetrovsk and Ukraine. In this last referendum, 69%, i.e., some two million people – so that’s twice the electorate of NI – voted to go back into Ukraine. Alas – as in the Balkans, so too in Ukraine – the powers that be – the West in the former, Putin in the Donbas – recognise only those referendums the results of which they approve.

Crazy. It’s a bit like those famous Russian dolls, the matryoshki. Inside every doll, there’s another little one; with every majority, there’s another minority. But this is international law. The 1973 border poll here only made matters worse. Similar polls created havoc in Yugoslavia, where “all the wars… started with a referendum,” – to quote Sarajevo’s famous newspaper, Oslobodjenje. And they have now created havoc in Ukraine.

+ Everything is connected. “Всё связано,” to quote Vladimir Vernadsky, the founder of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ukraine. Binary referendums can be false flags.

+ No one is an island. In Bosnia, Republika Srpska is rattling its sabres and ballot boxes, and so too in Georgia is South Ossetia.

Accordingly, here in Ireland (and Scotland), if only for the sake of peace in Ukraine, (the Balkans and the Caucasus) we should not be trying to resolve our own constitutional questions with referendums which are binary. Of the world’s multi-option plebiscites – three options in Newfoundland for example, six in Guam and a few others – all passed peacefully; but binary referendums in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Caucasus, East Timor, Catalonia… everything from non-fatal violence to outright war!

Peter Emerson, Director, the de Borda Institute www.deborda.org

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Readings in Nonviolence: New Patterns of Conflict and the Weakness of Peace Movements


Just as military generals can often be portrayed as fighting ‘the last war’, so peace activists can be caught out in thinking which is outdated and inadequate to address current realities. In this thoughtful and insightful editorial from the 29/8/22 issue of Transcend Media Service, Richard Rubenstein addresses some of the questions and issues arising from the Russian-Ukrainian war and from ongoing global conflicts or rivalries. His thoughts on imperialism are also very relevant to Ireland and the question of neutrality; is Ireland simply going to buy in wholesale to EU and NATO imperialisms or neo-imperialisms? Avoiding being a world at war is a difficult task but we need clear analysis to take the right paths in working for peace.

By Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

No.760. https://www.transcend.org/tms/

The beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war in February 2022 dramatized a transition already underway to a new and highly dangerous period of global conflict. The war itself was mainly a Western affair, of primary interest to the immediate parties and the Ukrainians’ European and North American suppliers. But it erupted in the context of a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the United States, which continues to claim global hegemony, and its former Cold War adversaries, Russia and China. As a result, a regional conflict that might have been resolved either by conventional negotiation or problem-solving dialogues between the immediate parties became relatively intractable, with no immediate solutions in sight.

Temporarily, at least, the struggle between Russia and Ukraine solidified the relationship between the United States and Europe, while reinforcing the U.S.’s dominant role in that “partnership.” While the parties to what some termed a “new Cold War” increased their military spending and ideological fervor, other aspirants to Great Power status such as Turkey, India, Iran, and Japan maneuvered for temporary advantage. Meanwhile, the Ukraine war began to assume the status of a “frozen conflict,” with Russia succeeding in occupying most of the restive, Russian-speaking Donbas region, while the U.S. poured billions of dollars in high-tech weaponry, intelligence, and training into the Kiev regime’s armory.

As often happens, the emergence of new patterns of conflict caught analysts by surprise, their theoretical equipment having been designed to explain earlier forms of struggle.  As a result, the changed environment was not well understood and conflict resolution efforts were virtually nonexistent.  With regard to the Ukraine war, for example, the conventional wisdom was that a “mutually hurting stalemate,” with neither party able to win a total victory but with each side suffering greatly, would render this sort of conflict “ripe for resolution” via negotiation. (see I. William Zartman, Ripeness Promoting Strategies). But there were two problems with this formulation:

  • New forms of limited warfare featuring the relatively restrained use of high-tech weapons, while killing or wounding thousands and causing serious damage to property and the environment, still lessened the amount of suffering that might otherwise have been expected in a war between neighbors. While the Donbas region exploded, consumers dined out in Kiev. While Russian casualties mounted and the West imposed sanctions on the Putin regime, citizens of the RFSR enjoyed a relatively peaceful and prosperous existence.

Moreover, contrary to Western propaganda, with a few tragic exceptions Russia did not undertake large-scale indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population of Ukraine, nor did the Ukrainians launch many attacks on targets outside the Donbas. This relative restraint on both sides (not to understate the horror caused by thousands of unnecessary deaths) appears to have reduced the massive “hurt” needed to produce a “mutually hurting stalemate.” This movement toward what might be called “partial warfare” can be seen as a feature of the military transformation that began in the U.S. following the Vietnam War with the replacement of conscripted soldiers by “volunteers” and the replacement of ground troops by high-tech air, artillery, and naval weapons. Ironically, limiting the intolerable suffering caused by war has opened the door to partial warfare as a tolerable, potentially permanent feature of Great Power foreign policy.

  • The local struggle in Ukraine intersected with a revival of imperial conflicts globally, particularly when the United States decided to embrace the anti-Russian cause and to pour billions of dollars in advanced weapons and intelligence into the Kiev regime’s coffers. The stated reason for this militancy, according to top officials of the Biden regime, was to “weaken” Russia as a global competitor and to warn China that the U.S. would resist any Chinese moves against Taiwan or other Asian targets that it considered aggressive. Its result was to embolden the Ukrainian leader, Zelensky, to declare that his nation would never compromise with Russia on disputed issues (not even on the issue of Crimea), and that his nation’s goal was “victory.” One never knows, of course, when a leader who preaches victory at any price will decide that his/her nation as paid enough and that it is time to talk about cutting losses and maximizing benefits.  Nevertheless, at this writing, neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Zelensky is willing to say a word about ending this apparently endless conflict.

This second theoretical deficiency has proved even more costly to the cause of peace than the misunderstanding of partial warfare. While advocates of Western hegemony find ways to justify U.S. and European military support of “democracies” against “autocracies” and Russian ideologues such as Alexander Dugin dream of a revived Great Russia, most peace and conflict studies scholars remain devoted to the analysis of identity-group struggles as a way of understanding both global conflict and internal polarization. Some peace scholars have identified important new sources of conflict such as environmental destruction, global medical crises, and climate change, but a great many continue to ignore the problem of empire and the emergence of new conflicts between would-be hegemons. (An outstanding exception to this shortsightedness is the work of Johan Galtung, whose 2009 book, The Fall of the US Empire – And Then What? TRANSCEND University Press, now seems prophetic.)

This general lack of attention to imperialism and its vicissitudes has reasons rooted in the history of the conflict studies field, but its political dimensions need to be identified if we hope to overcome the obvious weaknesses of peace movements when confronted by conflicts like Russia vs. Ukraine and NATO or the U.S. and its allies vs. China.  Particularly in the West, the current polarization of politics tends to produce two major tendencies: a right-wing populism whose ideological commitments are ethno-nationalist and isolationist, and a left-leaning centrism whose ideology is cosmopolitan and globalist. Neither tendency understands the emerging patterns of global conflict or has any real interest in creating the conditions for global peace. The Right advocates avoiding unnecessary wars, but its nationalism trumps its isolationism; thus, right-wing leaders preach maximum military preparedness and advocate “defense” against traditional national enemies. The Left is consciously or unconsciously imperialist, a view that it expresses using the language of international “leadership” and “responsibility” as well as under the rubrics of “peace through strength” and “responsibility to protect.”

Most Democratic Party supporters in the U.S. fail to recognize that the current Biden Administration is a ferocious advocate of American imperial interests and  supports war preparations aimed at China and Russia; or else they do understand this, but view it as a minor issue compared with the threat of domestic neo-fascism a la Donald Trump. Similarly, most supporters of left and left-center parties in Europe fail to understand that NATO is currently a branch of the U.S. military machine and potentially the military-industrial establishment of a new European empire. Or else they suspect this but view the rise and expansion of NATO through lenses of hatred and suspicion of the Russians and fear of right-populist movements like those of Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen. In either case, the result is that advocates of global peace tend to be separated from the domestic constituencies with which they might otherwise ally.

This isolation has been particularly notable in the case of the movement for peace through negotiations in Ukraine, which has yet to obtain any real traction in any Western nation. Indeed, the strongest advocates for immediate peace negotiations, aside from officials of the United Nations, tend to be figures associated with Middle Eastern and Asian nations like Turkey, India, and China.  From a Western perspective, then, the question most vexed and most in need of an answer is how to overcome the isolation of peace movements.

Two answers suggest themselves, but each produces problems that generate a need for further discussion:

The first answer: establish an alliance between left-wing and right-wing peace advocates. Anti-war liberals and socialists could unite with conservative isolationists and libertarians to create a cross-party coalition against foreign wars.  In fact, this sort of coalition sometimes comes into existence spontaneously, as in the United States during the period following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The difficulty, of course, is that this is precisely what Marxists call a “rotten bloc” – a political organization that, because it finds common cause on only one issue, is bound to break apart when other issues become salient. In addition, if anti-war work means uprooting the causes of war as well as opposing some current military mobilization, the elements of a “rotten bloc” are unlikely to agree on how to identify and remove those causes.

The second answer: convert the left-liberal party to the perspective of anti-imperial peace advocacy, or split the putative left into pro-war and anti-war constituencies and work to secure the latter’s supremacy. The obstacle to doing this is not only the general fear of a right-wing takeover noted above but the weakness of the peace camp within the left-wing milieu. In the U.S., most “progressives” (including self-anointed Democratic Socialists) have been eerily silent on the war in Ukraine, either out of fear of isolating themselves on domestic issues or because they accept the conventional justifications for a war against “Russian aggression.”  This suggests the need to break with the empire-builders and to build anti-capitalist organizations committed to ending imperialism and making global peace. This is the solution to the problem, at least in theory, but whether people can be mobilized in large enough numbers to enact it during the period of “partial war” is doubtful.

This suggests a connection between the two emerging forms of violent conflict discussed earlier. Partial wars of the sort being fought out in Ukraine can intersect inter-imperial struggles like that between the U.S./Europe alliance and Russia. When this occurs they become “frozen” conflicts which, however, have the capacity to escalate dramatically – that is, to move toward total war – if either side faces a disastrous defeat, or if inter-imperial conflict intensifies significantly. Inter-imperial conflict itself can be conceived of either as a revival of the Cold War manageable, to some extent, by the processes of mutual deterrence developed during the earlier era, or as a new type of struggle posing new risks, including a much greater danger that nuclear arms (starting with low-yield weapons) will be used either by the major parties or by their allies. My own view, to be presented in a later editorial, is that it represents a new type of struggle that greatly increases the danger of all-out nuclear war.

The immediate conclusion that one may draw from this is that there is an urgent need for peace scholars to recognize emerging forms of global conflict, analyze the new conflict dynamics, and draw practical conclusions from this analysis.  At the same time, peace activists urgently need to identify the causes of their current weakness and isolation and to devise methods to increase their influence greatly among members of the public and reachable decision-makers. In these efforts international conversations and actions will be of critical importance, since the world as a whole is finally, and rightfully, slipping out of the control of the West.