Making Real Peace in Times of War: Lessons from Ukraine

By John Reuwer, World BEYOND War, September 22, 2023

A few months before the full-scale war in Ukraine started, when there were warnings but mostly skepticism about whether Russia would invade, many of us who spend time seeking alternatives to war were watching what Ukraine’s reaction might be. For me, excitement started from reading research suggesting that a significant portion of Ukrainians were familiar with civil resistance and were open to using that to resist a Russian invasion. I knew that Ukrainians were once dominated by Russia as part of the U.S.S.R., gaining independence without a bloody war, and that they overcame a fraudulent election in 2004 in the nonviolent Orange Revolution. My enthusiasm increased in the first few weeks of the war, when some of the world’s leaders in the field of nonviolent resistance gave webinars and wrote articles on how this might work. There were reports from Ukraine showing pictures and telling stories of Ukrainians blocking tanks, confusing invaders by changing street signs, and rescuing city officials who had been detained by the Russian army. Videos showed Russian deserters and prisoners being treated well and calling home to their loved ones. I allowed myself to think that maybe this would be the first time a large nation decides to use mainly nonviolent resistance in the face of invasion.

Within a few weeks, those images of unarmed civilians blocking tanks disappeared in favor of displaying the early Ukrainian military successes. The world witnessed dramatic scenes such as the 50-kilometer traffic jam of a Russian armored column that was destroyed piecemeal by Ukrainian military force. Then came the barrage of billions of dollars of sophisticated artillery and missiles and their devastating effect that media outlets love to cover. People were bleeding and dying all over the place, while almost no one was paying attention to the Ukrainians around the country doing civil resistance with considerable effect. I traveled to Romania and Ukraine in the fall of 2022, and met with peacebuilding groups of all sorts. When I asked what they needed from my (U.S.) government, most of them said “weapons”. Only a small handful said otherwise.

Had a decisive military victory been quick, some might have begun to think that all the martial preparations had been worth it. But 18 months into the war, there is no end in sight. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women on both sides are killing and maiming each other in trench warfare reminiscent of 1914, when millions died trying to gain a few kilometers of earth. And just like WWI, which did purport to have a victor, but left a legacy of seething resentment and impoverishment that found its outlet in the much worse WWII, any military victory in this war will also leave millions traumatized and resentful in ways that will make the next war inevitable. This time the environment is suffering even more, with mines, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium leaving large swaths of beautiful fertile land toxic for generations. Massive dams are destroyed, nuclear plants threaten to make vast areas uninhabitable, surging food and fuel prices bring cold and hunger to millions around the world, and each day of war risks making hundreds of cities around the world look like present day Mariupol (except also radioactive) if nuclear weapons are used by madness or mistake.

The fact is that there is now a military stalemate that is highly unlikely to allow the Russians to take much more territory or the Ukrainians to take back all of what they have lost. Which is why I see an immediate ceasefire as the best way to stop the madness and preserve the future for all of us. On the other hand, I agree with Ukrainians who say a ceasefire and endless negotiations alone would give them little hope for their future. Other measures must be taken to assure that military action does not resume, and that people in occupied territories are treated with dignity and respect. How could that happen? By negotiations that seek a just peace for legitimate concerns on both sides, backed by incentives to assure peaceful behavior from all parties. The countless particulars of such things are beyond the scope of this essay, but would include gradual mutual removal of all offensive military hardware from front lines and national borders throughout Europe, the end of “war games” near anyone’s border, and access to all occupied areas by the UN, the Red Cross, and other human rights organizations to prevent abuses. Negotiations could be facilitated by offering things each side wants that do not threaten the security of the other side: relief from sanctions, massive humanitarian aid, and return to confidence building measures like the Antiballistic Missile, Open Skies, and Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaties.

Cases of war crimes can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, even if it opens up NATO countries to liability for behavior in their invasions of nations that parallel what the Russians have done in Ukraine. Agreements could be reached to prevent further environmental abuse and begin cleanup of ordinance. Support for the 700,000 men who left Russia rather than risk fighting in Ukraine, to prevent their repatriation until after the war, and logistical help for inviting their friends and family back home to join them would cost a small part of current weapons expenditures. Giving honor and support to conscientious objectors in a very public way would benefit Ukraine particularly because it is consistent with their image as a democracy, and they have so few of them compared to their enemy.

Perhaps most importantly, recognizing that Russia used the threat of nuclear weapons to invade Ukraine without a direct confrontation with the much stronger NATO nations, measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in foreign policy should be started with threat reductions like declaring no first use, taking weapons off high alert, removing nuclear weapons from host countries, and signing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Peaceful means to achieve peace seem unrealistic only because we lack education in them. World BEYOND War’s annual virtual conference, #NoWar2023: Nonviolent Resistance to Militarism, will explore these subjects September 22-24. It will offer a keynote speech summarizing the current state of the art of nonviolent resistance, and panels on historical and current examples of unarmed challenges to militarized conflict. A highlight will be a debate with former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, journalist James Brooke, and World BEYOND War’s David Swanson pitting arguments justifying war as the answer to the conflict in Ukraine versus arguments that both sides could have avoided war with diplomacy backed by available nonviolent strategies and tactics.

John Reuwer serves on the Board of World BEYOND War and is the Chair of the Zaporizhzhya Protection Project, engaging civil society on the front line of the war in Ukraine. He has 35 years of experience studying and teaching conflict resolution and nonviolence, including as an adjunct professor of peace and justice studies at St. Michael’s College, with peace team field experience in Haiti, Colombia, Central America, Palestine/Israel, South Sudan, and several U.S. inner cities.

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