One year of war in Ukraine: If you want peace, prepare peace

Peaceful solutions require more courage and imagination than belligerent ones. But what would be the alternative? Let us remember: “The longer war lasts, the more difficult peace becomes and the more urgently it is needed.” (Edgar Morin)

By Werner Wintersteiner

Smart pacifism

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has outraged us and united us in solidarity with the brave Ukrainians. At the same time, however, it has created an absurd situation of which hardly anyone seems to be aware. There is a war going on and right now it is frowned upon to think about peace – anyone who does so is doing Putin’s business, is hopelessly naïve and is speaking in ignorance of the situation, etc. But especially in view of the war, it should be the most natural thing in the world to try to find a way out of this catastrophe. Instead, only one path of thought is allowed – war for victory, which is supposed to bring peace.

Pacifism has been discredited, and it may itself have played a part in this. In the rampant manifestos, moral confession is celebrated, solidarity with the victims sometimes takes a back seat, and paths to the longed-for peace are missing. Instead of a moral or even defeatist pacifism, however, a smart pacifism is to be advocated here. The philosopher Olivia Mitscherlich-Schönherr calls this a “politically wise pacifism” as opposed to purely ethical pacifism. “It is not only oriented towards the guiding value of ending killing as quickly as possible. It also prudently weighs different paths to that goal, remains self-critical, forges coalitions and acts at the right time.” [1] It does not enjoy being a caller in the desert, but wants to become a signpost out of the desert.

When, if not now?

To plead for negotiations is not to claim that the conditions are already in place. Therefore, the counter-argument that this would merely freeze the status quo and reward Russia for its war of aggression does not hold water. Rather, when all negotiations seem futile, it is even more important to think about it. This is now also being done by high-ranking military officers, such as the US General Mark Milley, the former General and CIA chief David Petraeus or the retired German Generals Erich Vad and Harald Kujat.

When all negotiations seem futile, it is even more important to think about it.

For obviously neither side has much prospect of victory in the foreseeable future; a long war of attrition is to be expected. This means further massive destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure, economy and nature, mass casualties of human life on both sides and a further weakening of the standard of living in Russia. But it also means tremendous costs for maintaining the warfare. The hope that this will lead to massive protests on the Russian side that could force Putin to stop the war effort is quite low, according to the experts. The fear, on the other hand, that support for permanent war costs and permanent increases in arms deliveries could collapse over time in the Western coalition of democratic states is much more real. So it would be wise to look for alternatives to the military solution right now.

Three paths to negotiations

Is it impossible to negotiate with Putin because he is a dictator? One has always negotiated with dictators, and the negotiations with Putin after the start of the war apparently resulted in a draft agreement at the beginning of April 2022.[2] But then, according to the Israeli head of government at the time, Naftali Bennett, the negotiations were broken off by the West.[3]

The prerequisite for negotiations is that the parties to the conflict, especially Russia, see them as more promising than continuing the war. There are three ways of exerting pressure on Russia: inflicting such losses on the battlefield that the war becomes unbearable; weakening the country through sanctions and thus making it more difficult to wage war; and/or weakening Russia through international isolation. The first two paths are being exhausted. They are undoubtedly having an effect, but according to the vast majority of experts, they will not lead to a decision or peace. The third way, on the other hand, is being pursued very half-heartedly and neglected.

It is true that the USA in particular has made efforts to bring about a broad coalition in the UN to condemn Russian aggression. But even if a majority of states was won, this was a minority measured in terms of the number of the world’s population. And only direct allies of the West participate in sanctions. But the fact that Russia feels very dependent on the consent or neutrality of the global South is shown by the quick conclusion of the grain agreements. Here, the West could not isolate Russia, if only because the initiative did not come from it, but from the African Union. The West’s disregard for the interests of the countries of the South until recently (cf. also the Covid-19 crisis) is now falling back on it.

Hope for the Global South

In the meantime, however, neutral states have repeatedly stepped onto the scene and offered themselves as mediators: Turkey, Israel, Brazil since Lula took office and, more recently, China. This could create a new situation that would make it difficult for Russia to continue the war. The West should wisely support rather than resist this, also to balance the inevitable self-interests of the mediators.

Another force, a sleeping giant, is international civil society. So far, no broad global peace movement has developed. What this would be able to achieve is shown by its role in ending the Vietnam War. At that time, the so-called Russell Tribunal did much to discredit the USA as a warmonger. Today, such a tribunal would not only have to discredit Russia worldwide, it would rather have to function as a civil society utopian space where new ideas of peace are generated.

Another force, a sleeping giant, is international civil society. So far, no broad global peace movement has developed.

Being in favour of negotiations does not mean imposing solutions on Ukraine. It needs concrete guarantees that its territorial integrity will be preserved, that the Russian invasion will not be rewarded and that its security will continue in the future. But Russia’s security interests, not to be confused with its imperial ambitions, must also be respected. Ukraine’s neutrality, a demilitarised zone, the deployment of peacekeepers and a temporary administration of territories by the United Nations have already been mooted.

Peaceful solutions require more courage and imagination than belligerent ones. But what would be the alternative? Let us remember: “The longer war lasts, the more difficult peace becomes and the more urgently it is needed.” (Edgar Morin)

*Werner Wintersteiner. Retired professor, Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt, Austria. 

To be published shortly: Edgar Morin. From War to War. From 1940 to the Invasion of Ukraine. Edited by Werner Wintersteiner and Wilfried Graf at Turia + Kant. [in German, translation from the French original]

Notes / References

[1] https://www.fr.de/kultur/gesellschaft/philosophin-fordert-einen-politisch-klugen-pazifismus-92087549.html

[2] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/world-putin-wants-fiona-hill-angela-stent und https://www.infosperber.ch/politik/welt/ukraine-die-kampfpanzer-reichen-fuer-eine-kriegswende-nicht/

[3] https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/open-source/naftali-bennett-wollte-den-frieden-zwischen-ukraine-und-russland-wer-hat-blockiert-li.314871

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