Even after the Russian attack: peace is the only option
(Originally published in German: Wiener Zeitung, February 26, 2022.)
By Werner Wintersteiner*1We peace researchers were wrong. We thought Putin wanted to permanently secure the insurgent-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and perhaps officially annex them, with threats and war cries. However, apparently, he wants more. He denies Ukraine’s right to be an independent state and calls the military invasion an act of demilitarization and denazification of the country, that is, he wants to destroy the entire military infrastructure and overthrow the government. 2The Western peace movement has warned against the disastrous war logic of the Ukraine crisis and pointed out that the West also has its share in the escalation. However, it has probably focused too much on its own side’s mistakes, especially on the massive expansion of NATO after 1989, which broke a de facto promise to the disintegrating Soviet Union and which Russia had to perceive as a threat. Without making it clear, we thought that if this policy was corrected, Russia would be satisfied and tensions would ease. The well-founded demand for Ukraine’s neutrality was also based on this line of reasoning, but it was never taken up by Western policy. Apparently, this line of reasoning of ours was also only partially correct. Now we have to conclude: Putin would then have had one less substantial pretext for his invasion, but it is by no means certain that the invasion would not have been justified with other arguments. 3It looks as if Putin, the chess player, had discovered a gap in the enemy’s defenses, which he exploited ice-cold. He knew that no one would defend Ukraine militarily and he knew the relative ineffectiveness of sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. So political realism as an explanatory model, unfortunately, proves its worth, at least at first glance and if one looks at the conflict in the short term. Nevertheless, the conflict has several dimensions and cannot be reduced to a chess game. 4It is striking how little the media and political experts have included the historical dimension, especially not the events of the Second World War and the immediate post-war period with the bloody battles between the Soviet Union and the Ukrainian UPA (1943-1947). In doing so, Putin constantly speaks of historical events, and imagines himself as a new tsar correcting the “mistakes of the communists,” and legitimizes his aggression as anti-fascism, in the tradition of the fight against the UPA. Here it becomes visible how little help a formal conflict resolution strategy is, which ultimately assumes a common interest of the actors to resolve the conflict and refrains from taking into account the complex psycho-historical wounds, claims, interests, desires and, so to speak, compensatory wishes. Instead of puzzling over Putin’s psychology, we should rather study the history he constantly invokes. More specifically, we need to look at both how much historical events shape the collective feelings and worldviews of the present, but also how much power-hungry politicians are willing to manipulate these feelings and instrumentalize these worldviews to lend the appearance of legitimacy to their political goals. 5Every war creates new facts. One of these facts is that the voice of European pacifism will become quieter, that civil conflict management will be considered discredited, that those who have long been calling for a European rearmament will be heard much more [editor’s note: to which Germany has already taken action, pledging €100 billion in increased military spending]. We are seeing that this blind reflex to fight back has already seized even people who counted themselves among the peace faction. Putin’s argument that he had no alternative – a typical statement of all warmongers – must not be used in reverse. On the contrary, we believe that the end of peace must not be the end of peace policy, as a statement by the German peace research community puts it. The first thing that should be made clear is that there are meaningful peaceful options, even if they cannot be expected to end violence in the short term and undo the wrongs that have been done. 6 The Russian invasion must be outlawed in all international bodies, starting with the UN. An emergency session of the UN General Assembly is an important moral authority, but there are a multitude of international institutions. This conflict is also not only a conflict between state leaders, but also between societies. It is important how public opinion thinks – also in Russia. Political parties and civil society organizations should reject the invasion, but at the same time maintain contact with organizations and institutions in Russia, even if it is known how little room for maneuvers they have. 7Every conflict that escalates, and war, in particular, leads to the abandonment of complex thinking in favor of simplifications and clear images of friends and enemies. In contrast, we must insist on illuminating the entire history and dynamics of this conflict, which often means focusing not on an either-or, but on a both-and. One must therefore condemn the Russian invasion and at the same time concede Russia’s “legitimate security interests,” which, however, can only be concretized in dialogue with the counterpart and realized by peaceful means. One must support the (Western) front of diplomatic condemnation and economic sanctions against Russia and at the same time criticize the fact that the West has also allowed the conflict to escalate. 8The conflict is often compared to the Cold War. It was precisely as an attempt to overcome the impasse of the Cold War and the “security trap” that instruments such as arms limitations and the collective security system (security without deterrence) were developed. Such instruments were intended to take into account the needs of all sides, reduce tensions, and lead to a general reduction in armaments. This process of detente resulted in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) and eventually in the creation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Now the situation is much more complicated – but there will be no other way in the long run than to use these instruments again. 9We must not believe that Putin’s military successes will permanently secure his power. It is true that the economic sanctions, despite their moral function, will have little effect in realpolitik terms, especially since Russia’s war chest is much better filled than it was when it conquered Crimea in 2014, and their alliance with China has also become much closer. Nevertheless, the injustice of this new war is a moral declaration of bankruptcy, which in the long-term undermines the legitimacy of Putin’s power in the eyes of the Russian population as well. This is what we must work towards. 10Therefore, instead of Western weapons, a Western peace initiative is needed. It is hard to believe that the two parties will come out of the disaster without a mediator. This initiative may come from the neutral states of Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Ireland. It must offer both sides a perspective, on security, economic, and ‘moral’ terms. The dignity of all parties must be respected. This is, of course, a very difficult task in view of the fierce fighting. A pan-European peace and security architecture including Russia must be striven for – something that was criminally neglected after 1989. Here, also the West must also practice self-criticism. Security and prosperity cannot be achieved against each other, only with each other. Common security must be understood as human security.
Instead of a new arms race, we need disarmament in order to gather strengths for joint efforts to stop the climate catastrophe and to master the pandemic. We have common problems, we can only overcome them together. As the Dalai Lama puts it in his statement on the war in Ukraine: “Our world has become so interdependent that violent conflict between two countries inevitably impacts the rest of the world. War is outdated – non-violence is the only way. We need to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity by considering other human beings as brothers and sisters. This is how we will build a more peaceful world” (Hindustan Times, Feb 28, 2022).
*Professor (ret.) Werner Wintersteiner, Ph.D., a longtime contributor to the Global Campaign for Peace Education, is an Austrian peace researcher and peace educator.