Ukraine and Non-Violence

A tragedy is a preventable outcome that ends in death. The current Ukraine war is clearly a tragedy, as are all wars. Western powers would have us believe that the Ukraine war is a just and noble cause that will end in a humiliating defeat for Russia. I would argue that anyone who has had a cursory look at Russian history will know they are a people capable of enduring terrible strife and suffering – the Napoleonic wars, Stalingrad, … etc. It is rarely wise to bet against the Russians in a war of attrition. The reality is that the western powers who proudly send arms to Ukraine are only in this war to see the Russians suffer, more than to see Ukraine triumph. Western powers do not seem to have a clear strategy or end game for this conflict and they are definitely not going to engage directly with Russia. One thing is clear, the European and Americans will happily see Ukraine fight to the last Ukrainian.

In no way do I claim that Russia is in the right, but it is critical to understand that right and wrong are not very relevant in war. War is war. Death is death. Suffering is suffering. Regardless of the morality of a conflict, the people who suffer are those fighting, their families, communities and all the civilians caught in between. The glory of war is deeply embedded in human our culture. As a father of two beautiful boys, I would never be able to see them fight a war. Whenever someone extols the glory of war and the justice of a cause I ask them to re-read the history of the first world war. The images of young men enthusiastically enlisting and travelling to the trenches, only to have their heads blown off and their intestines spread over the mud of Europe breaks my heart.

Let us remember that single day at Verdun, when over 50,000 men were killed. Let us remember the noble French soldiers who laid down their arms in protest, only to be executed by the French army. Let us remember that ultimately, the first world war was just a stepping stone for the second. In the harsh reality of armed conflict, there are only two possible outcomes. One outcome is for the enemy force to be utterly destroyed and the second outcome is that a negotiated peace settlement is found. In the case of the first world war, a bad peace settlement was reached before the Allied forces crossed into German territory. Had a good peace agreement been found, it is probably that the second war would never have happened. The desire to humiliate Germany and the long term scars of the Franco-Prussian war sowed the seeds of the second world war.

Even the second world war, with nearly 26 million deaths and untold destruction and horror could have probably been resolved without so much war. It should be recalled that the Allied forces did not go to war to defend the Jews, gypsies, Romas and homosexuals who were being massacred by the Nazis. The Allied forces went to war to defend their interests. It is my firm belief that a sustained and coherent policy of non-violence and non-cooperation by Europeans and the Allied countries could have undone the Nazis without so many deaths or the Holocaust. Of course, we will never know, but it is worth the thought experiment.

After the dust settled on the second world war Germany and its army were completely destroyed. This destruction and the wisdom gained from the first war was thankfully put to good use with the formation of the United Nations, the European Union and other international organizations that have successfully avoided large scale war ever since. As imperfect as these institutions are, they have likely saved millions of lives.

In Ukraine, there is only one outcome possible – a negotiated peace settlement. Ukraine cannot defeat Russia, conquer its territory and destroy its entire army and Russia cannot entirely destroy Ukraine. This reality sets the stage for a long war of attrition where the suffering will echo through generations of Ukrainian and Russian families. The geographic reality is that Ukraine is on Russia’s doorstep and it is a deeply divided country between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers. Wish as we might, no amount of hope or guns or aid will change that reality. Just as the United States would never allow Canada to be militarily aligned with Russia, Russia will not allow Ukraine to be militarily aligned with the United States. The pro-Western Ukrainians may desperately want NATO membership and EU membership, but the problem is that a big Russian bear lives next door. The Russian bear gets angry when you poke him in the eye.

The sooner we realize that a negotiated settlement is inevitable the better. For the sake of the innocent children, someone must force a negotiation through any means necessary. The best candidate for such a push is likely China, but so far they seem uninterested in taking a leading role in international politics. Regardless of the instigator, Ukrainians and Russians must find a way to live together because they are neighbours. Any reasonable agreement, as admitted by President Zelensky, will likely mean Ukrainian neutrality (like Mexico) and abandoning the adherence to NATO. This main mean internal conflict in Ukraine, but what other option is there? The path of perpetual conflict with Russia is certainly not in Ukraine’s interest. Ukrainians who fought in the Orange revolution and in the Maiden revolution want Ukraine to be a European country, but there is a geographic and historical reality that cannot simply be wished away. Unless Russia integrates Europe, which may have been possible back in 1991, but seems unlikely anytime soon, Ukraine will not be able to fully integrate Europe. This is ultimately a political problem that cannot be solved through military force. The most likely outcome is probably Russia annexing parts of Ukraine.

The Ukraine conflict is only the most recent war. Millions continue to die in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and many other countries around the world. Though violent deaths are decreasing globally, there remains a great amount of work to be done to bring about peace in our time. On this Father’s day, it is my hope that father’s the world over will choose a path of peace and non-violence in the name of justice. There is no glory in death, there is only suffering and misery.

For more on non-violence:

World Beyond
Einstein Institute

Published on June 19, 2022