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Why pacifism kills

In spite of Ukraine’s continued fight against Russian aggression, there are still many voices calling for peace at any cost. While such proposals may appear attractive on the surface, they ultimately benefit Moscow’s clear desire for further violence and terror on its own terms.

May 31, 2024 - Liliya Luts Valerii Pekar Yaroslav Yakovenko Yuliya Shtaltovna - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Photo: Alexey Khromushin / Shutterstock

For more than ten years, Ukraine has been fighting for its independence, territorial integrity, and the freedom of its people against a much more powerful opponent, which used to possess the world’s second-largest army. For two years now, the peoples and governments of democratic countries have provided comprehensive assistance to Ukraine, understanding that this is a war in which the values of the free world were brutally attacked and are being eradicated along with Ukrainian identity, people, civic buildings and infrastructure. However, just as two years ago, and surprisingly even now, there are voices calling for peace by ending the supply of arms to Ukraine. In this article, we would like to examine their arguments critically.

“If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself.”
                                                                                              Cheryl Richardson.

What is wrong with pacifism?

Pacifist arguments, on the surface, seem logical: war is harmful, peace is desirable, and weapons lead to conflict. The notion that if all countries cease supplying weapons to Ukraine, then the war will end and peace will follow, appears reasonable. However, this peace would entail ever-larger territories being occupied by the Russian army, whilst Ukrainians would face even more mass murder, rape, hostage-taking, looting, torture, kidnapping, deportation and concentration camps. And all these crimes will be ongoing until the liberation of the occupied territories that people dream about day and night. These atrocities would persist indefinitely, challenging the conventional pacifist perspective.

The problem lies not in pacifism itself but in its manipulation for purposes contrary to true pacifist ideals. While it is justifiable to direct pacifist appeals toward Russia as the aggressor, directing them at Ukraine or both sides inadvertently benefits Russia. This is where the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu ring true: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The intention here is not to dispute pacifism’s merits but to highlight how ill-conceived pacifist ideas and appeals can escalate conflict rather than promote peace.

Ukrainians fully recognize the significance of peaceful protests and grassroots movements under normal circumstances. However, it is essential to consider the current dire situation in which an armed aggressor is well past our doorstep and our loved ones are losing their lives.

Many people who get their information from TV or the internet full of Russian propaganda talk a lot about “peace, forgiveness and ceasefires” in the war in Ukraine. They often do not really understand what is happening in Ukrainian cities, villages and along the frontline. However, they confidently vocalize “their own” opinions without a solid understanding of the subject. Such pacifism is neither noble nor spiritual; it is sheer ignorance. This form of pacifism can be extremely harmful and is, in fact, a toxic manifestation of naiveté.

Why is such pacifism wrong?

Because it is based on several false assumptions.

The first false assumption is that the war is waged between two evils while good people suffer on both sides of the front line. If this view is correct, then it is not important who wins and who loses: both parties must stop firing and start dialogue as soon as possible to achieve peace. But these optics do not show a case where one party is an aggressor and another is an innocent victim which has to fight for its life, identity and freedom. This view cannot show a difference between a rapist and their victim (as in “please reconcile because conflict is bad”).

The second false assumption is that non-violent resistance can help to overcome a brutal aggressor. If this view is correct then a murder can be stopped by asking people to stop killing or by a sermon of peace. But in some cases, a killer comes just to kill you. You can defend yourself and your family, or you can die silently. This is exactly the appeal that Ukrainians understand by “peacemaking initiatives”.

The third false assumption is that a war always ends with peace. If this view is correct, then a war is over when peace is declared. But this does not respect the fact that a war could be never ending, like in the case of enslaving people. Formally, the war is over but people are still subject to all imaginable crimes. The war is not over when TV stops showing it.

Considering the world based on the above-mentioned three false assumptions, we can imagine a system of international relations in which a stronger country can do anything it wants with a weaker one. This is a world where no country and no family can feel secure ever again.

Pacifism in a complex world

While the idea of pacifism may be noble and admirable in peace time, it is important to recognize the complexities of the world we live in now. It is easy to be a pacifist when your country is protected by a powerful army and nuclear weapons. Those who cling to the philosophy of non-violence and see peace as a moral imperative most probably have not experienced bombing, shelling and the tortures of wartime for generations. Hopefully, these pacifists will not experience these in their lives but what will they say when they actually will have to seek out bomb shelters and flee the region that is targeted next by Russia? As much as Europe does not see itself as a part of the conflict and is scared of escalation, it would not matter overall. This is because Russia is vocal about its crusade against European values and is fighting against the EU already.

At the community level, there were groups, both religious and non-religious (especially leftist movements), that promoted pacifism. They focused on peaceful solutions, getting rid of weapons, and resolving conflicts without violence. These movements became more popular during the times of the Cold War and Vietnam War, when people were particularly worried about nuclear weapons and wider violence. Many activists thought that peaceful protests and grassroots actions could make society fairer and more peaceful. They inspired various changes in politics and society and affected how people think about war, nuclear weapons and human rights. Some people debate how effective these movements were but their idealistic and youthful ideas still influence today’s discussions about violence, conflict and how to achieve peace.

Ukrainians are for peace more than anyone. Western countries have not seen real war on their territories for decades and the Ukrainian army is doing everything it can so that no one else ever will. But one cannot reach peace without stopping the aggressor and making sure the Russians will not invade again, next time better equipped and their armies better brainwashed.

We wonder if those who pressure for some abstract peace realize this vulnerability among Ukrainians. Some (even progressive) people in the West fail to comprehend why Ukrainians are so “firm” and principled, and why reconciliation seems impossible. It is just inconceivable that foreigners believe that they know our enemy better than Ukrainians do and are attempting to re-educate Ukrainians instead of trusting their judgment, which is based on centuries of experience living close with the enemy. Ultimately, very few people choose to keep up with the news from Ukraine and stay informed and engaged. History has lots of examples of when Ukrainians turned out to be right and the West did not want to listen. Just look at Stalin’s threat to Europe or the collapse of the USSR. Ukrainians are well aware of Russia’s brutal wartime conduct in places like Chechnya. They remember the horrifying crimes committed by Russia against Ukrainians and other peoples captured by the Moscow empire, as well as centuries of annexations, displacements, deportations, cultural destruction and ethnic cleansing. Most infamously, they remember the genocidal famine of the 1930s and the deportation of the Crimean Tatars — all at the hands of their former “big brother”, as the Russians like to consider themselves.

Russia’s vision: their perspective on peace

However, what does the concept of peace look like within the Kremlin? Russia’s stance is that it will only accept a Ukraine that resembles Belarus (already fully absorbed and occupied). Moscow also wants a fully Russian-driven regime as in Georgia. They want Kyiv to essentially become a puppet state, capable of generating hybrid threats to the EU and amplifying the Russian regime in international forums like the UN. This entails the potential hosting of nuclear weapons; allowing “visa-free tours” for nations supplying illegal refugees; accommodating private military companies and illegal formations; establishing Russian military bases and training; and serving as a platform for potential military aggression against other countries. Such a country would challenge right at the EU border Article 5 of NATO. This situation would immediately lead to Europeans having to learn how to fight and withstand the genocidal aggression of Russia.

Consequences of forced dialogue without action

The possibility of dialogue is based on at least two mandatory prerequisites: a safe space and the sincere willingness of both parties to talk, hear the other party and acknowledge its needs. Unfortunately, none of these conditions are in place at the moment.

If someone is truly longing to deliver peace – then the first immediate action that should be taken is to stop the aggressor and protect the victim. That would be a necessary step to stop violence and create a safe space for negotiations. In reality, calls for peace and dialogue that are unaccompanied by concrete, effective measures to halt violence and provide a secure space for the victim, lead to several adverse consequences. These include diminished security assistance; prolonged war and escalation; atrocities and cultural erasure; validation of the strategy of aggression and therefore further expansion of the war; and finally a precarious shift to the “Rule of Force”. Such a scenario would convey not only to Russia but to all authoritarian regimes that the world is regressing from the Rule of Law to the Rule of Force. Contemplating this prospect is unsettling, as it could usher in a dark age and potentially trigger a third world war with catastrophic consequences, including the potential extinction of humanity.

In light of these grave repercussions, any appeals for peace and dialogue devoid of concrete, effective actions to curb violence and establish a secure space, not only ring hollow but also inadvertently lend support to the aggressor.

The faster the liberation of the occupied territories occurs, the sooner this threat will diminish. Otherwise, the actual nuclear, technogenic (like the now mined Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant) and ecological catastrophes (like Kakhovka Dam, which was blown up by the Russians in 2023) will not even have to arise as a result of the actions of the Russian Federation. They might arise from the grey (occupied) zones under Russian occupation, as this is a convenient and secure strategy for the Kremlin.

The enigma of the “peace-doves”

“Peace-doves” is a term coined to encompass individuals ranging from enthusiasts of conspiracy theories to proponents of friendship with Russia; extreme leftists; extreme rightists; ill-informed individuals who are targeted by well-paid Russian propaganda; and even anti-militarists. Such ideologically inclined and very vocal individuals, thinkers and even professors spread a complex blend of beliefs and ideologies that the western public has often fallen for in their desires to contribute to conflict resolutions.

Ironically, those feeling an aversion to violence do not allow it for themselves. When they witness violence, they tend to condemn it but usually do nothing to stop it. First, they do this ostensibly so as not to multiply violence and turn into a dragon themselves. Secondly, they say “not everything is so clear-cut” because the victim and the oppressor are equally guilty of violence, creating it together. Each of them is therefore right in their own way, justifying the war itself as a means.

The western postmodern worldview

Pacifism initially aligns with postmodern values, advocating for non-violent conflict resolution. However, when faced with aggressive actors who exploit this reluctance to take a firm stand, pacifism could inadvertently undermine the very principles of inclusivity and diversity that postmodernism seeks to uphold. Striking a balance between peaceful dialogue and a vigilant defence of democratic values becomes crucial to preventing pacifism from eroding the core of the postmodern worldview.

On one side, the values of postmodernism lead to the growth of a new age defined by an orientation towards wellness and a spiritually aware scene in the West. Some embrace anti-authoritarianism. Some are open to conspiracy theories, the creation of alternative realities and reading only alternative sources of information. These include “something they won’t tell you on TV” such as Russian propaganda. As a result, people with this worldview may (sub)consciously spread Putin’s alternative narratives of western reality.

Experts at the Atlantic Council have analysed 9,000 Russian propaganda texts and identified the most frequently used narratives among them. Our readers might want to check it out to ensure that they are not inadvertently repeating or propagating any of these narratives, hence helping the Kremlin to divide and conquer.

In the European and American progressive postmodern world, people prioritize secular choices and self-expression (in the terminology of the World Values Survey), as evident in their engagement with practices around wellbeing: self-awareness, meditation, spiritual retreats, yoga and psychotherapy. This focus on personal development aims to transcend simpler systems, allowing such people to navigate the complexity of contemporary society. However, this pursuit is not without its complexities.

The Dutch thinker Auke Nimwegen says that it is “time to get off our yoga mats” and underscores how progressive European and western citizens can “start supporting the change we want to see in ourselves and the world” by prioritizing personal development in our evermore complex contemporary society.

What is the way out?

How can the western political and intellectual elite move from uncertainty to certainty in the Russian war? A winning strategy is to take the role of an “uncertainty operator” away from the imperialistic and dictatorial Kremlin and place it in the hands of the leaders of the democratic world. This is a far better and manageable option than pushing for reconciliation and peacemaking, which amounts to coercion concerning peace in today’s reality.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine requires much more than hiding behind the glass door of pacifism. If we are to truly break free from the norms that brought this conflict about we must interrogate long-established western perceptions concerning Russia’s reality and see clearly the “blind spot of the West”.

Getting informed about Ukrainian beliefs, manifestos and appeals might be a step forward away from the tunnel vision of pacifism and cultural blindness. The “Ukraine Peace Appeal” earnestly requests the recognition of our appeals for inclusivity, emphasizing the principle of “nothing about us without us” when shaping our future. The “Sustainable Peace Manifesto” highlights that peace cannot be achieved at the expense of justice or justice at the expense of peace. For sustainable international security, justice and peace must be achieved simultaneously.

We have tried to show that pacifism can be not only ineffective but potentially dangerous. In situations where there is a moral imperative to act and protect, pacifism may embolden aggressors to further violent behaviour. A more nuanced approach is necessary, one that combines diplomacy and efficient deterrence. The true test of pacifism is not its moral purity but its effectiveness in achieving its goals.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

Liliya Luts is a co-founder of the New Thinking School, Professional Certified Coach at International Coaching Federation, Leadership Development Consultant.

Yuliya Shtaltovna, PhD, Professor of Intercultural and International Management, a visiting professor in several International Business Schools, Berlin. A co-founder of #UA_IDG_NETWORK, a Ukrainian community of practice within Inner Development Goals.

Yaroslav Yakovenko is a business consultant, co-founder of the New Thinking School, co-organizer of the Ukrainian Integral Gatherings.

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