Monday 30 May 2022

More guns and bombs is no route to peace


The war in Ukraine is highly challenging for those of us with a long-standing commitment to the belief that disputes between states should always be resolved peacefully; that the phrase ‘war crime’ is tautologous; and that dividing the world into opposing armed blocs is a denial of the essential truth that this planet is all we have and we need to learn to share it effectively. Seeing two countries which have pursued a path of studied and long-term neutrality – albeit not quite as absolute as some might think, given their long-standing joint exercises with NATO – seeking membership of one of those armed blocs has been a particularly depressing development.

Whether Putin was right to claim that the eastward expansion of NATO threatened the security of Russia, and that the stated intention of Ukraine to seek membership of NATO intensified that threat, is something over which historians will argue for generations to come. One of the problems with understanding and interpreting history is that we don’t get to change a parameter or two and then re-run events to see what changes. The result is that there is always scope for alternative narratives, not about events themselves, but about their causes and significance. Perhaps in a century or so historians will have access to classified Russian archives and be able to assess whether this was actually the way Putin saw things, or whether it was a convenient excuse for doing what he always intended to do anyway. Had the Eastern European states formerly part of the Soviet bloc not joined NATO and the EU, would Russia have left them in peace, preferring some form of economic domination, or would it have attacked them all, possibly even sooner, in an attempt to rebuild the Soviet Empire to which Putin seems to be very attached? Put another way, has NATO acted as a deterrent which has delayed war, or a provocation? It's not as easy a question to answer as many seem to think.

There seems to be no justification for Putin’s claim that Ukraine was conducting some sort of genocide in Donbas, although there has been some reluctance in Ukraine to recognise the fact that the majority of the population there were Russian speakers. That doesn’t automatically make them Russians, although we know that there were at least some who considered themselves such and wanted to be part of Russia rather than Ukraine. Whether they were a majority or not is another question. It certainly wasn’t obviously so at the time of the vote for Ukrainian independence, but opinions can change. The only way to find out whether the people of that area would prefer to be in Russia or Ukraine is to ask them, but that’s now a task made impossible by a combination of killing people, driving others out of their homes and deporting others to Russia. A simple majority of those remaining, conducted under the rule of an occupying power, is hardly a basis for any sort of democratic decision.

The first question is how the war can be brought to an end. The demand for complete ‘territorial integrity’ being made by the Ukrainian Government is a recipe for a long, grinding war of attrition during which many more will die. The alternative suggestion of negotiating the cession of some territory to Russia in exchange for peace involves allowing the aggressor to ‘win’ (although what, exactly, they will have won looking at the destruction they have caused is another question), and can provide no certainty that, after a suitable breathing space, Russia won’t simply try again. It’s too easy to tell Ukrainians, as the UK seems to be doing, that they should fight to the last Ukrainian to recover all the lands within what is, like all other boundaries in the world, an arbitrary line on a map. It’s also too easy to tell them that they must give up part of their territory in exchange for a negotiated settlement. Neither response is satisfactory. But if we accept the unlikelihood that Ukraine can defeat Russia comprehensively without massive further casualties and a huge increase in the scale and nature of its weaponry, then there will have to be a negotiation eventually. And lines on maps will inevitably be part of that, as they have been in just about all past peace treaties.

The second – and ultimately bigger – question is how we build a world order which prevents the biggest and best-armed countries from simply imposing their will on others, an issue which applies to other countries, including the US, as well as Russia. Recruiting more countries to NATO and increasing expenditure on armaments isn’t the only possible answer, despite what UK and other politicians would have us believe. Challenging that approach is not doing Putin’s work for him, as those – such as the leader of the Labour Party – demanding absolute loyalty to NATO have suggested; indeed if the current so-called ‘security structure’ in Europe has been shown not to work, blindly doubling down on it is never going to be the best response. A United Nations in which those with the biggest clout can simply veto international action against those transgressing its rules has been shown to be a failure. Many had thought that increasing trade was the answer – in this case, that plugging Russia into an interdependent world economy would prevent aggression. In practice, it just made it harder to impose immediate crippling sanctions on the transgressor. It’s not a simple question, but continuing with a world order based on the idea that ‘might is right’ is not a sustainable future for humanity. There’s nothing cowardly or unpatriotic about seeking a better alternative than more guns and bombs.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

"There’s nothing cowardly or unpatriotic about seeking a better alternative than more guns and bombs." Oh but there is - if your name is Donald Trump. He tried to get the US to spend less on guns and bombs to use against Putin. And quite rightly pointed out that the European members of NATO might like to contribute more to those guns and bombs that were necessary - er, Germany...? This arises from one of the surprises of American politics that is not understood here
Republicans (not all of them) tend to be isolationist. This means they will seek a deal with the Putins of this world. Trump was on the way to doing this because his background in NY dealing with the Mafia gave him the 'skills' and he had the right aim.
Democrats are really strange. They talk global no-frontiers peace but their actions do not go with this. Hostility to Russia gave them 2 things
1. A stick to beat Trump, and
2. Access to bribes from the military industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned us first.
What makes it so sad is that Biden, Pelosi et al are so old, and stuck in the Cold War mindset that was current when they were young. PS - yes, a significant group of Republicans agree with Democrats about this, sharing the Trump and bribe reasons.