Another peace is possible

9 06 2023

When one country invades another, with clear intent to take over the other’s territory and end its existence as an independent nation, you don’t ask “both sides” to lay down their arms and negotiate. You ask the invader to leave. This is especially the case when it’s clear thаt the invading force has no intent to leave, and that if the victim country lays down its arms, it will get slaughtered.

At least that is the position taken, rightfully (in my view), by most Ukrainians.

The International Summit for Peace in Ukraine (program here), scheduled to take place in Vienna this weekend, includes elements that are essential to global peace-building, which is a responsibility not only of governments, but of civil society organizations. Co-organizer Werner Wintersteiner’s statement, for instance, which accompanies the proposal for a “Vienna Appeal for Peace in Ukraine,” includes many points that defenders of Ukraine’s freedom should be able to agree with. In this it should be welcomed.

But the event also includes elements that are detrimental to the building of peace, because those elements attempt to blame “both sides” — that is, either Ukraine or the U.S. and NATO, as much as they blame Russia — and to prevent Ukrainians from getting the support they need to protect themselves. Recent comments by Jeffrey Sachs, Noam Chomsky, Medea Benjamin, and others involved, for all their acknowledgments of Ukrainian suffering, repeat Russian talking points that at the very least obfuscate, and at worst try to justify, Russia’s responsibility. In this, the Vienna peace summit should be criticized. (Here’s one version of such a critique.)

The latest development is that activists working to support Ukraine have succeeded in convincing the Austrian Trade Union Federation, or ÖGB, to cancel the conference venue just two days before the conference was scheduled to take place. Summit organizers are angry about this — they accuse the ÖGB of censorship — and are seeking an alternative venue.

How does one make sense of this conflict over how to approach peace in Ukraine?

There are two criteria that are essential to answering this: the question of representation (whose perspectives are represented, and whose aren’t?), and the question of appeasement (whose interests are best served by what’s being proposed?).

1) Representation

Whose voices and perspectives are represented at this event? Given that Ukrainians are the direct victims of this invasion, how are Ukrainian voices and perspectives represented?

There is little question that almost the entirety of Ukrainian civil society, from the left (as I have documented for months) to the right and in between, is opposed to the Russian invasion and in favor of defending Ukraine from the invading military. This is of course also true of Ukrainian government representatives (and it’s worth keeping in mind that about 80% of Ukraine’s elected parliamentarians, including all of those elected to the pro-presidential majority Servant of the People party, were elected for the first time in 2019, so it is unlikely that they are playing the role of establishment functionaries of any ruling oligarchy).

Are any of these voices represented at the Vienna Peace Summit? Organizers tout the presence of “the voices of civil society representatives of the representatives [sic] from Russia and Ukraine” (p. 3 of the Final Program). But the actual program shows only three Ukrainian speakers, all relegated (except for one) to a single plenary on civil society, where they speak alongside two Russians and a Belarusian. The three are Yurii Sheliazhenko, who is listed as executive secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement (and who will speak at a second panel as well), Nina Potarska, coordinator of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Ukraine, and Karyna Radchenko (Partnership for Advancing Innovative Sustainability, Ukraine.

It’s difficult to say how much of Ukraine’s spectrum of opinion any of these individuals represent. The only contact information available for the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement is Sheliazhenko’s email address. Some accounts place the number of members of this organization at three, others at ten, with sympathetic portrayals not adding in any way to the figure of its three co-founders. Radchenko is a young educator who founded an international NGO (PAIS), but her influence within Ukraine is not clear to me. Potarska’s work as a women’s rights activist is longstanding, but it’s also noteworthy that she did not sign the “Right to Resist” feminist manifesto (at least not the version that is online), which hundreds of Ukrainian women activists and dozens of organizations did sign (see here for context).

In any case, three speakers is better than none. But if the event aims at dialogue (as the promotional material claims), there are many dozens of Ukrainians whose activism on civil rights and social justice issues is well known. (See the list of “Related sites and resources” to the right of this post.) They are not among the speakers at this event. Even an event as local as next week’s London “Another Ukraine is Possible” conference has more Ukrainian speakers than this supposedly massive international summit.

So far, then, not so good.

2) Appeasement

Ukrainians by and large argue that blaming both sides — sometimes called “bothsidesism” or “whataboutism” (what about Ukrainian oppression of its Russian speakers? what about Ukrainian nazis? and so on) — either explicitly supports Russia or, at the very least, constitutes appeasement of a fascist/terrorist state. The term “appeasement” clearly invokes World War Two and some European politicians’ desire to negotiate with Hitler. Terms like fascism (as I’ve explored on this blog) and terrorism are complicated, but the point being made is that some wars — especially wars in defense of one’s country from invasion by certain kinds of enemies — are justified.

On one side, then, the situation is clear: if, as I’ve argued before (and Ukrainian leftists have argued all along), anti-imperialism means anti-all imperialisms, then any action that prevents a people from defending itself from an invading empire, in effect, supports imperialism. If that imperialism includes elements of genocide, then it is supporting genocide.

On the other side, it’s also clear that diplomacy and negotiation are always preferable to war. But once a war is launched, calls for diplomacy and negotiation play themselves out in complicated ways. The summit organizers write that “Peace is our goal and peace is our way to the goal.” Peace is a laudable “way,” but it’s not clear what it involves or who it is being addressed to. For instance, most of the organizers and key speakers have taken their message of peace to western forums, but so far not to the Kremlin.

When Werner Wintersteiner, leader of the Peace Appeal effort, articulates the “lines of conflict” that need to be “process[ed] and constructive[ly] overcom[e]” (see point 19 of his statement), he resorts to the following “both-sidesist” list of three points of conflict:

  • “The Ukrainian position of defending its freedom and the “values of the West” – the Russian position of defending the “multipolar world order”
  • The demand for withdrawal of Russian troops on the part of Ukraine – the Russian position that these territories now belong to the Russian Federation
  • The demand for security guarantees against a new Russian incursion on the part of Ukraine – the Russian demand that Ukraine not join NATO.”

Listing them this way suggests that these are equivalent and “tradable” interests, and that negotiation toward peace would necessitate compromise between them. In each case, this is a false pretense.

First, the Ukrainian position of defending its sovereignty (forget the “values of the West,” which is a rhetorical add-on that obscures the point about Ukraine’s freedom) is offered as something to be traded against the Russian position of defending an ill-defined “multipolar world order” — as if Ukraine’s sovereignty is a threat to that order. Since anything — and certainly the existence of the independent, western-aligned nations of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Moldova, et al. — could be interpreted as a “threat” to that mythical, Russian-desired “world order,” the question becomes: how much territory — Ukrainian as well as other countries’ — should be offered to assuage (that is, appease) the neo-imperialist power?

The second point makes things more specific. The Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia is offered in exchange for Russia’s occupation of it — which effectively suggests that some of it, perhaps half, should now be given to Russia (with the international community’s blessing).

Finally, the Russian demand that Ukraine not join NATO — something that Ukraine has neither done nor even wanted to do (as far as repeated opinion surveys have shown) until this war began — is being offered in exchange for “security guarantees” that have already been repeatedly violated. (Remember those guarantees were first given at the signing of the Budapest Memorandum, by Russia, the U.S. and the U.K., in exchange for all the nuclear weapons located on Ukrainian territory. Those are in addition to whatever security guarantees the U.N. might provide for national borders.) This is as if a rapist were told, “Go ahead and keep raping this woman, since she keeps expressing a desire to be with someone else, not you.”

If this is the best list of starting points for negotiation that the organizers of the Vienna Peace Summit can come up with, then they are non-starters.

We need dialogue and public involvement, including organizing an international civil society consensus, in order to build the context for peace in Ukraine. But peace will not come by ignoring Ukrainian calls for support and, instead, by appeasing an imperialist state.

Image taken from the “Compendium and Syllabus of non-Campist (mostly) Left Sources on the War in Ukraine



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