Pacifism and Ukraine

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Introduction and context

This article is written in response to a recent JustHuman meeting (February 2023), I attended but didn’t really contribute much to the conversation at the time - apart from my opening statement (something that everyone gave), I listened to the many views being expressed.

This short essay is not a set of minutes or a formal account of that meeting. If you like, this essay springs from that meeting and would not have existed without it. Please accept my apologies in advance for discussing the subject without acknowledging everyone’s specific individual contributions.


I am somewhat conflicted about this question of Ukraine being attacked by Russia – the question being what if anything should we do about it personally?

I like to think that I am generally non-violent and have little need to express myself by making threats - although, at times, I have had a quite terrible temper, always regretfully.

However, just trying to be non-violent isn’t what pacifism is about - pacifism is about rejecting and refusing to support violent acts in all their forms, whoever they are perpetrated by or on behalf of. It is accurate to say that I am personally quite pacifistic (or try to be), and prefer to get along with those around me - life inevitably involves negotiation. If anything, I’m far too agreeable - I probably try to avoid conflict way too much.

But just being non-violent oneself isn’t really pacifism, is it? To be honest, it’s probably more like apathy, a disinclination to get involved - which is perhaps shameful. Being an active, sincere pacifist requires action demonstrating the futility of violent action and attempted coercion. I will come back to this at the end.

There is a significant difference between my personal behaviour towards other individuals - and the (tribal) collective group behaviour between groups of people that I go along with and subscribe to. The two modes are quite different in how they operate Paul H. made a nice analogy later in the discussion to illustrate the differences between the rights and responsibilities of the individual on the one hand, and then what happens at the group level on the other. As an example of that, society can legally imprison people, following due process – but no individual could do that legally.

Clearly, one can act however one may - and then groups in human society can act in a completely orthogonal manner with other groups, despite those groups being made up of individuals just like you and I. My behaviour is not entirely determined by the behaviour of groups that I either do belong to or do not belong to. Belonging to a group is not a crisp characteristic – it is more like having some affinity with or tendency towards, rather than a simple in-or-out, cut and dried distinction.

There are no doubt many other ways in which group behaviour differs from individual behaviour - the formation of law, pursuit of justice, social policies involving healthcare, education etc. Society involves a lot more than merely the cumulative actions of the people it contains[1]

All of the above suggests that, although I try to personally advocate and live up to the way of non-violence and pacifism, the groups and roles I have to work and live within will mean that I am inevitably part of a complex society in which I have (very) limited influence. I am quite far from being the person I would like to see myself being. If I am any kind of pacifist, I’m certainly an imperfect one.

The substance – in general

War[2] is always political, tribal and violent – it is not only conflict (it is most certainly that), but it is also a breakdown and failure of communication and negotiation - it is definitely not “normal” or BAU (business as usual). It exists not just because of some political disagreement, but because one protagonist deeply seeks physical control of what another protagonist does or possesses. In extreme cases, such control can be genocidal, seeking their physical elimination. Strikes and counterstrikes will be made by those involved in an attempt to gain the upper hand, to strike the decisive blow and win the fight.

During any war, no one can make easy appeals to “reason” or to “common sense” by or between the protagonists. A state of war exists because there is an implacable difference, disagreement and divide between the two (or more) protagonists. No side accepts what the others say or do. All is disputed.

And yet we all know that war cannot continue forever. Why? Generally, the longer it goes on, the more costly it becomes for all concerned – for those attacking and for those defending. Eventually, all wars will and must come to an end - by either forming a peaceful political agreement of some kind (the most honourable outcome) or because one, several or all of the protagonists were eliminated or have otherwise died off, leaving the spoils to those still standing (the least honourable outcome).

Unfortunately, many wars appear to end up in a series of protracted ceasefires and stalemates – stumbling on in fits and starts, from flashpoint to flashpoint. They are seemingly neverending. This situation may take a long time to resolve – but it will always resolve eventually because of resource limitations or because no one alive cares anymore. The only question then is how the future could play out for any survivors – assuming that there are any, of course.

This is why coming to a political agreement is an honourable outcome – because it provides some kind of future for the survivors.
This is the point about peacemaking. Peacemaking is ultimately the most rational and best course of action. However, in the face of extreme conflict, it is also the absolute hardest - and yet the most necessary – route to take. At the start of a conflict, peacemaking always seems impossible and difficult – but by the end, peacemaking in some form or another becomes almost inevitable. The truly hardest part of this is all the suffering that happens in between.

On rules and rule-based approaches

There was some discussion about the idea of “rule-based” approaches to dealing with international conflict situations, including wars, of course. Such approaches and mechanisms already exist, in some depth: consider, for instance, the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague (the ICC, the United Nations etc, etc.

The problem is that the existence of rules on their own obviously does not deter law-breaking as such – the laws and rules justify the pursuit of perpetrators, once crimes have been detected and justice is then sought. Deterrence may come, not from laws or rules alone, but from the certainty of justice being done.

Perpetrators carry on breaking laws, especially if they think they are “above” the laws or they think that they can successfully circumvent or evade justice in some manner so that punitive consequences wouldn’t or couldn’t apply to them. Therefore, systems of law and rules can only have any effect retrospectively, after the fact.

A further issue with international law in particular is that a nation-state may simply decree not to be bound by specific treaties and obligations - even those it has already agreed to. They can simply decree that, yes, we did agree earlier to be bound by some such treaty, but now today, we now do not agree to be bound. What can be done about that?

Well, there might be serious consequences for any normal nation-state doing this of course (e.g. becoming a pariah rogue state, much like North Korea today). However, those consequences are absolutely no deterrent if the particular nation-state simply shrugs off those consequences as being of little concern.

The substance – in particular

In the case of the continued unprovoked attack by Russia on Ukraine, I argue that the situation seems straightforward – valiant, plucky Ukraine defends itself against an oppressive, imperialistic bully, Russia. However, as always, there are several sides to consider - and each side has its own perspective.

First of all, there are at least four, maybe more, different “sides” or protagonists involved: Russia, Ukraine, the West and “the rest of the world, the unaligned”.

  • Russia implies that this all started decades before when the West undermined the Soviet Union and stole the Russian heartlands, Ukraine and Crimea, away from it. For Russia, this has always been about countering Western imperialism and aggression and is simply the latest chapter in a much larger, wider conflict. Russians genuinely felt that they were liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis and Western imperial exploitation – they were just retaking and liberating what had been stolen from them years before.
  • The Ukrainians say that they are now an independent state who has freed itself from Russian imperialism, oppression and control. They have suffered an unprovoked attack by the Russians who are pursuing their imperial agenda to rebuild their power base and steal control of Ukraine’s economic resources.
  • The West supports Ukraine’s fight to defend itself from naked Russian aggression. Despite Russia's warnings that it would attack, everyone was shocked when they eventually did what they said they would do. The West (in the form of NATO), largely needs to uphold current international law and ensure that the Russian government and state apparatus are adequately punished for its aggression. This would hopefully materially prevent or at least discourage further escalation and aggression by Russia towards other countries (typically former Warsaw Pact countries).
  • However, NATO does not want to fight a direct war with Russia, because of the risk of nuclear conflict, escalation and retaliation. On the other hand, a Russian victory would vastly strengthen Russian world standing and influence, and potentially even bolster its economy. Because of NATO, Russia probably won't attack other countries on its borders – but those countries would certainly feel greater pressure.
  • The “rest of the world, the unaligned” have a significant concern about not getting embroiled in the conflict - while at the same time finding ways to enhance their own independent economic and political positions. For example, the unaligned would allegedly like to see both the West and Russia taken down a peg or two, as that might mean an increase in their own influence and power throughout the world.
  • Both China and India allegedly have the motive to exploit the weaknesses of both Russia and the West to a large degree. They will help both sides as much as possible, as long as that is to their own advantage and there is little risk of being dragged into the conflict.
  • Given this, it is unlikely that the rest of the world would join in wholeheartedly with economic sanctions against Russia. Why? The West vitally need what China and India produce. As such, the West depends on trade with China and India and is therefore not in any position to insist that they implement sanctions. Similarly, China and India are not going to cut themselves off from a lucrative trade in Russian oil - which can then be refined, repackaged and then sold onwards to the West!


So, after all of that, what do I think of all this? Well, to be honest, I strongly support Ukraine in its fight for its survival, for two, not entirely good, reasons:

  1. The better reason is that Ukraine is defending itself from an unprovoked attack by a much larger, ostensibly stronger and mightier force. Russia is throwing its weight around - and must simply be stopped right now - otherwise, its success in both Ukraine and Crimea will significantly destabilise Europe - and potentially endanger humanity as a result.
  2. The worse reason is that I have long felt that the current Russian government has been a burgeoning and growing threat to European and world stability, with the highly provocative, arrogant and selfish way it has conducted itself both internally and externally.

For its part, no doubt the current Russian government sees that quite differently! Consequently, it seemed almost inevitable that the Russian approach to conducting its affairs would provoke a situation sooner or later requiring a severe response - and so it has proved. I do realise that I am, in effect, supporting a “proxy war” in which Ukrainian lives are being lost in the name of European survival and resisting Russian ambitions - but what is the pragmatic alternative?

Is this a truly pacifist position? No, of course, it isn’t, not really. However, rather than wring our hands in a vain attempt to salve our consciences, a better approach is to think about what could be done - and then do something. Several things to do, consistent with a pacifist approach, include:

  • Providing shelter and support for Ukrainian immigrants.
  • Providing humanitarian aid and active help to Ukraine itself, perhaps through financial donations. Help could also involve helping with medical aid (I personally know of people who have worked as senior medics in Ukraine., for example)
  • Actively encourage discussions in the Public Square about what a peaceful, long-term political resolution for this conflict might look like. Given the overall non-violent, pacifist agenda here, this rules out the following

--- Regime change in Russia or Ukraine.

--- Total military defeat and humiliation of either Russia or Ukraine. Russia suffering from such an outcome is very likely to lead to nuclear confrontation.

This implies that NATO’s military support for Ukraine is there to merely sustain Ukraine’s continued existence, to hopefully exhaust Russian resolve and resources over time e.g. the dynamics of attrition.

This largely leaves economic pressure on Russia as the remaining lever - as long as Ukraine remains free, of course. However, perhaps Ukraine has also to give up something to make any agreement with Russia stick - but also without appearing to reward Russia’s aggression. That’s a really difficult call to make.

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  • Brian,

    A similar point, perhaps, but I think it's important: you say, "Russians genuinely felt that they were liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis and Western imperial exploitation – they were just retaking and liberating what had been stolen from them years before," but very few people felt that way before Putin started talking about it.  And, however they feel, it does not match reality.  Unless you believe that Russia today has the moral right to rule all the lands that Russia has controlled at any point in the past (and that would be an interesting line for Britain to take!) then the claim falls at the first hurdle.  The USSR (the 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics') was created in December 1922, with Ukraine as one of the independent socialist republics which joined.  Ukraine has been a nation for 100 years, and has never been part of Soviet Russia.

    And the USSR was never 'stolen' from Russia: the USSR collapsed due to its corruption and inefficiency.  Just because Putin says this, that does not make it true.  If we want to build something good and lasting for the future, we cannot build it upon lies.  We do need to take seriously how Russians understand and feel about the past, but surely that needs to involve understanding and coming to terms with the actual past, rather than reinforcing nationalistic fantasies?

    (I think a similar criticism can be made about various aspects of British history and how we tell it - and probably about the way history is told in almost every country - but that's not the subject being discussed here.)

  • Brian,

    Many thanks for this!  Lots to respond to, and I probably won't manage it in one go.

    "Russians genuinely felt that they were liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis and Western imperial exploitation – they were just retaking and liberating what had been stolen from them years before."  I'm not convinced.  Certainly, the 'liberation' line has been used to justify the war, but I'm not convinced many people genuinely believed it at the start.  Presumably, after a year of intensive propaganda, more Russians believe it now, but even so it is clear that many Russians do not believe it, even if it is unsafe to say so.

    I tend to see the arms manufacturers as another 'side' to this conflict, with a vested interest in seeing the war continue as long as possible. 

    • Couple of things:

      1] The profits in the arms industry were certainly of concern while we were selling arms to suspect developing countries. But is it really a huge part of the discussion now? Like a lot of things, everything changed on 24th February 2022. It we want to defend liberal democracy and incidentally ourselves, we need to buy arms and give them to Ukraine and replenish our own stocks. Of course it must be a great time to have shares in arms manufacturers. But that is the way the world works. As I said in an email to Paul: if I am hungry and buy a burger, a multinational corporation profits; if I need to defend freedom and buy several hundred Javelin missiles, a multinational profits. Reliance on state ownership of arms factories has generally been less than satisfactory: and the reality is that for private companies to produce weapons purely for their own government without exports is unsustainable without hefty subsidies. I'm not saying that we should close that discussion down, but I do think it is a bit of a stable-door issue for the time being.

      2] On an only distantly-related note: I have subscribed to the blog for many years, and they recently published this book review. Whatever we think about the God vs Human Suffering issue, including the possibility that there may not be any God, it seems to provide an insight into how Christians tried to come to terms with suffering while they were actually under fire, and the effect on the Nation as a whole. I have read some of the works of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy who is mentioned in the review and I have huge respect for his honesty, but I am not sure that even his theology is adequate. (He was a Christian who walked the walk: he died aged 45 from overwork, and there was a suggestion that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey, but the Dean turned this down on the grounds that he was a socialist: I can't think of a better recommendation). Let's just say that I know of some soldiers who lost their faith in the trenches and some who found it.

      Roads to the Great War: Faith in Conflict: The Impact of the Great ...

    • Adrian,

      Thanks for that helpful link.

      However, I think you misunderstood my second point.  When I said that I see the arms manufacturers as another 'side' to this conflict, with a vested interest in seeing the war continue as long as possible, the issue was not the money they are making - that is a given - but the influence they have.  I assume that any individual or group with power is likely to seek to influence public policy for their own benefit.  I can't imagine you are likely to disagree with this?

      The arms manufacturers are among the most profitable and powerful organisations in the world.  The idea that they are not using their influence to persuade the various governments to keep the war going seems ... optimistic, to say the least.

    • Interesting article from right-wing news-zine, Unherd:

      Do ordinary Russians support Putin's war?

      Yep - of course they do - for some definition of the word "support".  After all, they live in a dictatorship, an autocracy in which freedom of expression is curtailed.  To not whole-heartedly support the "Special Military Operation" could have serious negative consequences.. 

    • Hi Paul,  Many thanks for your comments so far.  I do need to get back to you on your latest articles - but now I'm really behind on my course essay - so it won't be for a while.

      About the comment about Russian perceptions of what they thought they were doing in invading Ukraine, I would agree that it's a bit of a "gloss".   It takes statements made by Russian officials at the time at face value.   In some sense, in an autocracy like Russia, it doesn't really matter what the average citizen thinks - only the opinions of a few individuals matter in decision-making.

      You are quite right about the Western defence industry - but that is also digging down a further level into the West's overall response.   It needs unpacking a bit more.

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