The Russian invasion of Ukraine has elicited unprecedented international condemnation as well as expressions of solidarity with its resisters. Richard Reeve suggests six ways that this war compels the UK, Europe and the world to take action and move from selective solidarity to global systemic change.

Many people feel powerless in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many feel resigned to the rearmament and division of our continent. But saying never again to aggression and terror such as is being visited on the people of Ukraine will be about more than standing up to the Putin regime and compelling Russian troops to go home.

Active solidarity includes moving beyond empathy with the Ukrainian people in their struggle and toward solidarity with all people suffering aggression, occupation and suppression. It means looking hard at the systems of confrontation and containment that mobilise and multiply fear to maintain the armed status quo and pursuing alternatives that incentivise connection and cooperation. And it demands that we look hard within our own society and actions and ask honestly whether we live up to the principles of openness, integrity and justice that we espouse.

Even as battle rages and atrocities are inflicted, there is much that can be learned and done to move from selective empathy to common humanity and thence to plan in the UK and globally towards rebuilding societies and institutions fit for peace, people and planet. I’d like to suggest six fields in which we can and must take urgent actions: defending the right to resistance; strengthening international law; demonstrating solidarity with other conflict-affected peoples; tackling corruption and state-capture; decarbonising our energy systems; and pursuing nuclear disarmament. These actions are vital in their own right but can together contribute to an agenda for radical change of a degraded and deficient international system.

The necessity of resistance

The Ukrainian government and people have every right to wage armed resistance against the Russian invasion, including under the UN Charter. The Kremlin appears to have expected its army to stroll in to Kyiv and occupy large parts of Ukraine without much resistance. This has not been the case as Ukrainians have put up fierce armed resistance and Russian forces have proved largely ineffective at anything other than indiscriminate destruction. 

That said, Russian forces have advanced in most directions from Belarus, Russia and Crimea and have slowly gained territory, including several cities. It is possible, though not inevitable, that they will occupy more of Ukraine over time. Already, we have seen incredible heroism from Ukrainian civilians confronting, unarmed, the occupying troops. They have blocked roads to tanks, harangued and shamed the demoralised Russian personnel, conducted noisy protests and refused to cooperate. This too has confounded and confused Moscow’s plans.

Moreover, tens of thousands of Russian civilians have equally bravely come out onto the streets to protest their government’s action. Thousands have been arrested for doing so and face potentially severe prison sentences or worse.

This is not inconsequential action. It won’t liberate Ukraine or recall the Russian army on its own but it can deny victory in other ways. Ultimately, for every Hitler, Saddam or Gaddafi whose rule was shattered by war, there are several Marcos, Honneckers, Suhartos, Milosevics, Bashirs or Yanukovychs forced out by the peaceful protest and civil resistance of their own repressed people. These resistors prove that agency does not belong only to militaries, let alone to so-called great powers.

We are also learning much about non-military resistance on the international level as the unprecedented economic and cyber campaigns against Russia exert extraordinary pressures. As has been seen in Iran over decades, and in Iraq before it, such sanctions can have their own pretty extreme human consequences, although they are likely preferable to those of a global-scale war, let alone the feared use of nuclear weapons. The UK still has much to learn about how to target sanctions effectively to prevent atrocities, cripple war-machines and avoid major humanitarian consequences.

Within the UK, the government also fears civil resistance so much that it is currently seeking to place unprecedented restriction on the rights of people to protest through its Crime, Policing, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Its Judicial Review and Courts Bill also threatens the independence of the judiciary, which has tended to uphold the rights of protestors. Ukrainian civilians remind us of the value of civil resistance against injustice and how hard-won rights can be. While they stare down the barrels of guns and tanks, we need to look hard in the mirror.

International law, cooperation and justice

The same goes for international law. With the exceptions of four fellow pariahs – Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria – none of the 193 members of the United Nations have been willing to defend Russia’s right to military action in Ukraine. Some of the biggest member states have abstained from overt condemnation, including China, India, Iran and Pakistan, but the basic principle against use of (military) force to settle disputes has basically held, rhetorically speaking.

Or has it? After all, Russia is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the ‘P5’) and, as such, has a veto on motions to actually do anything in response to its own behaviour. So the Security Council is effectively paralysed and the onus is very much on each state, or ‘minilateral’ coalitions of states, to make their own responses.

Tragically, a P5 state using its veto to shield its wars of aggression is not new ground for the UN. The US- and UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 – which has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths – was similarly conducted despite Security Council (and wider UN) opposition. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, occupied and recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and annexed Crimea in 2014. Since 2013, China has been able to occupy and fortify atolls across the South China Sea, and has latterly stood accused of genocide against its Uighur minority, without fear of UN sanction. The US recognised Syria’s Golan Heights as part of Israel in 2019, and Moroccan sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara in 2020. The possibility of effective UN action against Russia and the United States’ key allies in Syria and Israel, respectively, is currently zero.

So at least four of the five permanent members has used its P5 privilege – as well as the implicit, existential threat of its nuclear weapons – to protect its right to settle scores or expand its territory by military means.

Two (or three or more) wrongs don’t make a right. But could this Russian action – undertaken without any attempt to obtain a UN mandate – be a watershed moment for international law? Is the existing order sufficiently broken that reforms could be tried to make a reality of the rhetorical “rules-based international system”? Given the veto, the deepening schism between the Security Council’s ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ permanent members, and the belief among each of them that militarism is a legitimate tool of foreign policy, this seems unlikely in the short term. Russia aside, China seems to nurture violent ambitions towards Taiwan and I have written elsewhere about how the UK and US have together recently sought to remove or rewrite the critical legal distinctions between war and peace on which the UN Charter depends.

It is imperative, however, that we do keep in our minds the importance of the United Nations in holding Russia to account for its actions in Ukraine. That may be through the condemnation of the General Assembly, the investigations of the Human Rights Council, or the eventual verdicts of the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court. But multilateralism, international cooperation and institutions of justice must be used, seen to be respected and thereby strengthened. Yes, they should have been applied far more effectively in response to the invasion of Iraq and the war in Syria – perhaps they still can to Bush, Blair, Assad and others – but using them now can still help to reassert multilateralism, strengthen international justice and make future and ongoing occupations, including of Palestine and Western Sahara, far more costly.

From selective empathy to common humanity

If Ukraine reminds us to be less selective in our geopolitics and international justice, it should also be a noisy wake-up call for our common humanity in the way that we respond to the victims of armed conflict and aggression. For once, there is wide recognition that the victims of a conflict are caught up in brutal events beyond their control and deserve our urgent support and shelter.

It is perhaps natural to temper the heart-break of ordinary lives and families torn apart by shelling with heart-warming stories of the European Union opening its gates to any Ukrainians who seek asylum, of Poles, Slovaks and Hungarians opening their homes. Yet this is the EU that weeks ago was mobilising its security forces to prevent Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians from crossing the Belarussian border. It was prepared to let non-white children freeze to death in the forest. These are the Central European countries that refused to share any of the burden and benefits of accommodating the million desperate Muslims who surged out of Syria and Turkey in 2015-16. The many reports of black and brown residents of Ukraine denied entry to EU states, pulled off trains or harassed by border guards suggest this remains a very selective empathy rooted in racism.

As for the UK, sections of whose ruling party and media have sought to shrug off or legitimise the drowning of migrants seeking passage across the English Channel, it seems the lack of empathy or common humanity remains remarkably consistent from crises old to new. The government has actively sought to discourage and delay issuing any visas or safe passage arrangements for fleeing Ukrainians until it can determine a scheme to funnel them into low-paid jobs abandoned by EU workers. This shames us.

So much for our political classes and their obsession with borders and exclusion. Perhaps the people of the UK and Europe have learned something from this crisis and how people who look and live a lot like them can also be devastated by war. And perhaps they begin to see that even those who look and live differently to them have similar aspirations to safety and dignity in peace and war. This is essential for peaceful futures. There is no human security without humanity. No common security without common humanity.

This gilded age of rot: confronting corruption, collusion and complicity

If this division between people and politicians over migration is manifest anywhere it is likely to be in attitudes to the global elite of billionaires and ‘oligarchs’ whose economic, media and political influence has dominated this century’s gilded age of casino capitalism. The UK, and many other parts of the world, has been alive to the influence of Kremlin-linked ultra-rich Russians for at least the last two decades. Yet its successive governments have been consistently reluctant to constrain this influence. Indeed, Westminster has courted them with ‘golden visas’, investment schemes, legal protection, opportunities to launder their fortunes and reputations, and even a peerage.

Despite the clear warnings of the corrupt and subversive influence of Russian money on the UK’s political system presented to the PM by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in 2019, the government has done next to nothing to confront the threat. Money from the ultra-rich of Russia and other authoritarian states has funded the Conservative Party, bought newspapers, lubricated the obscene London property market and greased the career paths of thousands of lawyers, bankers, advisers, educators and physicians. All this buys status and influence. That is the point.

Yet it has taken the invasion of Ukraine to persuade the UK government to make even token efforts to combat this influence. Some Russian ‘oligarchs’ have been sanctioned (though far fewer than by the EU or US) and most Russian banks frozen out of the UK, but the approach overall has been to give them as much time as possible to relocate or rebrand their assets in the UK.

Meanwhile, the central role of various British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in laundering funds, avoiding tax and concealing the ownership of assets looks unlikely to be touched. Even if the Economic Crime Bill ends up looking tough on paper, it seems unlikely to be meaningfully resourced or enforced. And London remains very much open to business with the corrupt elites of non-Russian autocracies, be that Kazakhstan, China or sundry Gulf Arab monarchies. As the Economist put it, “It was not a series of unfortunate events that shaped London into the go-to destination for those who earned their cash in, to put it politely, unorthodox ways. It was, and remains, the business model. … Russia is merely the current pariah, not the only one.” This deal with despots, this complicity with corruption is the plan, not some loophole in our liberalism.

The urgency to undermine Putin’s business model and political structures has driven these corrupting structures and relationships into the spotlight and it is imperative that they stay there. The UK’s international relations must not be determined by the courting of dictators and their ill-gotten wealth nor should the wellbeing of its people be disregarded in the interests of a few.

When confronting oligarchs and corruption, we need to look well beyond Russia, and not just at other autocracies but at our own national elites and the control that they have over politics and the media. It is too easy to blame Russia and some campaign of foreign subversion. The truth is that we have also been subverted from within and allowed our institutions to be captured and sold. Our media is oligarchic and so, increasingly is our politics. Whether Russian, Australian or British, such concentrated wealth and power is detrimental to our freedom and security.

The urgency of energy transition

During the 2014 conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the late US Senator John McCain famously described the latter as a “gas station masquerading as a country”. That energy-dependence has increased, with more than half of all Russian exports and 36% of all government revenue coming from oil, gas and coal last year. Solidarity with Ukraine begs the simple response of refusing to import Russian oil and gas. For a few countries, like the US, UK, Ireland and Scandinavia, where Russian energy was already a small part of the mix, this is pretty straight-forward. For most of the EU – not least Germany, Italy and Central Europe – which has committed to cutting its Russian energy imports by two-thirds this year, it is a massive undertaking. Cancelling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany is merely a first step.

But it is also a necessary and urgent task anyway if Europe is to make good its commitments to decarbonisation of its energy supply and achieving ‘carbon neutrality’. In the short term, the US and EU are leaning hard on Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian petro-states to increase oil and gas production as an alternative. Reluctant to lower prices, the Saudis reportedly are asking for greater support (or less criticism) of their war in Yemen as a pay-off. This would be a Faustian pact indeed. The UK is likely to seize the moment to bypass its climate commitments and license new fields off Scotland. Germany may burn more coal.

Far more effective than this substitution of ‘good carbon’ for ‘bad carbon’ would be to decisively shift to renewables and green energy. This would have the obvious benefits of contributing to saving the planet, stabilising prices at affordable levels, and decoupling energy-self-sufficient countries from destabilising geopolitics and dependence on a range of aggressive autocracies. George Monbiot – who is favourable to new nuclear power stations – believes that if the same investment and determination were applied to decarbonisation as wartime states apply to military industrial transformation, the West could rid itself of Russian energy within a year. I am less optimistic on the timeline but agree on the urgency of this overdue task and its feasibility in the medium-term.

Nuclear terror revisited

Choosing between nuclear and gas-fired power stations is a startling choice for European countries given the extraordinary vulnerability of civilian nuclear power plants that the war in Ukraine has revealed. Russian forces have not only used the irradiated Chernobyl site as cover for their advance on Kyiv but also attacked and fired on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Europe’s largest. A meltdown in a Ukrainian power station is not the only or the greatest nuclear risk we all face from this war.

Russia’s possession of a vast nuclear arsenal and President Putin’s regular intimations that he would be willing to use them against Ukraine or NATO should Russia’s conventional assault be frustrated seem to represent the greatest risk of nuclear weapons use since at least the 1980s. Only two months ago, the P5 states jointly affirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Together with the multi-billion dollar investments in renewing their nuclear arsenals that each of the P5 is currently making, Russia and NATO standing again on the precipice of nuclear war demonstrates how lightly the nuclear powers seem to take such rhetoric.

The new fear is that Putin might use ‘tactical’ or ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons of relatively low yield, perhaps in response to NATO becoming more directly engaged in Ukraine. This would be both hugely destructive and cross a post-1945 rubicon on the use of any nuclear weapons. But any such threat (and for now no such threats have been made explicitly) needs to be seen in the wider context of the US and UK talking up the usability of nuclear bombs. As Paul Rogers has shown, last year’s Integrated Review revised the UK’s nuclear doctrine to include a number of scenarios for potential usage against non-nuclear-armed states or those feared soon to produce their own.

This is hugely unhelpful and raises rather than reduces the potential for other nuclear-armed states to do the same. No one sane really wants a return to the mutual terror of the Cold War, let alone a Cold War with Hot Spots. Nuclear arms control, reduction and serious efforts towards multilateral disarmament need to be the outcome of this conflict as surely as they began in the late Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev appeared serious about complete disarmament, was a missed opportunity for the West and Russia. Such a chance may not come again, but if it does, we must be ready to seize it.

Towards systemic change

From ‘great wars’ come great shifts in the international order, great resolution to say ‘never again’ to war and other atrocities. That was the case in 1918-20 and 1941-45 with the formation of the League of Nations and then the United Nations and attempts to establish an absolute ban on inter-state war. In retrospect, that did not happen in 1989-92 as the Soviet empire and its Warsaw Pact military alliance crumbled. Perhaps the UN was strengthened for a decade or so, at least until the United States began circumventing it with ‘coalitions of the willing’. But in Europe the fortifications never really came down. Instead of restructuring for peace, Europeans, Americans and Russians kept organising for war. And war has duly come.

Sure, there was some disarmament, much demobilisation, and complete dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, but the frontlines of who was in and out of the NATO club just kept moving further east. Meanwhile, Russia’s budget-level interventions built a wretched constellation of ‘protected’ pseudo-statelets in Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, and propped up allied autocrats in Belarus, Armenia and Central Asia. For 13 unlucky years, Georgia and Ukraine were hung out to dry like dirty washing in the grey zone between these advancing and retreating blocs, their populations polarised. NATO claimed them but didn’t really want them; Russia desperately wanted what it couldn’t have. Both sides are guilty of encouraging them to choose between militarisms in what was supposed to be an era of peace.

That era has failed and it is time to begin building a better system from its ashes. That will not be easy while NATO and Russia are mobilised in fear of one another. The fire lit in Ukraine may spread more widely before it extinguishes. But all wars do end eventually. Even as war rages, just like in the late-1910s and early 1940s, it is imperative to start working for a new, more just and sustainable order in determination that Europe is whole, free and at peace for the future. We need to plan now for an international system fit for people and planet rather than billionaires and tyrants.

All the while we must be wary of seeing exceptionalism in Ukraine and our own European ‘near abroad’. Solidarity with Ukrainians is essential but so is solidarity with the hundreds of millions of other humans caught up in wars and violence across the world, including over 80 million forcibly displaced people. This may be Russia’s war but there are many others – in Iraq, in Palestine, in Yemen and elsewhere – that are at least partly waged in the UK’s name. Billions of others live in chronic poverty or political oppression that we would consider an affront to our wellbeing and dignity.

Work to do

There are many questions that we need to ask ourselves and our societies as we declare our solidarity with Ukraine. Each has important implications for the UK and its role in the world.

  • Do we see military might as inherently wrong, delegitimised because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine? Or do we see it discredited in the wrong hands and validated in the form of our valiant allies and armed forces?
  • Do we recognise the horror of humanity caught up in war? Or do we decide, like malaria and cholera, that this is some African or Asian malady that intrudes intolerably into safe, civilised Europe?
  • Do we recognise that oligarchic interests have captured and corrupted our political, economic and media structures? Or do we make examples of a few Russian playboys and declare mission: accomplished?
  • Do we really want to break our easy addiction to imported carbon? Or do we just want to find a new dealer?
  • Do we want to say never again to the existential terror of nuclear weapons? Or do we want to cling to the delusion that there are nuclear goodies as well as nuclear baddies, that there is such a thing as a responsible nuclear power?
  • Do we believe that Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are all integral to Europe and commit to their eventual inclusion within a secure and just peace system? Or do we decide that a new Iron Curtain is the best way to divide and subdue a continent-at-arms?

If the answer to these questions is not to defend the status quo by investing our common wealth into more arms, border walls and imported fossil fuels, then we have work to do. The first step is recognising how perilous the current order is and acknowledging the culpability of our own actions and those taken in our name. Solidarity with a common humanity deserving of a common security is the next step toward taking action to change the international system towards one genuinely opposing the threat and reality of war. The challenge then is to build-back-better a new international order supportive of human development, human protection and human security for all.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: IndustriALL Global Union. Ukrainian school children walk past a memorial to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Slavutych. The full slogan on the mural, painted by Mike Alewitz, reads: “From the ashes of the old we will build a new world. Solidarity forever.”

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