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To the victor go the spoils … a heap of ashes

Diana Francis and Andrew Rigby see the appalling tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. Acknowledging the right of Ukrainians to resist the invasion of their country by any means, they make the case for a cessation of military struggle, in favour of civilian-based resistance which might avert the ‘desertification’ of their land, its institutions, its infrastructure and its social fabric.

They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and they call it by the lying name of “empire”. They make a desert and call it “peace”.

Quote attributed to Scottish chieftain Calgacus before his army was routed in the final battle against the invading Roman army in AD83/84.

Rethinking Security (RS) was launched with the aim of initiating a public conversation about how best to build long-term security for people in this society and worldwide, a search for common security for all. Informing this initiative was the conviction that the hegemonic security paradigm, with its militaristic assumptions and actions, was a global disaster in the making, with war and the threat of war, global inequality and needless poverty, mass migration, climate apocalypse and the endless potential for mass nuclear annihilation. Underpinning the work of RS has been the stark contrast between state-level security concerns played out within the power politics of the international arena and the human security concerns of the vast bulk of the global population.

Then a month ago the unthinkable happened. A major power launched a military attack against one of its neighbours. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was unjust and unjustifiable – a crime against humanity. It seemed to many that the arguments about the need to constantly beef up the military might of states was vindicated. The current orthodoxy is apparently crystal-clear: the despot Putin must be defeated and military might exercised so that western civilisation can be protected. The UK Government has claimed that if we do not stand up to Russia now, by supporting Ukraine’s military effort, nowhere is safe.

However, when we examine how this horror came about, it becomes apparent that it was militaristic preparation and posturing that created the context wherein Putin, the despotic Russian nationalist, felt that his country was threatened by enemies. Since the ending of the Cold War, rather than disbanding itself and despite its promises, NATO has expanded eastwards, inviting former Warsaw Pact countries to join. Not unnaturally, Putin and his inner circle felt that Russia was being both excluded and threatened, particularly given their understanding that NATO had promised not to expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The futility of nuclear weapons

Furthermore, the invasion revealed the utter futility of nuclear weapons. The possession of a nuclear arsenal was one of the factors that provided Putin with the shield to act with seeming impunity and to wage war. Those outraged by his decision to put his nuclear forces ‘on alert’ should bear in mind that NATO has incorporated the principle of ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons into its strategic thinking ever since the 1980s.

Those who favour the shipping of ever-more lethal weapons to support the Ukrainian military, in their struggle to contain the invading forces, should factor into their analysis the likelihood that, faced with possible military defeat in Ukraine, Putin might well decide to resort to limited nuclear use as a more attractive option.

Civil resistance

Vladimir Putin cannot evade responsibility for launching a brutal war in Ukraine, nor for the atrocities committed. The Ukrainians had the right to determine their own response and chose to fight back with all the weapons they could get, and their courage has been remarkable. But we have all seen the carnage and destruction that have resulted.  

Military resistance can be disastrous, particularly when there is a major power imbalance, as there is between Russia and Ukraine. The violence, the destruction, the loss of lives and livelihoods, the collapse of public services, the separation of families – over three million refugees at a recent count – all this barbarity is integral to the institution of war; this is its very essence.

We need to think outside the militarist box. Of course, there is no nonviolent way to prevent missiles, bombs and other ordnance from exploding and wreaking death and destruction. But maybe there would have been a better future for the people if they had chosen civil resistance. Maybe it would still be better if there were to be a halt to the military resistance.

There are unarmed ways to resist oppression and occupation. The challenge to the occupier resides in the denial of their legitimacy, a refusal to respect their ‘right to rule’, informed by a refusal to relinquish one’s identity and loyalty to one’s homeland and one’s humanity. An unarmed civil resistance struggle to frustrate Russia’s attempt to impose its rule would incur penalties and restrictions for sure, but ending the long-range bombardment of the population centres would mean not only the saving of lives but also the preservation of houses, hospitals, water supplies, power, infrastructures, schools, colleges, museums, libraries, roads, agricultural land and more. Moreover, it would leave Russia with an immense dilemma – how can it maintain an open-ended occupation with its associated drain on its catastrophically damaged economy and its weakened military capabilities, particularly if its occupation forces were met with significant civil resistance?

This might seem a heretical stance to take, but our starting point is our deep conviction that if you want to create peace, you must prepare for peace. If you want to create a desolate wasteland, then choose war. We need to affirm that and to recognise that war is always and everywhere a crime against humanity. In the 21st century that is more obviously true than ever before.

The route to survival

It seems as if this war could continue for weeks, if not months. Whether or not that is the case, if we escape a wider war in Europe – and worse – it is vital that this tragedy persuades the world’s leaders and peoples that the route we are all on leads only to further calamity.

We need to recognise that war is the deadly enemy of all the things we most need, polluting, destroying and bringing poverty in its wake. To survive as a species we need a fundamental rethink of our values, to inform the building of a new world order. Our minds must be focussed on urgent and determined cooperation to address the peril in which we all find ourselves.

Emblematic of that change will be a reconstituted and seriously respected UN, freed from the stranglehold of the current Security Council and able to act as a common space, a power house for the common good of all peoples and nations.

Making human and planetary needs the focus, the change itself will require, among other things:

The list could of course go on. The road ahead will be steep indeed, but it is the only route to survival. If we start now, saying ‘Never again’ and meaning it, the barbarity and tragedy of Ukraine will not have been entirely in vain.


Andrew Rigby is Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies (Coventry University, UK). He has spent most of his professional career teaching peace studies in different locations and institutions, an activity informed by his deep commitment to nonviolence as practice and principle.


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: Ukrainian drone footage of Mariupol, ruined by Russian bombardment, March 2022.

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