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Reflections on advocating for peace and security in Ukraine

Rethinking Security has seen an increase in interest in its resources since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. We hope that sharing experiences from some of our members might help those who are looking to understand and share alternative perspectives on security. Joanna Frew asked members of the Rethinking Security network about the kind of issues and queries that members of the public have raised in their response to the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its fifth month, has been catastrophic for the people of Ukraine and has led to an outpouring of sympathy and, at least for now, solidarity from across Europe. It has also been devastating for resisters in Russia and Belarus who find themselves on the wrong side of powerful regimes and propaganda. It has had far-reaching consequences on global food and energy supplies and has led to a revitalisation of NATO as Russia is identified as the common threat.

For many members and supporters of Rethinking Security across the country – who have been active in campaigns for peace, demilitarisation and nuclear disarmament in the last decades – this conflict is raising dilemmas about how to advocate for peace and security when it seems that Ukraine is faced with a threat to its very survival. This is markedly different to the campaigning and advocacy of our members over the last 20+ years when the UK and United States have taken military action overseas, so we asked some of them about what that has meant for their work and public conversation.

A changing public discourse

To begin, we discussed the main differences. Marigold Bentley, an activist from Dorchester, identified the role of the media in forming public opinion. She said, “media coverage has been enormously sympathetic to Ukraine, which was not the case for the other three wars [in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria].  Ordinary people have responded with great warmth as they recognised Ukrainian families as just like their own. The fact that the UK has no troops officially in Ukraine engaged in the war, and that “we” are not at war at all has made the conversation very different from those we had over the other three named wars where the UK had direct military engagement. The faith dimension is important, particularly as Ukraine is portrayed as deeply Christian whereas the other three wars were conducted against what we were told was a Muslim enemy.  I note that both Syria and Iraq were formerly very religiously diverse countries but that diversity was never portrayed in the UK press.”

Philip Austin, coordinator of Northern Friends Peace Board (NFPB), said that as a consequence of this portrayal, “[m]any of our members and supporters are very conscious of and concerned about the risk of double-standards being at play, particularly in relation to the actions by US and UK, from Serbia to Iraq and Yemen, from direct intervention to remote-controlled killing to weapons exports. The narrative from the media and political establishments paints the current situation as a very clear-cut case of good-guys and bad-guys. I have not heard people condoning Russia’s actions but there are clearly concerns about backing one party in an armed conflict to the extent that the west is doing. Similarly, the demonising of Russian cultural ties is raising many concerns that we are being led into the trap of having a new big-bad enemy against which we must arm and get ready to fight.

He also added “There are many who are active in taking action for peace who are also committed and involved in groups and individual action to support those seeking sanctuary in the UK. Many of these are very conscious of the hostility towards others who have sought refuge in the UK over the years. Whilst welcoming those escaping the war in Ukraine, there is a strong sense that – non-Europeans in particular – should not be discriminated against in a hierarchy of asylum seekers. Nonetheless, providing sanctuary and support for victims of war is something that many are rightly led to do, and perhaps are well-placed to offer, sometimes approaching that role with a wider world perspective and support networks.”

The difficult questions

These differences, and the threat that Ukraine faces, have meant that many who normally oppose war are grappling with the question, as Marigold put it: “how else is it possible to protect Ukrainian people from an aggressor like Putin?” Demilitarise Education say that, with their strong anti-militarist stance, they have been challenged by some of their peers about how they feel about military aid being sent to Ukraine. Diana Francis, an activist in Bath, said that during her local group’s public peace vigils many people, including those who usually oppose war, often respond with statements akin to “yes it’s terrible, we must send more weapons.” And some have found previously like-minded friends suggesting that the nuclear deterrent is now a necessity. This has presented a challenge to finding a practicable but ethical response as well as navigating conflicting feelings about what is ‘right’.

However, everyone agreed that although they would not deny Ukraine’s right to self-defence, continuing to challenge further militarisation in Europe remains important for sustainable peace. Jinsella from Demilitarise Education said they “don’t see military aid as black and white. We are aware that Ukrainians can’t fight the Russian military with flowers and if this is what they need to survive then so it is. But we have to also look at the fact that British arms companies are benefiting from this aid-giving and there will be knock-on effects of this that make us even more militarised, rather than taking progressive steps towards peace.”

Being honest about the complexities, whilst continuing to challenge militarism has been something that the Rethinking Security group in Bath has tried to do publicly. Diana says that their Saturday vigils have been attended by Ukrainians who want peace but also for their country to be able to defend itself. Nevertheless, the Bath group’s placards clearly “question the efficacy of war in making things better rather than to destroy a country and risk a wider European war; and of nuclear deterrence to deter aggression rather than bringing on their use.”

Philip agreed, “the issue of nuclear weapons has changed the nature of how this conflict is viewed, with real fears that the escalation of rhetoric, alongside transfer of sophisticated weapons, is pouring petrol onto an already out-of-control fire that could only too easily spread.”

While these concerns might be met with the view that there is no other option than the military one, it is a way to begin discussing war, peace and security more broadly with new audiences. As Marigold said, “there is the opportunity to have a lively discussion about it with people who usually might not talk about it.” Diana agrees: it is time for “promoting a new surge of thinking about how we can prepare for peace and demilitarise international relations.” 

Philip explained that NFPB has been “bring[ing] together resources to share information and comment from different perspectives. This has focussed particularly on material that sets out possible non-military responses and routes to peace. We wrote to Liz Truss in April, responding to the escalatory language and behaviour of our own government and urging a different approach. We have not sought to minimise the complexity or dilemmas for those coming from a pacifist perspective, but aim to keep visible thinking and perspectives that are largely invisible in the mainstream discourse.” 

Questioning the rehabilitation of NATO

After 20 years of leading disastrous military interventions beyond Europe, the mainstream discourse has begun to rehabilitate NATO as the guarantor of security in Europe. This clashes with, as Marigold identified, “[t]he role of NATO … being discussed actively across the Left with a number of groups clearly stating their opposition to it.” 

I asked the group how they viewed NATO’s role. For Diana, this issue must be considered and communicated in its historical context, i.e. “the post-cold war process of isolating/ encircling Russia and its allies and bringing NATO bases ever-closer to [Russia].” She continues, “NATO was invented for the cold war and should have been dissolved when it ended and, as Gorbachev suggested, a new, wider Europe developed…[it should] transform things by committing itself to dissolving itself when this war is ended.”

Jinsella said that in their network “[m]ost people have sided with the Ukrainian fight, while others have blamed NATO as being the fundamental reason for this taking place. There was a narrative of American expansion as a justification for a Russian offensive.” Often this is easily dismissed and countered by real fears of Russia, but, she says, “we have remained on the line that any sort of aggression should not be tolerated, [that] we should also seek other methods of conflict resolution that do not involve the army and firing weapons.”

Philip agreed that other ways of developing security need to be found. “NATO has assumed a lead role, but so long as that is solely based around hard security, prospects for peace will be elusive. Other international bodies must also be active in building different routes and mechanisms for addressing issues at the root of the conflict and for painstaking confidence-building if peace is to come about.”

Everyone said that it is imperative to keep alternative approaches open. Philip continued: “In terms of political engagement, seeking to put forward a different approach is not easy for individuals, so strong is the party line. But it will be important that we keep asking questions and offering alternatives for consideration; if these are simply kept beyond the view of politicians, then options for routes out of the war and towards some kind of peace will be that much harder to find.” Marigold seconded that, saying, “Ukraine as it is currently is trapped and the peace which will have to be established will be very messy – and a lot of folks will feel they lost out.” The longer conflict continues the more this will be the case.

Staying active in challenging the war

So what can we do? Whilst there are a number of suggestions from the above conversation – like keeping alternatives on the agenda and challenging further militarisation as the logical conclusion for Europe – the group also encouraged a number of things.

Diana believes that one thing we can do as people with histories in peacebuilding and activism is to “build the idea of and capacity for nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation with occupiers”. There are many stories of non-violent resistance from historic conflicts and inside Ukraine and Belarus. Share some stories from Ukrainian peacemakers, for example.

Marigold said “Hosting [Ukrainian refugees] is one thing folks are offering.  Secondly, there is donating funds through the usual charitable bodies.” It might sound obvious but it does take commitment. But with this comes some discomfort that other conflicts and their humanitarian fall out are not receiving the same attention.

And Jinsella was clear, this is an issue where we can “let our voice be heard! Let your elected officials know that you do not stand for this war or anything it represents! Join protests, coalition movements, there is strength in numbers! Another thing to keep in mind is that these conflicts happen everywhere, and therefore we reinforce the fact that if you have energy to scream against the war in Ukraine, then you can scream against other violent conflicts across the world that deserve media attention and popular support too.”

Security is a shared and global effort that takes time, patience and commitment. Many of our members involved in peacebuilding are aware that it is their people on the ground who will still be there on the other side of this and other conflicts. With all the public interest now, we hope we can change the conversation so our own government, at least, will work towards sustainable peace rather than inflaming tensions.

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