Working towards peace and sustainability

They’re Wrong. Does that Mean We’re Right?


The Russo-Ukrainian War has been grinding on for more than a year now with no end in sight. There’ve been hundreds of thousands of casualties. Millions have been displaced from their homes. Besides death and injury, there’s been massive destruction of infrastructure and environmental harm as well.

Those of us who are active supporters of peace and seek a just resolution for this conflict are facing some difficult questions. Every war is tragic, but this one is uniquely dangerous, as, beyond the horrors it has already presented, it also holds the potential for “going nuclear,” which could usher in World War III. Here’s some of what we, at Peaceworks, are thinking about where we find ourselves today and how we might reach that resolution.


While there is much disagreement as to who is mainly to blame, and at least as much over the question where do we go from here, there is fairly broad agreement that the Russian attack on Ukraine is a war of aggression, a profound violation of international law. Even those who cast much of the blame for the war onto the United States and NATO, begin their statements on the conflict with a perfunctory condemnation of Russia’s launching of the war.

With this point of departure, what remains of the peace movement is divided as to how much blame is to be cast on our government and NATO. Some focus on the broken promise of not expanding NATO eastward, ostensibly made at the end of the Cold War, although never codified in a treaty. And some question the very basis for the continued existence of NATO when the Warsaw Pact dissolved more than 30 years ago.

Complicating the situation in Eastern Europe is the fact that Czarist Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, were both polyglot empires. Russia was not only the dominant player in the Czarist empire, but there was a many-decades-long Russification effort. This and colonization/migration led to the USSR having significant Russian speaking minorities in virtually all of the European Soviet republics, and some regions, including Crimea and the Donbass in Ukraine, being majority Russian speaking. Putin is widely seen as attempting to restore the former Russian Empire by annexing states or regions of states that had become independent at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

There also is disagreement as to the causes of the armed conflict that began in 2014. At issue is the U.S. role in the Maidan Revolution. The government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which was democratically elected and tilted toward Russia, was ousted in a popular uprising, with Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. How much the U.S. supported this effort, or even directed it, is widely disputed. So is the role that extreme nationalist forces, including neo-Nazis, played in the revolt.

Over the past nine years Crimea has been annexed to Russia, a territorial transfer that has not been recognized by most of the world’s nations, and portions of the Donbass have been effectively self-governing. After Maidan, there was initially significant fighting, but, within several months, the Minsk Agreements were hammered out that ramped down the conflict. But there was continuing sporadic fighting and Ukraine never recognized the separation of either Crimea or the portions of the Donbass that were in Russian hands. The Ukrainian government did agree to autonomy for the separatist regions. Both sides, however, questioned the other’s compliance with these agreements.  

The U.S. Role:

As noted, despite the end of the Cold War, the U.S. took a leading role in maintaining and expanding the NATO alliance, even though the rationale for its existence was to serve as a defensive anti-Soviet alliance. Rather than integrating all of Eastern Europe into a system of regional cooperation—one that included Russia as well as the West—U.S. foreign policy remained locked into maintaining Russia as an enemy. This played out against a backdrop of Russia’s economy being severely diminished in the wake of privatization.

The U.S. supported integration into NATO of all the Eastern European Warsaw Pact nations as well as the Baltic republics. The U.S. was also involved in supporting anti-Russian governments in other former Soviet republics, including Georgia. In the wake of 9/11 Russia was very helpful to U.S. efforts, and did not object to the U.S. military operating out of Central Asian former Soviet republics.

Despite Russian efforts to curry U.S. favor, our government, under both Ds and Rs, continued to pursue dominence, claiming to be the indispensable country in a unipolar world. This served the interests of the Military-Industrial Complex, but not the cause of peace.

The U.S. under George W. Bush, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Later, under Trump, our government withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This combined with the failure by all nuclear weapons states to comply with the disarmament provisions in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the failure to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the current Russian backing away from the New START Treaty, leaves us with virtually no framework for managing nuclear arsenals or reducing the risk of nuclear war.

Since the end of the Cold War, three decades ago, the U.S. has asserted and sought to maintain the role of global hegemon. With more than 800 military installations outside American borders and a military budget larger than the next nine biggest spenders combined, the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of weapons of all types. Operating largely with cost-plus contracts, the Military-Industrial Complex is highly profitable and it is one sector of the manufacturing economy that the U.S. has not offshored.

That said, China and other emerging economies have come to regard the U.S. as a fading power. Not one war the U.S. has fought since World War II resulted in a clear victory and most have been undeniable defeats. Economic growth here lags behind much of the world and our government’s interventionist policies have played out to be more a sign of weakness than strength.

President Biden’s administration has attempted to portray the U.S. support for Ukraine as a noble crusade to support democracy over autocracy. They have presented the conflict as a stand-alone event; viewing it out of a broader context. Moreover, it’s hard to take seriously their claims of supporting democracy after many decades of making similar claims, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and in numerous interventions in-between. Likewise, it’s hard to condemn an illegal war of aggression in Ukraine, when the U.S. has invaded many countries, most notably in recent years, Iraq. It is not surprising then that much of the world views the U.S. role in the current conflict as suspect; an attempted power grab, aimed at bringing down Russia, dressed up as a noble crusade.

Is There an Off-Ramp?

In discussing the war, the word that comes up most frequently is “intractable.” Both sides, it seems, are committed to winning; attaining an outright military victory. While the peace community continues to call for a ceasefire and negotiations, the Russians have set out unacceptable preconditions and the Ukrainians are unwilling to come to the table while the Russians occupy their territory.

Absent negotiations, the war is likely to drag on. In the long run, the Russians have significant factors operating in their favor, including a larger population, a larger resource base and the ability to both produce and purchase weapons. The Ukrainians have the advantage when it comes to motivation—they are defending their country and fighting off an invader—as well as, for now at least, access to sophisticated weapons systems from the U.S. and other NATO countries. That said, Russia holds the nuclear trump card. If things go poorly for them, they could fall back upon, not just the threat, but the actual use of tactical nuclear weapons.

The Ukrainians, whose fall counter-offensive was quite successful, seem convinced that the only way out acceptable to them is a powerful spring and summer advance that leads to a Russian defeat. It seems unlikely, however, that the Russians will accept defeat, and this makes the Ukrainian insistence on pursing victory most dangerous. Likewise, the Ukrainians are unlikely to accept defeat and it is likely, if their conventional military is vanquished, that there will be protracted popular resistance and guerilla warfare.

To Arm or Not to Arm?

Peace advocates are generally opposed to adding weapons to an existing conflict, often describing it as adding gasoline to a fire. That said, the Ukrainians are the aggrieved party—their country has been invaded and occupied—and they have the right to self-defense.

There is also disagreement as to what is likely to occur if the West is to shut down the flow of arms to Ukraine. Some say this will lead to peace, but it seems to us that Russia is less likely to come to the bargaining table if they know that the Ukrainian forces are running out of ordinance and likely to be defeated in short order. For this reason, while we mourn the loss of life and limb that will come with the use of these weapons, we recognize that the route to a ceasefire and negotiations is most likely taken if both sides recognize that they are unlikely to see a military victory, or that the cost of such a victory is just way too high.

What we would suggest instead is that, while pressing for negotiations, the West continues to supply weapons, but avoids escalating the conflict by supplying more capable or clearly offensive weapons. If NATO does this, it provides leverage with both the Ukrainian government and with the Russians, pressing both to lay down their arms and negotiating a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

What Might a Peace Agreement Look Like?

A peace agreement should not be imposed from the outside, but it is possible for our government to influence the terms of an agreement by the parties. In doing so, in our opinion, they should embrace the principle that aggression should not be rewarded and this includes transferring of territory. Further, we should support the right to self-determination for all peoples.

This could be accomplished through an agreement to halt fighting, withdraw forces from the conflict zones, put these regions under temporary UN control, while enforcing the agreement by stationing peacekeepers from neutral parties. Each providence, or oblast, with a large or majority Russian speaking population should be given the opportunity to choose their own future.

Self-determination can be achieved through internationally supervised elections or plebiscites. These should be held after a reasonable interval, perhaps a year, to allow time to restore order and for refugees to return, should they choose to. Those who have fled the fighting should also have the right to vote absentee. The ballot could offer several options, ranging from integration into Ukraine or Russia to autonomous status within either country, to independence. Voting would be by oblast. Results should be based upon a ranked-choice vote, to assure outcomes that conform to the will of the majority. And safeguards should be put in place to guarantee the rights of minorities.

Security guarantees, including whether or not Ukraine will join NATO and/or the EU also need to be decided. There are many additional issues that need to be addressed, from reparations for the massive damages and losses imposed upon Ukraine to the return of those, including children, who’ve been transferred away from their homes against their will. Each of these issues must be negotiated, but this will be easier to do if the fighting is halted and there is an agreement to allow self-determination.

“War is hell” is both a cliché and a truism. We, as a species, should have outgrown war centuries ago, but we must start where we are and work with what we have. Right now, we have a war that seems intractable, while crying out for a just settlement and peace. This conflict is one that we cannot afford to ignore, especially since, unlike many conflicts, this one holds to potential of going nuclear.