Working towards peace and sustainability

A Timely Message on the Necessity of Peace

 Peaceworks Director Mark Haim was the invited keynote speaker at Veterans for Peace’s annual Memorial Day Peace Gathering, May 29, 2023. Here is an excerpt from the prepared text for this talk.

Let me begin with thanks to Veterans for Peace, and to all of you here today, for carrying forward the flame of peace and working to move us toward peace in challenging times. Thanks, too, for inviting me to speak.

My main topic here today is the Russo-Ukrainian War. How should we, as peace advocates, address this crisis.

Let me start by saying that I sincerely believe that all of us here want peace; all of us seek an end to this conflict. While we might disagree about some aspects of this, I believe we all want an end to the killing and a negotiated, just settlement.

For about 15 months now the war between Russia and Ukraine has ground on.

As in any war, the loss of life and limb is tragic. Hundreds of thousands have been killed or injured. Many thousands more have been traumatized.

Millions of Ukrainians have fled the war. Infrastructure has been devastated and the environment poisoned.

If this isn’t enough to grieve, we also are deeply concerned because this war is different from others in recent decades as it holds the prospect of the possible use of nuclear weapons &/or the release of massive amounts of radiation from Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, which may be targets or “collateral damage.” This is the first time a war is being fought in the territory of a nation with operating nuclear plants.

This war needs to be ended, but instead, it is being escalated.

This war must be stopped. The costs are far too great and the risks even greater.

We need a Ceasefire and Negotiations. And we need to press for this NOW!

The war has also divided the progressive left and what remains of the peace movement. Instead of focusing on ending the violence, we hear supporters of Ukraine locking horns with supporters of Russia. Many are playing the blame game when, in fact, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Here’s some of what we’ve heard, and please note, these are just things we’ve been hearing, not statements I’m necessarily endorsing. These assertions often contradict each other, so I’m pretty sure all of you will disagree with at least some of these; and also that some of us will disagree with each other; hopefully respectfully:

It is generally agreed that, in the current war, Russia is the aggressor, having invaded Ukraine, engaging in a war of aggression, the highest form of war crime.

Many say, however, that Russia was provoked. Post-Cold War and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded eastward, violating assurances provided by the Bush Sr. administration. There is some truth here as well.

Supporters of Ukraine’s government under Zelenskyy point out that he was democratically elected. They then claim that the war is one for democracy. Maybe so, but we’ve heard this claim over and over, from Vietnam to Iraq and so many other conflicts.

Those who back Russia, however, point to the fact that in 2014 Ukraine’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup that the U.S. definitely backed and likely instigated. Again, truth here.

Ukraine supporters claim that the government overthrown in the 2014 Maidan revolt was corrupt and unpopular. And their then president, Viktor Yanukovych, had reneged on promises to seek membership in the European Union. Again true, but not necessarily legitimate grounds for overthrowing the elected government.

Russia backers claim that those who took a leading role in the Maidan revolt were neo-Nazis and other rightwing nationalists. This is in dispute. There definitely were neo-fascist elements involved, but this is probably giving them more credit or blame than they deserve.

Ukraine supporters might tell you there are neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, as there are in many countries, including the U.S., but their numbers and influence are slight. Polls show that Ukraine is the least anti-Semitic country in Eastern Europe and their president, Zelenskyy is Jewish.

Meanwhile, Putin is moving Russia in the direction of an Orthodox theocracy.

Our government has condemned Russia for invading and annexing Crimea in 2014 in violation of international law.

Russia supporters point to the fact that Russia did not invade Crimea, as their military was already there. They stress that Crimea was historically part of Russia until 1954 when it was transferred to Ukraine. Both were republics within the Soviet Union at that time. When the USSR dissolved Crimea remained part of Ukraine, but Russia was allowed to keep its main Black Sea naval base there. The decision to annex this Russian-speaking province many claim, was made largely to assure that Russia would not lose its access to this naval base.

Ukraine backers say Russia invaded the Donbas in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine in 2014. We know pro-Russian separatists revolted in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the Russians supported the separatists sending in plain clothes troops and military equipment, while maintaining that they were not involved in this.

The Minsk Protocol and Minsk 2, signed in late 2014 and early 2015 respectively, called for an end to the fighting and attempted to settle the outstanding issues. The fighting was mostly, but not completely, halted, and many issues remained unresolved. Who was responsible for this impasse is unclear, as each side blames the other.

Fast-forward to 2022 and immediately prior to the Russian invasion, Putin recognized the independence of the two successionist provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and declared that the Minsk agreements “no longer existed.”

Subsequent to this Putin has taken the next step and annexed these two provinces, claiming they are now a part of Russia.

He has also, at various times, claimed that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia and denied its assertion of statehood. On the day of the invasion he said “Let me emphasize once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.”

He has described Ukraine as “historically Russian land” that was stolen from the Russian empire and has since fallen into the hands of neo-Nazis and corrupt “puppets” controlled by the West. Most of this is clearly untrue, but there is some truth in the claim that some parts of post-Soviet Ukraine were historically Russian parts of the polyglot, ethnically diverse Russian Empire. This is NOT, however, at least in my opinion, a justification for launching a war of aggression.

There is also much disagreement over the issue of negotiations. Both sides claim to want peace, but both are demanding the other essentially surrender first and negotiate with this as a starting point. The Ukrainians say they’ll negotiate once the Russians withdraw from their territory, including Crimea and the Donbass. The Russians say they’d negotiate, but Russian sovereignty over Crimea and the entirety of the Donbas is non-negotiable.

Meanwhile, those who tend to blame the West claim that Ukraine was ready to negotiate, but that back in March of 2022 the US and UK pressured them not to. This may be so. There are, again here, claims and counter-claims and deciding what happened then is not, in my opinion, nearly as important as figuring out how to end this long festering and now very active military conflict.

We, as peace advocates, need to be voices for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We need to press the Biden administration to embrace the call for Ceasefire and Negotiations.

We all heard, back in April of last year, Pentagon Secretary Lloyd Austin declare that our goal is to weaken Russia. By saying the quiet parts out loud, Austin acknowledged that the U.S. was engaged in a proxy war with the objective not simply aiding Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion, but rather to gain geopolitical dominance.

Seeking dominance is a surefire recipe for continued and expanded conflict, with the prospect of the conflict “going nuclear.”

It’s time to outgrow the dominance paradigm and instead pursue a common security approach to foreign policy. War is obsolete. Nationalism pernicious. One Planet—One People!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his groundbreaking, 1967 speech, Beyond Vietnam, publicly called out our government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This was true then, and it may still be true today.

But this doesn’t mean we can or should blame our government for all international conflicts. In fact, in the case of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine the aggrieved party; a party with every right of self-defense. We must condemn Russian imperialism at the same time we criticize many of our own government’s actions.

Russia being wrong does NOT mean the U.S. is in the right.

It’s high time both Ukraine and Russia realize that there are no winners in war. And a settlement of the armed conflict is in the interest of both parties.

Our government has leverage with both parties. Because the U.S. is Ukraine’s primary backer, if our government recognizes that it’s time for a negotiated settlement, it can press the Ukrainians to negotiate. Likewise, beyond the ability to lift sanctions, the U.S. can both press Russia to come to the bargaining table, and convince them that their failure to pursue a settlement will have dire consequences for all, including Russia.

Thus, I’d like to urge each of you here today to use your personal influence to press our government to embrace a ceasefire and negotiations.

Call and/or write the White House. Also, contact the Gang of Eight (House & Senate majority and minority leaders, plus both Intel Committees majority and minority leaders) as well as the same for the House and Senate Foreign Relations/Affairs Committees.

I suggest keeping the message simple. Let’s not escalate the war. Let’s not send more advanced and sophisticated weapons systems like the F-16. Instead, let’s press both sides for a ceasefire and negotiations. In the interim let’s support Ukraine’s right to self-defense, but make clear to all that the U.S. will not accept the refusals of both sides to end this senseless, deadly and ultimately extremely dangerous conflict.

Moving forward, there’s a tremendous need to press for Common Security, not Great Power Rivalry. We need to Build a Movement!

For those unfamiliar, Common Security is based on “the idea that cooperation can provide the security that humans crave, where military competition and nuclear deterrence have failed. That ultimately, nations and populations can only feel safe when their counterparts feel safe.” More HERE.

Thus, the United States pressing to dominate Russia and China is a Zero Sum Game. We need to outgrow win/lose thinking and move to win/win.

This is no small task. It requires rethinking our approach to international relations, and, on a more basic level, our approach to others in general.

While this is, in no way easy, this is the world we have to work with and there is much work to be done.