These are difficult times for peace supporters. Faced with Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine and rising militarization in the United States and around the world, we are troubled and uncertain about what to do. Millions of us marched against the Iraq war 20 years ago, but today we are mostly silent. Are peace movements still relevant in this crisis?
I believe they are, and must be. In this reflection, I address the legitimacy of Ukraine’s right to self-defense, the role of U.S. policy and the necessity of demanding a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. I also argue for greater support of Russian opponents of the war.
A just cause
Throughout our lives, we have denounced unjust wars waged by the U.S., from Vietnam to Iraq, and have rejected the imperial hegemony of American foreign policy. We know that nonviolence is a superior means of resolving political differences within societies and between nations, and we have argued for international diplomacy, economic development and peacebuilding as alternatives to militarism.
We oppose war in principle but we also understand that people under armed attack have a right to defend themselves. The principle of self-defense is acknowledged in all societies, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, and is accepted in nearly all religious traditions and in the law. The UN Charter prohibits war between states, but it allows an exception for the use of force in the event of an armed attack.
Ukraine’s struggle surely qualifies as a just war, if such a thing exists. Pope Francis, stalwart defender of peace and disarmament, said recently that Ukraine’s defensive war is “not only licit, it’s also an expression of love toward one’s homeland.” Absolute pacifists contest the very concept of just war, and point to the frequent misuse of the term to justify what is unjustifiable. What is our answer, though, when armed aggressors attack and innocent people are slaughtered? Ukrainians have used civilian-based defense and nonviolent resistance strategies to counter Russian invaders, but these alone could not have stopped the military juggernaut.
The U.S. role
Russia has legitimate grievances with U.S. foreign policy, especially the expansion of NATO and the prospect of Ukraine as one of its members. I share these concerns. I opposed the expansion of NATO in the 1990s and have been critical ever since. The expansion of the military bloc was confrontational and unnecessary after the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. These and other concerns are real, yet they are not a justification for the savage attack Russia has unleashed on the people of Ukraine, nor for Putin’s reckless nuclear saber rattling.
The irony of Putin’s policy is that it has significantly strengthened NATO. Who could have imagined a decade ago that Finland and Sweden would seek to join the alliance, or that Germany would sharply increase military spending? Military defenses and NATO preparedness have hardened throughout the alliance, especially in Eastern Europe among states that fear they may be next on Putin’s hit list.
It is true that the U.S. also violates international law and has committed aggression against Iraq and other countries, but that does not alter the moral calculus of Russia’s invasion. The Kremlin’s imperialist war should be condemned unequivocally, especially by those of us who have spoken out against Washington’s imperial wars. As we demand accountability for the U.S. and British leaders who illegally attacked Iraq, we also support the International Criminal Court indictment against Putin for his crimes in Ukraine.
The General Assembly has voted three times against the war—with more than 140 countries condemning the invasion and annexation of territory and demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces—but important nations of the Global South have abstained. Many of these states are skeptical of Washington’s interventionist and domineering policies and have called for a more universal application of international law rather than unilateral exceptionalism.
The U.S. and Europe are doing the right thing, I believe, in providing aid for Ukraine’s defense, and imposing targeted sanctions to constrain Russia’s war-making, but they must do more to support international negotiations to end the war. This includes communicating clearly to Moscow that sanctions will be lifted if Russia agrees to negotiate for peace and withdraws its troops from Ukraine.
Some have been critical of the U.S. and European proxy war in Ukraine, citing the risks of supplying weapons to other countries and the criminal arms trafficking and political blowback that can result. These are important concerns that highlight the danger of continuing the war, but they are not an argument for withholding support from Ukraine, as some on the far right and the left are urging. That would reward aggression and hand victory to Putin, with dire consequences for the people of Ukraine and international security.
Even when war is for self-defense, it must be viewed with sorrow. War “is always a defeat for humanity,” said John Paul II. We have a moral duty to work for an end to armed conflict and build the conditions for sustainable peace. The pathway toward that goal in Ukraine is not visible now, but steps can be taken to move in that direction.
The demand for international negotiations under UN authority should be a top priority. Ukrainian leaders vow to fight until military victory, but their chances of driving Russian forces out of every inch of Ukrainian territory are slim, short of a collapse of the Russian military. Most wars end in some form of signed agreement, and the more prepared Ukraine is for that eventuality, the more likely it will be to achieve a favorable outcome. There is nothing to fear from diplomacy and much to gain with the right strategy, especially with broad international support.
The Biden administration says the decision on when and how to negotiate is up to Ukraine, which is true, but it is also up to Russia. The U.S. and other countries have a major stake in the outcome as well, and should play an active role in nudging the parties toward the bargaining table. France is attempting to do that and so is China, in its way. Turkey has offered to host negotiations, as have other states. The U.S. should support these efforts to help build a broad global effort to end the war.
While the details of an agreement will likely be determined through negotiations, the necessary contours of a settlement are clear: an internationally monitored ceasefire, linked to a process for the withdrawal of Russian forces; NATO neutrality for Ukraine; and political procedures for resolving the difficult issues of territory and sovereignty. Former senior U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering has suggested internationally supervised referendums under UN authority allowing the people of the Donbas and Crimea to decide their political future. Many other questions would have to be resolved as part of a complex international negotiation and peace implementation process.
While advocating for diplomacy we should also support war resisters in Russia. Despite fierce Kremlin repression, many thousands of Russians have protested and spoken out against the war. Hundreds of thousands have fled conscription in an unprecedented wave of draft refusal, and a significant number of Russian soldiers have fled military service in Ukraine or refused to fight.
During the Vietnam War, American draft resisters and anti-war soldiers and veterans like myself received valuable assistance from peace activists. The resistance movement within the military during that era played a role in helping to end the conflict. Similar movements of solidarity and support are needed now for the many people of Russia who have taken risks and uprooted their lives in opposition to the war.
Russians who refuse war today are allies in the struggle for peace, and they deserve and need our assistance. We should welcome and provide sanctuary for those fleeing the war and should insist that the U.S. and European governments offer them asylum or refugee status. This is both a humanitarian imperative and political strategy for hastening the erosion of support for Putin’s war policy. It is also a small step toward the longer-term reconciliation process that will be needed to steer Russia away from aggression and establish the foundations for a sustainable peace.
The struggle to end this war is likely to be protracted. The challenges are many, the issues complex, and the chances of making a difference are limited. We are not powerless, however, and we have viable options for responding to the crisis and working for an end to the carnage. The peace movement is always relevant, even in the most difficult conflicts.
Written by David Cortright, Professor Emeritus of the Practice at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.