#NoWar2023 Debate: Is War in Ukraine Justified?

David Swanson argued that Russia and Ukraine both had options better than war during World BEYOND War’s annual global conference, #NoWar2023: Nonviolent Resistance to Militarism.

The most disastrous belief, I think, is the one that holds that both Russia and Ukraine have had no choice but to wage this war. If we accepted such beliefs about fighting toddlers in a preschool, can you imagine the society we’d create? Of course, in international affairs, there exists no exact parallel to what the preschool has, namely a teacher. But neither are presidents and members of parliaments supposed to be the exact equivalent of toddlers. They’re supposed to be capable of serious contemplation of options and long-term consequences. Whether they actually are or not, we are here to discuss what they should have done, not what they were likely to do, and not what they did. Getting this right has great bearing on what we might get them to do going forward.

The next most dangerous beliefs, I think, are those that either Ukraine or Russia in some particular moment — setting aside whatever they had done wrong for years previous, and setting aside that they were already waging war — had no choice but to wage war. The fact that both sides in this and every war have believers should at least bring those believers to consider whether the reasons for the other side’s error have any parallels on one’s own side.

Russia is supposed to have had no choice but to invade Ukraine in a major way in order to push back against the threat from NATO (as recounted perfectly accurately by Ray). But not only was there no immediate threat to Russia from Ukraine or NATO (and long-term concerns, such as those around the growing hostility and weaponry from NATO, allow for all kinds of options) but also even the most casual observer (not to mention Western instigator) could and did accurately predict that a Russian invasion would strengthen NATO and strengthen warmongers in the Ukrainian government. If we accept that Russia had no choice, on what grounds does China have any choice but to immediately attack Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and South Korea?

Ukraine is supposed to have had no choice (once we ignore years of building up toward war and waging a smaller scale war) but to militarily resist the Russian invasion — an invasion described by James. The only alternative is widely imagined as collectively going down on knees and meekly pleading “Please don’t hurt us.” That was and remains a stupid alternative opposed by darn near everyone, including, in his day, by Mohandas Gandhi — which is why it is promoted as the only alternative to the profitable weapons business. That Ukraine could have chosen to do something different can be imagined with less effort than we routinely put into art, theater, or children’s games. We can consider how close Ukraine was to doing something different and how many times others have done something different, but it will remain the fact that Ukraine didn’t, and Russia didn’t, that people didn’t have the understanding to do it, that powerful forces weighed against it. I’m not here to persuade you that Ukraine almost used unarmed nonviolent resistance or that doing so would have been reasonable, realistic, or familiar. I’m merely here to say that using nonviolence would have been better. Even without the years of investment and preparation that would have been ideal and might have deterred the invasion, for the Ukrainian government and its allies to have put everything into unarmed resistance at the moment of invasion would have been the wiser move.

Unarmed resistance has been used. Coups and dictators have been nonviolently ousted in dozens of places. An unarmed army helped liberate India. In 1997 unarmed peacekeepers in Bougainville succeeded where armed ones had failed. In 2005 in Lebanon, Syrian domination was ended through a nonviolent uprising. In 1923 the French occupation of part of Germany was ended through nonviolent resistance. Between 1987 and 91 nonviolent resistance drove the Soviet Union out of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — and the latter established plans for future unarmed resistance. Ukraine had nonviolently ended Soviet rule in 1990. Some of the tools of unarmed resistance are familiar from 1968 when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

In polls in Ukraine, prior to the Russian invasion, not only did people know what unarmed resistance was, but more of them favored it than favored military resistance to an invasion. When the invasion happened, there were hundreds of incidents of Ukrainians using unarmed resistance, stopping tanks, etc. World BEYOND War Board Member John Reuwer has learned that unarmed civilians kept the Russian military away from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant, without a single death, whereas handing that job over to the National Guard resulted in an immediate takeover by the Russians, who fired even on a nuclear plant once there were armed troops there to fire on.

Unprecedented things happen all the time. In the United States, for example, public opposition to war has been reversed in political partisan makeup. We’ve also seen major media reporting on victims of war in a way almost never seen. But there was near media silence on early unorganized and unsupported attempts at unarmed resistance. What if the attention paid to Ukrainian war heroes was paid to Ukrainian unarmed resister heroes? What if the world of people who want peace were invited to join in the unarmed resistance, and the billions spent on weapons had been spent on that? What if Ukrainians had been asked to host international protectors, people like us with and without any training, rather than to flee their country or join the war?

People would likely have been killed, and for some reason, those deaths would have been deemed far worse. But they would very likely have been far fewer. Thus far in world history, massacres of unarmed resisters are a drop in the bucket compared to war deaths. The path that has been chosen in Ukraine has led to half a million casualties, 10 million refugees, an increased risk of nuclear war, a severing of international cooperation that pretty well dooms us to climate collapse, a diversion of resources globally into militarism, environmental destruction, food shortages, and risk of disaster at a nuclear powerplant.

Russia could have chosen nonviolence. Russia could have continued mocking the daily predictions of an invasion and created worldwide hilarity, rather than invading and making the predictions simply off by a matter of days, could have sent into Donbas many thousands of volunteers and the world’s best trainers in nonviolent civil resistance, could have made a motion for a vote in the UN Security Council to halt Ukrainian war-making in Donbas or to democratize the body and abolish the veto, asked the UN to oversee a new vote in Crimea on whether to rejoin Russia, joined the International Criminal Court and asked it to investigate Donbas, etc. Russia could have cut off trade rather than causing the West to do that.
That either side needed only a limited effort to achieve a satisfactory agreement is demonstrated by the fact that they had one in Minsk II, and by the fact that outside pressure was brought to bear to prevent one in the early days of the war and ever since.

The disastrous course chosen by both sides may end in a nuclear apocalypse or in a compromise agreement. In the highly unlikely event that it ends in the overthrow of the Ukrainian or Russian government, or even in territorial lines that don’t roughly correspond to what local residents might have voted for without war, it won’t end at all.

At this point, some observable action must precede negotiations. Either side could announce a ceasefire and ask that it be matched. Either side could announce a willingness to agree to a particular agreement. Russia did this prior to the invasion and was ignored. Such an agreement would include removal of all foreign troops, neutrality for Ukraine, autonomy for Crimea and Donbas, demilitarization, and lifting of sanctions. Such a proposal by either side would be strengthened by the announcement that it would be using and building its capacity to use unarmed resistance against any violation of the ceasefire.

David Swanson