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Calls for Unconditional Peace in Ukraine: Should We Trust Them?

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, propositions and demands for peace have become an integral part of daily discussions. This, while commendable, immediately raises a question: What peace?

This case study was written by Iveta Siniūtė and Fabio Belafatti.

Immediate peace on any terms?

For many, and of course for Ukrainians themselves, peace cannot come at the cost of territorial concessions and, thus, continued military occupation by Russia. It is not surprising that Ukrainians want peace through the removal of the further threat of Russian attacks, and without being subject to further occupation and bombings.

Likewise, many inside and outside Ukraine realize that peace can only come with Russia’s withdrawal, because a Russian victory would destroy essential foundations of the global order such as the rejection of colonialism, the illegality of wars of conquest, and the unacceptability of nuclear blackmail. Some, however, have taken a different view of the priority of “peace”.

The rise of “unconditional pacifism”

Since the early days of the war, numerous petitions, public initiatives, and demonstrations have adopted what can be called an “unconditional pacifist” position, requesting the immediate cessation of hostilities from both sides and the interruption of Western supplies of weapons to Ukraine.

These calls usually underline the urgency to stop the “conflict” to prevent further suffering.

Altruistic and compassionate as these demands may seem, they do not necessarily aim to alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainian side of the conflict.

A closer look at petition statements shows that an outcome favorable to Russia is often suggested, regardless of the amount of Ukrainian suffering that this would entail, nor the opinion of the Ukrainians themselves.

So, what is the driving force behind these calls and, most importantly, what objectives do they achieve?

Neutrality, objectivity, and compassion

In these calls, a recurring motive is their self-proclaimed neutrality. Authors and signatories are cultural figures, academics, or non-governmental activists, which suggests isolation from political decision-makers and, thus, disinterested objectivity. This is often reinforced by using “equidistant” terminology like: “We condemn Russia’s brutal/violent/terrible/senseless aggression, but”.

Let us look, for instance, at one of the best-known petitions demanding an immediate end to the war, which appeared on the Far-Left Spectre Journal on March 17. It is presented with an associative photograph of people protesting the war holding up pro-Ukrainian posters in blue and yellow. Nevertheless, the main idea from the text has little to do with helping Ukraine: Quite the contrary.

After briefly condemning the “military invasion led by the Putin regime,” the “manifesto” starts with the “buts”, rejecting “the decisions that involve adding more weapons to the conflict and increasing war budgets.” An immediate ceasefire is advocated as “weapons perpetuate war, perpetuate barbarism, and perpetuate suffering”. The blame has thus shifted away from the invading force, and towards those who use weapons to defend themselves.

The fiction of compassion

The authors claim that they “are with the people of Ukraine who want to restore peace in their lives and demand a ceasefire.”

Sadly, despite the humane rhetoric of its authors, this appeal is profoundly uninformed and illogical, and its illogicity leads to inhumane consequences. This is because the authors of such appeals have cultural or political influence in countries that are in the position to support or influence only one side: the attacked side.

Usually, appeals to “immediate ceasefires” make sense during wars where both sides have external backers that can persuade them to de-escalate. But such appeals do not have any chance of working during wars of aggressions when violence originates from one side, and the other side survives thanks to external help. Calling for an “immediate ceasefire” and stop adding more weapons would mean, if fulfilled, that Ukraine would lay down weapons or be simply left without. This would not stop the aggressor: only the defender.

The authors of calls like this may not be policy-makers, but they still speak from a position of political power: That of people of influence in countries that have massive power to deny help to only one side of the war. The call is thus illogical, or perhaps hypocritical: the authors are not in a position to advocate for a real ceasefire; only a unilateral one. This proposal, if fulfilled, would be devastating for one side (Ukraine), which would effectively be abandoned to fend off for itself against an aggressor.

Moral equivalences

The petition goes even further by blaming NATO for the war, arguably even more than Russia. While criticism of NATO is welcome in the democratic setting, in this context it makes no sense.

The petition here builds a moral equivalence between what it calls NATO’s “global expansionism” and “militaristic security narrative”, and Russia’s invasion.

What we see here is the assimilation of theoretical matters of perception (NATO being “expansionist”, something its members who voluntarily joined would vehemently deny; NATO having a “militaristic security narrative”, which is merely the authors’ own opinion and even if true, might be perfectly justified if it is a reaction to threats from Russia) with the hard reality of a military invasion.

It should be obvious, but: There cannot be moral equivalence between having played a role in creating a climate of insecurity – assuming that this is indeed what NATO did – and literally invading a neighbor.

Using NATO as a boogeyman function purely as a distraction technique: Whatever NATO’s “sins”, Russia did not attack NATO. It attacked Ukraine. This rhetoric erases the difference between the two sides of the war, refocuses away from Russian fault, and totally sidelines Ukraine’s suffering. The very use of the term “conflict” is problematic, as it diverts attention from the reality of war as an invasion – a kind of armed conflict in which suffering can end only if the invading side decides so.

The Feminist reaction

But what if this petition is more than simply uninformed and illogical? What if something more hides between the lines of the text? Signed by over 150 activists under the movement name Feminists Against War, the aforementioned petition caused confusion among readers.

Some parts of the text about joining “the call launched by Russian feminist groups,“ and the name of the movement led many to assume that the petition is authored by a much more widely-known Russian feminist movement, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance.

Since the call was written in the name of a Feminist approach to the resolution of the conflict, Feminist Anti-War Resistance felt obliged to dissociate themselves from this petition: They express complete support in providing arms to Ukraine and point out that knowing the Russian state “from inside”, they realize that those in power “practice and understand only the language of force.”

We will let the readers decide whether the naming ambiguity was an innocent mistake, or a deliberate act of manipulation.

The European Left…

The European Left, a Europe-wide political party in the European Parliament which faced repeated accusations of being friendly to the Kremlin in the past, issued calls of a similar nature and tone.

Here again we see the complimentary condemnation of Russia’s aggressive actions. Then, the “buts” start.

Soon the focus is placed on demanding immediate ceasefire and “opening up diplomatic channels and multilateral peace talks to resolve the conflict in the long-term.” Again, this is a political group with influence only in Europe (it has no members in Russia), calling for “ceasefire” between two actors, only one of which (Ukraine) it can hope to influence, all to the other’s advantage.

The group condemns NATO and EU for “deploying troops and supplying heavy weaponry to the conflict,” and in a later call asks to lift sanctions as they “harm ordinary Russians”, adding that “there is no alternative to dialogue and cooperation.”

The perspective of Ukraine, which was desperately asking for more weapons to defend itself, and – ironically – was already trying to have dialogue with Russia, was completely ignored. Logic was also, arguably, ignored, as a war of aggression was treated as a symmetrical conflict in which both parties hold equal power to de-escalate, which it is not.

… And its critics

As the Left Alliance of Lithuania phrased it in its rebuttal of the European Left’s call, “the call to neutrality is based on the wrong assumption that there are two morally equal sides to the story.”

In the Lithuanian group’s views, making such claims without consulting Ukrainians or the Left in the countries that experienced Soviet occupation “is an exclusionary and Western-centric practice”, amounting to deciding Ukraine’s faith “behind its back.”

“Peacebuilding” – the statement continues – “is only possible when the autocratic aggressor who invades the sovereign country is fully stopped and punished.” Anything else would give Russia a free hand to act.

Fear mongering

Some appeals focus on fear more than “compassion”. A prominent petition to stop “promoting” war by providing Ukraine with the heavy weapons it was requesting was addressed to the Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholtz on Apr 29.

The petition, in open letter format, warns against the risk of “provoking” Putin into nuclear war by providing Ukraine with weapons, effectively suggestion that Ukraine should be left to its own devices.

Signed by around 30 highly-prominent German cultural figures, the text was published in the Feminist magazine Emma, which was already known for having supported the Kremlin, as has the petition’s controversial promoter, who previously allowed Kremlin propagandists to use Emma as a platform.

Ukrainian ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk decried the “Feminism” of the authors as a cynical façade in light of Russian soldiers’ atrocities against Ukrainian women. It was also noted that the letter is basically asking for Ukraine’s capitulation, and that this reveals a lot about the conformism and lack of empathy in the Western society.

Drinking the threats’ Kool-Aid

The Emma petition calls for restraint and assessment of the “risk” that supporting Ukraine may cause an escalation. This echoes Russian authorities which have been repeating since the early days of the invasion that there exists a risk of “uncontrolled escalation” in Ukraine.

The (nuclear) threat is presented by the petition and by Russian authorities as a “mechanical”, natural, uncontrollable consequence of certain actions, which annuls the individual moral responsibility of those involved.

The problem with this narrative is that one cannot honestly say that a situation might spin “out of control” if they are also the ones with full responsibility for the situation arising, full control over whether they will escalate it, and full capacity to de-escalate it unilaterally any time they wanted.

What petitions like Emma’s are calling for is, thus, not an appeal for risk assessment: it is giving in to racketeering and intimidation.

The Kremlin’s practice of using threats to discourage countries from supporting Ukraine seeks to leave the attacked country alone in the international arena, and petitions like that in Emma obtain the identical result.

By presenting the Kremlin’s threats as if they were risks outside of its control, the petition inaugurated a “literature” of similarly-worded calls that repeat the same pattern of taking Russia’s threats at face value.

Ideas become calls for action

From petitions, these ideas trickle into action. A mass demonstration for “Peace” that took place on Nov 5 in Rome, Italy echoed the same notions of the Spectre and Emma petitions, making vague calls for demilitarization and immediately presenting “the shadow of a nuclear war” (rather than Russia’s nuclear threats) as the problem to solve.

Demonstration in Rome, November 5, 2022
Demonstration in Rome, November 5, 2022

Even if the platform of the demonstration was not very clear, when the time came for the organizers to express their view of what needs to be done about Ukraine, the position they took was the one that serves Russia’s interests.

Hence, a former Prime Minister took to the stage to claim that military aid to Ukraine is already too much: “Kyiv (sic) is already armed to the teeth […] People are tired of a strategy that leads to escalation.” Then, he added that “the government shouldn’t dare to do a further delivery of aid without first being confronted in the Parliament” – presumably so that the decision can be stopped.

Where has diplomacy gone?

Just as the petitions and the calls described above, the demonstration also talked of the need for diplomacy to speak. This is a recurring theme in protests and petitions: calls for “diplomacy to speak” and weapons to be silent ignore the fact that Ukrainian diplomacy already tried to secure a peace deal – going as far as to offer Russia the “neutrality” it claimed it wanted from Ukraine.

In fact, Ukraine started diplomatic efforts right at the beginning of the invasion. Ironically, the first round of talks on Ukraine’s initiative took place on the very same day the European Left was calling for diplomatic negotiations.

By presenting diplomacy and negotiation as an uncharted, never-attempted path, it is possible to make readers believe that Ukraine is an irrational actor, that would not even try the rational and sensible things unless directed by others.

The false consciousness of calls for conciliation

Other public initiatives take a different approach, which may seem less problematic, by calling for solidarity between Russians and Ukrainians. The visual image of this kind of initiatives is usually that of a man and a woman, wrapped in the Ukrainian and Russian flags, hugging, or showing tenderness.

All good? Not so much.

First, we can immediately see a problematic tendency to offload the moral burden of the war onto Ukrainians. This call from a Catholic Italian publication, after opening with a citation from a well-known pro-Putin commentator, takes the view that both Ukrainians and Russians share an equal responsibility to avoid “dehumanizing the enemy”.

Not only that: It laments the suffering of the aggressed people but sees the main problem in the fact that this suffering can lead to “desire of revenge”, “nationalist grudges”, and “the desire to make oppressors pay the price”.

In other words: The aggression is less of a problem than the way Ukrainians feel about that. And Ukrainians cannot be left free to feel angry over their country being destroyed: their feelings need to be controlled.

The rhetoric then talks of “brotherly peoples”, and the need to “prevent hatred from taking over the two communities,” Russian and Ukrainian, seen as “twin communities”. This reflects the Russian discourse of Ukrainian-Russian brotherhood, often used to deny Ukrainians the right to make choices that go against Russia’s interests.

If Russians and Ukrainians are “brothers”, disagreements amount to an intolerable backstabbing within a family, and any act of injustice by Russia(ns) is to be forgiven in the name of brotherhood.

There is no space for Ukrainians to decide what future relations they want to chart vis-à-vis their tormentors: someone else already decided for them that they should be forgiving and understanding.

Forget Russophobia: introduce Russo-centrism

Of course, this kind of logic only benefits Russia and the Russians. The underlying logic behind appeals like these may be to avoid Russophobia, but instead they unapologetically promote Russo-centrism.

Even in the face of Russian aggression, the priority is to prevent Russians from being hated. And for many pursuers of “peace at all costs”, Russian perspectives matter more than those of the Ukrainians.

This is clearly visible in the booklet published by the promoters of the call, which includes readings that should promote “peace”.

A drawing that Gianluca Costantini gave to the #abbraccioperlapace campaign,
A drawing that Gianluca Costantini gave to the #abbraccioperlapace campaign,

Curated by a journalist who lists her “love of Russian writers” among her essential biographical info, the Russo-centrism is clear from the index. The editor thanks the curator for putting together “an avalanche of beautiful material – from Bulkakov (sic) to Florensky, from Tolstoy to Chekov, from Mayakovsky to Yevtushenko”, for “Russian literature is full of pages that help us understand how peace is built”.

Of the 21 readings included, the only one authored by a Ukrainian comes from the head of the Orthodox Church that was aligned with Moscow until 2022; all other readings are from Western, Russian, or Russian-language authors.

Behind conciliatory rhetoric may in fact hide hierarchies of perspectives: some, clearly, matter more.

This is even more obvious in other “peace promotion initiatives” from the Catholic world, such as this one organized by Pax Christi and Europe for Peace (the promoters of the Nov 5 demonstration).

The event is supposed to discuss “peace as a right to be built”, but both of the expert guests invited are well-known Kremlin apologists. Inevitably, we return to the opening question: what peace is being advocated for, really?

Conclusions: What should we do with calls for peace?

As the cases we have described show, calling for peace is not, in itself, a neutral or innocent exercise. “Peace” is a morally charged term that needs to be observed in a broader context.

Calls to reach peace in Ukraine immediately are not always aimed at alleviating Ukrainian suffering. Covered under claims of neutrality or compassion, they often erase the difference between the two sides of the conflict - the aggressor, and the victim - and suggest an outcome favorable to Russia.

We also need to be especially cautious of petitions and open letters. Organizations suspected or known for their political and/or financial connections with the Kremlin often use petitions to bolster the credibility of their political proposals. Petitions and calls for action have the advantage of making a political proposal sound genuine and organic. It is important to assess them critically, even when they call for something as noble as “peace”.

When analyzing a pacifist initiative, it is thus essential to ask ourselves: Whose interest does this call serve? Whose power would it reinforce? And whose oppression would it enable?

Only then we can make up our mind.

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