By Lawrence S. Wittner
The war in Ukraine and many of the governmental and public responses to it are deeply disturbing.
At the least, the war exposes the shallowness of the contention that the world is becoming more peaceful. Indeed, the Russian government’s act of military aggression provides in many ways a classic example of the violent attacks upon other territories and, later, nations that have occurred over thousands of years. The war includes a military assault by a large, heavily armed nation upon a smaller, lightly armed one, an attempt to overthrow the Ukrainian government by force of arms, and an apparent goal of absorbing all or part of Ukraine into an enlarged Russian empire.
Like many past wars, this one is cloaked in lies. They range from the initial Russian claim that its massive military buildup was merely a training exercise, to later, flimsy contentions that the war was necessary for the “denazification” of Ukraine and to stop it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)— the latter a prospect that, if it occurred, would be consonant with international law and extraordinarily unlikely to lead to a NATO attack upon Russia. In addition, among the nations assisting Ukraine to resist Russia’s invasion, there is much talk of defending democracy against autocracy, although the actual motive appears to be to frustrate a revival of Russian expansionism.
The Ukraine war also exhibits some other continuities with the past. Much like the bloody conflicts in Indochina and Afghanistan, it has generated fierce, patriotic resistance to the larger, heavily armed invaders. Furthermore, the Ukraine conflict has quickly widened, drawing in the United States and other nations, particularly members of NATO and other European countries, that have provided badly needed weapons and other supplies to the beleaguered Ukrainians and levied economic sanctions on the Russians. Other powerful nations, such as China and India, have thus far steered clear of the conflict, although Russia’s courtship of China might yet be reciprocated with various forms of economic support.
Despite the numerous continuities, however, Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine goes beyond many wars of the recent past. After all, this is the largest military operation in Europe since World War II—one that has generated immense numbers of refugees and very substantial urban destruction. Furthermore, the Russian government has ignored repeated calls by the United Nations General Assembly to cease its military operations, engaged in widespread war crimes against civilians, and publicly threatened nuclear war against those who dare to resist it.
In the midst of this escalating war, the Russian peace movement, though certainly courageous, has failed to have much of an impact on Russian war policy and public opinion. Although, with the onset of the conflict, the movement staged major street demonstrations in Russia’s cities, the Kremlin quickly cracked down on these critics, arresting some 15,000 demonstrators and adopting legislation that made even the mention of “war” a crime punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. Furthermore, the Kremlin has shut down all independent communication media and, with considerable success, launched a major pro-war propaganda campaign. In these circumstances, protest has dramatically dwindled. Meanwhile, many Russian activists have either been silenced or have fled abroad.
Ironically, although Western peace activists have operated under much less repressive conditions, they also appear to have been rather ineffective, largely thanks to a serious division within their ranks. As might be expected, much of the peace movement—exemplified by the International Peace Bureau, Peace Action, and Physicians for Social Responsibility— has condemned the Russian invasion, called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, and advocated a diplomatic settlement of the conflict, but groups like the ANSWER Coalition, the United National Antiwar Coalition, and the U.S. Peace Council have served as apologists for the Russian invasion, blaming the war on American imperialism. Led by sectarian leftists, these groups portray the United States (and, by extension, NATO) as the major source of evil— and sometimes the only source of evil— in the world.
The difficulty the Western peace movement has had in developing a common approach to the Ukraine conflict has been exacerbated by other factors, as well. Many peace movement activists are reluctant to criticize Russian behavior thanks to the long record of US military intervention in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In addition, pacifists remain uneasy about supplying weapons to Ukraine or supporting economic sanctions, while other peace activists convinced that nations have a right to defend themselves against invasion and are more comfortable with weapon shipments and sanctions. Finally, even the peace movement’s staunchest foes of Russian behavior fear that too sharp a condemnation of it might further inflame US public and government policy toward Russia, thereby precipitating a long- term US military buildup and a disastrous escalation of the Ukraine war.
In these circumstances, in which the Russian government displays no respect for Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation and in which Ukrainians seem determined to preserve that right, neither the peace movement nor international diplomacy has been able to bring an end to the conflict. As a result, a conventional war, or perhaps a guerrilla war, could drag on in-definitely in Ukraine, with terrible human consequences. Of course, the consequences would be even more horrific if the conflict escalated into a nuclear war, which is certainly possible.This tragic situation, like so many others in the past, underscores the need for an effective international security system.
Actually, an international security system already exists and is presided over by the United Nations, a confederation of nations. Established in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, the world organization, in the words of the U.N. Charter, is supposed to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” In Article 2, Section 4, the Charter states that all member states “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Moreover, the enforcement of this prohibition and others is delegated to the U.N. Security Council.
But, despite this breakthrough in fashioning an international security system, the great powers that had emerged as the victors in World War II were reluctant to surrender their own dominant roles in world affairs. Therefore, when they set up the Security Council, they provided themselves with the five permanent seats in this body. They also gave each of the permanent members the veto in connection with any international security action it deemed objectionable.
As a result, although the United Nations has chalked up many useful accomplishments in the areas of human health, education, and welfare, among others, the great power veto has ham-strung the world organization in the realm of international security. About the best the United Nations has been able to do toward ending the scourge of war has been to issue statements. These pronouncements have almost invariably been reasonable and laudatory. But, thanks to the great powers’ tight grip on the Security Council, they have been unenforceable. The result is that, although the U.N. Secretary General has issued eloquent statements calling for an end to the Ukraine war, the conflict rages on.
Of course, despite its weakness in enforcing international security, the United Nations, as the only legitimate voice of the world’s nations, might yet broker a peace agreement among the governments of Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and other NATO nations. Or perhaps skillful diplomacy on the part of key nations will find an acceptable resolution to the conflict. Or perhaps the world peace movement will heal its divisions, mobilize world public opinion, and grow strong enough to bring the Ukraine war to an end.
But, even then, the problem of war will remain. For this reason, the peace movement and public policymakers should consider the fact that strengthening the international security system, with the United Nations at its helm, remains the best hope for averting wars or ending wars in the future. Through the centuries, peace- minded people have worked painstakingly to develop that system— a blend of international treaties, international law, and international institutions. On some levels, it already works very well— and certainly far better than the old system of rival, heavily armed nations, in which military might ultimately prevail.
Indeed, as the war in Ukraine has shown us, the time has come to strengthen the international security system by unleashing the enormous potential of the United Nations. This could be done by a host of reforms, including setting limits on the control of the Security Council by the major powers, providing the United Nations with adequate funding through the levying of U.N. taxes, and creating a U.N. Parliamentary Assembly elected by the people. From the standpoint of world peace, this strengthened international security system would be a useful and worthy goal. And the peace movement could play an important role in securing it.
Since 1970, Lawrence S. Wittner has been a member of the Peace History Society, an affiliate of the American Historical Association that has sought to apply historical insights to addressing the problem of war. During these decades, he served in a variety of capacities in the organization, including as president and as co-editor of its journal, Peace & Change. Shortly after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the current editor of Peace & Change asked a few historians (among them, Prof. Wittner) to participate in a symposium about the war. This article is his contribution to the symposium.
This article was published on May 29, 2022, at Wiley Online Library, for Peace and Change, A Journal of Peace Research.