First of all, some caveats must be made when expressing opinions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To begin with, the ongoing events and number of plot twists are so great that any thoughts run the risk of becoming outdated very quickly. Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the fact that experiencing a war on our continent places an emotional burden on Europeans. I do not intend to underestimate the importance and gravity of other conflicts in the world, but it is absurd to deny that those occurring closer to our home impact us more directly. Finally, the situation is an even greater cause for alarm, especially for those of us who were born in the 1970s or earlier, since we grew up with the constant fear of a possible nuclear attack at any moment as a result of the Cold War, and the current situation brings back those memories.
As for the issue at hand, I do not want to shy away from pointing out who the main culprit of the war we are currently witnessing is: Vladimir Putin. First, he decided to recognize the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and then launch a military attack on Ukraine under the pretext of protecting the people of those territories. However, another caveat must be added here: even though Putin is responsible, we must not make the mistake of calling him a madman. Putin can make miscalculations – clearly, he has made them now – but he is a rational actor and he makes calculations regarding what he can achieve and the costs involved. In this sense, the possibility of using nuclear weapons is extremely remote, and it is even more unlikely that he would decide to launch any sort of attack on the territory of a NATO country.
On the other hand, the narrative offered by some media – that Ukraine is a great democracy; Zelensky, an exemplary leader; and that Ukrainian military resistance will achieve military victory – is overly simplistic. In fact, nothing is that simple. Black and white is useful if we want to convince ourselves of our own position, but some news seems more like war propaganda than true and accurate information. Reality comes in shades of gray.
Arming Ukraine militarily is not an easy decision, and the arguments against it are significant. First, it implies further military escalation. Secondly, it conveys the idea that, in the face of military risk, the only solution is to arm oneself – and it is not, even though it is what Ukrainian society has chosen to do. An immediate consequence is that several European countries have already announced increases in military spending. But we must be aware that an armed response will not lead to a military victory and that, on the contrary, there will be more deaths: of civilians, of soldiers and of civilians acting as soldiers. The only hope in arming Ukraine lies in increasing the possibility of a political victory. In other words: on the one hand, armed resistance prolongs the war and weakens Russia’s bargaining position in diplomatic negotiations; on the other hand, it raises the prospect that Russia’s political control over Ukraine and its people – in the case of a more than likely military victory by Putin – will be seriously limited. And I insist: military experts have made it clear to us that arms will not lead to a Ukrainian military victory.
So is everything terrible news? Is there no positive scenario in the short term? Certainly, the war is a catastrophe, nobody wins; we all lose. As a result of political decisions, which could easily have been different, thousands of innocent people will lose their lives, and others will be affected by the trauma that this war, like all wars, will cause to those that live through it.
In this scenario, as always when a war breaks out, those of us who defend and work for the peaceful transformation of conflicts are singled out and we are asked: What now?
Well, now the risk of not doing anything is too high. Because we would be sending the message – to Putin and everyone else – that the use of military force is enough to bypass international law; that with violence, anything goes. But, at the same time, when a war breaks out, pacifists have already lost. And when this happens, turning to pacifism in search of answers is unfair: whoever warns of the danger of military spending or injustice cannot be responsible for finding solutions once the opposite of what was being defended has been done.
And so, once again: Now what? In the short term, there is little we can do: we can support the Ukrainian and Russian people in our community – those who are here and those who will come. And we can also support those who dare to protest against the war over there and risk imprisonment for doing so. And we can defend mechanisms to guarantee that those who have used violence do not achieve victory: sanctions and political pressure.
But, above all, what we have to do is work to prevent the outbreak of new wars, especially considering the level of destruction we have reached. What a paradox: We are an admirable civilization when it comes to our ability to build instruments with which to inflict harm on one another, yet we are still in our infancy when it comes to furthering mechanisms that guarantee a nonviolent management of conflicts.
The European Union is the result of two barbaric events: the First and Second World War. It is also the most successful example of what Karl Deutsch calls a security community; in other words, a group of countries with such a strong security architecture that they have practically banished violence as a mechanism for resolving their conflicts. This is a long and difficult process and, obviously, with Russia it is not possible to build an institution like the European Union. But we do have to move towards institutional architectures that guarantee the security of all the countries of the European continent and that guarantee a peaceful management of conflicts. The alternative is to increase military spending and to move closer, perhaps fatally, to a new war. We have a lot at stake. And we have to start working now, not when cannons are fired again.
Pablo Aguiar, head of ICIP’s “Social and political dialogue” area.