WHY DID THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN WAR NOT GENERATE A GENERAL MOVEMENT FOR AT LEAST AN IMMEDIATE CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES? The aggressor, Russia, has nuclear weapons and has made thinly veiled threats that it is prepared to use them if another power tries to interfere with its “military operation” in Ukraine. The slightest miscalculation could therefore trigger a widespread nuclear exchange – and the end of civilization as we know it. In such precarious circumstances, mobilizing global support for a peaceful resolution to the conflict seems like a good idea. So why isn’t it happening? Where is the peace movement?
Before attempting to answer this question, it is worth recalling the first quarter of 2003. The United States and the United Kingdom were clearly engaged in preparations for a full-scale military invasion of Iraq. Around the world, people were gathering in huge demonstrations to oppose the American and British plans. More than a million protesters took to the streets of the UK’s biggest cities in what was, almost certainly, the biggest political demonstration in the country’s history. Likewise, vast crowds filled the streets of American cities. In France, Italy and Germany it was the same. Time Magazine has described the global peace movement as the other great power on the planet.
All in nothing. Like the Russian Federation, the United States was not going to be deterred from doing what it believed it had to do. That he went to war without the approval of the UN Security Council, and on the basis of intelligence allegations that most independent experts dismissed as false, was not about to slow down the administration of George W Bush. Peace movement or no peace movement, the invasion would go as planned.
The demonstrable futility of the international protest movement against the war in Iraq offers a pretty solid explanation for the lack of a global pacifist response to the Russian-Ukrainian war. Among those coming of age in the first quarter of the 21st century, one can simply understand that if a great power is bent on attacking another country, no amount of chanting and placards will stop it. Didn’t UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spin-docs respond to media taunts that there were a million citizens on the street, referring to the tens of millions who weren’t?
The other obvious lesson to be learned from the global protests against the US-British invasion of Iraq is that they would never have happened (or, at least, not on the same scale) if their organizers had not lived in democracies. If the Russian Federation showed the same respect for basic human rights as the United States, it is possible that a million or more Russians would have turned out to protest the invasion of Ukraine. What the world has really seen, however, on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, is the brutal repression of any attempt at protest by rogue Russian police.
It is these images of repression and violence that bring us to the heart of the matter. People around the world rose up against the prospect of invading Iraq in part because they believed that the two nations responsible, the United States and the United Kingdom, were still, in a sacred place and unsullied, receptive to moral arguments for peace. All the evidence may have pointed in the opposite direction, but, deep in their hearts, the historical friends and allies of the United States and the United Kingdom wanted – had to – believe that they were better than the murderous bullies Bush and Blair had turned them into.
Very few people believe that a sacred, undefiled place exists in the dark monstrosity that is the Russian state. There are no democratic orchards in Russia. The fruits of freedom and justice do not grow there. The conditions are too harsh. Even when the Liberty Tree is smuggled in and persuaded to bloom, which is rare, the flowers wither from lack of heat. Russia is a hard and cold country, and difficult to love, even if you want to. But no people on earth know more about suffering – and how to share it.
And we are suffering, but not in a way that benefits Russia. Our suffering is indirect, inspired by the pain and heroism of the Ukrainian people. What else are people in the West supposed to feel when presented with the image of a Ukrainian father, now a soldier, fighting back tears as his wife and son are swept away from him on a westbound train to safety, clutching her hands over her little boy’s toy ambulance – all she has left? Are we supposed to be filled with a desire to make peace? Or are we already part of the war?
The bodies in the street, the terrible revelations of rape and torture: it only makes things worse. Our instinctive reaction, faced with such images, is not to calmly consider the best way to get everyone concerned out of the horrors of war, but to punish those responsible for such atrocities. Maybe that’s what they’re supposed to do. Perhaps, as the Russians claim, this is fake news. But while such images are all the world sees, there will be no global movement for peace.
And if there is worse: if the injured Russian bear tears Ukraine apart; and the world is bombarded with ever more tragic and terrifying images from Ukraine in extremis; it will not be a global movement for peace that will emerge, but a movement for war. Repeating the mass demonstrations of ecstatic citizens celebrating the outbreak of World War I, the peoples of the West, heedless of the nuclear danger, will shout, “Do your best, Russia – and we will do ours!”