oDR: Opinion

Ukraine’s freedom: wider truths and avoiding war

Appeasement won’t work, as history shows. We must bind all parties into a symbiotic arrangement that perpetuates the conditions for peace

Ivan Hutnik
Ivan Hutnik
14 February 2022, 10.11am
A Ukrainian armed forces soldier walks near combat positions at the town of Avdiivka, Donetsk region
(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

I write this piece as someone who works in armed conflict transformation, and is committed to non-violent solutions to conflict. I also write it because I am saddened by how willing some British media commentators are to write off the independence of Ukraine, a major European country – as if this will somehow solve the problems that country, and the international community, faces.

The current situation is not the start of a war between Russia and Ukraine. The two countries have been at war since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. There has been continued fighting on Ukraine’s eastern border since then.

The present worry is that the build-up of more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, combined with extensive Russian military exercises in Belarus on its northern border, as well as naval activity in the Black Sea to the south, herald the possibility of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. There is no inevitability to this. Tensions have been very high in the past, including in March and April last year.

This matters to the UK. Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, is about the same distance from London as Naples. An invasion of Ukraine will impact everyone in Europe. Many are not aware of how Britain has become involved in the present conflict. This country has real responsibilities as a result of its previous commitments. This does not mean that Britain should assist armed conflict – and this is something I cannot subscribe to.

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But there are more successful paths to peace than capitulation to aggression. Other countries, such as Finland and Switzerland, have maintained independence even when faced with belligerent neighbours. My hope is that with a better understanding of the situation Ukraine faces, the UK could help Ukraine follow a similar course of action.

The failed policy of appeasement

It is sometimes said that war happens when diplomacy fails. The Second World War was not only the result of an aggressive power (in this case, Germany) making the first move to capture territory. It was also the result of the failure of other major powers to prevent war when they could still do so. In other words, inaction was a major cause of the war.

Neville Chamberlain, British prime minister from 1937 to 1940, is now remembered solely for his failed policy of appeasement. He proclaimed “peace in our time” in September 1938 after signing the Munich Agreement. This gave Germany permission to annex the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakian territory) under the false premise that because there were Germans living there, Germany had a claim to it (this draws remarkable parallels with what some media commentators are saying about today’s Ukraine). A case of imperialism doubled down if ever there was one.

Having occupied the Sudetenland in October 1938, Germany went on to invade and occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The invasion of Poland in September then drew Britain and France into war with Germany.

Within a year of the Munich Agreement being signed, Britain was involved in a world war. It is important to remember that appeasement did not produce peace – and never could have.

Three notable silences

In the present context, it needs to be acknowledged that Russia has territorial ambitions not just in Ukraine but also in Georgia and Moldova. Like Britain and the US, Russia is also an active participant in several wars very far from its own borders. It sees itself as a major power, willing to work with China and to take on Europe and the States.

Russia’s very active belligerence is one reason there are clear and notable parallels between Ukraine’s current predicament and the situation in Czechoslovakia prior to the Second World War.

However, instead of emphasising these (they remain a matter of opinion and therefore provide grounds for potential hair-splitting), let’s focus on three notable silences in the British media

The Budapest Agreement

More properly known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, this was an agreement drawn up in 1994 by Britain, Russia and the US to guarantee the borders of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. China and France made similar assurances at the same time. The Budapest Agreement includes security assurances prohibiting threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, as enshrined in Article 2 of the UN Charter.

Twenty years later, in 2014, Russia annexed the whole of Crimea and invaded a large chunk of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, an area that includes the city of Donetsk as well as much heavy industry and extensive mineral resources. Ukraine’s lost territory is larger than the total land mass of Switzerland. According to the UN, the war resulted in the death of more than 14,000 people and two million internally displaced persons .

Nuclear disarmament nullified

Upon achieving independence from Russia in 1991, and bolstered by the security provided by the Budapest Agreement in 1994, Ukraine felt it safe to agree to dismantle the nuclear warheads on its soil. With 1,900 Soviet warheads, ten times the number then owned by Britain, Ukraine had the third-largest number of nuclear weapons in the world. This remains the only time when a state possessing large numbers of nuclear armaments has agreed to eliminate them. Doing so was a sign of hope for the world – or so many thought at the time. Sadly, the positive aspects of this lesson might already be lost.

Absent voices

The most troubling aspect, however, is that the voices of Ukrainians are strangely absent from current discussions about their country’s future. Diplomats and political leaders appear in danger of talking over the heads of Ukrainian people, while much commentary has ignored the likely consequences of proposals on the lives of ordinary Ukrainians.

Likewise, Ukraine’s right to self-determination, as protected in the UN Charter, is being strangely neglected. Is it too cynical to suggest that this reflects the realpolitik of ‘might is right’? A friend who has worked in conflict transformation all her life says that this is typical of the colonial mentality of world powers in situations of armed conflict. Conscious decolonisation of our ways of thinking and acting is a long way from becoming a reality.

As a result of the silence on these subjects, much of the commentary on Ukraine’s predicament – in my view – is partly dishonest, fundamentally undemocratic and essentially colonial. Of course, Ukrainian views matter – it is their lives we are talking about. If we do not include them in the discussion, we are committing a form of cultural and institutional violence.

Let’s not help perpetrate these silences.

Related story

Putin’s threats are a desperate defence of Russia’s status quo

Parallels with the UK

To add more clarity, it might be useful to draw some parallels with the UK.

The civil war in Northern Ireland, for example, wasn’t resolved by ignoring the opinions of Protestants, Catholics, Unionists or Republicans. Nor was a solution imposed on it from the outside. The solution was arrived at (with American help) because all the parties listened to one another in safety and found a course acceptable to all.

The solution was not to surrender part of Northern Ireland to the Republic, nor to dismantle the Stormont Assembly, nor to ignore the claims of injustice from the Catholic community. The solution, the Good Friday Agreement, required the creation of new institutions, new power-sharing arrangements and new cross-border mechanisms.

Now power is shared between Stormont, where Catholics and Protestants have equal say, London and Dublin. It is a complex agreement that recognises the aspirations of both communities within Northern Ireland and, importantly, acknowledges their wider sources of support (in London and Dublin). To work, it requires the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to be more-or-less invisible. The solution was complicated and nuanced, reflecting the complicated and nuanced conflict.

For there to be real peace, the solutions need to be multilayered and nuanced. They need not just to “bind the strong man”, but to bind all the parties into a symbiotic arrangement that perpetuates the conditions for peace

Now imagine if, instead of what actually happened, Ireland had gained weapons and support from IRA supporters in the US and then, without being asked, the European Union had suggested that Britain should cede sovereignty of the Catholic part of Northern Ireland to the Republic – this is what some media commentators suggest is the solution for Ukraine today. How would Britain have responded?

No one would have been happy, but the combination of American and EU power could have made things very difficult for Britain. (By the way, every time something similar has been done in the past, the result has been war or continued conflict – Palestine/Israel, India/Pakistan, Ireland/Northern Ireland.) Division along ethnic lines is not a solution; many countries manage happily with strong linguistic, cultural and religious diversity, Switzerland being a prime case in point.

Similarly, imagine if, after Germany’s defeat of the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940, the US had suggested that Britain should surrender all the territory south of Hadrian’s wall to the Germans, to prevent further conflict. Would that have changed the direction of the war in any positive way? Would that have stopped Hitler’s aggression? It is hard to imagine how. The fact is, by 1940 it was too late to stop the war. The moment had passed. There had already been too many capitulations. Appeasement hadn’t worked.

In short, wishing for peace in the middle of armed conflict is not a solution. For there to be real peace, the solutions need to be multilayered and nuanced. They need not just to “bind the strong man”, but to bind all the parties into a symbiotic arrangement that perpetuates the conditions for peace – just as in Northern Ireland.

What can be done?

I believe all sensible people want peace in Ukraine. But how do we achieve that? Here are some thoughts on the way forward.

Get better at listening

It’s crucial to listen to the fears and hopes of all those involved in the conflict. This includes NATO, Russia, the UK and the US as major powers, but it also necessarily includes Ukrainians: Russian-speaking Ukrainians and those from Crimea, members of the government and ordinary people. It’s essential to hear what lies beneath people’s concerns. Although there might be no agreement about what is needed, by recognising one another’s fears, doors can, surprisingly, be opened to dialogue.

Accept that there is no easy solution

It needs to be recognised that Russia’s demands cannot be squared with NATO’s – this is probably the starting point for any serious dialogue. Giving in to Russia will harm Ukraine, and is not what Ukrainians want. Appeasement won’t stop war. There are no easy solutions.

Start by being realistic about where there is the possibility of flexibility. Think up ways to bind the parties in the conflict to peaceful outcomes, using incentives, relationships, new institutional arrangements and institutionalised positive outcomes. Make the downside as unattractive as the peaceful solution is attractive.

Create real security

In addition to the more than 100,000 soldiers Russia has placed along Ukraine’s borders, Russia has short- and medium-range nuclear weapons aimed at the country, along with space-based and cyber weaponry. Meanwhile, the US has spent more than $2.7bn in assisting Ukraine’s defence since Russia’s invasion in 2014. None of this promotes true security, but is a reflection of ongoing armed conflict.

Ukraine needs to reflect on what real security would look like. How can it learn to live with its very aggressive and territorially acquisitive neighbour? What would make Russia want to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity? What would satisfy NATO that it doesn’t need to be in Ukraine?

There are no easy answers here – and certainly not most of the ones proposed in the British media – but answers have to be found that do not perpetuate the current antagonisms. True security will include Russia and NATO in some form of binding relationship with Ukraine.

Look to other peaceable models

Ukraine isn’t unique in having to live with large, aggressive neighbours. Other countries have managed to find ways to avoid getting dragged into war. Finland and Switzerland come to mind. Costa Rica might be another source of inspiration.

Staying out of war requires guile, flexibility and stamina. While it might be rare, it can be done, and can bring great rewards, both for the country itself and its people, as well as (on occasion) for its neighbours. Ukraine needs to be tough if it is to survive, but it doesn’t need to be belligerent, as the examples of Finland and Switzerland underline.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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