By Jake Lynch
Attempting to resolve a conflict only by attending to direct violence is a realist fallacy, Johan Galtung once told us – as if its underlying causes can be simply and permanently quelled by the use of force. To concentrate, instead, solely on structural violence – believing that, if issues of societal formation and power relations can be resolved, such conflicts will never occur – is a Marxist fallacy. And focussing exclusively on cultural violence, in the hope that, if antagonists could come to understand each other better, they would stop killing each other, is a liberal fallacy.
Instead, all three sources of generative force need to be explored – with problems diagnosed, prognoses made from present trends if allowed to continue, and appropriate therapies devised – if a conflict is to be transformed.
What would this entail in the conflict involving Russia and Ukraine? I say ‘involving’ rather than ‘between’, since many other parties are also implicated. In this, again, I follow Galtung’s teaching: we should attend to the goals, needs and interests of conflict actors across a broad geopolitical formation, not merely in the arena where the exchange of hostilities is occurring.
It is necessary for the Russian invasion to be reversed, and for no gain to be seen to have been made by it. We live in and with a system of nation states, which is inherently competitive. Evolving in parallel with that system, ever since it drew breath in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, have been efforts to restrain and regulate competition by agreement.
Today, the United Nations is the centrepiece of such efforts – which is why it is ominous how marginalised it has become – and its Charter clearly deprives cross-border armed incursions of legitimacy. It must be upheld, or the chief restraining and regulating influence on states’ behaviour will fall into disuse. Indeed, it must instead be strengthened, and applied to violations by others, including well-known ones such as the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Palestine.
The question is, what will that leave behind? The risk to Ukraine is of being left in ruins. It is still just a few short weeks ago that President Zelensky was talking about the outlines of an agreement: substantial autonomy for the eastern provinces; renewed official status for the Russian language, and an undertaking never to join. That might have resolved the conflict, but proved impossible to negotiate. In any case, it would have left a dangerous legacy.
John Paul Lederach points to the relational and structural dimensions, which require attention if a conflict is to be not merely resolved but transformed. This entails looking beyond the surface or presenting issues of disagreement. Somehow, after the fall of Communism thirty years ago, Russia remained the enemy. Everyone has been reminded now of how President Putin twice requested NATO membership, only to be rebuffed. This was after the vision of a new security architecture for Europe failed, despite support from prominent figures of the 1980s such as President Mitterand of France, and of course the Cold War champion of transcendence, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Seared deep into the collective experience of today’s Russians is the memory of economic catastrophe brought about by the hasty imposition of an extreme version of neoliberal capitalism. Amid the rubble left behind after a western-inspired wrecking ball was used to smash the Soviet state, inflation peaked in the thousands of percent. Officials begged foreigners for US dollars to buy food for their families, as Guy Standing, the ILO representative in Moscow, has recalled. Life expectancy plummeted, with liberal democracy blamed by and discredited for a generation of Russians.
The story is replete with echoes of an earlier moment when a nation slipped to historic defeat – without its population ever really understanding how and why – and was then plunged into abject penury and misery, laying the ground for fascism. And that is really the only apt designation for today’s highly centralised, kleptocratic regime in the Kremlin, with the remaining space for human rights now closed down as underlined by last month’s call from the country’s advocacy community for a UN Special Rapporteur to be appointed.
The dismal sequence from World War I led inexorably to World War II, of course, and a second defeat for Germany. A repeat of this in today’s context is, surely, to be avoided at all costs. But let us, for the moment, turn attention to what happened next.
Those two global conflagrations had, at their epicentre, the rivalry of Germany and France, which took up arms against each other three times in 70 years. French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann launched the European Iron and Steel Community – forerunner of the EU – with the following words: “The coming together of the countries of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany… the solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.
That was in 1950, when a new generation was being born that would finally, through the social upheavals of subsequent decades, force a reckoning in Germany and complete the process of denazification. That, in turn, enabled Vergangenheitsbewältigung: coming to terms with the past, which entails ventilating harmful historical ideas in order to put them beyond use.
It was in the new structures of Europe that the old relationships finally dissolved, and were replaced; cultural violence was exposed and overcome, and direct violence rendered unthinkable. So what would new structures, enabling new relationships – for Russia, Ukraine and a new Europe – look like? And how could we get from here to there, without another world war?
We should remember the infringements against Russia’s security concepts that provoked Putin to lash out. NATO was not supposed to expand eastwards. The concept of praetorian provinces is as old as ancient Rome, and acquired new salience for Moscow a century ago when the capitalist powers waged a campaign of armed intervention against the new Bolshevik revolution.
Russian ‘greatness’ has formed a bulwark, in past centuries, against tyranny by Napoleon (1812), by the Ottomans (1877-8), and latterly, of course, by Hitler. As with British ‘greatness’, however, in today’s world it is a menace and a distraction. It has to go – and be put beyond use. The notion of an area of legitimate influence over the destinies of other peoples is obnoxious – as indeed it is in the Americas, through the Monroe doctrine.
Why not build on the existing Commonwealth of Independent States, formed in the former Soviet space at the fall of Communism? In the imperial era, the potentate in St Petersburg was the Tsar of all the Russias, ruling roughshod over regional aspirations and identities. President Clinton’s flip response to Putin’s overtures was that Russia was too big to join NATO. Perhaps it is, as presently constituted, too big to accommodate in the regulated system of nation states?
Instead, could reluctant parts of present-day Russia, such as Chechnya and Tatarstan, split off as independent members of an economic and political union, centred on the CIS, which would also offer membership to the ‘near abroad’, including Ukraine and Georgia – within a framework of pooled sovereignty and a commitment to peace? That, surely, is a more promising basis for sustainable security.
Russian prosperity relies heavily on oil and gas exports, and they have to go too. Regardless of provenance, it was deeply irresponsible of the Merkel chancellorship to plan for new hydrocarbon infrastructure to open in the Europe of the 2020s. The mothballed Nordstream Baltic pipeline needs to be permanently scrapped, in favour of an accelerated programme of decarbonisation.
The Russian economy will need massive, sustained investment to follow suit, with the aim of fashioning a stable social democracy, with a role for the state as partner, not dictator, and adequate social provision. There must be no repeated ‘shock treatment’ – and it will need a global effort, led by the International Financial Institutions, to bring about a more benign outcome. This could proceed in parallel with the political realignments envisaged above.
So much for the cultural and structural violence. Now the tough one: the direct violence. We are now well into the neoconservative playbook for the war. It was astute of Ali Abunimah to pick up on the indecently gratified tone of Hillary Clinton, in the early days of the invasion, at the prospect of this becoming Russia’s next Afghanistan: a running sore that will gradually weaken a strategic rival.
A more telling parallel might be Vietnam. The peace priority is to call for Putin to withdraw, as it was for the US from southeast Asia. As in those times, opposition to the war, both domestic and international, must catalyse broader demands for political and social change. We must offer solidarity, and abundant supportive communication, to those Russian human rights defenders in their appeal to the UN, and to democracy advocates.
In the short term, we have to hope such pressures lead to as early a Russian pull-out as possible. Some of that western-supplied weaponry in Ukraine could be given back. Then, just as the Versailles reparations of the 1920s were replaced by Marshall Aid to a devastated Europe after 1945, we must advocate for getting it right next time.
Jake Lynch is based at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Sydney, after completing a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship at Coventry University, in the UK, in 2020. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. His work in this field was recognised with the award of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, having organised its biennial global conference in Sydney, in 2010. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a 17-year career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, for Sky News, and the Sydney Correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as an on-screen presenter for BBC World Television News. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick, Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism, which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014).
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)