By Jan Oberg
A day or two before the Russian assault on Ukraine, I wrote that Russia would NOT invade Ukraine. The news on the morning of February 24 admittedly shocked me and made me very sad: With this move and the NATO countries’ tit-for-tat response that will have devastating economic consequences for Europe’s citizens, there will not be peace in Europe in my lifetime.
And I was not the only one who must have been surprised even in Russia. Here are the words by professor Sergey Karaganov, honorary chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy from February 8: ”Russian troops near the border of Ukraine are not going to move into the country. To do so would be simply senseless. Grabbing land already devastated by its anti-national and corrupt ruling class is one of the worst options available to Moscow.”
As a Gandhi-inspired peace and future researcher since the mid-1970s who co-founded The Transnational Foundation for Peace & Future Research, TFF, in 1986 to support the UN Charter’s Article 1 – that peace shall be established by peaceful means – I distance myself entirely from Russia’s bombing campaign in Ukraine.
While I distance myself from this act, I remain of the view that it is essential to ask: Why did Russia do this? Understanding a motive or perception does not mean an automatic endorsement of the activities they lead to. To explain, seek conflict understanding and explore ways to mediate does not mean defending or taking sides – except in the minds of intellectual dwarfs.
If you want to solve conflicts and make peace – but most people these days don’t – you’ve got to ask WHY questions, look at the problems and not just support or condemn conflicting parties. Here is how that can be done.
I distance myself from this special military operation because it:
- violates international law, including the UN Charter and various agreements made concerning Europe since 1990;
- cannot avoid killing innocent people in Ukraine;
- escalates an already dangerous situation that, instead, needed urgent de-escalation;
- will be seen as a gift to NATO, Russophobic, anti-Putin sentiments (which were already overblown), and we can expect massive re-armament in NATO circles;
- may, given the harsh reaction in NATO political and media circles, deliver an argument to those in Sweden and Finland who have argued not only for close cooperation with NATO but also advocate full membership;
- is likely to cause an even Colder War atmosphere for decades ahead all over Europe – something no innocent, ordinary European citizens want;
- is not likely to make the citizens of Ukraine feel better; the Russian-oriented will be stigmatised, the Ukrainian-oriented more negative – some extreme rightwing among them more hateful; finally,
- it comes out of a way of thinking that is strikingly similar to NATO leaders’ – namely the dangerous cocktail of five deplorable peace-preventing ingredients: Tit for Tat + Militarist Thinking + Brinkmanship + Blame game + Demonisation.
What Russia could have done
So, eight serious reasons. Some will now say: Yes, but Russia did not have a choice. That is not true.
There is always a choice, always something else one can do. What could Russia have done? A few examples:
- Sought negotiations directly between the Presidents of Ukraine and Russia – perhaps a series of meetings where issue after issue would have been discussed and found a settlement. Russia and Ukraine are, after all, much closer to each other than each of them to any other European/NATO country.
- President Putin could have upheld and moved forward with his much wiser old proposal to have the UN established in Ukraine. Imagine a very large classical United Nations Peace Keeping and -Making mission with military, civil police and civil affairs legs and a very comprehensive negotiation unit. True, nobody listened to him when he suggested that years ago, but still!
- He could have proposed a Mutual Non-Aggression Treaty between Russia and Ukraine, giving the type of security guarantees Russia demands for itself to Ukraine. This would have signalled common security and thereby undermined Ukrainian NATO hotheads and disarmed NATO’s provocative wooing.
- Perhaps as part of this, Russia could have suggested demilitarised zones along the borders with Ukraine, invited Ukraine to do the same – and seen whether Ukraine would respond favourably and, if not, re-militarised those areas.
- Instead of giving the world the impression that Russia would not invade all of Ukraine, he could have announced that within this or that deadline, he would bomb unless Russia received a declaration from NATO and Ukraine that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was off the table.
In passing, it’s worth noting that Ukraine’s President Zelensky on February 25 says he is willing to discuss neutrality with Russia but needs security guarantees that not one NATO member has been able to offer him.
Steps like those I suggest can b seen as something called GRIT – Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction – which means taking small, non-dangerous steps that are so significant that the other side cannot ignore them but – since they are positive gestures – feel compelled to reciprocate. This old classic idea, developed by Charles Osgood, may lead to mutually safe de-escalation and benefits over time and step by step: Opening time and space for dialogue.
Perhaps these things would not have worked? W do not know. But we can be sure that they would not have done any long-term harm, and they would have contributed to a kind of political disarmament of NATO where this bombing will only, regrettably, embolden NATO.
Two scorpions in a bottle
If countries and people conflict with each other over time, they tend to become more and more alike and use the mentioned Tit-for-Tat. Someone once used the metaphor that such parties are like scorpions in a bottle – neither can get out of the bottle; they are stuck with each other, fight and feed upon each other’s needs and fears.
The overarching similarity is that they blame the other for being the problem (and see themselves as right and innocent) but differ – of course – in who that culprit/criminal is.
That’s why it is so imperative that somebody stops and thinks: If we continue with Tit for Tat + Militarist Thinking + Brinkmanship + Blame game + Demonisation – where shall we all end up? Please note just how fast each party decides and implements its retaliation measures. So quickly, you may say, that nobody has taken time to think.
Both NATO and Russia are now far into Group Think which over time becomes more and more dangerous.
Thus, the words by Gandhi are important to remember: ”An eye for an eye will one day make the whole world blind.”
What is helpful and not so helpful in this situation?
Russia and President Putin decided otherwise. It wasn’t wise for the reasons I have just outlined.
Gandhian thinking is about never doing tit-for-tat but doing something else, something that is not a mirror replica of your adversary. Because, if your adversary appears stupid or evil and you imitate everything (s)he does, you’ll end up appearing stupid and evil yourself – and confirm that adversary’s worst perceptions and fears or hubris-like superiority feeling.
Most people call this the Ukraine conflict. That’s wrong. Although Ukraine is a crucial conflict party, we are, in reality, talking about 40-50 parties to a conflict that has lasted at least 30 years. I have written about them here.
Fast, square and one-sided condemnations – you know the reaction that makes some people feel good – like ”I condemn A and stand with B…” (one side out of many) – is not part of my profession, and I do not get any satisfaction from condemning someone.
Taking sides does not help mediation, conflict resolution and peace; what helps is to look at the problem that stands between the parties – their grievances, visions, fears and issues that make them conflict and often create a cycle of escalating violence.
Condemnations of one party in a hellishly complex conflict often stimulate, whether intended or not, the non-condemned to feel more self-assured and self-righteous and feel they (s)he has just been handed a carte blanche to behave even worse.
The wider perspectives fools condemn as “whataboutism” and conspiracy theory
The day before the assault on Ukraine, I also wrote on social media (Facebook and Linkedin) why I thought it was wrong of US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to drop out of a meeting with his counterpart, Sergej Lavrov. I wrote:
Blinken says meeting with Lavrov is off after Russia moves on Ukraine
”After condemnations, harsh sanctions, Nordstream diktat on Germany, F35 to Baltikum etc., this too! Why?
Because for almost 30 years, NATO broke Western promises to Gorbachev, ignored Russia’s wish to be seen as Western and join NATO, ignored Russia’s empathetic reaction at 9/11, helped destroy and split Yugoslavia and illegally bombed Serbia and Kosovo and created a new, second Albanian state in Europe.
Further, because it has helped arm Ukraine for decades, wooed it into believing in NATO and orchestrated/financed the regime change in 2014 in Kyiv that started this conflict process.
And because the US and other NATO members failed to put pressure on Ukraine to accept Minsk and develop some autonomy in Donbas. Had Minsk been implemented, Putin’s move would not have happened. But the right to self-determination that the US usually champion is suddenly gone. Why?
No, there is nothing to reflect on, no soul-searching. Nothing to learn: The US only teaches. And make no mistake: It never makes mistakes.
Therefore, there is no reason whatsoever to meet with devilish Russia and its devilish foreign minister Lavrov.
Well, excuse my bluntness, but the one who says ‘NO’ to TALKING and MEETING – no matter the circumstance – does not aim at peace but more tit-for-tat escalation. Until tactical nuclear weapons are used, Mr Blinken?
What I say is banal. But too sophisticated for most Western politicians, media and researchers. So be it. They have weapons and threats on their brains and are conflict-resolution and peace illiterates.
While I do not think Russia’s move (i.e. recognition of the two republics in Donbas as independent) yesterday was productive, it was logical.
US/NATO policies have been highly irrational and short-sighted for months now.
What do you think?”
As a final consideration, I also distance myself entirely from all those who condemn this Russian step but never condemned all the – equally, if not more – illegal, violent and international law-defying actions by NATO or NATO members be it in Yugoslavia (much worse on all dimensions over 70+ days than what has happened so far in Ukraine), Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria – you name them.
And I distance myself entirely from the intellectually extremely poor uniformity and strength of that massive, uniform condemnation choir – the limitless Russophobia, self-righteousness, the pervasive disregard for conflict analysis and absence of every self-reflection/criticism as well as the mainstream media’s one-narrative based on FOSI – Fake + Omission + Source Ignorance.
All of it promotes more war and I ask: Is the West/NATO really that weak intellectually and morally? I believe it is. Intellectual re-armament is the only armament it – and Russia – need. But that is now too late. Those of us who work for peace are now dissidents.
And thus, we may be drifting towards unparalleled catastrophe.
*About the author: Jan Oberg and his wife, Dr Christina Spännar, are founders of The Transnational Foundation, TFF. Born in 1951, he is a Danish citizen living in Lund, Sweden, since 1971 and he is an internationally respected peace researcher, mediator and peace commentator as well as an art photographer.
This article was published by The Transnational