Ending the Ukraine and other wars: putting victims at the centre

Jul 31, 2022
Moldova - People fleeing the military offensive in Ukraine
Image: Flickr / UN Women

A common response from Western nations to the Ukraine war is one of “support for Ukraine” or “standing with Ukraine” as it suffers ongoing attack from Russia.

This support is generally manifest as simply pouring in more weapons so that the fighting can continue, regardless of its consequences.  But what does “support for Ukraine” really mean? Putting first the protection of those who are paying the heaviest price in the war, including the nation’s children, or putting first the hopes for an outright military “victory”, whatever that might look like. The problem is that the longer the fighting and destruction continues, the more pyrrhic any “victory” against Russia – if it occurs at all – becomes.

This article will address two of the many reasons the Ukraine war must be ended, and some ways to begin the task.

To preserve innocent lives and civilian infrastructure

To date, the war is estimated to have killed over 5,000 civilians, and injured many more, with these figures considered to be a significant underestimate. For military casualties, estimates vary widely, but deaths alone are likely to be in the tens of thousands, with injuries correspondingly much higher. Hundreds of attacks on health care facilities have been reported, reflecting an almost predictable feature of modern wars, despite such attacks being absolutely prohibited. In addition, many millions of Ukrainians, including over half of the country’s children, have been forced to become refugees, with all the risks that brings.

Such statistics mask a huge burden of suffering, disability, grieving, and intergenerational impacts on the people of both nations for decades to come. We should avoid the trap of equating “innocent” with “civilian”, given the use of conscripts – who have no real choice but to fight – on both sides.

Despite such large scale and long-lasting suffering, leaders in capitals far away cheer on the Ukrainian fighters. In June, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the war could last for years, and that “we must not let up in supporting Ukraine….even if the costs are high”. High for whom? Certainly not for himself and his ilk in Washington DC, London, and elsewhere, nobly sacrificing Ukrainian lives from their positions of safety.

To prevent nuclear war

President Putin has both threatened to use nuclear weapons, and also announced that Russia would transfer nuclear-capable missiles to Belarus. The latter move would mirror nuclear sharing arrangements that the US has with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.

Nuclear war, by decision or accident, is a significant risk, as high now as it was during the Cuban missile crisis. Any use of nuclear weapons would dwarf beyond comparison the harm that has already been caused by this war, and could be terminal for much of the civilisation that we know.

One of the standout lessons from the war, yet again, is that nuclear deterrence is a dangerous myth. It has been proven wrong on multiple occasions. Russia invaded US-allied Ukraine, both Russia and the US being armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. The weapons deterred nothing but have simply augmented the risks to something beyond catastrophic.

Ending this and other wars negotiate, negotiate, negotiate

Negotiations are an inevitable part of warfare, eventually. That’s all the more reason to curtail the fighting and hasten the negotiations.   As no country can be secure if its neighbours are not secure, both sides’ legitimate security concerns must be acknowledged. We’re told that negotiation is not possible with someone like President Putin, but how much negotiation was possible when NATO leaders consistently ignored everything that Russia said about NATO expansion over many years?

The goal of negotiations must be to bring about peace, not to inflict punishment, no matter how deserved such punishment is. The Versailles Treaty of 1919, and the subsequent rise of German fascism less than 20 years later, should have taught us that much at least.

In March, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy said that his government was prepared to discuss adopting a neutral status as part of a peace deal with Russia. But quite suddenly things changed when the US shifted the goalposts from protecting Ukraine to weakening Russia, thereby removing the risk of any peace negotiations actually succeeding.

Notwithstanding the enormous challenges on both sides, many valuable proposals are available. They include:

      • neutrality for Ukraine;
      • internationally monitored plebiscites for the Donbas region, and a similar framework to determine the future of Crimea;
      • a long-term moratorium on NATO expansion;
      • mutual agreement to limit military exercises and border patrols;
      • the banning of Russian and NATO troops from former Soviet republics;
      • the withdrawal of all U.S. nuclear warheads from Europe (see here)
      • and of course the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine.

Negotiations require highly skilled negotiators and diplomats. Funding for these has been slashed in Australia in recent decades, as has funding for peace research. Trying to promote peace without investing in peace research is like trying to prevent cancer without investing in cancer research. The solution to underfunding in both these areas is obvious.

Apply the rule of law consistently

There is no place for cherry-picking when the rule of law should be applied, including in relation to the crimes and criminals we wish to see prosecuted. Where there is credible evidence of war crimes committed in Ukraine, in addition to the crime of aggression itself – and there seems to be ample – the alleged criminals must be tried. But where were the calls for war crimes trials following the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and all that followed? The Costs of War project at Brown University in the US estimates that 900,000 people have died in the US “war on terror”. Were these all lawful killings, with not a war crime among them that’s worthy of prosecution?

All acts of aggression must be condemned, whether they are committed by friend or foe. Similarly, issuing selective calls for war crimes trials reduces them to being merely political tools, rather than a critical part of the rule of law that is said to be a defining feature of Western democracies.

Abolish nuclear weapons

The only way to prevent nuclear weapons being used is to get rid of the weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is the only current global initiative that’s heading in that direction.

The TPNW must be promoted vigorously, to strengthen even further its normative impact. Australia is heading towards a leading role by signing and ratifying the Treaty, a step that PM Albanese has very commendably committed his government to do. We would then be the first “nuclear umbrella” state to do so.

In addition, Australia should reject the proposed nuclear-powered submarines, which are not only a huge nuclear weapons proliferation risk, but would integrate Australia even further into US preparations for fighting a nuclear war with China.

Follow the money

War is a hugely profitable business. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE Systems and other weapons giants are quietly making billions of dollars from the war in Ukraine, as they do from wars and tensions elsewhere. Reining in the profit motive is an essential part of reducing armed conflict. This topic is vast, but the following two resources provide valuable information: Michelle Fahy’s documenting of the industry’s “Undue Influence” in Australia, and the Medical Association for Prevention of War’s publication (currently being updated) on the industry’s influence among school students from as early as primary school age.

Stand with the people of Ukraine…and other war-ravaged populations

Just as the rule of law must be applied impartially, there’s no place for picking and choosing which wars are important and which are not. The wars in Yemen, Palestine, Myanmar, Ethiopia and elsewhere are equally devastating for the millions of people suffering in them. As we stand with the people of Ukraine, let us also stand with war-ravaged populations elsewhere, and apply our best diplomatic and other skills to bringing these conflicts also to an end. We could do so for a fraction of the cost of a single nuclear submarine.

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