By Ray Acheson*
This article was originally published here by Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF) on 14 February 2022 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.
The spectre of war over Ukraine continues to loom. But war cannot resolve this crisis. This situation has arisen because of many complex factors that have been compounded and enabled by militarism; thus militarism cannot solve it. A people-centred peace process, with the equitable and meaningful participation of all those affected, is imperative. De-escalation, demilitarisation, and disarmament are crucial to preventing this war — and the next.
A history of violence
Behind this current crisis lies a history of militarised and economic violence. Both Russia and the United States are settler colonial states, forging their countries by expanding their “frontiers” and killing and repressing Indigenous populations. Both engage in imperialist actions outside of their now-established borders, interfering, through military and economic action, in countries they deem to be within their “spheres of influence”. Both use militarism, aggression, and forced economic ties to guide their conduct in international relations, and both deal with domestic inequality, poverty, and resistance through policing and punishment.
The governments of both countries critique each other for the same type of behaviour. Russia criticises US imperialism, yet invades and occupies its neighbours, bombs civilians, and engages in cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure that harm ordinary people. The United States criticises Russia as an autocracy yet overthrows democratically elected governments if they threaten US interests, builds military bases and engages in wars and military operations in hundreds of countries around the world, and spends billions of dollars a year on militarism while so many of its citizens live without health care, housing, or food security.
Both countries have built up their militaries, military alliances, and nuclear arsenals to challenge the other. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)’s expansion eastward is about constraining Russia, just like Russia’s invasion of countries to the west are about constraining NATO. Ukraine, in this context, is a pawn being used by both “sides”.
This gamesmanship runs the serious risk of mass destruction. Between them, Russia and the United States possess more than 11,850 nuclear weapons. NATO members France and the United Kingdom have a few hundred each. The US also stations about 100 nuclear weapons in NATO members Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey. These weapons are not remnants of a past Cold War — they are actively deployed right now, ready to be used. The stockpile numbers, alarming as they are, don’t convey the sheer horror each weapon packs within it. Every single bomb is designed to melt flesh, burn cities, decimate plants and animals, and unleash radioactive poison that lasts for generations. Even the use of one of these weapons would be disastrous. A nuclear exchange would be catastrophic.
Russia and the United States, along with France, United Kingdom, and China, together recently agreed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, echoing a statement from Gorbachev and Reagan in 1985. Yet each of these countries has been investing billions in the “modernisation” and expansion of their nuclear arsenals, preparing not for nuclear disarmament but for nuclear Armageddon. Each maintains doctrines and policies for the use of nuclear weapons. And some within the US nuclear complex, at least, apparently believe that nuclear war can be fought — and won. This is an incredibly dangerous message to be sending to those responsible for the potential destruction of the world, but one that benefits the military-industrial complex.
There are other corporate interests behind the festering conflict, including in relation to weapons production and sale, pipelines and “energy security,” and access to “natural resources,” with profits to be made at the expense of human lives as well as the protection of the planet. In the midst of a climate emergency, in which capitalist extraction and exploitation has decimated biodiversity, ecosystems, and land, water, and air, the governments of NATO members and Russia continue to use fossil fuels and refuse to embrace a degrowth economy that would drawdown the use of energy, especially in the global north, and prioritise the creation of systems of care and equality for people and planet.
Militarised world order and the abstraction of harm
There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the current crisis and the historical moments that have led us here. All parties involved have contributed actively to this situation; arguing that one side or the other has been “provoked” only serves to obscure the reality that each of the countries involved have together, deliberately, built a militarised, capitalist world order that exclusively serves the interests of the war profiteers and the political and economic elite.
What is happening right now over Ukraine is bigger than Ukraine. Tectonic shifts in global geopolitics are taking place and Ukraine is but one field of “play” for the heavily militarised states. Gamesmanship between the United States and China is on the rise; proxy wars, occupations and aggression, and military and economic pressure is occurring throughout the world; extraction primarily by the global north and exploitation of the so-called global south is rampant, exacerbating and accelerating poverty and inequalities and environmental devastation; militarism and military spending is on the rise globally. Approaching the situation in Ukraine without recognising this larger context is like applying a band aid to a global haemorrhage. It is a piece of a much bigger puzzle: of a world order dictated and dominated by the militarised elite.
This is a world order that sees war as a legitimate means to an end. It celebrates militarised masculinities, empowering the culture of militarism and violence as brave and noble pursuits, while rendering invisible the gendered and racialised harms of militarism. It is a world order that uses a technostrategic language to sanitise the image of war. Think tanks and politicians, media, and war gamers act as if countries are chess pieces and people are numbers on a page. US government officials, for example, have estimated that a war in Ukraine could kill 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, 5,000 to 25,000 Ukrainian military personnel, and 3,000 to 10,000 Russian soldiers. The fighting since 2014, in eastern Ukraine it should be noted, has already killed more than 14,000 people and displaced millions.
Instead of seeing these people as individuals, whose lives have value and meaning, who are part of families and communities, the number crunchers calculate “acceptable loss” and risks of “collateral damage,” and look the other way as the bodies pile up. Also accounted for is the disruption to daily life — the interruption of education, of food production, of supply chains; the destruction of hospitals, homes, markets, water and sanitation facilitations, and all of the other critical infrastructure that people rely on to survive. These numbers don’t take into account the psychological terror of living in conflict, of hearing bombs dropped or drones hovering overhead, of being afraid to leave your house, of watching loved ones die. These figures also don’t take into account the environmental impacts of war, the toxic or explosive remnants of weapons, the damage to land and water and animals.
These humanitarian and environmental impacts should be at the forefront of all policy making decisions. Yet they are completely ignored by those talking in board rooms in capital cities far from where the harm will be felt, deciding what choices to make for the sake of “geopolitical strategy” or “balance of power”.
The urgency of demilitarization and disarmament
This must change. Instead of encouraging the sending of more weapons and soldiers into this situation, instead of justifying the militarism of one side because of the other, we must instead strive to de-escalate this crisis through disarmament, demilitarisation, and diplomacy.
The following recommendations are geared toward a peaceful solution to the current crisis and prevention of further ones:
- NATO should not seek further expansion or engage in aggression; Russia must cease interference with and aggression against countries it deems to be within its “sphere of influence”.
- All troops should be withdrawn and supplies of weapons, military equipment, and training must cease. The mobilisation for war of Russian soldiers, troops from NATO members, and the Ukrainian population must end.
- The human right to conscientious objection to military service must be guaranteed, in accordance with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and paragraphs 2, 11 of the General Comment № 22 of the UN Human Rights Committee.
- NATO and Russia should agree to end military exercises and avoid close military encounters between Russian and NATO forces.
- All parties involved should recommit to/negotiate a new Conventional Forces in Europe treaty and demilitarise Europe through disarmament, inspections, etc.
- All parties involved must not engage in cyber attacks, especially against critical infrastructure that will affect civilian lives. States and civil society should pursue in good faith an international agreement prohibiting cyber attacks.
- All relevant parties must take urgent action to prevent nuclear war, including:
- In the wake of the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, they need to agree to not deploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe or in Western Russia.
- The United States and Russia also need to conclude new agreements that achieve further verifiable cuts in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons and on constraints on long-range missile defences, before the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in early 2026.
- The United States should withdraw its nuclear weapons stationed in NATO member countries and Russia should withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from bases near its western border.
- NATO should renounce nuclear weapons and denuclearise its policy doctrine.
- Russia and the United States (and all other nuclear-armed states) must end their nuclear weapon modernisation programmes.
- The United States, Russia, Ukraine, and all NATO members should join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
People-centred solutions for peace
Beyond this immediate context, action is needed to prevent future armed conflict and threats of nuclear war.
Instead of maintaining opposing military alliances, all parties should engage in building a common, demilitarised security strategy that places cooperation and the collective fulfilment of the needs of people and planet in the forefront of all policies and actions. NATO, for example, should be disbanded and non-militarised, non-divisive alliances for peace and cooperation should be built instead, with international solidarity as its guiding principle. All countries should reduce their military spending immediately, and agree to phased reductions through the implementation of Article 26 of the UN Charter, the mandate for which should be taken from the UN Security Council and given to the UN General Assembly.
All countries should join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and work urgently for the timebound elimination of all nuclear weapons. Through the treaty’s provisions for disarmament, the elimination of nuclear weapons could be pursued through verifiable process and achieved within a decade. The process of nuclear weapon abolition could provide a foundational path to broader changes in the world order. Eliminating nuclear weapons would help establish a new cooperative paradigm in international relations and free up resources help address the climate crisis. It would also help generate momentum for broader disarmament and demilitarisation and redirection of money and human ingenuity towards meeting human and planetary needs.
At the core of our efforts, we must put the lives of civilians and care for the planet above perceived military, political, and economic interests. To this end, a people-centred peace process is imperative. As Almut Rochowanaski writes,“We must apply the lessons of 21st-century peacebuilding to create a peace process that is people-centred, women-led and rights-based.” Without this, “patterns of exclusion and victimisation will not be remedied, and memories of pain and injustice will turn into grievance and alienation lasting generations. A broad range of stakeholders can be heard and validated through proven peacebuilding practices, and can go on to build a different future for their country.”
In the Ukraine context, we echo the call of the Ukrainian Pacificist Movement for “open, inclusive and comprehensive negotiations on peace and disarmament in the format of a public dialogue between all state and non-state parties to the conflict with the participation of pro-peace civil society actors.” This type of inclusive process, a process that is not driven or dominated by those who created the crisis in the first place, must be applied to other contexts. We know that more inclusive processes lead to more stable peace, yet time after time, only men with guns dictate the terms of “peace”. These solutions invariably lead to the imposition of neoliberal economic policies, gender and racial oppressions and inequalities, and endless militarisation.
The old ways of doing things have proven over and over again that they do not work. We need a new vision of global peace, grounded in the intersectional experiences of people and the needs of the entire planet. Creating and achieving that vision requires changing who is invited to the table: out with the ruling elites, who are bound to personal interests and gains, and in with everyone who stands to lose from conflict. Land and water protectors, feminists, antinuclear activists, those organising for demilitarisation, equality, and care must lead the work for peace, not the people who profit from conflict.
Abolition for transformation
We need a paradigm shift in international relations, stemming from this kind of people-centred peace process. We need to alter the relations between United States and Russia, but more broadly we need to dismantle the militarised global order, militarised conceptions of security, and the dominance of the military-industrial complex over world affairs. The hegemony of colonial-corporate extractivism must also be transformed — for the climate, for relations with First Nations, for the protection of land, water, air, and animals.
An abolitionist framing is useful for cultivating such transformation. Instead of investing in weapons and preparing for war, we must be investing instead of care for people and planet. Abolition is a tool to build a world that works for all, instead of just a few. The abolition of war, globally, requires disarmament and arms control, systems for demilitarisation and reduction of military spending. But it also requires building structures for peace, solidarity, cooperation, and nonviolence to flourish. It means replacing weapons with renewable energy, war with diplomacy, capitalism with a redistributive feminist political economy that is centered on equality, social justice, degrowth and ecological sustainability.
Unlearning the necessity of violence is essential to exploring what could be built in its place. This means turning on its head so much of what we are taught about what’s necessary for safety and security in our world. It means learning to reject violence as a solution to all problems, interrogating and challenging systems of power that assert they exist to protect while instead they persecute and oppress.
Understanding and responding to the “bigger picture” doesn’t mean we each as individuals need to solve every piece of it. But it does mean we need to recognise and support each other’s efforts and reflect in our own work the analysis and organising of various movements and projects for peace. The sum of our whole is greater than our parts, and going up against the machine of capitalist violence can feel immense — unless we break it down and rebuild something else, together.
Thanks to Nela Porobić for input to this article.
*Ray Acheson is the Director of WILPF’s Disarmament Programme, which provides analysis, research, and advocacy across a range of disarmament issues from an antimilitarist feminist perspective. Acheson represents WILPF on the steering committees of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and the International Network on Explosive Weapons.