As Russia Invades Ukraine, Let’s Follow Our Best Instincts, Not Our Worst


As European war begins, Chris Lombardi reflects on the role and power of regional and global anti-war movements

By Chris Lombardi

Over the past few weeks, with clouds of a Russian invasion of Ukraine gathering on the horizon, thw world’s anti-war organizations settled firmly in their ongoing positions; World Beyond War and Code Pink warned against overreach by the North American Treaty Organization (NATO); . Common Defense exulted that President Biden, as opposed to the pro-Kremlin Donald Trump, had won last year’s election, and Veterans for Peace emphasized the terror of war between two nuclear-armed alliances. All urged immediate diplomacy. 

Yet as I write this, the news shows Kyiv under siege and apartment blocks halved by Russian airstrikes. The country’s armories have been opened to civilians, who are being encouraged to learn how to make and stockpile Molotov cocktails. But Ukraine is also no stranger to non-violent resistance, of the kind championed by War Resisters International, which, on Feb. 24, urged Ukrainians to “renounce military resistance and to proclaim civil resistance instead.” In 2004, the country experienced a nonviolent revolution, while nonviolent noncooperation a decade later helped bring down a president.  

That tradition included “boycotts, strikes, protests, and organized noncooperation to challenge entrenched power and exact political concessions,” as noted by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in International Security.  Organized noncooperation is a tough path when soldiers are cramming Kyiv, but it’s no less extreme than turning a schoolteacher into a guerilla.

In its statement, WRI quoted the Russian group Peace Supporters Against the Party of War: “The insane actions of the political leadership of the country, pushing us to this point, will inevitably lead to the formation of a mass anti-war movement in Russia. Each of us naturally becomes a part of it.’ 

Some Russian civilians have already started down this path, joining an online petition designed to “stop the war that has begun and prevent it from developing into a war on a planetary scale.” In it, they declared the beginning of the formation of the anti-war movement in Russia, and the support of any peaceful forms of anti-war protest. On late night television and on social media screens the world has witnessed similar stands in more than 50 Russian cities—Russian authorities have arrested more than a thousand protestors so far. 

What about dissent in the feared Russian Army and air force? Many draftees have been half-coerced into ‘volunteering’ in Ukraine, according to the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a venerable group that has been exposing military abuse since the late 1980s. The committee shared photos of soldiers on the border sleeping in piles on the ground along with reports of hungry soldiers foraging for food

On Friday, a whole platoon of 74th Motorized Brigade surrendered to the Ukrainian military according to Ukraine’s U.S. Ambassador. “They didn’t know that they were brought to Ukraine to kill Ukrainians,” Olga Makarova told reporters. “They thought they were doing something else there.” Again, that means members of a former Soviet infantry company, that in the 1940s helped liberate Ukraine from the Nazis, balked when they realized they’d be doing the reverse.

None of which has prevented troops from moving in—but at least at this writing, it appears that any plans by Russian President Vladimir Putin for a quick “decapitation” of Ukraine’s government have failed. Both sides are digging in for the long haul, and the United States is having debates unseen for decades. Is this World War III? Should America get involved, and how? Could there somehow be a draft? some are asking WN contributor Ed Hasbrouck, who is still organizing for the abolition of Selective Service.

At an emergency rally on Saturday, Code Pink and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) were already looking ahead, calling Sunday, March 6, a day of global protest against the current war and against any expansion of or reliance on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At the webinar, Belgian activist Ludo de Brabander of CND’s No to NATO Coalition spoke of the ongoing referendum in Belarus that might define its relationship to NATO,  denouncing NATO expansion. British politician Jeremy Corbyn, describing the Ukraine crisis as a “completely unacceptable war,” called for a negotiated peace based on the Minsk Agreements as modified later in Budapest to acknowledge Ukraine’s independence. Meanwhile, World Without War planned a February 28 event featuring Ira Helfand, Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Cynthia Lazaroff of Nuclear Wake Up Call. Noting the Russian peace activists, WWW posted a Ukrainian flag with the slogal, “Russia Out of Ukraine! NATO out of Existence!”

Thinking about what might come next, I found solace from internationalist writer Promise Li, who reminded that the U.S. had options beyond militarism. With a refugee crisis already in motion, Li urged immediate action on Ukrainian refugee rights, and “connect[ing] with and amplify[ing] Russian anti-war activists’ demands.”

Being me, I’m going to keep looking for signs of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. I’ll keep hoping that noncooperation spreads inside Russia, as it did in Ukraine 15 years ago. We’ve seen it spread before: “The Serbian opposition movement used the writings of Gene Sharp during the trainings of activists in the period leading up to the 2000 nonviolent ouster of Serbia’s leader, Slobodan Milosevic,” writes Chenoweth, pointing out that the documentary film on the Serbian movement, Bringing Down a Dictator, was shown on public television in Georgia and Ukraine before and during those countries’ electoral revolutions. I suspect that Ukrainian President Zelensky has read Gene Sharp, and knows that all those guns his government is handing out must be matched by civil resistance. 

As someone who’s made something of a career noticing how uniformed personnel sometimes turn their swords into plowshares, I’m terrified that the Western media is too busy cheering the opposite. We need to build a future inspired by our best instincts, not our worst.

(Photo: The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, protesting war in Chechnya in 1996.)

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Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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