A Year of War in Ukraine: Lessons

One year later there are many important questions and conversations lingering about the unrelenting war in Ukraine. People want to know who is to blame, what is the cause of this mess, and is there an end in sight?

The pro-military Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), reports between 60,000 and 70,000 Russian soldiers have been killed on the battlefield in Ukraine. Ukraine’s reports on its own troop mortalities are out of date and unverified.

Tragically, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documents a proven 8,231 Ukrainian civilian mortalities from the 24 February 2022-12 March 2023 period, but they assert that there are much higher death tolls from unverified but likely accurate reports.

A year ago, many of the organizations that normally monitor and document the impacts of violence and possible war crimes were facing conditions so grim, they left the country. Most have not returned. War will do this.

The United Nations is supposed to ensure an end to the great horrors of war. In declaring a commitment to peace, the UN chartered: “To maintain international peace and security,” and, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”

Add Ukraine to the numerous episodes of violent conflict and genocide highlighting the inadequacies of the United Nations. The atrocities in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990’s led to the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect principle, an attempt at reform.

The Responsibility to Protect codifies and clarifies obligations to protect populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. This R2P is frequently characterized as just another example of the Just War Doctrine, and peace scholar Noam Chomsky notes that great powers virtually always characterize their military actions as “humanitarian.”

With US media and US leadership focused on massive military aid, it seems, peace talks are ignored. This is serving US weaponeer corporations immensely because what is donated to Ukraine by the US Pentagon at the orders of Congress and the President must be replaced. This is simply the war system, which can be divided into who wins, who loses, who profits and who dies?

Russia has every right to advocate for interests diplomatically but not invade and commit war crimes. In the US the MAGA political wing continues to cynically support Putin.

A year ago, many Russians woke up to the news of Putin’s war and delivered their own message—No War! Putin is notorious for imprisoning, torturing, and murdering dissenters and cracking down on protest, but their signs are clear: “No to war,” “Russians go home,” and “Peace to Ukraine.” War resisters in Russia are a reminder to everyone that a better future is possible–but they take enormous risks.

From my field of Conflict Transformation, ending this carnage is a hybrid application of nonviolent methods. Yes, violence can “win” but it always leaves deep resentment and a vow by many of the defeated to rise again and inflict more violence. Our hybrid method to gain more peace without sowing the seeds for the next war in this case of Putin invading might best include:

· Redesign sanctions so they are smart–that is, they do not harm ordinary Russians but instead are laser-focused on elites and on those who commit the war crimes.

· Support Russian dissidents in every possible way except arms. Communicate with them to ask how we can help.

· Support Ukraine in every possible way except arms.

· Support policy makers and nongovernmental organizations who do any of this work and vote out those who either adapt a hands-off approach (the MAGA view) or who vote for more military aid. Vote in those who work for a rigorous assertive nonviolent approach.

The continued fight for freedom in the Ukraine is impressive yet so very tragic and only fuels the Russian leadership that seems to desire a return to a Russian empire. The story of David vs. Goliath is now a year in the making and the resistance to occupation and oppression show the tenacity and courage of good people.

More of us can stand up and unite to remove the threat of Putin and his nuclear weapons permanently. Nonviolence may be the only force strong enough to do it without risk to all of life on earth.

There needs to be more emphasis on people power. The talk about who is sending tanks, and how many, is a distraction from the central challenge. Military might will never be answer to the illegitimate power corrupt leaders can achieve through violence—but united the people will always have the capacity to take their power back.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.