Complex thinking about war, religion, oil and sanctions

The marker says, “The homeland will not forget its heroes.” But this photo always makes me think, “To remember is to end all war.” It shows one of three Soviet War Memorials in Berlin built to commemorate the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin in April and May 1945. (Photo: Jim Hodgson, 1977)

Jim Hodgson

Just before heading out for a bike ride on a warm spring day, the last thing that I heard from the TV was a CNN talking head ranting about a certain “genocidal maniac.” You know about whom he was speaking. 

I had just read a reflection by the Portuguese sociologist, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, on the need for “complex thinking” in these times of pandemic and war. He is a respected writer on social movements; I met him at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005.

We are living in a moment like that which followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he wrote, when it became impossible to introduce complexity into conversations. There was no space for asking why the attacks had occurred, and voices that questioned the utility of the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan were excluded from public debate.  

As I rode about the city streets, I tried to meditate on the need for complex thinking, but that CNN assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin kept intruding. To imagine about a good way forward and an end to this war, you need to assume a certain rationality about those with whom you disagree. 

And yes: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is wrong, a human tragedy and a disaster for global community. It must end. As the war began, the ACT Alliance of churches and aid organizations called on all parties “to respect humanitarian operations and their humanitarian obligations, to protect all human lives and communities threatened by this violence, and to keep borders open, create safe pathways and provide refuge for those expected to flee the conflict.”

I feel solidarity with the people of Ukraine in their struggle to end the invasion and protect the sovereignty that is theirs in international law – just as I do with the people of other invaded territories (Palestine, Western Sahara, Yemen, all the Indigenous territories whose people still struggle to recover). I hope those who are able will continue to support humanitarian relief efforts for Ukrainians.

My solidarity too with all those in Russia who protest Putin’s war. “No pasarán,” said the journalists as they were forced to close an independent TV station, Dozhd, reviving a line from the anti-fascist resistance in Spain in the 1930s. 

Sanctions – warfare by other means, some have said – have been applied. This time, I am not exactly against them. Short-term, targeted measures seem reasonable; longer-term, their impact on civilians will need to be measured and their effectiveness evaluated. Russia is now the world’s most-sanctioned country. Space for diplomacy, public health and science, however, should remain open, including the Arctic Council and the International Space Station.

The NATO leaders are justified in their caution about further escalation (enforcement of a “no-fly” zone): the greatest danger is nuclear war.

Cesar Jaramillo, director of Project Ploughshares, wrote March 3: “Not since John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stared each other down during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the possibility of nuclear weapons use involving the world’s two major nuclear powers been more present.” The image shows the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

But what do we do now? 

We should do what we who believe in peace do in every other armed conflict: call for peace, withdrawal, dialogue, diplomacy. And engage in complex thinking.

Otherwise, the war drags on: a Ukrainian government in Lviv or in exile, with a NATO-sponsored insurgency. Think of the U.S.-backed forces that over a decade drove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s. No one wants that for the people of Ukraine. Worse still: the possibility of an incident that sparks use of nuclear weapons.

As in many capitals, church and state in Moscow face each other across a large plaza, Red Square. The church has operated as a museum since 1928, but religious services began again in 1997. (Photo: Jim Hodgson, 1983)

About religion:

“The only reasonable and constructive way to settle differences is through dialogue, as Pope Francis never tires of repeating,” said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state. The pope, however, has been criticized for not condemning the Russian invasion. Such criticism, however, seems not to value that Pope Francis has potential as a mediator and that his relationship with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill may give him some influence. The pope has sent two cardinals to Ukraine to help mobilize humanitarian efforts: Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, papal almoner (responsible for aid to those in need), and Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, interim president of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. 

That Patriarch Kirill has fanned the fires of Russian nationalism and failed to respect the 21st-century reality of Ukrainian statehood does not mean he cannot be part of a solution. The World Council of Churches has called on him to speak directly with President Putin and to encourage him to end the bloodshed in Ukraine; the Patriarch responded March 10. Some of his priests (a tiny minority, to be sure) insist that “no call for peace should be rejected” and “Blessed are the peace-makers.”

About oil, gas, weapons and defence spending:

Arms manufacturers and their political and media shills have seized on the present crisis to demand that Canada and other nations increase military spending in the face of Russian and Chinese threats. 

I would suggest that we revive conversations on common security and mutual understanding and increase official development assistance to 0.7 per cent of gross national income: these are better investments in security and sustainability for all.

Similarly, the oil and gas oligarchs pressed to restore planned pipelines and gas terminals that had been cancelled because of pressure from climate justice activists. 

And in times of war, last year’s bad guys become this year’s good guys. The U.S. (now as in 1973 and 2003 addicted to oil) sent a delegation Saturday, March 5, to Venezuela to talk with President Nicolás Maduro. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed that the meeting covered issues of “energy security.” Maduro spoke about the meeting two days later, saying his government would return to negotiations in Mexico with opposition parties and that it would sell oil to the United States “for world stability.” Some sanctions may be lifted and assets restored to the state oil company PDVSA.

Can peace with Iran be far behind? Ah, but wait. Corporate media have that one covered too, saying that Russia will now try to block any revived accord.

About history and the future 

Several readings of history are in conflict here. One is the thousand-year view expressed by President Putin and Patriarch Kirill – nostalgia perhaps for the Kievan Rus, the ancient state that converted to Christianity in 988 – but rejected by Ukrainians as the excuse for domination by one cultural and linguistic group over another.

Another would be a three-decades view, the one that predominates in the West but in two versions. One holds that NATO should have been abolished (as I argued a few days ago) when the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact dissolved, with a much more comprehensive common security plan to replace the old alliances. After 1991, Russia received assurances from officials of the first Bush administration that NATO would not move “one centimeter to the east.” The other version, effected by U.S. President Bill Clinton and his successors, persisted in seeing Russia as reason to sustain a bloated military-industrial complex and to project U.S. power across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Now, NATO has moved at least 1,000 kilometres to the east (perceived by Russia as a threat), and the alliance has intervened beyond its original mandate in former Yugoslav republics, Afghanistan and Libya.

Shorter timelines begin with the events of 2014, when the Euromaidan protests resulted in the removal of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February. In March, after a much-criticized referendum in Crimea, Russia annexed the region. In April, demonstrations by pro-Russian groups in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine escalated into a war between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics. A series of negotiations resulted in the Minsk Accords, but those were never fully respected and fighting in the east continued sporadically.

What should happen now? Russia must withdraw. Everybody needs to sit down and talk. Some agreement needs to be reached that recognizes Ukraine as an independent and neutral country (like Finland and Austria), acknowledges the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, and deals with the status of the contested regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea. 

Moreover, a lot of work has to be done in Russia and Ukraine about managing religious, linguistic, political and other social differences in civil society – including, of course, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Churches that have been problematic in the past on these issues need to lead the way in showing they can live with diversity.

4 thoughts on “Complex thinking about war, religion, oil and sanctions

  1. This is incredibly profound and the thorough, cogent review of past and present is very instructive. Thank you so much for bring perspective to such a complicated and infuriating situation.


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