Perceptions of the Ukraine war in the Global South and Reflections on Peace

Too few of us are talking about peace – or about dialogue and diplomacy – these days. As U.S. journalist Katherine vanden Heuvel writes, it’s time to challenge conventional views on the war in Ukraine.

On a humid evening at the end of May, I spoke with a local parish group convened by Toronto members of Development and Peace/Caritas Canada. I talked more than I usually do about my faith and about the teachings in our religious traditions about peace: “Blessed are the peace-makers,” the artisans of peace.
Not everyone sees this war in the same way. Whether every perception is correct is not the point. At their root is a reluctance to take sides in what looks like a conflict between the empires.

At the same time, Russia’s invasion draws from the tsarist past to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to self-determination. It is also strengthening Ukrainians’ sense of identity and nationhood. Changes should be negotiated without military threats and consented to in free and fair referendums. The 2014-15 Minsk Accords might have offered a way forward.

“Many people think that it is better that the winners be those who oppose U.S. imperialism, which leads them to support Russia or China, or occasionally, Iran or any other nation that opposes the western powers,” writes Raúl Zibechi, the Uruguayan observer of Latin America’s social movements. “Social movements should oppose war so as to deepen their own agenda: strengthening their ‘territorial roots so as to exercise autonomy and self-government, building other worlds that are new and different from the capitalist, patriarchal and colonial world.”
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentinean winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, says there are no “just wars.” But he adds that there are “just causes.” I think of the revolutionary struggles in Central America in the 1980s, but those did not bring about the social changes people hoped for (largely because the United States supplied weapons and mercenaries to the far-right forces), and tens of thousands of people died.
On the left is the garden were six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by a death squad in November 1989 at the University of Central America in San Salvador. On the right are Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Salvador and a group of student leaders in the ongoing effort to build a “culture of peace.”

The “peace” that Central Americans, together with others across the Global South, ended up with after the wars has advanced a model of development that impoverishes, excludes and drives people from their land. Even the new development proposals from the U.S. and Mexican governments are inadequate in the face of political-economic devastation and climate change. Hondurans, at least, at this moment, have a shot at something better. But their military (and its U.S. backers) may not tolerate real, meaningful change. The way forward must be different from the ways of the past.

The current war in Ukraine, in addition to the human and material costs of fighting, is having ripples far beyond the two countries directly involved. Not just higher energy prices, but the likelihood of food shortages. Russia and Ukraine have been responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and for large quantities of barley, corn and vegetable oil too.

I have been critical of the use of sanctions. Sanctions, as we see now in the case of Russia, are warfare by other means. (You can track the imposition of sanctions here.)

With regard to sanctions, it’s not the world against Russia. As Zhou Xiaoming has written, few non-Western countries have answered the U.S. call to isolate Russia economically, fearing the impact of disruptions to global production and trade on their own people. And countries that have already felt the effects of US sanctions and have no desire to inflict them on others.

This time, I am not exactly against the use of economic measures. Over the short-term, targeted measures seem reasonable. Between now and the onset of winter, their impact on civilians will need to be measured and their effectiveness evaluated. Space for diplomacy, public health and science, however, should remain open, including the Arctic Council and the International Space Station. 

What happened to our peace movement? NATO expanded, and seems likely to expand still further.

What should we do now?

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

  • Support the refugees – and those Russians who dissent from Putin’s war. Indeed: support ALL refugees, wherever they are. By mid-2021, an unprecedented 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are 26.4 million refugees, around 42 per cent of whom are under the age of 18. 
  • Support humanitarian efforts by Development and Peace/Caritas Canada, the churches and agencies that are part of the global ACT Alliance, and other reputable organizations.
  • Revive conversations on common security and mutual understanding and increase official development assistance to 0.7 per cent of gross national income. These are investments in security and sustainability for all.
  • Whatever happens in Ukraine, keep nuclear weapons out
  • Support debt relief: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has borrowed more than $125 billion from international financial institutions, which pushed the sell-off of public enterprises and rewarded oligarchs and the super-rich with every loan they made. But being under attack doesn’t mean you can catch a break from international lenders. In 2022, unless loans are forgiven or suspended, Kyiv will spend $6.2 billion paying down foreign debt. Nearly half of that will go to the International Monetary Fund. 
The Hill Times, April 27, 2022. See as well a piece by Beth Woroniuk in iPolitics: “The world’s response to the invasion in Ukraine is only the latest example that ‘old school’ approaches to conflict resolution are not working. It is the time to bring anti-racist and decolonial analysis to international relations. It is time to ask questions about whose voices matter. This includes going beyond the warriors and including people who have a vested interest in stopping the guns for good, including women building peace at local, national and international levels.”

Early on in the conflict, it seemed that Pope Francis had potential as a mediator because of his pretty good relationship with Patriarch Kirill. But Kirill, like Putin, seems tied to a view of history – the Kievan Rus, the ancient state that converted to Christianity in 988 – that would subsume Ukraine into Russia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has largely broken with the Moscow Patriarchate.
Can churches that have fomented division in the past now lead the way in showing they can live with diversity?

The horrible thing about making peace is that you have to talk with your enemies. Diplomacy is a tool for doing that.

Deliver us from evil, deliver our leaders from evil and grant us peace in our day.

War and Peace, Sanctions and Social Movements

In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people around the world joined marches for peace and disarmament. Here, people gather at Sunset Beach Park in Vancouver in May 1985 after a march that drew 65,000 people. That good energy did not result in dismantling NATO and other instruments of war in the 1990s, even after the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union were dissolved.

Story and photos by Jim Hodgson

Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine is a massive failure of diplomacy and the oft-abused “rules-based international order.” Yes, President Vladimir Putin has done wrong. Sadly, most western countries failed to support recent diplomatic efforts by France and Germany or the earlier Minsk Accords

Decades earlier, we who were part of the massive peace movement of the 1980s failed to press hard enough for dissolution of NATO and for a fulsome welcome of Russia into the European Union and other multilateral spaces: Russia, in the eyes of the west, remained a foe, even after the end of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, we fell for the “end of history” nonsense promoted by the neo-liberal capitalists: it would be a unipolar world, with the United States defining how the rules would be applied.

That said, we just can’t have countries invading each other. 

I regret that I have not (yet) visited Ukraine, though I have been in many of its neighbours. The closest I came to Ukraine was on an October day in 1977: the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, the Romanian city of Rădăuți, Suceava district, about 20 km from the border of what was then the Soviet Union, now independent Ukraine. Today, the Suceava district is receiving Ukrainian refugees.

The UN Charter affirms self-determination in Chapter 1, Article 1 (2), and sovereignty in Chapter 1, Article 2 (1). Article 2(4) adds: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.” Those principles are at the heart of the rules-based international order.

Unfortunately, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are pretty much immune from measures that could be applied to other states: they use their veto power to protect themselves or their client states in the wake of invasions and other interventions. 

This time, in the case of Russia, the western powers are increasing levels of sanctions, with new announcements rolling out every day. The first round seemed weak, excluding such obvious measures as suspending Russia’s participation in the global SWIFT system for financial transfers or banning the purchase of Russian oil and gas. Five days later, some of those measures have been taken, together with suspending Russian access to airspace over many countries. The measures will bite. But whether their impact is greater on the rich and powerful or on ordinary people – or effectively aid Ukrainians in their struggle – remains to be seen. 

I have done some work in recent years on negative humanitarian impacts of sanctions in so-called “less developed” countries (North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe, among others). I did not look carefully at sanctions applied among the United States, Russia and China against each other, or Canada’s sanctions against Russia and China (though I kept extensive notes). I have significant doubts about both the legality and effectiveness of most economic sanctions – “weaponized finance,” some have called them – whether applied by single states, groups of states, or the even UN Security Council.

The new sanctions against Russia represent a mix of what might be legal or not in public international law. Countries acting alone can restrict with whom they engage in trade and act to control their airspace. The UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council and various UN independent experts regularly denounce the illegality of “unilateral coercive measures” – sanctions – applied by one or more states against another outside the authority of the UN Security Council or other membership group like the African Union. General Assembly votes largely pit the United States, European Union, Canada, Japan and their allies against the majority world, the so-called developing nations. The December 2019 General Assembly vote on such measures was 135 in favour, 55 opposed, with no abstentions and three absent.

But, in this time of war, legal issues will only be dealt with later: for the moment, those with power make the rules. Where does that leave the rest of us?

At times like these, it’s useful to hear voices from outside the dominant North America/Western Europe political and media chatter.

Some people have correctly denounced the racism and hypocrisy reflected in much media coverage of present conflict. White Ukrainians are brave resisters, even shown on TV making Molotov cocktails, while any brown person doing that in southern Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza, Somalia or Afghanistan would be denounced as a terrorist or soon draw a drone attack. 

One of the writers to whom I pay much attention is Raúl Zibechi, an Uruguayan writer on Latin America’s social movements – the Indigenous, peasant and urban movements that represent “los de abajo” – the under-classes, or those who are locked out of the formal economy and political power.

In an article published at the end of January, he cautioned such movements and their allies against choosing sides in “wars among the great powers.” Some people, he wrote, “think that it is better that the winners be those who oppose U.S. imperialism, which leads them to support Russia or China, or occasionally, Iran or any other nation that opposes the western powers.”

Social movements, he added, “should oppose war so as to deepen their own agendas” and “exercise autonomy and self-government, building other worlds that are new and different from the capitalist, patriarchal and colonial world.”

In several parts of Latin America, small farmers and Indigenous communities have had to learn to defend themselves against attacks from state authorities, drug-traffickers and large land-owners. Their self-defence, adds Zibechi, is not the same as “participating in a war that they did not choose.” Communities learn from the experiences of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the Mapuche people in Chile, and the “ronderos campesinos” in Peru. “If we respond with violence (which ethically would be irreproachable), they [those with power] would take the initiative that they most want: the genocide of entire peoples, as has happened in the recent past.”

“The task of the peoples, in this time of wars among capital, is not to take power, but to preserve life and care for Mother Earth, elude genocides and not turn ourselves into the same as them, which would be another form of being defeated,” Zibechi concluded.

Another World is Possible – World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brasil – January 2005

What is to be done? Tolstoy, Lenin, John the Baptist and recent elections

Xiomara Castro, president-elect in Honduras. Right: “Long live the People in Resistance” – post coup graffiti.

Soon after my return to Canada from my first visit to the Dominican Republic in 1983, I saw Peter Weir’s brilliant film, In a Year of Living Dangerously. As a socialist option in Indonesia collapses through local intrigue and U.S. intervention, Linda Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, asks obsessively: “What is to be done?”

In the wake of my encounters with Haitian cane-cutters and Dominican and Haitian activists, it became my question too.

Billy Kwan’s question alludes to Lenin’s 1902 manifesto that called for a new vanguard organization that would be dedicated to taking power. Lenin took his title from two earlier works by Russian authors. In 1863, Nicholas Chernyshevsky issued a manifesto that imagined a new social order. Twenty years later, Leo Tolstoy took the same title to offer a vision of the renewal of individual moral responsibility.

But the question actually comes from the Bible. In Luke 3:10—part of the lectionary readings in many churches this Sunday, Dec. 5, the second Sunday of Advent—the people ask John the Baptist: “What are we to do?” And John answered, “If you have two coats, give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, do the same.” 

Later, in Luke 12:16-21, the question appears in Jesus’ story about the rich fool: “There was a rich man and his land had produced a good harvest. He thought: ‘What shall I do? For I am short of room to store my harvest.’So this is what he planned: ‘I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones to store all this grain, which is my wealth. Then I may say to myself: My friend, you have a lot of good things put by for many years. Rest, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’ But God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be taken from you; tell me who shall get all you have put aside?’ This is the lot of the one who stores up riches instead of amassing for God.”

Life is too short for the poor to wait for wealth to trickle across the greatest breach between rich and poor that this planet has ever known. While some of us in the North think we have the luxury of sitting back to see how things go—except that climate change seems to have finally got our attention—the impoverished must always take risks and try something new.

Since the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 and despite the coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet three years later, the left in power in Latin America has tried to govern according to the rules of liberal democracy, arguably without sufficient regard for the roles of money, foreign interference and private media companies.

Confronted by poverty, after “lost decades” of development, social movements in Latin America began to develop alternative policy approaches in the 1990s. Smart politicians paid attention and in one country after another—imperfectly, with lots of mistakes—the “formal democracies” of old began to be transformed.

That “pink wave” did not last. A military coups in Honduras and Bolivia, parliamentary coups (or “lawfare”) in Paraguay and Brazil, devastating impacts of U.S.-led (backed by Canada) sanctions in Venezuela, the power of money in Ecuador and petty corruption all weakened the drive for lasting change.

Left and centre: Chile’s election pits Gabriel Boric against José Antonio Kast. Right: the party of Nicolás Maduro won most regional elections in Venezuela. (Images from Página 12, Argentina)

A second progressive wave?

In October 2020, voters in Bolivia restored the “Movement for Socialism” (MAS) party to power just a year after the coup. In June, voters in Peru elected a rural teacher, Pedro Castillo, to be their president. In November, Venezuela’s ruling PSUV party won almost all state-governor races. Later in November, voters in Honduras chose Xiomara Castro, whose husband Mel Zelaya had been overthrown in a coup backed by the United States and Canada in 2009, to be their new president. 

The next test comes in Chile on Dec. 19, when a Pinochet-loyalist, José Antonio Kast, faces a centre-left candidate, Gabriel Boric, in a second-round run-off vote.

No country is the same as another, and specific issues pertain to each of the elections noted above. But the big loser in most of these votes is the United States, together with ever more deferential Canada. Latin Americans are again choosing leaders who do not have the interests of the United States at heart.