There were alternatives: Why Russia should not have bombed Ukraine

There were alternatives: Why Russia should not have bombed Ukraine

Jan Oberg

February 25, 2022

”An eye for an eye will one day make the whole world blind.”
M K Gandhi

A day or two before the Russian assault on Ukraine, I wrote that Russia would NOT invade Ukraine. The news on the morning of February 24 admittedly shocked me and made me very sad: With this move and the NATO countries’ tit-for-tat response that will have devastating economic consequences for Europe’s citizens, there will not be peace in Europe in my lifetime.

And I was not the only one who must have been surprised even in Russia. Here are the words by professor Sergey Karaganov, honorary chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy from February 8: ”Russian troops near the border of Ukraine are not going to move into the country. To do so would be simply senseless. Grabbing land already devastated by its anti-national and corrupt ruling class is one of the worst options available to Moscow.”

As a Gandhi-inspired peace and future researcher since the mid-1970s who co-founded The Transnational Foundation for Peace & Future Research, TFF, in 1986 to support the UN Charter’s Article 1 – that peace shall be established by peaceful means – I distance myself entirely from Russia’s bombing campaign in Ukraine.

While I distance myself from this act, I remain of the view that it is essential to ask: Why did Russia do this? Understanding a motive or perception does not mean an automatic endorsement of the activities they lead to. To explain, seek conflict understanding and explore ways to mediate does not mean defending or taking sides – except in the minds of intellectual dwarfs.

If you want to solve conflicts and make peace – but most people these days don’t – you’ve got to ask WHY questions, look at the problems and not just support or condemn conflicting parties. Here is how that can be done.

I distance myself from this special military operation because it:

• violates international law, including the UN Charter and various agreements made concerning Europe since 1990;
• cannot avoid killing innocent people in Ukraine;
• escalates an already dangerous situation that, instead, needed urgent de-escalation;
• will be seen as a gift to NATO, Russophobic, anti-Putin sentiments (which were already overblown), and we can expect massive re-armament in NATO circles;
• may, given the harsh reaction in NATO political and media circles, deliver an argument to those in Sweden and Finland who have argued not only for close cooperation with NATO but also advocate full membership;
• is likely to cause an even Colder War atmosphere for decades ahead all over Europe – something no innocent, ordinary European citizens want;
• is not likely to make the citizens of Ukraine feel better; the Russian-oriented will be stigmatised, the Ukrainian-oriented more negative – some extreme rightwing among them more hateful; finally,
• it comes out of a way of thinking that is strikingly similar to NATO leaders’ – namely the dangerous cocktail of five deplorable peace-preventing ingredients: Tit for Tat + Militarist Thinking + Brinkmanship + Blame game + Demonisation.

What Russia could have done

So, eight serious reasons. Some will now say: Yes, but Russia did not have a choice. That is not true.

There is always a choice, always something else one can do. What could Russia have done? A few examples:

• Sought negotiations directly between the Presidents of Ukraine and Russia – perhaps a series of meetings where issue after issue would have been discussed and found a settlement. Russia and Ukraine are, after all, much closer to each other than each of them to any other European/NATO country.
• President Putin could have upheld and moved forward with his much wiser old proposal to have the UN established in Ukraine. Imagine a very large classical United Nations Peace Keeping and -Making mission with military, civil police and civil affairs legs and a very comprehensive negotiation unit. True, nobody listened to him when he suggested that years ago, but still!
• He could have proposed a Mutual Non-Aggression Treaty between Russia and Ukraine, giving the type of security guarantees Russia demands for itself to Ukraine. This would have signalled common security and thereby undermined Ukrainian NATO hotheads and disarmed NATO’s provocative wooing.
• Perhaps as part of this, Russia could have suggested demilitarised zones along the borders with Ukraine, invited Ukraine to do the same – and seen whether Ukraine would respond favourably and, if not, re-militarised those areas.
• Instead of giving the world the impression that Russia would not invade all of Ukraine, he could have announced that within this or that deadline, he would bomb unless Russia received a declaration from NATO and Ukraine that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was off the table.

In passing, it’s worth noting that Ukraine’s President Zelensky on February 25 says he is willing to discuss neutrality with Russia but needs security guarantees that not one NATO member has been able to offer him.

Steps like those I suggest can b seen as something called GRIT – Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction – which means taking small, non-dangerous steps that are so significant that the other side cannot ignore them but – since they are positive gestures – feel compelled to reciprocate. This old classic idea, developed by Charles Osgood, may lead to mutually safe de-escalation and benefits over time and step by step: Opening time and space for dialogue.

Perhaps these things would not have worked? W do not know. But we can be sure that they would not have done any long-term harm, and they would have contributed to a kind of political disarmament of NATO where this bombing will only, regrettably, embolden NATO.

Two scorpions in a bottle

If countries and people conflict with each other over time, they tend to become more and more alike and use the mentioned Tit-for-Tat. Someone once used the metaphor that such parties are like scorpions in a bottle – neither can get out of the bottle; they are stuck with each other, fight and feed upon each other’s needs and fears.

The overarching similarity is that they blame the other for being the problem (and see themselves as right and innocent) but differ – of course – in who that culprit/criminal is.

That’s why it is so imperative that somebody stops and thinks: If we continue with Tit for Tat + Militarist Thinking + Brinkmanship + Blame game + Demonisation – where shall we all end up? Please note just how fast each party decides and implements its retaliation measures. So quickly, you may say, that nobody has taken time to think.

Both NATO and Russia are now far into Group Think which over time becomes more and more dangerous.

Thus, the words by Gandhi under the headline.

What is helpful and not so helpful in this situation?

Russia and President Putin decided otherwise. It wasn’t wise for the reasons I have just outlined.

Gandhian thinking is about never doing tit-for-tat but doing something else, something that is not a mirror replica of your adversary. Because, if your adversary appears stupid or evil and you imitate everything (s)he does, you’ll end up appearing stupid and evil yourself – and confirm that adversary’s worst perceptions and fears or hubris-like superiority feeling.

Most people call this the Ukraine conflict. That’s wrong. Although Ukraine is a crucial conflict party, we are, in reality, talking about 40-50 parties to a conflict that has lasted at least 30 years. I have written about them here.

Fast, square and one-sided condemnations – you know the reaction that makes some people feel good – like ”I condemn A and stand with B…” (one side out of many) – is not part of my profession, and I do not get any satisfaction from condemning someone.

Taking sides does not help mediation, conflict resolution and peace; what helps is to look at the problem that stands between the parties – their grievances, visions, fears and issues that make them conflict and often create a cycle of escalating violence.

Condemnations of one party in a hellishly complex conflict often stimulate, whether intended or not, the non-condemned to feel more self-assured and self-righteous and feel they (s)he has just been handed a carte blanche to behave even worse.

The wider perspectives fools condemn as “whataboutism” and conspiracy theory

The day before the assault on Ukraine, I also wrote on social media (Facebook and Linkedin) why I thought it was wrong of US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to drop out of a meeting with his counterpart, Sergej Lavrov. I wrote:

Blinken says meeting with Lavrov is off after Russia moves on Ukraine
”After condemnations, harsh sanctions, Nordstream diktat on Germany, F35 to Baltikum etc., this too! Why?

Because for almost 30 years, NATO broke Western promises to Gorbachev, ignored Russia’s wish to be seen as Western and join NATO, ignored Russia’s empathetic reaction at 9/11, helped destroy and split Yugoslavia and illegally bombed Serbia and Kosovo and created a new, second Albanian state in Europe.

Further, because it has helped arm Ukraine for decades, wooed it into believing in NATO and orchestrated/financed the regime change in 2014 in Kyiv that started this conflict process.
And because the US and other NATO members failed to put pressure on Ukraine to accept Minsk and develop some autonomy in Donbas. Had Minsk been implemented, Putin’s move would not have happened. But the right to self-determination that the US usually champion is suddenly gone. Why?

No, there is nothing to reflect on, no soul-searching. Nothing to learn: The US only teaches. And make no mistake: It never makes mistakes.

Therefore, there is no reason whatsoever to meet with devilish Russia and its devilish foreign minister Lavrov.

Well, excuse my bluntness, but the one who says ‘NO’ to TALKING and MEETING – no matter the circumstance – does not aim at peace but more tit-for-tat escalation. Until tactical nuclear weapons are used, Mr Blinken?

What I say is banal. But too sophisticated for most Western politicians, media and researchers. So be it. They have weapons and threats on their brains and are conflict-resolution and peace illiterates.

While I do not think Russia’s move (i.e. recognition of the two republics in Donbas as independent) yesterday was productive, it was logical.

US/NATO policies have been highly irrational and short-sighted for months now.

What do you think?”

As a final consideration, I also distance myself entirely from all those who condemn this Russian step but never condemned all the – equally, if not more – illegal, violent and international law-defying actions by NATO or NATO members be it in Yugoslavia (much worse on all dimensions over 70+ days than what has happened so far in Ukraine), Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria – you name them.

And I distance myself entirely from the intellectually extremely poor uniformity and strength of that massive, uniform condemnation choir – the limitless Russophobia, self-righteousness, the pervasive disregard for conflict analysis and absence of every self-reflection/criticism as well as the mainstream media’s one-narrative based on FOSI – Fake + Omission + Source Ignorance.

All of it promotes more war and I ask: Is the West/NATO really that weak intellectually and morally? I believe it is. Intellectual re-armament is the only armament it – and Russia – need. But that is now too late. Those of us who work for peace are now dissidents.

And thus, we may be drifting towards unparalleled catastrophe.

If you feel arguments in this article are important in this situation, we are grateful if you show it here

28 Responses to "There were alternatives: Why Russia should not have bombed Ukraine"

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  20. anaisanesse   February 27, 2022 at 9:41 pm

    I understand your arguments but really, the continued provocation by the USA∕NATO since the coup in 2014, the support of the USA by the really neoNazi far-right elements which still run Ukraine with little care for the majority and certainly not for the Russian and other groups making up the population, the refusal for 8 years to even attempt to follow the UN-backed Minsk agreement, the constant attacks on the Donbass region with large numbers of deaths and the absolute refusal of NATO to consider the position of Russia hemmed in by hostile enemies (NATO admits it considers Russia its enemy) made the final decision difficult but justified. All your suggestions have been tried. Nobody can doubt the patience of pres. Putin or his caution in involving serious steps, but what was left after the months of goading and threats from the USA/NATO with its history of invasion,occupation, destruction-hardly a good example of peace and harmony.? Sanctions are draconian cruel vicious attacks on populations who are not responsible for the alleged crimes, and are also a war crime. Look at all the sporting and other mean-spirited punishments of Russian and so many other people the USA does not like. The blame is always on Russia for any event, and this was NOT an invasion but an exercise to clean Ukraine of the dangerous elements stopping any sort of real democracy and of course independence, since they are supported by the USA. Once the job is done (and Russia is avoiding civilian deaths FAR BETTER than the USA or NATO ever does)the troops will leave Ukraine to fix its own problems and remain neutral as is in its constitution.

    • JO   March 4, 2022 at 5:46 pm

      Dear friend – I get all yur points and your general perspective. I can, however, not quite agree with the point that the alternatives I suggest have been tried. You will notice also that eminent scholars in Moscow are very surprised, depressed and find the military operation in Ukraine “embarrassing” as in the words of Andrei Kortunov. Also, could you be so kind to explain what is said in Ukraine’s constitution about neutrality – or do I misunderstand you? My best – Jan

  21. N Tobia   February 26, 2022 at 5:37 pm

    I second examining Russian motivations without necessarily agreeing with the actions taken based on these motives.

    We should add that claims of Russia to step in as peacekeepers should alert us to the normativity embedded to the term ‘peacekeeping’. I find it enlightening to read that Putin had previously suggested a UN multidimensional peace intervention in Ukraine. Time and again we see non-UN interventions conducted in the name of peace, but when it is conducted by those outside the hegemonic clique of nations, it is impossible to characterize their peacekeeping as peaceful or genuine. Moreover, it becomes impossible to view the civil conflict on Russian borders as a valid peace and security concern to Russia.

    You are right to disapprove of all these statements of denouncement that oversimplify the complexity of Russian motivations. Every official denouncement must start with a declaration of its normativity, that we are taking a specific view rather than articulating a universal truth. Only then can we justify blanket denouncement – by announcing your narrow point of view where somehow everything Russia has done is categorically wrong.

    In the end, there only one truth in armed conflict, and that is human lives are worth preserving. We cannot extend this truth to brinkmanship, posturing, denouncing, tactical diplomacy, and least of all, promoting NATO. And now, there 198 humans dead as of today. None of those lives were worth the brinkmanship, posturing, denouncing, tactical diplomacy, and least of all, promoting NATO.

  22. gittehector   February 26, 2022 at 5:01 am

    Thank you very much Jan for this analysis, which is very appreciated and indeed needed in the difficult time we are facing right now.
    I have stopped a couple of days ago to even open any main stream media online, because I cannot stand all that warmongering group talk that is only cooking up more and more anger at the person Putin (as if he is the sole culprit) and is generating more and more fear and resignation.
    I am happy to be able to read yours and your foundation’s thoughts to keep the head above the murky waters and not give up.
    Thank you!

  23. Gordana   February 25, 2022 at 8:01 pm

    Hi Jan. With all of my work and researches about the conflicts in a past, and also my present life in Finland and research and observations, I was really sad and shocked to see that Russia decided to attack, but also disappointed (but not surprised) to hear/read the comments all around, that shows a little, or nothing at all, understanding of complexity… Strong triggers, brought memories of Yugoslavia and bloody conflict of Slavic nations and also the fears how far this can go…. I was looking desperately for some voice, text, conversation,etc, that would approach to this situation in a wide/wider/the widest way, way that only devoted , genuine, strong minded and open heart peace makers and researchers can take and stand for… And I though today “Jan! Jan Oberg…i have to see his writing on this…” And I read your text…and many previous others , that I didn’t see, while rushing through the process of setting our new life in Finland.. Thank you Jan so much for your efforts to explain, discuss, consider all “sides”, speak the knowledgeable truth, in spite of everything… I really appreciate it, I felt less lonely in my research and opinion after I read your text. And of course, it is not just on personal level, but also on all possible levels of our humanity and beliefs… I am going to share your text and and I am going to hope that this will not escalate toward to worst case scenario (although it is already enough bad…). Sending you many warm regards and support, from Finland . Take care Jan 🙏

    • JO   February 25, 2022 at 8:35 pm

      Many thanks, dear Gordana. Warm my heart to read you. I fully share the memories of Yugoslavia in these very days – including my being in Belgrade during the bombings. And we are very grateful for anyone who shares our texts. Som day you can tell me what your research work is about – I’d like to know 🙂 The few of us who still think peace is essential and not just a word, must keep in touch! Good luck with your Finnish life !!

  24. Hannu Virtanen   February 25, 2022 at 6:33 pm

    I share Jan’s feelings and agree his as well as JF’s excellent points of view.

  25. F Jahanpour   February 25, 2022 at 3:29 pm

    I completely agree with the sentiments expressed in this excellent article. Many phoney liberals and hawks and, for that matter, peacemakers are partisan in their praise or condemnation, but very few are as sincere and evenhanded as you are in their advocacy of peace or condemnation of violence.

    At the moment, there is a chorus of condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and rightly so – but most of the critics of the latest Russian action were silent when Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, etc. were attacked with greater savagery and loss of life. However, their duplicity does not justify any genuine peace activist to be silent regarding Russia’s aggression. In addition to the excellent reasons that you point out about why the invasion of Ukraine was wrong, I believe that the following points must be stressed:

    1- The invasion of Ukraine was illegal and violated the UN Charter.

    2- It proved that Russia was insincere in its repeated assurances that the amassing of troops on Ukraine’s borders was only for the sake of military exercises and there was no intention of invading Ukraine. Putting it bluntly, they lied and this is why President Macron and Chancellor Scholz are so angry because they were led to believe that their mediation efforts could produce results.

    3- The invasion of Ukraine will only provide a further excuse for NATO hawks to push for greater militarisation and arming Ukraine’s neighbouring states, even with nuclear missiles.

    4- It will greatly impoverish the Russian people, because despite vast oil and gas reserves, Russia is basically much poorer than most Western countries. Its economy is even smaller than that of California or Italy. With the new barrage of economic, banking, financial and commercial sanctions, Western countries can practically cripple or at least massively weaken the Russian economy.

    5- The Russian society is definitely not as free and democratic as most Western countries. The wartime requirements and restrictions will make it even less free and democratic and may even lead to massive unrest in Russia, as well as in Belarus and Ukraine.

    6- Wars are easy to start but difficult to end. The outcome of the current aggression is not entirely under Russia’s control and if it gets out of hand it can result in a devastating nuclear conflict between Russia and the West whose outcome is simply unimaginable.

    For all these reasons, I believe that President Putin’s invasion of a neighbouring Slavic country was wrong, illegal, dangerous, counterproductive and may even prove catastrophic.

    • JO   February 25, 2022 at 3:41 pm

      Dear Farhang – many many thanks. So much appreciated and I like your additional points which enrich mine. And thanks for your kind words about my peace efforts, not the least these days…


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