John Gittings

Ukraine: Peace wanted, not a long war
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We should work for this destructive war to end as soon as possible, not talk as though a long war is inevitable.

Of course we all want the war in Ukraine, with its appalling destruction and human cost, to end as soon as possible. Or do we? A disturbing and dangerous verbal escalation in recent days suggests a rather different perspective. There is now constant talk of being in the war "for the long haul" (UK Foreign Secretary) and of seeking to "weaken Russia" (US Defence Secretary), while "defence" strategists tell the BBC that this shift in mood reflects a new judgement that Russia is "losing the war". Meanwhile Boris Johnson says airily that the war is likely to continue "to the end of next year" (a prediction that no responsible forecaster could make).
Our deep concern over this trend should not be misused to exculpate the Russian invasion in any way. It has been judged to be an act of aggression, in violation of the UN Charter, by 141 members, or 73 percent of the total membership. Abstention means that the 35 who did abstain neither assented nor opposed the resolution passed on 2 March. And just five members voted against, or 2.6 percent of the membership. For all who accept the authority of the UN (and that includes, in their public statements, both Russia and China) this is an overwhelming verdict. It means that every action by every Russian tank, artillery gun, plane or individual soldier is part of an aggressive war. While we rightly deplore the consequent violations of international humanitarian law, to the point of war crimes, we should never lose sight of this fundamental starting-point.
We can understand that the Ukrainian government and a large portion of its people wish to fight on, encouraged by Russia’s military failures so far to believe that they can carry on until victory. At least, it makes sense from the perspective of maintaining morale for President Zelensky to say so, although not so long ago he was talking about a negotiated settlement in which some concessions would be discussed.
But Ukraine's allies are obliged to take a cool view of the situation and offer, at least privately, the best possible advice to Zelensky. For reasons of prudence if none other, they should avoid bombastic statements that will serve to provide justification for the Russian narrative that this is a proxy war by NATO threatening Russian territory.
Beating the war drums from a safe distance is particularly disturbing, because it distracts attention from any further effort within the UN to bring about a ceasefire. In the last week of April it has masked a failure to support properly the mission of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Moscow and Kiev. While he is unlikely to have achieved any tangible result, it is a start, and an overdue one. It comes after Guterres received a letter from some two hundred former senior UN officials, urging him to make more effort.
"We therefore implore you to intensify your personal efforts for the cessation of hostilities and conflict resolution through peaceful means. This is the raison d'etre of the United Nations, which is being tested again in this case. We are horrified at the alternative, the UN becoming increasingly irrelevant."
Under Article 24 of the Charter, Britain as a member of the Security Council shares the Council's "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security". As a permanent member Britain has an even higher responsibility, and Liz Truss in her role as UK Foreign Secretary should be voicing and emphasizing Britain's commitment to this primary task..
The UN has generally had a low profile in Britain, unlike the League of Nations which attracted mass support between the wars. The United Nations Association (UNA-UK) has not been in the habit of taking strong positions, appearing at times anxious to avoid giving offence. Fortunately, it now has a new Chief Executive Officer, Marissa Conway, who has a notable activist background, and it has just reduced its annual membership fee to a token 10. To raise its voice as it should be doing requires wider backing, and I urge anyone reading this who is not yet a member to sign up, and help press the government to work for peace through the UN.

Oxford CND Newsletter, May-June 2022