Pro-Ukraine forces need to develop their own narrative of peace
It is crucial for Ukraine’s allies to counter Russian efforts to claim ownership of the peace narrative by redefining the concept of peace.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and war crimes committed by Russian forces in cities such as Bucha, openly supporting the Kremlin became increasingly difficult. While some European actors who had backed Moscow’s geopolitical goals before the war condemned Russia’s attack to some extent, they did not do so particularly vocally. Subsequently, a new trend has emerged, with anti-West and Ukraine-critical narratives centring around the endless repetition of the word ‘peace.’
Italian far-right leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini planned a “peace mission” to Moscow, while Silvio Berlusconi defended his criticism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by claiming he only wished to “achieve peace.”
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen argued that arms deliveries to Ukraine moved the country away from a “negotiated peace solution,” and one of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s Facebook posts simply stated that “the Hungarian government stands on the side of peace.”
Some actors argue that rooting for any participant in the war is counter-productive. Criticism of arms deliveries to Ukraine is a regular part of pro-Kremlin rhetoric. These forces also claim that Europe does not support peace negotiations on Ukraine due to pressure from the US.
However, there is a significant issue with these claims: the “peace” enforced on Ukraine without western support would be unjust and a signal to hostile states that they can violate the sovereignty of others with impunity.
Without Western backing, Moscow could continue to commit atrocities against Ukrainians they deem unfriendly and forcibly remove Ukrainian children from their homes. Allowing a country to commit genocide on the territory of a sovereign nation does not align with the definition of peace.
A Ukraine led by a pro-Russian puppet regime would make the rest of Europe more insecure, as demonstrated by the situation in Belarus.
Moreover, guerilla warfare in this theoretical “peaceful” Ukraine would not contribute to European stability, as ordinary Ukrainians would continue to fight back. A peace allowing Russia to regroup could lead to another war in a decade, as there is no telling what the Kremlin would do if encouraged by a sham peace in Ukraine.
The recently adopted peace narrative by European populists and some US Republicans is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the Soviet Union was behind the World Peace Council (WPC), which actively encouraged or exploited fears about nuclear war in NATO countries and advocated for Soviet-backed disarmament policies.
Reports indicate that the Soviet Peace Fund financed any undertaking aimed at “strengthening peace,” and there is reason to believe that funds were funnelled to the WPC as well.
During the Vietnam War, the WPC organised the “Stockholm Conference on Vietnam” and supported an inquiry into US war crimes in Vietnam. However, the WPC’s response to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was less outspoken; they never condemned it or Moscow’s intervention in Poland in 1980-1981.
Today’s peace movements hardly differ from the past. For example, the Hungarian Peace Circle (Magyar Békekör, HPC) organised a forum for the Russian ambassador to Budapest to explain the official Russian stance on the war in Ukraine.
The HPC’s Facebook page regularly echoes the Kremlin’s propaganda on Ukraine without highlighting Moscow’s responsibility for the ongoing war. An analysis by the HPC in April 2022 blamed everyone except Moscow for the war. The Peace Pledge Union of the UK is following a slightly different approach: while condemning Russia’s invasion, they reject the push by Western powers for more military equipment for Ukraine, claiming that it “will prolong the conflict and deter peace negotiations.”
This statement sounds eerily similar to the pro-Kremlin rhetoric of European populists who aim to facilitate a Russian victory in the name of peace.
The question now is what to do with “peace” in the middle of a conflict fought for the survival of Ukraine as a sovereign nation. Nobody wants peace more than Ukrainians, who are dying in their thousands and seeing their homes and culture destroyed.
The West must help them achieve true peace that allows Ukraine a chance to rebuild without being threatened by its eastern neighbour.
To achieve this, first, it must be made clear to the European and US population that true peace comes at a price in the short term, but the costs would be much higher in the long term if democracies gave in to the demands of authoritarians.
Second, the West and pro-Ukraine forces must take the initiative from the Kremlin in framing ‘peace.’ Peace after a Ukrainian defeat would not be peace at all; it would only introduce more insecurity in Europe.
Third, the historical and recent examples listed above must be used to show that peace movements are not always what they seem, especially if their idea of peace only matches the geopolitical goals of one side.
History shows that peace movements were regularly used to relativise Soviet or Russian activities and defer all blame for conflicts to the West.
Without focusing on these priorities in parallel with efforts to mitigate the economic effects of the Russian invasion, the populations of EU and NATO member states might become vulnerable to the promise of malign peace narratives, which are merely advocating for Russian interests.
*the commentary was originally published on Euractiv
Research Fellow, Centre for Democracy & Resilience