Believe me I am aware of how strange it may seem that I, an old-fashioned peace activist who spent years working with Quaker pacifists, stand 100% with Ukraine as it wages a war of self-defense.
My approach to this situation arises from discussions I’ve had with other activists about the nature of pacifist beliefs, and what it means to engage in nonviolent resistance. The discussions back then mostly focused on objections from those of us who were committed to a feminist vision of the future, a vision that definitely included the right of women to defend ourselves from predation.
But I had many Quaker friends who were so committed to pacifism that they would refuse to resist violence against themselves or others if it meant engaging in violent acts themselves, no matter the circumstances in which the violence occurred. They believed deeply in the radical power of love alone, of forgiveness even for those doing them harm, and pledged themselves to remain peaceful to the best of their ability, no matter what violence they encountered.
Many feminists saw that variety of pacifism as complicity in oppression. We believed that, in a world where violence against women was foundational to the culture itself, the right to protect ourselves from violence is as necessary as our commitment to nonviolent actions. The struggle against violence against women was the first resistance movement I ever took part in, and for me the right of self-defense in whatever form must always be part of the strategic equation.
There are clearly moments when allowing yourself to be harmed will inevitably be a component of nonviolent resistance, for example when those in Selma made the conscious choice to continue walking across that bridge. Refusing to respond to violence with violence is a powerful statement and a powerful tool. But it’s a tool that must be chosen freely, and not one that is necessarily useful in every violent situation. War is one of those violent situations where even a person who believes in nonviolent action might find it necessary to violently resist.
Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to use weapons or violence if I needed them to defend myself from a rapist. And I see Putin and his mercenaries as exactly that, invaders and murderers and yes, literally, rapists. This isn’t the first time they have invaded Ukraine and if we can’t force them to stop I believe they will return to war and murder again and again.
These issues of theory won’t be settled here. But I don’t see any nonviolent way forward that will stop Putin’s bombs and other depredations. I say this in sorrow, but I think it’s clear Putin does not want peace, he wants the subjugation of the Ukrainian people and the utter destruction of their culture. I know there are those (some among my own friends) who believe in negotiating for peace even if it means giving in to some of Putin’s unlawful demands. They want this war to end and for peace to return. But I don’t believe that there will be any sort of lasting peace if we take that path. Putin will not be satiated; he will not be deterred.
And so we have come to a point where in order to continue to repel Russian aggression, the United States and our western allies have agreed to provide tanks to aid the Ukrainian defense. This move may be followed by the provision of fighter jets as well. These are weapons that Ukraine desperately needs to have any hope of pushing the Russian military out of their country. It’s possible that even these supplies will not be enough.
But it’s far too soon to give up now. The Ukrainian people have no intention of surrendering their country to the invaders. Supporting them as they attempt to survive Putin’s brutal assault is a true moral action, and not only for the defense of Ukraine. There is no reason to believe that Putin would be satisfied to stop there even if he wins. Other parts of eastern Europe might well be at risk, and frankly the Eurasian arena as a whole doesn’t seem all that stable. Allowing a warmonger to continue his assaults could embolden other dictators as well.
I also understand the visceral response to using German arms and then encouraging that country to further expand its military forces. (I have similar feelings about re-arming Japan too, even though I can see the logic of a US/SK/Japanese triad for security in the Pacific region). I was born and grew up in a time when WWII was still a close memory and a powerful cultural force. I know the aggressive threat those two countries presented to the entire world in those days.
However we are where we are now. Times have changed, and we must change with them. Germany and Japan are allies now, and for now I see no reason not to trust them.
I know too that Putin holds many nuclear weapons and threatens to use them. With my friends around the US and overseas I fought against the deployment of nuclear weapons by Reagan against Gorbachev back in the ’80s. I know how dangerous they are for the world. But humanity as a whole has allowed these weapons to exist, with the hope that the assurance of mutual destruction could keep them from being used. That they are a part of this situation is a fact we must face; that deterrence perhaps was not as stable as we hoped also seems to be true.
What I see at the moment is that no one can prevent a nuclear attack, not in a world full of nukes with authoritarian madmen running too many countries. Trying to coddle the murderers will not keep us safe and I am unwilling to let that fear keep me from fighting back. I have no doubt Putin will continue to use that threat again and again if he isn’t deterred in other ways.
So I support Biden’s approach to ensuring Ukraine has the military power to keep fighting, and I hope that before long the invaders will be pushed off every inch of Ukrainian ground. Because that is the only way Putin is going to be stopped, and we can’t quit until he is.