By Stuart Rees
The gas fire burners have been turned full on, no-one turns them down, the heat increases, surrounding material is inflammable, the house burns down.
In fits of anger over Ukrainian destruction of a bridge, Russian leader Putin directs missile attacks on several cities, killing hundreds of Ukrainians, destroying homes and energy supplies. Putin promises more of the same. Western allies promise unceasing support for Ukraine. NATO Secretary General wants weapons supply and production to increase. No-one is turning down the heat.
In the run up to Russia’s invasion, and in accusatory, blame game rhetoric from all sides, there’s little concern for dialogue, for ceasefire or for imagining what peace with justice would look like. Reliance on violence makes reference to dialogue, ceasefire and peace sound weak. Military might must appear strong, though nightly television pictures of misery come with the warning that viewers may not like what they see, and threats to use nuclear weapons might end this, and us.
Comment on the value of dialogue should acknowledge the carnage of this 2022 war, the terrifying human costs and consequences. Without such admission, those who might imagine peace will be accused of being appeasers, naïve and weak.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates almost 16,000 Ukrainian casualties, over 6,000 killed and over 9,000 injured. The Pentagon estimates between 70 and 80,000 Russians killed, or wounded, the number of deaths put at over 20,000.
The UN Refugee Agency identities 8 million internally displaced Ukrainians, and 7 million refugees. War is said to have caused $108 billion in damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure. An estimated 3.5 million people are homeless.
In pursuit of victory, or faced with defeat, the in between of human lives lost and futures ruined merits little attention. Faced with the prospect of a bitter winter, there’s a cruel irony in policy thinking which turns up the heat of war and dare not turn it down.
Even the numerous commentators on the causes of war have seemed disinterested in ways to reduce human misery and the destruction of a country. Instead, we are served repetition of articles devoted to pundits’ warnings that NATO expansion east would provoke Russia and justify President Putin’s statements that such expansion threatened his country’s sovereignty.
Those arguments read as regrets over spilt milk. The wisdom of hindsight. History rehashed. The past regrettable. Fingers pointed. The US guilty. Tomorrow more repetition. Dialogue elbowed aside. Maintain some sort of rage. Turn up the heat.
In common with its western allies, the Australian government faces the question, how to respond to Russian onslaught? It answers with promise of more military vehicles and the prospect of training Ukrainian troops.
In that answer, there’s no space even for speculation about ways to resolve conflicts. But to cease devastation, life enhancing language could be heard, and does not mean retreating from partnership with western allies. On the contrary it leaves open the possibility of influencing colleagues by thinking imaginatively about ending a war. How?
Pondering the meaning of dialogue is instructive. If dialogue is feasible, knowing and referring to the personal backgrounds of possible mediators, be they Turkish, Saudi, Ukrainian, Russian, is usually imperative. In mediators’ personal experiences, what does loss of life mean?
Dialogue is informed by a Socrates’ dictum that imagination and fascination with ideas enhances people’s empathy and compassion. Imagining peace means the missiles stop firing. Peace with justice would depend on crafting ways of living after the violence has ended. There’s nothing destructive in Socrates-like dialogue which respects life.
In the Russia Ukraine polarisation, a final tip about dialogue may seem unrealistic, but contributes to resolution: however difficult the steps towards peace, the negatives of seeking advantage over others should be avoided.
The theatre of war is dominated by tit for tat threats. Putin and his bellicose partner from Belarus won’t hesitate to annihilate any identified enemy. The G7 leaders insist that any use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons would be met with severe consequences.
At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, President John Kennedy said that presentation of choice as either humiliating defeat or nuclear war, was a bankrupt policy. It represented a collective death wish for the world.
Over Ukraine, there persists a similar choice: continued slaughter and violence with a view to one country surviving and allegedly winning, another having to swallow humiliation and defeat. To avoid that choice, change the language, speak of dialogue and rehearse for it. At the very least, turn down the heat.
Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.
Feature image: Thousands of residents of Irpin, Ukraine, have to abandon their homes and evacuate as Russian troops are bombing the city, March 2022. Photo credit: Drop of Light/Shutterstock.com
It would be wonderful to turn down the heat, but how? For some time in the early stages of the war, Zelensky made repeated efforts to negotiate with Putin in good faith. I hate to be black as the ace of spades, but negotiation is nothing but a propaganda exercise to Putin. I saw one golden opportunity, to make the suggestion of a UN monitored referendum in the Donbas, with unfettered access by global media, as a positive option instead of only rejecting Putin's referenda as a scam. I thought someone in the US administration or NATO might have thought of this too, but evidently they either didn't, or decided against offering this olive branch; or there was some suggestion but i just missed it in the media. In any case, surely Putin would have refused, but at least it would have strengthened the moral high ground of the West.
Sadly, i find it very hard to see any solution. The best i could hope for would be a miracle of Putin being deposed from within the Kremlin, by a unified coalition of moderates rather than even worse hardliners. Is there any chance of this? I'm not sure how much is known about dissatisfaction and dissent in the Kremlin. The saddest thing about this whole war is that it was completely unnecessary, and the obvious solution is for Russia to just go home. Then after that maybe Putin's perceived or founded grievances against the West could be listened to and some sort of civil discussion conducted. If that were possible.
But i do think it would be wise for the West to offer some sort of olive branches. Not to sell out Ukraine's sovereignty, but surely there must be some approach the West could take. In my ideal world countries that didn't have free and fair elections would be kicked off the UN Security Council. But sadly that would just bring right out into the open exactly what we don't want - no united nations at all, just two entrenched archaic cold war power blocks. It is all completely and utterly pointless. We're nearly cooked from climate change, we need war like a hole in the head, we need to be working together as one world immediately. But if i'm a cynic about the West, i'm even moreso with Putin. How do you turn down the heat with an insane psychopath, without getting screwed?