NEW YORK, Nov. 3 (IPS) – On Nov. 1, a statement of solidarity was published with Russians opposing the war in Ukraine. It was signed by more than 1,000 American men and women who had opposed the US invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
At a time when the war in Ukraine increasingly resembles the trench warfare of World War I and the spiraling escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, leading US peace organizations co-sponsored the statement, which also called for negotiations to end to the catastrophic Ukraine war.
The announcement was first sent to a friend in St. Petersburg, Russia, who must remain unnamed. He is a humble and dedicated scientist who lost his job years ago after revealing independent radiation measurements he took after the Chernobyl meltdown.
The day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this man had signed and published a petition signed by more than a million Russians condemning the Imperial invasion of Ukraine and calling for those who ordered them to be tried as war criminals. In public and discreet ways, he and others continue to oppose the war, despite the risk of serious jail time.
The second person to receive our statement was a Russian psychologist who fled Russia shortly before the war. She uses social media to connect with those left behind and organize others in the Russian diaspora. And before the statement went to the press and through social media, it went to Yurii Sheliazhenko, a courageous Ukrainian professor and pacifist who spoke inconvenient truths about the futility of war and who had previously translated our statement into Russian and Ukrainian.
Despite the risks involved, they all pledged to share the statement, especially among the estimated 500,000 men who have risked fleeing Putin’s increasingly militarized Russia.
What is the value of an expression of solidarity, even as modest as a computer click?
For many around the world, there was immediate identification with the images of the hundreds of thousands of Russian young men who fled to impoverished and remote countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as to Kazakhstan and Germany to avoid war.
They left families and careers behind, possibly never to return. They face the challenges of finding places to sleep and finding work to feed themselves in unfamiliar countries and cultures. And we have learned to our sorrow and outrage across the West that desperate refugees are not always welcome or long tolerated.
But as one Russian woman from exile wrote, she suffers from the weight of people who think that all Russians support Russian aggression. It helps, she wrote, to know that she and other Russians are recognized as different. That makes it easier for her to face the demands of each uncertain day. I would add that it illustrates the potential for peaceful and mutually beneficial relations between our peoples.
Of course, more is needed than solidarity. Our statement also called for a ceasefire and “negotiations leading to a just peace, including respect for Ukrainian sovereignty as a neutral state”. As we did in the early years of our opposition to the nationally self-destructive invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the statement was intended to give weight to growing calls for national policy change.
Biden and Zelensky’s pledges to wage this war to the last Ukrainian in order to weaken Russia (which will remain a nuclear power) and recapture all of historic Ukraine, including Crimea, are beyond futile. The devastation of Ukraine is beginning to resemble Beirut and Grozny at the end of those civil wars.
And Russia’s nuclear doctrine informs us that it can resort to nuclear strikes when the very existence of the state — read Putin’s political career — is in jeopardy. Pushing for diplomacy to stop the killings and prevent the escalation of the war, as well as expressing solidarity, has become imperative.
Our solidarity initiative is rooted in experiences and lessons some of us have learned from the Vietnam War and Margaret Mead’s statement that a small group of people can change the world. The initiative grew out of a collaboration between veterans of the Vietnam-era peace movement, Terry Provance, now of the United Church of Christ, and Doug Hostetter, a Mennonite pastor and UN Associated Representative of Pax Christi International, and me.
During the Vietnam War, I first learned the value of solidarity. After contemplating Canadian exile, I became a conscript who may have been jailed and served as a lead organizer against the war in the intellectual and moral wasteland of what was then the Phoenix Valley.
Talk about isolation and alienation. I was an aspiring intellectual on the East Coast, disoriented and making my way into Barry Goldwater’s Arizona. That was before fax machines, before the Internet, and when Phoenix was dominated by a far-right monopoly John Birch Society newspaper that limited and twisted what people could know, using its pages to instruct its readers where to find our small community of war opponents and how to beat us.
At the time, despite constitutional guarantees, it was possible to be arrested and suffer what has recently come to be known as the Eric Garner stranglehold by police and sentenced to six months in prison for the “crime” of spreading anti-terrorism drugs. war fliers on the public sidewalk – an action ostensibly protected by the constitution.
We and other resistance fighters have experienced the ointment and inspiration of solidarity in many forms, from local religious leaders who showed they cared, from activists from the east who sent bail, and from the distant moral courage of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme whose courageous denunciation of war made its way around the world—even to the Arizona desert.
Since then, I’ve learned the lasting value of even small displays of human solidarity: from Palestinians whose homes were demolished during illegal Israeli collective punishment; of the suffering and courage of Japanese, Marshall Islanders and American survivors of the A-bomb, and of Okinawans who endured and resisted eight decades of Japanese and American military colonialism. In both cases, international support and solidarity have played a vital role in their ongoing struggle for justice.
Is solidarity enough? Of course not! That’s why our call calls for a change in US policy. It is possible to support Ukrainians without insistence and to finance a new war without end. In recent weeks we have been reminded of Gandhi’s truth that “when the people lead, the leaders will follow.” The withdrawal of the letter signed by 30 members of Congress calling on President Biden to make negotiations a priority will long remain a dastardly profile.
Except for a number of members of Congress, including Ro Khanna and Jamaal Bowman who stood their ground, others who support Ukraine as well as diplomacy, were not confident that they had public support and devoured them when threatened by Chairman Pelosi.
Our declaration of solidarity is just one of the ways in which people are beginning to break the silence, pave the way for rational and humane discourse, and provide a way out for bellicose American, Russian, Ukrainian and European leaders.
A Cuban missile crisis redux or a repeat of the First World War redux must be avoided. Negotiations may not immediately end the war, but we should have learned from the diplomacy that prevented the nuclear destruction of Russian missiles in Cuba fifty years ago, which brought us the ceasefire that ended the First World War, and which led to arms control agreements during the last Cold War that war is not the answer.
Pope Francis, UN Secretary-General Guterres and a growing number of people are right: human solidarity and diplomacy!
dr. Joseph Gerson is president of the campaign for peace, disarmament and common security and author of With Hiroshima Eyes and Empire and the Bomb.
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