The Fool on the Hill: On Violence with reference to the invasion of Ukraine

Monday, 21 March 2021

On Violence, with reference to the invasion of Ukraine

Jan Palach burning himself to death in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia the photograph shows the Czech activist Jan Palach burning himself to death in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion. Note that I am not certain whether this is an image of Palach himself, or of an actor playing him in a film of the event made in 2018.


On 20th August 1968, when some members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia, I was in a bed in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh recovering from osteomyelitis, so there was nothing I could do but watch the television. The heroism of the young Czechs who, without weapons, confronted the tanks day after day and remonstrated with their crews greatly impressed me. It was a powerful expression of non-violence, and of a national commitment to non-violence.

There was very little actual violence. There were very, very few deaths. Few buildings were destroyed, few people bereaved. A great success, no?


That brave resistance did not last very long; by the beginning of September it had entirely fizzled out. The Soviet Union was able to impose a puppet government, which rolled back Czechoslovakia's (relatively modest, but popular) reforms to Soviet style Marxism-Leninism, and Czechoslovakia remained under the thrall of the dictatorship of the vanguard party for a further twenty-one years.

I am not a believer in liberal representative democracy, and I'm certainly no defender of capitalism. My own views are set out in Manifesto for a good society. But Soviet style Marxism-Leninism, as a system of government, was never the popular choice of the people of Czechoslovakia. When they did have the choice, following the Velvet Revolution, they chose liberal representative democracy, and, probably by default, capitalism. But the ideals of the Velvet Revolution are worth a read.

I won't say that it was the Prague Spring and its suppression that made me a pacifist. I was brought up a Quaker, it was probably always likely that I would be a pacifist. But certainly by the time I was sixteen I was organising and leading a picket distributing pacifist leaflets to the audience of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I then went on to study Peace Studies at university.


By the time the Yugoslav People's Army started shelling Sarajevo in 1992, I was clerk and elder of a Quaker meeting, and served on London Yearly Meeting's Peace and Service Committee. I was, thus, at the time, within British Quakerism, someone recognised as having a particular commitment to pacifism, and to the Quaker tradition of pacifism.

Two things happened for me in the immediate aftermath of the start of the siege. A friend within West of Scotland Monthly Meeting, Charlie Buckner, who was then as old as I am now and had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War, was extremely concerned that we - Quakers in Britain, but, more specifically, Quakers in the West of Scotland - should not sit idly by. He wanted to organise a (of course non-violent) Quaker mission to Sarajevo, to take medical and relief supplies into the city. He came to me as the Scottish representative on the Peace and Service Committee for support, which of course I was willing to give.

Together we took his concern both to West of Scotland Monthly Meeting and to the Peace and Service Committee, and could get no support at all. Nobody else within Britain's historic 'Peace Church' wanted to touch it.

But there's worse.

There was at the time exactly one British Quaker active doing relief work in former Yugoslavia, and to my shame I've forgotten her name. She was the person who first alerted the British press to the phenomenon of rape camps. The press went to Friends House – the Quaker headquarters in London – to the secretariat of the Peace and Service committee, to a person I liked and trusted and considered a personal friend, for a background briefing on this woman, and they were told, non-attributably, that she was flaky, a fantasist, and not to be trusted.

In the aftermath of that (but also due to other things which were happening in my personal life) I had a major nervous breakdown and ceased to be a Quaker. They were hypocrites, I thought. They talked the talk, but would not walk the walk.

But I too was made a hypocrite by that war. Later in the siege – it lasted four years – a charity was set up locally to where I live to carry precisely those relief and medical supplies that Charlie had talked of to Sarajevo. That charity made several trips, and, in total, delivered several hundred tons of relief supplies. I could have volunteered. It would have been easy.

I didn't.

Why not? I honestly can't, now, say. Partly it was that it was led by a former army officer who was a leading Conservative locally, but that is just prejudice. I very much regret – I am very ashamed – that I did not volunteer.


And so we get to Ukraine, and where we are now. Russia has invaded Ukraine without provocation. There are excuses, but they're all pretty specious. Russia doesn't want Ukraine to join NATO, or the EU. One can understand that: a world divided into two large, powerful, opposing camps is an unstable world, a world at very considerable risk. Having a neutral buffer between the camps isn't, in itself, a bad idea (but a better idea would be to unwind the confrontation and build more links between the camps, at all levels).

But that's beside the point. It isn't for the people of Russia to determine what the people of Ukraine choose. If we allow bullies to get away with bullying, they'll go on bullying. Ukraine isn't the only state on Russia's borders which Russia has greedy eyes on. Already this year Putin has spoken of giving Belarus access to the Baltic, and that would require that either Poland or more likely Lithuania cede territory – because they're in the way. Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave beyond Lithuania and an important ice-free port, is clearly a strategic flash-point. And after Kaliningrad, there's Finland, a territory which has a border with Russia longer and less easily defended than Ukraine's. The Finns, like the peoples of the Baltic states, are quite reasonably feeling nervous.

By allowing Russia to seize Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014, we didn't prevent this way. On the contrary, we enabled it. It's from bases in Crimea and the Donbas that the present murderous siege of Mariupol has been launched. If we allow Russia to succeed in this war, it won't prevent the drive for a land-bridge to Kaliningrad.

This war is a major challenge to anyone who, like me, believes that political violence and coercion are always wrong.

Bringing it all back home

There's a pattern here, in these examples and in others over the past fifty years of which the invasion of Ukraine is only the latest example. One key aspect of this pattern are these are all entirely one-sided wars, wars of aggression in the most blatant and simple terms. The aggressor was larger, more powerful, better armed, and had an expectation that its dominance ought to be respected.

It is a pattern which must inform our thinking about the future of Scotland as an independent nation, because Scotland, too, like Czechoslovakia, like Bosnia, like Chechenya, like Georgia, like Ukraine, will be a smaller, weaker nation alongside a stronger neighbour with an imperial tradition and a sense of entitlement and injured pride. If we are to allow England to continue to dictate our government, our foreign and energy policy, our ability to welcome refugees, what is the point of independence at all? If, on the other hand, we are to resist such impositions, how can we do so?

Ghandian non-violence works, to a degree, against some sorts of opponents. A population which is prepared, at cost to themselves and at risk of personal violence, to passively resist, by general strikes, by blocking transport infrastructure, by refusing taxes, can make a country effectively ungovernable; but within limits. Where the opponent is prepared to use unlimited repression and brutality – as the Serb forces under Milošević certainly were in Bosnia and the Russians under Putin certainly were in Chechnya – non-violence by the defenders will not prevent extraordinary violence by the attackers; and, in the face of unlimited repression, non violent resistance will quickly break down.

So how do we address this? The first question, for Scotland, is do we think England is at risk of becoming a country capable of using unlimited repression and brutality? Britain was in Kenya, for certain, in my lifetime – I have known people who did military service there. So while I don't honestly believe it now is, I'm also aware that I may be naive.

I would greatly prefer to live in a country whose preparation against the risk of invasion was based on population-wide training in passive resistance than one whose preparation was in an armed territorial militia, and far rather either of those than a militarised country with weapons of mass destruction and an ambition to project force across the world. But we have to remember that the United Kingdom is, and England is likely to remain, a militarised country with weapons of mass destruction and an ambition to project force across the world, and such a nation makes an uneasy bedfellow.

But Scotland is more than a landmass. Scotland's seas contain resources which are important to Scotland as a nation, and while it's easy to see how you can mount a non-violent territorial defence against a reasonably civilised opponent, it isn't easy – despite Iceland's Landhelgisstríðin example – to see how we mount a non-violent defence of hundred or thousands of unmanned offshore installation. So would a non-violent defence policy mean that Scotland must necessarily abandon all its offshore resources? It looks like that to me.

Saying 'but we would join the EU' is not an answer to this. The present war in Ukraine is being fought precisely because its larger neighbour wanted to decide which multi-national groups Ukraine could join.

England has one of its main tank training ranges at Otterburn in northern Northumberland, ten miles from the border. It would be perfectly legitimate for England to mass its tank regiments there for exercises, just as it was perfectly legitimate for Russia to hold joint exercises with Belarus along the Ukraine border. But how are we going to feel if, as soon as we open negotiations to rejoin the EU, England announces a big tank exercise? It surely won't be comfortable.

Addressing Ukraine non-violently

As a postscript to this essay, I do believe it is – still, at this late stage – possible to address the crisis in Ukraine non-violently.

As I've argued above, I think any outcome from this war which Putin can present to his people as a victory will strengthen his regime and is thus likely to lead to further military adventurism later. If we don't want repeated small wars in Europe, he needs to lose this one decisively. But I don't think it's impossible to inflict defeat on him without further violence. Not many people agree with me on this, so I'll admit I may be wrong; but I still think that this ought to be tried.

It is now clear that morale in the Russian ranks is catastrophically low. I sincerely believe that it would be possible to win this war not by bombing and killing Russian soldiers, but by bribing them. By offering them safety, a home, and more money than they're getting now, if they lay down their weapons and surrender, or desert.

Russian soldiers are said to be paid about five hundred US dollars a month at pre-war exchange rates, and that's falling rapidly as the Rouble loses value. So a year's pay is about at most four and a half thousand pounds Sterling.

Suppose the European Union and allies were to offer Russian deserters from units deployed in Ukraine one year's pay, plus asylum with a pathway to citizenship. There are thirty three 'western' countries in Europe, counting EU and EEA, Switzerland and the UK. There are fewer than two hundred thousand Russian troops deployed to Ukraine. If the whole Russian force deserted en masse, each European country would have to resettle, on average, only six thousand. That's fewer than 10% of the number of Ukrainian refugees European countries are currently hosting, and with the war over, the overwhelming majority of those refugees would return home.

The total cost would be less than one billion pounds Sterling. So each country would have, on average, to find only 30 million pounds Sterling. This is a small fraction of to what supplying weapons to fight the war will cost Europe, and very small fraction of the cost of fighting successive small European wars.

This is not to say it would be without problems. There are widespread and believable stories of rapes and other abuses committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Even those soldiers who are not personally responsible for war crimes may well be extremely brutalised people. They would not be easy people to settle, any more than soldiers after any war are. War is not good for anybody, including those who fight them. Very hard questions would have to be asked about amnesty for war crimes.

But this plan is affordable and could work. It could end the war quickly, without further loss of life, injuries, maimings, atrocities.

Surely it's worth trying.

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