Antiwar voices call for diplomacy in Ukraine, not just "weapons, weapons, weapons"

Global outrage is understandable, say peace advocates. But pouring more arms into Ukraine won't end the killing

Published April 8, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

A Ukrainian serviceman walks towards the front line in the city of Irpin, northern Ukraine, on March 12, 2022. - Russian forces are positioned around Kiev on March 12, 2022 and are "blocking" Mariupol, where thousands of people are suffering a devastating siege, in southern Ukraine, a country that has been bombed for more than two weeks. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A Ukrainian serviceman walks towards the front line in the city of Irpin, northern Ukraine, on March 12, 2022. - Russian forces are positioned around Kiev on March 12, 2022 and are "blocking" Mariupol, where thousands of people are suffering a devastating siege, in southern Ukraine, a country that has been bombed for more than two weeks. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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With atrocities continuing to mount as Russia's invasion of Ukraine drags on for the sixth consecutive week with no end in sight, Kyiv's top diplomat told reporters Thursday that he had just three items on his agenda as he arrived in Brussels to meet with NATO allies: "Weapons, weapons and weapons."

"The more weapons we get, and the sooner they arrive in Ukraine, the more human lives will be saved," said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. "This is my message to the allies. It's very simple."

But Kuleba proceeded to acknowledge a tension that foreign policy analysts and peace advocates have been grappling with since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine at the end of February, an assault that has since killed thousands of civilians and sparked a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

"As weird as it may sound," Kuleba said, "today weapons serve the purpose of peace."

In addition to the unprecedented economic measures they've collectively taken against Russia, the U.S. and other Western nations have been pouring billions of dollars worth of high-tech weaponry — from Javelin antitank missiles to armed "kamikaze" drones — into Ukraine for weeks as the country resists its neighbor's brutal war of aggression.

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Just Wednesday night, the Biden administration announced it has authorized another $100 million in arms and other equipment for Ukraine, bringing the total to $1.7 billion in military assistance since Russia launched its invasion.

Proponents of the massive and sustained flow of western weapons into Ukraine see the shipments as a major factor behind the country's success thus far in beating back Russia's attempts to overtake major cities. During a Wednesday briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed U.S. arms were crucial "in the defense of Kyiv and other areas, and we want to ensure we continue to get them in the Ukrainians' hands."

But antiwar voices have openly questioned the notion — expressed by Kuleba and others — that continuing to rush deadly weapons into a war zone will ultimately increase the likelihood of a diplomatic resolution, which Russia and Ukraine are both pursuing even as they accuse each other of heinous crimes and provocations. Observers have also charged the U.S. with not doing nearly enough to advance the ongoing peace talks.

In an email to Common Dreams on Thursday, Medea Benjamin of CodePink was sharply critical of Kuleba's "weapons, weapons and weapons" line, calling the diplomat's comment "sickening."

"More weapons equal more deaths. More weapons equal more war. Period."

"Ukraine's foreign minister's agenda should not be weapons, weapons, weapons, but negotiations, negotiations, negotiations and ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire," Benjamin wrote. "Maybe he should talk to the war-weary people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. More weapons equal more deaths. More weapons equal more war. Period."

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Common Dreams on Thursday that it makes complete sense for Kuleba and other top officials in Ukraine — "a nation at war" — to be calling for weapons at this time.

"They're trying to keep their people mobilized, they're trying to keep the pressure on the international community to support them — this makes perfect sense that they're asking for weapons," said Bennis. "And it makes perfect sense for those of us who have seen too many U.S. and other wars escalate terribly in those situations to say, 'We understand it, but we have to say no, because escalation is only going to kill more people and extend it longer.'"

Other outspoken antiwar progressives, such as former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, have declined to criticize weapons shipments to Ukraine, arguing that they are a justifiable response to Russian aggression.

In an interview with the online magazine UnHerd on Wednesday, Varoufakis — a co-founder of Progressive International — contended that "we have a moral duty to support [Ukraine] militarily."

"Not me and you personally," he added, "but I'm not going to criticize the West for sending weapons to the Ukrainian resistors."

But Varoufakis also denounced "liberal imperialists" and corporate war profiteers who have an interest in "maintaining the conflicts" and argued that the West has "a moral duty to give" Russian President Vladimir Putin a "way out" through diplomatic negotiations, specifically by supporting Ukrainian neutrality from NATO — a long-standing Moscow demand.

"If he can be seen to have won a victory — something that he can present to his own people as a victory ('I have ended NATO eastward expansion. I went to war to stop NATO expanding and I succeeded.'), I think that we have a moral duty to give him this way out," Varoufakis said. "Now, I can't guarantee that he will take it. But the West can offer him this way out, to stop the killings."

Like Varoufakis, The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill argued in a column last month that "it is understandable and reasonable that people across the U.S. and Europe are demanding their governments send more weapons to support Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion."

But Scahill went on to warn that the huge weapons transfers from the U.S. and other NATO countries to Ukraine could have the effect of extending and intensifying the already-devastating conflict.

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"Without the Western-supplied weapons Ukraine already possessed, it is very likely Russia would be in control of much larger swaths of the country," Scahill wrote. "It is also vital that people advocating such a policy consider whether a sizable increase in U.S. and NATO weapons transfers will prolong the conflict and result in even more civilian death and destruction."

Scahill noted that if "the aim is to end the horrors as swiftly as possible, then we require a serious analysis of the impact such large-scale weapons shipments will have on the fate of Ukrainian civilians and the prospects for an end to the invasion."

He continued:

It may be the case that the flow of Western weapons to the Ukrainian forces will so bleed Russia that it pulls out of Ukraine, fatally damaging Putin's grip on power and saving many lives. In that case, these shipments will be seen as a decisive factor in Ukraine's defeat of Russia. But if it doesn't, and the flow of weapons delays a negotiated settlement between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, then it is hard to see the massive scope of the weapons transfers as a clear positive...

In the face of heinous atrocities against civilians and a heartbreaking refugee crisis, it is understandable that good people would demand extreme action in the name of bringing it all to a halt. The tragic reality is that escalation by the U.S. and NATO will not achieve that, certainly not without grave costs, and could lead to an even worse catastrophe for Ukrainian civilians, if not a wider global conflict. In that case, the only beneficiaries will be those who are now winning the war in Ukraine: the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers.

Days after Scahill's column was published, Rajan Menon of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University argued in the Guardian that "amid the moral outrage and depth of animosity toward Putin, the risks of pouring arms into Ukraine should be considered carefully and dispassionately."

"Providing more arms to Ukraine may well produce the results its proponents anticipate. It could, on the other hand ... set the stage for a NATO-Russia nuclear confrontation." 

"Providing Ukraine even more arms may well produce the results its proponents anticipate. It could, on the other hand, impel Russian commanders to subject Ukrainians to even greater pain," Menon cautioned. "Furthermore, Russia may not stand by, allowing the west to fortify Ukraine's army. Putin might order his generals to bomb the supply routes from Poland and Romania, the NATO countries that have the longest borders with Ukraine."

Moscow has already threatened such a move, declaring last month that it views arms convoys flowing into Ukraine as "legitimate targets," heightening fears of a direct conflict between Russia and NATO.

"If the tit-for-tat spills over into Poland or Romania, whether intentionally or not, the stage could be set for a NATO-Russia confrontation, with nuclear weapons lurking in the background," Menon wrote. "Some experts are confident that arming Ukraine won't widen the war, but if they're wrong the consequences could prove catastrophic."

"And what if Ukraine starts losing? Will NATO cut its losses, thereby emboldening Putin? Or will it up the ante, risking a clash with Russia?" asked Menon. "None of these scenarios may materialize. Putin may prove prudent and risk-averse. Then again, this war has shredded many assumptions that prevailed before it began."

Despite some tenuous signs of progress in recent days, peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations have yet to produce a lasting ceasefire or a deal securing the withdrawal of Russian troops.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected the latest draft agreement from Kyiv as an "unacceptable" departure from previous talks but said "the Russian delegation will continue the negotiation process."

Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, slammed Lavrov's portrayal of Ukraine's proposal as "pure propaganda."

With the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine getting worse by the day, George Beebe and Anatol Lieven wrote for Responsible Statecraft on Thursday that "Western sanctions and military aid that are coupled to a pragmatic negotiating strategy stand a better chance of ending the bloodshed and reducing the chances of more atrocities against Ukrainians."

"Ukraine itself is proposing terms that, if backed by a combination of U.S. and European sticks and carrots, stand some prospect of success," the pair argued, outlining those terms:

  • A Ukrainian treaty of neutrality, with guarantees from the members of the UN Security Council plus Turkey, Israel, Canada, Germany and Poland that they would defend Ukraine from future attack;
  • Ukraine remains free to join the European Union;
  • Russian troops withdraw completely from all the territories that they have occupied since invading Ukraine;
  • Ukraine and Russia hold bilateral negotiations on the status of Crimea and Sevastopol within the next 15 years, promising to take no military action to resolve the issue;
  • The status of certain districts of Lugansk and Donetsk provinces (i.e., the ones forming part of the separatist Donbas republics before the war) to be discussed separately with Russia.

"These Ukrainian proposals are wise and sensible," Beebe and Lieven wrote. "It would certainly be both politically and morally grotesque for Washington to block a peace agreement that the Ukrainian government itself has advocated."

Such terms, they added, are "also fairly close to an agreement that President Putin and the Russian government could present (however fraudulently) as a Russian success — something that is essential if they are to be brought to end the war."

Speaking to Common Dreams on Thursday, Bennis similarly argued that progressing toward a diplomatic resolution "means demanding that the U.S. make clear that whatever negotiations Ukraine is engaged in, whatever settlement they reach with Russia, will be supported."

"We know what's likely to be the basis of a settlement," said Bennis. "And it will not be just, it will not be fair, because international relations are almost never fair and just. But the goal has to be to stop the killing."

Read more on the Ukraine conflict:

By Jake Johnson

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