The war in Ukraine has divided progressives like few other foreign policy issues in recent years. A Foreign Policy in Focus commentary by John Feffer posted on Portside criticized CODEPINK’S position on the war in Ukraine. Here is our response.

Antiwar protestors demonstrate against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw, Poland, February 2022. Shutterstock photo / FPIF

The Surprising Pervasiveness of Pro-War Propaganda

As a platform for progressive internationalism, FPIF has featured a range of viewpoints on the subject. In that spirit, we present this response from CODEPINK — a group that includes longtime collaborators with FPIF and our parent institution, the Institute for Policy Studies — to a recent critique by FPIF director John Feffer entitled “The Surprising Pervasiveness of American Arrogance.”

In the Foreign Policy In Focus article “The Surprising Pervasiveness of American Arrogance,” John Feffer belittles champions of the U.S. peace movement for their support for a ceasefire and negotiated peace to end the suffering in Ukraine and avert a nuclear catastrophe.

In a vitriolic swipe at advocates for a diplomatic solution, Feffer performs rhetorical backflips to claim that people such as MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, world renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK and the Peace in Ukraine Coalition, are guilty of U.S. exceptionalism for demanding that the U.S., the primary arms supplier to Ukraine, heed the voices of the Global South to push for a mutual ceasefire.

Many of us in the peace movement have worked with John Feffer for years, and appreciate his long history of supporting peace and justice.

We certainly value the institution where he works, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), which also employs the brilliant analyst Phyllis Bennis, who shares our views and has long been calling for a ceasefire and negotiations in Ukraine. Bennis says that the United States, as the main arms supplier, has “not only the right, but the obligation, to push Ukraine towards negotiations, at the same time that the world is pushing the Russians towards negotiations.”

Our positive history with Feffer and his institute is why we are so shocked and dismayed by his distorted public denunciation and feel obliged to respond.

Our disagreements

Feffer’s main critique is that in calling for peace, we “pundit-activists” have “not bothered to consult the Ukrainian victims in this conflict” or even Russian anti-war activists. He adds the demeaning accusation that “those Americans who support ‘peace now’ only consult themselves.” His second accusation is that we put too much emphasis on the role and power of the United States.

Regarding the first claim, we are constantly consulting with Ukrainians and Russians.

Some of the women Feffer criticized have been part of a Ukrainian/Russian/U.S. women’s dialogue for over a year. Many of us participate in regular public and private webinars with Ukrainians and Russians, and we hear regularly from people who have just returned from the region.

CODEPINK and Peace in Ukraine are conveners of a June 10 conference in Vienna, Austria, where Russians and Ukrainians are featured speakers, including representatives from the Ukrainian Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Partnership for Advancing Innovative Sustainability, the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, and the peace-building institute PATRIR.

Feffer suggests we are tone deaf in not backing Ukrainians who want to fight until Ukraine claws back every inch of the Donbas and Crimea. But Feffer fails to mention that such a long war could well mean: hundreds of thousands more dead and wounded; millions more refugees spilling across borders to destabilize Europe; further contamination of land and water with chemical carcinogens; increased greenhouse gas emissions during a climate crisis; disruption in grain exports causing rising hunger throughout Africa; thousands more dolphins washing up dead in the Black Sea; and increased risk of nuclear war and global annihilation, either through miscalculation or intention on the part of Russia or the United States, the two nations that possess 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, yet refuse to rule out first use.

Feffer asserts NATO expansion and a U.S.-backed coup in 2014 had nothing to do with the current crisis, and he makes no mention of the civil war triggered by that coup. He argues that the U.S. government, which has spent $115 billion to fund the war and foot the bill for the day-to-day functioning of the Ukrainian government, has little influence to  push for a ceasefire and diplomatic settlement, and that those who believe the U.S. has influence are guilty of U.S. exceptionalism.

The human cost to Ukraine in military and civilian lives of a war to fully recover Crimea and Donbas would be atrocious and “unacceptable,” as Ukraine’s military commander-in-chief told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April 2021, even before those regions were defended, as they are now, by hundreds of thousands of Russian forces.

The danger of further escalation leading to World War III and a nuclear war makes the prospect of such a long and unlimited war even more unthinkable and unacceptable.

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Ukrainians have a range of views on the war.

Feffer’s implication — that all Ukrainians think the same and that Ukraine is homogeneous in ethnic origin and intellectual thought — ignores the internal divide between nationalist Ukrainians in the west and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east. There are millions of pro-Russian Ukrainians in the Donbas and Crimea who do not want to be part of Ukraine.

There are also Ukrainians who are outraged by the Russian invasion but just want this war to end. There are thousands of Ukrainian men trying to avoid conscription and a bribery system in which recruiting offices charge up to $32,000 for safe passage out of Ukraine. There are entire units of newly conscripted Ukrainian soldiers who have deserted, and Ukrainian courts that impose a five-year prison sentence for people convicted of desertion. There are Ukrainian pacifists, conscientious objectors, and war resisters.

And when probing the views of “Ukrainians,” we must also ask: How free are they to voice their opinions? In all wars there is government censorship and Ukraine is no exception. We have talked to many Ukrainians who say that it is now considered treasonous to advocate compromise with Russia. The Ukrainian government, having declared martial law, tells its populace that the return of Crimea and the eastern Donbas is non-negotiable, an opinion reinforced by state control of television.

Foreign policy analyst Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute recently returned from a research trip to Ukraine, where he talked to Ukrainians who believed, for various reasons, that the nation should be prepared to give up Crimea, the location of Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol, part of Russia for 200 years and home to ethnic Russians who have voted twice to rejoin the Russian Federation. But all were afraid to say so on the record.

Lieven wrote that state propaganda aimed at motivating the population to fight has helped to create what one Ukrainian analyst called a “Frankenstein’s monster” that is now out of control. Another Ukrainian noted that “most sensible people know it is not possible to reconquer Crimea,” but that it has become “almost impossible to say this in public without losing your job or perhaps worse….Anyone who advocates compromise with Russia is immediately branded a traitor and targeted by the Ukrainian security service.”

Does Feffer want us to listen only to Ukrainians who toe the line on the present government position of no territorial compromise?

Should we only listen to hard-line nationalists such as Zelensky’s advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, who called pro-Russian Crimeans “mankurts” (brain-dead slaves) and said that, after taking Crimea, Ukraine would have to “eradicate everything Russian,” including the Russian language?

Should we listen to the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), Aleksej Danilov, who tweeted that people who think they have the right to speak Russian on Ukrainian television have no place on television, politics, or even in Ukraine itself?

The U.S. didn’t start the war, but it’s helped continue it.

Regarding the accusation that we exaggerate U.S. power, Feffer took a single sentence from the Eisenhower Media Network’s full-page statement in The New York Times, a sentence urging President Biden and Congress to “use their full power to end the Russia-Ukraine War speedily through diplomacy,” to paint a false picture of a peace movement that views the United States as a superpower capable of solving any global problem.

We have never believed that, even when the U.S. wielded a great deal more global power than it does today.

But we do believe that the U.S. has used its power to derail peace talks and push Zelenskyy not to make compromises that he was, early on in the war, ready to make.

During talks in Turkey in March 2022, the Ukrainian government accepted territorial compromises as part of its draft 15-point peace and neutrality agreement with Russia.

Zelenskyy himself said, “Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear state of our state. We are prepared to go through with it.” He added that “Our goal is obvious — peace and the restoration of normal life in our native land as soon as possible.” He ruled out trying to recapture all Russian-held territory by force, saying it would lead to World War III. He wanted to reach a “compromise” over the eastern Donbas region and was ready to put off the final status of Crimea for years to come. In return, Russia agreed to withdraw all its occupation forces.

Then the UK and the U.S. intervened and derailed the talks. The Turkish Foreign Minister said after a failed NATO conference, “Some NATO countries wanted the war in Ukraine to continue in order to weaken Russia.” While Feffer denies that this is true, the fact that British and American politicians intervened to block negotiations has been confirmed by Zelenskyy’s aidesTurkish diplomats, and Israel’s then prime minister Naftali Bennett. Feffer’s denial is just willful negation of well-documented real-world events.

During those talks, what Ukraine asked of the U.S. and other NATO countries was for them to provide collective security guarantees to ensure it would not be invaded again. But instead of supporting Ukraine in its negotiations, the U.S. and UK used Ukraine’s dependence on Western support as leverage to undermine the peace talks and turn what might have been a two-month war into a much longer one, with corresponding increases in fatalities, casualties, and physical and economic devastation for the people of Ukraine.

The U.S. can play a role in ending Ukraine’s murderous stalemate.

We disagree with Feffer on other aspects of the U.S. role.

Feffer doesn’t believe NATO expansion was a significant factor in this conflict, he doesn’t believe that the U.S. was a significant player in the 2014 Maidan uprising that overthrew the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, and he doesn’t believe that U.S. policy has turned this war from a valiant defense by the people of Ukraine into a long war to sacrifice them for the U.S. geopolitical goal of “weakening” Russia.

These are obviously fundamental disagreements. Our insistence on U.S. responsibility for a long series of diplomatic and policy errors affecting Ukraine does not in any way justify the war, but it does help in understanding possible solutions.

The result of the U.S. policies Feffer supports is the murderous stalemate described in leaked Pentagon documents. Those documents analyze possible gains from the much-touted upcoming Ukrainian offensive and conclude that “enduring Ukrainian deficiencies in training and munitions supplies probably will strain progress and exacerbate casualties during the offensive,” so that the most likely outcome remains only modest territorial gains.

A stalemate could mean a protracted years-long war, in which many, many more Ukrainians and Russians will die, while Ukrainian towns like Bakhmut are reduced to empty shells. Or it could mean something even more devastating: World War III. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg himself said back in December, “If things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong,” referring to the possibility of the war spreading throughout Europe or leading to nuclear war.

If a NATO country becomes directly involved, which could easily happen, then the U.S. would be under pressure to send in U.S. troops, over 100,000 of whom are already stationed in or deployed to Europe. The dreaded war between Russia and the United States that we succeeded in avoiding throughout the original Cold War would finally engulf us all, and it would be the result of an entirely avoidable series of Russian and American diplomatic and policy failures.

Feffer derides the former U.S. military and intelligence officers who signed the recent full-page New York Times ad as being singularly obsessed with American power, accusing them of falsely believing that the U.S. has the power to force a ceasefire and negotiate a peace deal.

They did not say that the U.S. has the power to do this single-handedly, but we happen to be living in the U.S. and therefore should be concerned about what positive role our government could play. Right now, the U.S. is helping with economic and humanitarian aid, which is commendable, but it is also pouring in massive amounts of weapons to fuel this war.

There are certainly more positive positions the U.S. and its allies could take to help support negotiations. The U.S. could offer to remove its missiles from Romania and Poland and its nuclear weapons from European countries, in exchange for Russia not deploying its own nukes to Belarus. The U.S. could reopen the ABM (Anti-ballistic missile) treaty and the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, both treaties that the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from. It could offer to renegotiate the New START Treaty from which the Russians pulled back. The Europeans could offer EU membership and a Marshall Fund to rebuild Ukraine.

We are asking our government to adjust sensibly to a world where it is no longer the global hegemon and to play a constructive role in cooperation with other countries. On the crisis in Ukraine, that means supporting Ukraine to make peace, instead of obstructing peace negotiations and sending ever more dangerous weapons into the mix — weapons that, despite U.S. prohibitions, are already being used to expand the war into Russia itself.

The U.S. must listen to Ukrainians — and also the Global South.

Finally, we agree with Feffer that we must listen to Ukranians, but we must also listen to the cries coming from the rest of the world, from people and countries who do not want to see life on this planet extinguished.

Let’s listen to the voices of the poor around the world, who are also victims of this war. This is particularly true in the Global South, where millions are threatened with hunger from rising food prices or must decide whether to pay their rent or their energy bills.

Let’s listen to the voice of President Lula de Silva of Brazil who, when asked by President Biden to send weapons to Ukraine, replied: “We do not want to join this war; we want to end this war.”

Let’s listen to the voice of Pope Francis, who has already facilitated prisoner exchanges and is trying to mediate a peace agreement. “Let us not get used to conflict and violence,” he cautioned. “Let us not get used to war.”

As an example of real solidarity, Feffer upholds the way that U.S. activists listened to South Africans during the anti-apartheid movement. But let’s also listen to South African leaders today who, along with five other African nations, have created a high-level peace mission to Moscow and Kyiv that is calling for a ceasefire in Ukraine, to be followed by serious negotiations to arrive at “a framework for lasting peace.”

We would like to close with the words of two dear colleagues. Andy Shallal, a board member of the Institute for Policy Studies and an Iraqi-American who knows the horror of war, wrote to Feffer after reading his article:

“John, I implore you to rethink your position on Ukraine. Peace activists don’t want to end this war because we have a fondness for Putin, but because we know from too many past experiences that wars are nasty and benefit no one but despots, arms merchants and oligarchs.”

Yurii Sheliazhenko, the executive secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement and the recipient of the International Peace Bureau’s Sean McBride Peace Prize for 2022, wrote these profound words after reading Feffer’s article:

My advice to people in the U.S. who want peace is this: Do not abandon your principles when listening to people. The whole point of peace and justice is a commitment to simple, commonsense principles such as ‘do no harm, peace by peaceful means, and refusal to kill.’ These are not some abstract principles you can simply abandon but they are the ultimate way to uphold the sacred value of human life, to escape the vicious circle of violence, to abandon the naive and barbaric belief that violence can resolve conflicts. 

“War is never progressive; it is simply old-fashioned, shameful mass murder. Weapons only kill, they never bring peace. We will only achieve genuine peace when we learn and teach how to live, govern and manage conflicts without violence. Listening to people who don’t have enough common sense to recognize such simple truths means listening to the wrong people, and no good will come of it.”

Medea BenjaminNicolas J.S. DaviesMarcy Winograd

Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies are the authors of War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict, published by OR Books in November 2022.

Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and the author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Marcy Winograd is the Coordinator of CODEPINKCONGRESS and the co-founder of the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party.]

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