oDR: Opinion

What would real peacebuilding in Ukraine look like?

We must apply the lessons of 21st-century peacebuilding to create a peace process that is people-centred, women-led and rights-based

Almut Rochowanski
7 February 2022, 4.44pm
Verkhnotoretske, Donetsk region
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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

As the situation in and around Ukraine has heated up in the past few months, so has the debate between foreign policy experts, reaching unprecedented levels of volume and candour.

One position is ‘liberal internationalist’. Here, the focus is that Ukraine has a sovereign right to aspire to NATO membership, faces unjustified military aggression by Russia (because, they argue, Russia harbours imperialist goals and is afraid of a thriving democracy next door), has made its civilisational choice in favour of the West, and that the West should therefore defend Ukraine (militarily or through sanctions) and generally deter Russia across Eastern Europe.

The other position, which is the ‘realist-restraint’ position, maintains that Western governments are neither willing nor able to support Ukraine militarily against Russia and should refrain from vague promises of NATO membership. This position also suggests that Russia has (legitimate or at least inevitable) security interests, and that conflicts such as the one in eastern Ukraine are best resolved through negotiations.

For much of the post-Cold War period, proponents of this international relations theory were relegated to obscure academic spaces and the eccentric fringe. But realist-restraint ideas have now firmly entered the mainstream and are closing in on the very heart of military and policy decision-making.

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These arguments are challenging the lazy sanctimony of Western policy-making on Ukraine and the dogmas that silence critical discussion of the country’s predicament. They have punched open unprecedented space for a more honest, thorough analysis of why armed conflict erupted in Ukraine in 2014, why it persists and how it can be transformed.

A skeleton of a peace agreement

The realist-restraint arguments are a breakthrough, but they are not enough. Some of the strategies sound as if straight from the early 20th century, when peacemaking meant moustachioed men in sparkly uniforms bending over maps in a French chateau.

For example, one of the recommendations is to quickly push through the Minsk II agreement, the ceasefire and peace deal signed back in 2015. This would be done via great powers exerting – for once sincere – pressure on the Ukrainian government. This kind of approach pays no heed to well-documented, hard-won lessons on building sustainable peace, which is a precondition for human flourishing. We must start with the Minsk II agreement, as the realist-restraint arguments claim, but, if we want to get it right, we must not stop there.

Minsk II has become a toxic brand for many in Ukraine, but it follows the inescapable logic of any peace deal: ceasefire, separation of forces, trust-building measures, a degree of political autonomy or power-sharing and a (limited) amnesty. Short of one side’s total defeat and unconditional surrender, both sides must compromise and acknowledge the other side’s rights, interests and relative power. If Minsk II were renegotiated today, the resulting deal would be roughly the same. The military and political power balance of the two sides has remained largely unchanged since 2015.

St. Sophia's Cathedral Kyiv
Kyiv, Ukraine. 2nd Feb, 2022. People walk past St. Sophia's Cathedral as Kyiv remains calm in the face of an ever growing Russian threat
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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Virtually all peace agreements of recent decades reflect the same basic logic. This includes Colombia’s 2016 Peace Agreements, the Dayton agreement for Bosnia and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Even where conflict had remained largely non-military, regional autonomy and cultural rights are typical features of political settlements, for example the Gruber–de Gasperi Agreement regulating the status of Southern Tyrol or the Catalan autonomy in Spain. The Gruber–de Gasperi and Good Friday Agreements are directly relevant here, because both cede a degree of sovereignty to a neighbouring state, something that supposedly renders Minsk II ‘unacceptable’ to Ukraine.

Not all peace deals of the post-Cold War period have been equally successful. Success in these situations means not just ending armed violence, but laying the foundation for reconciled, forward-looking, thriving national communities. The decisive factor in their success is broad, representative public participation, so that the voices of those most affected by the conflict are heard and taken into account. Peace deals pared down to bare-bones military and political power arrangements, struck by foreigners in far-away places and imposed top-down, fare worse.

Without a people-centred peace process, patterns of exclusion and victimisation will not be remedied

Minsk II may be inevitable, but in its current form it is also deficient, a skeleton of a peace agreement. Hastily drafted by diplomats in a foreign capital, the agreements do not reference grievances, human rights and human security, ignore representation and participation in negotiations and implementation, does not mention reconciliation and healing, the return of displaced persons and reintegration, or the demobilisation of paramilitary units. If Minsk II is pushed through as it is, no durable peace will result.

Women’s role in peacebuilding

From 2014, I advised the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) on Ukraine, and in 2016-17, I also worked for their Swedish partner organisation, Kvinna Till Kvinna. I travelled for months all over Ukraine, especially the east and south, to major cities, small towns, villages and frontline communities and met with women of all backgrounds, to understand their experience of war and what kind of peace they desired.

I tried to ask open-ended questions so that these women could tell their own stories in their own words, encourage their expertise and leadership and give back something useful in return for their time and kindness. I have remained in contact with dozens of activist women of all political views and backgrounds in Ukraine. My approach to peacebuilding is based on the Women, Peace and Security agenda contained in the historic UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (1990): listen to women and let them lead. WILPF, founded in 1915 by women trying to end the First World War, had been doing this for 75 years before the UN ever came around to it. My views here, however, are entirely my own.

Women’s indispensable role in building durable peace is not a feminist fantasy. It is backed up by numerous independent comparative studies of dozens of peace deals. Centring women in all matters of peace and security has become the official foreign policy of a growing number of states and international organisations. Some of them, it must be said, have not been following their own advice when it comes to Ukraine.

A proper peace process begins with dismantling one of the above-mentioned dogmas: that Ukraine is a country of united citizens who have made a ‘civilisational choice’ to turn West and are happily embarking on a process of cultural-linguistic homogenisation.

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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Instead, Ukraine was in 2013-14, and is today, a country with great, intersectional diversity and consequently complex fault lines. It would be simplistic to reduce them to language or geographic location. They are about political preferences, local economies, memory and history, migration patterns, differing concepts of citizenship and even age and gender. More than in any other post-Soviet conflict, these fault lines are fluid, not primordial. They are about people’s choices. The war, massive communication programs by various domestic and foreign actors, nationalist state-building policies and the realities of life under neoliberal reforms have opened new fault lines.

The autonomy component of Minsk II reflects this reality, but offers a narrow, stunted representation of the many diverse groups, with their interests, needs and views, who are affected by this conflict.

Peacebuilding fit for the 21st century must be people-centred, defined in International Alert’s standard manual of peacebuilding as “effective conflict transformation is only possible with the consent and participation of those most affected by the conflict”. To build peace that will last, people must be, and feel, safe: they must feel respected as equals in their country, trust that the government respects their rights, ensures their dignity and looks out for their interests. The only way to achieve this is for citizens to participate and be heard. When large groups feel excluded and ignored, there can be no basis for peace.

Building a different future

This sense of exclusion is illustrated by something women teachers displaced from the Donbas separatist territories told me.

Soon after the war broke out, the Ukrainian government decreed that secondary school diplomas issued by the separatist authorities would no longer be recognised, meaning young people could no longer enrol in university in the rest of Ukraine or hope to build a life in a future reunited country. The teachers decided to tutor their former students, remotely and clandestinely, so they could obtain Ukrainian correspondence diplomas. They saw how this policy victimised cohort after cohort of children and drove an even deeper wedge into their community, and they stepped up to protect children’s rights and keep their country together, even at this precarious and stressful moment in their lives.

If the interests of groups like these young people are not considered in a peace settlement and their problems are not adequately addressed, grievances accrue rather than dissipate. Presumably, no one at the Normandy Format negotiating table has ever heard of this problem, nor could they supply the sense of urgency and duty of these teachers.

When we make room for the remarkable leadership, hard work and expertise of Ukrainian women, there is every hope for a smart, just and durable peace

I heard many more stories from women living through war. How, when artillery fire cut off electricity, they lost their stores of summer fruit, meant to feed their children through the winter. A woman near Mariupol told me that her mother was old enough to remember the Second World War. Having to flee her village home at her age had taken a toll on her mind, and whenever she saw a tank or heard the rumble of artillery, she would get scared and ask “which ones are the Germans?” She died in the third year of the war, never having returned home.

Along the frontline, women felt trapped between two utterly uncaring sides, to whom their homes and bodies were at best a nuisance in the line of fire. They were haunted by the malice of war, how soldiers deliberately destroyed and defaced the things that made life happy and meaningful – a children’s theatre, a bread-maker, a cottage garden.

Without a people-centred peace process, patterns of exclusion and victimisation will not be remedied, and memories of pain and injustice will turn into grievance and alienation lasting generations. A broad range of stakeholders can be heard and validated through proven peacebuilding practices, and can go on to build a different future for their country.

If we ignore the international community’s consensus reflected in the UN’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda, there is little hope for true peace in Ukraine. But when we make room for the remarkable leadership, hard work and expertise of Ukrainian women, there is every hope for a smart, just and durable peace.

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