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War in Ukraine: Christian Accompaniment and Turning to Diplomacy

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How does one respond to such horror as war? 

I live in the Washington DC area teaching at Georgetown University in theology as well as justice and peace studies. I also have been consistently involved in the Catholic faith-based advocacy community for the past eleven years. In January 2022, I was encouraged by U.S. Archbishop Wester’s pastoral letter, illuminating Jesus’ clear call to active nonviolence and making the argument to abolish all nuclear weapons. As the war in Ukraine approached in February 2022, a colleague and I offered our thoughts on some possible paths to avoid the war oriented by a just peace framework. 

Once the Russian invasion occurred, what could any of us do? In discernment with Catholic partners, we heard the call from the Mayor of Kyiv to send religious leaders to the city.  We organized an interfaith Just Peace delegation May 24-25th, 2022. As a praxis of accompaniment, that Pope Francis models, this delegation included seventeen religious leaders from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities within Europe and the United States.

After this delegation, a participant from the United Kingdom facilitated 1,000 Ukrainian youth to enter the country. Some delegation partners led a 50 person peace caravan in Odessa 28-29 June. Some stayed with Ukrainians in Mykolaiv during the bombing. A 150 person peace march took place in Kiev on 11 July. On 1-5 August, a World Council of Churches delegation was sent to Kyiv. And a number of faith delegations have continued since then.

One of the key advocacy calls of the interfaith delegation in May was to significantly increase humanitarian aid, which the European Union did on 9 June. Another key advocacy call was to unblock ports so grain can flow, which progressed with the 22 July negotiated agreement.

A very significant October 2022 report identified at least 235 nonviolent actions of resistance in Ukraine between 24 February through 30 June 2022. They found that nonviolent resistance: 1) hindered some of the long-term military and political goals of the Russian authorities, such as the institutionalization of the military occupation and repression in the occupied territories; 2) has protected many civilians; 3) undermined the Russian narrative; 4) built community resilience; 5) strengthened local governance, and 6) built social cohesion.

For example, nonviolent action hindered institutionalization of the military occupation by blocking trucks to slow down their movements and by protests that made control of the occupied areas quite difficult. Nonviolent action was able to protect civilians through evacuations, providing shelter, psychosocial support, negotiating with Russian soldiers to release residents and focusing on negotiation tactics, which limited the casualties in the area. Nonviolent action debunked and challenged Russian propaganda about ‘liberation,’ such as the protests in Kherson. The nonviolent action generated social cohesion through dialogue and mediation. 

In August, I joined the Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania, along with organizations from Italy and the Netherlands on an August trip to Ukraine to meet with leading Ukrainian nonviolent activists and peacebuilders. We heard their stories of resistance as well as their needs for support and resources. Some stories included: farmers refusing to sell grain to Russian soldiers; fire departments refusing to join Russian structures; protecting local administration officials and school directors; creating an alternative government; and engaging Russian civil society with anti-war messaging.

Those we met asked for: 1) the sharing of their examples of nonviolent resistance, 2) advocacy to their government and other governments to support them by developing a nonviolent strategy of non-cooperation with the occupation, 3) resources such as financial, strategic campaign training, and technology/digital security; and 4) most pointedly, they asked that they not be left alone.

One of the conflict monitors we met in Kharkiv and resourced by the UN, said that in the occupied areas where nonviolent resistance was the primary method, this approach decreased the repression. Whereas in the occupied areas or nearby when the Ukranians primarily leaned on violent resistance, this increased the repression.

The Nonviolent Peaceforce also offers programming in Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Kharkiv, Ukraine. They are providing unarmed civilian protection especially to elderly, disabled, children, etc. They along with the other peacebuilders and nonviolent organizers need more support and funding to increase the proven non-cooperation with the occupation, and their life-saving programmes. 

Among the things that I came to understand more deeply through a just peace orientation was that, to break the dynamic of violence, conflicting parties must be engaged in a consistent, flexible, trauma-mitigating and needs-based dialogue. This includes political dialogue as well as civil society dialogue. Yet, today key political leaders are resisting broader negotiations. Many of them argue that negotiations are only valuable after there is a military advantage on the ground. Such negotiations rooted in the power of domination rarely, if ever, yield sustainable solutions since re-humanization, consideration of grievances and needs, trauma, as well as paths to reconciliation are not adequately incorporated. 

To engage in such dialogue, it’s important to acknowledge that this war has been going on at least since 2014. Political conflict had led to the Maiden demonstrations that changed Russian-leaning government leadership. Violence had ensued from both sides and Russia annexed Crimea. The 2015 Minsk agreements had called for a number of provisions, which had included dialogue with eastern political leaders to shape a form of political autonomy while remaining part of Ukraine. Instead, the Ukrainian government had leaned into armed counter-terrorism operations and increased militarization for seven years (supported by the U.S. and UK), with steady escalation from both sides including Russian involvement, and ultimately failure to implement Minsk. Over 14,000 were killed during these seven years. In 2022, leadership from key areas in the Donbass region had declared independence and some of those leaders apparently signaled a desire for a larger Russian invasion. 

Since the invasion of 2022, we do know that some mediated dialogues have succeeded with agreements on grain shipments, prisoner swaps and some evacuation routes. Early on in March 2022 there was also considerable progress on ending the war yet it seems from reports that UK Prime Minister Johnson pressed Ukraine to stop negotiations, and we heard from U.S. leaders like Defense Secretary Austin and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicating we should drain Russian resources. During an appearance on MSNBC, former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said the “model” moving forward should be that of the Afghan insurgency against Soviet occupation, which lasted 10 years in the 1980s. Further, Ukrainian media reported below, and former Israeli Prime Minister Bennet confirmed (see 2:30-3:02), that

“As soon as the Ukrainian negotiators and Abramovich/Medinsky, following the outcome of Istanbul, had agreed on the structure of a future possible agreement in general terms, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared in Kyiv almost without warning…Johnson brought two simple messages to Kyiv. The first is that Putin…should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not.”    

In contrast, if the stakeholders lean into such a consistent needs-based style of diplomacy, what might be the relevant needs of Ukraine, and even of Russia? For Ukraine, such needs include security, accountability, respect, consistency, independence, self-determination, and participation. Acknowledging the needs of any stakeholder does not of course justify or legitimate any strategy that is being used, such as the Russian military invasion in February 2022. Yet, such a discovery or acknowledgement of needs may help to cultivate the necessary ethos for the stakeholders to better identify the strategies or agreements that might be possible to end the war and lean into a more sustainable just peace.

There have been substantial demonstrations in Europe recently to focus on diplomacy as well as similar increasing activity in the U.S. As Christians who follow the way of Jesus, let us mobilize our faith communities to advocate for diplomacy to break the cycle of hostilities and illuminate our shared human dignity.

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