From many quarters, particularly on the global Left, we hear appeals to peace at the time of a brutal war, which Russia is currently waging against Ukraine. At first glance (or, rather, by ear), it would seem that such noble calls would be a matter of consensus: who, after all, would advocate for the continuation of bloodshed and hostilities, instead of peaceful coexistence? Yet, this is a naïve and deeply mistaken position at best, and a dangerous subterfuge that takes the side of the aggressor at worst.
Let’s begin with the historical and tactical basics. The many comparisons of the situation in 2022 to the one that immediately preceded and unfolded during World War II are apt, also with regard to pacifism. Besides the failed politics of appeasement, prominently led by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s, continued wartime insistence on pacifist attitudes within Britain was closely aligned with Nazi Germany. As Mark Gilbert has argued, “with the exception of Action, the journal of the British Union of Fascists, it is hard to think of another British newspaper which was so consistent an apologist for Nazi Germany as Peace News, the PPU’s [Peace Pledge Union’s] official mouthpiece.” And, Gilbert continues, “beginning with its coverage of the Anschluss, or union of Austria with Germany, which Hitler enforced in March 1938, Peace News regularly went to extraordinary lengths to present the German case before British public opinion, on occasion going so far as to permit its contributors to peddle German propaganda as unvarnished fact.”
This description could be easily adapted to today’s events when those in favor of peace—a euphemism for Ukraine’s unconditional capitulation—express their empathy for and understanding of the circumstances that “forced” Putin to announce his SMO (Special Military Operation) on February 24, 2022: the eastward expansion of NATO, Ukraine splitting away from the traditional Russian sphere of influence, the ongoing tensions in the Donbas region (incidentally stoked by Russia itself), and even “the decline of capitalism.” All of the above are the chief arguments of Putin and his ideologues, arguments that are caught up in a major contradiction.
On the one hand, Putin and his apologists project the reasons for starting the war, and therefore the responsibility for it, onto others, be it the west, Ukraine, or NATO. On the other hand, for Putin himself, this is a matter of supreme and indivisible state sovereignty, as he noted in a little-discussed but highly symptomatic speech, which he gave at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in mid-June. Both ending and concluding with the affirmation of Russian sovereignty, he said: “it is up to the strong sovereign states, those that do not follow a trajectory imposed by others, to set the rules governing the new world order. Only powerful and sovereign states can have their say in this emerging world order. Otherwise, they are doomed to become or remain colonies devoid of any rights. We need to move forward and change in keeping with the times, while demonstrating our national will and resolve. Russia enters this nascent era as a powerful sovereign nation.”
Given the invasion of a neighboring country that is ongoing at the time of his remarks, Putin is positioning Russia as a “powerful and strong state” having its say, while, according to him, countries like Ukraine are “doomed to become or remain colonies devoid of any rights.” The paradox of the simultaneous affirmation and negation of Russian sovereignty, of purporting to follow a trajectory not imposed by others and of locating the causes for the war in those very others (just two months prior, Putin said: “What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy, no doubt about that. But we had no choice. It was just a matter of time”), is reflected in the vague official status of the hostilities as an SMO, and so precisely as not-war.
The question that immediately arises in this context is: what is peace in the circumstances of a brutal military assault that is insistently presented by the aggressor as not-war? (And, lest we forget, in Russia, one can pay a heavy price simply for calling the invasion of Ukraine war.) For years, theorists such as Danilo Zolo in his Humanitarian Terrorism have been warning us about the blurring of the dividing lines between war and peace. Now—and this is far from a strategically unique instance—we are witnessing what may be called the weaponization of peace, which is also double-sided. At the stage of the advances by Putin’s army, indiscriminate rocket launches and artillery fire on civilian population have as their ultimate goal the forced submission of the Ukrainian authorities to a “peace agreement” that would put an end to Ukraine as a state; at a time of Russia’s near defeat on the front, the same agreement would allow Russia to save face and to maintain whatever territorial gains they have made over the months of combat. Thus, an increasing chorus of voices “for peace” serves as the barometer of weaponizing peace, with the arrow pointing at either extreme.
In addition to historic precedents and strategic considerations, peace is not quite the glowingly positive political concept we tend to mistake it for. Every thriving empire had an epoch of peace, the golden age of its unperturbed hegemonic power. Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) was the period in Roman history between 27BCE and 180CE when, in the absence of major wars, the empire reached its maximum extent. A short-lived Pax Hispanica (“Hispanic Peace”), Pax Britannica (“Britannic Peace”), and Pax Americana (“American Peace”), among others, followed suit. The latter era, extending roughly between the end of World War II and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is implicitly targeted by Putin’s war, which aims to bring it to a definitive closure.
The main point here is that, according to its own ideal, an empire is peace—on its own terms, of course. Whoever disagrees with it is, therefore, not only an enemy of the empire, but also the enemy of peace itself. Whatever passes for pacifism in an era of imperial pacification is the acceptance of empire. Immanuel Kant’s classic distinction between peace as a temporary cessation of hostilities and perpetual peace does not apply in this political conjuncture, because his “preliminary articles” were drafted for a perpetual peace “between states,” rather than the peace of an empire. Unless what we are dealing with in his work is the empire of “pure reason.”
Putin’s barefaced imperial ambitions appear in a new light, given the near identity of empire and peace. One of his justifications for the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia was the need to preserve and reunite a “Russian World,” Russkiy Mir, “conceived as a Russian ‘diaspora empire,’ with particular importance continually placed on the ‘Russian enclaves’ in its ‘near abroad’ – that is, on the European countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova (and those areas with large Russian-speaking populations, such as Crimea, the Donbas, and Transnistria).” Putin’s goal was, and still is, reshaping this “diaspora empire,” defined primarily in cultural and linguistic terms, into a political one.
More tellingly, in Russian, the word mir means both “world” and “peace,” combining imperium and pax into a single whole. In Soviet times, one popular slogan for the May Day and other demonstrations was Miru – Mir!, or “Peace to the World!”, playing on the double sense of the Russian mir. The ambiguity inherent in this readymade expression, which may be read as a pro-war and an anti-war slogan in 2022, resulted in the bizarre case of a Russian citizen, Vladislav Gainov, who was arrested in March for the public display of a placard bearing this inscription, only to be acquitted by the court in August. At the same time, the civilian casualties of Putin’s war in Ukraine are concentrated in the predominantly Russian-speaking regions of the country’s east and south, that is to say, at the heart of Russkiy Mir. This is what pacification looks like: refusal to surrender in the face of military onslaught ends up in cemetery cities, such as Mariupol’, or what in his famous essay Kant called a peace of the cemeteries.
Back to our pacifists: do they not accept the choice imposed by Putin (who, in turn, claims that he had no choice but to start a bloody war, which is simultaneously meant to be the expression of Russian sovereignty)? Do they not, like the Russian president, want us to opt either for the peace of the empire or for the peace of the cemeteries? With war waged at the time when the word “war” to describe what’s happening is forbidden in Russia, it is unconscionable to don the mask of fake neutrality and humanitarian concern, proclaiming that one is for “peace.” These are not purely theoretical concerns: hanging in the balance in them are people’s lives and the life of a people, notably of the Ukrainian people with their own cultural identity, language, history, institutions. At the very least, prior to signing up to the pacifist camp, it is necessary to ask: whose peace, and at what price?