After ten months of war, peace work nevertheless is continuing in Ukraine. In early December 2022, Peace Magazine had a chance to question by Zoom two professional peace workers who know each other and collaborate in a network of activists to produce reports and recommendations.
You can access two of their longer documents on Project Save the World’s website here:
Andre Kamenshikov is a dual citizen of Russia and the United States who lived most of his life in Moscow, though for thirty years he has worked as a professional peace worker, notably in the Caucasus during Russia’s war against Chechnya. Several years ago, he moved to Kyiv, where he represents Nonviolence International and coordinates the Eastern European sector of a global organization, the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). It comprises a few dozen civil society organization, about half of them in Ukraine, with the others in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Belarus, and Russia.
Felipe Daza works with the International Institute for Nonviolent Action, based in Barcelona, a movement that was founded to oppose the dictatorship of Franco. His organization is connected to Andre’s GPPAC, and also cooperates with nonviolence organizations in Ukraine, Belarus, and also South Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan—feminist groups, and anti-war movements that confront authoritarian regimes. In the beginning of 2022, he was in Kyiv teaching peace and conflict studies at a university the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. When the invasion occurred, his class began mapping nonviolent actions throughout the country by monitoring social media and the newspapers.
DID YOU INTERVIEW PEOPLE EVERYWHERE IN UKRAINE?
After the invasion of February 24, Felipe began traveling throughout Ukraine, interviewing activists, teachers, priests, farmers and others in the north, south, and near the Romanian border—but he could not go to the occupied territories. At first, he was able to interview people by Zoom too, even in Melitopol, where it was still possible to organize protests, but by April, this was repressed and the Russian army brought in special police to control the crowds. People became afraid and many left the occupied territories.
WE HEAR THAT TWO MILLION PEOPLE HAVE LEFT THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES.WHERE DID THEY GO?
That number may be exaggerated. It was too dangerous to cross the front lines, so they had to move in the other direction, into Russia. Then they might leave and go on to Estonia, Georgia, or even into the government-controlled areas of Ukraine. The volunteers in Russia who are helping refugees from Ukraine tell us that the majority of them are looking forward to staying in Russia. But we don’t know the true numbers. The people who don’t want to stay just move out very quickly instead of registering to get humanitarian aid.
IF THEY HAD BEEN GIVEN A REAL CHOICE BEFORE THE INVASION, WOULD MOST OF THE PEOPLE IN THE DONBAS HAVE PREFERRED TO BE RUSSIAN RATHER THAN UKRAINIAN?
In 2014, a significant percent were clearly pro-Russian, wanting greater autonomy or maybe wanting to join Russia. When the war began, Russia instigated and armed that base. But in the areas captured by Russian forces after February 24, we have seen quite a bit of the opposite, which surprised the Russian leadership, who had expected to see massive public support.
WHAT ABOUT IN CRIMEA?
Many people were invested in Russia, but now that Russia is losing the war, are reconsidering.
WHEN FELIPE TRAVELED IN UKRAINE ASKING ABOUT NONVIOLENT ACTION, WHAT STORIES DID YOU HEAR?
They don’t mention that they were doing nonviolence. They say they were just reacting to the situation. They were trying to protect civilians or stop military convoys or trying to show that they refuse this invasion. There are very different kinds of actors—professional activists, people from NGOs—and they were organizing the evacuation processes, organizing protests and symbolic actions. Self-organized groups from Kyiv were creating communication systems to share information. Some were organizing their neighborhood to maintain the resilience and confront fear. The majority of actions happened at this local level. There was no national or regional coordination and no violence happened at the local level. It was community organizing.
HAVE THERE BEEN MANY CHANGES IN THE NONVIOLENT ACTIONS OVER TIME?
Yes. The kind of actions that grab public attention are too risky now, but resistance exists in other forms. For example, people can quietly demonstrate their Ukrainian identity. They prefer to trade in Ukrainian rather than Russian currency. People use new symbols such as yellow ribbons. Students try to continue their education in Ukrainian school programs, and so on. Of course, for many people in occupied territories, their main interest is just in surviving. They don’t care as much about the outcome as the ending of hostilities.
DO ANY PEOPLE IN THE GOVERNMENT-CONTROLLED AREAS PROTEST AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT POLICIES AND ASK FOR A QUICK CEASEFIRE ON ANY TERMS WHATEVER?
Only about 15 percent of the population would prefer a compromise with Russia rather than fighting to total victory. And the majority of Ukrainians do expect military victory, on terms that are close to the official terms of the Ukrainian government. In fact, anyone talking about peace or peacebuilding can be considered a traitor. These taboos are very clear now.
However, on the ground there are organizations working on mediation and there are understandable conflicts between communities. There are more than 3,000 professionals working at this level in different contexts and different regions. They deal with intra-family conflicts and communal conflicts. But they need support and resources to maintain this work.
MANY WESTERN PEACE ACTIVISTS ARE EXPERIENCING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, UNABLE TO CONTINUE PROMOTING A TRUCE BASED ON COMPROMISE, WHICH THEY WOULD NORMALLY HAVE DONE, BECAUSE THAT WOULD JUST GIVE PUTIN TIME TO GET BETTER PREPARED TO RENEW HIS AGGRESSION LATER? DO PEACEWORKERS IN UKRAINE FEEL THE SAME UNCOMFORTABLE AMBIVALENCE?
In a way. But there is one important caveat: This war cannot be just won on the battlefield. There’s no option for Ukraine to win in the same way the Allies won World War II, by marching on to Russia and occupying it. So, the Ukrainian military is very important but even if it is absolutely successful and liberates its territory, there must be political change in Russia itself. Ukrainian military victories will start the dynamic of political change in Russia but there are other changes necessary too—in Russian public opinion. We see it this way: Winning this war has to be a combination of military victories and internal political change in Russia itself. The main role for peace workers is in that civilian part.
They have not articulated anything. They are like isolated bubbles in different countries, though they are connected with strong, decentralized communication networks. Their narrative is diffuse and unclear. They point out that the problem is Putin, but they don’t propose a clear alternative. In this they differ from the Belarus dissidents’ movement against Lukashenko, which is becoming very well organized. The movement is both inside and outside the country and is reorganizing for the next political momentum against Lukashenko.
Clearly, people are tired. When you ask people to choose between continuing the war and starting negotiations now, they prefer negotiations two to one. The majority wants peace, but they are not ready to take action against the government, nor are many ready to accept Russian military defeat, which Ukraine has set as a precondition for peace. Most people just don’t want this to continue.
It is the elite who will make the overt changes after the people who want the war are marginalized. The elite have lost the most in economic terms and they will take some action. We might see someone from Putin’s inner circle replacing him, but a precondition for that will be dramatic changes in Russian public opinion.
The problem is that there’s no support for them. Andre just spent a month in the States seeking support for working with a Russian diaspora. But so far, there’s zero support.
In Western Europe there’s huge support for the refugees from Ukraine, but not for the Russians arriving. Filipe knows some Russian sociologists in Tbilisi, Georgia who are inquiring about what the Russians who are leaving the country want to do in the future. Most of them are passive politically. We need to engage with them. They need to develop a clear vision of the future while also continuing the urgent, constructive work required to get rid of Putin.