Ukraine: NFPB considerations

Around 50 Friends met online on 8 February 2023 to consider some of the challenges arising from the war in Ukraine. Four Friends shared prepared ministry and the meeting continued in worship sharing, asked to respond to the ministry and to the question ‘what does love require of us?’. The text of the prepared ministry is given below. We will be preparing further material, drawing on responses to these introductions and which we hope will support further reflection and action. See also our page with links to resources from a wide range of sources in relation to this war.

Prepared ministry for the NFPB Zoom meeting in relation to to the war in Ukraine, held on 8 February 2023

Till Geiger

Friends, the war in Ukraine should rightly discomfort us and lead us to examine the spiritual roots of our peace testimony. What can we say after the illegal Russian invasion of its neighbor? How is it possible to hold firm in our peace testimony after the revelations of Bucha? What does love demand of us in light of the deliberate destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure?

There are other questions we might usefully ask: Did the western states provoke the Russian invasion of Ukraine through NATO enlargement and undermining the close cooperation between Ukraine and Russia? Should we support the western economic sanctions against Russia and the military and financial aid to Ukraine?

In asking these questions, we accept that we live in an anarchic, complex, complicated, globalized and interdependent world. In asking what the peace testimony demands of us in this moment, love will also need to mean speaking the truth about the breeches of international law and the law of war, the crimes against humanity, the potential genocide being perpetrated and that any threat to use nuclear weapons is unacceptable in a world which has outlawed weapons of mass destruction. And yet, since Ukraine relies on western weapons, ammunition and financial support, we are at least complicit in the continued violence, suffering and forced displacement.

The narrative about the war have changed several times over the last year. On the eve of the Russian invasion, Putin enlisted history to deny Ukraine’s sovereignty and asserted that the country had always been a part of Russia. The necessary war to liberate Ukraine, to demilitarize and de-nazify it from the government of a Russian-speaking Jewish President, has since become a defensive war against western (imperialist) aggression. This framing covers up the intrinsically imperialistic nature of this war with the aim of returning Ukraine to the Russian Empire or sphere of influence. Moreover, this narrative rejects the concerns of many Eastern Europeans about Russian intentions given its repeated attacks on its neighbours Georgia and Ukraine, the brutal war in Chechnya and Russia’s involvement in Syria. By claiming that the West is using Ukraine to fight a proxy war against Russia, Putin and his apologists obliterate the right of Ukrainians and their government to defend their country. Confronted with this Russian narrative, it is not surprising that Ukrainians have become more patriotic and are asserting their own national cultural identity. In this context, the Holodomor, the man-made famine against the Ukrainian population under Stalin, has become a symbol of past crimes against Ukraine committed by the Soviet Union / Russia.

The Russian invasion has deepened rifts and eroded trust making the likelihood of a true peace arising from true justice more unlikely for the time being. Speaking our truth about the horrors of this war and the futility of violence, resisting the narratives created by disinformation and deceit, and bearing witness about the true nature of this war and the crimes being committed, may be the most important act love demands of us at this present time.

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Barry Mills

During World War 1, NFPB consistently called for a compromise peace to end the carnage and warned against fighting for total victory, which would lead to punitive peace terms and sow the seeds for a future war.

Putin’s invasion in February 2022 was immoral & totally unjustified. Between February and June 2022, his outrageous ambitions including setting up a puppet government in Ukraine & seizing a corridor to Moldova were decisively defeated. The war aims of Ukraine backed by NATO initially were to resist the Russian invasion and to return to the status quo of January 2022. This was to be achieved by negotiation with talk of concessions by Ukraine and an off ramp for Putin.

Phase 2 of the war is about whether Putin can retain or possibly gain further territory in Eastern Ukraine. Whenever he makes any gains NATO respond with more and more deadly weapons sent to Ukraine. Putin is likely to lose further ground to a point where he may be open to a negotiated peace. However, on finding Putin’s forces to be weaker than expected, Ukraine and its allies changed their war aims to demanding a punitive peace, including reparations for the war to be paid by the Russian people. These new aims can only be achieved by a comprehensive military victory but not by negotiation.

Biden and Zelensky have consistently said they will never negotiate with Putin, meaning regime change in Russia has to precede any peace settlement. This is dangerous, because Ukraine and NATO will have no control over who or what would replace Putin, if he is overthrown.

Equally dangerous is the aim to reconquer Crimea for Ukraine. Two thirds of the population are Russian. 6 people were killed when Putin illegally seized Crimea in 2014 with virtually no resistance. The inevitable killing of Crimean civilians may increase support for the war from Russian citizens & soldiers. The Russian military and very many Russian citizens will feel threatened by the prospect of NATO backed Ukrainian forces at the gates of the main Russian naval base at Sebastopol. Since the Kerch bridge to Russia would be destroyed the minute Ukrainian forces invaded Crimea, it would be difficult to defend Crimea by conventional forces. Putin has stupidly made endless empty threats about using nuclear weapons but frighteningly there is a very real danger he would escalate to weapons of mass destruction rather than lose Crimea.

The question is not whether Putin deserves an off ramp but how many lives will be lost or put at risk by denying him one. He will need to come away from any negotiations with something he can pretend is a victory although he will know only too well that he has been decisively defeated. The more ground Putin’s forces lose the better the prospects for negotiation but at the same time the greater the risks of escalation. No one wants a prolonged conventional war or escalation to the brink of nuclear war but, however difficult to achieve, a negotiated settlement is essential to avoid these terrible outcomes. As soon as there is evidence that Putin is giving up on attacking, I would like to see NFPB calling for negotiations to end the war without specifying any preconditions.

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Alan Frith

That we utterly deny … all outward wars, and strife, and fighting with weapons is a claim that makes no concession to what the reader may think, and not an assertion that seeks to persuade. Its absoluteness itself makes me uncomfortable. One of the posters reproduced as a postcard to commemorate the centenary of the Northern Friends Peace Board was an example from the mid ’30s depicting a radial-engined biplane (a Hawker Hind, perhaps?) with the text “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God” / Protest Now Against Air Armaments. Yet if this message were combined with a picture of a Spitfire, I think even now it would be too provocative to display outside our meeting houses. While rhetoric about swords and ploughshares may be unexceptionable when few of us have ever handled either, to imply that the heroism of ‘the Few’ was really a shameful lapse from Christian principle would outrage many.

More fundamental than how our words strike others is the question of what these formu-lations mean to us: bluntly, is it true that we do deny all strife and fighting with weapons? Are sanctions and boycotts weapons? Police truncheons surely are. If conscientious objec-tion to military service justifies non-payment of taxes for warlike purposes, on what basis do we deny the same right to those who wish not to support overseas development, or even the state provision of healthcare and education – except that we know we are right?

Robert Barclay’s list [in Q.F. & P. 24.02] of Christian precepts irreconcilable with waging war seems to me unanswerable, and I also have no patience with the suggestion [in The Friend, 24 November 2022] that since, during various wars, many young men who were members of the Society enlisted, they represent a valid strand of Quakerism which should be reflected in the Book of Discipline. (As we now know, there were members involved in the Transatlantic slave trade for decades after Yearly Meeting had condemned it, but no-one would suggest that they had a form of faith in action we should recognise as such.) I would go as far as Roger Wilson [in Q.F.&P. 24.24] in accepting that some people might feel that fighting is a way to resist evil, but like him would conclude it is not the right way.

That is is easy for me to say, siting safe at home, “defended”, whether I like it or not, by Trident missiles and the guarantees of the North Atlantic Treaty. I hope that if confronted by the sort of horrors visited on civilians in Ukraine I would respond in the way of Gandhi. Intellectually, at least, I am persuaded that our Friends George Lakey and Tim Gee are right to argue that non-violent resistance is an effective as well as a moral course. Whether it is reasonable to ask such a response of political leaders I doubt, since states claim the right to violence; if we abstain, do we give them the right to ignore us?

• George Lakey: ‘Ukraine: Is there a nonviolent response to aggression?’ at
• Tim Gee – Why I am a Pacifist: A call for a more nonviolent world (2019) isbn 978-1-78904-016-6

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Jo Alberti

When the war first broke out I immediately, as a historian, turned towards looking at the causes. Of course there were many narratives, and there still are, as to what lead to this war. I fairly quickly gave up on that path.

So then it was a case of imagining what sort of negotiated peace could possibly follow the war. I did think about that for quite a while, and of course it changes all the time. The idea of a negotiated peace is very attractive and very difficult to imagine in the present circumstances.

So what I was left with was my feelings about the war, and about war and violence in general, and my painful acknowledgement of the willingness of human beings to use violence, and, as Alan said, of course, our state governments which take the responsibility, take the power to use violence. With the present state of humankind I think I just have to accept that that is the case, however painful it is.

What makes it more painful is the positive feelings that are used, in fact, to support the violence. We can see, and I’ve heard Ukrainians say, how wonderful it was that they have come together to fight against the Russians. And of course in many ways that is wonderful and the self-sacrifice is extraordinary and admirable. But self-sacrifice and solidarity like this are what make wars possible.

My other painful thoughts have been about the fact that this is not the only war that is happening. There are other wars for which we have more responsibility – at least, our governments do, and therefore we do. For example, what did happen in Iraq, and has left Iraq in a terrible state; what happened in Afghanistan has left Afghanistan in a terrible state; what is still happening – with a pause in fighting at the moment – in the Yemen, and we have provided Saudi Arabia with arms. Finally, and most painfully for me because of my experience of living and working in Palestine is what is still happening in that country, with no effort on our part, as a British Government again, to stop it.

So I’m left with these feelings of pain, and also of course, with truly deep feelings of compassion for so many people who are involved in this particular war. The civilians – Ukrainian civilians who are being bombed, and who have periods of complete darkness because they have no electricity. And whose sons and friends and sisters, are being killed. And compassion also for the Russian soldiers who’ve been sent into a war of which they have very little knowledge; and for their mothers and fathers who are watching them do so, and watching them being killed. So there is a tremendous call on our compassion.

Action … I have found little that I personally can do. I admire those who have been taking Ukrainians in and those who’ve been wrestling with the problems of trying to work out some negotiated peace; I’m sure there are people, for instance the United Nations, who are working on this all the time that we do not hear about. I feel for them, and my hope is that someday they will find some solution.

But meanwhile I get on with those things that I can do, and affecting this war, apart from compassion, does not seem to be anything that I can do.

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Following these introductions, responses were shared during a time of worship-sharing. This note tries to capture some of these contributions

We heard a number of different messages, questions and reflections, as Friends expressed how they were feeling in relation to the war and explored possible ways forward. We heard of exasperation at the way governments and leaders have got to such a point as this, coupled with a real distress and compassion for all those affected by the war. The powerful sense of national solidarity and unity in response to aggression can also make wars more likely, however.

We must search for peaceful solutions, our small voice adding to other voices. We must ask what part our own government is playing, and to urge our own leaders to explore alternatives; a negotiated settlement must be found at some point. Political dilemmas abound; by calling for an end to arms shipments to Ukraine by the west, is that playing into the Russian leadership’s hands, for instance? It was acknowledged that there is no sign of a cease-fire and that this will be a long haul.

As well as understanding the history of how we got here, we know there will also be a legacy, that will most probably feed into the cycle of hurt and response. At what point is restorative justice appropriate rather than further retribution? Can empathic listening be part of a Quaker response, to give peace a chance?

We were reminded that George Fox talked about taking the occasion of all wars, and asked what more we might do to that end. What needs to change in financial and other institutions? And what are the seeds of peace in ourselves and others that need to be nurtured? The space for Quaker peacebuilding is very narrow in the midst of violent conflict, but we can prepare for the time after the fighting, taking strength from and supporting others who are committed to peace, often in strong contradiction to mainstream societal assumptions. Withdrawing our consent from the use of violence, which is a response rooted in pessimism, is important.

The risk of the use of nuclear weapons, as well as the threat of climate change, are powerful reasons to come together. A non-violent way forward has to recognise shared needs of all countries affected and their neighbours; so we must take time to understand different perspectives, open our imagination to possibilities and draw inspiration from peace-building that has been done in other settings.

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