Historian Malcolm McKinnon in Thursday’s DominionPost states that “caution is needed when crafting victory over Russia as the primary war aim in Ukraine.” Truer words were never spoken, as western hysteria rejects calls for peace and escalates to wider war.
McKinnon outlines the dangers when conflict is framed in purely moral terms. Only one party is guilty, and “total victory is the only acceptable outcome.” CID’s Josie Pagani writing in Stuff gives one example of this approach, stating “that while all illegal wars should be opposed, the moral way to end the war in Ukarine is to support Ukraine to win.” On Friday at an official mini-demonstration Defence Minister Andrew Little also framed the issue in moral terms “Because countries like ours cannot stand by while a force like Russia illegally invades a neighbour and encroaches on their land. This is a fight for freedom, it is a fight for democracy, and we must be at that fight.”
But of course we are not at that fight. What we are doing is providing five weeks training to Ukrainian civilians press-ganged off the streets to be returned to certain death in the ‘meat-grinder’ at Bakhmut in conditions worse than the trenches of the Somme. I consider that sort of so-called ‘assistance’ to be immoral. It is no fight for freedom, or democracy.
Speaking to Radio New Zealand after the Friday demonstration, the EU High Representative to New Zealand Nina Obermaier stated the European position the Ukraine must prevail. Asked what that would mean and whether it was realistic for Russia to withdraw from Crimea she said “Russia needs to withdraw its troops form all Ukrainian territory.” That is simply never going to happen as it would represent an existential threat of hostile encirclement to Russia and risk the danger of nuclear war. We cannot say we have not been warned.
A remarkable feature of the narrative discourse on Ukraine is the assumption that history began on the 24th of February 2022. The only issue is Russia’s border crossing, and anything prior to that is irrelevant, particularly the loss if Russian-speakers rights and lives over that border post the 2014 coup. It is not surprising that it is an historian who is asking the relevant questions.
What I find remarkable in New Zealand’s political leadership, academic punditry and media, is the total absence of any call for a stop to the killing, and the commencement of negotiations towards a practical outcome for peace. That at least would be a truly independent approach. The moralists should remember that advanced negotiations for ceasefire conducted in Turkey in April 2022 were torpedoed by the intervention of Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister.
McKinnon is the author of the major work on New Zealand’s foreign policy development, titled ‘Independence and Foreign Policy.’ He offers some lessons in the way hostilities have ended in the past, perhaps the most useful of which is the outcome of the Korean war.
The Korean War of 1950-53 was triggered by the invasion of the formerly US-occupied South Korea by Communist North Korea on June 25, 1950 (perhaps the closest historical parallel to Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine).
But that war did not end in victory for the UN and the US but in an armistice and ceasefire. An immense amount of suffering, and perhaps 2.5 million deaths, produced a boundary not significantly different from that in place when the war broke out.
In sum, the orthodoxy of complete victory, justified in moral terms, can shut down discussion and analysis of whether victory and peace must be yoked together or can be disaggregated.
A peace without outright victory need not mean the abandonment of the quest for a global law-based world order. It should energise, not demoralise.
A recent success in the UN General Assembly’s Sixth Committee on advancing an international treaty on crimes against humanity has been an instructive lesson in the art of the possible.
The war in Ukraine will not be ended just by challenging the orthodoxy that outright victory is the only acceptable goal. But such questioning is indispensable. As the ill-fated Syme put it in George Orwell’s 1984, ‘’orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness’’.
In my opinion the truly moral position on Ukraine is to bend every effort to put stop to the killing and begin to negotiate an acceptable outcome for peace. That is what New Zealand should be calling for.