Ukraine and Nonviolence: What If?

By Ellen Lindeen

Ukraine is on the minds of everyone in the world right now. The brutal, offensive onslaught of Russian military might on a country that is very similar to the oppressor is seen as unbalanced and vicious. Russia and Ukraine share ethnicities, religions, and languages. They are intimately related. The response of most countries to help Ukraine is to offer military support. Meeting violence with violence seems to be our default. This is the norm in our world of arms manufacturers, military bases, and nuclear weapons, despite the United Nations passing the international Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. There are clearly no easy answers to dealing with this situation.

So let us imagine how this situation could be handled differently. We will need to conjure up some “What ifs.”

What if Ukrainians refused to fight the Russians as they entered their territory? What if they simply would not return fire to the attacks? Thanks to modern media, the world would see the unethical and unfair nature of the war and force Russia to stop. There would be terrible losses, of course, but are there not already unspeakable atrocities and fatalities? What would Gandhi counsel Ukrainians to do?

What if every single country or organization that believes this war of aggression is wrong approached Putin to talk. Instead of just stigmatizing or sanctioning him and his country’s actions, what if every head of state or world leader initiated a meeting or summit to try to discuss options other than war. Putin’s actions are largely interpreted as being a reaction to the West putting more nuclear weapons on Russia’s borders. For most of its history, Ukraine has tried to remain neutral, not aligned with the West or Russia. Three decades ago, when the newly independent Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power in the world, it made the decision to denuclearize. In response, the U.S., U.K. and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s security in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. A simplistic reaction to that decision at this point is often regret. However, Mariana Budjeryn of Harvard University explains, “It would have cost Ukraine quite a bit, both economically and in terms of international political repercussions, to hold on to these arms.” Russia now claims it made the agreement with a different “legitimate” government of Ukraine. In 2014 when Crimea was first invaded, the Budapest Memorandum was first tested, and the signatories met in Paris. However, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, simply did not show up even though he was in Paris at the time.

What if the West agreed to remove the nuclear weapons in Europe near Russia? There are approximately 150 American B-61 nuclear gravity bombs stationed in five countries in Europe: Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. If these bombs (or even some of these bombs) were decommissioned or removed as a condition of Putin abandoning his invasion of Ukraine, he could be assured that he did not need to annex more land to assure Russia’s sovereignty.

What if the Russian soldiers who are being sent into Ukraine just laid down their arms and refused to fight their “brothers and sisters.” They do not want to die. They have been trained to obey. What if they simply refused? As the truth makes its way into Russian media, soldiers will start to question their mission “to kill Nazis,” the current propaganda theme that Putin is using to encourage his military.

How many times does a decision to go to war come down to one person? If not for the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, while visiting Bosnia in 1914, by a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, the Great War (World War I) might never have taken place. Austria-Hungary retaliated, with Germany’s support, and declared war on Serbia. Within days, Germany declared war on Russian, Serbia’s ally, and invaded France via Belgium, which then caused Britain to declare war on Germany. The killing continued. Twenty million lives were lost, half of them civilians.

Adolph Hitler’s planning for years to take over Germany, grow the empire, and kill Jews, caused World War II. No one had the courage or foresight to stop him along the way. Many people in government and the military knew his policies were evil, but they were afraid. World War II resulted in the deaths of 70 – 85 million, at that time 3% of the world’s population. Civilian deaths were 50-56 million with an additional 20 million deaths due to war-related disease and famine. Atrocities continued.

If President Johnson had not reacted with war to the (now known-to-be false) attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, three million Vietnamese, United States, Laotian, and Cambodian lives might have been saved, one million military and two million civilians. Soldiers did not know who the enemy was. There are many more needless wars we can examine and count the loss of human life.

What if the Austrian Archduke was not assassinated? What if Hindenburg had not appointed Hitler as Chancellor in 1933? What if U.S President Johnson had not reacted to the false report of an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin?

When there was a true danger of war – and with nuclear warheads – President John F. Kennedy did not respond with violence but with communication and caution. The international crisis referred to as the Cuban Missile Crisis was the result of American deployments of missiles in Italy and Turkey being matched by Soviet deployments of similar ballistic missiles in Cuba. Kennedy managed a “quarantine” against more missiles reaching Cuba rather than a “blockade” which would have been an act of war. Publicly, he negotiated with Khrushchev to have the offensive weapons removed from Cuba with an agreement that the United States would not invade Cuba again. Secretly, the U.S. agreed to dismantle the nuclear armed, medium range ballistic missiles deployed to Turkey against the Soviet Union.

Wars seem to happen because of one person’s wounded pride or the perception they are backed into a corner. But we all must understand the human cost, and whenever possible, stop this carnage. With each war, we have learned that more and more casualties are innocents. War does not happen simply because the weapons exist or because people wear uniforms. All of this must be initiated and directed. War is not inevitable. Often, war starts with the decision of one man (usually it is men) and a few others who agree to proceed or are afraid to disagree. This does not have to happen.

War is insanity. If it becomes nuclear, no one will ever win. We are harming the earth enough with carbon output without all the fallout from more wars, in resources, pollution, and human death. People go to war to obtain land and resources. I live on land stolen by white Europeans from the indigenous people of North America hundreds of years ago. Do we really need to do this in 2022? If the people on this planet are going to survive, we will have to continue to share water, food, shelter, and means of sustainability. Why waste all these resources on war?

We need not live by the Churchill refrain, “we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills…” Must we forever fight?

What if we lived by this:

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” – Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to House of Representatives, 1917

“Why is it so easy for us to be willing to pick up arms and risk our lives, and so difficult to put down those same weapons and still risk our lives – in the cause of life?” – Ramzi Kysia, Muslim-American peace activist

“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” – Charlotte Keys, mother of imprisoned son

“One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the US around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better.” – Daniel Berrigan, American Jesuit priest, anti-war activist, Christian pacifist, playwright, poet and author

“Should anyone confront you with violence, you should try and repel it with peacefulness, whereby he who is your enemy will become your friend.” – Holy Qur’an

“Violence just hurts those who are already hurt. . . Instead of exposing the brutality of the oppressor, it justifies it.” – Cesar Chavez, Labor leader and Civil rights activist

“We must not allow ourselves to become like the system we oppose. We cannot afford to use methods of which we will be ashamed when we look back, when we say, ‘…we shouldn’t have done that.’ We must remember, my friends, that we have been given a wonderful cause. The cause of freedom! And you and I must be those who will walk with heads held high. We will say, ‘We used methods that can stand the harsh scrutiny of history.’” – Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop, Anti-apartheid and human rights activist

“Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword.” Jesus of Nazareth

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon . . . which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” – Martin Luther King Jr., American Baptist minister and Civil rights leader

“There are many benefits to meeting violence with nonviolence, especially when the instrument of power facing you is the strongest army in the region, and is largely unaccountable. To meet violence with violence is to play to your opponent’s strong point and your own weak point.” – Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian Minister of Higher Education and Research, legislator, activist, and scholar

“In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations . . . If we add all the countries touched by major non- violent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa . . . the independence movement in India . . . the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world.” Walter Wink, Biblical scholar, theologian, and activist

“Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” – Hermann Goering, German politician, military leader, and convicted war criminal

We may be encouraged by the negotiations that have allowed grain to be shipped out of Ukraine, the world’s fourth-largest grain exporter. People must continue to talk with Putin. More diplomats, friends, government officials, and Elders must engage with Russia to stop this horrible war. We must protect human life. It is sacred.


Ellen Lindeen, Professor Emeritus, has worked as an educator, academic, and writer throughout her professional career. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in English Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Master of Arts degree in Literature from Northwestern University, and a Certificate of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. At Waubonsee Community College from 1996-2018, Professor Lindeen taught English Composition, Shakespeare, and she created and offered the interdisciplinary courses, Peace Studies & Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights & Social Justice. Her work in Peace Studies includes: a Fulbright-Hays Grant to study Gandhi and teaching non-violence, India, summer 2008; graduate work in International Law and Human Rights at Arcadia University, Arusha, Tanzania, summer 2010; teaching at Canterbury Christ Church University,