The war of aggression that Russia has perpetrated in Ukraine has rightly generated widespread condemnation, both among Russia’s Western critics and the world at large. On the war’s obvious heinousness, almost all of the U.S. political spectrum is in agreement. However, opinions as to the appropriate Western response proceed from vastly different premises.
The predominant left position is, on the whole, resolutely antiwar. U.S. activists of all stripes have been rolling out ambitious organizing efforts in the hopes of nudging the conflict towards diplomacy and an eventual ceasefire. Given the considerable death toll and the millions of refugees the war has produced — to say nothing of the threat of conventional or nuclear escalation — the matter is an urgent one.
In the process of organizing opposition, there has, of course, been much in the way of internal debate among various left factions. More contentious dimensions include the question of arming Ukrainians, the comparative moral weighting of nonviolence and self-defense, and the degree of culpability that should be attributed to NATO for its demonstrable role in decades of ratcheting tensions.
Whatever their perspective on the circumstances, organizers from left-liberals to communists are calling upon the means of protest at their disposal, from media initiatives to global rallies to demonstrations at the thresholds of the military-industrial complex. To mount an effective confrontation with the U.S. empire and defense industry and influence a far-flung conflict is a daunting prospect. Yet despite the historic scale of the challenge, coalitions of antiwar activists are striving to realize their vision of the end of imperial aggression — perpetrated by Russia and the U.S. alike.
Defaulting to Militarism
Antiwar organizers generally share a conviction that diplomacy should take precedence in resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The vast majority are vehemently opposed to any form of active U.S. military intervention — a prudent stance for those who wish to avoid a hot war with a nuclear power. Unsurprisingly, the same cannot be said for the U.S. political establishment, which has seized upon the opportunity to vilify Russia, seemingly eager to court a clash between the two deteriorating superpowers. Right-wing war fervor, always simmering below the surface, has boiled over; Republican jingoists (and a number of foolhardy op-eds in major media) espoused everything from a no-fly zone to refusing to rule out the deployment of U.S. ground troops.
These lawmakers’ martial fantasies are more than a little cavalier about the potential for Great Power conflict. Comparatively less reckless centrists, for their part, mostly favor a two-pronged approach: the imposition of devastating punitive sanctions on Russia and the delivery of vast amounts of weaponry to Ukrainian forces — stopping short of outright U.S. military intervention.
Democrats have leaped to snipe at the right by demonstrating who can demand the larger flood of weaponry, while leveraging the conflict for all manner of political purposes. By any measure, it has been a field day for fawning, ham-fisted propagandists like noted stenographer Bret Stephens. (“The U.S. stands up to bullies!”) Both parties are unequivocal in their shared support for an overflowing bounty of war materiel and other assistance. As of this writing, the White House is requesting a stunning $33 billion for Ukraine. The number keeps climbing.
The U.S. public largely endorses these policies, with a majority approving of or wishing to increase weaponry shipments. (Further, a remarkable 35 percent favor direct military action — “even if it risks nuclear conflict with Russia,” speaking poorly of their aptitude in risk assessment.) NATO has held out against calls to impose a no-fly zone; at least the military alliance sees the wisdom in avoiding a shooting war with Russian forces. The shooting will instead be done by Ukrainian hands with plentiful Western arms — very much to the benefit of the U.S. defense industry. It is no coincidence that we see such an eagerness to fortify Ukraine among the government and media. Not only is the state keen to see Russia battered and chastened, but conflict and arms deals, as ever, mean profit.
A desire to aid Ukrainian resistance is perhaps understandable. (Though its ranks of far right nationalists might give pause.) Supporters claim that arming Ukraine will make possible a resounding Russian defeat and withdrawal, which, in theory, could shorten the conflict. “But if it doesn’t,” writes Jeremy Scahill in The Intercept, “and the flow of weapons delays a negotiated settlement between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, then it is hard to see the massive scope of the weapons transfers as a clear positive.” Further Russian retaliation and the deployment of Western weaponry in a protracted insurgency could result in a great deal of harm and sharpen the already-pronounced refugee crisis.
Antiwar activists perceive the inundation of Ukraine with armaments as yet another round of war profiteering — one that risks precluding diplomatic solutions. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy petitions the world to arm Ukraine and intervene militarily, antiwar groups, in contrast, have spoken out in strident opposition to the staggering influx of Western arms, as well as the Cold-War style bellicosity that U.S. power has again taken up with gusto.
Antiwar Coalitions in Action
In the meantime, large-scale real-world protests against the war have erupted on numerous fronts — both within Russia and Ukraine and across the globe. Progressive, pacifist and anti-imperialist groups in the U.S. are no exception, having mobilized their considerable institutional resources to voice their own opposition. Given the unlikelihood of influencing the actions of the Russian government, they’ve targeted the realm in which they are mostly likely to have an impact — namely, U.S. policy. Because of its deep entanglements in the war, the U.S. response could easily be a critical determining factor on the outcome: either negotiation, drawdown and eventual peace, or escalation and sustained bloodshed.
Though the U.S. antiwar movement has never reattained the scale of its Vietnam-era heyday, plenty of groups with antiwar missions are active in the modern day. Many date to the resistance against the U.S.’s imperial expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s — for example, CODEPINK, the sizeable progressive and feminist antiwar organization, was founded in 2002. The group has been one of the more visible in mounting a response to the Ukraine issue, voicing dissent with the provision of weapons and directing public attention to the geopolitical context of NATO’s aggressive posture in the preceding years.
Truthout reached CODEPINK cofounder and activist Medea Benjamin, a Green Party member and former California Senate candidate, to learn more about the group’s agitational efforts and how antiwar elements in the U.S. might conceivably affect policy. As Benjamin sees it, the effort begins with education and informing the public: counteracting a media apparatus that insistently seeks to justify opening the floodgates of advanced weaponry — sometimes very directly.
“[The idea that weapons and sanctions are necessary] is being pushed by people in the White House and most members of Congress. It’s certainly being pushed by the corporate media,” Benjamin said. (Take The New York Times, for instance, which conceded sanctions may be “harsh,” but deemed they were ultimately “appropriate.” We are left to wonder why the Times didn’t insist the U.S. be so “harshly” sanctioned in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.)
Benjamin underscored the structural incentives: “The weapons companies [are] concerned about the drawing down of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. [The state] sees this as an opportunity to really debilitate Russia.… The ability to bleed the Russian economy and to curtail its reach also means that the U.S. is strengthening its position globally.”
CODEPINK and its allies, galvanized by the war, have busied themselves in a flurry of activity. CODEPINK had in fact already rallied a number of times in protest of rising tensions, before the crisis’s late-February outbreak. Immediately after Russian troops made their first incursion into Ukraine, the organization, along with U.K.-based groups like the Stop the War Coalition, the No to NATO Network and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, held an emergency online panel and rally, bringing together figures like Jeremy Corbyn and historian and writer Vijay Prashad to denounce the war (Corbyn called it “abominable, appalling and unnecessary”), and to call for peace.
CODEPINK’s series of webinars drew thousands — including, as Benjamin described, “representatives from members of parliaments from many governments, including the British, Irish, German, French and Spanish, [and] well-known academics and activists.” In April, Benjamin also hosted another “Stop the War in Ukraine” online rally featuring Noam Chomsky, another appearance from Vijay Prashad, Greek leftist politician Yanis Varoufakis, New Left Review editor Tariq Ali, and other notable voices.
These online events occurred in tandem with real-world rallies — “days of action,” which, Benjamin said, brought together “about 125 different groups around the world.” CODEPINK has long worked beside organizations like the ANSWER Coalition (another large antiwar group in the United States, which has also hosted online conversations). Together with the Black Alliance for Peace, Peace Action, and others, the coalition put together a rally in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square as tensions rose. Further CODEPINK protests took place across various U.S. locales, where volunteers demonstrated, put up flyers and gathered signatures on petitions.
As Benjamin framed it, the core message in conducting this public outreach amounted to posing the questions, “Do you want the war in Ukraine to end? Do you want to save the lives of Ukrainian people? Well, then let’s call for a ceasefire and for serious negotiations.” She feels that this approach is a convincing one: “Once we have a chance to talk to people about it, we do get them to our side.”
Benjamin and CODEPINK plan to sustain their current rates of activity. In June, the group is joining the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, D.C. — an effort spearheaded by the Poor People’s Campaign to speak out against militarism and the bloated defense budget, among other systemic issues. Benjamin also highlighted future plans to send activists to protest an upcoming NATO strategic summit in Madrid, along with an international antiwar coalition of considerable size. Their hope is to apply pressure at a critical time: “With the upcoming election in November, I think that we can be part of talking about why this is happening, not allowing Biden to get away with blaming everything on Russia, but instead putting the blame on militarism and the inability to really seriously push for a negotiated solution,” Benjamin told Truthout.
Joining CODEPINK at the Madrid NATO summit and elsewhere will be World Beyond War (WBW), a U.S.-based pacifist organization that maintains international chapters, including in Ukraine. David Swanson is WBW’s executive director. In a conversation with Truthout, he described the group’s assiduous organizing efforts. Like CODEPINK, WBW’s current strategy is to inform the public, presenting pacifist arguments for abolishing war, nuclear weaponry and arms dealing. WBW’s output has included innumerable articles, books, interviews, op-eds, videos, podcasts, and other media. In addition, said Swanson, “We’ve done tons of webinars, online and offline educational events. We have lots of speakers, we go and talk to classrooms, go and talk to peace groups that organize events and do tons of the same online.”
To augment the media push, WBW has also directed substantial real-world actions. “The past week, we’ve been doing protests all over the world,” said Swanson. The immediate future will see WBW participate in widespread protests on a global day of action, planned for May 7.“We’ve done these days before, usually in coalition with other groups, sometimes globally, sometimes nationally, trying to do days of events where we have at least small and sometimes large demonstrations or rallies or protests everywhere.”
WBW is also engaging in some more pointed confrontations. In one instance, a WBW advisory board member disrupted an event in Canada by confronting the deputy prime minister with an antiwar, anti-NATO diatribe. Another arm of WBW’s strategy, ongoing for years, is to protest at the physical offices of weapons manufacturers — major beneficiaries of wars that are incentivized to ensure they remain as drawn-out and destructive as possible. WBW will be demonstrating at the next annual meeting of aviation and defense corporation Northrop Grumman. Members aim to draw attention to the key role that the corporation and other arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin play in “the war on Ukraine from which [they are] proudly profiting,” Swanson said. “There are Congress members proudly profiting from stock ownership in Lockheed Martin.”
Swanson sees the attention that the war on Ukraine has received as an opportunity to buttress opposition to militarism in general — and to flag certain contradictory narratives from U.S. empire and its mouthpieces. “After decades of demanding that war victims be treated with some sympathy and respect,” he said, “to have that finally happen in one place is an opportunity to say ‘Yes! Right on! What about all the other war victims?’ To have the U.S. government want war treated as a crime and prosecuted in a court — wonderful! Now how about all the other wars?”
That sort of hypocrisy around foreign policy is one of the state’s (and dominant media’s) most reliable features. Again, the tragedy of Ukraine has been especially amplified because it serves a convenient ideological function in contesting Russia’s geopolitical position. (And, as many have pointed, or blurted, out: Sympathy towards this conflict has also had particular purchase because Ukraine is considered a “civilized” European country with a large white population. A number of media figures have told on themselves on this front.)
Key to WBW’s ideology is an unswerving commitment to pacifism. As Swanson described it, “We are opposed to all war, all militarism, all war thinking, all support for military funding, always, without exception.… We think that’s actually the moral thing to do.” Nonviolence, for WBW, is non-negotiable — as evidenced by a recent article of his, which criticized the Poor People’s Campaign for an email that seemed to condone arming Ukraine. As Swanson continued: “To drag this on, to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian as we have their backs with the money rolling in — I don’t think this is a moral position. This is the point we struggle to educate people on: that the United States and Ukraine, as well as Russia, should be trying to end the war. It’s almost considered treasonous. The ‘proper’ position is to want to continue the war to weaken Russia.”
People Can Still Stop Wars
Countless organizers are just as aghast as Swanson at the grotesqueries of this war as well at its ideological utility for other powerful warmongering interests, their rank hypocrisy on display. Despite its distance from the conflict and a lack of leverage over Russia’s actions, the U.S. antiwar movement does, conceivably, have the potential to impact its own government. A U.S. pivot to pursuing a diplomatic resolution might help avoid a prolonged and grueling war of attrition. Yet if present conditions continue to accelerate — continued Russian aggression (as well as their significant battlefield setbacks) as the West increasingly arms Ukraine — the war may develop into the latter.
There are challenging moral questions to be weighed by the war’s opponents: questions of pacifism and self-defense, of how best to show solidarity with a beleaguered Ukraine, of how a war of aggression might be mitigated without worsening violence. Even understanding the conflict requires triangulating between the relentless propaganda of two powerful and deceptive nations. It would be easy for antiwar activists to give into the long odds and a sense of impotence or apathy, in a struggle that can seem quixotic. Yet the U.S. military and government, while an imposing edifice of power and profit, is not invulnerable, and mass protest and dissent have swayed the course of its history in the past. Despite their differences, antiwar organizers are collectively buoyed by a faith in what history has demonstrated: that people, when organized, can still stop wars.