Ernie Regehr presents analysis of Ukraine war

May 18, 2023 | News | Volume 27 Issue 10
Maria H. Klassen | Special to Canadian Mennonite
St. Catharines, Ont.
Ernie Regehr (Photo courtesy of Conrad Grebel University College)

Ernie Regehr—a prominent Canadian voice on disarmament and peacebuilding for over 40 years—shared his unique analysis of the Ukraine conflict at Grace Mennonite Church in St. Catharines, Ontario on May 6.

Regehr co-founded Project Peacemakers in 1976 and currently serves as a research fellow at Conrad Grebel University College. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2003.

As much as we all want the war to end, Regehr said, it is more complicated than just stopping the fighting. In his presentation, Regehr discussed the international cost of the war, the roots of war, how the war will likely end and negotiation mechanisms.

International law is hard to reinforce, Regehr said, but it works. When one country grabs another country’s territory, and wants to change the government by force, such violations of the United Nations Charter do deep damage. The global multi-lateral system becomes polarized and increasingly militarized.

There is opposition to a ceasefire at this point because Russia is in control of some Ukrainian territory and a ceasefire would be seen as rewarding Russia’s violation of the Charter.

Another cost of the war is seen in the far north. “In the Arctic, Russia and the NATO countries have co-operated in areas such as search and rescue activities, cleaning up oil spills and the joint management of fisheries,” Regehr said. “This has all shut down.”

As for the motivation behind the war, Regehr says the world is not sure why Russian president Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine. Was it to reinforce his own unsteady position in his regime? Was it to create a compliant neighbour? Or was it that Russia felt increasingly vulnerable to NATO creeping eastward?

“The world order could have gone differently in the 1990s and 2000s, and changed the way the East and the West related to each other,” Regehr said. Did NATO’s failure to seek a more cooperative path influence Putin’s choice? Did Ukraine, as a small nation living next to a large nation, also mismanage its relations with Russia? Did Ukraine’s request to join NATO make the war more likely? Did Ukraine’s lack of internal unity ease Russia into taking advantage of its neighbour?

How will it end? Anything can happen, but what will probably happen? The war is now stalemated, but in Regehr’s analysis, it is not a “mutually hurting stalemate.” He says the nations have not yet reached the kind of exhaustion that could bring them to a negotiating table. Russia has a new set of recruits and an expanded military industrial base, while Ukraine continues to receive new weapons. Could neighbours such as China and India help? “They have both been critical of Russia’s invasion,” Regehr says, having recently voted yes on a UN General Assembly resolution that included a brief reference to Russian aggression. This is a significant signal.

There are direct talks taking place between Russia and Ukraine about grain exports and prisoner exchange. Regehr believes efforts should be made to continue and expand such small exchanges, perhaps by including talks on protection of hospitals and schools. There is hope when there is talking, he said. Trust can build from small negotiations.

He believes a basic peace table needs to be set up, established and funded by other countries. Representatives from the warring parties would initially be at low levels, but with experts in negotiation and peacebuilding. This could be a place where proposals are informally tested and an inventory of constructive ideas built. Canada could become involved by sitting at this peace table and garnering funds.

The event ended with a time for questions and some talk of further local peace organizing. 

Ernie Regehr (Photo courtesy of Conrad Grebel University College)

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I am no expert on Ukraine. I have, however, read Timothy Snyder's analysis of the war. I think Regehr might have added Putin's mystical sense of a Russian motherland. This is an entirely irrational aspect of the war.

This article brings out some practical aspects of preventing and curtailing war, and re-establishing peace, which is great, but sadly we must add that deterrence plays an enormous role in prevention. If Ukraine had been much stronger and part of NATO, Russia wouldn't have invaded. Unfortunately, military measures are usually vital in maintaining and regaining peace.

Mennonites could fully acknowledge this and reflect on the many limitations of complete nonviolence. Nonviolence is very great, but alone it doesn't usually resolve international conflicts. Rather, most solutions are compromises, involving negotiation and cooperation, but also deterrence and, if necessary, force. Blended solutions, not ideal ones, work best.

Not accepting this means our potential helpfulness is very limited. We don't assist with reasonable security measures or help improve them. We only participate in nonviolent initiatives, so we don't help much with what actually works - balanced approaches.

I'd like that to change, from local policing to international issue. We ourselves are only as nonviolent as possible, not completely nonviolent, so we need a lot of security, too. We're much more useful if we admit this and pitch in. Currently, we're bystanders, relying on others.

We're often healers in conflicts, too, but in Ukraine and elsewhere, other solutions are also needed. We can still emphasize nonviolence, but must also bend to accommodate many unavoidable, harsh realities. Compromise is the next level of peacemaking for Mennonites.

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