By Owei Lakemfa
I am not a pacifist. Not all who seek peace are pacifists. There is such a thing as a bad peace, which is the silencing of the gun even if the terms are not favourable.
This is what the unforgettable Russian President Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, alias Lenin, in 1918 called a “shameful peace.” This is the point former German Chancellor Angela Merkel made this Tuesday, advising the actors in Ukraine to return to The Minsk Agreements which to me, are a basis for ceasefire and negotiations with Russia.
I love the lyrics of ‘The Impossible Dream’ by Diana Ross, a Grammy Lifetime Award Winning musician who sang: “To dream the impossible dream. To fight the unbeatable foe. To bear with unbearable sorrow. To run where the brave dare not go…To fight for the right. Without question or pause. To be willing to march. Into hell for a heavenly cause.” However, this does not mean peace should not be preferred where available. Bob Marley sang that: “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.” In other words, war is not necessarily about sending young people to commit suicide like the Zelensky government is doing in Ukraine.
In my March 3, 2022, column titled ‘Peace is costly, but far cheaper than war,’ I had argued along those lines, and had mainly gotten negative responses from readers in Europe. One of them in a Facebook group chat I belong to wrote: “Peace is not always cheaper than war. Quite on the contrary because if you think that through and live by that motto consequently to the end, you will be the slave of the one willing to go to war. And it is pointless to just tout ‘settlement’ as alternative to war as if it were so easy.
“A settlement that even resembles fairness can only be negotiated from a position of strength because if the other side holds all the power any settlement will only be dictated terms. Even the old philosophers knew that when they said that whoever wishes peace must be prepared for war. And if you want to avoid war and conflict at any cost that just means that the bully always wins.
“He uses force and to end the violence you give him whatever he wants. And if he later wants more, he just repeats that cycle. It is like someone comes to your house, beats you up, eats your food and rapes your daughter and then offers you – as a settlement – to stop beating you in exchange for the rest of your food and your second daughter but only on three nights a week.”
My position is that peace can be used for various purposes, including buying time and rebuilding your country. In other words, peace is about tactics and strategy. I will cite just one example: the March 3, 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and the four Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. The First World War was raging, the Russian economy had collapsed, its armed forces were in disarray, there was also a civil war (just as in Ukraine); there were large war casualties, many of its citizens were displaced; there were serious food shortages and civil unrest. The Russians also had carried out a revolution the year before and Western powers and the Japanese wanted the revolution reversed.
It was in this near-impossible situation, the then Russian leader, Lenin, whose country was part of the Western Allies, reached out to the opposite Central Powers for ceasefire and negotiations. In reality, Russia was in no position to negotiate, but its government wanted an immediate ceasefire to implement its three basic programmes of ‘Peace, Bread and Land’.
Both sides agreed on the negotiation framework of peace with “no annexations or indemnities.” Despite this, the Powers asked Russia to surrender its lands. The leader of the Russian delegation and Foreign Minister, Leon Trotsky, lamented: “Germany and Austria-Hungary are cutting off from the domains of the former Russian Empire territories more than 150,000 square kilometres in size.” He thought it was like a death sentence. But Lenin told the ruling Central Committee that signing was the only way to stop further invasions of the country. He told his comrades: “You must sign this shameful peace in order to save the world revolution.”
Under the peace treaty, the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians took Poland and sliced from it a new country; the Germans colonised most of Ukraine and seized the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, turning them to vassal states; while the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), seized the districts of Erdehan, Kars, and Batum. Russia was also forced to recognise the independence of Finland and Georgia, and ordered to demobilise its army.
Having signed one of the worst peace agreements in history but with the guns no longer booming, the Lenin government turned to rebuilding the country and its economy. It redistributed land amongst the landless, expanded labour rights that enabled workers to control production, carried out mass education and making electricity available and affordable across the country. The Marxist-Leninist strategy was to use the bad peace to rebuild the country, and then from a position of strength, go about changing the treaty. I think Ukraine should learn from this.
Contrary to the dominant narrative, Ukraine is not entirely the victim, although it is playing that role. Twice, Ukrainians from the eastern part of the country were democratically elected; twice their compatriots from the West overthrew those governments leading to the uprising in the East and the Civil War. Merkel as German Chancellor had warned in 2008 that Ukraine was being run by oligarchs.
She, therefore, opposed Ukraine and Georgia joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. In this week’s interview, she gave a second reason for her opposition: “I was very sure… that Putin is not going to just let that happen. From his perspective, that would be a declaration of war.”
There were the Minsk Agreements which guaranteed a ceasefire, acceptable negotiations between Kiev and the separatists which Ukraine refused to extend. Merkel in 2020 had warned Ukraine that there was no alternative to the agreements and that it was counterproductive for Ukraine to abandon them.
But who listened to Merkel then, and who is listening now that she is reiterating these truths? Let me add my own truth; the only viable peace I see in Ukraine is one without victory by either side; a peace without the defeat of either Ukraine or Russia. Tragically, NATO hopes for the defeat of Russia which is why it is pouring arms and funds into Ukraine and discouraging any ceasefire or negotiated settlement. Time will tell.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.