Letter to our Colleagues about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Letter to our Colleagues about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine 

Susanne Terry

Jackie Font-Guzmán

Bernie Mayer 

March 17, 2022

Like many mediators and other conflict professionals we share the desire to weigh in on the invasion of Ukraine and its devastating consequences for the Ukrainian people. At the same time, we are acutely aware of the limitations of what we can do to have an impact on what is happening. Nonetheless, act we must.  

As citizens of our respective countries and of the world, it is important that we add our voices to those condemning the invasion and urging our governments to take reasonable action to pressure the Russian leadership to end this war. And as conflict professionals, we have a responsibility to use our skills to promote conversations about the difficult political, economic, and moral issues raised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the response of the rest of the world to it. 

In doing so, however, it is important that we promote a richer understanding of what it means to try to stop this violence and enter into meaningful negotiations. Our natural urge to take action, to offer declarations of support, and to give voice to our commitment to constructive conflict resolution can lead to overly simplistic and performative statements. We are especially concerned that any calls for negotiations made without consideration of conditions that are necessary to lead to just and equitable outcomes are potentially dangerous. These types of statements, while well intentioned, do not offer the constructive input into the public discourse that we could be making. They may even unintentionally support the intolerable status quo we want to change.

There is valuable input that we could offer — for example an understanding of conflict dynamics, of negotiation, of communication, and of the interaction between offering an olive branch and finding effective ways of deterring hostile acts. We can clarify that we are not looking at a conflict that involves two countries who do not get along but at an invasion of a smaller and weaker country by a powerful neighbor who used to rule them. While most of the work we do may be as third parties, it is embedded in a set of principles about equity, empowerment, and autonomy that is critical to what makes it effective. So let’s not let a commitment to being even handed prevent us from taking a moral stand.

Mediation and negotiation have been and will continue to be used to secure temporary cease-fires, safe corridors, and numerous other necessary activities to lessen the devastating effects on the civilian population. Hopefully, at some point, these efforts will lead to a just end to these hostilities. But we should be very careful about calling for the cessation of hostilities at a time when an invaded country has little leverage with which to negotiate lest we find ourselves inadvertently calling for “Peace at any price.” Of course, we want hostilities to end, and the sooner a cease fire the better. But a meaningful peace agreement would need to include the withdrawal of Russian forces, restoration of Ukrainian autonomy, security guarantees and plans to rebuild the country. This can happen if the nations of the world take a strong and powerful stand against the Russian actions, and each of us respond with the support we are able to give to these efforts.

We suggest several key principles that we feel should be reflected in the public statements our community makes about this invasion. These principles can guide us in crafting more credible and effective contributions to the public conversation.

  • Conditions for negotiation: Negotiations and peace are clearly desirable, but in calling for negotiations in particular and peace more generally we need to consider how to create the possibility of doing so without one side being put in a totally powerless position and having to capitulate in order to save its population.
  • Disruption and connection: To promote a peaceful and just outcome, both disruption (of the system and calculus behind the actions of Russia) and connection (with potential allies in this effort and among the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the others involved) are essential. However, connection without disruption (e.g., negotiations without sanctions, calling for peace without recognizing the critical importance of organized resistance, and asking for understanding without rejecting the Russian narrative) amounts to supporting the powerful aggressors over their victims. 
  • Power: Failing to recognize the role and impact of power differences in this or any conflict inevitably advantages the more powerful. 
  • Race, class, and gender: The intensity of our reactions and level of support for victims of violence is often affected by the race, class or gender of the victims. This in no way suggests that we should offer anything less than full support to the Ukrainians but we should consider where we may be failing to offer similar support.
  • Differential impacts: The actions for which we are calling inevitably have differential impacts. An increase in gas price may be an annoyance for some, but for others, it means not being able to buy enough gas to get to work. When we call for sacrifice, we must also ask for equity. Selecting and implementing sanctions should be done with the understanding of the complex dynamics, interconnectedness, and often disproportionate impact of sacrifices. We are not suggesting easing of the sanctions, but supporting assistance for those in our own countries and elsewhere who are particularly vulnerable to their consequences.   
  • Complexity: Let’s avoid simple calls for peace and negotiation. Successful efforts to understand and address this conflict requires paying attention to the historical context, power dynamics, social justice implications, and the complex systems within which this conflict is taking place.
  • False equivalence:  We recognize the legitimate concerns of all involved, including the Russian people, but this recognition ought not lead us into false equivalence which denies the fundamental responsibility of the Russian government for the horrors its invasion has unleashed. We also acknowledge atrocities committed elsewhere by or with the support of NATO and the US, without letting this deter us from condemning the Russians actions and supporting Ukrainian and worldwide resistance to it.
  • Performativity: Effective public statements are connected to a commitment to engaging in ongoing efforts at fundamental change. Otherwise, they are simply performative. We saw this with the many vague supportive statements for Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Extinction Rebellion–when lots of nice things were said that were unconnected to such a commitment.

Actions we can take:

It is important to commit ourselves to the realistic actions we can take with the full awareness of the limits of our ability to make a discernible difference in the course this conflict takes. We believe our most important contribution is as participants in the widespread expression of solidarity with the Ukrainians, condemnation of the invasion, and support for actions to hold the Russian authorities accountable. We also should offer tangible support where possible to the people who are struggling against the invasion in the Ukraine and Russia and the refugees from the zone of conflict. Some possible actions we can take:

  • Commit to these principles and use each other for feedback and accountability about the statements we put forward. 
  • Where possible, assist people to come together to discuss the nature of this conflict, how to support those working to end the invasion, and how best to welcome refugees into our communities.
  • Act to support those being harmed, for example, by contributing time and money to organizations supporting the Ukrainian people, supporting congressional funding, writing letters to the editor. 
  • Participate in public demonstrations in support of the Ukrainian people. 
  • Support as best we can those courageous Russians protesting their own government.
  • Put pressure on our governments and corporations that do business with Russia to:
  • Maintain strong sanctions
  • Protect those most vulnerable to the enormous economic and environmental impacts of all that is occurring
  • Welcome refugees in a generous and timely manner
  • Support efforts to bring an end to the conflict in a just way
  • Prepare for the likelihood that resistance to the invasion will require a long term effort
  • And more…

Suzanne Terry’s latest book (editor) is More Justice More Peace: When Peace Makers are Advocates.  Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer are co-authors of The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change.

                        author

Susanne Terry

Susanne Terry has pioneered mediation and conflict education in the state of Vermont. One of the first mediators and conflict educators in the state, she created the Mediation Program of Woodbury College which later moved to Champlain College and became a highly respected graduate degree program.  This program was nationally… MORE >

                        author

Bernard Mayer

Bernie Mayer, Professor of Dispute Resolution, The Werner Institute, Creighton University, is a leader in the field of conflict resolution.  Bernie has worked in child welfare, mental health, substance abuse treatment, and psychotherapy.  As a founding partner of CDR Associates, Bernie has provided conflict intervention for families, communities, universities, corporations,… MORE >

                        author

Jacqueline Font-Guzmán

Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán (Jackie) serves as the inaugural executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), president's office. She is also a tenured professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Jackie has actively participated in the fields of conflict, peacebuilding studies, and DEI through national and international conferences/workshops. She… MORE >

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