Merchants of peace: How the “civil war” rhetoric is used to gain political capital
How rhetoric about the “civil war” is generating political capital in certain corners
In any country at war, there is always demand among its citizens for peace. For over three years now, Ukraine has unfortunately been among those countries with armed conflict taking places on its territory. Its citizens, like all those who have had a taste of war, understand the real value of peacetime life and look forward to the end of the bloodshed.
And so where there is demand, supply soon fills the need. Over the last few years, a segment of Ukrainian society has appeared that might be called “merchants of peace” or, more correctly “traders in truces.” These are politicians and activists who are taking advantage of the public mood to promote their own interests. Most often, they like to promise a truce that they are in no position to achieve, or they blame its absence on their rivals in an attempt to encourage voters to despise them.
Promises of peace have become a standard slogan in the populist arsenal of Ukrainian politics, along with promises to raise pensions and wages, and to reduce utility rates. These merchants of peace can be divided into two groups. In the first are the situational populists who simply want to take advantage of a popular trend to get the attention of voters and give their ratings a boost. The second group is those who are working on behalf of Russia and are masking their treasonous activity with the rhetoric of peace. Because both groups use similar arguments and slogans, it’s sometimes very hard to distinguish the two.
On the one hand, we might say that there’s nothing wrong with wanting peaceful life to return and talking constantly about the need for a truce. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Firstly, the conditions under which such a truce might be arranged are very important. It’s one thing when it’s on the enemy’s terms and another when it’s on Ukraine’s terms. One thing when the result is a frozen conflict and another altogether when the result is capitulation. Seemingly either option will lead to a return to peaceful civilian life. But the realities will be very different.
Ukrainian politicians who keep mouthing the mantra “Peace at any price” clearly know what this slogan really means and what the price of it will be. “Peace at any price” clearly means accepting defeat, agreeing to a partial loss of sovereignty, and changing the Constitution as dictated by the aggressor country. This is the kind of “peace” proposed by the Kremlin in exchange for the return of occupied Donbas or ORDiLO and a cease-fire. However, the fact that such a “truce” could cause a split in Ukrainian society, lead to a new conflict, or end in an internal confrontation these politicians are careful not to mention.
Pacifist movements are a natural phenomenon for countries that are at war. But there is one caveat: as long as the country is not the victim of another country’s aggression. In other words, pacifist demonstrations against war make sense in the US or the Russian Federation, whose citizens want their leaders to stop war campaigns in Iraq and Syria. But in Ukraine, whose territory has been invaded by Russian forces, calls for the government to stop the war are completely inappropriate. For the war in Ukraine to stop, Russia has to withdraw militarily. Period. All its Ageyevs, Yerofeyevs, Aleksandrovs and other “nonexistent” Russian soldiers need to go back where they came from. For this to happen, it’s the president of Russia who needs to be challenged, not the president of Ukraine. The president of Russia is waging this undeclared, shameful war against Ukraine. Only he is in a position to decide to withdraw his troops and to stop delivering arms to occupied Donbas.
The current Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, can be justifiably accused of many faults, but not wanting the war to be over, as long as there are Russian
troops in Crimea and occupied Donbas, is not one of them. Pacifist calls in Ukraine might be reasonable if Ukraine’s armed forces stood in Rostov Oblast, Krasnodar Krai or Moldova. In that case, demands for them to immediately return to their own territory would make sense. But how are Ukraine’s forces supposed to withdraw from Ukrainian territory? What Ukrainian leadership would be able to endure peace if the Kremlin does not comply with its decisions and has no intention of returning its army to Russian territory? Needless to say, Ukraine’s merchants of peace have no answer to such questions.
Understanding how truly weak their position is, those who favor “Peace at any price” are forced to engage in the same kind of manipulation. Indeed, they try to deny that Russia is involved in the conflict at all. This provides their rhetoric with some logic: if Ukraine is involved in a civil war, then the government is responsible for that. And only it can call for a ceasefire in that case. Members of the Opposition Bloc, the rump Party of the Regions and the most antiUkrainian party in the country today, have been using this kind of rhetoric in public for a long time. They openly campaign with demands to “stop the war” and “fight nazism in Ukraine,” on both Ukrainian and Russian television.
After three years of military conflict, there would seem to be more than enough evidence of Russia’s presence on Ukrainian territory. Then there’s the involvement of Russian GRU officers like Igor Ghirkin and Oleksandr Borodai in the initial stages, the tragedy of MH17, the capture of Russian soldiers who have regularly fallen into Ukrainian hands since August 2014, and the recent admission by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia was participating in the war “in Syria and Donbas.” And still there are too many Ukrainians who do not believe that Russia started this war and is involved in the armed conflict to this day. They are the target audience for the merchants of peace. All three years, they have managed to ignore and say nothing about the obvious evidence of Russia’s military presence, to say nothing of Crimea, whose occupation is unquestionable.
Anyone who is interested in Ukrainian politics can easily guess who these merchants of peace are. They are often guests on various talk shows and the real vipers’ nest of politicians and experts with these views is the NewsOne channel, which broadcasts this kind of demagoguery day and night.
NewsOne belongs to Kharkiv MP Yevhen Murayev, who makes no bones about his pro-Russian views and provides people with similar views an open platform on this channel. Not long ago, NewsOne found itself in the midst of a scandal: its employees helped Russian journalists film a propaganda clip for a program hosted by Russian presenter Dmitry Kiseliov, famed for his “We’ll leave the US in a pile of radioactive dust” comment. Formally, no laws were broken, and so the incident had no real consequences for Murayev’s people.
This kind of pseudo-peaceful rhetoric can be heard from yet another high-profile Kharkiv MP, media mogul Vadym Rabinovych. He recently started a new political party called Za Zhyttia meaning “For Life” that is clearly oriented towards pro-Russian voters, with Murayev. More than anyone else of this inclination, Rabinovych continuously talks about “Peace at any price”—meaning “peace on Putin’s terms”—on every talk show he appears in. And this tactic is leading to results. Today, Za Zhyttia is rapidly gaining popularity in southern and eastern oblasts. In some places it is even squeezing out the Opposition Bloc, which has been the local favorite for years since its PR days. What’s more, Rabinovych has turned out to be a fairly decent presenter on television. His own show, What’s Rabinovych to you?, airs on the 112 Ukraina channel and has been the leader among top news programs in Ukraine more than once.
It’s not clear to this day who is sponsoring Rabinovych and Murayev’s party. Some say that Yanukovych cronies are behind it, in the expectation that, should he win in the next election, Rabinovych will help them return to Ukraine.
Yet another popular politician who favors pacifist rhetoric is MP Nadiya Savchenko, the former captive pilot. She also gained a spot as a presenter on NewsOne where she offers the same collection of slogans. According to Savchenko, the war is “convenient” for the current leadership in Kyiv and that’s why Poroshenko has no intention of ending it. Moreover, she never offers any suggestions for how the president might go about ending it in the shortest term possible and what he should do with the Russian forces on Ukrainian territory. Abstractions like “you have to negotiate,” as Savchenko likes to put it, are never concretized. Neither Savchenko nor the other politicians who love to talk about the need for “Peace at any price” bother to provide any details about the terms to which Ukraine should be agreeing with Putin or what kind of compromises Ukraine should be willing to make.
Savchenko’s political project is linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, whose close ties to Putin make clear where her rhetoric is coming from. More than likely she will most likely also be trying to gain votes among the same pro-Russian voters as the Opposition Bloc and Za Zhyttia. Indeed, it’s possible that she will even join Za Zhyttia.
Worn out by the war and a seemingly endless stream of bad news on television, many Ukrainians are ready to believe almost anyone who will promise to rescue them, no matter how unrealistic their promises might actually be. The belief in saviors is irrational. Like anyone else, Ukrainians who run into serious problems will, in the face of all common sense, believe in magicians and fortune-tellers who promise to magically relieve them of spinsterhood or serious diseases.
The merchants of peace have a good feel for the national mood and have quite skillfully taken advantage of the moment to propose their services as peacemakers. It’s already clear, unfortunately, that in the next election, plenty of Ukrainians will once again be happy to be conned at the ballot box.
PACIFIST MOVEMENTS ARE A NATURAL PHENOMENON FOR COUNTRIES THAT ARE AT WAR. BUT THERE IS ONE CAVEAT: AS LONG AS THE COUNTRY IS NOT THE VICTIM OF ANOTHER COUNTRY'S AGGRESSION