Connor H. O’Brien (Ukraine) Peace Corps Volunteer says: Choose violence
Why words like ‘diplomacy,’ ‘ceasefire’ and ‘negotiations’ are such rubbish in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
I will never forget the day I arrived in Ukraine to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was a cool September afternoon, several months after I graduated from American University. After landing in Kyiv, my fellow Americans and I were whisked off to the northern city of Chernihiv for orientation. On the bus ride, as we fought against jet lag and looked out upon expansive fields of wheat, a Ukrainian woman who worked for the Peace Corps addressed us. She explained that our orientation would be in an old Soviet-era hotel and that we needed to put our luggage in the basement upon arrival. She went on to explain that the basement was built to be a bomb shelter during the Cold War. With a twinkle in her eye, she grinned, leaned forward, and said in a low voice, “Do you know who we thought was going to be bombing us?” We all shared a nervous laugh.
That was in 2016, back when the war in Ukraine had become a frozen conflict isolated in the Donbas, a region in the east. The Peace Corps had deemed it safe enough for us to come back to the country following its evacuation of volunteers in 2014, and my group was the third to arrive since then. While living in a village on the outskirts of the city with a kind elderly couple and their dogs, I spent my days training and teaching local school children English. My group spent three months in Chernihiv before being sent off to various parts of Ukraine for the rest of our two years of service. It was a good three months, and as an American who admittedly spoke very poor Ukrainian, it was very easy to forget some days there was even a war going on.
Today, things are very different. Since the February 2022 invasion, the Russian military has bombed Chernihiv repeatedly and encircled it throughout the opening stages of the new phase of the war. The hotel near my usual bus stop was destroyed. The small village where I lived was hit repeatedly with cluster munitions. The elderly couple I lived with spent days in their freezing cellar while their neighbors’ houses burned to the ground and Russians advanced less than three miles away. I couldn’t reach them for weeks and feared they had been killed before I finally made contact with them. They sent me photos of destroyed houses, their car full of shrapnel and my former school with its windows shattered from the bombings. I remember the countless phone calls I had with my Ukrainian coworkers, friends and students in the early days of the war. Their voices, filled with a terror and anxiety that I’ll never truly understand, will remain in my mind forever.
But, the Ukrainians stood their ground. Because of their courage and sacrifice — and Western-supplied weapons and equipment — Chernihiv withstood a siege, and by April the Russians had been forced out of the entire region. This was not the result of negotiations or diplomacy; this was because the Ukrainians were able to kill enough Russians to make them retreat.
And here we come to the heart of why I wrote this piece. Something that I feel many students and scholars of international relations struggle with right now is that we are trained to understand the nuance and complexity of international issues. Yet, here we are, confronted by a situation where the facts are almost too simple: Russia invaded Ukraine in a war of conquest. Ukraine did not provoke Russia in any way to warrant this action. The matter is cut and dry. I fear that our training has led some to look for ambiguity when there is none. I’ve heard peace plans from scholars, politicians and students that “give Russia an out,” “let Putin save face” and allow Russia to “get some small wins” to create “peace.” I’ve heard a plethora of calls for “diplomacy” or “negotiation.”
Let’s be clear about what the unspoken part of these positions are: Ukraine should be willing to give up some of its territory and sovereignty in exchange for “peace,” and the U.S. and its allies should pressure it to do so if it is reluctant. This is absolute malarkey. Ukraine was immorally attacked, not because of “NATO enlargement” or a fictitious “Nazi government,” but because Russia fundamentally does not respect Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation. Ukraine’s main war aim is to have complete sovereignty over all its territory. Russia’s main war aim is to annex as much of Ukraine’s territory as it can and keep Ukraine as a vassal state in its sphere of influence. These goals are obviously mutually exclusive with no compromise possible. This is not a war of two imperial powers’ petty squabbles, but an immoral invasion where Ukraine is fighting desperately for its very existence.
If this war is to end justly, it’s not going to be through high-minded diplomacy or complex negotiations; it’s going to be because Ukraine can kill enough Russians to push them back. To refuse to accept that is to live in a fantasy. Any peace agreement that allows Russia to retain any territory it has invaded since 2014, including Crimea and the Donbas, would be unjust because it would reward Russia’s actions against Ukraine. For this war to end justly, Russia needs to be driven out.
Of course, if Ukraine sees it is in its best interest to make some territorial concessions to end the war, they have every right to do so. But so far, the Ukrainian government has categorically refused this, along with every single Ukrainian I know personally. Americans will never be the ones to convince Ukraine that an unjust peace is better than continuing to fight for freedom.
If this war goes on longer, it will mean more suffering for Ukraine. More cities bombed, more blackouts, more soldiers and civilians killed, more massacres, more Buchas, more mass rapes, more children being killed. Yet there is no one, I repeat, no one, who understands that better than the Ukrainians themselves, and they still prefer to fight for their independence. Freedom is a precious commodity for the Ukrainians, and we cannot tell them to sacrifice it for their own best interests. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., I am baffled by those who believe that they can dictate the timeline for other people’s liberation. I cannot comprehend those who would prefer an unjust peace, which is the absence of conflict, over a just peace, which is the presence of justice.
The course for our foreign policy is clear, perhaps clearer now than in any other time since the Second World War. The United States needs to back Ukraine to the hilt. We need to continue the supply of weapons, equipment and aid, and all other assistance short of fighting the Russians directly.
As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, I cherish the notion of peace, and I believe that diplomacy and negotiation are often the best ways to maintain it. But in this case, I must be clear: violence is the solution to this problem. As long as Ukraine is willing to fight for its freedom, we need to be there to support it.
Connor is an alumni-auditor, currently taking a graduate class at the School of International Service. He graduated from American University in 2016 and served in Ukraine with the Peace Corps for two years. He got his master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in 2022. All views are his alone and do not represent the views of the Peace Corps, his employer or anyone else.
4 CommentsLeave a comment
Bravo. Your experience and eloquent description of Ukrainians and the Russian leadership and
offensive actions is telling. Violence here is the correct response. Thanks.
Thank you, Conner O’Brien for your brilliant anaiysis of what is happening in Urkraine and the various political positions surrounding the conduct of the war. I sense that you are writing for another audience, not the RPCV community. I would choose to describe the option,, not as violence, but military victory should be our choice to end the aggression against Ukraine.
Military victory demands adequate defense as well as battlefield success and constant planning and review. Ukraine did have nuclear weapons and agreed to give them up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in what appeared to be a time of peace. In exchange, the United States and other European nations promised to support and defend Ukraine. But, in my absolutely lay opinion, I do not think that the US understood early enough what all Ukraine needed. Most importantly, it should have had a strong missile defense system. Ukraine should not have to endlessly help (beg) for military weapons.
The world is rapidly changing from that time when the Soviet Union had collapsed and nations did see diplomacy and economic development as the way forward to a lasting peace. That time is gone. I believe the United States is very slow to respond to this changing nature.
Thank you, again.
I completely agree with this analysis. I add to it that it must be strategic violence with maximum impact on Putin’s actions – that is a very carefully chosen set of tactics. Killing the maximum # of Russians is not the sole driver. Which Russians, where, how close to Putin, how much does Putin feel personally threatened by any action, how much any move inspires those who could remove Putin to act. Russia does remove leaders historically. I completely agree that every inch of Ukrainian territory must be restored. No benefit for invading – none. Terrific, informed, deepened by experience writing here.
O’Brien’s position is the only morally defensible one. Having just returned from three months in Ukraine, I can vouch for the fact that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians feel exactly the same way.