Guest columnist Lyle Denit: Ukraine deserves a better kind of peace

Ukrainians and their supporters carry a huge Ukrainian flag during a rally at the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that U.S. adults have become fractured along party lines in their support for military aid for Ukraine.

Ukrainians and their supporters carry a huge Ukrainian flag during a rally at the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that U.S. adults have become fractured along party lines in their support for military aid for Ukraine. AP PHOTO/MANUEL BALCE CENETA

By LYLE DENIT

Published: 03-10-2024 1:49 PM

I read with interest Dr. E. Martin Schotz’s column on the causes of the war in Ukraine [“Rethinking U.S. interests on anniversary of war in Ukraine,” Gazette, Feb. 23]. 

He recommended two speeches by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. I agree they are inspiring, but I think they are more nuanced than Dr. Schotz says. I was a child during the Cuban missile crisis. I remember the duck and cover drills and the nuclear dread, and seeing numerous ill-advised American military forays made me question how much our talk of freedom had come to be driven by capitalist greed. So I can appreciate some suspicion of American power and a strong desire for peace.

But I believe that this suspicion goes only so far. It can blind us to the fact that many people around the world actually do see us as an example of the freedom they yearn for, despite our problems. The Ukrainian peoples’ struggle should remind us of the preciousness of what we have and inspire us to guard our own democracy and to help them keep theirs.

While warning about the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower also said, “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action … now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry … We recognize the imperative need for this development.” He spoke of balance in meeting the challenges of nuclear arms.

Kennedy urged peace, but asked: “What kind of peace do we seek? ... Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women.”

Do the Ukrainian people qualify for that peace? The Estonians, Lithuanians, Czechs, and Poles? Or is all they get “the peace of the grave and the security of the slave” because they live near Russia? Why did so many countries like theirs seek to join NATO if it is just a pernicious tool of American hegemony? They are not dupes, but see NATO as their own best chance to preserve their freedoms against an aggressive Russia.

At the end of the world wars, the great powers met to divvy up portions of the world into their various camps. To imply that the Ukrainian people, an old and vibrant culture, should accept their lot as serfs in Putin’s imperial Russian dream sounds a lot like playing the great power game.

Would the “peace camp” turn back the clock? Kennedy and Eisenhower spoke before the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the independence of former Soviet republics. Just because Putin now says it is in Russia’s “security interest” to reclaim those people to the imperial fold, do we imagine JFK and Ike would just say “OK, they’re yours?” 

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Kennedy said, “The United States will make no deal with the Soviet Union at the expense of other nations and other peoples, not merely because they are our partners, but also because their interests and ours converge.”

I admire many “peace” activists for their work, but I never hear from them whether anything is actually worth defending, with real fighting, with real weapons. I think Eisenhower and Kennedy believed there was.

We citizens should question arguments for more military spending, but we should not imagine that we, Ukraine, or any other democracy can defend itself with goodwill alone, and weapons cost a lot of money. Just because American foreign policy is not pure and perfect does not mean we should refuse to use our power in a just fight when we can. Ike and JFK taught balance and prudence, not pacifism.

Dr. Schotz blames the U.S. for the war in Ukraine, saying we have ignored Russia’s security concerns, and implying that we provoked Russia to destroy Ukraine and obliterate its people and culture. In 1994, Russia committed itself to Ukraine’s security when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. If nuclear weapons should be banned, no country has done more to further this goal than Ukraine.

But how have they been repaid? If their good faith action only allows Russia to crush them, what country would ever again disarm?

The Ukrainian people have chosen to move toward a free Europe and away from Russian domination. Is that the fault of the U.S.? Are they stooges of American manipulation? Of course we must be prudent in our use of money for war anywhere, but we should not refuse to spend it when the time is right.

Ukrainians have been building their country with an eye to peace and freedom, and are fighting desperately to keep it. We should not abandon them.

Lyle Denit lives in Amherst.