The House just approved an additional $40 billion in assistance for Ukraine — two-thirds of it for military aid — dwarfing the $3.5 billion in weapons transfers earlier this year. Humanitarian assistance included in the package is urgently needed for the international community to respond to the war’s horrific violence and mass displacement. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to plead for more powerful weaponry as Russia continues to bombard cities and target civilians in open defiance of international law.
What is not yet clear — and what Congress should ask before pouring more weapons into an escalating war with a nuclear power — is what next? Will more military aid from NATO and the United States end the war and its consequent mass human suffering or drive Russia to intensify its aggression? Is the goal to stop the violence and save lives or defeat Russia at any cost?
While the urge to “do something” to help Ukraine is powerful, the first principle ought to be “Do No Harm.” Regrettably, many of the recent steps — more powerful weapons and military training, more punishing sanctions — run the risk of escalating, expanding, and prolonging the war. But if more coercion and force are not the answer, what is?
Fortunately, the United States and the international community have a wide range of tools that can help save lives, uphold international law, and advance peace. Diplomacy, humanitarian aid, refugee protection, international accountability, and peacebuilding are the most urgent and effective ways of responding to the Ukrainian crisis. But unfortunately, these are also among the most under-appreciated, under-utilized, and under-resourced elements in the government’s toolbox.
SUPPORTING HUMANITARIAN NEEDS AND RIGHTS
On the diplomatic side, the United States should be doing all it can to support negotiations for an immediate ceasefire, an end to the targeting of civilians, and an enduring settlement to the conflict. Attempts to secure ceasefires, allow humanitarian evacuations, and bring Presidents Vladimir Putin and Zelensky to the table for direct negotiations have been intermittent and not always succeeded, but that is not a reason to give up on diplomacy. On the contrary, it is all the more reason to focus increased political energy and resources on the necessary and urgent task of seeking an agreement to stop the violence and sustain a dialogue. There is no military solution to this war, and a political settlement will have to be reached sooner or later.
Will more military aid from NATO and the United States end the war and its consequent mass human suffering or drive Russia to intensify its aggression? Is the goal to stop the violence and save lives or defeat Russia at any cost?
While Ukraine and Russia must agree on the terms, the United States does have significant leverage to help bring about an accord. It should be working at the highest levels with NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the UN, and other powers like China and Israel to create a political offramp from the escalating violence. For example, US mediators and negotiators could offer — step-by-step and commensurate with positive steps on the ground — to lift economic sanctions on Russia and suspend or limit transfers of military equipment to Ukraine. The United States could contribute to new regional security arrangements, and provide financial and technical assistance for verification and monitoring efforts, oppose further expansion of NATO membership, and recognize or affirm a different status for Crimea and the Donbas in accordance with the wishes of their populations. American diplomats should also prioritize the creation of safe humanitarian corridors, or specific routes and methods agreed to by all parties in a conflict zone, to evacuate civilians wishing to leave and deliver assistance to those who are unwilling or unable to escape.
Since the invasion, humanitarian organizations have been working to establish safe routes, although many initial agreements have proven unreliable and dangerous. For example, despite requirements in the Geneva Conventions and agreements in principle, the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs have struggled to secure the necessary guarantees on specific routes, timings, and methods between all parties on the ground — and this is after over half a dozen attempts have failed. Furthermore, exemptions from US sanctions that interfere with the ability of local and international relief agencies to import goods and conduct financial transactions should be provided. Some particular exemptions include explicitly allowing peacebuilding and atrocity prevention activities, which are not protected under current exemptions.
In the short term, the United States must continue to advocate for rapid, unhindered, and principled humanitarian access to conflict-affected populations while contributing food, medicine, shelter, fuel, and other humanitarian assistance to all those fleeing the conflict. This includes direct aid to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods and support for communities that have opened their doors to refugees at a great personal sacrifice. The humanitarian response must also ensure access to education and health services, legal aid, and fair and efficient asylum procedures. In addition, it must promote respect for civil and human rights, prevent discrimination against persons of color, and reduce the exposure of vulnerable groups to risks, such as sexual and gender-based violence.
US policymakers must also expand refugee admissions, provide temporary protected status, and halt removals for all those fleeing violence and oppression, not just in Ukraine but worldwide. In addition, once the war in Ukraine has ended, it will be essential to transition to reconstruction and recovery efforts that help people rebuild their lives and remove future sources of instability.
INTERNATIONAL LAW AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Leading with diplomacy does not mean dictating solutions or ignoring accountability for war crimes and other clear violations of international law. Although the United States wields diplomatic and military influence, it must resist the temptation to use this power to dominate and control other actors. The United States has neither the right nor the responsibility to play the role of “globocop,” especially since previous attempts in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven disastrous.
Rather than trying to drive the process, the United States can reinforce international law and follow the lead of others, working through the UN and with its members, including China, to broaden diplomatic pressure on Russia to adhere to international law and norms. One way to do this is by ratifying the 1998 Rome Statute and recognizing the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). As a member of the ICC, the United States could help ensure that Putin and his generals are investigated and, as necessary, tried for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. In the meantime, and as has happened in past situations, the US can cooperate with international investigations, support evidence collection and human rights monitoring, and share information to support international prosecutions.
BREAKING CYCLES OF VIOLENCE
Peacebuilding is the painstaking and long-term process of non-violently repairing injustice and transforming armed conflict’s structural conditions. It supports the development of the constructive personal, group, and political relationships across racial, ethnic, religious, class, and national boundaries.
As the Alliance for Peacebuilding has recommended, the United States can promote sustainable peace in Ukraine by galvanizing the international community to provide diplomatic, legal, and material assistance for nonviolent civilian resistors, peace activists, human rights defenders, civic leaders, and unarmed civilian protection networks in Russia, Ukraine, and neighboring countries. It will take generations for Ukrainians and Russians to overcome the trauma of this war and rebuild people-to-people relationships. Locally-led peacebuilding initiatives will need support from the US for years to come. For instance, diplomats and development professionals should push for the inclusion of women, youth, and other marginalized communities in peace processes. They should work with civil society groups to monitor human rights, prevent and document atrocities, correct misinformation, address psycho-social trauma, and promote social cohesion.
Instead of using the current crisis as an excuse to continue the endless wars and increase Pentagon spending or to begin ramping up for a new Cold War with both Russia and China, the United States should view it as an opportunity to invest in the powers of peaceful engagement. It is long past time to establish a new cooperative security architecture for the 21st century that effectively prevents war and prioritizes the safety, health, and wellbeing of both the people and the planet. Instead of military might, the starting point for a new approach to global security is peacebuilding.
The overwhelming US military might did not deter Russia from invading Ukraine, and further escalation of the war will not end it sooner. Now is the time to do something that breaks the vicious cycle of violence and repression and opens real possibilities for a more peaceful and just future.
Bridget Moix is the General Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national, nonpartisan Quaker-led organization that lobbies Congress and the administration to advance peace, justice, and environmental stewardship.