A conversation with the conflict researcher and mediator Friedrich Glasl about the origins and peace perspectives of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The questions were asked by Wolfgang Held.
What is going through your soul in the face of this escalation in Ukraine?
Friedrich Glasl This affects me very deeply and personally as a convinced, non-violent pacifist, conscientious objector, and conflict researcher. So I would not have thought that such a boundary as this would be crossed by the Russian side. This dismayed and surprised me in every way. I’m not the only one: many experts thought such an idea was unthinkable. It depresses me as if this had happened in my family or in the nearest neighborhood.
Last week, Yaroslava Black said here that the Ukrainian population was so stunned because it was an attack by their brother. Something like that has no place in the 21st century.
After 1990, after the reunification of Germany, when there was a lot of optimism, there were wars everywhere, which are now taking a backseat. Because I work a lot in Armenia and Georgia, I was very affected by the war in Ossetia in 2008 and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year. Now I very much hope that what applies there will not be repeated in Ukraine: all the unresolved problems that constantly offer the potential for conflict. We look at the Ukraine war as if it were only about a bilateral conflict situation between the two who took up arms. But it is about multilateral processes, an entire system, a new contemporary peace architecture.
Were there any approaches for this after 1989?
Yes, for example, the ‹Partnership for Peace› and other initiatives. But they were not really pushed any further. Why that went wrong, I don’t want to explain now. Many have already done so. We have to work on it. What is needed now is a dual strategy: first of all, as emergency aid, a ceasefire between the combatants on the ground. A truce then goes beyond a mere ceasefire. The OSCE and the Red Cross and others are now called upon to stop the violence. Humanitarian aid is part of this. The second are medium- and long-term peace processes.
And the sanctions?
Yes, of course. But they cannot prevent violence. Sanctions have no preventive effect, they have never led to a rethinking among those against whom they are directed. But something has to be done! When I say dual strategy, the second thing that is needed is that we really work on a peace process, a peace order that goes beyond the region of the Baltic republics, Poland, Moldova and Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.
Drawing the identity from oneself and from the surrounding area could complement each other and Ukraine, together with others, could form a center.
Could China, as some peace researchers suggest, mediate here?
That is right because the country has been somewhat distant by abstaining from the vote in the Security Council. China, of course, has its own situation in mind. If China supports Russia in this matter, then it must also take seriously the Russian narrative that it wants to prevent a genocide of cultural minorities in Ukraine. This is not easy for China.
I place my hopes on the oligarchs I otherwise despise. They enable and stabilize Putin’s system. It has already become public that some people in Putin’s circle are moving away from him. This is an important sign. The oligarchs are not patriotic or nationalist. They don’t care about all that. They are interested in profit and the sanctions naturally hit them very hard, because the real sources of their wealth are outside of Russia. I was astonished to read that in Austria foreign investors come first from Germany, second only from Russia. Yes, and we know how much Russian capital is invested in Switzerland.
I very much welcomed the fact that Switzerland is participating in the EU’s economic sanctions, and that does not contradict its neutrality. I examined that in my Ph.D. thesis (1967). A neutral state can participate in economic sanctions. This is not subject to the law of war. Austria, too, was quick to declare its solidarity with the EU sanctions.
What kind of conflict is it that is being fought out in Ukraine?
My view is that it is primarily about the world power relationship between the USA, NATO, and Russia and that Ukraine is being held hostage for this. I see this war as a hostage-taking of Russia. The attack serves to get the relationship between East and West back on the table for a new order. After the Yalta Conference and after 1990/91, it is time again to create a fundamental peace architecture. In this respect, this war is a proxy war – from which the hostages have to suffer terribly. Of course, there are also direct interests that are regionally determined. But all the nonsense of a historical justification or the talk of genocide, that’s all rhetoric internally, for the Russian people. In terms of foreign policy, nobody believes that anyway. The fact that there is a strong right-wing extremist movement in the Eastern territories cannot be overlooked but to speak of a Nazi regime is of course absurd. This narrative serves to legitimize domestic politics because the Russian people are of course facing an enormous amount of suffering.
What role does Barak Obama’s humiliation of calling Russia a local power play?
I think this is overrated. There are other humiliations such as the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. It was an extremely expensive prestige project, which was enormously devalued by the boycott of Western politicians. This had a strong impact on the Russian people, it acted as a humiliation.
What is to be made of the Russian indication that the world power feels threatened?
The subjectively from the Russian point of view undoubtedly one-sided, but nevertheless real perceived threat, was repeatedly brushed off and not taken seriously. They never went into it substantially. I looked at the figures for global military spending for 2020 from the SIPRI Institute, the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research: Of this global military spending, the US accounts for 39 percent, NATO as a whole 56 percent, while China accounts for 13 percent and Russia only 3.1 percent. Even if there are some hidden items and the number is perhaps twice as high, that means 6 percent, NATO still has ten times the amount of military spending, so such a sense of threat is understandable. To ignore this is humiliating. I was in Yekaterinburg for work at the time when the Duma decided to admit the annexed Crimea. The Austrian consul invited me to a round-table discussion in a circle where the economic and political elite of Yekaterinburg met regularly for surprisingly frank talks.
I was supposed to give a lecture on what it looks like from a Western perspective. It was disconcerting for me to see how these people, who mainly trade with Central and Western Europe and who also have access to European media, were fully behind Putin. This is the result of many actions Putin has taken to ensure the support of the population in his own country.
There is the observation that people of the Slavic culture are more related to the periphery, their identity is based more on community and tradition than is the case in the West. Do the different views of humanity play into the conflict?
Yes, Gerald Häfner has already described this here in this magazine and it coincides with my experiences. There’s something to it. I can also say that because of my work, also in Ukraine. This is actually a resource, because drawing the identity from both poles, from oneself and from the surrounding area, could complement each other and Ukraine could form a center together with others. A peace order that does justice to the spiritual constitution would have to take this into account.
Robert Habeck said in the Bundestag debate on the Ukraine war that the sanctions and arms deliveries were right. Whether they are good, nobody knows.
I don’t think that was right. It corresponds to the logic of war, is understandable from the affect of concern, but it does not contribute to de-escalation. Above all, however, I regret that the EU and NATO are increasingly being mentioned here in the same breath. Let’s not forget: Austria is a member of the EU, but not a member of NATO, nor is Sweden, Finland. Assuming that it is possible to launch a peace process aimed at understanding Ukraine as a neutral country like Austria, like Switzerland, and non-aligned like Sweden and Finland, then it should not be possible to raise the objection that this is automatically already a NATO membership. This is now linked to my initiative, which I proposed to the Austrian Government: Austria regained its sovereignty in 1955. This happened during the Cold War under the four occupying powers that kept the country under control. By declaring itself neutral according to the Swiss model, Austria was able to agree to this at the time. It was a similarly precarious situation as it is now.
I myself am a member of the Greens and have passed this proposal on to the Austrian Green Vice-Chancellor. It speaks of a dual strategy. First of all, there is emergency aid, that is, a ceasefire and truce, and humanitarian aid. This is where the OSCE is called upon, which is in the area. Russia remains an active member of the OSCE, which can only make decisions by consensus. And Russia has always played along, including on issues affecting the OSCE in the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. In the initiative, I now propose that Austria invites to peace talks in Austria in the sense of the permanent neutrality of our country. We are committed to ensuring that neutrality is respected as a way out of this difficult situation. Interestingly, I had proposed it and two days later Putin mentioned ‹neutrality›, Ukrainian President Zelenskyi also mentioned the option of neutrality. Such talks should take place in Austria together with Switzerland: on neutral ground with the aim of neutrality. I hope that this proposal will not fade away.
How can Vladimir Putin save face?
After he himself has brought the keyword neutrality into play, it is in a sense his suggestion that one follows here.
Why did the talks fail before the war?
Because each side has only made demands on the other: you have to do this or that. There was nowhere to be heard that we are ready for this or that. I am referring above all to the Western side, the EU, the USA, and NATO. I have taken a closer look at how Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded in 1986: through his unilateral actions of disarmament offers.
I learned this from the mouth of a then Deputy Minister. I worked in Leningrad at the time because they wanted to get to know Western management methods there in 1986. Gorbachev has now followed a procedure that the American conflictologist Charles Osgood published in the 70s and the Swedish researcher Lindström improved. It consists of thinking about five or six steps for a negotiation that you are willing to take. They are one-sided actions to which you invite the other side to do something similar, but you do not make yourself dependent on the other side. Even if I say no, I implement the first and second steps and invite them again. That is what Gorbachev did. Observers of the Council of Europe – Russia is a member of this – were able to convince themselves that Gorbachev rendered nuclear warheads harmless and that certain launchers were withdrawn from circulation. After Gorbachev not only announced the second action but implemented it under observation, Ronald Reagan made the decision 24 hours later: “We will meet in Reykjavik!”
That then took place and led to the breakthrough of the muddled Geneva disarmament negotiations. Gorbachev and Reagan, with only interpreters at their side, met there. Human being to human being. Reagan later wrote in a diary-like retrospective how impressed he was by the moral greatness of Gorbachev, who took a risk with these unilateral weakenings of the Soviet Union’s armaments potential.
And nothing of the sort has happened from NATO. «No, no, we are threatened by you and not the other way around.» The method was also used in the war in Kashmir between Pakistan and India. I was involved at the time because I was able to present Osgood’s approach at a training course for Indian, Pakistani, and UN diplomats. This has proven to be worth it. And today? Each side only demands that the other must move. If only something is declared, then you do not believe it. Of course, there were also enough lies and deception on the part of Russia in the game. We remember the assertion of a retreat that was not one.
How do you succeed in taking this first step, giving this leap of faith? What are the conditions for this?
What I am saying now may sound pathetic: Michaelic insight is needed, and that was there with Gorbachev in 1986! Yes. Mikhail Gorbachev! I know something revealing about my friend Nodar Belkania, the Secretary-General of the Anthroposophical Society of Georgia, with whom I built and am teaching this master’s degree at the University of Tbilisi: At that time, in Shevardnadze’s office, when he was still head of the secret service and then became Foreign Minister, papers were found about Gorbachev that showed that he really dealt with Saint George and the Archangel Michael. The office was vacated and awarded to the university. And that’s what Nodar Balkania then heard.
So this is not wishful thinking, no attribution to Gorbachev. Of course, he realized at the time that the West wanted to arm Russia to death at the time. He realized that if, as he called it, the madness would continue like this, it would lead to a fiasco. But it impressed Reagan that there was really conviction behind it. And here I mean that we can not only sit in the stands with a fearful heart and watch but now we are challenged because the military blocks, the camps, have really reached a dead end. They can’t get out on their own. I say this because of my escalation research. The moment is long gone when these powers could liberate themselves on their own. Whatever one side does is interpreted suspiciously by the other as if they always want to trick each other. Neither side can be blamed for this because both have operated with war cunning and lies.
What can be done to ensure that such peace efforts take place?
This brings us back to 1985/86 and then after 1990: Not to be deterred from taking to the streets with fairy lights and vigils to appeal and promote the meaningfulness of a peaceful solution, also in the interests of the Russian people. To do everything and to leave no stone unturned for this voice for peace to be articulated worldwide. What happened in this way in 1986, I know from various sources, was essential for the breakthrough of the peaceful revolution at that time. It was the same as what happened all over the world at that time and led to the liberation of Nelson Mandela. Today, this is perfectly historically verifiable.
Without these actions of civil society on the basis of moral considerations and commitment, the conscience of those who had power and represented apartheid at that time would not have been in motion. We should not believe that nothing can be done. These are Ahrimanic whispers that go hand in hand with fear and meaninglessness and hopelessness and war rhetoric.
What do you wish for the next few weeks?
That now the neutrals say: Get up, wake up! Address those who have disputes directly. We cannot stand by and watch this madness and something has to be done. We are innocent, so to speak, because we do not belong to this or that camp, even if we take a position that is different from the official Russian position, ethically or in terms of legal correctness. As a neutral state, you can become active and proactive. This attitude must come from below and from all sides. And even if the Russian people learn through all sorts of media that they are not going against the people, then they contribute to the raising of the public conscience, to the upliftment to peace.
Picture A peace protest in Bielefeld, Germany; Photo: Wilhelm Gunkel