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Just Peacemaking and Hybrid Wars

When the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, it seemed that nonviolence had once again won in Ukraine. In 2002, citizens gathered in the Maidan (Independence Square) had forced a government from power. In a miracle of grassroots organization, the 2013 uprising against Yanukovych’s kleptocratic rule and Russian hegemony over their country had stood firm through months of winter weather.

Then came the Russian countercoup severing Crimea from Ukraine with a combination of subterfuge, fifth columnists, and military occupation sealed by a quick referendum on reaccession to Russia. Then a Russophile insurgency in the Donbass region declared Donetsk and Luhansk the Donetsk People’s Republic, and with only thinly veiled assistance from Russia the insurgents waged a war of secession from the Kievan government. 

Hybrid war

Ukraine is an example of what military theorists call “hybrid war,” that is, an armed conflict conducted in two or more dimensions. It refers, in particular, to the use of a combination of conventional military forces with unmarked subversive elements, as in the Crimea and Donetsk. “Hybrid” also points to the execution of hostile action by non-state actors: for instance, Hezbollah’s attack on Israel in 2006, under the sponsorship of Iran, or the spread of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, combining standard military, guerrilla, and terrorist tactics. 

Another US military definition describes hybrid warfare as a united strategy combining “diverse and dynamic combinations of conventional, irregular, terrorist, and criminal capabilities,” such as the multisided conflict in Syria or the combination of insurgency with narco-trafficking in Colombia and Afghanistan. Some analysts prefer to define hybrid war more generally by the resiliency, adaptability, and inventiveness of weaker protagonists in asymmetrical conflict with a stronger conventional force.

Outside the war convention

Traditional just war theorists customarily focused on conflict between armed forces of legitimate states bound by international law and “the war convention,” and they made casuistic refinements to their theories to deal with secessionists and guerrillas, though less so with terrorists. Russian engagement in Ukraine and the action of its Ukrainian proxies attempted to evade the usual restraints of just war practice by deception, ambiguity, and surprise. They model hybrid war at its most elusive. By surprise and innovation, they have kept potential adversaries and critics, including potential nonviolent resisters, at bay.

Special note ought to be made of the “Islamic State” because it brazenly challenges the moral conventions of warfare in three ways: (1) by aspiring to become a caliphate outside the state system, thereby rejecting the restraints of international law and morality, (2) by embracing terrorism not just as a tactic used to attain identifiable political ends, but as a brand expressing its contempt of any other form of civilization, secular or religious, and (3) by utilizing hybrid warfare in its several forms of mobilization (guerrilla warfare, terrorism, criminal activity) and through rapid adjustment to battlefield conditions and adoption of emerging technology like social media. The hybrid war conducted by the “Islamic State,” therefore, represents an extreme challenge to the conventions of the just war.

Others in this issue will reflect on the challenges hybrid war holds for the moral (just) use of armed force. I will instead examine the potential applicability of the alternative school of “just peacemaking” to the tests hybrid war presents for the ethical management and resolution of conflict. For purposes of brevity, I will limit my applications of just peacemaking to the Ukrainian crisis.

Emerging ecumenical attitudes toward armed force

Just peacemaking is one outcome of the search on the part of religious activists over the last three decades for means short of war to prevent and resolve conflict. Among other recent proposals for preventing, curbing, and resolving armed conflict are: just policing, conflict transformation, the responsibility to protect (especially in its preventative mode), peacemaking, and forgiveness and reconciliation programs. 

Just peacemaking is also a manifestation of the growing ecumenical ties between the Roman Catholic and Reformation Churches, on the one side, and the Historic Peace Churches, on the other. While the Peace Churches are generally pacifist, the Catholic Church and the churches of the Magisterial Reformation may be characterized as increasingly more committed to nonviolence. Accordingly, the use of force has become less and less a “church-dividing issue” between the Historic Peace Churches, such as the Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites, and other Christian communions.

Just peacemaking aims to reduce the occasion for war, and, like the responsibility to protect, places prevention of armed conflict at the head of its agenda. Like the US Bishops’ 1993 “Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace,” its proponents believe that “in situations of conflict our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent means.” Some, but not all its advocates, would also agree with the bishops “that when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice,” then there is place for just war (pacifist members of all the churches would be the exception). The consensus of the early proponents of the model lay in the common question: “What practices of war prevention and peacemaking should we be supporting?” 

What just peacemaking offers, then, is a menu of practices, like nonviolent direct action and independent initiatives for threat reduction, which raise the threshold for resort to war, alleviating the conditions that lead to conflict and fostering reconciliation. These are not norms, but practices. They do not set limits to action, but rather offer avenues of action to be pursued and exploited for the sake of peace. Students of Reinhold Niebuhr, the father of political realism, and Second World War veterans, the designers of just peacemaking present their practices not as utopian ideals, but rather as elements of an empirically based ethic that “do in fact prevent numerous wars and multitudinous misery and death.” 

Three practices and hybrid war

The contributors came to consensus on ten practices of just peacemaking. Some of these practices – such as support for the United Nations and international cooperation, advancing democracy and human rights, or promoting just and sustainable development - apply to any conflict situation, and they are general conditions for reducing social tensions and establishing conditions of peace. Others – such as acknowledgement, repentance, and forgiveness – although helpful at any stage, are more applicable after the cessation of hostilities as steps to secure the peace.

With the Ukraine crisis as a point of reference, I would like to consider the pertinence of three peacemaking practices to hybrid war. They are: (1) nonviolent direct action, (2) cooperative conflict resolution, and (3) cooperative forces in the international system.

(1) Nonviolent direct action.

Ukraine might seem to be an unlikely site for active nonviolence. After all, the annexation of Crimea and the attempted secession of the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) followed on the protracted mass demonstrations in the Maidan during the winter of 2013/14. After an initial victory in ousting President Viktor Yanukovych, the new government was confronted with subversion on two fronts, Crimea and the Donbas, regions where greater Russian and Russophile populations were found, and where opposition was thus more difficult to organize against hybrid Russian and Russophile Ukrainian forces. The opposing forces (militia, Russian “volunteers,” etc.), moreover, are also harder to identify and readier to employ force against protestors than police of the same ethnicity.

Nonviolent direct action comprises a variety of practices that seize the initiative to contest a policy or regime. The Ukrainian people have repeatedly proved themselves capable of organizing extended mass protests, including strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins, against autocratic and kleptocratic rulers and in favor of democracy, especially at the time of the 2004 Orange Revolution, so nonviolent direct action is not alien to them. In addition, networks are extant in civil society, notably among the churches, to serve as the basis for further organization. A unique feature of the crisis is the unity of Orthodox Christians in all their forms and Catholics in support of a united Ukraine. 

With an imperiled government of their own choosing and in the use of nonviolent direct action, Ukrainian activists may need to weigh political stability more highly than during the days of the Maidan. Likewise, they may need to learn not to press their advantage as they did after the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych, but to accept small victories and comprises with the adversaries as Gandhi advised. 

Many of the standard techniques, such as boycott and civil disobedience, are less applicable because either the Russians or pro-Russian forces control the contested territories. But there are techniques that could work even under current conditions. The first is disclosure, providing information and publicity on the conduct of the militia and the rebel government of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and on condition and problems in their areas of control.

Other possible tactics are variations on “accompaniment” and “safe spaces,” welcoming inhabitants of the Donetsk People’s Republic  and providing them with hospitality in Ukraine, offering aid to pensioners and others as an incentive to exfiltrate, or providing fora for protestors and discontented residents of the Donetsk Peoples Republic to make spread awareness of the poor living conditions and abuses they suffer.

The techniques of nonviolent direct action are many. Committed activists can be inventive in finding novel ways to protest, as Gandhi did, for example, with his March to the Sea to protest against the British salt tax.  In addition to inventiveness, persistence is important. Writing of the anti-Communist protestors in eastern Europe in the 1980s, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that, Communist control of eastern Europe was “overcome by the nonviolent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, time after time succeeded in finding effective means to bear witness to the truth”. Persistence with renewed efforts and experimentation with new techniques is critical. Not just hybrid war-makers, but also nonviolent peacemakers can practice adaptation and innovation in their struggles.

(2) Cooperative conflict resolution.

Cooperative conflict resolution (CCR) is a formalization of Churchill’s maxim, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has called for “quarreling partners” engaged in “non-lethal controversy” to replace armed enemies locked in combat. At times, specific initiatives by diplomats have defused tensions, as Robert Gallucci did with the North Korean nuclear program in 1994. At the highest level, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev initiated a movement toward nuclear disarmament during their Reykjavik summit in 1986. 

In 2014, while relations between the US and Russia were tense, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry were able to collaborate on elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. While Kerry and Lavrov might be regarded by some as partial outsiders, weapons specialists from both sides had worked for months in advance to prepare the way for just such an independent initiative.

Sometimes the transformation of conflict is assisted by outsiders offering their independent good offices as the Norwegian diplomats and peace activists did in preparing the Oslo Accords or President Jimmy Carter in hosting the Camp David talks. Pope Francis served the same kind of mediating capacity in healing US-Cuban relations and in advancing Colombia’s settlement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). 

Civilian groups that bring together people from both sides of a conflict can sometimes also contribute to cooperative threat reduction. In Israel and Palestine, grassroots groups of family survivors on both sides – like Open House and Family Circle – have endeavored to open the path to peace and build lines of communication across ethnic and religious divides. In India and Pakistan and elsewhere, Seeds of Peace has brought children and young people together to encourage attitudes of mutual understanding, dispositions for peace among future generations, and to teach elementary techniques in conflict resolution.

(3) Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system

Despite countervailing trends and trouble spots, the international system today is more cooperative than it was 25 years ago. While the responsibility to protect had unanticipated negative consequences in Libya and the principle was never even invoked for Syria, the world is somewhat better ordered because of it. Preventive activities undertaken under the responsibility to protect have averted conflict from escalating in places like Kenya and Ivory Coast. 

The International Criminal Court, special tribunals, and international jurisdiction for gross human rights violations may work slowly, but they have nonetheless meted out justice to political leaders who perpetrated genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in, among others, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone. They have also encouraged domestic prosecution of onetime tyrants in Chile, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Ending impunity for the perpetrators of genocide and related crimes helps secure peace by providing some semblance of transitional justice and disincentives for attempting similar crimes in the future.  

Regional groupings, like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), provided peacekeeping activities that have helped end conflict and supplied increased security in African conflict zones. The participation of EU navies in the rescue of refugees at sea, though far from perfect in concept and execution, is another example of emerging cooperative forces alleviating the crises of failed and conflicted states. The announcement of US President Barack Obama at the 70th UN General Assembly that world leaders had agreed to increase peacekeeping forces by 40,000 shows heads of state and government recognize the expanding role of international forces in preventing and curbing armed conflict and in post-conflict peacebuilding. 

Whether it is peacekeeping forces, cooperative conflict resolution, or nonviolent direct action, just peacemaking asks us to consider the prevention of armed conflict and post-conflict peacebuilding as alternatives to war.


Drew Christiansen SJ

Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit priest, is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the university’s Berkley Center for Religion, Ethics and World Affairs. Since 2013, he has worked directly with the Holy See on nuclear disarmament and was a member of the delegation at the UN conference that negotiated The Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons in 2017. He is editor with Carole Sargent of “A World without Nuclear Weapons” (forthcoming) and has been serving as an editor and contributor to various scholarly journals.

All articles by Drew Christiansen SJ

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All articles in this issue

Hybrid Attacks Demand Comprehensive Defense
Bastian Giegerich
Hybrid Wars. The Dissolution of the Binary Order of War and Peace, and Its Consequences
Herfried Münkler
"Hybrid Warfare" – A Possible Trigger for Advances in the Comprehensive Approach?
Fouzieh Melanie Alamir
From Hybrid Threats to Hybrid Security Policy
Christian Mölling
Just Peacemaking and Hybrid Wars
Drew Christiansen SJ
Old Wars, New Rules – The Impacts of Hybrid Warfare on Women
Karin Nordmeyer
Myths of Hybrid Warfare
Mary Ellen O’Connell
"Hybrid Warfare" and the Continuing Relevance of the Just War Tradition in the 21st Century
David Whetham
Media Battlefields: Hybrid Wars and Their Communicative Declarations of War
Bernd Zywietz


Michael Gmelch Jan Heymann Andreas-Martin Seidl Elke Tießler-Marenda Jürgen Weigt