On a single day in the fall of 1983, some 400,000 people took to the streets across Belgium to protest nuclear proliferation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The protest was one of scores of mass demonstrations in Western Europe amid an escalating Cold War, as citizens of NATO member countries called for an end to the military alliance and U.S. dominance in it. Twenty years later, when the U.S. invaded Iraq over the objections of several NATO allies, protesters in Europe and across the world numbered in the millions — one of the largest anti-war protests ever.
But when peace activists in Belgium called for a mobilization last month in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and of the military aid that U.S. and European countries sent to Kyiv, the numbers were far smaller. It was the same elsewhere in Europe. While anti-war demonstrations in some countries were larger, they hardly compared to the mass mobilizations against the Iraq invasion.
“We had maybe three, 4,000 people, which is not many,” Ludo De Brabander, a member of Belgian peace group Vrede vzw, told The Intercept. “It was difficult to mobilize.”
“Iraq was very clear: It was an aggressive war based on false arguments,” he added. In Ukraine, by contrast, it was Russia that had staged an illegal, unprovoked invasion, and U.S.-led support to Ukraine was understood by many as crucial to stave off even worse atrocities than those the Russian military had already committed. That has left peace activists scrambling, said De Brabander, “because we don’t want to support NATO. And of course, we also oppose what Russia is doing. And a position in between, with alternatives to war, is very difficult to sell.”
As a result, the messaging at the European protests in March was at times confused and inconsistent: Some were filled with Ukrainian flags and explicitly in support of the Ukrainian people and their resistance. Others displayed the rainbow “peace” flag ubiquitous in Europe during the Iraq War and featured calls against increased military spending and the prospect of NATO expansion.
The uncertain response of Europe’s peace activists is both a reflection of a brutal, unprovoked invasion that stunned the world and of an anti-war movement that has grown smaller and more marginalized over the years. The left in both Europe and the U.S. have struggled to respond to a wave of support for Ukraine that is at cross purposes with a decadeslong effort to untangle Europe from a U.S.-led military alliance. They also fear that short-term expediency — supporting Ukraine through increased European defense spending and a strengthening of NATO — will prolong the conflict and potentially widen it, but they have struggled to identify concrete alternatives as feeble diplomatic efforts have so far faltered.
The idea is that solidarity and even military support for Ukraine should be aimed at ending the war, not expanding it indefinitely. Yanis Varoufakis, a Greek economist and former finance minister and a prominent figure on the European left, warned in a recent interview against putting “the theoretical right of Ukrainians to be members of NATO above the life of people in Ukraine.”
“It’s important that we band together to bring a modicum of rationality back to the debate and to focus on the only thing that matters at the moment,” he said. “It’s not money. It’s not trade. It’s not natural gas. It is human lives in Ukraine. How can we stop people from dying?” He added, “The whole point of resisting is to come to the point where we sue for peace.”
Opposition to NATO from within member countries — at the grassroots and political levels — has accompanied the alliance through its existence. At different points, critics have lamented the outsize role of U.S. interests in shaping NATO’s policy; the post-Cold War expansionist push to extend membership to a growing number of former Eastern bloc countries; NATO’s intervention in wars from the Balkans to Libya; and its undermining of the multilateralism of the United Nations. Many critics in Europe have questioned the very need for the alliance’s existence following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact.
But with Finland and Sweden likely set to join the alliance in direct response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and as U.S. officials call on their allies to step up their response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, voices critical of NATO have been cautious and at times hesitant. As the war enters a third month and the prospect of a negotiated end to it grows more distant, those hoping for de-escalation have been left scrambling.
“There is a whole segment of the population that rejects the logic of war, of taking sides, of sending weapons, but it hasn’t figured out … how to directly intervene in the discourse around this war.”
“I’m not convinced that there is a consensus around a series of choices, like delegating to Washington and NATO the decisions on how to respond to this war, and there isn’t consensus around the armament of Ukraine,” said Antonio Mazzeo, an Italian journalist and peace activist. “But it’s true that a majority of political voices and pundits have become uniform.” He added, “There is a whole segment of the population that rejects the logic of war, of taking sides, of sending weapons, but it hasn’t figured out how to take a position, how to directly intervene in the discourse around this war.”
In part, that’s because those critical of escalation and a militarized response have been quickly dismissed, accused of carrying Putin’s water or being apologists for Russian imperialism. (It hasn’t helped, of course, that some have done just that.) That fear has led many to choose silence instead.
“People are scared to speak out because they don’t have the answers; they want to stop the war without weapons, and there is no organized movement to tell them that they are right,” said a European Parliament official, who requested anonymity precisely because the position has become so contentious. “There is an intuition that we can end this war without escalation, but people don’t know how to express it and therefore, they are silent.”
The contrast between the relatively timid response to the Ukraine war and anti-war movements of the past is complex. On the one hand, the horror at Russia’s actions, the massacre of civilians, and the reports of widespread war crimes shocked many people in Europe, including in the peace movement. Those who have contested NATO intervention in the past have usually done so in response to aggressive actions by the alliance; the fact that member countries in this case have come to the aid of an invaded nation has presented them with a conundrum they have not quite resolved.
“Many are in despair,” said De Brabander. “They no longer believe in diplomatic solutions because Putin has gone too far. And they don’t believe in arming the conflict either.”
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the landscape in Western Europe had profoundly changed, with several countries moving politically to the right and traditionally leftist causes like opposition to NATO becoming increasingly marginalized. Parties long associated with the anti-war movement, like Germany’s Greens and Social Democrats, have switched course, and younger generations that grew up without the fear of regional nuclear conflict — a major catalyst for the mass mobilizations of the 1980s — have reoriented their priorities toward issues like climate justice. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and Georgia in recent years has stoked legitimate fears that have largely eclipsed skepticism of NATO.
“Many are in despair. They no longer believe in diplomatic solutions because Putin has gone too far. And they don’t believe in arming the conflict either.”
In such a context, according to people critical of both Russia’s invasion and NATO’s actions leading up to it, room for nuance has all but disappeared. “Displaying anti-war activism in the circumstances can unfortunately be seen as a sign of support for Putin,” an adviser to the European Parliament who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue told The Intercept. “You either have to be 100 percent on one side or on the other side. Any variation becomes suspect and raises questions about your loyalty and your motivations. That’s another terrible outcome of this war because in my opinion, this kind of vulgarization, primitivization of discourse is highly damaging to the quality not only of foreign policy, but also of our democracy.”
De Brabander noted that it did not help that some on the radical left of the peace movement “see only U.S. responsibilities or EU responsibilities.” That has exposed more moderate voices to the accusation that they are apologists for Putin. “There’s this very black-and-white vision that if you’re not with us, then you’re against us,” he added, noting that those calling for the dissolution of NATO were regularly accused of defending Russian interests.
Still, even as a fragment of what it once was, grassroots opposition to increased militarization and NATO has not disappeared altogether. “We have been calling for the delegitimization of NATO, and there is really no reason to change that,” said Reiner Braun, a German activist and executive director of the International Peace Bureau. Braun noted that a coalition of dozens of groups calling for NATO’s dissolution are planning a peace summit in Madrid in June, to counter the alliance’s official gathering in the same city. “The main reasons why we are against NATO, the militarization, the military spending, the aggressive attitude, NATO’s expansion — these are all criticisms that are still valid.”
“We are definitely in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but without excusing Putin, we are also explaining that one of the reasons for the current situation is NATO’s expansion over the last 25 or so years,” he added. “It is not an excuse for the invasion, but it helps to understand how such a situation could happen.”
While NATO expanded its membership a few times during the Cold War, the real push to bring more countries into the fold began in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the dissolution of the Eastern bloc alliance, reaching a peak in the 1990s under the Clinton administration. That’s when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the alliance.
“It’s a moment in time when the U.S. looks like it’s going to be No. 1 forever, and so taking on new alliances is actually a very cheap thing for the U.S. to do,” said Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University. “You have this narrative of this alliance that makes decisions collectively, but the U.S. kind of ramrodded the expansion through the alliance as a whole.”
Many at the time were critical of NATO taking in more members, yet expansion has remained NATO’s policy since then. In 2008, former President George W. Bush pledged that Ukraine and Georgia would one day join the alliance — a miscalculation that many analysts believe precipitated Russia’s aggression toward both countries in the following years. In the current climate, there seems to be little willingness on the part of U.S. officials to review that history or ask questions about how the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO might have played a role in what remains an unprovoked act of aggression on the part of Russia.
“You have this narrative of this alliance that makes decisions collectively, but the U.S. kind of ramrodded the expansion through the alliance as a whole.”
“Let’s try to be a little more objective and ask the question, why might Russia be fearful of NATO?” said Shifrinson. “That doesn’t mean the response is a war. You can blame Putin for the war. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for any Russian leader to be concerned over the prospect of Ukraine being in NATO. Most big powers don’t like their neighbors being part of hostile foreign alliances.”
In any event, the invasion has reinvigorated NATO’s own rationale for its continued role in containing Russia. If the collapse of the Warsaw Pact seemed to make NATO unnecessary back in the 1990s, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has appeared to give it a renewed reason to exist. It’s what De Brandeber describes as a “policy of self-fulfilling prophecy”: NATO taking a provocative action (expanding to Russia’s border) that contributes to a crisis that, in turn, justifies the existence of NATO. “Putin has become the best defender of NATO policy,” he added. “He made NATO very strong with this war.”
The rush to expand NATO and increase military spending throughout Europe, however, will likely come at the expense of social and environmental programs, health care, social security, and a more rational energy policy — all of which have been priorities for many countries in the alliance. Once that trade-off becomes clear, activists say, the anti-war movement might grow again.
“The social and environmental consequences are tremendously uncertain,” said Braun, the German activist. “This will create suffering for millions more people. But it will also create a new dimension of protest.”