This essay by Luděk Sekyra was originally published by Seznam Zprávy on September 28, 2022.
Every war must be assessed according to its true causes. In order to be a just war (jus ad bellum), the cause must be justifiable – for example, a war of liberation or defense or a struggle against a brutal regime.
Unjust wars always have more complicated motives: for example, an imperial attack on a national minority or an attempt to achieve hegemonic power. In essence, though, these motives are morally unjustifiable. One such motive is Russian national imperialism, which is the basis of its current aggression towards Ukraine. It must also be mentioned that this aggression has been carried out in a way that does not respect recognized rules of waging war (jus in bello), intentionally bringing its horrors to the civilian population and, at the same time, violating the principle of proportionality.
War generally results in seeking peace; peace is the boundary line of war, its limit. At the same time, the issue involves a difficult dilemma: at what moment do the advantages of peaceful coexistence prevail over being prepared for battle, defense, and sacrifice? In an unjust war, especially one where the aggressor cannot be fully defeated, the cardinal question is: what degree of “permanent” injustice or loss of territory is acceptable for making peace as a prerequisite for the autonomous development of every national community?
An empire without self-reflection
To find the causes of the current conflict, we must look at Russia’s age-old imperial ambitions as a territorial power, which stem from the geopolitical orientation of its leaders: those who do not try to expand their territory are no good. The expansive thinking of a superpower, however, often resonates with the uncritical, resigned, but also frustrated mentality of ordinary people. According to author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, this way of thinking makes it so that a Russian can bear freezing weather and blows from a nagaika, but cannot bear not being feared. A peasant beaten by a lord crawls home and beats his wife unconscious.
The author’s own life story is, in its way, fascinating and contradictory at the same time, which is exactly why it can serve as a key for understanding the attitudes of a significant part of the Russian elite. His Gulag Archipelago is perhaps the most effective description of the frightening reality of the Soviet prison system, and his novel The Red Wheel created an unusually lively image of the Bolshevik revolution. He was persecuted and forced into exile. However, after the fall of communism and his return to Russia, he inspired Putin and shared with him the idea of Great Russia including both Belarus and Little Russia – that is, Ukraine. The national idea of Great Russia, the dream of the nation’s special mission, has deep roots, often stressing the role of the Orthodox Church; the views of another literary giant, Dostoyevsky, are typical in this respect. After all, territorial expansion is the historical foundation of Russian state doctrine, which sees East Slavic nations as an essential part of its empire, entirely in the spirit of Havel’s incisive bon mot that Russia doesn’t know where it begins and ends.
There are two kinds of limits to expansion: external, like Ukrainians’ military and political resistance to aggression, and internal, first and foremost the collective self-reflection of an imperial nation. Here we encounter the issue of the transformation of the values of Russian society. To the extent that we can speak of internal criticism, this is not a widespread position, but usually involves the statements of individual dissidents.
Russia has not undertaken the painful soul-searching of Western nations like France, Belgium, and Britain over their own colonial pasts, which casts doubt on established stereotypes, cultural patterns, and even the very narrative of the great figures of that era. Other examples of successful reckoning with dark episodes of history include postwar Germany and Japan.
Although all this can serve as inspiration for Russia, and robust reflection on the country’s history would be a turning point and a condition for true change, it is unrealistic to expect it at present. The two ideological pillars of Russia – nationalism and Orthodoxy – are firmly in the hands of the regime. It is, above all, ideology rather than material conditions that acts as a driver of Russian history. Another driver is the Muscovite elite, not the people. A century ago, Masaryk, a great expert of Russian society, observed that thanks to its uncritical masses, Russia will always see the emergence of a political oligarchy, be it czarist or Bolshevik. He noted that they removed the czar, but not czarism. Similarly, they later rid themselves of communism, but not totalitarian thought.
After all, the continuity and expansion of authoritarianism and brutality is not a civilizational alternative to the West, it is just another limit on Russian imperial ambitions.
A conflict of liberties
We should not overlook the fact that the Russian aggression is not just a military and political conflict; this is just the shell under which a deeper cultural conflict is hidden. If we take a good look at Russian history, we find that the country suffered several generations of Tatar domination, then groaned under the subjection of the czar; it never went through the Enlightenment and later faced communist totalitarianism. Collective identity, identification with the state and its apparatus, have remained primary. At a relatively early point, from the rule of Czar Ivan the Great in the sixteenth century and the legendary cruelty of his all-powerful oprichniki, repressive units of state power received a privileged position. This got transferred to the practice of police institutions in later regimes. In another layer of these traditions, we see a culture of war, death, seeking enemies, and a predominance of oppression and fear as a principle of negative unity.
With a no less bloody history, Ukraine was subjected to a difficult coexistence with the Russian Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and even Ottoman invasions, but its formative elements were different. The Cossacks and their “hetmans” always vigilantly protected their independence, and the Ukrainian Revival in Galicia, around Lviv, absorbed Enlightenment influences in the environment of the relatively liberal Habsburg monarchy. Religious pluralism was expressed through the Greek Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox Church in the east. As a country on the periphery, a borderland, it was more exposed to Western intellectual influences, including individualism and critical thought. Despite Russian pressure, a modern Ukrainian identity was thus formed, creating a self-sufficient nation despite occasional offshoots of charged nationalism.
Ukrainian statehood has always been fragile and uncertain under pressure from many sides. For a long time, the nation existed without political representation. Ukrainian liberty means autonomy, liberty from the state; this is not just a dream of resistance to oppressors, to the originators of Stalin’s Holodomor, but also a definite impulse and a motivation to fight against today’s occupiers. It is a defensive liberty, recalling what legendary Oxford professor Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty, in contrast to positive liberty, which the state creates the preconditions for and enforces. This, in contrast, is distantly similar to the Russian model of liberty, which arises in a totalitarian conception of the state founded on the principle of everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. This then becomes the sole source of a kind of “manipulative” liberty which is aggressive and eliminates any alternative stance that citizens may adopt as well as the autonomy of the individual.
These two concepts of liberty are irreconcilable, this being the core of the ongoing war, though one often covered by calculated rhetoric. Liberty is always substantive in terms of both morality and practical politics.
The different borders of evil
Evil is a part of human nature. Immanuel Kant even speaks of a “radical disposition towards evil”, which for him is “an invisible enemy who hides behind reason”. Unjust aggression includes a manifestation of this sort of evil, but it is only a possibility, a matter of how we handle our natural dispositions, just as we can tend towards the opposite, good deeds.
The problem of evil has worried Christian thinkers since Augustine and philosophers from Leibniz through today. How is it possible than an infinitely good god allows the existence of evil, is a common question. So that good can come about, is one answer. The borders of evil are, on the one hand, its worst manifestations, like violence against civilians in war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing; and on the other hand, good and the strength of human conscience. Given the primary human need for recognition from others, we can speak of the social origin of evil, because many wish to gain the admiration and respect of others through their actions. A remedy for this tendency can usually be found in a moral community, whether religious or secular, sharing fundamental human values, in contrast with destructive evil, one example of which is Russia’s spiteful aggression.
A substantial amount of evil in the world is carried out by humans against one another. What can be done, however, when no alternative moral community exists, or one can only be created or identified with difficulty, as is the case given the conditions of contemporary Russia? The only option left is personal engagement, including the remarkable courage needed to express one’s opinion in public – because an individual’s right to a moral stance cannot be taken away, it belongs to the elementary inheritance of humanity. Unfortunately, people must sometimes suffer for it.
Intellectuals who understand the region, like Timothy Snyder, Timothy Garton Ash, and political philanthropist George Soros, reacted to the aggression with very clear denunciation, warning against further goals of the aggressor, and calling for unlimited support of the invaded country. Other important Central European intellectuals – Adam Michnik, Tomáš Halík, and many others – spoke out similarly and even more forcefully. Finally, the sentiment of citizens of countries, including those that are not so close to Russia geographically, is predominantly pro-Ukrainian, which is one reason why Ukraine can rely on the unanimous support of the European Union and the United States.
On the other hand, a number of influential figures of the West have expressed the opposite opinion. The doyen of left-wing discourse, Noam Chomsky, surprised few when he accused NATO of provoking everything by considering admitting Ukraine. More unexpected were similar statements by Pope Francis: these, too, have developed in some ways since, but his initial attempt to maintain a certain amount of neutrality is, in his case, striking at the least. I believe that this apparent pretext cannot be passed off as the true cause of the attack on a sovereign state.
Henry Kissinger, a realist, would prefer to give Crimea to Russia for the price of peace; his thoughts have also shown a progression, though without a clear stance. On the other hand, popular contrarian Jordan B. Peterson placed the aggression in the context of the American culture war between progressives and conservatives, in which progressive trends are supposedly devastating a secularized, “pathological” West. He assigns conservative Russia an important role in the revival of Christian religiosity. To this, all that needs to be said is that the crucial culture war is between Russia and the West; the latter will win, which is why Ukraine wants to be a part of it. Marxist revivalist Slavoj Žižek, on the other hand, warns that Russian neo-imperialism will be replaced by neoliberalism, and that Ukraine will become an economic colony of the West; this can be prevented if the country sets off on its own path, but he doesn’t say which. Even Jürgen Habermas, an iconic figure of European public discourse, is irritated by the radical support for Ukraine shown by some German politicians and has made an appeal for a sober compromise with a nuclear superpower. Here we find resonance with the illusion of an effective left-wing Ostpolitik hidden in his theory of communicative action as the preferred model of coexistence.
What connects these realist views is that, to some extent, they do not distinguish between a principled moral stance and a political solution which is necessary but often full of compromises; this is dangerous, because this sort of confusion leads the basic stance itself to become relativized. The consequence is polarization, a breakdown that may threaten the stability of just political organization in both national and international communities.
One factor standing behind these views is the ever-influential idea from modern analytic philosophy that reality is value-neutral, that values are a human projection onto it; in this conception, justice and injustice, truths and lies are matters of subjective attitudes. This approach must be rejected, because the horrors of war prove that both facts and mere events have an objective moral content, that the line between good and evil cannot be explained away when one is limiting the other. In addition, the worst wartime situations, like the torture of civilians, urgently call for the resolution of a complicated philosophical riddle: how to overcome the conflict, the discrepancy, the abyss between facts and values, between what is and what should be. I have a feeling that seeking an answer to this question is the key to moral progress, to the ability to look at the world through the eyes of the other.
Change and continuity
Ukrainians have displayed heroism, which is undoubtably a virtue, and have the right to all-around help from us when they are facing aggression for their turn towards the idea of Europe, civil rights, and respect for the dignity of the individual. The rational legacy of the Enlightenment is today being fought and died for in Kherson and Kharkiv: this must be taken into consideration before starting any discussion about the conflict, its economic consequences, and potential compromises for peace.
Politics stands for power or the balance of power, but morality is a stance that is never neutral. We cannot rule out the existence dilemmas, but Russian aggression is certainly not for the good, so the alternative is the obvious direction to take.
This offers the option to taking clear positions. After all, the main task of ethics is identifying principles and adopting stances. I am convinced that the principle of moral reciprocity is essential, being a precondition for and guaranteeing the continuity of a humanity grounded in values, because values are the source of accepted principles. Reciprocity means that we should treat others as we want them to treat us. Moral reciprocity has an asymmetric dimension in the form of responsibility towards those who are not capable of reciprocal actions – those who are weaker, vulnerable, children, and seniors. We never know when we, too, may find ourselves in such a situation. A heightened responsibility for the stronger towards the weaker could also be a starting point for relationships between states. Applying a moral perspective in this domain may seem idealistic, but it is necessary for a consistent attitude in helping those who are facing injustice through no fault of their own.
A successful defense and victory for a democratic Ukraine will be symbolic and inspirational. Let us not forget that democracy does not always win: even in the Peloponnesian War, ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, was defeated by the militaristic monarchy of Sparta, thus putting an end to the blossoming of this cradle of Western culture. In the twentieth century, interwar Europe was enlaced in a web of authoritarianism; after the war, its eastern part was captured by totalitarianism isolated from liberty by the Iron Curtain. It is good that the geopolitical voluntarism and territorial ambition of Russia are running up against the Euro-Atlantic security architecture; the tragedy of Ukraine is that it is not a part of the latter.
This leads me to think about the moral structure of a world founded on principles, conscience, and freedom, which are a part of its set of values, to which we must return as the foundation for any sensible politics capable of sacrificing short-term interests for long-term ones. History is usually a compromise between change and continuity. Russia needs a change; Ukraine, continuity for its chosen path, and in this, it deserves our support.