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Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Not a Bit of the Old Ultraviolence

Lasting for over a year and a half, the Russo-Ukrainian War is still striking in its scale and incredible cruelty. However, it is unlikely that many people anticipated such an extensive unleash of violence. Apparently, without expecting it, Russia started what turned out to be the largest military conflict in Europe since 1945. The impression is that the Russian political and military command decided to confirm Clausewitz's thesis about the war as “the realm of probability and chance.” Indeed, this war has a lot of unpredictability, which deserves to be discussed with distinction and particular attention. The invasion itself was unexpected. Despite all the warnings, it was comforting to think that the Russian government used aggressive rhetoric as a diplomatic tactic but was unprepared for a real invasion. Training and battle readiness of the Russian army appeared to be unexpectedly weak, while the qualifications of ZSU (the Armed Forces of Ukraine) and the will of the Ukrainian society to fight were unexpectedly high. The consolidation of many states around Ukraine and harsh sanctions against Russia (although not decisive enough and voluminous) came as a surprise, not least for the Russian authorities. Perhaps only the indiscriminate attacks of the Russian military, which led to many obvious war crimes, could have been predicted. However, what comes as a significant surprise is that the war has been lasting for so long, and now, reaching a stalemate, it could go on for years.

It may seem that all the reasoning about the decline of the interstate war and the advent of the era of new wars has unexpectedly become inappropriate. However, in this piece, I will focus on the character and practices of the Russo-Ukrainian War to prove that this large-scale war still does not make the arguments about the evolution of war irrelevant. Among other things, I claim that the Russo-Ukrainian War demonstrates the relevance of an updated version of the just war theory known as revisionist theory (although I would prefer that there was no war at all to confirm any theory).

Good old war?

The scale and nature of this war, its course, and the large range of weapons deployed immediately called into question all the literature on the transformation of war, which began to appear at the end of the Cold War. Martin van Creveld, Mary Kaldor, Herfried Münkler, and John Mueller, to give a few great names, published intensively covering dramatic changes in war and military culture during the last decades. Perhaps the most crucial thing was captured by Mary Kaldor, who pointed out that wars of our times, contrary to Clausewitz's famous thesis, are not a continuation but rather a refutation of politics. These new wars contest any order. Their participants aim to preserve political disorganization as much as possible since they can only earn in the fog of war. So, the culture of the new wars is anti-political and anti-social.

And, of course, all these theorists agreed that war, the good old large-scale war, is no longer a convenient political means. It involves a lot of social, economic, and political risks. Therefore, modern states, even if they wage wars, try to carry out operations on a limited scale. These may be lengthy campaigns, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, but relatively modest regarding the contingents involved. In other words, war has changed, and the great powers are incapable of large-scale militarization and mobilization, which was confirmed by the reduction of military budgets and personnel in various countries.

And suddenly, the Russo-Ukrainian war begins, which seems to take us back to the culture of old wars.

Indeed, there may be a desire to interpret the Russo-Ukrainian War as an old war. It is an interstate conflict, not an asymmetric one. One of the sides is waging an imperialist war, considering the enemy either as its colony or as its ancestral and legitimate territory. It presents itself as a great power, a regional hegemon, which implies that an infringement of its zone of interests poses a deadly danger. And unfortunately, this “deadly danger” is not just a figure of speech. The losses in this war are incredibly high. The level of losses that Russia and Ukraine have already suffered corresponds to the level of losses that can be observed in case when irregular or paramilitary forces participate in the war. Although these figures should be treated with caution, it is claimed that Russia lost 120,000 people[1], while Ukraine lost 70,000[2]. We can compare it to the War in Afghanistan, where Afghan security forces fighting on the side of the United States also had 65-70,000 military killed. But the U.S. itself lost about 6200 people[3]. Over 20 years. That means they lost much less per month than the Russian army is losing per day.

Another motive typical to regular war mode would be Russia’s obsession with the idea of sovereignty. Indeed, the interpretation of sovereignty revealed by President Putin and his officials correlates with the view on sovereignty that could have been found a century or two ago. We may also find modern-era political tools on the Ukrainian side where political nationalism is applied as a means of mobilization. All these issues convey a setting relevant to old interstate wars.

And yet, it is a new war!

But still, several factors indicate that the war in Ukraine is not a bit of the old ultraviolence, not an old war that makes the theories of new wars obsolete or senseless.

First of all, this becomes clear when we analyze how Russia is waging this war. In terms of goal-setting, this war cannot be compared to the old wars. I hope I will be understood correctly because in what follows, I may sound like Russian nationalists and militarists, such as Igor Strelkov. Still, the Russian political and military command has not dared to start a full-fledged war. The system of governance of the Russian state, as well as the Russian population, was not prepared for a prolonged armed conflict. Neither was the Russian army. If the task was to achieve military success in the confrontation with such a strong opponent as the Armed Forces of Ukraine turned out to be, it would be necessary to carry out several waves of mobilization. Russia carried out one mobilization, but very hesitantly and only after a series of military defeats. At the same time, mobilization should be understood not only as recruitment into the army but also as a wide range of measures to develop a strategy for a long-term war and refocus the economy on military needs. It would be necessary to specify military objectives to clarify the victory conditions. Although the Russian state is gradually militarizing, this is especially noticeable in the field of education, which has become the first victim of ideological indoctrination; no program of measures to transfer the state to a military regime has been adopted. Either because the Russian political and military leadership have ceased to be proper strategists and do not understand how to wage the old conventional war (unlike their Ukrainian opponents) or because Russian leadership was sure it would conduct a military operation, not a war (which is more in line with the logic of an asymmetric conflict), or because the Russian government is not aimed at winning the war in the usual sense of the word. It is likely that the Russian side sees the freezing of the conflict and the preservation of a zone of tension in Ukraine as a success. In any case, Russia has found itself in a war where it cannot achieve military goals, and its strategy doesn’t correspond to the logic of military victory.

Second, and this is really quite unusual for the universe of the modern state, The Russian leadership deliberately enabled the demonopolization of the sphere of violence, and during the war, this process only intensified. It culminated (so far?) in Prigozhin's mutiny. Every month, there are reports on the organization of national battalions, volunteer brigades, and private military companies (prohibited, by the way, by Russian legislation). The whole modern state project was built on creating a rigid hierarchy in the military sphere, unifying and controlling it, and suppressing alternative operational centers. But Russia, a state seemingly obsessed with the idea of sovereignty, splits its military forces and tolerates or even fosters the appearance of extra-legal combat units. These units exist, fight, and are funded in parallel with the regular army, creating possible points of future escalation. In other words, the Russian state is engaged in what, in principle, a strong state should not be engaged in, especially in a situation of a major war. It certainly benefits from the potential advantages provided by units that never leave the gray zone. But it risks being swallowed up by the fog of civil war itself when these units start fighting each other. The engagement of field commanders and their gangs is typical for the culture of new wars. But also, in this, one can see another confirmation of the non-military nature of this conflict. President Putin allows these paramilitary units to appear struggling to strengthen the regime according to the logic of divide et impera. Although this does not give Russia a clear advantage on the battlefield, this tactic is good for weakening the political position of the military command.

War as a matter of public conscience

Finally, another essential feature of this war, and it should be mentioned separately, is the highest degree of moralization of the conflict. This, it seems to me, gives empirical evidence of the relevance of the revisionist version of just war theory.

The revisionist just war theory (RJWT) is advocated by numerous authors, with Jeff McMahan and David Rodin being among the most prominent theorists. RJWT reconsiders the relevance and justification of several principles of the traditional just war theory with Michael Walzer as its coryphaeus. Revisionists contend that the traditional JWT, with its focus on the state, is fundamentally at odds with the contemporary era, where most wars are asymmetric and waged by non-state actors. Consequently, RJWT does not consider the state as the primary agent. Actions and decisions of specific individuals, rather than states per se, should be subject to analysis and moral evaluation. Traditional group identities, such as civilians and combatants, are subject to deconstruction. The participation or non-participation of individuals in unjust military aggression is the crucial factor. This thesis leads us to another distinctive statement of RJWT: the norms of ius in bello are not independent of the principles of ius ad bellum. This implies several conclusions, notably the possibility of considering soldiers morally responsible for participating in an unjust war, not just for committing war crimes.

Traditional theory operates under the assumption of moral equality among combatants: if unjust participants in war adhere to the rules of warfare, they are not morally wrong. For revisionists, it is essential to distinguish between those participating in an aggressive war and the victims of aggression. They argue that an aggressor forfeits the moral right to both offense and defense, at the same time losing immunity from attack. The status of war participants, thus, becomes asymmetric. While actions of the victims of unjust attack could be evaluated as morally correct or wrong, unjust combatants, by participating in an unjust war, deprive themselves of the opportunity to commit any morally permissible actions.[4]

From the very beginning, the Russo-Ukrainian war has been morally charged. There is nothing unusual in opponents mutually accusing themselves of committing immoral acts or in giving a special moral status to your people or your army. This is typical for every war. However, the Russo-Ukrainian war has revealed one very unusual discourse. Two traditional rhetorical strategies (moral justification of the right to self-defense and moral criticism of the enemy) are accompanied by an appeal from the Ukrainian side to the conscience of those Russians who do not support the invasion. Russians are urged to realize this war’s inhumanity and immorality and stop it.

Such an appeal was made on the first day of the war by President Zelensky: “You are Russians. Now your military has started a war. The war in our state. I would very much like you to speak on Red Square or somewhere else on the streets of your capital, in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities in Russia. Not only in Instagram − it is very important.”[5] Statements of this kind were repeatedly made at the official level, especially in the first months of the war. Ukrainian public figures and ordinary citizens also joined them. Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, the leader of the popular rock band Okean Elzy, wrote on Facebook: “RUSSIANS!!! DON’T REMAIN SILENT! Putin, gone mad, turns all of you into international criminals! Take to the streets, demand an end to the WAR WITH UKRAINE!”[6] Another example could be found on my own Facebook page, where my Ukrainian friend shared a message on the day of invasion: “Russians, rational people, those who I hope are still in Russia, including my relatives, friends... − stop THIS madness. Protest, block, do anything to stop the irreversible, don’t listen to your fake news! Your troops attacked Ukraine today! Ask anyone from Ukraine what is really happening. We have had explosions and attacks on our borders since early morning! Brother against brother! Come to your senses! We don’t want war, but we are forced to defend ourselves when we are being shot at... A heavy sin will lie on your souls for your silence and inaction.”[7]

This form of dialogue with the enemy is unusual in itself. Still, it also shows that a civilian in modern warfare cannot retain their position of a passive observer. Personal trajectories of living through war become worthwhile. The decisions and judgments of private individuals who have nothing to do with the government or the army gain meaning. In other words, a person turns into a subject of resistance to an unjust war or its accomplice.

In his reflection on the moral obligations of Russians, Michael Walzer claimed, “War is a special place, a highly coercive place, and people caught up in it have to be judged with reference to their actual circumstances.”[8] I agree with this — if we aim to understand individual decisions, we need to consider personal circumstances. However, this does not convince me that we should resolve this issue in the traditional spirit of separation of civilian and military or that individual circumstances cannot testify to personal responsibility and guilt, direct or indirect complicity in the war as such, or in committing war crimes.

Civilian-based ethics for new wars

In traditional just war theory, civilians are typically hardly mentioned and denied any active role. They are perceived as objects of political management or objects in respect of which, and possibly for the favor of which, decisions are made. Traditional just war theory proceeds from the idea that roles during war are clearly defined. Soldiers can use military force against enemy soldiers, but they are also legitimate targets of war, meaning they can be attacked. Additionally, traditionalists believe that soldiers on both sides of the front are morally equal, i.e., their moral status is symmetrical. Even if the war is unjust, a soldier is not considered a moral criminal until they commit war crimes. Civilian individuals can never or almost never be targeted during war (concepts of collateral damage or the doctrine of double effect provide insights into rare exceptions). Civilians are declared to be morally immune from attack because they are unarmed, untrained, and unorganized. In both JWT and laws of war, this distinction between combatants and civilians is known as the principle of discrimination. And it is the duty of soldiers to refrain from harming civilians. As we can see, civilian individuals are literally excluded from consideration as active actors during war.

However, the Russo-Ukrainian war gives many examples of how significant the participation of civilians is in the war and how dependent the war is on people who do not wear uniforms. Without grassroots initiatives, without civilian volunteers who raised money for weapons, ammunition, and medicines, or without those who deliver food to towns that are cut off from permanent supplies or who help refugees get out of their towns, the course of military operations would have been different as well as the life of those who were affected by the war. And we can see that the moral status of civilians as accomplices in war can be very ambiguous. Bloggers who distribute videos about the massacre of prisoners of war or justify attacks on civilian infrastructure, during which civilians are killed, cannot be convicted as war criminals if they did not commit war crimes. But at least they should be recognized as responsible for the propaganda of war and the public justification of war crimes. At the same time, an ordinary combatant (again, if they did not commit war crimes) cannot be put on trial, yet it is important to understand the trajectory that led that combatant to the army. Why did they choose such an alternative? Were there other life alternatives and preferences? Why did they consider military service acceptable even when Russia waged an unjust war in Ukraine? Why does that person continue to consider it acceptable even after 20 months of war? These questions may seem too sociological or anthropological. Still, they also contain a moral component since they are related to assessing right and wrong in such a complex context as war.

I mentioned the relevance of revisionist theory for this debate because it is more adapted to the reasoning about the individual level of participation in the war. However, in fact, we do not have a fundamental theory that would guide civilians acting against the background of the war, and there is no clear policy on this matter.  

Revisionists are often criticized for emphasizing individual responsibility and complicity for participation in an unjust war regardless of a person's status as a military or civilian (scientist developing weapons of mass destruction could be an example of civilian engagement in war). It is said this approach tends to undermine distinction between civilians and combatants. Thus, revisionists allegedly want to legitimize attacks on civilians.[9] I find this interpretation to be incorrect. Usually, revisionists are quite moderate in their conclusions. Or at least, that is how I see revisionism. To raise the question of someone's moral responsibility for complicity in an unjust war is not the same as proposing to prosecute that person, let alone subject them to a military attack.

Another common argument against revisionists is that they are disconnected from reality. They are deemed too philosophical, plunged into the deep morality of war yet being impractical.[10] To some extent, this is true; revisionism is a strict philosophical and analytical approach aimed at providing logically precise judgments about war itself. I find it untenable to criticize revisionism indicating that this approach poses too complex questions. It is true that soldiers on the battlefield are acting in extreme conditions and cannot quickly discern who is a legitimate target and who is not, or that an ordinary person may find it difficult to determine whether the war declared by their state is unjust. However, we cannot stop at the idea that if we are faced with too complex questions, we better not change anything and continue to think that soldiers of the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS, or currently Russian military in Ukraine are not doing anything wrong by participating in unjust wars waged by their states.

We must recognize anyone committing morally unacceptable acts as a violator of morality. However, there is a practical philosophical task here that is offering moral wrongdoers a rescue plan. The main question I see as a practical outcome of revisionism is how we can collectively devise strategies and practices that would help soldiers avoid participating in unjust wars, enable civilian activists to protest more successfully, and allow security services to refrain from involvement in the repressive policies of their governments. This, as it seems to me, means that the audience for revisionists is not primarily military or non-military individuals themselves. Their goal is not to teach the military personnel how to most accurately execute orders and how to act on the battlefield. Their audience is the public, political organizations, governments, and international organizations. Revisionism is doomed to remain a philosophical critique if we think of it within traditional state-centric narratives. However, it can be a highly useful theoretical approach guiding decision-makers in elaborating more globalized approaches and programs.

The world seems to be coming into a very turbulent state. Azerbaijan took Artsakh. The Middle East is still balancing on the brink of a big war. It is increasingly asserted that the tensions between China and the United States cannot be resolved peacefully.. We are experiencing a real rehabilitation of war. The forceful resolution of conflicts ceases to be something unacceptable and forbidden. It is quite possible that other political leaders may follow President Putin's example in establishing another zone of military tension. This is the reality of our era of new wars. And in these circumstances, we definitely need to reassess civilians' role as full-fledged participants in conflicts. RJWT may serve as a theoretical tool for that purpose. But the task itself cannot remain only theoretical and requires the development of practical solutions to support those who are ready or could resist the militarization of their societies.

 


[1] Cooper H. et al. (2023): Troop Deaths and Injuries in Ukraine War Near 500,000, U.S. Officials Say. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/18/us/politics/ukraine-russia-war-casualties.html (all internet sources accessed  November 19, 2023).

[3] Bateman, K. (2022): In Afghanistan, Was a Loss Better than Peace? https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/11/afghanistan-was-loss-better-peace.

[4] A popular exposition of the RJWT can be found in Jeff McMahan’s Rethinking the ‘Just War,’ Parts 1 and 2. https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/rethinking-the-just-war-part-1/; https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/rethinking-the-just-war-part-2/. Further readings include McMahan, J. (2009): Killing in War. Oxford; Rodin, D. (2002): War and Self-Defense. Oxford; Lazar, S. (2017): Just War Theory: Revisionists Versus Traditionalists. Annual Review of Political Science,Vol. 20. pp. 37−54.

[5] Address by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 24 February 2022. https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/zvernennya-prezidenta-ukrayini-73137.

[8] Walzer, M. (2022): It’s No Crime to Be a Russian Soldier in Ukraine. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/12/04/russian-army-conscription-just-war-theory/.

[9] Lazar, S. (2015): Sparing Civilians. Oxford, p. 9.

[10] Lazar, S. (2017), see endnote 4, p. 39; Peperkamp, L. and Braun, C.N. (2023): Contemporary Just War Thinking and Military Education. In: Kramer, E.-H. and Molendijk, T. (eds.): Violence in Extreme Conditions. Cham, pp. 101−117, pp. 101−102.

Summary

Arseniy Kumankov

Dr. Arseniy Kumankov is a Research Scholar at Politics Department and University Center for Human Values, Princeton University. His area of specialization is ethics of war and peace, political and social philosophy. He is a member of EuroISME, Concerned Philosophers for Peace, and the Independent Institute of Philosophy.


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All articles in this issue

Military Ethics and Military Ethics Education: In Search of a “European Approach”
Lonneke Peperkamp, Kevin van Loon, Deane-Peter Baker, David Evered
Just peace despite war? In defense of a criticized concept
Markus Thurau
Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Not a Bit of the Old Ultraviolence
Arseniy Kumankov
Military Ethics Education – Bridging the Gap or Deepening the Chasm?
Dragan Stanar
The Retransformation of Soldiers’ Identities
Patrick Hofstetter
The Army is No Place for a Warrior
Christopher Ankersen
“Try to get more emotion into the classroom”
Deanna Messervey

Specials

Roger Mielke Janne Aalto Michaël Dewyn Patrick Mileham Stefan Gugerel Evaggelia Kiosi Mihály Boda Richard Schoonhoven