Just War Theory and the Ukraine-Russia War
Before getting to the philosopher Noam Chomsky’s thoughts about the Ukraine-Russia conflict, it is worth looking at it from the perspective of Just War Theory, as the Edexcel syllabus mentions that contemporary conflicts ‘may be evaluated against this theory.’ The principles that inform Just War Theory have previously been described HERE and HERE.
NOTE THAT THE FOLLOWING ANALYSIS AMOUNTS TO NO MORE THAN ONE FORMER TEACHER’S ATTEMPT TO APPLY THE THEORY. SOMEONE ELSE’S ATTEMPT TO DO THE SAME MAY END UP LOOKING VERY DIFFERENT.
First of all, from the perspective of the jus ad bellum principle of legitimate authority, as the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin arguably fulfils this criteria, as he is currently serving a fourth term in this role, having been successful in the 2018 Russian Presidential Election, although his past election successes have been set against a backdrop of public protests and accusations of electoral fraud. In 2020, the Russian constitution was amended to allow him to rule for two more consecutive terms, another 16 years, until 2036. In April 2021, Putin signed the required amendments into law. Such manoeuvring might be regarded as more consistent with the behaviour of an an autocrat. For all this, Putin’s approval ratings presently appear to be quite high among the Russian populace.
A further concern when it comes to Putin’s behaviour is that it fits the profile of someone with a profound personality disorder. If so, this might make him an illegitimate authority.
In his acclaimed and persuasive recent study of tyrannical leaders (like Stalin and Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot), Ian Hughes identifies three profoundly dysfunctional traits that they commonly exhibit, namely, psychopathy, narcissism and paranoia. According to Hughes, traumatic upheavals in world history are frequently a consequence of the pathological control of societies by those who are in possession of them. Although not discussed in the book, with his seemingly paranoid perception of NATO, his likening of opponents to ‘gnats’, his vindictive willingness to murder those opponents, and his ongoing attempt to eradicate the national identity of Ukraine, a morally unacceptable aim which arguably contravenes the Just War principle of right intention, and that has been pursued with a callous disregard for civilian casualties (and resulted in President Biden’s demand that he should be tried for war crimes), much of Putin’s behaviour is consistent with that of a psychopath. Typically, psychopaths have no conscience and lack any ability to empathise, though they can be fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused, and not all are violent or even criminal. See HERE for a detailed assessment of Putin’s psychopathic attributes.
Hughes suggests that a liberal, secular, representative democracy is the best form of defence that we can have against this type of political leader, and offers seven reasons why this is so. Firstly, elections will allow us to get rid of them. Secondly and thirdly, the rule of law curbs their excesses, as does a written constitution and the delegation of powers to others within a government. A further separation of church and state prevents the members of any dominant faith from persecuting those who do not belong to it. Fourthly, social democracy ensures that the wealth and resources of a country are redistributed among its citizens, thus alleviating the economic inequalities that dangerous populists sometimes adopt as a cause celebre to facilitate their bid for power. Human rights laws are a fifth pillar, as they provide protection for ordinary citizens not only from tyrants but also victimization by the rest of the populace. International co-operation (represented by the UN) and the promotion of a culture of tolerance within a society represent the final two bulwarks against tyranny.
Hughes summarises his ideas in a brief 15 minute lecture here:
The ‘seven pillars’ that he introduces towards the end of his presentation are of particular significance with respect to Russia because of the extent to which most of them have been flouted. For example, previous Russian elections appear to have been blighted by vote-rigging and other anti-democratic tactics, the constitution has been rewritten to permit Putin to remain in power until 2036, his humiliation of his own spy chief suggests that he rules both through fear and the cultivation of a like-minded inner circle rather than via any genuine delegation of power. Effectively, he has, at least to an extent, folded the state into himself. Furthermore, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has expressed support for Putin’s invasion and blamed liberal Western values, especially gay pride parades, as another reason for that invasion, which is perhaps indicative of a blurring of the boundary between church and state and certainly undermines any prospect for the emergence of culture of tolerance of homosexuality in Russia, and the country’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council signifies its disregard for such rights and the international co-operation that underpins them. Lastly, Russia is widely acknowledged to be a corrupt and economically unequal country which suffers from a concentration of wealth and power in its oligarchs.
In summary, the above all lend support to Hughes’s thesis and indicate that Putin is too psychologically unfit to be regarded as a legitimate authority when it comes to the declaration of war according to Just War Theory.
Moving on to just cause, at the outset of the invasion on 24 February 2022, Putin informed the Russian people that his reason for doing so was to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine’ as well as to protect those in the country more favourably disposed to Russia who had already endured eight years of bullying and genocide by Ukraine’s government. A further objective was subsequently added: ensuring the neutral status of Ukraine. Putin has also expressed concerns about NATO expansionism and believes that the organisation has reneged on a promise made back in 1990 not to expand in the East. It has also been suggested that a broader reason for his invasion was a desire to re-establish the contours of the former Soviet Union.
As far as ‘de-militarisation’ is concerned, Putin has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine intends to acquire nuclear weapons. In fact, Ukraine gave up the weapons that it had in the 1990’s in return for security guarantees, and the present Ukrainian government has not expressed any intention to re-arm. Support for far-right candidates in recent Ukrainian elections has been much lower than that in many European countries, though far-right groups do exist and the unabashedly neo-Nazi Azov regiment is the most well-known. The charge of genocide is also unfounded. Since 1997, 14 countries have joined NATO but have not been coerced into doing so. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO allies have supported Ukraine with equipment and training and have deployed more forces to some NATO member states in eastern Europe. Overall, then, there reasons given by Putin do not seem – on any balanced assessment – to amount to a just cause for the invasion he instigated and arguably constitute a disproportionate response to the perceived provocations.
Moving on to last resort, given the long-term build-up of troops on the border of Ukraine prior to the commencement of war, and repeated suggestions from Western intelligence that it had been planned all long, it could be argued that Putin was never genuinely open to the pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the concerns which prompted him to eventually start the conflict. Given the overwhelming military superiority possessed by Russia, he may also have anticipated a swift victory, so the chances for success must have seemed entirely reasonable, though the resilience of the Ukrainians has – at the time of writing – challenged that assumption.
On the actual battlefield itself, where jus in bello principles apply, in previous conflicts (Georgia, Chechnya and Syria), Russia has been shown to routinely adopt disproportionate tactics. In an article for the BBC written in early March 2022, Jeremy Bowen wrote that, ‘The most devastated places I have seen in years of war reporting, apart from Grozny, were in Syria.’ These places were left in that state as a result of the destructive power of the Russian military. According to Bowen, ‘the record shows that the Russian military compensates for weaknesses in the capabilities of its ground forces by turning to the big guns,’ and the tactic used in Syria was to ‘encircle and besiege rebel-held areas, pound them from the air and from artillery batteries, and in the end exhaust the defenders and any civilians who had not managed to escape. Many of them were killed.’
This strategy has already been repeated in Ukraine (e.g. in Kharkiv, Mariupol, and three other cities), in clear violation of the principles of proportionality and discrimination. Amnesty International describes the situation as follows:
‘In recent weeks, Russian forces have been using inherently indiscriminate weapons – such as cluster munitions, and inaccurate weapons with wide-area effects such as unguided ‘dumb’ bombs and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) salvos – in attacks on densely-populated civilian areas. As such, Russian forces’ assaults on towns and cities and wanton destruction of the infrastructure of daily life violates international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Launching indiscriminate attacks which kill or injure civilians also constitute war crimes.’
Additionally, in an April 2022 article for the New Statesman, the BBC world affairs editor John Simpson observed that:
‘Civilians are dying in appallingly large numbers there, but not particularly because of their ethnicity. They are dying because the Russian troops are poorly disciplined, careless, and have overwhelming firepower. I have watched three Russian campaigns, and they fill me with terror because the soldiers don’t care what they do, and their officers don’t try to restrain them. Most of the time – and this is particularly true of Ukraine, where living standards are, or were, a lot higher than in Russia – Russian troops seem more concerned with looting than with anything else.’
In summary, it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that neither of the jus in bello precepts are being observed.
Finally, as the war is still in progress, any discussion of jus post bellum principles is necessarily going to be speculative. However, if Russia loses and/or Putin is toppled from power, the maxim of punishment might demand that any Russian soldiers who have committed war crimes, as well as Putin himself, should be prosecuted. One way for this to happen might be through the International Criminal Court, which has the power to investigate and take action against war criminals who are not before the courts of individual states. The ICC also has the authority to charge individuals with the offence of “waging aggressive war” in the case of an unjustifiable invasion or conflict, one which goes beyond military action in self-defence. However, as Russia is not a signatory to the ICC, it would be unable to pursue Russia’s leaders for this. On 22 December 2020, Putin also signed a bill giving lifetime prosecutorial immunity to Russian ex-presidents.
In assessing this principle, Chomsky’s observation about indictable offences committed by a succession of former US Presidents (see below) is relevant, as the fact that those who are still living have never been put on trial might be seen by those who agree with his views as lending support to his suggestion that, to retain their moral credibility and not expose themselves to accusations of hypocrisy, Western governments should adhere to the same moral standards that they expect other governments to uphold.
When it comes to rights vindication, one might expect the restoration of a free press and the establishment of truly democratic practices to be introduced in Russia. Following the wanton destruction that Russia has inflicted in Ukraine, compensation in the form of reparations would be anticipated. However, given the economic inequalities that already exist in the country, they should not be excessively punitive, as this may prevent the defeated country from getting back on its feet and could obstruct the principle of rights vindication from doing its work with respect to the creation of a more open society. If the citizens are resentful as a consequence of having to deal with a shattered economy, they may not willingly embrace the freedoms they are permitted to enjoy, and there would then be a risk of extremist movements with anti-democratic agendas gaining ground by exploiting the situation. Instead, the compensation might be paid by the losing government and/or the armed forces.
Overall, given that the Edexcel syllabus requires candidates to be able to assess ‘the success of the Just War Theory as a theory and in practice’, the example of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine arguably illustrates the success of the theory in terms of its ability to highlight with some precision, the reasons why wars like this one are immoral.
Noam Chomsky on the morality of war and Ukraine
Noam Chomsky (1928 – present) is a modern philosopher whose views could also be mentioned when answering a question on the topic of war and peace if there is scope – as there could be in an ‘Evaluate’-type question – for a response from a secular, in this instance neo-Kantian perspective (as opposed to that represented by Just War Theory, Realism and Pacifism).
This is because – according to The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky – ‘Chomsky himself has often said that his ethics are based on Kantian universalism.’ For example, in a 2007 interview that was set against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he commented as follows:
‘…maybe the most elementary of moral principles is that of Immanuel Kant’s principle of universality: That is, if something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow. But that principle is overwhelmingly disregarded all the time. If you want to run through examples we can easily do it. Take, say, George W. Bush, since he happens to be president. If you apply the standards that we applied to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, he’d be hanged. Is it an even conceivable possibility? It’s not even discussable. Because, we don’t apply to ourselves the principles we apply to others.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘terror’ and how awful it is. Whose terror? Our terror against them? Is that considered reprehensible? No, it’s considered highly moral; it’s considered self-defense, and so on. Now, their terror against us, that’s awful, and terrible, and so on.
But, to try to rise to the level of becoming a minimal moral agent, and just enter in the domain of moral discourse is very difficult. Because, that implies accepting the principle of universality – and you can experiment for yourself and see how often that’s accepted, either in personal or political life. Very rarely.’
Unsurprisingly, Chomsky is therefore regarded as an outspoken and controversial figure.
Here are few other things he has said:
‘If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.’
‘I have often thought that if a rational Fascist dictatorship were to exist, then it would choose the American system.’
‘The United States is unusual among the industrial democracies in the rigidity of the system of ideological control – “indoctrination,” we might say – exercised through the mass media.’
He has also described England as an ‘outlaw state’ and the USA as the world’s ‘leading terrorist state’, and been highly critical of many of the wars either the USA or the UK has participated in e.g. the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Chomsky additionally maintains is that the Western media does not tell the truth about what is happening in the world because the so-called ‘free press’ is predominantly (though not exclusively) right-wing and controlled by the rich and powerful, who through a process known as ‘manufacturing consent’, attempt to perpetuate a system that all but nullifies political opposition and dissent. In other words, for Chomsky we are a bit like the prisoners in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave who have chosen to live in a world of comforting illusion, tranquilised by a constant media barrage of gossip about celebrities and sport, and seduced into political complacency by unquestioningly acceding to the agenda being promoted via the same medium.
Chomsky’s ethics are therefore set against this backdrop and have to be understood as seeking to unmask it. In order to do so, he invokes a ‘principle of universality’. What this principle states is that, at the very least, we should apply to ourselves the same standards that we apply to others. This is a principle that, as previously mentioned, Chomsky claims has always been central to any system of ethics and could be a maxim derived from the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative.
Often we use ethical language to criticise others but are less inclined to hold ourselves to the same strictures. Nevertheless, if we claim to be on the side of right against wrong, and if we wish to be consistent, Chomsky maintains that his principle is one that we must stick to. In particular, Chomsky argues that we should therefore be very careful about what the government and the media say are the ‘facts’ about any given situation, and we should not take them at face value. When we do this, he claims that we often find that our governments and media do not uphold the same ethical standards that they often accuse other countries of violating. In other words, we should not assume that our own government is naturally more ethical than other governments and that we are the ‘good guys’.
In a recent interview about the war in Ukraine, Chomsky himself offered two examples of double standards and moral hypocrisy. First of all, in response to allegations that Russia has used chemical weapons in Mariupol, he notes that ‘we should also be concerned about the well-confirmed reports of deformed fetuses in Saigon hospitals right now, among the terrible results of the chemical warfare unleashed by the Kennedy administration to destroy crops and forests, a core part of the program to “protect” the rural population who were supporting the Viet Cong, as Washington knew well.’
Secondly, when it comes to war crimes committed against innocent Ukrainian civilians by Russia, Chomsky observes that, ‘When enemies carry out crimes, a major industry is mobilized to reveal every tiny detail. As should be done. War crimes should not be concealed and forgotten. Regrettably, that is the near-universal practice in the U.S. ….Those with some perverse interest in looking at ourselves can learn some lessons from the way atrocities are handled when exposed. The most notable case is the My Lai massacre, finally recognized after freelance reporter Seymour Hersh exposed the crime to the West…The My Lai massacre could be absorbed within the propaganda system by restricting the blame to GIs in the field who didn’t know who was going to shoot at them next. Exempt were — and are — those who sent them on these mass murder expeditions. Furthermore, the focus on one of the many crimes on the ground served to conceal the fact that they were the merest footnote to a huge bombing campaign of slaughter and destruction directed from air-conditioned offices, mostly suppressed by the media…Short of such cases, which are rare, U.S. crimes are not examined and little is known about them.
To return to Chomsky’s provocative reference to US presidents and Nuremberg, this may seem odd until we learn that, as the historian William Blum has documented, since 1945, the US has destroyed or subverted more than 50 governments, many of them democracies, and used mass murderers like Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile), as well as despots like the Shah of Iran to dominate by proxy, and this is before the Middle East is even considered.
According to Chomsky, the more powerful the state, the greater will be its tendency towards tyranny and oppression. US expansionism, for example, has been motivated by a desire to arrest the spread of Communism (in the past) and various forms of Islamism (in the present), as well as to ensure economic advantage and to secure control of vital resources. US policy in the Middle East and the wider ‘war on terror’ was (and perhaps still is) therefore largely driven by the desire for safeguard oil supplies. To this end, the USA has consistently subverted democracy and has sponsored or supported the development of a network of often authoritarian client states. On this view, the USA can be seen as a ‘rogue superpower’ and the principle source of violence and terrorism across the globe.
In the following interview Chomsky details what he considers to be the indictable war crimes of a succession of former US Presidents, beginning with Eisenhower and ending with George W. Bush.
With respect to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in the other aforementioned interview that is linked to above, Chomsky states that the primary consideration should be ‘to bring the criminal Russian invasion to a quick end and to save the Ukrainian victims from more horrors.’ At present, he thinks that there are two possible outcomes to the war, one which culminates in the destruction of one side or the other (though he cautions that ‘It won’t be Russia that is destroyed’), or one which results from dialogue and concludes with a negotiated settlement that is likely to include some loss of territory for Ukraine in the east, thereby providing Russia with a buffer zone, and neutral status for Ukraine. He further notes that ‘Official U.S. policy continues to reject all of this.’
Chomsky additionally states that, in his opinion, ‘it goes too far’ to assume that Putin is pursuing an expansionist policy and aiming for an eventual war with NATO and the U.S. , adding that, ‘I think he wants peace — on his terms. (What monster doesn’t?) What these terms are we can only discover by trying to find out, through “statecraft and diplomacy.” ‘
According to Chomsky, the more powerful the state, the greater will be its tendency towards tyranny and oppression. US expansionism, for example, through the growth of corporate power and the large and small scale invasions of countries such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, has been motivated by a desire to ensure economic advantage and to secure control of vital resources. US policy in the Middle East and the wider ‘war on terror’ was therefore largely driven by the desire for secure oil supplies. To this end, the USA has consistently subverted democracy and has sponsored or supported the development of a network of often authoritarian client states. On this view, the USA can be seen as a ‘rogue superpower’ and the principle source of violence and terrorism across the globe.
Chomsky’s moral philosophy is related to his linguistic theory, according to which ‘there is an innate process of thinking in every human mind, which is capable of generating a universal “deep structure” of language. Chomsky believes that, regardless of their apparent structural differences, all human languages have been generated from this common basis.’ [The Philosophy Book DK publishers p.133]. An innate capacity for morality accompanies this:
‘The same is true of moral judgment. What its basis may be we do not know, but we can hardly doubt that it is rooted in fundamental human nature. It cannot be merely a matter of convention that we find some things to be right, others wrong. Growing up in a particular society, a child acquires standards and principles of moral judgment. These are acquired on the basis of limited evidence, but they have broad and often quite precise applicability. It is often though not always true that people can discover or be convinced that their judgments about a particular case are wrong, in the sense that the judgments are inconsistent with the person’s own internalized principles. Moral argument is not always pointless, merely a matter of “I assert this” and “you assert that” [a probable reference to Ayer’s Boo-Hurrah theory]. The acquisition of a specific moral and ethical system, wide ranging and often precise in its consequences, cannot simply be the result of “shaping” and “control” by the social environment. As in the case of language, the environment is far too impoverished and indeterminate to provide this system to the child, in its full richness and applicability. Knowing little about the matter, we are compelled to speculate; but it certainly seems reasonable to speculate that the moral and ethical system acquired by the child owes much to some innate human faculty. The environment is relevant, as in the case of language, vision, and so on; thus we can find individual and cultural divergence. But there is surely a common basis, rooted in our nature.’
More recently, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has conducted research suggesting that our conscience and its moral intuitions are an emergent product of evolutionary psychology. In other words, the innate capacity that Chomsky refers to above has been shaped by the social environment, but over a period of millions of years.
However, at this point, Chomsky’s moral philosophy becomes vulnerable to the naturalistic fallacy. The fact that an innate human faculty is universally shared tells us nothing about whether a universalist ethic is the only kind of moral code worth looking at.
For example, like Haidt, the psychologist Joshua Greene has also confirmed that Hume was correct to assert that reason is the slave of the passions: our moral, political (and aesthetic) evaluations are, indeed, formed intuitively and instantaneously, and the rationalizations of them are secondary. A state of emotional arousal comes first and the arguments follow on. However, the accompanying intuitions that we are seeking to justify are an artefact of tribalistic living, and therefore not always reliable. Having been honed over millennia of trial and error, some of our automatic responses have withstood the test of time and still hold true. However, others can lead us astray. For example, groups that had taboos against non-reproductive sexual acts like masturbation, oral sex and homosexual relationships may have benefited in terms of natural selection, as they may have enjoyed higher fertility rates and faster growth than other groups. However, nowadays these taboos appear outdated and morally indefensible, a point worth bearing in mind when it comes to Natural Law theory.
For this reason, in his book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, Greene argues that utilitarianism is the normative ethical theory best equipped for the navigation of situations where these gut feelings let us down.
A comment that Joseph Fletcher once made about Kant is also equally applicable to Chomsky: ‘…the situationist says to both Kant and to the theological moralists whom he sought to undermine that it is a moral mistake to ask whether a thing such as lying is right or wrong universally or in the abstract; that the correct question is when it is right and when it is wrong.’
A further issue resides with Chomsky’s plea for moral consistency in foreign policy making, as this could, when rigidly applied, be setting the ethical bar too high. For example, with respect to the treatment of women, homosexuals, and ethnic/religious minorities, if the UK were to adopt his maxim we may then be left with very few countries to trade with and compete against when it comes to sport, were we to extend the economic sanctions and bans that have been imposed on Russia to those countries who continue to maintain laws that are deliberately discriminatory. It should, nevertheless, be kept in mind, as to apply his principle wherever possible might leave the UK less open to accusations of hypocrisy and double-standards.
Critics of Chomsky additionally claim that his analysis is often simplistic and one-sided, as it could be argued that the USA has done much to promote and not just frustrate democracy in countries like Germany and Japan after World War Two, and is itself a country of freedom and opportunity for many who have emigrated there. Having a democratic superpower be so influential in the world may also be preferable to other possible alternatives. Plus, however bad Western governments may be, they risk trouble eventually, even in a climate where consent can be manufactured, from the media, the courts and the electorate, something that cannot be said with confidence about Russia and other countries like it. So there is arguably not a moral equivalence between the examples Chomsky cites and the conduct of an autocratic Russia, which has been stifling dissent by arresting protestors and shutting down its free press.
Lastly, well-intentioned though it is in seeking to put a stop to further civilian casualties, his suggestion that Ukraine should cede territory to Russia as part of any negotiated settlement to end the present war could be regarded as a form of appeasement. Kaja Kallas, the Estonian Prime Minister, has commented on the dangers of making concessions like this:
‘The current negotiating tactics of the Kremlin call to mind the three rules of former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko:
- Demand the maximum — do not meekly ask, but demand that which has never been yours;
- Present ultimatums — do not hold back on threats, since you will always find people in the West who are willing to negotiate; and
- Do not give one inch of ground in negotiations — they themselves will offer you at least part of what you are asking for, but do not take it: demand more, because they will go along with it, and in the end, you will get a third or even half of that of which you had none of previously.
These are the same tactics the Kremlin is using today. And we must not fall for the trap, designed to coax us into making concessions regarding Europe’s security. However small those concessions might be, they would give Russia something it did not have before.‘
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has also, in an online article, been condemnatory of pacifists who broadly share Chomsky’s perspective and his desire for a diplomatic solution which involves Ukrainian territory becoming part of Russia, arguing that they are overlooking the possibility that Vladimir Putin may be pursuing an expansionist project whose aim is to establish a new Russian empire:
‘Western leftists and pacifists have chosen simply to ignore the geopolitical dimension of Putin’s “denazification” project…Implicit in this position is that Western governments should simply let Russia occupy Ukraine. Yet it is an odd “pacifism” that applies pressure on the victim (which must not defend itself too vigorously) and its supporters (which must not help the aggressor’s target too much), rather than on the attacker.‘