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Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: Assigning Responsibility & Critical Thinking

Updated: May 19, 2022

By Jeff Noonan, Professor of Philosophy, University of Windsor | March 9th, 2022 Contributed article for the Working Group on NATO, Science for Peace

© The Presidential Press and Information Office

When confronted with any political problem we face three interrelated tasks. The analyst must understand, assign responsibility, and decide how to respond. How we respond will be a function of understanding and responsibility.

Responsibility cannot be assigned unless the problem is understood. When I say “responsibility” in this context I am not talking about legal responsibility, still less moral blame worthiness. Legal and moral questions arise in political life, but to understand a problem politically both, and especially the later, must be bracketed. Legal responsibility (say, for war crimes) is a matter for the courts. Morality is something else again. Nothing is easier than charges of wanton inhumanity, but when we think of political conflicts in terms of abstract categories like “good” and “evil” we grossly oversimplify their historical emergence and impede rather than deepen understanding.

The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a case study in how conflating responsibility with moral blameworthiness impedes comprehensive understanding. The Russian army may be committing war crimes and Putin may be, as his legion of critics maintain, “evil.” But he did not invade because he is evil or for the sake of committing war crimes. Make no mistake: Putin and his inner circle are responsible for the invasion. They are legally accountable for whatever war crimes are committed, whatever reparations are owed, and for any other negative consequences that their illegal actions are causing. Putin and those who execute his orders are also, like every human being, moral subjects who may justly be judged for the pain and death their decisions have caused. But proper political understanding must bracket those two dimensions of the web of human agency and action.

Political understanding must do so because both isolate actions from historical context and fix blame on individuals. The US and the EU knew from at least 2008 that Russia was unequivocally opposed to NATO expansion but both have persistently ignored those concerns. One cannot understand the actions of political agents, which, as I have been pointing out in the past few posts, act on raisons d’etat and not objective reasons, on the terms in which we would evaluate the day to day actions of people not in positions of power. Political agents, especially when the problem has the world historical implications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are not acting as legal or moral individuals, but as historical subjects shaped by and carrying with them the cumulative effects of past actions.

From a legal and moral standpoint, Putin is an individual subject to legal and moral judgments that others will render. But as the person who ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he is the President of the Russian Federation and the embodiment of the history of that Federation and its relationship with the West since he assumed power in the 1990s. The only way we can understand his actions is by understanding that history. When we understand that history, we must acknowledge that NATO and the United States have played a role in generating the tensions that Putin is now trying (and failing) to overcome by force.

Moralistic explanations always crash against the rocks of one-sidedness. If the explanation for the war is that Putin is an evil megalomaniac, then there is no reason to investigate the history of Western relationships with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If we shout loudly enough about his inhuman tactics in Ukraine, we can silence critics of our own side’s use of the same tactics. One of the main headlines last week was that Russia had used or was preparing to use a thermobaric weapon. What those same outlets failed to report was that the US used thermobaric weapons in Afghanistan: a country without an air force or air defence systems. One could go on for pages and pages with similar examples of the abject hypocrisy of Western leaders. The point is not to distract attention from Russia’s actions in Ukraine and argue that the US and NATO are the true evil empire. Ukrainians resisting the war have rightly cautioned against arguments from Western Marxists like David Harvey who have downplayed Russian responsibility. I agree with those criticisms. However, one must still factor in the history of aggressive NATO expansion when we try to comprehensively understand the current conflict. The clear fact of the matter is that had the United States betrayed its promise to Gorbachev and the disintegrating Soviet Union to not expand NATO, and that is the starting point of the causal chain that leads up to the on-going Russian bombardment of Ukraine. Moreover, had the US sat down and seriously negotiated with Russia in the run up to the war, the war might not have been launched.

I do not want to distract from the current realty by introducing counter-factuals or to reduce Putin’s responsibility for the war. He gave the orders and there was no compelling strategic necessity to do so (in fact, this decision will probably rank as one of the great strategic errors of all time). The point is that the West calculates its moves not in terms of good or bad but in terms of strategic interests just like Putin or any other political agent. The horrors of war are unleashed not because the leaders of any bloc are psychopathic monsters, but because they act according to an inhuman calculus of political and strategic power and weakness; they evaluate their success not in terms of how many lives are wasted in pursuit of the objective, but in terms of whether the objectives are met. One may wish it were otherwise and I and all peace loving people do so wish, but that wish changes nothing. Those in charge of policy understand that lives hang in the balance of their decisions— Western experts predicted this war but refused to negotiate nonetheless– but they do not make decisions on the basis of the only moral principle that ultimately matters in international affairs: preserve peace and maintain life above all costs. No major political power in history has ever made decisions on that basis. Only 6 year olds think that history is a struggle between “good” guys and “bad” guys. The structural conditions of geo-political conflict are enough to ensure that no one who thought and acted on the principle that lives should be preserved at all costs would ever get anywhere near power. They would be incapable of making the decisions that the “balance of power” forces people to make, and they would never be acceptable to the economic political, and military interests that rule states and have ruled them in different forms for thousands of years.

Hence the real fruit of dispassionate understanding of the depth causes of international conflict in general and the present one in particular is (for me at least) despair. In order to finally overcome the structures that continually cause violent conflict the world would need new political agents capable of achieving total disarmament such that large scale warfare becomes impossible. But who would disarm in the middle of a fight? And when is there not a fight going on somewhere? Hence the objective conditions for the emergence of the political subjects who are needed to take bold new steps towards permanent peace are never met. Genuine voices of peace always emerge, but they are always marginal.

Unfortunately, these voices of peace are too often silenced and cowed by the much larger chorus of braying xenophobes and chauvinists who insist on simplistic moralistic demonization of the whole of the people who constitute the ‘enemy.” One can certainly understand Ukrainian animosity towards Russia (although many in Ukraine have reached out in exemplary fashion to ordinary Russians to urge them to work to stop the war). One might not like the consequences for everyday Russians the severe of the economic sanctions will have, but Putin’s aggression could not go unanswered. Critics of the current global system will be troubled by the hypocrisy and double standards (why is the US never sanctioned, and who is the US, given its history, to try to teach lessons in humane treatment), but the reality is that there is no third party in heaven floating above the fray who can intervene to stop this war. There is only the nations of the rest of the world, and the most powerful agents in the rest of the world are the US and the EU. Sanctions are the only real weapon short of actual armed intervention, imposed on Russia.

Putin’s decisions are thus the root cause of these sanctions and he will have to answer to his people (who have been demonstrating in impressive numbers, given the strength of the internal security apparatus they face). General economic sanctions were therefore inevitable and justifiable. On the other hand, quite unjustified and dangerous are the wild rash of sanctions in individual Russians and even digital representations of Russian. Why should paralympians be banned from the Beijing Games? What possible causal force could they exert to stop the war? Why then are they being held responsible? Even more absurd: why have sports video games deleted the avatars of Russian national teams. Were they supposed to spin themselves into a digital golem and stop Putin? And even worse: why was a class on Dostoevsky (the study of whose peerless looking into the human heart of darkness is most needed at the moment) cancelled by an Italian university? Universities are places of free inquiry; whomever imposed this ban should ban themselves from their post– they are clearly unfit for intellectual work.

Will we soon be hearing calls for the internment of Russian Canadians?

Moral hysteria is not an effective basis for solidarity. It contributes to the unthinking demonization reduction of complex cultures and individuals to “enemy” status. Such demonizing drives supply the motivational fuel that keeps major conflicts burning. They prevent otherwise intelligent and good-hearted people from understanding history, causes, and the role their own nations have played in stoking conflict. They serve to perpetuate those conflicts, not resolve them. Look to history: when people are backed into a corner and despised en masse because of the actions of their leaders, they do not turn their backs on each other and their history but band together even tighter. The Taliban rule Afghanistan again after 20 years of US and NATO war and Iranians have maintained their revolution despite 40 years of American sanctions. Above all, the world has to mobilize to prevent Ukraine from becoming another Afghanistan: a land laid waste by forty years of great power politics. The way to help Ukrainians is to insist on a ceasefire and negotiations, not to mindlessly chant Cold War slogans about godless and heartless Ruskies out to destroy the free world.


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