Russia’s ‘holy war’ in Syria

Commenting on the Russian military campaign in Syria, Vsevolod Chaplin, the provocative head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for church-society relations, remarked this week that, ‘The struggle against terrorism … is a very moral, if you like holy, struggle’. But one of Chaplin’s former teachers, Andrei Zubov, has spoken very differently: ‘We have the social concept of the Russian church, which the synod approved 15 years ago, in 2000, and of which I was one of the authors, and it clearly says that war is a very great tragedy.’

Russian philosophers have generally not paid much attention to what in the West is called ‘just war theory’. The Soviet position was rather crude: in essence, any war fought by reactionary forces (i.e. capitalist states) was automatically unjust, while any war fought by progressive (i.e. communist) states was automatically just. For more sophisticated analysis, one has to go back in time to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leo Tolstoy’s 1894 book The Kingdom of God is Within You laid out the pacifist position, and earned a riposte in the form of Vladimir Solovyov’s 1900 work Three Conversations. The latter is possibly the most entertaining book of just war theory anybody has ever written, but its format – essentially a play in three acts – means that it doesn’t provide a very complex examination of the subject, and in any case it goes seriously off the rails at the end with a bizarre story about the Anti-Christ. And that is pretty much it for pre-revolutionary literature.

The First World War prompted a few philosophers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, as well as Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev and Galicia, to pen short articles on the ethics of war, but as far as I am aware, the only book-length examination of the ethics of violence by a Russian philosopher prior to the collapse of communism is Ivan Ilyin’s 1925 work On Resistance to Evil by Force. Given the interest that my previous posts about Ilyin have generated, it is worth looking at this in some depth.

Ilyin’s basic argument is that the moral demands of war are contradictory. In some circumstances, one may be morally obliged to wage war, but doing so involves carrying out actions which are usually considered unjust (killing, deceiving, etc). Consequently, the necessary use of force is an ‘unsinful perpetration of injustice’, which requires ‘spiritual compromise’. This is a deliberately contradictory position: Ilyin’s argument is that it is only by recognizing the inherently contradictory moral demands of force that one can avoid the moral pitfalls associated with it.

Ilyin reached this conclusion by arguing that the imperfection of the world creates situations in which one has no choice but to use force in order to prevent the triumph of evil. In such situations, the use of force is a moral obligation. But while it is necessary, it isn’t ‘just’. ‘The way of the sword’, Ilyin wrote, ‘is an unjust path … what the swordbearer does in the fight with evildoers is not perfect, not holy, not just’. The actions of your enemy which justify your actions are always at least partly your fault, as there is always something you could have done to prevent them. Even a war of self-defence isn’t ‘just’ because everybody is in some way responsible for the external environment which has created the situation in which self-defence becomes necessary. Since everybody is thus at least partially responsible for any war they fight, ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.

Furthermore, the use of force only combats the external manifestations of evil. This is insufficient. One must also fight what nowadays we would call the ‘root causes’ of the evil. Otherwise, the evil will merely return once you defeat it.

Finally, Ilyin notes that force tends to excite the passions and undermine the moral senses of those who use it. To avoid this problem, people must, in line with the argument above, recognize that what they are doing, though necessary, is not just, and they must undergo continual ‘penitential self-purification’. In other words, the only way to avoid the worst consequences of war is to rid yourself of the idea that because your enemies are the ‘bad guys’ that means that you are the ‘good guy’ and thus free to do as you choose.

So, what would Ilyin’s logic tell us about Russia’s war in Syria? I think roughly the following:

  • The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an evil which must be fought. Armed struggle against it is not only justifiable, but mandatory.
  • Nevertheless, ISIS is just a symptom of a deeper problem. That deeper problem is ultimately a spiritual one. Fighting ISIS without fighting the root causes which produced ISIS is pointless. One cannot simply defeat ISIS and return to the status quo ante.
  • Among the root causes of ISIS are the actions of those now fighting it – the repressive regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the failed interventions by Western states in the Middle East. Russia also has contributed to the situation by its previous support of those repressive regimes. It must acknowledge its share of responsibility for the problem and change its behaviour.
  • While necessary, attacking ISIS is not a morally good action. It is at best a lesser evil. It will involve injustices – for instance, when innocent civilians are killed as ‘collateral damage’ in Russian air strikes. Those fighting can’t just brush off the injustices as mistakes, unavoidable consequences of military action, and so on. They must acknowledge their guilt.

I don’t accept all of Ilyin’s reasoning. I am far more pacifistic. But his logic is undoubtedly original and poses significant challenges to the way people normally think of the ethics of violence. On the one hand it requires the use of force in some situations. On the other hand, it is extremely demanding of those who do use force. In line with Zubov, I have previously written on this blog that ‘holy war’ is not part of Orthodox tradition. From what I have read, it is not part of the wider Russian philosophical tradition either.

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13 thoughts on “Russia’s ‘holy war’ in Syria”

  1. The current situation in Syria, and the rationale (at least the stated rationale) of the recent Russian intervention there, is, I think, better explained by Hobbes than Ilyin.

    Obviously we would all prefer to live an anarchist paradise, but in reality a strong state (maintaining and exercising the monopoly of violence) is sometimes a far lesser evil than anarchy, whatever the motivations of the warring nongovernment factions may be. Syria today appears to be one of these cases.

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    1. I would agree, but would add a proviso which is that certain types of states fail to allow the development of the kind of civil society which links people together on grounds other than ethnicity, religion etc, and so make these societies prone to fall apart once the state is weakened. Basically, they become ticking time bombs. One is then left with the scenario described in Aleksandr Guchkov’s famous ‘mad driver’ speech. Do the passengers try to grab the wheel from the driver, and in the process risk sending the car off the cliff? Or do they let the mad driver continue at the wheel?

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  2. 2PoulR. You write:

    2. Nevertheless, ISIS is just a symptom of a deeper problem. That deeper problem is ultimately a spiritual one. Fighting ISIS without fighting the root causes which produced ISIS is pointless. One cannot simply defeat ISIS and return to the status quo ante.

    3. Among the root causes of ISIS are the actions of those now fighting it – the repressive regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the failed interventions by Western states in the Middle East. Russia also has contributed to the situation by its previous support of those repressive regimes. It must acknowledge its share of responsibility for the problem and change its behaviour.

    Given these two statements, and if we are applying Il’in’s concept here, how would be charaterised another “root cause” of the ISIS (and AQ… and Al Nusra… and the so-called “moderate opposition”), namely – arms, ammo, supplies and training provided for these “oppositionist groups” by Quatar, Saudis and/or the USA?

    You write that one of the “root causes” of the ISIS success in Iraq was “the repressive regime” here. I’m sorry – I’ve always thought that after 2003 the USA have established absolutely democratic government here!

    As for the Russian “contribution” to the ISIS success (you are implying this by using a term “the actions of those now fighting it”) – well, what’d you prefer? For Russia to stop making independent foreign policy, to became the US “Yes Man” in the spirit (and spirits) of the “Glorious 90s”, and then curl into a ball and die? Russia should have allowed Lybia 2.0 – that’s what you are saying here?

    I find it really strange, that it’s somehow Russia’s fault that after decades of the West’s (primarily – USA’s) blatant and heavy handed involvement in the ME, after all those “humanitarian interventions”, that ISIS has arisen here.

    Correct me if I’m wrong/

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    1. You are not wrong, Lyttenburgh, but my purpose was somewhat different to what I think you see it as being. As somebody who studies not only Russia but also military ethics, and writes occasionally on that subject and the wider theme of just war theory, I am interested in analyzing how different people view the ethics of violence. In this case, the idea is to apply Ilyin`s reasoning to Russia`s use of force in Syria and see what it would suggest (having chosen Ilyin because his work on the matter stands out in Russian philosophy). The purpose is not to endorse that reasoning. Rather, it is a sort of intellectual exercise to find a different way of looking at the problem.

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      1. Once again – are you suggesting that Ivan Il’in, should he see with his own eyes the current conflict in Syria, and upon learning all connected facts would still insists that it was Russia (as you claim) who’ve “emboldened” or “strenghtened” or whatever the ISIS… by supporting and supplying Assad all those years?

        Are you sure that you are presenting here Il’in’s views – and not your own position on the conflict?

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      2. I am applying the logic of this particular mode of reasoning to Russia. Given that the logic is that ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act`, then, if you follow this line of reasoning, Russia is morally guilty. Now it is equally true that the West is morally guilty, but I wasn`t applying the logic to it. If I did, it would go something like this: ‘The West should fight ISIS. But the West must accept that it is to a large degree responsible for the existence of ISIS. Thus, although the West must fight ISIS, it must also address that part of its behaviour which has to ISIS being so strong. One aspect of that behaviour is the way that the West has undermined states in the Middle East. If it is to fight the root causes of ISIS, it therefore needs to go beyond dropping bombs on it, but also starting strengthening the states of the region’. The Ilyin-style logic thus leads one to a position rather similar to that of Putin. But as I said, my purpose in my post wasn`t to analyze the justice of Western behaviour.

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  3. “certain types of states fail to allow the development of the kind of civil society which links people together on grounds other than ethnicity, religion etc, and so make these societies prone to fall apart once the state is weakened”

    Yeah, but I’m not sure it’s the question of “types of states fail to allow the development…”.

    Where there are ethnic/sectarian varieties among the population (which is pretty much everywhere these days), I have the impression that agitating various groups against each other is a rather simple task. I’d bet that the most perfect civil society will collapse after just a few weeks of well-focused propaganda. They are quite flimsy, the civil societies.

    So, I think the role of state is, rather, to *prevent*…

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  4. Great discussion, as always. Wonder if there are any Russian thinkers who apply the reasoning of Madison Avenue to Russia’s ‘ethical’ use of force. Like Wag the Dog (1997), but from a Russian perspective : ) I was inspired to ask this question by this http://www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=28718# (not a journal I read, to be sure, just something that showed up on my FB feed the other day).

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    1. Thanks for the link, Srdjan. There is certainly no shortage of Western commentators who view the Syrian operation as a sort of ‘wag the dog’ scenario, designed the distract attention from economic troubles etc. I’m not sure about Russians saying this – possibly some among the liberal opposition and the nationalist right. It could well be that some of the latter view the war in Syria as a way of diverting attention from the imminent ‘Putinsliv’ (the betrayal of the rebels in Donbass). I haven’t been reading what El-Murid, for instance, has been saying about Syria, but wouldn’t be surprised if he was writing something along those lines.

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  5. I should preface this comment by saying that I haven’t read Ilyich’s essay, so I can’t be sure whether what I’m saying applies to him personally. However, there’s an important aspect of the broader Orthodox tradition that Ilyich is drawing from, that I think can cast at least part of this question in a slightly different light. This is relating to the second point, that the actions of the countries now fighting ISIS are among the causes that led to ISIS in the first place.
    From the perspective of the wider Orthodox tradition (again, I’m not sure if Ilyin takes it in a different direction), I don’t think it’s necessary to make this point so specific. In certain representatives of the Orthodox tradition, there is a theme that each individual person should consider himself personally responsible for every sin committed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. As far as I’m aware, this idea was first expressed explicitly by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. In the Russian context, this theme was picked up by the Optina elders, who are a large part of the inspiration for the character of Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. There are two ideas lying behind this theme, one being a semi-mystical notion of human solidarity, the second being a reflection on the fact that people act the way they do at least partially because of their circumstances, from the influence of living in a world like ours. Insofar as everyone has contributed to making the world the way it is, everyone shares in the responsibility for these sins, at least in a general sense.
    When applied to the specific case of war, the upshot of this notion is that the Christian soldier or general cannot make a sharp distinction between good guys and bad guys, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the nation fighting a necessary war is responsible for this particular war in any specific sense. For example, it wouldn’t be necessary for the inhabitants of Kievan Rus to come up with some explanation of how they partially provoked the Mongol horde into invading them. It would be enough to reflect on their own aggressiveness in other contexts (for example, in the internecine wars between the Russian states) to see that they were not innocent of making the world a more aggressive place in a general sense, and therefore of sharing in the collective responsibility of making the world a place where actions like those of the Mongols conceivable.
    Applied to the specific case of Syria, this leaved open the question of whether Russia is in any direct way responsible for the rise of ISIS in any specific sense, while emphasizing that Russia too has blood on its hands, and has played its own part in making the world a more dangerous and violent place.

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