Friday object lesson #7: Commemorative coin

December 22nd will be the 60th anniversary of the death of philosopher Ivan Ilyin. I will post more about him on that date. In the meantime, this week’s object is a commemorative coin I received when I attended Ilyin’s reburial at the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow in 2005. I wrote an account of the event for The Spectator, which you can read here.

Ilyin medal

The moral equality of combatants

We do not accord a policeman and a criminal equal status: the criminal is committing an injustice, and so forfeits his right not to be handled forcibly by the policeman; the policeman on the other hand has done nothing to forfeit his right not to be attacked. Their rights are not equal.

In contrast, one of the bedrocks of the laws of war is the principle of the moral equality of combatants. Assuming that one can objectively decide that a given war has a ‘just’ and an ‘unjust’ side, those fighting on the ‘just’ side are still bound by the same rules as those on the ‘unjust’ side. Unjust soldiers are entitled to shoot at the just ones, and they have the same protection under the laws of war. Just and unjust warriors are morally equal, and should treat each other as such.

Not everybody thinks that this is how things should be. The moral equality of combatants is one of the most hotly disputed issues in contemporary just war theory. Some philosophers, basing their arguments on individual human rights, now claim that a person waging an unjust war forfeits his right to life, while a person waging a just one does not. They are not morally equal.

Into this debate have stepped two officers in the war in Ukraine: a Captain Kupol of the Ukrainian Army, and Arseny Pavlov, aka ‘Motorola’, the commander of the Sparta battalion of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic. For months Motorola’s unit has been attempting to drive the Ukrainians out of Donetsk airport. His men occupy the old terminal, while Kupol’s occupy the new one. In an unusual development, Motorola this week permitted the Ukrainians to rotate their troops in the new terminal – taking out 48 tired soldiers and bringing in 51 new ones – on condition that they did not bring any heavy weapons in. The rebels inspected the incoming Ukrainians before letting them pass. While the inspection was taking place, Motorola and Kupol met and shook hands.

The two thereby recognized each other as moral equals. This caused a fierce backlash. Nowadays, many people consider that war can only be justified if the enemy is evil, and one shouldn’t shake hands with evil. Sixty soldiers of the 63rd Brigade of the Ukrainian Army have signed a petition demanding that Kupol be punished. Meanwhile, rebel supporters have criticized Motorola. How could he shake the hands of a representative of the army which shelled the city of Donetsk and killed innocent civilians?

This criticism induced Motorola’s friend ‘Givi’ (Mikhail Tolstykh), who commands the rebel ‘Somali battalion’, to speak out in defence of his colleague. ‘Ukropy [Ukrainians] were the first to reach out for a handshake’, he told Life News, ‘and you know we all stick to the concept that we respect our enemy. Even if they’re shitty they are our enemy and they ought to be respected.’

Givi has a good point. The rights-based approach to ethics which underpins arguments against the moral equality of combatants is all well and good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Everybody thinks that their cause is just, so if you say that the just side is morally superior to the unjust side and so is not subject to the same rules, you in effect release everybody from the rules.

It is probably better, therefore, not to approach the ethics of war from the foundation of human rights, and instead to think in terms of an ethic of honour. Being engaged in a violent profession, soldiers need to feel that what they do is honourable. As Shannon French has shown in her book The Code of the Warrior, this is necessary for their psychological health. But if soldiering is an honourable profession, then an opponent is honourable too and should be respected. Through this mutual recognition, some degree of restraint can operate on soldiers’ behaviour in war. In sum, the fact that you try to kill your enemy does not mean that you shouldn’t treat him with respect when the opportunity arises.

Crackpot theory #3: Hybrid Warfare

Although it has been around for a few years, the expression ‘hybrid warfare’ really caught on in 2014. All and sundry are now repeating it to show that they are ‘in the know’ and understand that warfare is changing in important and mysterious ways.

The theory is that war has undergone a profound transformation. Whereas once it was just a matter of armies fighting armies, now it is a hybrid of military power and other forms of power. According to Captain Robert A. Newson of the US Navy, hybrid warfare can be defined as:

A combination of conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, including the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict, and can include the combination of special operations and conventional military forces; intelligence agents; political provocateurs; media representatives; economic intimidation; cyber attacks; and proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorists, and criminal elements.

And according to NATO:

A hybrid threat is one posed by any current or potential adversary, including state, non-state and terrorists, with the ability, whether demonstrated or likely, to simultaneously employ conventional and non conventional means adaptively, in pursuit of their objectives.

The NATO definition reveals an immediate problem with the idea of hybrid warfare: it is so vague as to be meaningless. But there are other problems with it too.

The theory that it represents something new is profoundly ahistorical. With the exception of the mention of cyber attacks, Newson’s definition above could apply to pretty much any war ever fought. War has rarely if ever been solely a matter of military force. ‘Political and ideological conflict’, ‘intelligence agents, ‘proxies and surrogates’, and ‘economic intimidation’ have accompanied war for centuries.

Even the claim that the non-conventional elements of war are becoming more important than traditional combat is hardly a new one. Martin van Creveld made this claim in his book The Transformation of War 25 years ago. William S. Lind has been making similar claims with his theory of ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ for just as long. Before that, Cold War theories of guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and counter-insurgency similarly stressed that combat was just one facet of a wider socio-economic-political struggle. And even before that, Clausewitz spoke of war as consisting not just of armies, but also of governments and the people, while Sun Tzu spoke at length about secret agents and the importance of maintaining popular support.

The main example currently used by hybrid warfare theorists to illustrate their case – the war in Eastern Ukraine – in fact proves the opposite. The weapons of choice are rifles, machine-guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, and multiple launch rocket systems. The war in Ukraine is not hybrid warfare – it is war, as traditionally understood.

Russia’s search for stability

The video of my talk to the Canadian International Council is now online here.

For those of you who don’t want to sit through the entire talk, below is a brief summary:

  • Whereas the West views the war in eastern Ukraine as a product of a deliberate destabilization effort by Russia, many Russians view things the other way around: it is the West which is doing the destabilizing. Western policy in Ukraine fits into a pattern of Western behaviour in which the United States and its allies create chaos in other countries: Iraq, Syria, Libya, and so on.
  • Having seen the consequences of their own revolution, and having lived through the chaos which followed the collapse of communism, Russians value stability. This is true of Vladimir Putin, who as a conservative naturally prefers order to disorder. I therefore agree with Nicolai Petro who wrote in the National Interest that ‘I do not believe that Russia’s strategy aims at destabilizing Ukraine. … What it wants, I believe, is a stable Ukraine that will be able to repay the 30 billion U.S. dollars it currently owes Russia in private, corporate and government debt. But it disagrees strongly with the West about how stability can be achieved.’
  • The Russian government would prefer that the Donbass region remain in Ukraine, but it also believes that this can only be achieved, and stability restored, if Kiev makes significant concessions, including local political autonomy and guarantees of some official status for the Russian language.
  • The purpose of Russian support for the rebels in Donbass has therefore been to force Kiev to the negotiating table, and to induce it to make these concessions, so as to bring the war to an end.
  • This strategy has not succeeded, as Kiev remains opposed to compromise. Russia is therefore having to adjust its policy, but what direction it will take in the future remains to be seen.

Friday object lesson #6: toy

For this week’s object lesson, a nod to what the Russian Universe blog calls ‘klyukvification’, defined as: ‘a process of creating a stereotypical narrative using Russian cultural objects and concepts in a certain manner’, for instance ‘bears playing balalaikas in the winter streets of a ‘typical’ Russian city.’ This includes what Russian Universe calls ‘native klyukva which is made by Russian creators (and/or with a Western partnership) for the Western market to monetize existing Russian stereotypes.’ Here, therefore, is a dancing bear merry-go-round toy which I picked up at the Izmailovo flea market.


Never again?

A US Senate report outlining the methods used by CIA interrogators in the early 2000s brings to mind the following passage from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:

By 1966, eighty-six thousand Nazi criminals had been convicted in West Germany.  And we still choke with anger here. … ‘Too few! Eighty-six thousand are too few. And twenty years is too little! It must go on and on. … But in a quarter-century [in Russia] we have not tracked down anyone. We have not brought anyone to trial. … Why is Germany allowed to punish its evildoers and Russia is not? What kind of disastrous path lies ahead for us if we do not have the chance to purge ourselves of that putrefaction rotting inside our body? What, then, can Russia teach the world?

… But let us be generous. We will not shoot them. We will not pour salt water into them, nor bury them in bedbugs, nor bridle them into a ‘swan dive’, nor keep them on sleepless ‘stand-ups’ for a week, nor kick them with jackboots, nor beat them with rubber truncheons, nor squeeze their skulls in iron rings, nor push them into a cell so that they lie atop of each other like pieces of baggage – we will not do any of the things they did! But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes. And to compel each one of them to announce loudly: ‘Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.’

… It is unthinkable in the twentieth century to fail to distinguish between what constitutes an abominable atrocity that must be prosecuted and what constitutes that ‘past’ which ‘ought not to be stirred up’.

… When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. …

It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country.

Updates on various events

First, the video of my talk at the Ukraine conference last week is now online. You can watch it here.

Second, I shall be giving a talk to a dinner of the Canadian International Council in Ottawa on Wednesday. Details here.

Third,  my interview on CHRQ 770 news talk radio  is also accessible online. Click here, then select 8 December, 9 pm, press listen, and drag the track to the 10 minute mark, when the interview starts.

UPDATE: I will be speaking on News Talk Radio 580 CFRA tomorrow morning (Thursday 11 December) at 0710 hrs ET.

Russia, the West, and the world

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