The eruption of war in Ukraine this year disrupted what President George Bush Sr. once called the “new world order” of the post-Soviet world, potentially realigning the globe’s geopolitical tectonic plates.
The conflict, in tandem with heightened stress about Taiwan, has aligned Russia and China more closely and highlights the so-called BRICS axis (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) as a potential alternative to the “global West” of the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan, and ANZUS. This not only probably reflects resentment against alleged Western hubris and neocolonialism, but also highlights a deep fault line between two civilizational zones that cut across Ukraine.
That fault line becomes visible in comparing the now-secular “just war” tradition of the West and the “necessary war” tradition of still-overtly Christian polities of the East.
The ‘Necessary War’ Doctrine
The exiled Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, the prime 20th-century articulator of the “necessary war” tradition, is sometimes called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite philosopher. Putin has distributed copies of Ilyin’s books to officials across the Russian Federation.
A renowned Hegelian scholar and pioneer of Russian philosophy of law from before the Revolution, Ilyin in the 1920s became the unofficial philosopher of General Wrangel’s White Army movement against Communist totalitarianism and genocide. Ilyin has been unfairly labeled fascist by some “Antifa” historians, a claim that has been refuted by scholarship, his clear disavowal of Nazism, and the Gestapo targeting him in exile.
But the doctrine of the “necessary war” goes back all the way back to Byzantine times in Orthodox Christian social teaching. It involved a denial of any war being just.
St. Basil the Great, for example, wrote that it was best for a soldier who killed an enemy to be excommunicated for three years, even if he had killed legally in a right cause defending Christendom. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena wrote in amazement of Latin-Norman ecclesiastical leaders arriving in the Near East armed as Crusaders when Byzantine bishops and clergy were forbidden from wielding arms.
Indeed, the Crusader war culture of the West left deeply negative memories in Orthodox Christian historiography. Western Crusaders were seen as having pillaged Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, dealing a long-term fatal blow to the Christian Empire. Northern Crusades wreaked havoc on Slavic Christian realms.
What Is a ‘Necessary War’?
In a 2003 study of Ilyin’s “necessary war” doctrine, University of Ottawa Prof. Paul Robinson contrasted the “just war” doctrine of the West with key aspects of “necessary war,” as found in Ilyin’s 1925 book “On the Resistance to Evil by Force.” Ilyin argued against Tolstoyan pacifism, which he said among pre-revolutionary Russian elites helped pave the way for the Communist takeover with its ensuing mass murders and cultural genocides.
For a war to be “necessary,” according to Ilyin: There must be “real evil,” not only suffering, but evil human will expressed in external deeds; such externalized evil human will must be recognized on a deep level as a prerequisite for fighting it; those fighting it need a “genuine love of good” and a repentant attitude in realizing the sinfulness of war on all sides; and its fighters need a “strong will” that is not indifferent to evil.
Force also becomes necessary only when other measures such as psychological coercion fail. (The latter point doesn’t mean that force is a last resort, as in Western “just war” doctrine, only that it becomes needed after any alternative deemed practical is exhausted.)
Russian “necessary war” doctrine parallels Dostoevsky’s philosophy of a common guilt for sin, which needs to be claimed through repentance and cannot be resolved simply through abstract legal views and processes. In that sense, there is larger complicity for the parricide of Fyodor Karamazov, for example.
To Ilyin, likewise, the spiritual causes of evil must be recognized within human souls. Fighting the external manifestations while leaving the roots intact will not lead to success, and there are unintended consequences and collateral damage in addressing merely the external. God and faith are integral factors in calculating a necessary war and repenting for it.
All of this paradoxically makes for an approach to war that is perhaps both more extremely skeptical and more likely in select cases. In any case, it literally leaves no justification for the Ukraine war from the standpoint of justice, even if deemed necessary.
The Rainbow Flag as a National Security Threat?
To Russian leaders, necessity in Ukraine seemed driven by an urgency to prevent or defuse the embedding of anti-Russian ideology militarily and culturally in what they see as a historic heartland of Russian community, ancient Kievan-Rus. But that necessity is illegible to Western elites because it involves no justification in Western intellectual terms, and because the West’s secular perspective today is fundamentally different from what Ilyin saw as the essential element of faith in addressing necessary war.
That Western pan-sexualism, for example, would be seen as effectively a national security threat due to its perceived impact on family structure and faith is inconceivable to Western leaders. For most of them, its promotion has become an explicit national security goal. In turn, this is inconceivable to Russian leaders.
The allegedly anti-Christian bias of the European Union and NATO’s “woke-ism,” the West pressing into the Russian sphere of influence after its support for overturning the Ukrainian government in 2014, a melding of secularized state and business interests in globalization that Russian leaders perceive as akin to the neopagan corporate statism of Nazism — these all describe for Kremlin leaders a claimed necessity to intervene militarily.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson pointed out there is no basis for psychological trust between Russia and the West today, because of what he terms the “civil war” culturally fragmenting the West and making it an impossible partner in negotiating a crisis. How, Peterson asked, could someone in another culture more traditional in view of sex and “ethno-nationalism” feel he could trust a United States where it is not clear that there is currently any coherent national identity nor normative cultural ethics?
Peterson gave as an example the spectacle this spring of congressional hearings in which the fractious question “What is a woman?” was unanswerable for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, to the applause of many American elites. Given American elites’ overthrow of Founding Fathers, ideals, and documents, as well as family life and faith, where is the ethical North Star guiding American policy and trustworthiness abroad? It seems merely to be an assertion of a will to power in the name of a culturally revolutionary ideology.
China and Russia Believe the West Is Collapsing
Many suggest that if Donald Trump had been president, the Ukraine invasion would not have occurred. That’s not because he is a paragon of virtue, but because the power drive for expansion of the West in Ukraine would have been lessened in his realpolitik, and the nature of American leadership more legible to Putin.
In all this, cancel culture in American elite institutions has not served the United States well abroad. China’s recent analogy between U.S. policy on Taiwan and the strangling of George Floyd marked Beijing weaponizing American ideological rhetoric against itself. It was in line with how Chinese and Russian leaders (and many average people around the world) view American culture as collapsing in weakness. This is also signified by the derogatory Chinese term baizuo, for “crazy left white people.”
Of course, China’s use of Floyd was tactical at best, given Beijing’s atrocious record of dealing with minorities, let alone its lack of purging Mao as arguably the uber-mass murderer of the last century. Regardless, however, the concept of “just war” in a postmodern West must navigate the deconstruction of terms amid the loss of religious underpinning.
The West Is Still on a Crusade
Robinson notes that, by contrast with the Russian view of “necessary war,” the Western “just war” theory requires:
- A just cause.
- A just cause fought by legal authority.
- A just cause having a reasonable sense of success.
- Fighting should be a last resort after all alternatives (however impractical) are exhausted.
- Violence must be proportional to the goals, and civilians should not be targeted.
Does the seemingly arbitrary Western tendency toward labeling some wars as just crusades enable both self-righteousness and a more impersonal and abstract sense of war (“fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian” through technological and financial aid)? Does it lead to hubris in intervening in Russia’s home neighborhood and risking huge casualties for others and nuclear confrontation?
Going back to the roots of theological difference between the West and East in old Christendom, the West tends to blame alleged “Caesaro-Papism” in the East for Russian brutal bellicosity. But the West has had its own problems with weaponizing a meld of ideology and culture historically.
The way the West obliviously pushed out the boundaries of NATO physically, and of its global consumer “Metaverse” culturally and economically, can easily hide righteous disdain for other civilizational zones, at the West’s peril. As Henry Kissinger suggested in a recent Wall Street Journal interview (paraphrased by the reporter), Americans “tend to view negotiations … in missionary rather than psychological terms, seeking to convert or condemn their interlocutors rather than to penetrate their thinking.”
Educational psychologist Jean Piaget wrote that appreciating others’ differing views is basic to healthy cognitive development. But the West at large today seems to do better in the rhetoric of diversity than at engaging with actual diverse perspectives.
The Melding of Church and State
Protestant states during the Reformation placed their churches under the control of state leaders as a precursor to the heyday of European imperialism. The melding of secular transcendent and corporate ideologies in modern globalization is viewed as neocolonialism in many countries still.
Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms included using Protestant state models for church-state relations, which placed the Russian Orthodox Church’s organization administratively under the monarch. But the Orthodox ideal remained a Byzantine “symphonia” of church and state, a balance but not a merger of the two, in which an influential monastic presence played a key balancing role. This was symbolized by the double-headed eagle rather than the single-headed eagle of the American state.
Ironically given the Ukraine war, the “necessary war” doctrine seemed formed to deflect the kind of self-righteous crusades that bedeviled Western colonial and neocolonial powers. If no war is just, then all wars demand penitence.
All of this is not in any way to justify the war in Ukraine. In fact, as noted, “necessary war” doctrine on its own terms doesn’t seek to justify war in any sense of justice, given the cost to even one innocent human being, let alone the many being killed in Ukraine.
But from the Russian perspective of necessity, however much that can be disputed, this war seems perceived as just that: a “Hail Mary” pass against a neocolonial West messing with a historical heartland, militarily and culturally. The West sees its contravening intervention as a just war, today an extension of the role of social justice warriors at home, part of an ongoing campaign against a culturally repressive remnant of a different civilizational zone, which Mitt Romney famously termed our greatest geopolitical enemy (despite China).
Unlike Islamic civilization, Russia seems too familiar and too close to ignore. Unfortunately, that apparent familiarity bred a misunderstanding of civilizational differences. Meanwhile, the big practical problem that Kissinger has pointed out remains: This “other” is locked and loaded with nuclear weapons. Lord, have mercy!