This week the editors discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rough Transcript

Mark Tooley: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism with fellow editors and fellow Mark’s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. Topic A this week: Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, and Russia’s invasion. We all have our thoughts on what’s happening there. We’re now in the third day of Russia’s invasion; it would appear that Russia is not prevailing as quickly as Putin likely assumed, but let’s begin our conversation with Marc LiVecche, the just war scholar. Mark, is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a just war according to just war criterion?

Marc LiVecche: Well, why do I feel I’m being set up? I’m going to get all the Russian trolls and bots now in all my feed. No, so far as I can tell, Putin has no real grounds to invade Ukraine. He’s not being aggressed against. Ukrainians have not committed some significantly unjust aggression, they haven’t done evil against him, they’re not threatening his innocence. I see no just cause in Putin’s claims, you know, depending on who you want to speak to about it, and how they want to cash it out, you might begin to have a conversation about whether or not Ukrainian ascension into NATO, or the prospect of that, is a threat to Putin and what measure of a threat. Even if it were, that wouldn’t be grounds for an invasion. You know in 1967, when the Egyptian military was on the border of Israel and they were just, you know, a moment away from invasion, that kind of a threat can warrant, you know, the launching of aggression. But that kind of threat was never in Ukraine, so there’s just no grounds. And I think circumstances have proved that while Putin surely did not like the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, that was not his casus belli, that’s not why he went to war. That was just that might have been one of many reasons, but to suggest that that was the sole reason is a façade, so no, he has no grounds for this. It’s diabolical, evil, and I hope he gets crushed.

Mark Tooley: And in terms of examining this situation, not just through the prism of just war but as Christian realists, if Reinhold Niebuhr were alive and sitting with us at this moment, what would he say? If I’m reading his mind, I think he would agree that, yes, this is an atrocious aggression and the democracies have a responsibility to offer a moral and spiritual responsibility, even to transmit weapons if the resistance continues. Certainly, to use their economic strength against Putin’s regime, but not to directly intervene militarily. What do you think, Marc LiVecche?

Marc LiVecche: I would say yes. I think that would be, you know, if I had to put myself in Niebuhr’s shoes, I think that’s what Niebuhr would say. We might quibble as to why he would say the last thing, why we ought not to militarily invade with boots on the ground. Because what I would say is that, if we on our side were to go through a just war framework, we would recognize that, you know, as leaders in the international community, we have the right to defend the innocent in other nations when they’re being unjustly aggressed against. When we look at the just cause criteria within the ad bellum requirements of the just war, we would see a just cause: innocents are being sufficiently threatened, an injustice that is significant enough to require requiting is present, and there are acts of evil that ought to be punished. And we would do so with the right intent, we would hope to restore peace to the region, primarily for the Ukrainians and then secondarily to set in place the conditions that would allow reconciliation ultimately with Russia, so I think we would have the just cause for launching a military defense of Ukraine. Then, when you get into the prudential criteria, you know, probability of success, proportionality of ends, and all those things, I think prudence dictates that we will not do it, and that is largely because Mr. Putin is in possession of nuclear weapons. And then, just as another aside, there’s China to worry about, so there would be potential concerns about, you know, where our primary interests lie and as crass and grim as this is, our primary interests are not in Ukraine. If we could do all things, you know, in one moment, then yes, we should defend Ukraine, but because of China, and because of the bomb, Putin can dictate that we not and that’s terrible.

Mark Tooley: Mark Melton, you’ve edited and posted several pieces of Providence this week. On the Ukraine invasion, it’s one of my observations that Western secularists have been rather oblivious to or dismissive of the religious context of this invasion, but Putin himself clearly is not, whatever his personal convictions, if he has any genuine personal convictions, he certainly is aware that Russia historically has identified the area that we know as Ukraine, as the origins of Russia in terms of the conversion to Christianity by this Vladimir the Great back over 1000 years ago which, therefore, to the mind of Putin and to the mind of Russian supremacists means Ukraine must be apparently eternally subordinate to its big brother, or holy mother Russia. So there’s that going on and there’s also this rather odd context that some in the West have viewed Putin as somehow a defender of traditionalism against Western secularism and had been willing to overlook his many depredations including his proclivity for assassinating opponents, much less invading countries and are reluctant to criticize him, and we ran an article by Michael Sobolik analyzing that context, but share a few words about these things, if you would, Mark Melton.

Mark Melton: Yeah, so, one first point, there are lots of points we can talk about there, but the first one you mentioned was about the idea of the history and one of the interesting things about whenever you are using history as a justification for war, you can easily manipulate that history to basically say not necessarily anything you want, but a lot of things. And so, you saw this like in the Balkans, when these different groups were basically saying we want to go to our maximum extent of power. Well, when that happens, like whether it’s the Serbs or the Croats, like that power, those maps overlap and so there’s going to be conflict and there’s, you know, you can’t go back to the history and say where should the line be drawn now. I know, like, Putin wrote last year kind of a propaganda historical piece that basically ignores Ukrainian history and the U.S. embassy to Kiev, I think earlier this week, tweeted out an image showing basically that Kiev has a long history when, at that point, Moscow was unoccupied forest, and so I think we should be very skeptical of any historical argument but it’s useful for propaganda purposes. That Putin has been trying to use this, I do wonder how much outside of his clique the Russians actually believe in this. I know that George Barros wrote an article for us a while ago, basically talking about Alexander Dugin who a lot of people, especially on the right in America, had talked about his influence and that at the time George Barros was making the argument of how that influence is kind of overblown outside of maybe his close inner circle, his clique, that most Russians are not going to adhere to this. I know the Russians I know didn’t. So, I think that can be a little bit overblown but, one of the more interesting articles I’ve read lately, is that, you know, we’ve assumed for a while that Vladimir Putin is this rational mastermind of geopolitics, and I think that argument has had a lot of problems in the past. For example, you know, in 2014, when he invaded Crimea, I think that was a huge strategic mistake because what he could have done was nothing. And if he had done nothing in 2014, eventually the Ukrainians would have probably gotten annoyed with the European Union and eventually have come back to strike some deal with the Russians, but what happened is he pissed off a bunch of Ukrainians and they basically solidify their resistance to Russia, and that was a consequence of his actions. But so, I don’t think Putin is this great mastermind, but there’s an argument that you know, maybe Putin is in his older age starting to become, instead of this mastermind, he’s becoming Vlad the Mad which a Financial Times article made this point a week or so ago and I tweeted it out. And, looking at what he’s doing, it kind of makes sense, like, I saw people were making an argument that this is not an irrational invasion, but it is an unstrategic invasion. He’s going for a maximalist goal, it appears, and he is trying to overthrow the government. If Zelensky ends up getting killed in the firefight, I think he’s going to become a martyr of the people. And I think the Russians, if they try to occupy all of Ukraine, I don’t think the occupying forces will be able to sleep well at night. If they are able to conquer all of Ukraine, I think there’s going to be massive problems for them. We’ll see, but I think that he is making a very strategic mistake, where he could have done something much smaller and probably divided the West. But this is, it’s kind of hard to understand exactly what his thinking is, and on the side of nuclear weapons, it kind of makes me wonder, I don’t think he’ll do anything with the U.S., but if he’s Vlad the Mad, then we have to be prepared for any type of situation that occurs.

Mark Tooley: Marc LiVecche, getting back to just war teaching: one issue with dictatorships going to war is there is no public opposition. Therefore, there’s no public debate, there’s a single individual surrounded by sycophants, probably not getting very good advice, with the power to plunge his country into war without thinking through the repercussions, perhaps detached from reality if the war goes well, that could enhance and prolong the reign of the dictator, but if it goes badly, obviously it will potentially destroy his reign in ways he can’t imagine until it quickly unfolds. So, from a just war perspective, obviously there’s great importance attached to a legitimate authority. Can a dictator like Putin qualify as a legitimate authority?

Marc LiVecche: Yeah, it’s a great question, and if you ask ten just war scholars will probably get ten, you know, relatively different answers as to exactly how that cashes out. You know, the minimalist view would probably be simply that, look, he is the leader of the country, therefore he’s the legitimate authority. Then there’d be a, you know, a more maximalist view of what the authority actually means, and it’s going to encompass things like responsibility, you know, working toward the common good, justice, the order, and the peace of the political community over which they have rule. In either case, at some point, most just war scholars are going to say, you know, legitimate authority or not, there can certainly be a time where the exercise of power becomes tyrannical and they do things that are so egregious to the common good of the political community over whom they should have benevolent rule that they can be overthrown, they can be resisted, and then, you know to be overthrown would be a kind of last resort. But it can be done, and it can’t ideally be done by just anybody you’re supposed to ratchet it down to sort of the next level of authorities, and Thomas Aquinas, for instance, thought there were lesser magistrates that collectively could respond against a tyrannical ruler and seek their overthrow. So, within the tradition, there’s, you know, there is certainly a regard for authority and proper order, both of which are necessary for peace, but also the sober minded realistic recognition that human beings have a propensity to abuse power, and when they abuse it sufficiently enough, they could be overthrown. And that is certainly, you know, Melton has Russian friends, I have Russian friends, I hope they’re still in Russia and not in Ukraine shooting my Ukrainian friends. But I do not hope for their humiliation. I think the Russian people are victims of Putin as well, different kinds of victims than the Ukrainians, these are victims with responsibilities and some of them are out in the streets protesting, which, we had the number, I think, last night, maybe 1200 or 1800, I can’t remember what the numbers were that have been arrested. And then those who know these sorts of things suggest if 1800 have been arrested, you multiply that by a certain dimension, and that gives you an idea that it’s a not insignificant number of people that are probably in the street. It could be, you know, upwards of 10 to 15 or 20,000. that’s hopeful. I think within my Christian soul there’s a legitimate place for me to hope for a lynching.  I hope he is ousted. I hope he’s taken down. and I hope that happens, sooner rather than later, for everybody’s good, it would be good for the Russian soul to depose Putin.

Mark Tooley: Certainly, the example of Ukrainian president Zelensky refusing to leave Kiev and serving there, almost close to the front lines and all the other senior officials of his government is tremendously moving. The Ukrainian nation seems to be unified. It’s almost as though Ukraine is potentially on the verge of replacing the model of Poland as the suffering martyr for freedom in Europe. Someone with your East European roots, you must appreciate that legacy.

Marc LiVecche: I’m deeply moved, you know, of course, you got to be realistic. I don’t know what’s propaganda and what’s not. But it’s all grand, right, the stories. I mean, they’ve got their Alamo with Snake Island, they’ve got their, you know, Teddy Roosevelt in a, you know, in a high-octane Jewish leader who is sticking around and, you know, fighting for his country. Whatever happens, the stories will be told for generations, I think, and I think Melton’s absolutely right. The victory that Putin aspired to is presumably already not been had, but even if he manages to fell Kiev, they’re going to have their hands full for a long time. And I hope we support that.

Mark Tooley: Well, I’ll make this offer to both of you as I’ve made too others here in the office. I’m too old, but if the two of you want to go become freedom fighters for Ukraine, we will pay your airfare. That offer is on the table

Marc LiVecche: Oh wow. Oh interesting, okay. There we go.

Mark Melton: I think our wives might veto that.

Marc LiVecche: Yeah, probably bring my son, I don’t know. My wife’s got Middle Eastern blood, it’s sort of in her veins.

Mark Tooley: Maybe she’ll want to go with you.

Marc LiVecche: There we go.

Mark Tooley: We’ll discuss further next week, but meanwhile Thank you Mark Melton and mark LiVecche for this latest episode of Marxism. Bye-bye!