The Z factor: “Necessary” vs. “Just” War

It has been noted that “z” is sometimes a mathematical symbol for the unknown.

The Russian “special military operation” or invasion of Ukraine is symbolized on the Russian side by the letter Z for ambiguous reasons.

But the eruption of war in Ukraine earlier this year was an eruption of the unknown for the West — a disruption of globalization, of what President George Bush Sr. once called the “new world order” of the post-Soviet world a generation ago, with potential realignment of geopolitical tectonic plates globally.

Philosopher Ivan Ilyin, 1921 portrait by Mikhail Nesterov

The current conflict (in tandem with heightened stress over Taiwan) has aligned Russia and China more closely, and emphasized the potential of the so-called BRICS axis (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) to compete in some sense with the “global West” of EU, NATO, Japan, and ANZUS. Many countries (including the governments of an estimated 80% of the world’s population) hover in various degrees apart from or in opposition to the global West’s new “coalition of the willing” against Russia over the Ukraine war.

That most of the world stands apart from the NATO-based coalition on the Ukraine war not only reflects likely resentment and push-back against perceived Western hubris and neocolonialism, but also highlights a deep if obscure fault line between two civilizational zones that cut across Ukraine.

That fault line becomes visible in seemingly esoteric but deep differences between the now-secular “just war” tradition of the West (originally derived from the Latin Christianity of Augustine and Aquinas) and the “necessary war” tradition of still-overtly Christian polities of the East. The latter has roots in the Byzantine civilizational zone to which Russia is self-identified heir. In fact, the modern Russian exile-philosopher Ivan Ilyin, the prime twentieth-century articulator of the “necessary war” tradition, is sometimes claimed to be Vladimir Putin’s favorite philosopher, although some of Ilyin’s supporters say his application to current issues is more complex than any simple identification with Russian nationalism. Putin nonetheless 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, categorizable in political philosophy as a “conservative liberal Orthodox Christian” but also an essayist on creativity and culture, Ilyin in the 1920s became unofficial philosopher of General Wrangel’s White Army movement against Communist totalitarianism and genocide. While unfairly labeled fascist recently by some “Antifa” historians, despite his clear disavowal of Nazism and being targeted in exile by the Gestapo, Ilyin has been cleared of such charges in less polemical scholarship on his work.

Even so, the doctrine of the “necessary war” goes back further than Ilyin’s White Army affinities, 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, even if legally in a right cause defending Christendom, to be excommunicated for three years. 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. Crusaders from the West 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. Such efforts were seen as righteous and good for the souls of the warriors involved in Latin Christendom.

University of Ottawa Prof. Paul Robinson, in a 2003 study of Ilyin’s “necessary war” doctrine, has contrasted key aspects of “necessary war,” as found in Ilyin’s 1925 book On the Resistance to Evil by Force (a book endorsed at the time by Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) of blessed memory, first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), with the “just war” doctrine of the West. Ilyin wrote of several conditions for necessity in arguing 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,

  1. There must be “real evil,” not only suffering, but evil human will expressed in external deeds.
  2. Such externalized evil human will must be recognized on a deep level as a prerequisite for fighting it.
  3. Those fighting it need a “genuine love of good” and a repentant attitude in realizing the sinfulness of war on all sides.
  4. They also need a “strong will” that is not indifferent to evil.
  5. Force becomes necessary only when other practical 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 (seen in the courtroom aspects of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) of a common guilt for sin, which needs to be claimed through repentance, and which can not be resolved simply through abstract legal views and process. In that sense, for example, there is larger complicity of characters in the situation leading to the parricide of Fyodor Karamazov than just the actual murderer, in The Brothers Karamazov. To Ilyin, likewise, the spiritual causes of evil must be recognized within human souls and are deeper than formal causes. Fighting the external manifestations of evil while leaving the roots intact will not lead to success in spiritual warfare, in his view, and at the same time there are unintended consequences and collateral damage in addressing merely formal aspects of justice. In any case, God and faith are integral factors in calculating a necessary war, according to Ilyin, as well as in considering repentance 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, than the secularized just war doctrine of the West. In any case, necessary-war doctrine literally leaves no justification for the Ukraine war on the basis of justice, even if deemed necessary. To Russian leaders, necessity in the Ukraine seemed driven by urgency to prevent or defuse the embedding of anti-Russian ideology militarily and culturally in what they see historically as a heartland of Russian cultural community, ancient Kievan-Rus. But that sense of necessity, even if not accepted, is in large part totally illegible to Western elites, because it involves literally 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 an encroaching culture of secular Western pan-sexualism, for example, would be seen as a national security threat, in effect, due to its perceived impact on family structure and faith, is inconceivable to Western leaders, for whom its promotion literally has become a national security goal in NATO documents, which also is inconceivable to Russian leadership today.

The allegedly anti-Christian bias of the European Union and NATO in their “woke-ism”; perceived interference in ecclesiastical structures of Orthodox churches in Ukraine by the West; NATO pressing into the Russian sphere of influence after its support for the overturning of the Ukrainian government in 2014; a melding of secularized state and business interests in globalization that Russian leaders perceive (very oddly for the West) as akin to neopagan corporate statism of Nazism, linked to allegedly occult elements in some Ukrainian fascist militia ideologies publicized in Russia — these all describe a claimed necessity to intervene militarily for Kremlin leaders. With this collection of concerns, which Western observers tend to see as propagandistic and inauthentic, comes also a factor of deepening distrust by Russian leaders and Western leaders generally of United States leadership. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson sought to describe the situation recently when, while citing his own opposition to the Russian invasion, he pointed out that there is no basis for psychological trust between Russia and the West today because of what he terms a “civil war” culturally fragmenting the West and making it optically an impossible partner in resolving crisis through negotiation.

How, Peterson asked, could someone in another culture more traditional in view of gender and “ethno-nationalism” (such as Russia and China) feel they could trust U.S. leadership when it is not clear that there is currently any coherent national identity, or any normative cultural ethics, in their view? Peterson gave as an example the spectacle this spring of widely publicized U.S. Congressional hearings in which the fractious question “What is a woman?” was unanswerable to a U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee, to the applause of many American elites. Given American elite cultural denial today of founding fathers, ideals, documents and also family life and faith, in a normative subversion of a deeply divided country, what is the ethical North Star guiding American policy and trustworthiness abroad, apart from assertion of a will to power in the name of a culturally revolutionary ideology that critics see as a state of perpetual uproar? Many suggest that if Donald Trump had been president, the Ukraine invasion would not have occurred, 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 ironically has not served the U.S. well abroad. Recent analogy by China between U.S. policy on Taiwan and the strangling of George Floyd marked Beijing’s weaponizing of American ideological rhetoric to the world against itself. In line with how Chinese and Russian leaders (and many average people around the world) view American culture as collapsing in weakness, signified by the derogatory Chinese term baizuo for “crazy Left white people,” China’s use of George Floyd was tactical at best, given Beijing’s atrocious record of dealing with minorities, let alone its lack of purging of Mao given that he was arguably the uber-mass murderer of the last century.

Meanwhile the concept of “just war” in a postmodern West must navigate deconstruction of terms amid the loss of religious underpinning. Robinson notes that, by contrast with the Russian view of “necessary war,” the Western “just war” theory requires:

  1. A just cause.
  2. A just cause fought by legal authority.
  3. A just cause having a reasonable sense of success.
  4. Fighting should be a last resort after all alternatives (however impractical) are exhausted).
  5. 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 historical 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 own 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 the different views of others is basic to healthy cognitive development. But Western elites at large today seem to do better in rhetoric of diversity than in engagement with actual diverse perspectives, as seen at elite universities intolerant of non-conformist views.

From older Orthodox Christian theological and anthropological perspectives, the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed in the Latin West reflected and inspired a long-term cultural emphasis on self-assertion and individualism, through a melding of the Father and the Son, and perceived down-playing of the Holy Spirit in the formulation of the Trinity. This could feed a “crusader” mentality, too. Catholicism evidenced a kind of “Papo-Caesarism” in the Papal States and in the role of the papacy in a West left without a unifying empire, reflected in the “discovery doctrine” applied to conquest of the New World and mirrored in the Puritan ideal of Protestant theocracy under Oliver Cromwell, and perhaps echoed in historical American civil religion. 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 in early modern Russia included using Protestant 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 or balance of Church and State, a harmony and check-and-balance but not a merger of the two, in which an influential monastic presence played a key balancing influence, as in nineteenth-century Russia and earlier in Constantinople. This was symbolized by the double-headed eagle of Byzantium rather than the single-headed eagle of the American state. Ironically, given the Western critique of 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 discernment and repentance.

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 literally doesn’t seek to justify war in any sense of justice, given the sinful cost to even one innocent human being of any war, let along the many being killed in Ukraine. But from the Russian perspective of necessity, however much that can be disputed, this war seems to be perceived as just that — a “Hail Mary” pass against a neocolonial West messing with an historical heartland, militarily and culturally, and seemingly inexorably. The West sees its contravening intervention as a just war, as if in today’s secular terms an extension of the role of social justice warriors globally, in a longer cultural war against the perceived repressive remnants of different civilizational zones abroad, in Russia’s case against the only major power today (despite its serious flaws) that unlike Western nations claims itself to be an overtly traditionally Christian culture. America’s leading Mormon neoconservative politician, Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), famously has declared Russia (despite China) to be America’s greatest geopolitical enemy. Unlike Chinese and Islamic civilizations, Russia seems too familiar and too close to ignore. Unfortunately, that apparent familiarity breeds misunderstanding of civilizational difference. And the big practical glitch to a just-war approach in its case, as Kissinger points out, remains: This “other” is locked and loaded with nuclear weapons. Lord have mercy!


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