Russia’s War in Ukraine: What Should Anti-War Scholars and Academics Think? What are anti-war activists to do in the face of an aggressive war of conquest launched by an authoritarian state against a democratic government?
“Anti-war” embraces a broad community of thought that runs from pragmatic realists to idealistic pacifists. Anti-war activists tend to reject the idea that war is a legitimate tool of statecraft. At the same time, most (but not all) anti-war thinkers reject as specious the idea that a nation under attack from an aggressor ought to lay down its arms and accommodate itself to the demands of its assailant. For example, few who critiqued the Vietnam War from an anti-war perspective demanded that the Viet Cong lay down its arms, that North Vietnam cease support for the insurgency in the South, or that China and the USSR refrain from supporting the DPRVN. Thus, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has necessarily created tension within anti-war activist circles.
This tension is evident in an unfortunate article for The Progressive, in which Phyllis Bennis argues for an immediate cease-fire and negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, and for an end to the sanctions regime against Russia. Given that the United States has exceedingly little influence over Moscow’s decision making, this amounts to a demand that the United States force Kyiv to accede to Russian demands. The article was approvingly cited by the Quincy Institute, a pro-Restraint think tank that has come under internal and external critique for excusing Russian aggression and soft-pedaling Russian behavior. While no single article can represent the breadth and depth of anti-war opinion, this one raises several dilemmas that are worth engaging.
Bennis holds the West partially responsible for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, a temptation common in anti-war circles which paint Russia as the victim of foreign aggression. NATO, it has been argued, painted Russia into a corner by refusing to rule out expansion into Ukraine, thus provoking the war. As we have seen, however, Russia’s invasion does not begin to approach meeting most of the requirements either of legal military conduct under the UN Charter, or a “just war” under the norms of Christian Just War Theory. The West (such that it is) may have conducted itself unwisely with respect to Russian concerns, but this does not provide plausible legal or moral justification for the invasion. Any appeal to the justice of Russia’s war is, from an anti-war perspective, utterly nonsensical. If Russia can legitimately wage war based on the casus belli outlined by President Putin in February of this year, then virtually any state can attack any other at any time. Worse, even if we accept the justice of Russia’s claims, they surely pale against the magnitude of the justice of Ukraine’s war effort, making the argument that the United States should try to force an end to the conflict an unfortunate combination of vile and absurd.
Bennis also argues that anti-war activism should be directed against the US government rather than against the Russian government. The idea that Western governments should be subjected to greater criticism because of the relatively open natures of their political systems is superficially appealing but also terribly limited. It is true that open systems of government enable activists to make their case to the public and directly to policymakers, and there is also a certain logic to arguments about responsibility and authorship. When a democratic state goes to war (or enables a war), the people are in effect the author of that war, and it is hardly unreasonable to complain about being assessed responsibility for a war you disagree with.
But the claim has obvious shortcomings. Criticizing US policies which extend a war of justifiable defense against an aggressor instead of criticizing the aggressor itself (beyond requisite hand-waving about Russian behavior) necessarily paints a distorted and deceptive picture of a conflict. Putin’s regime ought not to escape criticism because it is authoritarian; rather, any sensible account should target Moscow both for its authoritarianism and for its aggression. The same goes for Saudi Arabia and Iran and the People’s Republic of China. The Putin government has agency; it did not need to invade Ukraine, just as it does not need to arrest and imprison domestic critics of the war. Any account that focuses on the decision of the US to support Ukraine at the expense of the Russian decision to invade Ukraine does violence to reality and obscures the actual moral calculus of the conflict.
Activism also needs to take a long-term view. No perspective which ensures that an aggressor will enjoy the fruits of aggression can meaningfully be described as anti-war. A cease-fire would have the immediate effect of locking in Russian territorial gains, and an end to sanctions would ensure that Russia would pay no further price for its invasion. This would have the effect not only of consigning vast portions of Ukraine to Russian domination, but also of ensuring that Moscow (and much of the rest of the world) views war of territorial conquest as a legitimate and useful tool of statecraft. Instead of ending the war, a cease-fire and a cessation of sanctions would, at best, put it on pause to be resumed under circumstances of Moscow’s choosing.
Finally, a principled but pragmatic anti-war activist could plausibly argue that in a context in which resistance against superior power is hopeless, it is the responsibility of a defender to concede in order to avoid the extravagant evils of war. Whatever the costs of surrender, they are necessarily less than the costs of surrender added to the costs of military defeat. This perspective is limited, because both uncertainty and policy choices matter for the difference between victory and defeat. Ukraine alone might be doomed, but Ukraine with Western support… perhaps not. And in any case, the situation that holds between Russia and Ukraine today cannot plausibly be described as a certain Russian victory. The supply of additional weapons to Ukraine improves Kyiv’s negotiating position, a necessary condition for Russia to contemplate discussing peace.
Every problem is an opportunity. The Iraq War was relatively uncomplicated for anti-war activists, and the Afghanistan War only somewhat more so. Russia’s war on Ukraine is more complicated in that it has evoked global sympathy and a sense of heroic righteousness. For anti-war activists who have long stressed the malign influence of the defense industry and the perfidy of NATO, embracing the idea of transferring heavy weapons to Ukraine is perhaps too steep of a hill to climb. At the same time, such activists should be wary of making demands that would effectively guarantee the success of Russia’s war of territorial conquest, and open the doors to more such conquests in the future.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.