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Pacifism and Putin

  • 28 September 2022
What can the pacifist do when confronted with naked tyranny? With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, pacifists are faced with the dilemma of either helping Ukrainians defend themselves — and what spirit and courage they have shown, led by their unlikely president — or letting Putin have his way. If diplomacy stood a chance, it would be the alternative option for pacifists; but does it?

The surge of support for democracy in several former Soviet republics, prominent among them Ukraine, has fomented hostility to the West among those who resent the loss of Russia’s role as the alternative superpower. Fear of freedom, rather than NATO’s expansion eastward, is what drives the former KGB officer at the helm — the nightmare of a Slavic democracy on Russia’s doorstep, potentially stirring its citizens to rebel.

Putin’s animosity towards NATO is not entirely fanciful, however. It stood by as rapacious oligarchs, in partnership with Western capitalists, enriched themselves at the expense of the Russian people. The West is by no means blameless, with its long history of colonialism and all too frequent debasement of its liberal ideals. But the fundamental principles of European Enlightenment — respect for individual autonomy, space for civil society to nourish political life, protection of human rights and rules for international order — are perceived as a threat to those who have not embraced them. The Russian Orthodox Church, to which Putin pays lip service, can portray these principles as undermining Russian traditions and corrupting morals. In invading Ukraine Putin is ostensibly saving Europe from itself by upholding its Christian values. A more stupendous hypocrisy is scarcely imaginable.

This leads us to the central moral question: do even these grave threats justify armed resistance, meeting violence with violence?

Throughout history, pacifists have been brought up short by the reality of imminent violence and the need to compromise with states intent on warfare. The earliest Christians could fairly be described as among the first pacifists (Buddhists and Daoists eschewed violence centuries before). But as the church became established in the Roman Empire and eventually provided it with its ideology, reasons were found for Christians to enlist in the Roman army despite its ruthless brutality and oath of loyalty (sacramentum) to the god-emperor, culminating in the unfortunate doctrine of ‘just war’.

'To refuse to take up arms even when the innocent are being mercilessly attacked, as is happening now in Ukraine, becomes itself morally dubitable. The Right to Protect (R2P) is a moral principle complementary to pacifism.'