This paper is a general assessment of the reasons for, and proceeding of, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I argue that the political order established by Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his tenure is now crumbling due to his very desire to preserve and expand it. Among the issues discussed are the ideological background of Putin’s conception of power, Germany’s attitude towards Putin, the Russian struggle for recognition by the international community, and the problem of moral symmetry between Russia and US military interventions. In conclusion, I argue against the interpretation of the Russia-Ukraine war as a proxy war of two imperialisms and suggest the present form of imperialism is now on the wane.
The unfortunate period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency is known among the Russians as smuta, or despair. Some of that time I have spent in the company of young people from the post-Soviet bloc. The Soviet habit of heavy vodka drinking had not yet been then superseded in Central Europe by the liberal wine-sipping. In the alcohol-induced frankness, one of the Russians bitterly said: „На что мена такая великая родина, когда в нее порядка нет?” („Why should I need such a great homeland, if there is no order in it?”)
In this straightforward way, he pointed out two main, closely related Russia’s problems: its size, and its endemic disorder. Soon after, Vladimir Putin found a solution to these problems, establishing the order much longed for by Russians. Though at the top of the political hierarchy this order turned out to be a system of organized crime, it brought some relief to all. After more than two decades of despotic rule, Putin decided to expand the Ruskij mir he founded. As a result, the Russian order has just begun to disintegrate and, together with it, the global order as well.
In a public lecture on his geopolitical ideas, delivered to a worldwide audience shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin reiterated his long-held position. He used a twisted interpretation of history to claim that Ukrainian territory is an integral part of Russia. He questioned the statehood and cultural distinctiveness of Ukraine and denied its sovereignty. It was a historical mistake to grant Ukraine the status of a separate Soviet republic within the Soviet Union. He dismissed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Leonid Kuchma, Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton, and John Major, which guaranteed Ukraine the „respect for the independence and sovereignty of the existing borders” and its security in exchange for the renunciation of nuclear weapons located on its territory during the Soviet era. He accused the West of breaking the promise given to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand east of the East German border and would not deploy in the Central European countries the weapons that might endanger Russia’s security. He interpreted the subsequent political evolution of Ukraine as dictated by the leaders of the West bent on undermining Russia’s security by bringing NATO closer to its borders.
According to Putin, Russia cannot trust Western countries because they have broken numerous pledges given to Russia after 1989. The ring of independent former Soviet republics surrounding Russia in Europe and Central Asia, which politically gravitate towards the West, is seen by him as a noose tightening around Russia’s neck. In the face of this betrayal, and out of concern for the country’s security, Putin wants to reclaim the areas lost by Russia: Ukraine and the Baltic states, as well as the sphere of its former influence. The first step towards these goals is to change the government of Ukraine, America’s errand boy.
During the decades of his reign, Putin disciplined Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia. He began disciplining Ukraine in 2014, by annexing Crimea and supporting the Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. The time has come to take over the rest of Ukraine. His goal is to de-Nazify and demilitarize Ukraine and protect the 12 million Russians living in Donbas from Ukrainian Nazism.
By Ukrainian Nazism Putin means the party Right Sector which originally evolved from a movement of supporters of the Metalist Kharkiv football club. Its militant extreme-right and neo-Nazi members, many with a criminal record, adopted as their own the Nazi symbol of Wolfsangel. The Ukrainian government granted them the status of a National Guard unit which was transformed in 2014 into the Azov Battalion, now the Regiment. Azov uses a crest that dangerously resembles the crest of the Nazi 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. Azov took part in military action for the first time in Mariupol, recapturing the city from the Russian army during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and fought against separatists. Russia accuses Azov of violent repressions against the Russian-speaking population in the present Donetsk quasi-republic.
In the most chilling part of his speech, Putin threatened that any country wishing to prevent him from implementing his plans in Ukraine would have to take into account the consequences that no one had seen in history.
The Russian mir
The ideological foundation of Putin’s geopolitical vision is the nationalist philosophy of Ivan Aleksandrovich Ilyin, now the most widely read Russian philosopher. His ideas won the sympathy of such Russian figures as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Kremlin court philosopher Alexander Dugin, and the popular film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who proposed to bring Ilyin’s remnants from Switzerland. Since 2005, twenty-three volumes of Ilyin’s writings are being published in Russia.
Ilyin was born in Moscow in 1883 to an aristocratic German-Russian family. Influenced by Pavel Novgorodtsev, a law professor at Imperial Moscow State University, he rejected his youthful anarchism, turned to law studies and right-wing ideas, and against scientific socialism. He was among 160 intellectuals expelled from revolutionary Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1922 on the famous „philosophers’ ship” which sailed from St. Petersburg to German Stettin. He spent ten years in exile in Germany, where he wrote anti-Bolshevik essays for the magazine „Kolokol”, and then moved to Switzerland, where he died in 1954.
Like many of the „white” Russian emigrants, Ilyin believed that the proper program for Russia was the national-religious ideology of „Eurasianism”. He rejected Bolshevism as alien to Russia and believed that Russia was targeted by Freemasons and Jews, secretly colluding against Russia. The Russian unique path is to be based on the cultivation of Eastern Orthodox faith and traditional values which will enable the spiritual renewal of the Russian people, exposed to the destructive influence of Western political ideas such as Marxism. In Mussolini and Hitler, he saw the embodiment of a „new spirit”. He did not renounce his fascination with Nazism, fascism, and anti-Semitism even after World War II. In 1948 he wrote about Hitler’s mistakes but did not repudiate his ideology. Dictators Francisco Franco and António Salazar became his new heroes. He hoped that they would be able to avoid Hitler’s errors in implementing the ideas of justice and national-patriotic health of the political community.
Ilyin prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union and outlined a program of Russia’s salvation. Elements of this program are now being used in the propaganda currently fed to the Russians by the two largest educational institutions, the Russian state television and the pulpit of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox clergymen have obediently transformed their church into an ideological arm of Putinism and shamelessly cultivate a nationalist, Great-Russian, anti-European and homophobic ideology, calling Europe a „Gejropa”. Ilyin’s program is fortified by a mystical doctrine of the bio-cosmic inner energy with which Russia is particularly blessed. Its proponent, Lev Gumilyov, the son of two Russian poets, Nikolai Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova, was also a Eurasianist and anti-Semite.
Putin is Ilyin’s most important reader. The riddle of his fascination with Ilyin is answered by Ilyin’s writings. He believed that ideas of „democratization”, „federalization” and „freedom”, are but western ruses to subjugate Russia. Democracy in such a large country as Russia is impossible and would ensure its disintegration. Incidentally, the same argument can also be heard from the politicians of the People’s Republic of China, whose size generates similar problems. Russia must therefore turn to a „Russian national dictatorship”. The unity of the geographically, ethnically, and culturally diverse Russia is impossible without a strong, centralized authority. The dictatorship is to be authoritarian, but not totalitarian. Only a system based on a strong leader and patriotic education will save Russia from revolutions and chaos. Russia will be great, secure, and united when its people will gather around a strong leader. Such a state would teach the nation to enjoy freedom through complying with an order; otherwise, it would slip into anarchy. It is no coincidence that Putin’s party is called „United Russia”: Russia united is a uniform Russia.
The German guilt (again)
Putin’s vision, based upon the unity of an imposed dogma and repudiating the unity of a negotiated compromise, sounded ominous only against the backdrop of satellite images of the 150,000 strong Russian armies gathered on the border with Ukraine. The West did not seem to take notice of the terror of this vision, even though Putin first presented it fifteen years ago, on February 10, 2007, at the Munich Security Conference. Even if the West understood the threat encoded in it, it did not take any action to prevent it.
It is now claimed that Putinism was cultivated by the West itself by disregarding the potential of evil that has just been realized. The countries of NATO’s eastern flank and the European Union have long warned against Putin’s expansionism but their concerns were ignored as the people of the region are perceived as Russophobes blinded by the negative experience of the past Soviet hegemony.
The blame is heaped especially on the German political class, from the former leader of the German Social Democracy, Gerhard Schröder, who sold his soul to Putin by taking a lucrative position in Gazprom in exchange for allowing the construction of the Nordstream 1 pipeline, to Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, who helped Putin build Nordstream 2. For sixteen years of her chancellorship, Merkel enabled him to obtain powerful tools of economic, political, and military blackmail against the European Union. Germany’s honor was saved only by the Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholtz, though only after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. He condemned it, and decided to radically increase defense spending, but did not go so far as to meet Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s expectation to establish the no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Denouncing the German politicians for everything is a popular sport. But putting the blame for the evolution of Putin and Russia only on them is both disingenuous and dishonest. If Schröder’s attitude does not leave much scope for moral illusions, Merkel’s case is more complex. The Russian political system is only a simulacrum of democracy, and Putin has never been a democrat. Yet, though he has cruel wars on his record, Merkel believed that the inclusion of Russia in the economic, political, and cultural partnership with the countries of the European Union would help to domesticate Putin and he would come to appreciate its mutual benefits. What else she was supposed to do?
To answer this question, one may turn to the philosophy of Karl Popper who claimed that if in a democracy someone resorts to violence to gain power, he wants in fact to overthrow democracy and establish tyranny; such a person should be excluded from the political game. Transposing this principle to international relations it could be said that by resorting to violence in relations with other countries, Putin seeks hegemony and should be isolated from the international political game.
In view of this principle, and in the context of the ongoing war, it would follow that Merkel should have pursued a policy of isolating Russia, instead of trying to tame Putin with the modest repertoire of methods available to a conservative, traditionalist, and moderately religious liberal politician.
Against this one should stress that indeed international politics is not always growing from the barrels of the guns, as Mao Zedong thought. It is rather, pace Carl von Clausewitz, about all countries attempting to induce each other to conform to their will. The practical problem lies in determining the acceptable and unacceptable ways of “inducing” the other side. In dealing with each other, countries help themselves to all sorts of means, not only peaceful ones, though usually steering away from outright physical violence. Although Popper’s principle seems theoretically clear, it does not provide a precise definition of acceptable and unacceptable inducements, nor does it resolve the practical problem of inevitable uncertainty as to the real meaning of political words, intentions, plans, and actions. An orthodox application of Popper’s principle would put an end to all international relations. In the case at hand, Merkel would have to rethink not only German relations with Russia but also those with the US.
Whoever blames Merkel alone for the misguided (as it turned out) attempts to tame Putin should remember, first and foremost, the strong pro-Russian lobby of the German business, which saw the prospect of sky-high profits in cooperation with Russia, and the German voters, who enjoyed the low energy bills. They should not forget about Great Britain which brazenly benefits from the (literal) domestication of Russian oligarchs in Londongrad, where the City launders the wealth was stolen from the Russian people, as well as other countries eagerly extending their interested hospitability to the Russian money. Putin’s imperial policy and the Russian kleptocracy were financed by all of us who, while refueling their cars, heating their homes, and cooking their dinners, preferred not to ask themselves awkward moral questions.
Germany is also criticized for being excessively restrained in its assistance to struggling Ukraine. Expectations of a more active German role are certainly justified. Among the obstacles they have to overcome is that their possible assistance to Ukraine will unavoidably be presented by the Russian propaganda as an extended hand of the descendants of German Nazis to the Ukrainian Nazis. The burden of history cannot be easily shed.
The Struggle for Recognition
However, Merkel and the entire Western political class may justifiably be accused of not studying Hegel’s philosophy diligently enough. According to Hegel, history is driven not only by the pursuit of material goods but most especially by the desire for recognition which, Hegel believed, was insatiable.
Putin, who sees himself as the embodiment of the strong leader from Ilyin’s nationalist philosophy, aims not only to secure Russia’s material interests but also to win for it the recognition she deserves and which she has been systematically denied. The Russian political elite, the Eastern Orthodox church, and the Russian society at large care not only about prosperity but also about respect for their homeland. That is why they overwhelmingly support Putin.
Hegel believed that the struggle for recognition is a life-and-death struggle. Recognition is thus best fought for on the battlefield and through the spectacle of war. The West has repeatedly shown its disrespect for Russia. Putin’s pride has been offended many times by Ukraine, notably by the Maidan rebellion that chased away president Viktor Yanukovych, his puppet. That is why bringing Ukraine to its knees through the rapid special military operation would be the obvious step in Russia’s fight for recognition in the eyes of the world. As Moscow philosopher Greg Yudin argued shortly before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the war was inevitable.
The basic principle of the ethics of armed conflict is that war is the last resort in resolving disputes between states and ethnic groups. The available peaceful ways of resolving the dispute between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and the institutional instruments aimed at the compromise resolution of international conflicts, have not been exhausted.
The war unleashed on Ukraine is an expression of the expansionist and authoritarian policy of the Russian Federation. It violates the fundamental principles of international law, the principle of respect for the independence and territorial integrity of a sovereign state, human rights, and ethical principles defining the right to wage a war, the manner of its conduct, and its expected effects.
The course of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine to date is a clear breach of the ethical principles governing the right to conduct a just war (ius ad bellum). Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine is an unjust war because it was started on false pretenses and with the use of nuclear blackmail to intimidate the whole world and to avoid responsibility for the actions taken.
This war is waged in a way that disregards the ethically acceptable methods of military action (ius in bello). Most important among them is the distinction between civilians and combatants. The unethical methods of warfare caused the death of many innocent people, a humanitarian catastrophe, the destruction of the infrastructure and cultural heritage of Ukrainian society, as well as the overwhelming and rapidly growing mass of refugees fleeing the danger deserve unreserved condemnation.
Possible outcomes of the war will not be conducive to the establishment of just political order in this region of the world (ius post bellum).
This unequivocal assessment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been adopted by many countries and international institutions. In the face of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the moral symmetrism in international relations has lost many supporters.
But not all of them. China, Turkey, India, the Middle East, South Africa, and many countries of the Global South do not sing in the chorus of condemnation. The dissenting voices argue instead that the actions of the United States and some European countries deserve a similar condemnation. The arguments in favor of moral symmetry are also formulated by the western anti-imperialist left.
While the symmetrism is silenced by mainstream opinion, deeply shocked by the return of war to Europe, it cannot be done away with so easily.
Following the UN Security Council vote on the resolution on aggression against Ukraine, vetoed by Russia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, gave a speech condemning Russia’s conduct. In response, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, replied with chilling simplicity: America has „no right to lecture Russia.”
This example illustrates that in the case of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, moral symmetry cannot be dispelled by shouting alone. This is because the most important moral symmetrist is Vladimir Putin himself. To understand, at least to some extent, Putin’s motivation, the possible future course of the war, and its possible end, it is necessary to take into account the context in which the moral equivalence argument arises.
The game plan
Putin planned his intervention in Ukraine in a way that the Western countries could only condemn it at the cost of exposing their own hypocrisy. Perhaps the best example of how thoughtlessly Western politicians fall into the symmetrist trap set for them by Putin is Condoleezza Rice. The former secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration at the time of the US invasion of the sovereign state of Iraq said that „invading a sovereign state is a war crime.” Joe Biden said that Putin was a war criminal, forgetting that his seat was previously occupied by predecessors who „bombed hundreds of thousands of people around the world”, as the immediate Russian response inevitably had it. Ursula von der Leyen said that „Putin brought the war back to Europe”, overlooking the US military intervention in Serbia and the criminal ineptness of European institutions and NATO in the wake of the extermination of the Bosnians in Srebrenica. The outrage over the indiscriminate killings of civilians in Bucza and Borodianka is met by references to American tortures in the Iraqi Abu Graib prison. Similar opinions of Western politicians suggest that they think lies, lawlessness, and destruction are forgivable when committed by Western countries, but not when they are committed by Russia.
Putin designed his war according to the playbook applied in the US military interventions. The war was to be a rapid special military operation, aimed to eliminate the democratically elected president Volodymyr Zelenskyy who was to be replaced by Putin’s puppet Viktor Yanukovich. Very much in the same way the US carried out its illegal interventions in many other countries: they were also aimed at eliminating incumbent leaders and replacing them with obedient puppets. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was to be replaced by Ahmed Chalabi, on the CIA payroll for many years. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was to be replaced by General Khalifa Haftar, also the CIA collaborator. The Vietnam War was started on a false pretext of an alleged attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. The intervention in Iraq was justified by Colin Powell by the false pretext of alleged Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. These and other wars were based on lies, and were illegal, destructive, and bloody. Western countries not only did not protest against them but actively participated in, and benefited from, them.
Putin propped his case with three arguments: historical, economic, and nuclear. First, he reminded the West that Russia saved Europe from the European madness of Nazism and Fascism, paying the price of the life of around 20 million people. Secondly, he stressed the dependence of the West and China on Russia’s natural resources, the extraction, and sale of which he managed to successfully organize after many decades of Russian ineffectuality. Third, he reminded Russia has the second-largest nuclear arsenal. The latest argument paralyzed NATO’s initiative.
Western countries are at loss in trying to respond persuasively to these arguments. The western loud condemnation of Putin stands in glaring contrast with the Western available possibilities to influence the course of the war. In the ongoing conflict, Joe Biden’s belligerence serves only to conceal his weakness and the political immaturity of Kamela Harris. By calling Putin a war criminal, Biden jilted any diplomatic initiative he might have had and undermined the negotiating position not only of America but also that of Zelenskyy. Instead of working toward a solution to the conflict, Biden helps to escalate it, thus condemning the Ukrainians to a long and devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe. The shortcomings of the wilting world hegemon are hardly compensated by the secretary of state Anthony Blinken. The spectacle of western militant helplessness is particularly blatant when contrasted with the diplomatic initiative of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and with the moderation of China which refused to condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine at the UN Security Council, just as did not condemn it for 2014 annexation of Crimea, but it did not veto any of them either. One would have thought, and hoped, that the US have at its disposal more efficient ways of preventing China from selling its weaponry to Russia than yelling at Xi. It is scary to think that it does not.
Racism and guilty conscience
The West, which has stood up to Putin with surprising consistency, is fully aware that it does not have a clear conscience. The condemnation of Putin’s intervention is not only an expression of a genuine moral outrage; it is also an expression of fear of how far he might go, but also helps to relieve the western guilt. While the United States appears intent on the escalation of the conflict, the awareness of the guilty conscience, along with the fear of the escalation of the ongoing war, strongly influences Europe’s restrained attitude towards Putin’s war. It is otherwise difficult to comprehend the sharp contrast between the vehement condemnation of Putin and the restrained attitude of Europe towards the course of this war. In fact, in the first days of the war, it was obvious that the West was ready to sacrifice Ukraine to Russia in exchange for the continuation of its consumerist peace.
Only the bravery of Zelensky, the courage of the Ukrainian army, and the sacrifice of its civilian population reversed Europe’s position on Ukraine, not enough to declare the war on Putin, though. Putin’s blackmail works just as he expected.
The contrast between the western condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the western silence in the case of US interventions in the countries of the Global South, reveals also the endemic Western racism. It turns out one may violate with impunity the peoples of the so-called Third World, but not the European ones.
In particular, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has exposed the racism of the Polish right-wing government. In 2017, the Polish government invoked the principle of sovereignty and proudly rejected Brussel’s „dictate” regarding the quotas of refugees from Maghreb and Syria, thus starting an argument with the European Union that continues to this day. Poland’s refusal to accept about seven thousand refugees was justified by the infamous racist remarks made by Jarosław Kaczyński. In comparison with the assistance spontaneously extended by the Polish society to more than two million refugees from Ukraine, the refusal of the Polish government to provide humanitarian aid to refugees imported by the Lukashenka regime in 2021from Central Asia, Afghanistan included, is glaringly racist. At the time of writing some refugees are still stuck in the Belorussian forest and continue to be barred from entering Poland. The incidents of refusing to admit to Poland refugees from Ukraine with a skin color other than white testify to institutionalized racism. The same government now pretends to deal with millions of refugees from Ukraine welcomed by the Polish society. Shamelessly capitalizing on the overwhelming display of solidarity, it uses the humanitarian crisis to blackmail the European Union to extract the money that the Union has refused to pay out for the breaches of the Union’s principle of the rule of law. So far, the greatest achievement of the Polish government in the current crisis is its failure to prevent the Polish society from helping refugees.
Putin cannot win
The statement is both normative and descriptive. Normative, because the West cannot allow Putin to achieve his goals in Ukraine. Descriptive, because it has become obvious that Putin not only will fail to achieve his more ambitious aims but will not even be able to build a Russian mir on Ukrainian soil. Finally, Putin’s struggle for international recognition of Russia severely undermined the meagre international standing it thus far had. He has turned Russia into a global pariah overnight through the very attempt to win the global hegemony for his country.
Putin started the war to prevent NATO’s military potential from creeping toward Russia’s borders. As a result, NATO’s potential has not only moved closer to Russia but also grew in might. The counter-productiveness of Putin’s actions became obvious when his troops were met with surprisingly effective resistance from the allegedly much weaker Ukrainian army. Each day more testimonies are showing that despite Putin’s determination, and the devastation caused, Ukraine’s moral strength and support is growing, while Russia’s power and determination crumble.
Putin cannot win because Russia’s military might has turned out to be surprisingly tenuous. The first days of the armed conflict revealed that the Russian army is large and modern, but its large part is not modern, while its modern part is not large. One of the reasons for Russia’s military feebleness is traditional Russian corruption which affects not only the economy, politics, and society but also the army. It is well known that in any army privates steal fuel from military vehicles, and quartermasters steal clothing and shoes. When my platoon commander was going on a vacation over a lake, my fellow cadets helped him steal a military dinghy so he could enjoy a swim with his family. Much less is known about what is stolen by generals but only because disclosure of their crimes would cause much more embarrassment and serious problems in finding new, hopefully, honest generals. The failures of the military intervention in Ukraine are also caused by obvious errors in command and inadequate logistics, which is an embarrassment for Putin and has already affected his decisions. After just two weeks of the war, Putin ordered the arrest of several high-ranking Federal Security Bureau officers. As a means of mobilizing military bravery, this may not be enough.
How self-refuting Putin’s action can be seen from the unexpected nation-building effect of his invasion of Ukraine. In 2003, when welcoming in Wrocław the first Ukrainian students from Kyiv and Lviv, I asked them if they believed their country could join the European Union. In unison, they diffidently responded: “Russia would not allow this”. They thus expressed their lack of confidence in the sovereignty of their country, as well as their belief in the omnipotence of Russia. Now, they defend their homeland against the Russian invaders, demonstrating their faith in the homeland they doubted not long ago, and in the possibility of a victory in their fight against the power they no longer fear. This reversal is yet another proof of the pitfalls of the ideology of “nation-building”. The genocidal invasion of Ukraine belied Putin’s words about the brotherhood of the Ukrainian and Russian nations and wiped out the remnants of pro-Russian sentiments among Ukrainians.
Even if Putin defeats Ukraine’s army and manages to change its government, a prolonged occupation of the big country will only be a very costly testimony to his defeat. Each of the millions of refugees leaves with the memory of the lost home and loved ones, taken away from them by the war. In the long run, this aspect of Putin’s defeat may turn out to be more serious than the military one. Putin accuses Ukraine of attempting to use chemical and biological weapons, but at the same time produces potent biopolitical weapons: the memory of the mass war refugees will inevitably turn into weapons aimed at the perpetrators of their misery.
A possible solution to this conflict in the form of the imposed neutrality on Ukraine, signaled after the first three weeks of the war, will also signify Russia’s defeat in its struggle for recognition. The „Finlandization” of Ukraine will be an awkward victory because the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed Finland, the paradigm of „Finlandization”, to consider giving up on its perpetual neutrality and joining NATO.
Putin’s defeat is particularly glaring on the political-aesthetic plane. The spectacle of war, which was to bring recognition to Putin, was stolen from the Russian Goliath by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who impeccably performed David’s role. This aspect of Putin’s failure is complemented by the ugly images of the carcasses of blown-up Russian tanks, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the stream of millions of refugees. Instead of the expected victory and respect for Russia, Putin was humiliated by the ineptitude of his troops and Zelenskyy’s great public victory. He is now reduced to seeking a face-saving solution to the conflict.
The political aesthetics of this war, as any, carries also ambivalent consequences. The Western media’s perverse fixation on images of the war works to strengthen the public condemnation of Russia’s actions, but carefully ignores the fact that each spectacularly wrecked tank and downed helicopter means the death of several lives which were inside them. Western civilization, based on the idea of human rights, should not allow the dehumanization of human beings and the tabloidization of death. Human lives, including Russian ones, are of equal value. Forsaking this truth is yet another moral failure of the West.
The last stage of imperialism
At the beginning of the ongoing war, my American friend of radically conservative and imperialist temperament asked me a provocative question about whether small states have the right to exist. Pankaj Mishra believes that we are witnessing the birth of a neo-imperialism that rejects the existing neoliberal belief in the ability of nation-states and the global marketplace to provide economic security to the people in the world. The emerging neo-imperialism also rejects the belief that organized religion can be effective in managing the masses of people.
The above question, as well as Mishra’s contention, are misleading because they are based on the belief in the permanence of empires. The proper response should be to reverse the question, asking instead whether the empires have a right to exist. And the answer should point to the fact that history is littered with corpses of fallen empires. Historiography is full of depressing stories about the fall of the Persian, Egyptian, Athenian, Roman, Ottoman, German, British, Habsburg, Russian, Soviet, several Chinese empires, and many other ones. Fallen empires were replaced by new ones, no more permanent than their predecessors. Against Mishra, we witness a decline of imperialism. The death blow to the British Empire was dealt by the diminutive figure of unarmed Mohandas Gandhi. America’s defeats in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, Russia’s defeat in Ukraine on the one hand, and, on the other, the military effectiveness of Afghan fighters, the Islamic state warriors, and the new type of tactics employed by the Ukrainian army, herald the end of the imperial wars as we know them.
More emphatically than any other, the present moment in history demonstrates the failure of the imperial methods of managing the masses. The American empire, until recently the invincible single pole of the unipolar world order, is now falling victim to its imperial ambitions, symbolized by the inglorious retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan after years of costly and counterproductive wars, the latest in a long chain of failures in the history of US imperialism. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has exposed the fragility of the present Russian Empire. This also heralds the end of the present world order, established by the weakened, badly governed, and indeed ungovernable empires.
A new order
Immediate termination of the conflict is in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, and the entire international community. Ukraine’s statehood can no longer be questioned as given for free by the Soviet Union. Ukrainian people have now earned it earnestly and heroically. The most urgent task is to find a modus vivendi, enabling Ukraine to save its sovereignty, and Russia to emerge from Putin’s smuta. World peace is possible only if there is a functional political order in Russia. A Russia disordered is not in the interest of the Russians or anyone else. Those wishing for Russia’s collapse should remember three things. The first is that few empires, if any, fell without bloodshed. Second, the relative stability of the world is one of the most precious political currencies. Thirdly, they should remember that in opposition to other empires, the Chinese one, Russia’s reluctant ally, continues to hold firm.
The political entropy caused by Putin’s war generated a strong negentropic effect in the West. It released new energy and cohesion in transatlantic relations and the European Union and mobilized NATO’s armies. So far, however, the fear-induced energy only fuels polarization, a new arms race, and promises a new cold war that might flare into a nuclear conflict. It is also already clear that the West alone will not be able to restore the just disrupted world order, still less establish a new one. Instead, the present global disorder should be seen as a unique opportunity for a more multilateral world.
April 10, 2022
 Greg Yudin, “Putin is about to start the most senseless war in history”, Open Democracy, 22 lutego 2022, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/russia-ukraine-most-senseless-war-nato-history/.
 Marwan Bishara, “Russia’s war and peace scenarios in Ukraine”, Aljazeera, March 18, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/3/18/war-and-peace-scenarios-for-ukraine.
 Pankaj Mishra, “Putin Isn’t Alone in His Imperial Fantasies”, Bloomberg, March 1, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-03-01/ukraine-invasion-putin-shares-imperial-fantasies-with-xi-erdogan.
Adam Chmielewski is a Professor at the Institute of Philosophy Poland. He is also a social activist and political columnist. He studied philosophy and social sciences at the universities in Wrocław, Oxford, New York, and Edinburgh. He authored several books, among them Popper's Philosophy. A Critical Analysis (1995) Incommensurability, Untranslatability, Conflict (1997), Open Society or Community? (2001), Two Conceptions of Unity (2006), and Psychopathology of Political Life (2009). He translated from English into Polish a number of books, among them works by Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Shusterman, Slavoj Žižek, as well as some works of fiction. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Studia Philosophica Wratislaviensia, and a member of the editorial boards of several Polish and international journals. In 2011 he played a crucial role in securing the designation of European Capital of Culture 2016 for the city of Wroclaw, by authoring a successful bid for the city for this title. He publishes blogs: Interventions: Philosophical and Political; Contra-Dictions, and Meetings Downtown.