Question about Ukraine from a Russian philosopher

Igor asked:

Please write how things are now in Europe? You probably know that now Russia is conducting a special operation to free its compatriots in Ukraine. We are told that the United States and many European countries are helping Ukraine. That is, it turns out that there was some kind of confrontation between the countries. According to the news, European countries are refusing Russian gas and oil. I just don’t understand a lot. Maybe you know something?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have changed your name, Igor, for your own protection. I trust that you do not mind my quoting your recent email to me in full. As your long-time friend and colleague, I owe it to you to be honest about my view concerning the issues you have raised.

You asked how things are. According to the American CIA approximately 15,000 Russian troops have lost their lives in the Ukrainian conflict, which is about the same number as were lost in 10 years in Afghanistan in the 80s. A similar number of Ukrainian troops have died, possibly somewhat less. British MI6 Chief Richard Moore considers the CIA estimate to be on the conservative side and describes the Russian soldiers as ‘cannon fodder’, a term that brings back horrifying memories of the First World War.

I am not stating these as facts, because this web site isn’t about claims or counter-claims concerning the facts. One thing is clear, however, that death isn’t something that is a matter of opinion or a matter of degree — whatever the facts should turn out to be.

First, some necessary context. In the West, we have a political system known as ‘democracy’. What makes that more than just a label? Periodic elections and the right to vote is one possible answer but the problem is in defining what it means for an election to be ‘free and fair’, which is not always the case. A better measure is how a county views freedom of speech and expression. The British philosopher, John Stuart Mill argued that freedom of speech should not be limited by the constraints that apply to freedom of action. According to Mill’s ‘Principle of Liberty’ a person’s actions should be free so long as they do not harm others. However, when it comes to free speech, the truth is best served by free and open debate. It can never be genuinely ‘harmful’ to know the truth.

I don’t know of any country in the world where J.S. Mill’s ideas have been totally accepted. Here, we have laws governing libel and defamation. For a long time the Christian religion was protected by laws against blasphemy, but recently these were revised to include the religion of Islam. It is OK for me to state that I do not believe in the existence of God, or that Jesus was his ‘Son’ or Muhammad his ‘Messenger’, but if I express my honest opinion about certain members of the Christian or Islamic communities, I am liable to be prosecuted and imprisoned for ‘hate crime’.

Despite these limitations, it is fair to say that if you disagree with the actions of the UK government, you are free to say so. Boris Johnson was regularly denounced on British radio and TV, to the extent that must have left Russian listeners to the BBC astonished. That is because the real core of democracy is the principle of self-correction. Mistakes, errors of judgement will inevitably be made by the politicians in power — no human being is infallible — but they know that critics will be quick to pounce. (Personally, I was sorry to see Boris go, but there will be plenty of people hooting with laughter and deriding me for my naivete.)

Now, let us look at the Republics in the former USSR. You may be aware of the web page that I have maintained for a number of years, the ‘Gallery of Russian Thinkers’ I was strongly criticised for including Merab Mamardashvili (1930-1990) on the grounds that he was not Russian but Georgian. Georgia succeeded from the USSR in 1991. I pointed out to my critic that David Hume is included in the list of great ‘English’ philosophers, although we was, in fact, a Scot. But perhaps the site should be called ‘Russian-speaking philosophers’ rather than simply ‘Russian philosophers’.

The point is that Ukrainians are proud of their independence, just as Georgians are proud of theirs. Georgia and Ukraine were once part of the great Soviet empire but now they are not. Empires do not last forever — the British Empire, for example. There are still those who are sorry about that fact, but just as many who are filled with shame and remorse for the things that were done to enable the British to maintain their grip on the Empire. There are not a few Russians, I suspect, who are horrified by what Putin is doing in Ukraine, but dare not express their views.

It is true that people whose country of origin is Russia are widely distributed amongst the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, where, like elsewhere, they form a large minority. J.S. Mill remarked that democracy is the ‘tyranny of the majority’, so it is not an inconsiderable problem that minorities do not always get a fair deal. The government makes decisions that they disagree with. That does not justify a ‘special operation of liberation’, as you call it, that has resulted in so many deaths and widespread devastation.

As a philosophy professor, you are no doubt familiar with Plato’s great dialogue, Republic. Plato was no friend of democracy — at least, in the brutal form that it was practised in Ancient Greece, where a person could be thrown into exile if the mob demanded it — but read what he says about ‘the tyrant’, and how the tyrant maintains his grip on power. It is my belief — a belief widely held in the West, although of course that does not entail that it is true — that Vladimir Putin is a tyrant, of the classic variety. He has learned from Machiavelli that it is much better for the ‘Prince’ to cultivate popular support, but I would not like to guess the number of Russian citizens who despise Putin and his cronies and desperately wish to be rid of them.

These are questions, Igor, that you will have to decide for yourself. As I said before, it is not the job of philosophy to argue over the facts. Philosophers ask how do you know?. That’s the typical form of a philosophical question. How do you know that you are being told the truth about Ukraine? Why aren’t there more people in Russia — as there would be in the West — vociferously and and even violently protesting against Putin’s ‘special operation’? If, as I suspect, you have already begun to harbour suspicions, I encourage you to use your powers of reason and logic to decide where the burden of proof lies.

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