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Dove, Pablo Picasso, lithograph, 1949

'Fighting in the war against Ukraine is a crime' Philosopher Arseny Kumankov on why Russians have a moral duty to evade the draft

Source: Meduza
Dove, Pablo Picasso, lithograph, 1949
Dove, Pablo Picasso, lithograph, 1949
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This essay was written by Arseny Kumankov, a professor at the The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. In 2022, Kumankov published a book titled War in the 21st Century, in which he analyzed modern military conflicts from a moral perspective. He wrote this piece for Meduza’s Ideas section.

Participating in the war against Ukraine is a moral crime. For this reason, we have an obligation to do everything possible to avoid becoming complicit in this aggressive, unjust war. There are a number of reasons to regard Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its subsequent mobilization this way. The first reason is that the Russian government has violated its social contract with its people. The second reason is that people are being sent to war by an illegitimate power that is playing on a false sense of patriotism. And the third reason is that the war itself is a criminal act of aggression against the citizens of Ukraine. The last reason is the primary one. But I’ll begin with the points that apply directly to Russians.

Dissolving Russia's social contract

Right now, the Russian state professes to be defending Russian society from external threats in exchange for requiring its citizens to participate in combat on the territory of a foreign country. That’s exactly how Putin explained his decisions to start the war and, later, to begin “partial mobilization”: he said the measures were necessary to protect Russia, its territorial integrity, its sovereignty, and the security of its people. Government officials and propagandists began repeating the mantra that people owe a debt to their motherland: it raised you, clothed you, educated you, treated you, and now it’s time for you to serve it. And if you don’t want to serve, you’ll get 10 years in prison for evading your military duty. Putin’s government is collecting people’s debts to their motherland like a loan shark.

The course of events has made clear that the decision to launch the war was made on the basis of false or distorted data about the conditions and the abilities of both the Russian and Ukrainian armies, about attitudes within Ukrainian society, and about the willingness of the West to make unified decisions in response to the invasion. Russian troops weren’t ready for large-scale conventional warfare, and they weren’t properly equipped. Their military leadership lacked a coherent, long-term strategy that would account for various possible conflict scenarios. If we take the average of the various casualty estimates, we can say with considerable confidence that this war is at risk of becoming the deadliest war for Russia since World War II.

The state also failed to fulfill its obligations to its soldiers in peacetime. The army has frequently been used in Russia as a form of punishment — just recall the story of opposition figure Ruslan Shaveddinov or hockey player Ivan Fedotov. Military service has always been tied to disempowerment and deprivation: hazing, forced labor, beatings, extortion, and hunger.

It’s now obvious to everyone: the Russian state cannot and will not be able to provide for the new conscripts. It’s not going to train them and it’s not going to engage in unit cohesion for the newly created detachments. That would require months of training, resources, and specialists with military experience. A significant portion of those specialists are already on the front, and nobody’s going to call them back to prepare some mobilized reinforcements. That means that by doing this, the state is putting the lives of tens of thousands of its own citizens at risk.


The state’s tacit refusal to fulfill its duties to its soldiers is part of its wider refusal to protect the rights of its citizens altogether. The most recent step in that direction was formalized by the 2020 constitutional amendments.

Those amendments gave Putin the ability to remain in office until 2036, while practically destroying the separation of powers in the Russian government. The amendments also supplemented the Constitution with a certain set of obligations that the state owes to its citizens. The result was a contract: the social benefits and the remaining rights afforded to citizens by the law were traded for the removal of restrictions on the current leader’s term in office.

This was preceded by other, similar changes — implicit contracts that cost society more and more each time. Each time, the state revoked the old contract and offered a new one — and was never met with any resistance. In 2007–2008, prosperity and opportunities for private business were exchanged for increased state control. In 2011–2012, the state guaranteed stability and relative freedom in people's personal lives in exchange for them staying out of politics. Civic responsibility and political involvement were sacrificed in exchange for full refrigerators.

Today, the state is offering Russians another new contract. This time, it's offering to protect Russia’s “special path” in exchange for citizens' participation in the war. No civil liberties, no full refrigerators. Maybe this time, society is finally realizing it doesn’t owe anything to an institution that doesn’t hold up its own end of the bargain.

A core component of the idea of a social contract is that of reciprocity. The state must safeguard the security and prosperity of its citizens, while the citizens must sacrifice some of their freedoms, obey the law, pay taxes, and participate in their country’s defense. The mutual obligations are what give the contract its legitimacy. If the state loses its ability to ensure security and prosperity, that means it’s failing to perform the function for which people agreed to obey it. When that happens, the social contract loses its power. That’s exactly what’s happened here.

A moral abdication

Russia's mobilization is being presented as a patriotic obligation. Patriotism is a moral category that involves not a contract between the state and its citizens but a love for one’s motherland. On the day of the mobilization announcement, that’s exactly the feeling State Duma Security Committee chairman Vasily Piskarev spoke of: “Everyone has a desire to protect his country, and that’s the duty of every citizen — especially men. Historically, it’s a man's purpose. If he doesn’t defend his family and his motherland, then he’s not a man; I don’t even know what he is. He’s nobody, in my view.”

Patriarch Kirill spoke about sacral love and sacrifice in his less-than-optimistic parting words to soldiers: “Go boldly to fulfill your duty. And remember that if you lay down your life for your motherland, for your friends, then you’ll be together with God in his kingdom, in glory and eternal life.

Russian society has given the state the right to make decisions not just in the civic realm but also in the moral one. In response, the state itself has decided what it means to be a patriot, defining it in terms of hatred and denial: the negation of Ukraine as an independent state, of Ukrainians as a people with their own culture and language, and of the U.S., Europe, the West, Anglo-Saxons, and life itself.

Must patriotism always be based solely on the necessity of defending oneself and attacking others? On waging wars, defending frontiers, and expanding one’s borders? This reduction of patriotism to struggle and death completely dilutes its creative dimension: the love for one’s Fatherland as expressed in honest work and civic participation. In other words, everything that was possible to do safely in Russia before the start of the armed conflict in Ukraine in 2014 and the invasion on February 24.

The mobilization announced by Putin deprived the traditional values of duty, patriotism, and service to one’s motherland of their moral weight. The war in Ukraine is not just a violation of the civil liberties of Russia’s citizens; it’s also a moral crime against the citizens of Russia. In circumstances like these, it’s imperative to refuse to participate in collective national suicide. It’s imperative not to participate in the war just because it’s being waged by one’s motherland.

A crime against the citizens of Ukraine

Every Russian soldier who participates in the war is claiming the right to control the lives, health, security, and property of Ukrainian citizens. Where could that right have come from? Perhaps, having insufficient information and misled by Russian propaganda, Russian soldiers thought at the start of the war that they had this right or that they were working in the interests of Ukrainian citizens. They may have seen it as their job to liberate Ukrainians from an immoral regime that the Ukrainians themselves hated. They may have believed they were fighting a defensive war against the NATO countries.

But since the start of the invasion, there’s been a great deal of evidence that Ukrainians don’t consider Russian soldiers to be acting in their interests and don’t consider Russia’s invasion an act of assistance or liberation. Meanwhile, despite the Russian army’s numerous painful defeats, heavy losses, and consequent weakening, NATO is in no hurry to attack Russia. All of those things are a testament to the falsity of the war’s premises and the importance of discarding them.

One might argue that decisions regarding war are made by politicians and that it’s not the business of soldiers to judge the character of a war or whether the war they’re fighting in is justified. But soldiers can be held responsible for carrying out illegal orders. According to international law, orders violating the laws and customs of war; orders to murder, torture, and enslave people; and orders to commit crimes against humanity and acts of genocide (including the extermination of all or part of any group of people on national, racial, religious, or ethnic grounds) are considered illegal. Soldiers have a moral responsibility to come to their own conclusions about whether the war they’re fighting in is justified.

Of course, the state is responsible for creating social conditions in which determining whether a war is justified becomes impossible or undesirable. Serving as a contract soldier is often the only way a person has to get out of poverty and unemployment. Because press freedom has been repressed, many people are powerless against propaganda. All of this could explain Russians' decision to join an unjust war. But the conditions created by the state doesn’t absolve soldiers of responsibility. The only way not to commit crimes in these conditions is to abstain from participating in the war on Russia’s side.

The history of the 20th century is full of examples of how disastrous it can be when a society fails to fully consider the acts its party, state, or leader calls on it to participate in. Moral sleeping pills, as the British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called them, lead to widespread violence. The moral responsibility that the people of Russia — including both soldiers and civilians — have to the people of Ukraine is defined by the principle of non-intervention. We can’t act aggressively towards people who haven’t provoked aggression.

Participating in Russia's war against Ukraine is a moral crime. Therefore we must do everything possible to ensure we don’t become complicit.

Essay by Arseny Kumankov

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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