Otto English explores the Russian President’s warped justifications for the invasion of Ukraine that should terrify us all

The history book on the shelf has an extraordinary capacity to repeat itself.

On 4 August 1914, following months of tension, the German Army breached Belgian neutrality and marched into the country. Belgium’s outer defences were rapidly overwhelmed and the Germans began to advance on key cities but, as they did, the Belgian Army and local populace fought back. Soon the German advance was stalling. 

As their military ambitions were frustrated, the Germans turned on the civilian population. On 23 August 1914, in the town of Dinant in south-east Belgium, 674 people were murdered on the orders of a German commander.

Two days later, in the nearby city of Louvain, the Germans began dragging locals into the streets and executing them. That horrific atrocity lasted for five days and culminated in troops entering the 15th Century Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium’s oldest academic institute, where they poured petrol over 300,000 books and rare manuscripts before setting fire to the lot.

The sacking of the city and the murder of 248 citizens was undoubtedly part of an orchestrated campaign of terror aimed at beating Belgium into surrender. But, whatever the aim, it backfired spectacularly.

The optics of German troops laying waste to the ‘Belgian Oxford’ played straight into the hands of Germany’s enemies and British propagandists.

In September 1914, the British Government set up a commission, under Viscount Bryce, to investigate the events at Louvain and other atrocities in Belgium. His report, detailing actual and (massively) exaggerated war crimes, would cause a sensation when it was published the following year. But, long before that happened, the Germans were already embarking on a propaganda counter-offensive that saw them seeking to justify their actions.

Fearing America might join the allied side, the Kaiser even fired off a panicked telegram to Woodrow Wilson, claiming that Louvain… had to be destroyed… for the protection of my troops. My heart bleeds when I see that such measures have become unavoidable and when I think of the numerous innocent people who lose their home and property as a consequence of the barbarous behaviour of those criminals”. 


Aquinas’ Moral Cases for War

Throughout history leaders have sought ‘just cause’ to kill people in pursuit of their ambitions. And, as far back as Augustine of Hippo in the 4th Century CE, there have been academics, theologians and useful idiots who are only too willing to lend this credence.

It was Augustine himself who came up with the notion of the ‘just war’ as a means of reconciling the fairly explicit message of peace inherent within Christianity with the need, and desire, of religious rulers to murder innocent people and seize land.

In his unfinished 13th Century compendium, Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas expanded on the idea and set out the three moral cases for war known as ‘jus ad bellum‘:

  • A just war must be waged under the command of a rightful leader
  • There must be a moral cause for waging it
  • Those fighting on the side of the good must be imbued with a moral spirit – and seek to promote virtue and all that goes with it

Pretty much every conflict fought since has seen either (or more often) both sides claiming ‘just cause’.

In the Kaiser’s case, that included convincing a group of leading academics, scientists, religious theologians and artists to sign a document setting out his case for war.

The Manifesto of the 93, published in October 1914 and addressed to “the civilised world”, argued that none of the accusations being made against Germany bore scrutiny. The country had not wanted the war in the first place and had been compelled to act by circumstances.

The Manifesto claimed that the soldiers in Louvain had acted out of “self-defence” and that “those who have allied themselves with Russia and Serbia and present such a shameful scene to the world as that of inciting Mongolians and negroes against the white race, have no right whatever to call themselves upholders of civilisation”.

That last bit was key: the war was not simply being waged on Germany’s behalf – the homeland of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant was fighting to save the very essence of western civilisation itself. Outside forces were hell bent on destroying European purity and only Germany stood in their way. 

On the home front, many people seem to have bought it. Here, after all, was ‘academic’ justification for the nation’s military actions and it was backed by some of the most highly respected figures in public life. Germany was still broadly viewed as the cradle of intellectual thinking in Europe and the list of names featured some impressive A-listers including Nobel Prize winners, globally renowned authors, artists and early film-makers.

The tried and tested methods work best and, despite the Second World War broadly being adjudged to be ‘just’, the majority of conflicts that followed 1918 have, to some extent, mimicked the Kaiser’s methodology.


‘Common Historical Destiny’

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the British Government famously touted that dodgy dossier, but less well remembered was the slew of sympathetic historians and writers who were trotted out to talk up the case for war.

The British historian Andrew Roberts was typical. He went as far as to argue in the Guardian that were “the West not to act and Saddam eventually to build nuclear bombs, he would have more destructive capacity even than did Hitler”.

The Americans, meanwhile, tried to get God on their side. In February 2003, President George W Bush sent Michael Novak, a Catholic conservative academic and writer, to the Vatican to try to convince Pope John Paul II to back the invasion. But John Paul II was having none of it.

The justification for the invasion of Iraq ultimately boiled down to the rather unconvincing one of ‘self-defence’ and, long before the current invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, was making much the same case. 

His troubles began with Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004, when popular protests prevented the Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych from stealing the presidential election. Henceforth, Ukraine was set on a different, more democratic, course – one which posed an existential threat to Putin’s sense of Russia and his wider ambitions.

As Ukraine moved ever further away from autocracy and towards a more liberal, independent future, Putin’s dream of re-establishing a ‘greater Russia’ began to slip. With the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine a decade later, the end game perhaps became inevitable.

Unfortunately, ‘Putin doesn’t like Ukrainian independence’ is not exactly a diplomatic trump card. Thus, just as with the Manifesto of the 93, the Russian President has sought out academics and theologians to shore up the case for his war; one which he has claimed is also based on ‘threat’. 

Putin has also played the ‘this is bigger than just Ukraine and Russia’ card while seeking to get God on his side. As far back as 2012, he held a press conference with religious leaders who had been brought on camera simply to heap praise on his rule. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow went so far as to call him a “miracle of God” and, in recent weeks, he has been at it again.

On 20 March, he told the congregation at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow that Ukraine as an entity did not exist, and that “we (Ukrainians and Russians) are a united people, who, though living today in different countries, came out of a single Kyiv baptismal font, united by a common faith and common historical destiny”.

That “common historical destiny” is key and has been weaponised as much as it has been normalised in defence of Vladimir Putin’s violent incursion.

It sits alongside a whole multitude of other ‘big lies’ currently being propagated in Russia and beyond. They include the one that has Russia invading Ukraine to defeat a ‘Nazi’ regime and thus the threat it poses to us all. The rather inconvenient fact that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is himself Jewish is conveniently ignored.

So too is the unfortunate truth that at least one of Putin’s most high-profile supporters and defenders, Aleksandr Dugin, is a fascist. Dugin is a hugely influential ‘political analyst’ who is often touted as the Russian President’s ‘favourite philosopher’.

He longs for the ‘good old days’ when Europe was white and the internet did not exist. He wants to turn back the clock on modernity and technology and believes that ‘global elites’ are seeking to take control of the world. Dugin is a big admirer of Hitler’s Ahnenerbe, the archaeological and ‘intellectual’ (I use the word cautiously) wing of Nazism, which propagated the myth of Aryanism and the idea that a European master-race escaped Atlantis to create a founding civilisation. 

More predictably, he believes that LGBTQ rights and indeed all that is ‘woke’ have undermined the West and made it weak and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first front in restoring Russia to its rightful place as global top dog (despite Russia never having occupied that position) and the creation of a New World which has Russia at its heart.

These are what pass for the ideas behind Putin’s ‘just war’ and frankly they should terrify us.


The Enablers

Unfortunately, just as there were otherwise sensible German scholars willing to defend the invasion of Belgium in 1914, so nowadays, a global phalanx of modern ‘93ers’ are only too willing to sell Vladimir Putin’s justification for war. 

Such commentators, on both sides of the Atlantic, talk up his right to fend off NATO ‘expansionism’ while denying Ukraine its right to join the EU and behave like any other democracy in pursuit of an independent future. 

They think that Russia has ‘historic spheres of influence’, which mean that Ukrainians cannot have self-determination, and that to ‘poke the Russian bear’ is to justify Russian aggression.

Such people are the very apotheosis of useful idiocy and they most certainly do not have history on their side.

The Kaiser finally fled his broken and beaten nation in November 1918 and went into exile in the Netherlands where he died, a discredited, embittered and deeply racist old man, in 1941. 

One can only hope that, one day soon, Putin will meet a similar fate.

In the meantime, his ‘justifications’ need to be challenged: there is no case for the invasion of Ukraine; no grounds for the subjugation of another people. The Russian President has no moral right to send young men to die for his ambitions. Those paying lip-service to his cause are simply enabling a monster.

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