07/09/2022, 09.36
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The inevitability of war

by Stefano Caprio

The great ideal of peace is anchored to unquestionable values such as the absolute dignity of human beings, the superiority of international law, and even mutual economic dependence. Yet we find ourselves once again discussing the principles that have always incited the powerful to war: the affirmation of one's national and cultural identity, the defence of one's territorial and political interests, and the rejection of economic dependence on international potentates.

Of all the rulers in Russia's thousand-year history, including princes of Kiev, tsars and emperors of Moscow and St Petersburg, party secretaries and federation presidents, the only ones not to have waged war, held power for less than twenty years. For all of the others, the approach of a possible deadline must have awakened deep-rooted instincts in the Russian soul, those linked to the imminent Apocalypse: if my power ends, all history must end.

Even the most worldly and frivolous of Russia's long-time greats, Empress Elisabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, after more than 15 years of courtly balls and lavish luxuries (she ascended the throne in 1741), when she realised her incipient illness, threw herself into the anti-Prussian adventure, having signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1757, joining the Franco-Austrian league against Frederick II the Great (who, moreover, remained in power for more than 40 years). The empress, who was often prey to mystical crises and desires for redemption, understood the war as a defence of Russia's borders against the invasive aims of the Prussians, which in her opinion had to be de-militarised for the security of Europe and the entire world. In reality, the conflict expanded to become the 'seven-year war' that has also been called the real 'First World War', extending not only to Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, but even to the Indies and North America.

To put things right for Russia, another empress had to intervene, Catherine II the Great, a German who had discovered Russia's universal vocation, and therefore invaded and subdued the Crimea of the Tatars. It cannot therefore be argued that the presence of female figures at the top increases the chances of a peaceful reign: today's Putin faithfully follows in the footsteps of the two most important empresses of the Russian 18th century.

Russia's warlike propensity has re-emerged in our days in an unexpected, but certainly not unforeseeable way. The underlying question remains one of geographical size, rather than the ferocity of character of what the 9th century Byzantines called 'the Rhos', shiny-haired barbarians, one of the possible explanations for the eponymy of the Eastern Slavs of the northern lands. Russia is too large not to constantly fear being invaded, and it mobilises itself in every way to define its borders, its u-kraine, Eurasian zones of control, land and sea, social and political, cultural and religious.

Approaching the halfway point of the year-long war in Ukraine, as we wonder if there is a way to end a conflict that is psychologically exhausting Europe and beyond (the suggested solution is only one: the surrender of the Ukrainians), we need to realise that there is actually one factor that we can no longer exclude from our lives, and that is precisely war.

Speaking in the Moscow Duma on 7 July, Putin warned that 'we have not even begun to get serious in Ukraine', and it is not just the aggressive and depressive manias of an out-of-control leader. On the contrary, so far the Russian president has appeared to be the only one who is somehow able to curb the anxiety of the Kremlin hawks who would like to pounce again on Kiev and Lviv, take Odessa and perhaps Moldova, starting with the baleful advisor Nikolai Patrušev (who would take over were Putin to fail), or the ex-president and eternal dauphin Dmitry Medvedev, who out of despair of the failed conquest even took a gun to his head, but fortunately his hand was shaking from too much vodka.

The Russians and Ukrainians have been waging war against each other since the origins of Kievan Rus', and will continue to fight until doomsday afternoon, like Arabs and Israelis, Armenians and Azeris, Libyans and Georgians against each other, as happens in the rift zones of history. The point is that the Europeans, the Americans, the 'westerners' (among whom must be counted the Japanese and Australians, i.e. the most 'oriental' peoples), all of us 'civilised' men and veterans of the world wars of the twentieth century, in short, had convinced ourselves that there would never be war again, that we had found the formula for eternal and universal peace. 

This was not the case and we knew it very well; we ourselves have accumulated an impressive number of wars at all latitudes and on all continents, including the lands bordering the Mediterranean, from the Balkans to the Middle East and North Africa. Illusion and hypocrisy prevented us from believing in the 'third world war in pieces' that Pope Francis has been warning us about for almost a decade; what do you want someone from Tierra del Fuego to understand, we are calm, we have money and democracy, nothing bad will ever happen to us. If anything, we have to deal with environmental and ecological threats, with ethnic and moral discrimination, with refined and sacrosanct issues. Instead, the words of Russia's greatest commentator on War and Peace, Lev Tolstoy, resonate terribly today:

"War is not a kind thing, but the most abominable thing in life; one must understand this, and not play at war. One must accept this terrible necessity austerely and seriously. Everything lies in this: get rid of the lie; and let war be war and not a joke. Otherwise, war is the favourite pastime of the idle and foolish... The condition of the soldier is the most honourable. But what is war, what is needed to be successful in military affairs, what are the customs of the military environment? The purpose of war is murder; the instruments of war are espionage, treachery and incitement to treachery, ruining the inhabitants, plundering and stealing at their expense to supply the army; deceit and lying, defined as military cunning; the customs of the military class are the absence of freedom, i.e. discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, corruption, drunkenness. And, despite this, it is the superior class, respected by all. All the kings, except the emperor of China, wear military uniforms and the greatest reward is given to the one who has killed the most people... They meet, as they will do tomorrow, to kill each other, slaughter each other, mutilate tens of thousands of men, and then hold thanksgiving services for having killed many people (the number of which is also exaggerated) and proclaim victory, believing that the more people they have killed, the greater the merit. How is God up there watching and listening to them!" he cried in a shrill, high-pitched voice. "Ah, my soul, in these recent times living has become painful for me. I see that I begin to understand too many things. And man is not fit to taste the fruits of the tree of good and evil... Well, but it will not be for long!" he added hopefully.

Before our very eyes, the Kremlin holds the whole world in check. Where did we go wrong? Asks the editor of the Russian column 'Ideas', Maksim Trudoljubov. Were our convictions wrong, on the basis of which we thought we could build a world of peace? In 1945, representatives of capitalist countries joined forces with communist ones, of the East and the West, of Jewish organisations and Christian churches, and together they created the United Nations Organisation, an elephantine circle of solemn proclamations, which today appears so forgotten that very few people know the exact spelling of its secretary's surname. The UN was supposed to prevent, limit and suppress every war in the world, and we must conclude, at least at this stage, that it has resoundingly failed in its task.

Underlying the great idea of peace are unquestionable values such as the absolute dignity of human beings, the superiority of international law, and even mutual economic dependence. Now we are back to discussing the principles that have always incited the powerful to war: the affirmation of one's national and cultural identity, the defence of one's territorial and political interests, and the rejection of economic dependence on international potentates. Those enlightened principles that the philosopher Kant, in the days of the Russian empresses, sought to describe in his treatise 'For Everlasting Peace', says Trudoljubov, 'seem today to be elements of political satire at eternal rest', in the cemeteries where the Buriatian or Chechen dead of the invasion of Ukraine are venerated, or in the ruins of Mariupol and other cities razed to the ground by the Russian army.

The war will not end soon, and to build peace we must learn to confront it in earnest. As Tolstoy wrote, 'war is the very body of man, a feeling of loneliness that merges with the feeling of pain'. We cannot 'be both idle and quiet', the great writer warned, because 'a secret voice tells us that if we are idle, we are also guilty'. Idleness was the condition of Paradise, on earth we must act to build an ever new world, to be built anew each time, after each failure and all destruction. With the help of God, who does not incite us to war, but who knows that we are not capable of living in peace.



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