Russia’s people: what is a just war?

Russia’s people do not bow to government opinion on the subject of war, a revealing survey of public attitudes by the Levada Center shows. The only ‘just war’ is one fought in defence of home and country, like the World War II. By this token, Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya were unjust wars.
Alexei Levinson
13 April 2010

Most Russians consider that a love of peace is one of their main characteristics, but at the same time they view themselves in the epic role of a people victorious. Memories of military victories play a significant part in public discourse. But in private conversation the attitude towards the wars that Russia has waged is often different, with a tinge of disappointment and even possibly historical regret. This was shown by a poll conducted by the Levada Center in March of this year, which surveyed 1600 people aged 18 and over and living in Russia.  

These citizens of the Russian Federation were asked to recall the 8 wars that have occurred over a period of a little more than a century. They were: The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), World War I (1914-1918), the Civil War (1918-1922), the War with Finland (1939-1940), World War II (in Russian the ‘Great Patriotic War’, 1941-1945), the War in Afghanistan (1979-1989), the First Chechen War (1994-1996), and the Second Chechen War (1999-2009)[1].

Even if we don’t count the other conflicts in which the Russian Army has fought, these 8 wars alone total more than 35 years, and usually with only minor intervals in between. There were two warless periods which could have nurtured a “peaceful generation”: from 1922 to 1939 and from 1945 to 1979.

The poll first asked what kind of war could be considered just. From the eight options provided, only one garnered an absolute majority (65%): a war can be called “just” when “people are defending their home, their nearest and dearest, and their country from attack”. The key concepts here turned out to be those relating to the first-level social order: nearest and dearest. In this context both “country” and “home” are metaphorically placed in the same category. The second most common response (28%) was, on the contrary, the “pacifist”, and in that sense universalist, viewpoint: “all wars are unjust since they always involve violence and cruelty on both sides”.

There were two other answers that accented a universalist basis for judging the justness of war, but they were not particularly popular in our society. There was not much support (7%) for “a war in the name of higher goals and ideals, religious principles, for the honour and glory of your people”. This is possibly a way of denying legitimacy to the motives of those who battle for the triumph of Islam. But “Western” principles didn’t find much support either. Only 8% of respondents were prepared to consider a war just if it was “fought according to the rules of the Geneva Convention, observing rights and ensuring the protection of civilians and prisoners of war”.

Whether it was in Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries, Vietnam, Algeria or the Philippines in the same century, or Iraq in the 21st century, the logic of counter-partisan operations puts standing armies of Western countries in a position where they are to all intents and purposes fighting the population of the country. The Soviet/Russian army found itself in exactly this situation in the Afghan and Chechen wars, which is to say for almost all of the last 30 years. The only military experience it has acquired is of this type.

However, Russian popular opinion, while not allowing that these were just wars, does not support any accusations against Russian soldiers who violate the terms of the above-mentioned conventions. The punishment meted out by a tribunal to the colonel who raped and suffocated a Chechen girl was incomprehensible to a large part of Russian society. These people also stood by the soldiers in Afghanistan and Chechnya who not only considered themselves free to ignore any limiting conventions intended to protect the civilian population, but actually believed they had been given the right to be cruel in their dealings with them, cruelty being almost the main means of conducting a partisan war.

The people decide

The other three definitions of a just war are based on clichés from Soviet and post-Soviet times (“for liberation from social injustice”, “against those who threaten the integrity of the country”, and “against a threat of attack”).  They receive 12% - 16% support each. These officious formulas receive 4-5 times less support than the most popular answer, which invokes the already quoted values of “home” and “loved ones”.  This makes it clear that whether or not a war is just is decided by public consciousness as a question for the people, not for the state. This is why public opinion, which in the last 10 years has not wished to contradict the assessment of important events by the powers that be, has ignored their opinions when it comes to the assessment of wars.

Of the eight wars covered by the survey, seven were considered unjust by an absolute or relative majority. Respondents were least sure about the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War.  30% considered it just, while 35% held it was unjust, but no fewer found the questions difficult to answer. More than a quarter of Russians don’t know what to say about the historically remote First World War, but 42% list it with the unjust wars, while only 31% regard it as just.

Soviet and post-Soviet history textbooks criticized both the Russo-Japanese War and WWI for having been begun by the Russian tsarist government. Soviet government rhetoric surrounding the Finnish war of 1939-1940 was that it was a response to provocation on the part of “White Finns”, an idea later semi-officially consigned to oblivion. Memories of the unexpectedly strong resistance by the Finns, and the fact that the Red Army was unexpectedly unable to defeat them are hazy. Today, 33% don’t want to talk about this war that is associated with uncomfortable memories (among the military, 48%). Among the rest, the war is considered unjust (42% vs. 18%). Russian public opinion knows and remembers nothing about the exclusion of the USSR from the League of Nations because of its aggression against Finland (or about the international condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).

The idea that Russia has always defended itself from aggressors, but has never attacked anyone, is a critical part of the Russian self-image. It is not for nothing that the day when men are congratulated for their potential future role as soldiers is called the “Day of Defenders of the Fatherland”.

To this day The War refers only to the Great Patriotic War (the period from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945. The additional three months of military operations against Japan are rarely remembered). This war is also regarded as a model for a just war. The belief is that the country was subjected to a devious and unexpected attack by an enemy, who was better equipped. This was why there were enormous losses in the war, but the country triumphed thanks to the heroism of the people, and thanks to (or in spite of – this is currently a topic of heated political debate) Stalin’s leadership. Another basis for the victory is that it was historically just. The war was “sacred”, and our actions were “right”. Today an absolute majority (53%) believes that the war was “definitely just”, and another 22% that it was “probably just”.

Thus, 75% believe WWII was just. And just as many (74%, which is the maximum) believe that the war in Afghanistan was unjust. Professor Andrei Sakharov was the first person to call it “criminal” publicly. For saying this, he was subjected to filibustering and vituperation at meetings of the Congress of People’s Deputies. But his assessment was later accepted by the people. The first Chechen war, which in people’s minds has many similarities with the war in Afghanistan, was started and waged with the disapproval of the majority of the population. Today 62% (vs. 16%) believe it was an unjust war.

Today 44% believe that troops should not have been sent into Chechnya in 1999. But for a number of reasons there was support for the second time the troops were deployed in Chechnya. Surveys show that later public opinion began to favour ending military operations and moving to negotiations. But the Second Chechen war continued. Politicians, including those in the highest positions of power, insisted it should go on, promising complete victory over the separatists, terrorists and rebels. There were statements from the military that certain influential forces at the top were “not allowing them” to win the war. There were opinions abroad in society that the war benefited “someone”, and this was why it was continuing. (However, the wider public didn’t know who was making money from the war or how, and where the wealth went). 

Be that as it may, over the course of 10 years this war, like the war in Afghanistan before it, became part of Russian everyday life, part of the country’s political, economic and moral existence. It is considered to be over, but it has seriously damaged politics, the economy and morality. There was much written in the Russian press about how the war had held back the modernisation of the country. The majority of Russians, 59% vs. 19%, consider this war to be unjust.

Against the background of the ongoing second Chechen campaign, we have had the operation against the Georgian army that lasted only a few days, but was also labelled a “war”. According to data from other studies by Levada center, Russians consider this ninth war both successful and just. It is not part of the survey in question. The time for historical assessments of these events has not yet come.

[1] In the official RF documents, the Afghan and (both) Chechen campaigns have not been named, and have still not been deemed wars.

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