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Looking Behind The “Unspeakable Lies”: Russia’s Criminal War Against Ukraine

Credit: Ukrainian volunteer Journalists&Communicators initiative

Special to Jewish Business News

by Louis Rene Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law, Purdue University

“Happy are those who know that behind all speeches are still the unspeakable lies….”

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Rainer Maria Rilke, Possibility of Being

Russian fabrications about Ukraine are sweeping and “unspeakable.” Still, the twentieth-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke can help us fathom what is actually happening. The “Dionysian poet” was associated with variously dense philosophical matters of “being” (in German, “Existenzphilosophie”), but he also strove to understand certain correlative derangements of politics. Though the particulars of such derangements must vary from moment to moment and place to place, their generality of core meanings will likely remain constant.

What are the pertinent connections to be explored? Plausibly, were he alive today, Rilke would observe that war and peace are merely transient reflections of assorted untruths. [1] What we can glean from daily news reports on Ukraine are essentially  the latest human struggles for primacy (individual and collective), belonging, and a “life-everlasting.” It is precisely such timeless struggles for powermembership and immortality [2] that can best define the meanings of Vladimir Putin’s egregious aggression against Ukraine.[3]

What next? To begin, these policy-related meanings ought to be expressed conceptually. In the United States, the key questions being asked are narrowly ad hominem (about Putin) and ad hoc (about facts).  Now it is also required that the American body politic search conscientiously for deeper meanings.

 In Russian-assaulted Ukraine, it is noteworthy that though “we have been to this movie before,” there still exist certain core regularities or commonalities. By definition, these commonalities are relevant to much wider truths. Immediately, they warrant disciplined theoretical study. “Theories,” observed the German poet Novalis, “are nets. Only he who casts, will catch.”[4]

 More than anything else, Ukraine’s barbarous victimization by Russia demands coherent and comprehensive theorizing.[5] The expanding crisis in that beleaguered country has far deeper import than what is being suggested by “experts.” Ukraine represents more than “just” another current catastrophe. It offers an opportunity to discover what “really” ails this imperiled planet; that is, to identify those still-remediable factors [6] that are most patently and durably causal.

Russia’s Ukraine aggression has many “sides.” It is both microcosm (war;[7] religious conflict; crimes of war;[8] irrational prejudices; bitter rancor) and macrocosm (the individual human being: non-rational; death-fearing; anti-intellectual;[9] superstitious; self-destructive).  Taken together, these intersecting elements can become synergistic. Here, by definition, the “whole” of combining elements would be greater than the sum of separate “parts.”[10]

 But big questions will still have to be answered. “Why do nation-states put themselves in harm’s way again and again, sometimes in the path of genuinely existential harms”?  “Why do countries that may finally access the tangible benefits of science and education insistently fall back upon myth, ignorance and civilizational regression?” “Why do educated peoples continue to prefer certain exterminatory paths in national and international affairs to the available mechanisms of international law [11] and humane peacmaking?                                                           

These questions ought not be disregarded as “collateral damage” of day-to-day US foreign policy. In The Law of Nations (1758), classical Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel observes: “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.”[12] Though a “general law” (in formal jurisprudence, a “peremptory” law [13]), this imperative is routinely disregarded. Why?

Though tangible and current policy issues are most urgent, Ukraine is best approached as metaphor for the longer term. It should be studied accordingly. Inter alia, it could provide scholars and policy-makers with a real-world and real-time “laboratory.” What this laboratory could then reveal is a visceral and overriding human death fear. Wherever we might choose to look on planet earth, such primal terror splits all human civilizations into “us” and “them,” into adversarial camps of individuals who can wittingly discover in the systematic slaughter of certain “others”[14] the key to their own personal immortality.[15]

From time immemorial, this has been an incomparably tragic discovery. To recall a clarifying lyric by Bob Dylan, what ultimately matters most to individual human beings and nation-states is to have “God on our side.”[16] It’s a lyric with compelling real-world analogues.

          There is more. Unless we finally take tangible steps to implement an organic planetary civilization – a civilization based on the immutably central truth of human “oneness” –  there will be no civilization at all. The time-urgent imperative of this critical portent is magnified by our species’ steady “advances” in the creation of mega-weapons and infrastructures.[17] Augmenting this “progress,” some major states are now committing themselves to nuclear deterrent strategies based not “only” on threats of “assured destruction,”[18] but also upon recognizable capacities for nuclear war fighting.[19]

           In such existential matters, planet earth is still at the beginning. Until now, we humans have consistently managed to miss what is plainly most important. Nonetheless, the central truth here is simple: There exists a latent but determinative “oneness” to all world politics.[20]  

          Scholars and statesmen need a refined strategic dialectic.[21] Often, human beings fear solitude or “aloneness” more than anything else on earth, sometimes even more than death. Amid the palpable chaos and impending genocide now stampeding across Ukraine, suffering individuals still offer their unswerving loyalties to the stubbornly corrosive claims of “tribe.” Everywhere, people desperate “to belong” wittingly subordinate themselves to the endlessly predatory expectations of nation, class and faith.

           There is more. To survive on this self-imperiling planet, we should learn something very basic from Russia’s war on Ukraine: All humankind must survive together, must rediscover individual lives that are sufficiently detached from deeply-felt obligations “to belong.” It is only after such an indispensable rediscovery that peoples and nations could plausibly hope to reconstruct world politics and international law on sound footings. In the end, merely to survive, we will have to “give birth” to more durable foundations of global interdependence.

          Unrealistic? Of course. Still, “in the end,” as we may learn from Italian film director Federico Fellini, “The visionary is the only realist.”

           In The Decline of the West, a modern classic first published during World War I, Oswald Spengler comments: “`I believe'” is the great word against metaphysical fear (sic.), and at the same time it is an avowal of love.'” The welcome visionary would accept that the most suffocating conflicts of life on earth can never be undone by improving global economies, building larger missiles, fashioning or abrogating international treaties, replacing one sordid regime with another or “spreading democracy.”

          Such traditional “remedies” would be insufficient for good reason: The planet as a whole would still remain on its lethal trajectory of belligerent nationalism and tribal conflict.[22] Reminds French Jesuit thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man (1955)“The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”  But throughout history, what may be perfectly obvious via calculations of human Reason has still been undermined by variously manipulative claims of anti-Reason.[23]

          Before the tortuous Realpolitik drama is over in world politics and world law, humankind will need to take more seriously that global survival requires escape from the acrimonious spirit of national-tribes. The likelihood of ever meeting such a daunting requirement of human “oneness” is portentously low, but foreign policies can no longer be constructed according to the defiling assumptions of power politics. Aware that our “Westphalian”[24] system of international relations displays the same fragility as an individual life –  that is, the irremediable fragility of not being immortal – an extraordinary shudder should run through all “powerful” states. Even if the Ukrainian crisis should end more quickly and successfully than first expected, it will ultimately be revealed as just another milestone on the twisted road to species self-destruction,

          A concluding thought dawns. Shared theologies will prove indispensable to human survival, but this belief-system cannot be just another chanted affirmation of competitive divinities. Whether we believe that a transcendental supreme being created a balanced cosmos or a chaos,[25] ultimate survival responsibilities will be humankind’s alone. “In the end,” warns Goethe succinctly in Faust, “we must depend upon creatures of our own making.”[26]

          For the moment, it is less important that we agree on the nature of such “creatures” than that we share a self-serving commitment to “world order” processes. [27] Whatever else we might find agreeable or disagreeable, one fact will remain incontestable: Everything must depend upon the individual human being, the “microcosm.” Stated differently, no nation or society can ever be better than the sum total of its constituent “souls.” Carl G. Jung summed it all up with an enviable candor and simplicity: “Every civilization is the sum total of  individual souls in need of redemption.” [28]

          For the moment, nothing more needs to be said. Following Russia’s ongoing crimes against Ukraine, we may also learn from the poet Rilke that those who can lead will be “those who know that behind all speeches are still the unspeakable lies.” Now, finally, this knowledge could offer us a literally last chance to survive as a species.

Louis Rene BeresLouis Rene Beres  

was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and world order reform. Dr. Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, publishes at The New York Times; The Atlantic; Jewish Business News; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); JURIST; Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsYale Global Online (Yale University); World Politics (Princeton); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); The War Room (Pentagon); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Armed Forces and Societyglobal-e (University of California); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Horasis (Switzerland); Modern DiplomacyJURISTBrown Journal of World Affairs (Brown University); International Security (Harvard); Air-Space Operations Review (USAF); American Political Science Review; American Journal of International Law; Strategy Bridge; Strategic Review; and Middle East Review of International Affairs.

Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich on August 31, 1945.

[1] Plato’s theory, offered in the fourth century B.C.E, explains politics as an unstable realm formed by lies, half-truths and distorted reflections.  In contrast to the stable realm of immaterial Forms, a realm from which all knowledge must be derived, the political realm is dominated by always-multiplying uncertainties of the sensible world.  At the basis of Plato’s political theory is a physical-mental analogy that establishes correlations between head, heart and abdomen, and the human virtues of intelligence, courage and moderation. 

[2] Prima facie, there can never be any greater power in world politics than power over death. See, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Horasis (Zurich):

[3] Punishment of aggression is a longstanding expectation of international criminal law.  The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment,” has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 – 1686 B.C.E.); the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.); the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Torah

[4] This citation is used by philosopher of science Karl R. Popper as the epigraph to his classic text, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959). At the same time, we cannot be allowed to forget that theoretical fruitfulness must always be achieved at some more-or-less tangible costs of “dehumanization.” Goethe reminds in Urfaust, the original Faust fragment: “All theory, dear friend, is grey, And the golden tree of life is green.” Translated here by the author, from the German: “Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grun des Lebens goldner Baum.”

[5] This victimization also demands a more diligent application of pertinent international law.  Though international law does not specifically advise any particular penalties or sanctions for states that choose not to prevent or punish genocide committed by others, all states, most notably the “major powers” belonging to the UN Security Council, are bound, among other things, by the peremptory obligation (defined at Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) known as pacta sunt servanda, to act in continuous “good faith.” In turn, this pacta sunt servanda obligation is itself derived from an even more basic norm of world law. Known commonly as “mutual assistance,” this civilizing norm was most famously identified within the classical interstices of international jurisprudence, most notably by eighteenth-century legal scholar, Emmerich de Vattel, in The Law of Nations (1758).

[6] In fairness, of course, all determinations of what is “remediable” must be inherently subjective and problematic.

[7] Under international law, the question of whether or not a condition of war actually exists between states is often left unclear.  Traditionally, a “formal” war was said to exist only after a state had issued a formal declaration of war.  The Hague Convention III codified this position in 1907.  This Convention provided that hostilities must not commence without “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum.  See Hague Convention III on the Opening of Hostilities, Oct. 18, 1907, art. 1, 36 Stat. 2277, 205 Consol. T.S. 263.  Presently, a declaration of war could be tantamount to a declaration of criminality because international law prohibits “aggression.” See Treaty Providing for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, Aug. 27, 1948, art. 1, 46 Stat.  2343, 94 L.N.T.S.  57 (also called Pact of Paris or Kellogg-Briand Pact); Nuremberg Judgment, 1 I.M.T.  Trial of the Major War Criminals 171 (1947), portions reprinted in Burns H. Weston, et. al., INTERNATIONAL LAW AND WORLD ORDER  148, 159 (1980); U.N. Charter, art. 2(4).  A state may compromise its own legal position by announcing formal declarations of war.  It follows that a state of belligerency may exist without formal declarations, but only if there exists an armed conflict between two or more states and/or at least one of these states considers itself “at war.”

[8] The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into all belligerent calculations. Evidence for the rule of proportionality can also be found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) at Art. 4. Similarly, the American Convention on Human Rights allows at Art. 27(1) such derogations “in time of war, public danger or other emergency which threaten the independence or security of a party” on “condition of proportionality.” In essence, the military principle of proportionality requires that the amount of destruction permitted must be proportionate to the importance of the objective. In contrast, the political principle of proportionality states “a war cannot be just unless the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensure from the war is less than the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensue if the war is not fought.” See Douglas P. Lackey, THE ETHICS OF WAR AND PEACE, 40 (1989). modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M.  679 (1969).

[9] Notes French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” See his The New Spirit and the Poets (1917).

[10] In this connection, nuclear war and genocide need not be considered as mutually exclusive.  War might be the means whereby a particular genocide is undertaken.  According to Articles II and III of the Genocide Convention, which entered into force on January 12, 1951, genocide includes any of several listed acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such….”  See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Done at New York, Dec. 9, 1948.  Entered into force, Jan. 12, 1951.  78 U.N.T.S.  277.

[11] The obligations of international law are also generally binding obligations of US law. In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[12] The same point is made in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England – a work of incomparable importance to the creation of US law.  The first volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries appeared in 1765, the fourth in 1769. An American edition of the full work was printed in Philadelphia in 1771-72

[13] “A peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M.  679 (1969).

[14] One form such slaughter can take is genocide. Still, neither international law nor US law specifically advises any particular penalties or sanctions for states that choose not to prevent or punish genocide committed by others. All states, most notably the “major powers” belonging to the UN Security Council, are bound, among other things, by the peremptory obligation (defined at Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) known as pacta sunt servanda, to act in continuous “good faith.” This pacta sunt servanda obligation is itself derived from an even more basic norm of world law commonly known as “mutual assistance.” This civilizing norm was famously identified within the classical interstices of international jurisprudence, most notably by eighteenth-century Swiss legal scholar, Emmerich de Vattel, in The Law of Nations (1758).

[15]  Observes Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in Man and Crisis (1958): “History is an illustrious war against death.” 

[16] See, Louis René Beres,, at Horasis (Zurich):

[17] The Devil in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman observes: “Man’s heart is in his weapons….in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself…. when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism’s that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies.” Interestingly, Shaw warned of these “hidden molecular energies” before the start of the Nuclear Age.

[18] Pakistan is an example familiar to this author. See Pakistan Ministry of Defense, review of nuclear strategy works by Professor Louis René Beres:

[19] On probable consequences of nuclear war fighting by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA; Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed., Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[20] We may learn from Epictetus, the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher: “You are a citizen of the universe.” A still-broader idea of human “oneness” followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE; with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality” or interconnectedness. By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking upon Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as one. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide secular background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Here, only in its relationship to the universe itself, was the world considered as a part rather than a whole. Says Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, the idea of human “oneness” can and should be fully justified/explained in more purely historical/philosophic terms.

[21] The term “dialectic” originates from the Greek expression for the art of conversation. A common contemporary meaning is method of seeking truth by correct reasoning. From the standpoint of shaping Israel’s strategy  vis-à-vis Iran, the following operations could be regarded as essential but nonexclusive components: (1)  a method of refutation conducted by examining logical consequences; (2) a method of division or repeated logical analysis of genera into species; (3) logical reasoning using premises that are probable or generally accepted; (4) formal logic; and (5) the logical development of thought through thesis and antithesis to fruitful synthesis of these opposites.

[22] Regarding this trajectory, we will require certain antecedent modifications of Realpolitik or power politics. In his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the still present global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[23] See especially Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952). Jaspers also probed these core issues more specifically in his modern classic, The Question of German Guilt (1947).

[24] This system draws its name from the peace settlement of the Thirty Years War. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the foundational Peace of Westphalia.

[25] Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth-century Leviathan may still offer us an elucidating vision of chaos in world politics. During such chaos, which is a “time of War,” says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII (“Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery.”):  “… every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” At the actual time of writing Leviathan, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition extant among individual human beings. This was because of what he had called the “dreadful equality” of individual humans in nature concerning the ability to kill others. But this once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the continuing manufacture and spread of nuclear weapons.

[26] In the language of world politics, such creatures must, at minimum, be rational. Today, in pertinent analytic studies, rationality and irrationality have taken on very precise meanings. A state is presumed to be rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. An irrational state is one that does not always display such a markedly specific preference ordering. On pragmatic or operational grounds, however, ascertaining whether a particular state adversary is actually rational or irrational would be a sorely difficult task.

[27] The term “world order” has its contemporary origins in a scholarly movement begun at the Yale Law School in the mid- and late 1960s, and later “adopted” by the Politics Department at Princeton University in 1967-68. The present author was an early member of the Princeton-based World Order Models Project, and wrote several of the early books and articles in this once still-emergent academic genre.

[28] See Carl G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (1957).



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