Ukraine: Where I Differ with Finkelstein

July 15, 2023

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What follows are some comments I shared in private with Norman Finkelstein on July 14th. My intention was to give some constructive criticism of his position on the current war in Ukraine. I did not intend my text for the broader public and would have written it differently if I had. Perhaps a little context is needed then: Please do not mistake this for informed comment. I have no relevant expertise, I don’t know anything about Russia or Ukraine, and have not been following news about the war. I do, however, care greatly about opposition to war and militarism and how we think about those questions. I wanted to react to some of the more fundamental principles involved in Finkelstein’s argument with the understanding that the issues raised will remain relevant long after this particular conflict is over. It’s important that we get this right.

J. Vognsen 

July 15th, 2023


Did Russia have the right to attack Ukraine?


I’m responding to the video of the virtual town hall meeting you held on July 2nd[1] As far as I know, this is the most in-depth presentation of your views on the war, so that’s what I’m going with.


Three introductory remarks:



I’m closer to pacifism than you are. My scepticism of the legitimacy of war runs very deep. Some of the following will reflect that deeper discussion, but I’m hoping it will also be useful without having to settle that old issue first. Still, I want to mark it up front, because much hinges on when we think it is permissible to use force in general.


I think we should always go to great lengths in resisting the Heckler’s Veto and blackmail. If we don’t, rights simply don’t have any meaning. You cannot have free speech if you always have to abstain when any damn fool threatens violence. But, of course, unless one is a fanatic ideologue, difficult choices will have to be made when considering real world consequences. In my opinion, when nuclear weapons are involved, one will usually have to give in to demands, much in the same way one gives in to the demands of a mugger with a knife to your throat. It’s just not a great time to flex your principles.


I’m going to focus on the question of whether Russia had the right to attack Ukraine. I want to be clear that if my thoughts are applied to the US, it does not come out looking good either. In fact, in many ways the US comes out looking worse than Russia. But that is not the issue here: My aim today is not to pass judgment on the actions of the US and NATO, but to reflect on your comments about what Russia was allowed to do in response to the situation where it found itself in February 2022. That narrow issue is what raised questions for me.


With that, let me get into the main questions your talk left me with.


What, exactly, did Russia have the right to do? And what are they in fact doing?


At 0:08:33, you say:


Russia had the right to attack, but – and it’s not a big but, but it’s a but – there’s a difference between having a right and exercising that right. (…) I cannot say with any kind of certainty that it was a wise or a prudent thing to attack. To me those are separate questions. On the – let’s call it – moral question, it’s my view they had the right to attack.


At 0:52:25, you say:


I think that 27 million people having been exterminated during World War 2 gives you a certain kind of moral title. How far that title extends? I would say it extends to doing to Ukraine what was done to Austria after World War 2: Neutralising it. What was done to Finland after World War 2: Neutralizing it. Does that right extend to occupying Ukraine? No. Does that right extend to annexing parts of Ukraine? My answer is, “No.” But does it extend to demanding that Ukraine not join NATO? My answer is, “Yes”. But I am perfectly willing to say that those are matters of judgment.


It’s unclear for me how specifically you get to the right to attack. I’ll discuss this issue more below, but what I have in mind for now are basic, practical questions: Who, when and where exactly do you think Russia had the right to attack? I don’t think you can have an abstract, general right to attack, only the right to attack something concrete and identifiable. What do you believe that is? The Ukrainian army? The Ukrainian political system? The civilian infrastructure in Ukraine? Without more specifics added here, I struggle to understand your view.


A separate issue is what Russia’s motives in fact are. In theory, it’s possible that they had a moral right to attack, but are still in the wrong, because they are attacking for other, less noble reasons. Here is Mearsheimer in January on Russia’s war aims:


I believe Putin is committed to making sure that Ukraine is either a truly neutral state with no military ties to the West, or a dysfunctional rump state that is effectively useless to the West. The Russians are clearly out to wreck Ukraine as a functioning society, and one has to ask whether or not the Russians will do enough damage to Ukraine such that the Ukrainians and their allies say ‘enough is enough’ and try to work out a deal with Putin.[2]


I personally think that making Ukraine a neutral state is a legitimate political goal for Russia, but that trying to “wreck Ukraine as a functioning society” is not. So it clearly matters what you believe they are actually trying to do. They may have had a moral right to do A, but if they are doing B, the relevance of A is academic. If B is sufficiently bad, bringing up A might be obscene.


I think your case would be stronger if you spelled out exactly what practical conclusions your idea of a moral right leads to, and perhaps also if you reflected on whether you think Russia is in actual fact pursuing this moral right in a just way.


Can a moral right be separated from practical considerations?


Let’s return to 0:08:33 again:


Russia had the right to attack, but – and it’s not a big but, but it’s a but – there’s a difference between having a right and exercising that right. (…) I cannot say with any kind of certainty that it was a wise or a prudent thing to attack. To me those are separate questions. On the – let’s call it – moral question, it’s my view they had the right to attack.


This distinction holds when you are talking about individual issues, like the right to spend your own money on booze, gambling and salsa records. Sure, you can do whatever you like, but not everything is prudent. However, the distinction does not hold when the action inevitably violates the rights of other people. They are not separate questions when talking about launching a war that predictably results in the massive loss of innocent lives, as was entirely predictable would be the case when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.


In my view, an absolute minimum requirement for the killing of innocent lives is, 1) a very clear expectation of 2) a vastly better result. Reckless pursuit of even a just cause is also unjust. One can never have a right to wage war incompetently. So the question about whether Russia had a moral right to attack cannot be separated from a discussion of whether it was strategically sound and prudent to do so, and whether they had the necessary skill and capacity to carry it out justly.


An analogy: If you steal my bicycle, I have the right to go into your garden and take it back. I don’t have the right to drive a tank through your wall on the way. If the only way to get there is by tank, I have no right to take back my bicycle. The right in the abstract cannot be separated from the practical question of actually getting there without violating the rights of others.


I think for your argument to work, you either have to explain further how you can separate the moral right from the tactical issues even when innocent third parties are involved. Or else you will need some justification that the Russian attack was in fact wise and prudent.


Does historical experience confer special rights? What about duties?


Every nation and individual has the right to self-defence against aggression. That’s the starting point. The question is whether historical experience can confer further, or special, rights. You clearly believe they can. In addition to the earlier quoted comments about moral title, you say at 0:24:00:


Just as Israel had the right [in June 1967] to invoke the backdrop of the Nazi holocaust, Russia has the right to invoke the fact that […] 27 million civilian people were exterminated during World War 2.


I do not reject this idea outright, though I do place a lot less weight on it than you. The problem for me is that such historical experiences are often contradictory among those involved (leaving conflicting territorial claims unresolvable, to take one example). Law and common morality are often better tools for solving such conflicts, though they are of course not free from contradiction either. That said, my comments here will not challenge the principle, just question your application.


Historical experience cannot only justify special concerns of security, but can also dictate certain duties to abstain from the use of force. For example, I think it made sense after World War 2 to demand that Japan gave up on the normal right to have an army, given how the country had carried on inside its neighbouring countries. This is an excellent, moral precedent: Any country that commits aggression, or major atrocities, needs to dial it down a bit extra for a few decades. It needs to show that it has learned a lesson and taken steps to prevent it from happening again.


One thing is the Israel of 1967, but what about the Israel of today? We might say that the experience of the holocaust granted special rights of protection to Jews then, but I think that if Israel were to use that argument today, we would have to balance it out against the more recent behaviour of the Israeli army and its now several decades of aggression. A much more complicated reality of moral title and duty emerges.


My basic point now, of course, is going to be that Russian history includes more than World War 2 and those other experiences will have to be factored in as well. It matters what Russian soldiers have been up to since defeating Hitler and it’s not all pretty. A few places where the Soviet Union and later Russian federation have been involved since 1945:


  • 1956 Supressing the Hungarian Revolution
  • 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia
  • 1979–1989 Invasion of Afghanistan
  • 1994–1996 First Chechen War
  • 1999–2009 Second Chechen War[3]


Asking honestly, not rhetorically: How much of Russia’s moral title has been eroded by this? Surely it must affect our views somehow?[4]


The Second Chechen War is of particular interest, because Putin was in power at that time, so there is a direct and concrete connection. I’m by no means an expert on this, but will take Chomsky’s word that Russia then conducted a “murderous terrorist war“.[5] That seems to show that, at the very least, Putin is not able to handle any moral clout responsibly. I would have substantial reservations about granting the right to attack anybody to a leader who had been in charge of a murderous terrorist war. Quite the opposite: There is an extra heavy burden on Putin against using military force again; certainly against ordering tanks across the borders of other countries wrecking the lives of millions in the process.


You might not agree with the specifics of that historical analysis (flimsy and uniformed as I admit it is), but my argument is just that I think you need to reckon with this broader picture somehow to really land your point about moral title.


What’s wrong with surrendering?


At 0:26:55, you say:

If you can show me a significant [non-violent, diplomatic] option that Russia had but didn’t exercise, then of course my argument is not compelling.


At 0:28:15, you say:

The US was determined, with NATO […] to subordinate Russia, to put Russia in a position that it would have to accept any ultimatum coming from the US and NATO or else face military might on its border. And there was no way, in my opinion, that any offer the Russians made, short of surrender, would have evoked a positive reaction from the West.


When you request that critics of Russia give some specific suggestions for how Russia should have reacted, I think you are on point. Likewise, when you say that it seems likely that NATO would continue putting pressure on Russia regardless, I think you probably also have a point. But I do not agree that if there were no diplomatic options left that hadn’t been explored, Russia would then have the right to use force. Sometimes doing nothing is the moral choice, and sometimes surrendering is.


I think this is where we might see things fundamentally differently and my feedback will not be useful, as we will talk past each other, but I’d still like to offer a few thoughts. For what it’s worth, this is what I believe.


It seems clear to me that Russia could not have a very clear expectation of achieving a vastly better result by attacking Ukraine. All that was clear was the immense instantaneous loss of lives. That alone makes the invasion illegitimate in my view; deeply so. And I would go further: By attacking Ukraine, Russia immediately raised the risk of a nuclear war with the US. That makes it moral insanity, pure and simple. Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine literally increased the risk of the end of human civilisation. How is that better than surrender? How is that the moral option?


To justify the Russian use of force, it is not enough to show that all diplomatic options had been tried. You also have to show that the alternative would be far, far worse since war is only allowed if it can produce significantly improved outcomes in terms of reducing deaths. You would have to show that Russian surrender would be much worse than what could be expected of the war, including the increased risk of nuclear war. For me, the baseline is this: If the choice is between surrender and risking nuclear Armageddon, the moral choice is to surrender.[6]


You bring up the idea that if Russia were defeated, the US would turn its attention to China with perhaps apocalyptic results. At 0:41:40, you say:


[The US wanted to] defang Russia, leave it no room for manoeuvrability, so they would have a clear field against China.


You have a point again, and I share your concern. I guess one could make an argument – a fairly convoluted one – that a small increase in the risk of nuclear war from fighting the US now is worth it to prevent a bigger risk of nuclear war if the US does go after China later. Not illogical, but morally very dubious to me. I think killing civilians can only be justified to avert clear and imminent harm of a much larger scale. Later world-ending war with China is a potentiality; mass destruction in Ukraine is a reality now.


In other words, I think you need an explicit argument for why surrender would not have been the right moral choice for Russia. And just to be clear, restating my third introductory point: For the US and NATO to make such a demand of Russia, with its substantial selection of nuclear weaponry, would be a sublime act of immorality given the risks. However, that important topic is for another day. Here I’m only addressing how Russia was allowed to act and whether they had a right to attack Ukraine.








[2] Jason Chau & Andrew Wang: “I’ve been attacked… not with facts and logic, but personally”: John Mearsheimer on the War in Ukraine, Oxford Political Review, January 12, 2023;


[3] Full list here:


[4] Similarly, judging what Japan should be allowed to do internationally today by only focusing on its behaviour 80 years ago while ignoring the period since would be absurd.


[5] Noam Chomsky: “The New War Against Terror”, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, October 18, 2001;


[6] Of course, if you think that Russian surrender would mean a literal NATO led genocide of the Russian population, then probably not. Excluding something of those dimensions, any country under attack from the US would do well to surrender, in my opinion. If that country has nuclear weapons, it becomes a moral obligation that they do so, to avoid the outbreak of nuclear war between the US and itself. When the stakes are that high, a lot of every day moral considerations about morality and fairness no longer apply.