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Response to Hans-Herbert Kögler, Democracy or dictatorship? The moral call to defend Ukraine

Orysya Bila

The Head of the Philsophy Department at UCU, Fellow of the International Institute for Ethics and Contemporary Issues

The question of ending the Russian–Ukrainian war is now on the agenda in many circles but there are many different views on what this might entail. In his article Hans-Herbert Kögler also touches upon the normative conditions that would morally allow for a negotiation. I argue that for Russia to comply with them seems, at this point, it is unrealistic, since it would imply a complete transformation of Russia’s modus vivendi for the last two decades. The following principles include: (1) the unconditional recognition of the ethico-political and cultural sovereignty of other nations, (2) respect for the territorial integrity of both countries, (3) respect for individuals belonging to ethnic and religious minorities in the state where they exist and function and (4) a strictly non-violent, diplomatic or a dialogic approach in any further negotiations and agreements.

Kogler notes that while the first principle has never been an issue for Ukraine, the Russian Federation claims the opposite (Koögler, 2023). If the condition were met, Russia ‘would thus have to rescind its declared war goals based on its cultural essentialism, or at least reinterpret them to such an extent that it allows for the parallel existence of ethico-national entities that assert their moral, cultural, national, and political independence’ (Koögler, 2023).

The ethico-political and cultural sovereignty of a nation refers to the idea that a nation has the right to govern itself according to its own ethical, political and cultural values, free from external interference or domination. It also presupposes that cultural diversity and identity are respected and preserved.

In the case of Russian–Ukrainian relations, Russian political leaders claim that Ukraine has been seized by the West, in particular by the United States. According to the official Russian propaganda, the current war is an attempt to de-occupy Ukraine and free it from the influence of the Western world and Ukraine’s own ‘criminal regime’ brought in power by Maidan in 2014. Russia insists on using the term ‘special military operation’ instead of ‘war’.

The ethico-political sovereignty refers to a nation’s right to determine its own political system, laws and ethical principles. This includes the right to self-determination and self-governance, as well as the right to establish and enforce its own laws and regulations. From Russia’s point of view, Ukraine is not endowed with its own agency neither as a state nor as a nation. It belongs to the Russian political, economic and cultural space. In his public speeches, Putin has claimed that Ukraine was ‘invented’ by Lenin, and the phrase ‘Ukrainian people’ was made up by the West.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin appears unconcerned with the fact that the citizens of Russia are being denied their fundamental rights to self-determination regarding their political system, legal framework and ethical values. It is worth noting that Putin first assumed office in 2000 and was the president of the Russian Federation for two consecutive terms until 2008. He then briefly switched positions with Prime Minister Medvedev before returning to the presidency in 2012. Putin has remained in office ever since, with his current term set to end in 2024. Similarly to Fidel Castro, Kim Il-sung, Mao Zedong and Robert Mugabe, Putin has exercised tight control over all facets of Russian society, such as the economy, media and political opposition. Despite holding regular elections, the electoral process in Russia has been neither free nor fair, with reports of voter intimidation, ballot stuffing and other irregularities. The Russian government inflicts repression on its own people by utilizing police force against civilian protesters, resorting to excessive physical violence, carrying out arbitrary detentions, surveilling its citizens’ activities and fostering an environment of fear and paranoia. It closely monitors and regulates the activities of individuals and civil society organizations, with some of them being labelled as ‘undesirable’ and facing legal consequences for their actions. In 2012, the Russian government introduced a controversial law that allows to ban citizens and organizations deemed a threat to national security and label them as ‘foreign agents’. The striking example of such a ban is the Memorial organization, a human rights group concerned with the preservation of the memory of victims of political repression during the Soviet era. Since the late 1980s, the organization has played a prominent role in documenting and publicizing cases of human rights abuses and political persecution in Russia. In 2021, Memorial was declared a ‘foreign agent’ and in March 2023 its members were accused of ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’. Today they face imprisonment(1).

The national interests of Russia, including its declared war objectives, are subject to ongoing reinterpretation. Opposite to the cultural essentialism pivoted in the idea of a ‘Russian World’, Russia exhibits fluidity, uncertainty and constant change. The ‘liquid’ Russian society is marked by a sense of insecurity and fear, as people are no longer able to rely on stable structures and institutions for support and protection. This, in turn, leads to a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability and results in a growing societal fragmentation, with weak social bonds and a lack of solidarity (‘social atomization’ as defined by Arendt).

Burned tank in the middle of the street in Bucha

The issue of respect for ethnic minorities deserves special attention. No schools in the Russian Federation teaches in the Ukrainian language, although, according to official data, there are two million Ukrainians living in the country (the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world). At the end of 2019, a post by Higher School of Economics professor Gasan Guseinov caused a stir in Russia when he wrote that in the capital of a multi-ethnic country with ‘hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars’, it is impossible to find anything in languages other than Russian. Guseinov suggested that this is why some Russians believe that speakers of Russian in Ukraine are incapable of learning Ukrainian. The professor was soon fired (2). Meantime, in the same 2019, there were 194 Russian-language secondary schools in Ukraine, including 43 private ones. In Kyiv, education in Russian was provided in 16 general educational institutions. Even now, during the war, in some schools in the Odessa and Kirovohrad regions, children still study Russian. During his speech on 1 September 2021 at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, stated: ‘We have never tried to grind down the traditions, culture, and language of the peoples who have inhabited the territory of our country since the times of the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation’ (3). Despite the rhetoric about the multi-ethnic character of Russia and its linguistic diversity, only Russian can be used to obtain secondary and higher education, federal TV and radio channels only speak Russian and letters to Ukrainian political prisoners in Russian prisons can only be written in Russian. In September 2019, Albert Razin, an ethnographer and a civil activist, committed self-immolation to defend the Udmurt language, which had lost one-third of its speakers from 2002 to 2010, in protest against this change. The Russian authorities chose to ignore it. Russian occupation authorities have been persecuting Crimean Tatars based on their ethnicity since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The persecution aims to intimidate and displace Crimean Tatars. During a UN General Assembly committee meeting in New York in November 2016, Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for the Affairs of the Crimean Tatars Mustafa Dzhemilev reported that 22 individuals disappeared without a trace in Russian-occupied Crimea, while 19 were arrested.

Politics is not just about making decisions but also about the process of arriving at those decisions and the values and principles that underlie them. Although to an external observer this war might look like a war for resources where Russia is trying to retrieve its former imperial territories, in fact for both Ukraine and Russia, this war is primarily a struggle for symbolic order. For Ukraine, it is a war for the right to be itself, a sovereign and independent country, while for Russia, the war represents a battle to uphold its historical and cultural self-image. In a sense, Russia is fighting against the future, because it has no other image of itself than that of a huge empire, and the cost of maintaining this image is staggering. This price includes not only the lives of Ukrainian citizens but also its own citizens.

Philosopher Avishai Margalit defines a compromise as a mutually beneficial agreement where both parties make concessions in order to achieve a greater good. However, not all compromises are the same, and some of them can be morally unacceptable or harmful. Margalit refers to these as ‘rotten compromises,’ which violate fundamental moral principles and values, such as justice or human rights. Rotten compromises are frequently the result of intense political or social pressures, where parties feel compelled to sacrifice their principles to achieve a larger objective. Nonetheless, resorting to such compromises ultimately weakens the legitimacy of the negotiation process and harms the foundation of society. ‘We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and our norms’, Margalit writes in ‘On Compromise and Rotten Compromises’. ‘Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are’. [Margalit A. (2010). On compromise and rotten compromises. Princeton University Press, p. 5]

By expressing solidarity with Ukraine, the world demonstrates not only empathy and emotional investment, but also a display of support for the values that the Ukrainian people uphold. Solidarity means values in action.


2. More on this case see

3. The video record of the speech see¼SPfWacmgluo


Kögler, H.-H. (2023). Democracy or dictatorship? The moral call to defend Ukraine. European Journal of Social Theory. 26(4): 450–478.


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