Libertarians facing a defensive war in Ukraine


Why calls to "just stop the war" are not enough.

War is the greatest tragedy of humankind. If anyone–for the sake of their chess game–consciously kills the innocent, he is a war criminal, and war criminals are always at the same ethical level–zero. It is also evident that in the era of global politics, every empire will try to influence strategic decisions in strategic places. The NATO decisions that bombed Belgrade, Serbia are no less criminal than Putin, and Moscow clearly cannot be the only manipulating force in modern Europe. I am in no way attempting to make holistic comparisons of evil–for they cannot be made.

There are, however, comparisons that can be made. And some wars are different than others.

Take the First World War–European forces piled against each other were able to cease fire and exchange Christmas wishes during the famed truce. They were at the same ethical level. Simply calling on both sides to stop the war could have worked.

Fast-forward 5 years to the Polish-Soviet War in which case the aggressor was clear. The Soviets, wanting to establish their rule over all of Europe, stopped at nothing. It was a classic example of defensive war, with one side being driven by totalitarian ideology. The same goes for World War II – and for (a hypothetical) World War III.

In the latter three cases, there exists an ethical difference between the two fighting sides. Simply calling on the warring parties to “just stop the war” is as naïve as telling the burglar to just stop robbing your house. And regardless of any military strategy that may or may not be chosen by NATO, a moral man must condemn the aggressor.

Similarly, some governments are different from others. Yes, by definition they all steal and kill, and a principled Rothbardian is bound to call them evil. This evil, however, comes in gradations.

It does not need explaining that the lies, murders, and abuse of human freedom by North Korea, China, or Russia are on a completely different level than the lies, murders, and abuse of human freedom by the United States, Japan, or Norway. It also does not need explaining why the direction of escape in post-war Berlin was always from the East to the West.

The problem with the realist arguments from the geopolitical school of John Mearsheimer–the people who explain the world in terms of the spheres of influence of big empires–is that they disregard the will of the people. Yes, ultimately, it is NATO, Russia, or China who plays the cards. And yet, in 1999, Poland decided to join NATO after a referendum, and in 2014, Ukrainians decided to vote Yanukovych out. The results of these elections did not need to be influenced by the West–having experience with the East was enough. Somehow, the expansion of NATO seems to be the most benevolent of expansions in modern history.

Demonstrative preference says it all. In a world full of imperfect choices, associating with the liberal consumerist West still means relatively more human freedom and dignity than staying in the deluded world of the modern KGB and Dugin. And this loss of power over human minds is what triggered their aggression.

The do’s and don’t’s of libertarian argumentation in the face of aggression

Being ethically a neo-Aristotelian, a Rothbardian, or, broadly speaking, a personalist makes it impossible to issue any arguments on preferred policy in times of a defensive war. That is because all such arguments–by necessity–have to be utilitarian. We are trading a number of lives for another, and we are never certain of the outcome. We quantify the unquantifiable–human life and dignity–and propose the unthinkable. It is no wonder some of our inner children are showing, saying “just stop the war.” It is also no wonder that humans want to ensure their own illusion of safety. My purpose is not to advocate for any military strategy, but rather–with the image of Russia I have just painted–to explain another kind of argument: Give me liberty or give me death.

This quote is ingrained in human nature so deeply that it does not change with the kind of weapons at our disposal. To give a modern version of the quote, Józef Mackiewicz, the first Pole to discover the mass graves of Polish officers close to Katyn, sentenced to death by the Communist Party for speaking openly about what he saw, more or less stated: Having half of humanity killed in a nuclear war is not a catastrophe–having half of humanity living under the communist system is.

If we value liberty more than we value life, our anti-war arguments should come from a more nuanced place than simply being threatened. And yet, many seem to argue solely from this perspective. Reading that NATO should not have interfered in 1956 or in 1968 in the Eastern Bloc is disturbing–not due to the chosen military strategy, but due to the lack of moral support and respect for human suffering that seems to come with the formulation of said argument.

Most of the people that were then bleeding themselves out in the streets would prefer the next world war with a chance to restore their dignity rather than having to waste their own lives and their children’s lives, and then needing generations to heal from totalitarian abuse. Was it worth it–sacrificing them at the altar of an illusion of safety? Did they not have any natural rights just because of where they were born?

And Zelenskyy is desperately crying “give me liberty or give me death” himself–by asking for a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Ukraine. Even though implementing the zone may not be a good idea strategically, Zelenskyy should be morally supported and not condemned for issuing this plea.

So what could be done?

It could be that a stern response from NATO–one bordering on the level of nuclear threat–provokes a coup in the Kremlin and eventually, at least temporarily, de-escalates the conflict. It could also mean escalation. We don’t know.

If we get to the core of the problem, only Russia can stop the war. The former Soviet Union is a big improperly healed wound that grows more infected with every year the KGB/FSB is still in power. Putin will not cease to chase his geopolitical fantasy. He may be eliminated by a power play on top of the KGB/FSB structures, but their violent patterns will eventually return.

The only permanent solution is overthrowing Soviet rule–this time properly and thoroughly. Send the officials to penal colonies where they belong, open up the archives, condemn the last 105 years of on-and-off terror, wipe the bloody shade of red out of the Russian flag. Many Russians are already a part of this movement, using the white-blue-white flag as the flag of a new free Russia. They need to reach a critical mass of people with their message –an impossible dream as a solution to an impossible problem.

There is an initiative in Poland–leaving friendly reviews of Russian businesses online that educate the people in Russia about the war. They cannot obtain this information in any other way–in today’s Russia, you can get arrested for merely holding a blank piece of paper on the street. There is enormous grassroots work to be done. And to my American friends–I want to assure you the main way in which you should intervene is by joining the education forces.


  • Agnieszka Płonka

    Agnieszka has a M.Sc in geophysics and currently works as an independent math tutor. She devotes herself to philosophy and economic education. She is a member of the Polish Libertarian Association.

The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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