With the experience of World War I fresh in his mind, Randolph Bourne famously warned that “war is the health of the state.” Under stress, he noted, people rally behind the government and lash out at dissenters. Since then, we’ve learned that freedom lost in times of crisis is rarely fully regained after life settles down. War isn’t always avoidable; Ukrainians had no choice but to fight or capitulate when Russian forces invaded.
“War is the health of the State,” Bourne wrote in 1918. “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.”
Sure enough, 81 percent of Russians support the invasion of Ukraine, according to the Levada Center, an independent polling firm that walks a very fine line in the authoritarian state. A whopping 83 percent approve of Russian leader Vladimir Putin (a level of support not enjoyed by a US president since George W. Bush in the aftermath, unsurprisingly, of the 9/11 terrorist attacks). Just as importantly and echoing Bourne’s point, the pollsters found, a majority of Russians are aware of anti-war protests in their country but aren’t very sympathetic to them.
About a quarter of Russians believe that people go to protest actions because of ‘indignation at the special operation in Ukraine’ (26%), ‘dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country’ (25%), ‘dissatisfaction with the policy of the authorities’ (24%),” the pollsters added. “However, a third of respondents (32%) are sure that ‘many come because they were paid.'”
Of course, Russian opinion forms in an environment of dwindling independent voices. Putin’s government was never especially tolerant of opposition, and war has given the regime even more opportunity to persecute critical and shutter media outlets that don’t toe the official line.
“Under an amendment adopted on 4 March, any Russian or foreign person can be charged to up to 15 years in prison for spreading ‘false information’ about the Russian armed forces,” Reporters Without Borders notes. “Under another law passed on 22 March, ‘false information’ about the activities of ‘Russian state operating abroad – including the chair’, executive, parliament, national guard and Federal Security Service (FSB) – is also punishable by up to 15 years in prison.”
So, war gave Russian authorities expanded leeway to muzzle dissidents and prod a public already inclined to rally around their leaders. But if war arouses tribal instincts among the aggressors, it does so no less among the aggrieved. Under existential threat, Ukrainians understandably lose patience for those in their midst who are sympathetic to Russia or are suspected of undermining defense efforts.
“Eleven Ukrainian political parties have been suspended because of their links with Russia,” The Guardian reported last month. “The country’s national security and defense council took the decision to ban the parties from any political activity. Most of the affected parties were small, but one of them, the Opposition Platform for Life, has 44 seats in the 450-seat Ukrainian parliament. “
The Opposition Platform for Life had reportedly denounced the invasion, but it was undoubtedly pro-Russian in its sympathies and highly suspect in a situation where Ukraine’s continued existence is at risk. It was suspended under the provisions of martial law, which was extended on April 21 through May 25, and can probably be expected to remain in place throughout the war.
But it’s not just lawmakers. As open warfare became more likely, the Ukrainian government banned media suspected of sympathizing with the enemy.
“Three pro-Russian TV channels have gone off the air in Kyiv after pro-Western President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a Ukrainian security council decree imposing sanctions for five years on eight media and TV companies,” Germany’s Deutsche Welle reported on February 5.
Then, in March, the Ukrainian government forcibly merged all TV stations under state control.
“The move means the end, at least temporarily, of privately owned Ukrainian media outlets in that country,” Deadline observed.
And, as is common in mass warfare, both Russia and Ukraine are scripting military recruits. Ukraine has, so far, confined the draft to reserviststhough men ages 18-60 are forbidden to leave the country.
There’s no doubt that Ukraine is the victim of a war of aggression. But if the defenders are ultimately victorious against their assailants, what sort of country will emerge? Will the emergency measures be rolled back, the bans restored, and the free press restored? And what of Russia? Does anybody really believe that a regime already inclined to authoritarianism will abandon the measures it took advantage of conflict to impose?
“Defense against threats, foreign and domestic, is one of the main reasons governments exist in the first place,” Christopher Preble noted in his 2019 book, Peace, War, and Liberty. But, he added: “The evidence is irrefutable: throughout human history, government has grown during wartime or periods of great anxiety when war is in the offing, and it rarely surrenders these powers when the guns fall silent or when the crisis abates. “
“Several commonly employed indexes of the size of government displaying the ‘ratchet phenomenon’ during the 20th century: government grew suddenly much bigger with the onset of each great crisis; after the crisis it receded but usually not to the precrisis level,” economic historians Robert Higgs agreed in 1985. “Thus, the crisis typically has produced not just a temporarily bigger government but also permanently bigger government, according to several conventional measures.”
Ukraine deserves to prevail in its defense against aggression, to retain its people’s ability to decide their own destiny free of foreign domination, and to rebuild, hopefully at the expense of the predatory government that sent arms across the border. Before the war, Ukraine was a flawed but functioning liberal democracy, with free elections and middling respect for civil liberties. Since then, as in many countries under siege, the government has become more authoritarian. It’s too soon to know how many, if any, of the emergency measures will disappear when the war finally ends.
Ultimately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will exact a price in lives and wealth, but also almost certainly in freedom for dissenting voices and private action. This war, like all wars, will invigorate the state and be deadly to liberty.