Catherine the Great
On February 21, Vladimir Putin gave a long speech on how he saw the events in Ukraine. Some of the material in this speech is drawn from Putin's article "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" that was published on July 12, 2021. Only three days after that speech, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. This speech and the earlier article provide Putin's most elaborate explanation and justification for his launching the war in Ukraine.
Some of Putin's argument has been endorsed by the "realist" political scientists--like John Mearsheimer--who say that Putin is practicing Machiavellian great power politics that has been provoked by the United States and its NATO allies who have threatened the security of Russia. But this fails to recognize that what we see here is not just the Machiavellian pursuit of power in Putin's invasion but also the Lockean pursuit of liberty in the Ukrainian resistance to his invasion. To understand wars like this, we need a moral realism that sees that human beings are moved by both interest and justice, both force and freedom. Even some of the modern realists of international relations--like Hans Morgenthau--have understood this.
In his speech, Putin makes two kinds of arguments. In the first half of the speech, he argues that he will protect "the true cultural, economic, and social interests of the people" of Ukraine as part of "the population of historical Russia" established by Catherine the Great, who conquered Ukraine to make it part of her Russian Empire. Here we see Putin's ultimate goal-the glory of a Russian-Eurasian Empire. An independent Ukraine frustrates Putin's achievement of that imperial glory.
In the second half of his speech, he argues that to do this he will have to defend against the aggressive threat to the security of Russia coming from the eastward expansion of NATO.
The Machiavellian realists like Mearsheimer concentrate on the second argument but ignore the first. Consequently, they ignore Putin's dependence on popular consent and on the support of those few powerful people who might conspire to overthrow him to satisfy their own ambition to rule.
NATO: PURELY DEFENSIVE? OR AN AGGRESSIVE THREAT TO RUSSIAN SECURITY?
Let's start with Putin's second argument. He says that "Ukraine's accession to NATO is a direct threat to Russia's security," and while the NATO countries have tried "to convince us that NATO is a peace-loving and purely defensive alliance," there is no reason to take them at their word because they have often broken their promises. In 1990, Putin asserts, the Soviet leadership was promised that allowing the reunification of Germany would not threaten Russia, because NATO would never be expanded eastward.
But then, Putin points out, there were five waves of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe toward Russia's borders. In 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were admitted to NATO. In 2004, it was Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. This was followed in 2009 by Albania and Croatia, in 2017 Montenegro, and in 2020 Northern Macedonia.
This allowed for the expansion of the U.S. global missile defense project into Romania and Poland. These supposedly defensive missiles have offensive capabilities, he insists, which creates the danger of a surprise missile attack on Russia.
Putin says that the trouble over Ukraine actually began in 2008. At NATO's Bucharest summit in April, George W. Bush's administration pushed for an announcement that Ukraine and Georgia "will become members" of NATO. There were reports that Putin was outraged by this and declared that he would go to war to prevent it. Both Ukraine and Georgia had been part of Imperial Russia. In his speech of February 21, Putin says that "Ukraine joining NATO is a direct threat to Russia's security," and that the Bucharest summit announcement was the beginning of "a clearly anti-Russia policy."
In Georgia, on the southern Caucasian border of Russia, there was a movement beginning in 2003 toward the West and away from Russia, which was led by President Mikheil Saakashvili. In August of 2008, Putin launched the Russo-Georgian War and took the regions of Abkasia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
In Ukraine, in 2013 and 2014, there was a violent insurrection--the Maidan Revolution--against the government of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced to leave Ukraine, because he wanted to move Ukraine away from the European Union and towards Russia. The Parliament deposed him and called for new elections, in which Petro Poroshenko was elected president, with the promise to move Ukraine towards the West and away from Russia.
As Putin indicates in his speech, he regarded this as a coup d'etat, and it justified his military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, in which he annexed Crimea into Russia and supported the separatist states of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas War, which has continued to the present.
John Mearsheimer has written an essay for The Economist agreeing with Putin's arguments as showing that "the West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis which began in February 2014," and which now has led to Putin's war in Ukraine. (In America, the Trumpian "Putin wing" of the Republican Party agrees with this.) Mearsheimer does not, however, identify the weaknesses in Putin's arguments.
First of all, there is no evidence that Western leaders promised Soviet leaders in 1990 that NATO would never admit Eastern European countries into NATO. In 2014, during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that there had been no such promise, and there was not even any discussion of the issue of NATO expansion, although Gorbachev did add that the expansion was a "big mistake" and "a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made" in 1990.
Putin simply assumes that a Great Power alliance like NATO cannot be a purely defensive alliance, because it must be an aggressive threat to other great powers like Russia--because that's what great powers have always done in competition with one another. Mearsheimer agrees with this assumption, because this is what he has called "the tragedy of great power politics" (the title of his best book): even if a great power seeks only security from being attacked, it must preemptively attack other great powers, because it can never trust other great powers to not use their offensive capabilities to attack first. By this tragic Machiavellian logic of great power politics, as soon as Putin saw NATO building up its offensive capacity near the borders of Russia, he had to assume NATO would soon strike Russia, and so he had to strike first.
For that reason, Mearsheimer insists, the decision of the United States and its NATO allies to expand NATO membership into Eastern Europe is the root cause of Putin's war in Ukraine, because they created the circumstances in which Putin was forced by the logic of great power politics to launch the war.
Contrary to Mearsheimer's claim, however, the historical evidence of the behavior of the NATO powers toward Russia does not support this logic. First of all, the fact that the NATO alliance has prevented any great power wars in Europe for over 70 years contradicts the predictions of Mearsheimer's "tragedy of great power politics."
Secondly, the NATO countries have never directly attacked Russia or shown any propensity to do so. Five NATO countries share a border with Russia--Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. None of these countries have shown any inclination to attack Russia, although they have aided Ukraine in preparing to defend itself against the kind of attack from Russia that was launched in 2014 and a few weeks ago.
Moreover, the economic and political integration of the European countries through NATO and the European Community has contributed to a "Long Peace": since 1945, the great powers have not been involved in any direct military conflict with one another. This long period of peace among the great powers is unprecedented in modern history, and it contradicts Mearsheimer's whole theory that great power wars are inevitable, because it is impossible for great powers to cooperate for their common defense.
If Putin was not motivated by a fear of a NATO attack on Russia, then one must turn to his first argument as possibly indicating his true motivation for the invasion of Ukraine.
"ANCIENT RUS" AND "THE RUSSIAN IDEA" OF THE "EURASIAN EMPIRE"
"For Russia's leaders," Mearsheimer claims, "what happens in Ukraine has little to do with their imperial ambitions being thwarted; it is about dealing with what they regard as a direct threat to Russia's future." "Furthermore," he asserts, "Russian policymakers--including Mr. Putin--have said hardly anything about conquering new territory to recreate the Soviet Union or build a greater Russia."
Anyone who reads Putin's speech of February 21 will see that what Mearsheimer says here is patently false. Putin devotes the first two-thirds of this long speech to arguing that Ukraine has always been part of "historical Russia"--"an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space." In his article of July 12--"On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians"--he traces the origin of this "same historical and spiritual space" uniting Ukrainians and Russians to 988 when Vladimir the Great (Volodymyr in Ukrainian) converted to Orthodox Christianity and became the ruler of "Ancient Rus":
"Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory--from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov--were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and--after the baptism of Rus--the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today."
"The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Rus. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, 'Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.'"
Kyivan Rus (882-1240)
Vikings who called themselves the Rus settled along the Dnipro River at the end of the 9th century. Their rule was centered at a trading post called Kyiv. The Rus had a pagan religion. But in 988, the ruler of Kyiv--Volodymyr or Vladimir--decided that conversion to a monotheistic religion would solidify control of territory. After considering Judaism and Islam, he decided to convert to Orthodox Christianity, and to make all of Kyivan Rus an Orthodox Christian civilization. Around 1240, Kyivan Rus was broken up by the invasion of the Mongols.
Notice that in the map above, Moscow was not part of Kyivan Rus. In fact, Moscow did not even exist at the time. After the Mongol invasion, in a new city called Moscow, princes gained power by collecting tribute for the Mongols. Then, as the western Mongol empire broke up, a new ruling order called Muscovy asserted its independence and expanded its power.
In 1721, Muscovy was renamed the "Russian Empire," so that there was a mythical connection to ancient Rus, which had not existed for 500 years. Between 1772 and 1795, Catherine the Great expanded the empire westward and proclaimed that she had restored the original Rus.
Putin is renewing Catherine's myth of a restored Rus. This allows him to say that "Russians and Ukrainians are one people--a single whole." He can also identify this as a "spiritual unity" because Ukrainians and Russians share their Orthodox Christian faith going back to Vladimir the Great's conversion. With this, he can justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine as serving the "true cultural, economic, and social interests of the people" of Ukraine as part of "historical Russia." He thus provides a moral and religious justification for Russian rule over Ukraine.
And yet there are three deep flaws in Putin's rhetoric. First, he ignores the fact that Kyivan Rus and Ukraine existed for seven hundred years beyond Russia. Second, he also ignores the fact that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has existed for most of its history independently of the Russian Orthodox Church. Finally, and most importantly, he refuses to recognize the will and agency of the Ukrainian people in deciding for themselves whether they want to exist as a free people separated from Russia, and whether they want to fight a war for that independence. These three mistakes by Putin explain why his war plan has failed, and why Ukraine has a chance to win.
In Putin's speeches justifying the invasion of Ukraine, he manifests a rhetorical theme running throughout many of his speeches over his twenty-two years of rule: the choice between the ethnic nationalist autocracy of Russia and the multiethnic liberal democracy of the West. It's the illiberal "Russian World" (russkiy mir) versus the liberal "Western World." This is the Counter-Enlightenment alternative to liberalism presented by Russian conservative political thought, which defends a Russian World based on a shared Russian history, Russian language, and Russian religion. Oddly, however, Putin has often been forced to contradict this myth of Russian World in recognizing the multiethnic and multicultural reality of Russia.
This contradiction in Putin's rhetoric has been well studied by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy in their book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015). See pages 38-62, 96-105, and 362-374.
In a previous post, I have written about the incoherence in the rhetoric of ethnic nationalism as an evolutionary adaptation.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which Putin experienced as a KGB operative posted to Dresden in East Germany, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some Russian thinkers began to wonder how a new Russian state could be founded on "the Russian Idea" (Russkaya ideya). This suggests an ethnic Russian identity, because russkiy is an adjective associated with ethnic Russianness. This became the language of the ethnic Russian nationalists. But other thinkers spoke of "the Russian Idea" as Rossiyskaya ideya, which suggests an ethnically neutral Russian identity, because rossiyskiy is derived from Rossiya, a word for "Russia" as an abstract state to which all Russian citizens could belong regardless of their ethnic identity. Putin's rhetoric has shifted back and forth between these two conceptions of Russian national identity.
In the fall of 1999, Putin was appointed first prime minister and then acting president of Russia. Early in 2000, he was elected president. On December 29, 1999, as part of his political campaign, Putin published a 5,000-word treatise on "Russia on the Threshold of the New Millenium."
His main argument in this "Millenium Message" was that since the Russian state had always been weakened whenever its people were divided, the power of the new Russian state would depend upon the unification of the Russian people in affirming the "Russian Idea" (Rossiyskaya ideya) that makes Russia distinctive. This would require that the majority of Russian citizens (rossiyane)--not just ethnic Russians--would voluntarily embrace the general ideas supporting the state. This Russian Idea would be broad enough to encompass all of Russian society in its multiethnic and multireligious diversity.
This kind of rhetoric was necessary to support Putin's response to the renewed war in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000. Most of the people in Chechnya are ethnic Chechens who are predominantly Muslim believers, which sets them apart from the ethnic Russian minority of people are predominantly Russian Orthodox Christians. Islamist Chechen separatists had exploited these divisions in fighting for independence from the Russian Federation. Russian federal soldiers entered Chechnya to fight alongside some pro-Russian Chechen paramilitary against the Chechen separatists.
Putin needed to pull some ethnic Chechens to the Russian side. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov was a Chechen paramilitary leader who fought against the Russians in the First Chechen War (1994-1996); but in the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), he switched sides and led his men to fight for the Russians against the Chechen separatists. He is now Head of the Chechen Republic and a staunch supporter of Putin who has fought for the Russians in Ukraine. To pull people like this--people who are not ethnic Russians and not Orthodox Christians--to the side of the Russian Federation, Putin had to speak of Russia as a multiethnic and multireligious state.
But then, in 2014, Putin was trying to keep Ukraine from breaking away from Russia, as he is now in 2022, and for that purpose, Putin has employed the rhetoric of restoring and reuniting the russkiy mir--the world of ethnic Russians and the Orthodox community of Holy Russia. But when he does this, he risks alienating people like Kadyrov. Why should ethnic Chechen Muslims fight in Ukraine to restore a Russian World of ethnic Russians and Orthodox believers? So, in a speech in 2014 commemorating the end of World War II, Putin said: "The unity of our multinational, multiconfessional nation is the greatest legacy or our victory" over Nazi Germany. Putin's rhetoric of the Russian Idea is caught in an inescapable contradiction.
To overcome that contradiction, Putin has adopted the expansive concept of "Eurasianism"--the idea that Russia is destined to create a glorious Russian Empire that stretches across the entire Eurasian continent. Russia has always had an empire, and the Russian people have always been an "imperial people." Putin got this idea from White Russian emigres like Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) and Nikolai Trubetskoi (1890-1938) and recent Russian thinkers like Lev Gumilev (1912-1992) and Alexander Dugin. I have written about Dugin in a previous post. Jane Burbank has written an essay about this as "The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War."
The Eurasianists see the emergence of a bipolar geopolitical battle in which the opponent of a Russian Eurasia will be the "Atlantic" world led by the United States. The "Atlantic" is Dugin's term for the modern liberal democracies around the North Atlantic--the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe.
This is a moral and metaphysical battle. On the one side, the Atlantic world stands for the decadent values of liberal modernity--atomistic individualism, rootless cosmopolitanism, bourgeois consumerism, and soulless secularism (Nietzsche's "Last Man"). On the other side, Russian Eurasianism stands for the noble values of illiberal traditionalism--family life, patriotic nationalism, manly militarism, and transcendent spirituality (Nietzsche's New Nobility). This explains why many traditionalist conservatives in the West support Putin as a defender of the "traditional values" of Christianity against the moral decadence of Western liberalism.
Putin's conception of the Eurasian Empire embraces both the Russakaya ideya of the ethnic and Orthodox Russian people and the Rossiyskaya ideya of the multiethnic and multireligious Russian people, so that the apparent contradiction between these two ideas is resolved by combining the two in the larger idea of Eurasia. Throughout his twenty-two years of power, Putin has been obsessed with the need for a unifying vision of Imperial Russia that overcomes the disintegrating effects of ethnic and religious divisions.
In a January 2012 article, Putin wrote about "Russia: The National Question" and said:
"I am convinced that the attempts to preach the idea of a 'national' or monoethnic Russian state contradict our thousand-year history [that is, the history from 'ancient Rus' to the present]. Moreover, this is a shortcut to destroying the Russian people and Russian statehood, and for that matter any viable, sovereign statehood on the planet. . . . As for the notorious concept of self-determination, a slogan used by all kinds of politicians who have fought for power and geopolitical dividends, from Vladimir Lenin to Woodrow Wilson, the Russian people made their choice long ago. The self-determination of the Russian people is to be a multiethnic civilization with Russian culture as its core. The Russian people have confirmed their choice time and time again during their thousand-year history--with their blood, not through plebiscites or referendums."
A few months after this article appeared, a member of the Russian Duma suggested to Putin that the preamble to the Russian constitution be changed from beginning with "We the multinational people [narod] of Russia," to "We the [ethnic] Russian [russkiy] people and the people who have joined with it." Putin vehemently rejected this by saying:
"Do you understand what we would do [if we did that]? Part of our society would consist of first-class people and part would be second class. We must not do that if you and I want to have a strong single nation, a single people [narod], if we want each person who lives on the territory of the country to feel that this is their homeland, and that there is no other homeland, nor can there be one. And if we want each person to feel like that, then we have to be equal. This is the principal question. The fact that the [ethnic] Russian [russkiy] people are--without a doubt--the backbone, the fundament, the cement of the multiethnic Russian [rossiyskiy] people cannot be questioned. . . . But to divide everyone up into first, second, third categories, you know, this is a very dangerous path. You and I, all of us, must not do this."
An independent Ukrainian people is the great obstacle to achieving this Eurasian Russian people. In 1927, Trubetzkoy wrote an article on "The Ukrainian Problem," arguing that Ukrainian culture was an "individualization of all-Russian culture," and that the Ukrainian people should be assimilated into the Russian people based on their shared Orthodox faith. That's exactly Putin's argument for justifying the invasion. Similarly, in 1997, Dugin said that Ukrainian sovereignty created a "huge danger to all of Eurasia." To unite a Eurasian Russia, Ukraine had to become "a purely administrative sector of the Russian centralized state." As President Zelensky said in his recent speech to the Israeli Knesset, Putin sees his invasion of Ukraine as the "final solution" to the "Ukrainian problem."
THE UKRAINIANS "APPEAL TO HEAVEN"--THE NEW BATTLE OF THE DNEIPER RIVER
When the Russians invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainians could have submitted by not showing any resistance, by surrendering. The Ukrainian people would thus have consented, if not expressly at least tacitly, to Russian rule over them. But most of them chose either to flee the country or to stay and fight, even though the Russians seemed to have superior military power. The Ukrainians chose what John Locke called "the appeal to Heaven."
Locke's "appeal to Heaven" is his answer to what he takes to be the ultimate question in political disputes--"Who shall be judge?" This is the question when there is an irresolvable debate over whether political power has been right used or not. Locke's answer comes from the Biblical story of Jeptha (in Judges, chapter 11). In the conflict between the people of Israel and the Ammonites, Jeptha is selected by the people to be their chief and war leader. He negotiates with the Ammonites. But then this negotiation fails to reach an agreement, Jeptha declares, "Let Yahweh the Judge give judgment today." That divine judgment will come through war. He's appealing to the God of Battles. That's what Locke means by the "appeal to Heaven" when there is no "appeal on Earth." (See First Treatise, para. 163; and Second Treatise, para. 21, 109, 155, 168, 176, 232, 240-43.) As far as I can tell, this phrase "appeal to Heaven" is Locke's. It doesn't appear in the Bible.
The influence of this Lockean idea in the American Revolution was vividly displayed in the design of what apparently was the first flag of the American navy in 1775--perhaps commissioned by General Washington--which had an evergreen tree of liberty against a white background and the motto "Appeal to Heaven."
Locke's "appeal to Heaven" shows a natural human inclination to violent resistance to attack or exploitation that is fundamental for classical liberalism. As a manifestation of Darwinian natural right, this can be explained as rooted in an evolved animal disposition to aggressive retaliation against attacks, which arises in human beings as a natural propensity to vengeance against injustice. Human beings can use their unique capacities for language and conceptual reasoning to express this natural propensity through abstract principles of justice, but these abstract principles are ultimately rooted in this evolved animal tendency to self-protection.
Human social and political evolution has brought a general decline in violence (as Steven Pinker has shown). But that decline in violence can never bring perpetual peace (contrary to the hopes of utopian pacificists), because the enforcement of the liberal norm of voluntary peaceful cooperation will always depend on the threat or use of force against those who would violate that norm. That's what we are seeing in Ukraine and around the world in the punishing resistance to Putin's aggression.
This suggests that if it is rightly understood, it's really true that might makes right. The threat or use of violent vengeance is the ultimate natural restraint on injustice. This is what Locke means by "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural propensity of human beings to punish those who attack or threaten them. Natural rights emerge in human history as those conditions for human life and well-being that cannot be denied without eventually provoking a natural human tendency to violent resistance against attacks and exploitation.
For this reason, the history of Lockean liberalism has often turned on the history of warfare, both revolutionary and international warfare. So, for example, the Declaration of Independence was not just a declaration of Lockean principles of natural right but also a declaration of war, so that the practical success of those principles depended on the fortunes of war. Similarly, the American debate over the justice of slavery was finally settled by the bloodiest war in American history. And the establishment of the liberal international order after World War Two depended on the defeat of Nazi Germany in the war.
We have seen that in the Ukrainian resistance to conquest--not only today in their resistance to the Russian occupation of their country, but also in 1943 in their resistance to Nazi occupation. In 1943, the Battle of the Dneiper River was one of the biggest and decisive military campaigns of World War II, involving almost four million troops. The Dneiper (or Dnipro) River is one of the longest rivers in Europe, and it flows through Kyiv and the middle of Ukraine, dividing the east bank region from the west bank. By the middle of 1943, the Germans were in full retreat on the Eastern Front, falling back from the attack of the Red Army. The German troops had retreated from Russia to the Dneiper. Beginning on August 26, the Red Army launched a campaign to take the eastern bank and then cross to the western bank, knowing that if they did that, it would be a turning point in the war against Germany. As the Red Army moved through the villages, cities, and countryside where the Germans had brutally killed and tortured innocent people, the Red Army soldiers became ever more aroused to vengeful retaliation to punish the Germans. The Red Army crossed the Dnieper in early October and then liberated Kyiv on November 6.
On November 7, the day after the Germans had been expelled from Kyiv, Leo Strauss delivered a public lecture in New York City as part of a public session on "The Re-education of Axis Countries Concerning the Jews" at the annual meeting of the Conference on Jewish Relations. Strauss said that any talk about the need for "re-educating" the Germans was mistaken if this implied that the Nazis had "educated" them in the pretended theoretical doctrines of Nazism--about the rule of "the master race"--which would suggest that these doctrines should be taken seriously. In fact, Strauss observed, these Nazi doctrines were nothing more than "pedantic follies."
Strauss said that the only Nazi doctrine that was persuasive with the Germans was the claim that Nazi arms would win a short and decisive war that would give Germany global dominance that would solve all German problems and satisfy the needs of the German people. And this would be possible because the Nazi leaders--under "the most efficient man in the land"--would be Machiavellian in being unconstrained by any moral considerations and consequently free to use all of the brutal means necessary for fighting a successful war. According to Strauss, the Nazis assumed that the "moralistic countries" would be defeated by an utterly immoral country. The Nazis would thus prove the Nazi doctrine "that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetuated crime pays."
Strauss claimed that that Nazi doctrine is "subject to the test of sense-experience," because we can see with our own eyes whether immoral warfare is victorious or not on the battlefield. And so the defeat of the Nazis in World War Two is "the refutation of the Nazi doctrine." Therefore, Strauss observed, "the re-education of Germany will not take place in classrooms: it is taking place right now in the open air on the banks of the Dnieper."
Strauss also explained that this re-education of Germany would be consummated by a meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin, and then the Western and Eastern occupying forces would bring the German leaders to trial for war crimes. He was anticipating what became the Nuremburg war crimes trials that began in November of 1945, acting under international law and the laws of war. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels escaped this punishment by committing suicide in the spring of 1945 before they were captured. This outcome of the war would prove the Nazi doctrine wrong by proving that "large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime" does not pay. But this lesson in the legal rule of just punishment had to be preceded by the lesson taught by the meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin.
Notice that to refute the Nazi doctrine of the immoral rule of the stronger over the weaker, Strauss suggests, we cannot appeal to some transcendent standard of right set by God, Nature, or Reason. Rather, we must appeal to "the test of sense-experience" by seeing that "moralistic countries" can defeat immoral countries in war as an exercise of Locke's "executive power of the law of nature" to punish those who violate that law by an "appeal to Heaven."
In this way, might does make right.
We can see this in Ukraine today--in another Battle of the Dnieper. As Francis Fukuyama has recently said: "A Russian defeat will make possible a 'new birth of freedom,' and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians."
I have elaborated some of these points in previous posts here, here, and here.