How Can Ukraine Be Victorious While Valuing Human Life?

Protecting lives by deploying mortal technology is a legitimate course for democracies

11 October 2023

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Russia’s assault on Ukraine is a struggle between respect for human lives and Russia’s disregard for them, turning this conflict into a universal battle, the winner of which will shape the global world order for the decades to come.

A recently published memoir of a Ukrainian-born Soviet writer, Anatoliy Dimarov, “Live through and Tell” (Prozhyty I rozpovisty) contains, among many important stories, an account of one conversation with a Soviet colonel on a train.

The colonel was sharing his recollections of World War Two and suddenly used a word to designate the Soviet army soldiers, his subordinates, as karandashy –  “pencils” in Russian.

“I never had any pity towards these pencils,” he said.

The phrase he used – “ya nikogda ne zhalel,” – could also mean “I have never spared” the soldiers. The soldiers were thus designated as “pencils”, that is non-living objects whose loss one will most probably perceive with the utmost indifference.


Dehumanising not just enemies but your own is the Russian way 

Using “karandashy” for your own soldiers is a specific way to dehumanise them. It is not dehumanisation through demonisation: you are not saying that they are living creatures that threaten you or are disgusting insects that harm you and, therefore, should be killed. You are saying that they are not living creatures at all and never have been. You are saying that they are not deserving of love and respect but even hatred and disgust. The only emotion they can evoke is indifference.

Today, we see that attitude in the Russian army: an immense level of indifference to human lives, not only those of their enemies but also those of their own people. They send their own soldiers as “pencils” for storming actions, the so-called “meat storms”, with utmost indifference to whether any actually survive.

And here comes an important point.

An average Ukrainian today risks his or her life very frequently. If you are a civilian, you can be killed by a Russian missile or drone strike that takes place several times a week. If you are a soldier on the frontline, you are risking your life significantly more. And not only do you risk your life, you actually die.

Every day we are facing the news of someone’s friend, relative, former student, or neighbour who got killed. Who is no longer there, who cannot respond.

Ukraine today is a society of increased risk. A society in which security is never granted and is not even close to being guaranteed today. Ukraine has been seeking sustainable security (which is why it wants to join NATO so much), but does not have it.

There are two other models of approaching risk, however, which are structured completely differently. One is a model of Ukraine’s friends, mostly Western democracies. Another is the model of its enemy, Russia.

Risk reduction versus risk escalation 

The Western democracies, since WW2, were seeking to build a society in which risks would be substantially diminished. De-escalating and de-risking have become the key principles. This means the following task: increase the level of security and predictability while obtaining a sustainable model in which risks will go down.

This approach created a paradox: a futureless future. The current postmodern vision looks at the future as a continuation of the present. The way the Western world is looking at the future is profoundly anti-revolutionary. It believes that the future is not going through big ruptures and unexpected zigzags or u-turns. This makes a huge difference between today’s thinking and the thinking of the 19th or even 20th century, so much concentrated on the idea of revolution, an unpredictable and radical change.

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In this sense, modern democracies have lost the very idea of an unpredictable future. They moved away from a future that Machiavelli partially meant under the concept of fortuna. For this Renaissance politician, philosopher and poet, conquering the fortuna was the major task of his “prince”, il principe, and thus the essence of politics. An apt politician, “the prince”, should orient him- or herself on the unpredictable future and grasp the opportunity (when you can), survive the unexpected blows and win against the hurricane.

Thinking about an unpredictable future was also the core of Stoic philosophy in Ancient Greece or Rome: you should be prepared for unexpected deprivation and ultimately to lose what you have, including your life. Preparedness for a loss, for an unexpected painful tomorrow, is the key topic of Stoic thought. Contrary to it, post-World War Two thinking in the Western world was focused not on Stoic preparedness for the risk but on diminishing the risks.

Alternatively, Russia in recent years was structured according to a different logic. Its modus operandi was not to diminish risks but to increase them. During Putin’s era, Russia was gradually increasing risks for its adversaries and for itself. This increase was gradual but stable. Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015, Ukraine again in 2022 – and so many other cases as well.

Russian ideologues like Aleksander Dugin took this thinking from far-right thinkers like Carl Schmitt. According to Schmitt, a sovereign is a person (individual or collective) who is able to take risks and raise the stakes.

Means of destruction 

This explains why it is so difficult for people in the West to understand the Russian way of thinking today.

This thinking is not based upon the idea of a positive sum game (in which everybody should win, and I need to try to win more than others) but upon the idea of a negative sum game: one should enter a transaction in which everyone will certainly lose, but your task is to lose less than an opponent. It also explains why the Soviet Union – and Russia as its heir – was building a system of an inverted Marxism: instead of aiming to control the means of production, it tried to control the means of destruction and build an economy whose essence was the military-industrial complex. For the Russian inverted Marxism, the power was interpreted as the ownership of the means of destruction.

So we have three systems in this current war in Ukraine. A Russian system that aims to increase the risks for others and itself. A Western system that aims to decrease the risks for itself and others. And a Ukrainian system that would love to decrease risks for itself and others but is forced into a situation where it needs to face increasing risks.

When two systems collide, one aspiring to increase risk and one aspiring to decrease risk, the former has a bigger chance of winning. The major reason is sacrifice: the system which embraces risk can sacrifice a lot more people and resources than the one seeking security. As it is based upon dehumanising thinking and considers its citizens “pencils”, it easily sacrifices these “pencils” during a war of invasion.

The other system will be only able to win if it finds an alternative to sacrifice. This alternative is the art of war. This is why the art of war, from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, was primarily developed by people who felt they had fewer resources than their adversaries. Sun Tzu thought about cunningness as an alternative to force; Clausewitz thought about a synthesis between the army and the people as an alternative to Napoleon’s professional warriors.

Today, the art of war is strategy, but it is also technology. Democracies like Ukraine and its partners can win against autocracies like Russia only by avoiding massive human sacrifice. Saving lives is an important – or the most important – element of the equation in the art of war for democracies built upon the idea of dignity.

The true question is: how can a society focused on decreasing risks win against a society of increasing risks and raising stakes? Only by making and using technologies that can lead warfare more efficiently and save the lives of soldiers and civilians more reliably. Only if the art of war (including technological innovation) helps you deploy fewer people and save the lives of more people both on the frontline and in the rear.

The Ukrainian plea for weapons aims to save lives 

When Ukrainians address their partners with demands for more weapons, these demands should be taken through the lens of the key task: decrease the death toll of the Ukrainian citizen-soldiers and civilians through advanced technology and diminish the capacity of the Russian arms to kill people. The first objective is achieved with advanced technology (the army of drones, de-mining machines, high precision strikes against Russian weapons etc); the second through advanced defense systems and a more far-reaching sanctions regime.

This is not a war of Russia against Ukraine; this is a war of a system that massively sacrifices human lives (including of its own citizens) against a system that cherishes human lives. It depends on our common action which system will win. The system which will win this war, most probably, will set up rules for the next decades, both for the military world and the non-military world.

During WW2, democracies partially won; during the Cold War, they won more decisively. But there is no guarantee that they will win now unless they understand this battle also as the battle for their own existence. And for the survival of their own values, in which you will not call your soldier, your neighbour, your citizen, a “pencil”.


Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher, journalist and writer. He is the President of PEN Ukraine and the current Analytics director at Internews Ukraine, one of the largest and oldest Ukrainian media NGOs. He is also the Editor-in-chief of, a multimedia project in English about Ukraine and an Associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has been published in numerous outlets, such as The Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, New York Times, and Newsweek.

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