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Russia’s War In Ukraine Meets ‘Just War’ Theory

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A soldier aims an AT-4 Spigot (9K111 Fagot) anti-tank guided missile.

Russia’s Attack on Ukraine – What Does Just War Theory Offer on this Conflict?  – Wars are always destructive, and thus the politics and morality of war is always in question. It is rare in recent times, however, that an invasion has proceeded with so little concern for justice and morality as the Russian attack on Ukraine.

The principles of modern just war theory developed out of Catholic theories of just war that developed from late antiquity until the early modern period. Thinkers such as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others in between needed to develop a way of understanding why wars happened between Christian princes, and a means for evaluating the claims to justice that these princes made. They drew upon the ancients (both Thucydides and Cicero give extensive, if contradictory, accounts of the relationship between war and justice), upon contemporary Christian ethics, and upon centuries of European military experience.

Just war theory distinguishes between jus ad bellum (how to judge the justice of a war), and jus in bello (how to judge behavior during a war. The most important modern text (often used in foreign policy and professional military education (PME) programs) is Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Walzer has been criticized for giving too much credence and latitude to Israel’s just war claims, but his book nevertheless remains an important contemporary touchstone for thinking about the justice of war. To be sure this represents only one tradition of the just war; just war principles are different in the Islamic world, were different in ancient Greece, and have historically been subject to considerable local modification. Nevertheless, this body of thought has generally guided ethicists of war in the West and has, to some degree, guided the development of the Law of Armed Conflict.

And so what to say about Russia and Ukraine? Colgate University professor and political theorist Dr. Valeerie Morkevicius has worked through Russia’s just war case in some detail. A claim that a war is “just” must be measured by six criteria:

“Having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used.”

As Dr. Morkevicius notes, Russia probably passes the “legitimate authority” test, as while contemporary understandings of this requirement have tended to want authorization from an international organization (the UN Security Council, for example), a historically situated understanding acknowledges President Putin as a legitimate authority.

Russia’s claim to just cause rests on the idea that Ukraine poses an immediate military security threat, that Ukraine is conducting genocide against Russians within its territory, and that Ukraine is an illegitimate political entity. All of these claims are absurd to the point of being ridiculous; no reliable observers have reported genocide, any direct military threat to Russia is decades away, and Moscow has maintained diplomatic relations with Kyiv for three decades.

Given the lack of a just cause, Russia fails the proportionality test almost by default; the thousands of soldiers and civilians on each side do not represent a cost proportionate to Russia’s complete lack of moral justification for war. Similarly, Russia is obviously in breach of the “last resort” requirement; Ukraine has not entered NATO and does not yet represent a threat, meaning that Russia has plenty of time to allow diplomacy to work.  Finally, while a “reasonable chance of success” is debatable, the assault carries enormous risks for Russia, including the threat of a revitalized (and potentially larger) NATO.

Let there be no doubt: Russia has launched an unjust and illegal war against Ukraine. This is not a near case; it is on the terms of just war theory less compelling even than the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which was viewed as deeply problematic by most legal and scholarly authorities.  The final corollary to this is that, given the demands of just war, it is literally impossible for a country to be “forced” into launching an unjust war. This should give Westerners seeking to excuse Putin’s behavior as the result of NATO expansion some pause.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Bankotsu

    February 25, 2022 at 8:15 am

    Less compelling than 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq over WMDs? You joking bro? The reasons given for that war was seen as total joke by rest of the world.

  2. FRAZIER STALL

    February 25, 2022 at 8:59 am

    One leader in the past said of USA: The Americans’re very arrogant;they’ll act unreasonably at every turn. If they suddenly became reasonable, it’s because they had no choice.”

    Putin took 8 years to recognize the Donbass freedom republics. He warned the west on March 1 2018: “Listen to us now.” (4 years ago.)

    Has USA listened or behaved reasonably or give a thought to the consequences ? Of course not, being too simply over arrogant as it has the most powerful military in world with a footprint on every continent.

    Thus this battle is a JUST one, to denazify the kyivv regime and to tell NATO & US – behave reasonably because we are ready to use NUKES.

    Biden listening ? No, since his addled brain is affected by early stage dementia AND deep state ruling cabal happy to play along. Biden says not planning to send troops to fight in ukraine BUT who believes this man with addled brain ? Mr Lucifer himself ??? Yeah !

  3. Alex

    February 25, 2022 at 9:04 am

    Pentagon and CIA advisers taught the Ukrainian military to place artillery in residential areas in order to provoke the enemy to fire on local residents.
    The leadership of Ukraine uses the methods of terrorists and wants to use Ukrainians as a human shield.
    The corresponding videos are posted by residents of Kiev.

  4. Slack

    February 25, 2022 at 9:20 am

    The ruthless winner-wants-all, winner-takes-all stance adopted by NATO (the tripartite pact of today) is a very serious threat to peace and prosperity on our planet.

    I’ve always thought it
    totally and absolutely necessary for countries with a bullseye painted on them by US to develop and possess neutron nuke weaponry.

    Now, seems that neutron
    warheads are not even enough or totally inadequate, one needs space-based weapon systems, too, like space gliders, FOBS warheads, spaceplanes and hypersonic unmanned craft.

    Remember, the meek shall inherit the earth, but the meek must first possess the means to inherit it.

  5. Jimmy John Doe

    February 25, 2022 at 10:24 am

    In this ongoing conflict, Russia must go for the jugular and finish off the Ukrainian national army so that it will have peace for the next thirty years. And freedom from NATO threat.

    There must be no let up until the head has been separated from the neck, so to speak.

  6. Michael

    February 25, 2022 at 3:44 pm

    I am curious if the writer is aware that there’s an apparently plausible claim that the US has several bio-weapons sites in Ukraine. If this is true, does it not tilt the morality of the war at least somewhat in Russia’s favor?

  7. Zivien

    February 25, 2022 at 6:29 pm

    Putin claiming the need to “de-Nazify” is such an amazing lie that it alone pretty much makes the Russian aggression a huge joke.
    “Genocide”? Are you kidding us? Vlad is on drugs and I am not talking a Viagra here. The dude is simply lying the big lie, a la Goebbels.

  8. Alex

    February 25, 2022 at 10:50 pm

    The genocide in the east of Ukraine can only be overlooked by the blind or those who seek profit from the war in Europe.

  9. Donald Link

    February 26, 2022 at 11:04 am

    I am amazed that so many are willing to ask Ukraine to sacrifice its existence so that they can avoid the Russian Wolf. History has shown that these people will be the last to be thrown off the sleigh but but that will avail them no peace or security.

  10. A non-mouse

    March 2, 2022 at 9:39 am

    Those claiming there is genocide: what is your evidence? Back that up or stop repeating unsubstantiated claims.

  11. A non-mouse

    March 2, 2022 at 11:34 am

    Also, certainly, I currently hold that this war is unjust. However, I would like just war theorists to factor in the geopolitical dimension. In 2014, America was involved in and possibly engineered the Euromaidan protests. This was meant to loosen Russia’s hold over Ukraine and transfer the country to the American Empire. This should be seen as Russia’s motivation to begin the war in 2014. In other words, we cannot hope to make a thorough evaluation of the justice of this war without factoring in geopolitical realities like the competition between American imperial hegemony and Russian desire for security and perhaps imperial claims.

    So while it might be true that Ukraine does not pose a military threat now, the mere fact that it has been practically annexed by the American Empire and now resides in the American sphere of influence already transforms it into a country that is politically aligned with a Russian rival. It opens the door to the future strategic power not of Ukraine per se, but America through Ukraine. In that sense, we might begin to frame this conflict in terms of preemptive war. Once America establishes a solid foothold in Ukraine, perhaps even by adding Ukraine to NATO, it will be near impossible for Russia to push back, and certainly impossible if Ukraine were to join NATO.

    America has been waging disastrous wars all over the world for some time. Just in the lat 20 years we see a path of unprovoked destruction and death that has not received this degree of condemnation. Americans should also challenge the moral high ground they believe they unconditionally have. Was Iraq not a war crime? A million dead and a country in ruins and a war and occupation justified by the lie that Hussein has WMDs.

  12. Pat Smith

    March 28, 2022 at 7:58 pm

    Historical Russian claims and desires for buffer zones supposedly discussed post “fall of the wall 1989” with assurances that NATO would not expand and encroach on Russian borders? Little deterrent effects in place under weak American regime managed by illegitimate figureheads. When a power vacuum, chaos provides opportunity so Russia goes now, not during Trumpish times. National security is prioritized in “realpolik’ times, which the world forgot, wished away after twenty years of swatting jihadi terrorist mosquitoes. No innocent political actors here; the Russian oligarchs versus the Ukrainian oligarchs(and Biden Burisma Partners), and apparently, but not transparently a whole lot of Ukrainian “Wuhan like” biolabs somehow funded by somebody. Blow the whistle for a time out; let people, soft targets, retreat and get assistance, stop the sabre rattling American MinCh-Mumbler in Chief, slojo, and ask everyone to take two steps back. No Just War spirit or actions by political actors involved. Nation state politics when no enforcement mechanisms preventing bullying from all sides. Weakest global and national leadership since WW1.

  13. Dave Clennon

    May 7, 2022 at 5:19 am

    Remarkable lack of intellectual integrity, or even scholarly thoroughness in Farley’s analysis. Neither he nor Dr. Morkevicius addresses two key issues: (A) President Putin stated the goal of de-nazification. The widespread presence of Neo-Nazis, fascists and ultra-Ukraine nationalists throughout the Ukrainian military is well-established (see, for example, Azov Battalion, the Right Sector, Patriot of Ukraine, the extremist Social National Assembly and C-14). In addition to their presence in the official military of Ukraine, the Nazis, fascists and Ukrainian ethnic supremacists have heavily armed and trained militias, ready to do battle with Russian forces. (B) Ukraine does not hold official membership in NATO, but NATO armed forces have had an extensive presence in Ukraine, with NATO arming and training Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s government has willingly become a de facto military base of the US & NATO.

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