One of the striking features of the catastrophe in Ukraine is how unambiguously the principles of just war doctrine seem to apply. On the one hand, Russia’s invasion cannot be justified given the criteria of just war theory. On the other hand, NATO military action against Russia cannot be justified either. Here are the criteria for just military action as set out in section 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
At one and the same time:
– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– there must be serious prospects of success;
– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
End quote. I submit that Russia’s invasion clearly fails to meet the first, second, and fourth criteria, and NATO military action against Russia would clearly fail to meet the second, third, and fourth criteria.
The injustice of the invasion is obvious even given the most generous interpretation of Putin’s motives. Hence, suppose we conceded for the sake of argument that Russia has a legitimate interest in keeping Ukraine out of NATO. Suppose that, as some have argued, the United States and her allies have long been needlessly poking the bear, and that Russia would have been far less likely to invade Ukraine had they not done so. Even given those premises, it simply doesn’t follow that Ukraine is an “aggressor,” that Russia has suffered any “lasting, grave, and certain” damage from Ukraine, or that “all other means” of remedying Russia’s concerns “have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.” Nor is the extreme harm inflicted on innocent Ukrainians by war proportionate to whatever grievances Russia has. Hence Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be said to meet the first, second, and fourth criteria for a just war, and therefore is manifestly gravely unjust.
For that reason, military action to repel Russia’s invasion clearly is legitimate, and justice requires favoring the Ukrainian side in the war. In the abstract, support for Ukraine could include military action against Russia by any nation friendly to Ukraine. However, the justice of the cause of defending Ukraine fulfills only the first of the four criteria set out by the Catechism. What about the other three?
Putin has not-so-subtly threatened to use nuclear weapons if the United States or other NATO countries intervene militarily in the conflict. The realistic prospect of such extreme escalation makes it impossible for such intervention to meet the Catechism’s fourth criterion, which emphasizes that “the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” The use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, to which Russia might resort if NATO intervenes, would surely “produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Graver still would be a situation where Ukraine, other nearby NATO states, and Russia (as a result of NATO nuclear retaliation) were all attacked with nuclear weapons. And worst of all would be a scenario where what started out as a local war in Ukraine spiraled into an all-out global nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States.
Even a localized nuclear exchange would also render unlikely the fulfillment of the third condition for just war, viz. the “serious prospects of success.” If Russia uses nuclear weapons against Ukraine or NATO itself, would NATO countries really retaliate in kind? If they did not, it seems that Russian victory would be assured. But if they did retaliate in kind, it is very far from clear that this would not spiral into a conflict that no one could win. Nor can it be said that all the less extreme alternatives to NATO intervention have been exhausted, as the second criterion for just war requires.
It is therefore irresponsible in the extreme to suggest, as some have, that NATO impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would entail direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia. The problem is not just that this is foolish and reckless. The problem is that such escalation cannot be justified by just war criteria, and would therefore itself be gravely unjust. Any public authorities who take action that risks nuclear war – and thus the deaths of millions of innocent people – would be no less guilty of violating the moral principles governing war than Putin is.
Just war doctrine’s counsel to the United States and her NATO allies thus seems clear: Cheer Ukraine on and provide whatever assistance is possible consistent with avoiding the risk of a nuclear escalation. Otherwise, stay the hell out of it. Damon Linker seems to me to have the right idea: Putin’s actions must be unequivocally condemned and Ukraine supported, but Western policy should emphasize diplomacy, and work to create for Putin some feasible “off-ramp” from the path he has taken – rather than ratcheting up the rhetoric and entertaining reckless military scenarios and that can only make a nuclear confrontation more likely.
Now, you don’t need to be a Catholic or a natural law theorist to see all this. Indeed, I think that probably most people have arrived at more or less the same view of the crisis that I have been arguing for here. Yet there are some commentators who have rejected this view in favor of one extreme alternative or another – some downplaying the gravity of Putin’s evildoing, others reacting instead with excessive bellicosity and animus against all things Russian. What accounts for this?
The answer, I would suggest, has largely to do with the extreme partisanship that has in recent years led too many people to drag irrelevant preexisting grievances into every new controversy. When a crisis occurs, partisans succumb to the temptation to fit it into some general background narrative that explains “what is really going on” in terms of the machinations of evil forces on the opposite political extreme from the one they favor. The Manichean ideologies that have gained influence on both sides of the political spectrum in recent years exacerbate this “narrative thinking,” as does the strong propensity of social media to foster irrational habits of thought.
Hence, consider the strange new belligerence to be found today in some liberal circles. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, it was still routine to fling against conservatives the longstanding accusations that they were prone to demonize Russia, were paranoid about Russian influence within American institutions, were eager to get into armed conflict with the “Russkies,” were frighteningly glib about the survivability of limited nuclear war, and were inclined to resort to McCarthyite tactics and charges of treason against anyone who objected to all of this. These accusations were made despite the fact that Russia had recently invaded Afghanistan – not to mention the earlier invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or all the proxy wars Russia was engaged in throughout the Cold War. None of this, in liberal eyes, justified right-wing anti-Russian bellicosity or paranoia.
Yet now it is liberals who are most prone to exhibit exactly these traits they once attributed to conservatives. What accounts for this bizarre reversal? I would submit that it has to do, in part, with Putin’s predilection for traditionalist Christian and anti-LGBT rhetoric (as Richard Hanania has pointed out), and in part with persistent left-wing attachment to fantasies about Russian interference with American elections. These factors had already transformed Putin into a bogeyman in the liberal imagination, so that his immoral invasion of Ukraine has made it seem justifiable to some to risk even nuclear war in order to destroy him.
And it is, I would suggest, overreaction to these liberal excesses that has led some on the opposite extreme end of the political spectrum to refuse to face up to the full gravity of the evil that Putin has done. They have been tempted by the thought that if liberals hate Putin with such intensity, he can’t be that bad, and that opposition to his invasion must therefore have something essentially to do with the Great Reset, the woke agenda, the Covid healthcare dictatorship, etc. etc.
This is all bonkers. The key facts to keep firmly before one’s mind are (a) that Putin’s invasion is unjustifiable, has caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent people so far and will almost certainly result in thousands more, and maybe worse, and (b) that NATO military engagement with Russia would entail a serious risk of nuclear war and therefore cannot be justified. Longstanding political obsessions cannot alter these facts, but only blind us to them.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with his kind permission.)
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