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Ukraine and Questions of Just War


People stand near newly made graves at a cemetery outside of Mariupol, Ukraine, May 22, 2022, during the Ukraine-Russia conflict. (CNS photo/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters)

In 1845, President James K. Polk sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico City to offer $30 million for New Mexico, California, and other territories north of the Rio Grande. Mexico refused the offer. A frustrated Polk sent troops to Texas in 1846 to provoke the Mexicans into war. It worked. Mexican troops fired on the Americans, and Congress delivered a declaration of war. Several decades later, Ulysses S. Grant wrote the war was “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine poses similar questions of just war, but like every European entanglement with many actors, the number of questions bewilders.

Who’s on first?

The politics and history of Russia and central Europe are complicated and hard to grasp. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, violent conflicts have plagued the region. The convoluted history suggests that Mark Twain is on target with a quip attributed to him: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

The Kremlin has a centuries-long history of conflict and repression of Chechens, who are particularly defiant. Chechnya immediately declared its independence in 1991. Russian forces tried to regain control over Chechnya. The Russians declared a ceasefire in 1996 when Russian forces bogged down and later signed a peace treaty.

The Russians soon waged a second war in 1999, destroyed central Grozny with tactical ballistic missiles, and recaptured it. In 2004, Russia assassinated its first democratically elected president (although conflicting stories remain). Russia ended its operations and pulled out most of its army several years later.

South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia. Secessionists demanded independence or unification with North Ossetia, located in Russia, although the international community recognizes it as part of Georgia. The Georgian-Ossetian conflict remains unresolved.

During the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, President George W. Bush campaigned to offer NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine. Russian President Putin said that NATO’s enlargement towards Russia “would be taken in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country.” Russian military action in August 2008 concluded with the Russian occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In 2014, with the support of the majority Russian-speaking population, Russia formally incorporated Crimea, giving Russia further access to the Black Sea. Russia also supported pro-Russian insurgents in Donbas, the eastern portion of Ukraine. The war escalated in 2014. In 2015, Russia and Ukraine agreed to an uneasy ceasefire. In 2021, Russia massed troops on its border with Ukraine, and in early 2022, Russia invaded the country.

Until the invasion, successive U.S. Administrations did little in response to Putin’s serial aggressive moves. Russia suffered no punishment for several assassinations conducted against opposition figures abroad.

Does the West—the U.S., European nations, and the NATO alliance—have a moral obligation to enter the hostilities? How should the U.S. proceed?

(Note: A Catholic priest exercising his priestly ministry as he ponders his country’s war-making is best suited to remind political authorities of just war principles as he leaves the prudential judgments to the proper authorities. However, a priest has a right to express views as an American, provided he doesn’t compromise his religious teaching authority by equating his prudential judgments with Church teaching.)

A summary of just war doctrine

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time [for a country to engage legitimately in war against another nation]:

  • 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.
  • These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. (CCC 2309)

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. (CCC 1897)

Within the context of a war:

  • The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties. (CCC 2312)
  • Noncombatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. (CCC 2313)
  • Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
  • “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”
  • A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons – especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes. (CCC 2314)

The Russian narrative

The Russians believe the U.S. and NATO are increasingly belligerent and aggressive in expanding their membership and mission. The Russian attack on Ukraine was pre-emptive with a defensive purpose. Russia must not allow NATO to use Ukraine to deploy threatening weapons (jargon aside, most “defensive” weapons can quickly become “offensive” weapons) for the same reason the U.S. would not allow Russia to arm Mexico. The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates the extent a nation like the U.S. is willing to go to defend itself. Russia is no different. Russia is also reclaiming Russian territory that, historically, they believe is rightfully theirs. Russia also must protect populations with high concentrations of ethnic Russians.

The U.S. misled Russia. In the early 1990s, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev that the West would not move “one inch eastward” with NATO expansion. But verbal assurances are not treaties, and NATO continued to expand. Ukraine is America’s proxy for aggression with U.S. military and financial support.

Over repeated Russian protests, NATO and the European Union posed a “grave, lasting, and certain” threat to Russian security that justified a pre-emptive strike. The Russian military is superior to that of Ukraine. A victory would guarantee the long-term sovereignty of Russia despite the human and material costs of war.

So goes the Russian justification of the war, as seen from Moscow.

Ukraine

Ukraine is a sovereign representative democratic republic with a multi-party system, with the President and Cabinet of Ministers exercising executive power. Legislative power is vested in Ukraine’s parliament. The Ukraine population of the vast western portion of the country favors closer European Union ties. Swaths of eastern Ukraine – Donbas, and Crimea – are predominantly Russian-speaking.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (following its effective annexation of Crimea in 2014) represents a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia’s aggression is grave and certain. However, given Russia’s military superiority, the prospects for successful resistance are far from certain without outside military and sending financial help to Ukraine.

The European Union

In some ways, European fears are similar to Russian fears. Just as Russia fears hostile encirclement by NATO, the Europeans also fear Russian expansion and the annexation of the Baltic States and even Poland.  The Polish prime minister recently said Vladimir Putin is “more dangerous than Hitler or Stalin.”

Moves to restore the old Soviet Union would gravely damage the community of nations. Some analysts argue Russia’s fear of encirclement is fraudulent and disguises its desire for expansion. Others suggest that Russia’s military is relatively weak and unsophisticated, although its arsenal of nuclear weapons is ominous. Hence, the Russians cannot sustain further expansion without a reckless and self-defeating threat of the first use of nuclear weapons.

Europeans must consider whether their military intervention will produce evils and disorders more terrible than Russia’s occupation of a portion of Ukraine.

The predominant U.S. narrative

The prevalent U.S. narrative is straightforward. Russia’s war on Ukraine is unprovoked and unjustified. Russian indiscriminate attacks on population centers are criminal. Putin’s aggression violates the “new world order” that requires inviolable national boundaries (except presumably, Africa – and the U.S. southern border) and the promotion of democracy. Russian gains in Ukraine will encourage them to threaten the Baltics, Poland, and even the Balkans.

Hence, the U.S. has a strategic interest in assisting Ukraine with funds, weapons, and intelligence. The Russians should expect the U.S. to send top-quality weapon systems to Ukraine. Russian aggression justifies American intelligence-sharing that presumably sank a Russian flagship and helped kill several Russian generals. Covert action to accomplish the overthrow of Putin is also justified. NATO has not yet sent troops or air support. (Almost certainly, American clandestine advisors are already engaged; we have helped train Ukrainian forces since 2014.)

Nearly the entire American ruling class favors supporting Ukraine with humanitarian relief, military aid, and billions of dollars of economic assistance, encouraging Ukrainians to fight to their last drop of blood. The Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently said, “I think we all agree the most important thing going on in the world right now is the war in Ukraine.”

Congress increased President Biden’s request for $33 billion in aid to $40 billion, adding to an already massive national debt. Senator McConnell explained, “Aid for Ukraine goes far beyond charity. The future of America’s security and core strategic interests will be shaped by the outcome of this fight.” The Senate overwhelmingly passed the appropriation, on a vote of 86-11.

For the most part, Democrats, Republicans, corporatists, political and intelligence community elites, and Hollywood support the American intervention allowing for little or no dissent. Apologists brand dissenters as either Putin stooges, isolationists, or insensitive to the sufferings of Ukrainians.

NATO

According to the NATO website, “the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union.” As the preeminent member of the Alliance, the U.S. protected a vulnerable Europe with its nuclear umbrella and military might during the Cold War.

The site adds the Alliance’s creation was also “part of a broader effort to serve three purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.”

(Did NATO indeed envision this array of potential diplomatic and military entanglements, or did the Alliance give into mission creep?)

An official NATO military mission has yet to materialize in response to the Russian invasion, although coordination among Alliance members is ongoing.

The invasion has accelerated interest in NATO. Sweden and Finland recently applied for membership. The U.S. nuclear umbrella has expanded to include the likelihood of billions of U.S. military and financial aid if needed.

Emerging dissident (originalist?) American perspectives

A small minority of prominent Americans – including U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance – dismiss the conventional wisdom and hold that the war in Ukraine is not our war.  The war in Ukraine is a European problem, and Europeans with Russia should solve it. America has too many of its own troubles, including a porous border, an opioid crisis killing 100,000+ Americans annually, and a crushing national debt. The incursion of illegal aliens – many of whom are “mules” delivering illegal drugs – violates our national integrity. The number of deaths exceeds those resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is a significant difference. In America, the suffering underclass remains hidden from the media spotlight.

The complex European geopolitical tribulations are beyond the understanding of most Americans. How many Americans – including foreign policy specialists – grasp the intricacies of European geopolitics? American interventions are like a policeman knocking on a door of a domestic dispute. The antagonists often turn their wrath on the policeman. In the Middle East, Shiite and Sunni Muslims hate each other. After the two American invasions of Iraq, the U.S. emerged as their common enemy.

The military might and economic strength of the U.S. are waning. The Europeans use NATO as a tripwire for massive American military intervention while falling short of agreed-upon criteria in funding their own defense. It’s time for the Europeans to take control of their destiny without the U.S. military and financial ATM.

Further, ordinary Russian-speaking Ukrainians will be no worse off under the Russian oligarchs than under Ukrainian oligarchs. Why risk a protracted bloody, economically debilitating conflict? Why push Russia into the arms of the Chinese and risk nuclear war and WWIII? Americans should spend more time tending to their own history, geography, economy, and culture.

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil eliminated. Our response to the war drives Putin toward a stronger alliance with China at a time when China is the greatest threat to our interests. We should be working to move Russia closer to us and further from China.

The history of American foreign interventions over the last thirty years is dismal. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan failed after the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. America has a strong military, but a consistently inept geopolitical strategy that emphasizes American military strength overemphasizes democratic ideals and fails to acknowledge the disruptions associated with American political and economic hegemony.

Or so goes these alternative minority views.

George Kennan’s Prophecies

The minority views are not necessarily “Putin talking points.” In part, they echo the warnings of one of America’s most esteemed anti-Soviet cold warriors. In an interview in the late 1990s, the elderly American diplomat and statesman George Kennan (the father of the American “containment” policy of the Soviets during the Cold War) called the expansion “a fateful error.” He explained:

I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely, and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.

George Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101.

Constitutional and spending questions

Determining the moral legitimacy of going to war based on the evaluation of the conditions belongs to the prudential judgment of those responsible for the common good. Some insist America should not engage in acts of war without a Congressional declaration of war, as the Constitution requires. Congressional resolutions evade Constitutional responsibility and disassociate American citizens from the decisions of the ruling elites. As some said during the Vietnam War, “Declare war or get out!”

Meanwhile, many on the Hill seek to strengthen Congress’s Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) legislation. Similarly, the nation should not negotiate or modify treaties without Senate ratification. Abiding by the Constitution in the U.S. democratic republic provides voters more of a say in war-making powers.

Some worry about America feeding the beast of international financial corruption. Senator Rand Paul – the Don Quixote of fiscal responsibility in the Senate – temporarily stalled a massive $40 billion* spending package. His demand for the appointment of an inspector general to follow the vast amounts of money into Ukraine may be the recipe to prevent massive financial corruption.

(*Context: In 2021, the German government spent $56 billion on the military. The United States had the highest military spending in 2021, with $801 billion dedicated to the military.)

The role of the media

The media – reflecting the predominant Western narrative – depict the Russian invasion as brutal, inept, blundering, and destined for failure, with Ukraine President Zelensky emerging as another Winston Churchill. Ukrainians have successfully repulsed the Russian attempted siege of Kiev (impressive, if that was a Russian priority).

Disinformation – lies – undermine confidence in official reports. Ukrainian military historian Mikhail Zhirohov explains, “It’s essential to have this propaganda [the fabricated hero-pilot Ghost of Kyiv], because our armed forces are smaller, and many think we can’t be equal to [the Russians]. We need this in wartime.” How much wishful thinking comprises a recent report by Ukraine’s head of military intelligence that a Russian coup will remove Putin by year-end? Moscow’s reporting is similarly suspect.

Adversaries have practiced Information Warfare since time immemorial. The propaganda flyers dropped from planes or planted Intel on dead bodies (Operation Mincemeat by the Brits in WWII misdirected the German military’s attention away from the Allied Invasion of Sicily) are now Twitter bots and YouTube videos. The media should expect PSYOPS and strive to report only facts.

The heralded Ukrainian victories (all over YouTube) call into question the motives for Finnish and Swedish plans to join NATO. If the Bear is inept, why provoke him further by expanding NATO? Do the requests reflect realistic national interests, with lingering worries about Russian motives? Did the surprising (but not unprecedented – see above) Russian failures on the battlefield (to date) fuel expectations that advanced weapons and technology will have a significant deterrent value? Or did the U.S. use financial pressure to enlist them? Will the Swedish and Finnish declarations to join NATO hinder any possibility of a negotiated settlement? Is NATO slamming the door on a face-saving agreement for Putin?

War brutality

The brutality of Russian tactics relates primarily to its arsenal of conventional weapons and a shortage of smart bombs. The Russians employ WWII tactics of surrounding, bombarding, and occupying (as in Grozny). So-called “collateral damage” is similar to that inflicted by the U.S. on enemies in their wars, especially before the era of smart weapons.

Are there atrocities taking place in Ukraine? Most likely. Are they all committed by Russians? Most unlikely. There are sober reports about the brutality of Ukrainian paramilitary groups in Crimea/Donbas and their affinity for the Nazis. We don’t know where the truth lies.

The likelihood of wartime atrocities bolsters the moral presumption against war. Just war principles – not present-minded impositions – remain the criteria to measure acts of war.

The status of diplomatic negotiations

The West rejects Russian concerns as “Putin talking points” without refutation. At least publicly, the Biden team is not aggressively pursuing a negotiated settlement. Former diplomat John Quigley, with experience in the region, laments, “The Biden administration has shown little interest in knocking heads together to bring an end to the war. It has framed the conflict in apocalyptic terms as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.”

Others insist that Putin has rebuffed diplomatic overtures, believing he will win. In a new form of nuclear brinkmanship, the reluctance suggests that both sides (if true) favor a protracted and punitive conflict despite the threat of nuclear war.

In 1994, Quigley represented the U.S. as “an expert on constitutional matters” for “The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe” (later re-named Organization on Security and Co-operation in Europe). Recognizing Crimea/Russian history, Quigley devised a plan for autonomy for Crimea that he envisioned as a treaty between Crimea and Ukraine. He included international supervision by the CSCE. The Ukrainian government would not abide by international oversight and cracked down on the Crimean Republic. The conflict remained unresolved until the annexation by Russia in 2014.

Some Americans recognize U.S. complicity in provoking Russia and hope the U.S. will be instrumental in orchestrating a negotiated settlement. They hope that the aim of the Russian assault is limited to the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, with a large population of ethnic Russians. Commenting on the present conflict, Quigley argues: “As for the Donbas, it would not be difficult for Ukraine to offer more autonomy than it has to date. The Russian military assault seems to have pushed many Russian speakers in the Donbas to embrace Ukraine. They may be less demanding on autonomy than before. A renewed Ukrainian commitment on autonomy could be framed by the Russian government as a victory.”

The failure of journalistic integrity and the multiplication of conspiracy theories

Investigative journalists who “follow the facts wherever they will lead” are almost non-existent. The Russia Hoax during the Trump presidency reveals mainstream media ineptitude (at best). Before the 2020 election, over 50 prominent intelligence officials agreed that the Hunter Biden laptop was a Russian operation. The media took them at their word and did not investigate. The neglect is not a minor error; the deception was agitprop directed at the American public to influence the election.

Conspiracy theories fill the vacuum.

In the epic battle between authoritarianism and democracy, how does the Biden team view Western democracy? In August 2021, Biden allowed the ignominious fall of Kabul to the Taliban. According to reliable reports, the Joint Chiefs were stunned by the abandonment of many Americans and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. Within months, Biden, in effect, offered Ukraine NATO membership.

Did Putin see the ineptitude of Biden with the fall of Kabul and take advantage of his weakness? As Putin’s military maneuvers were on the horizon, did the Biden Administration deliberately provoke the Russians? Did Biden incite Putin with his offer of NATO membership to Ukraine so that he, Biden, could prove his resolve against tyrants before the 2022 elections? Did Biden – or his handlers – conclude that Americans would oppose another war while we were still in Afghanistan?

Why was a provocation chosen rather than scrambling to negotiate a settlement? Are there subliminal reasons? We have learned not to underestimate the intensity of leftist hate. Putin’s opposition to the LGBTQ agenda and abortion is well-known. The LGBTQ, pro-abortion, gender fluidity, Woke, and Critical Race ideologies are entrenched in the White House. Is it beyond the pale to suggest that ideological hatred of Putin fuels the reluctance to negotiate and compromise? Does it explain the support Hollywood celebrities have for the war? Will the loathing prolong a war bleeding Russians and Ukrainians alike?

Provoking Putin has other benefits championed by leftists. The left has elevated the climate change ideology to levels of hysteria. Despite the threat of hyperinflation, Biden terminated the Keystone XL Pipeline. Indeed, the Biden Administration considers rocketing gas prices necessary to transition to so-called renewable (“green”) energy. Sanctions that effectively sever the European Union’s dependence on Russian oil and gas (Nord Stream II) would accelerate its green transition — and separate itself from the Russian economy. Why negotiate a ceasefire when the war in Ukraine is advancing the green agenda?

Finally, there is concern that the U.S. is depleting its inventory of munitions for replacement with modern weaponry.  A protracted conflict helps with the turnover and pressures Congress to approve more spending on defense. In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against such a “military-industrial complex”:

Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

Is a protracted war in Ukraine designed to benefit financial and industrial globalists? If so, the globalists are bleeding Ukrainians to advance their agenda. The disastrous departure from Afghanistan is a warning. Ukrainians would do well to remember a famous quip by Henry Kissinger: “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.” It is more accurate to substitute “globalists” for “America.”

Removing obstacles to negotiation

“Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations,” states the Catechism, “constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war” (par 2317).

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the response of the West should demand a national and international examination of conscience with firm resolutions for diplomatic solutions to save lives and prevent WWIII.

The arduous art of honest compromise is inherent in diplomatic negotiations. Loyal Americans must break the self-delusions that undermine good-faith negotiations that could end the bloodshed and stop the headlong march to another U.S. war of choice, but this time one that has a nuclear dimension.

The time for loud and persistent calls for negotiations and compromise is past due as a unifying principle for friend and foe alike.


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