Invasion of Ukraine by Russia starting on February 24, 2022. Credit: Viewsridge via Wikimedia Commons

Online Exclusive 03/8/2022 Essay

Ukraine: An Ethical Response

With the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin resumed his use of force against Ukraine that began with the seizure of Crimea in 2014. As we examine the question of ethical policy responses to the invasion, we must first address Russia’s justifications for acting.

Putin and other senior Russian leaders have reached back to Russia’s nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophical traditions for inspiration, appealing to the Orthodox understanding of the “justifiable war” tradition, in which war is seen as a tragic but sometimes necessary action to avoid a worse evil from triumphing. As Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church recently declared, action needed to be taken in Ukraine in order to “combat evil.” The Russian government has argued that it needed to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine because genocide was taking place, because an illegitimate government had been taken over by extremists, and because this government was a threat to peace and security (the twin calls for “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification.”).

None of this remotely coincides with realities on the ground, but the Kremlin needed to create a narrative to provide an ethical justification.

As part of its justification, the Russian government invoked the principle of preemptive war: that Russia has the right to violate the sovereignty of another country because it believes that actions taken by the country pose an imminent threat. Putin argued that Ukraine was moving closer to Western countries and increasing its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), preparing to host Western military bases and missiles near Russia's borders. According to Putin, this was an unacceptable and existential threat to Russia: he had to act. Though NATO countries were providing weaponry and training to the Ukrainian military, there is no evidence that there was an imminent or existential threat to Russian state survival that required a military invasion of Ukraine. In short, none of the ethical justifications for Russian action hold water.

Formulating an Ethical Response

We—starting with the United States, but indeed all countries that have signed and ratified the Charter of the United Nationshave an ethical duty to respond—not only to protect the “right to life” for individual residents of Ukraine (the freedom to live without fear of being killed by military action or economic blockade) but also to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of every state, which is the cornerstone of the international order. And respecting the rights of peoples to self determination is a cornerstone of an ethical international order. Therefore, that we ought to respond is not, to my mind, in question.

The question is this: What does an ethical response look like as we consider both the fate of Ukraine and of the stability of the world order? Russia’s nuclear arsenal throws the latter part of the question into stark relief, with Putin seeming to have threatened nuclear strikes to counter overt Western intervention. Any proposed response must be evaluated through the prism not of the morality of intentions but the morality of expected results: will the action likely create conditions that produce a better or worse outcome? In other words, the tradeoffs for different degrees of action or inaction must be assessed against the likelihood of successful outcomes and the probabilities of catastrophe—and between “do nothing” and “do everything possible” there is an entire spectrum of options.

The first wave of international responses to the invasion came in the form of moral/political support for Ukraine. These largely rhetorical actions demonstrated an ethical condemnation of Russia’s actions but had little power to compel Moscow to change course. Within forty-eight hours, the next level of responses was to impose a series of non-intercourse acts with Russia: travel bans, closing airspace, preventing ships and planes from docking and landing rights; cutting off access to international financial markets, boycotting Russian goods and services and imposing restrictions on items which can be sold to Russia. Non-intercourse acts such as sanctions are an attempt to bring about a change in Russian actions by imposing costs on Moscow that may prove prohibitive, either by denying the Russian government the wherewithal—not only financial capacity but even tools, such as advanced technologies—to wage the invasion, or by putting pressure on the Russian people so as to induce them either to pressure the government for a change in policy or to change the regime itself.

Implementing effective and wide-ranging sanctions on a country is difficult even when the state in question is small or relatively unimportant to the global economy. In the case of Russia, it is extremely difficult. While sanctions themselves are grounded in a moral assessment that non-intercourse is the only ethical option in response to a grievous violation of international norms, the second- and third-order effects of sanctions also carry ethical dilemmas. Russia is a major supplier of energy, vital raw materials, and food for the world. Other countries cannot make up the deficits should supplies of these resources from Russia be completely cut off. Thus, we have seen policymakers balancing the ethical imperative to deprive Russia of as much income as possible while continuing to allow for purchases of some items, including natural gas, to avoid imposing heavier burdens both on developing countries and low-income populations in the developed world.

Turning the Tide

With the first two waves of responses having crested (at least for now), states must assess what they should do to assist in the actual reversal of the invasion. Even before Russian forces attacked, some countries, such as the United States and Turkey, were actively supplying defense articles in order to bolster Ukrainian military capabilities. Since fighting began, other states have joined in sending arms to allow the Ukrainians to better defend themselves against attack and even be in a position to reverse Russian gains. This includes Germany which, prior to February 2022, had argued that increasing shipments of weapons destabilized the situation. There are three ethical considerations here to address; the first, the challenge of the pacifist, is whether meeting violence with violence produces an ethical outcome. This, implicitly, was the position of some of the European states right up to the Russian invasion—that sending weapons would not really change the balance of forces and only prolong the fighting. In the end, most of these states concluded that Ukraine was entitled to act in self-defense. This was a determination that self-defense would prevent a worse outcome, and so be the lesser evil. Not only Germany but also countries including Norway reversed long-standing policies not to send weapons to countries that are engaged in armed conflict. Yet, this decision to supply arms creates new challenges. The increasing humanitarian catastrophe brought about by the invasion calls for redress—and many of the countries that are providing arms are also being asked to provide relief assistance. However, it can be difficult to determine when a flight is carrying food and medicine or is carrying arms; whether civilians are being evacuated, or military forces deployed.

The second ethical question that emerges from the arming of Ukraine is whether providing arms can lead to a speedy end to the violence, or whether it makes the conflict longer and bloodier—increasing the damage done to the country and the number of civilian casualties. Yet if the goal is to bring the hostilities to a swift conclusion, should not stronger powers be prepared to directly intervene? Either by using their militaries to deny air or maritime space to Russian forces, changing the balance of power on the battlefield, or by more direct involvement in the fighting—either through proxies or use of their regular armed forces? The assumption here is that direct involvement would more quickly resolve the conflict, preventing greater losses of life. However, the risk here is that a direct armed clash between nuclear powers could escalate: even a small-scale use of nuclear weapons would produce much worse outcomes—not just for Ukraine but for the world.

Finally, there are competing ethical considerations at work in reaching an agreement that would end the invasion. From the ethicist’s perspective, there are two sets of issues: political leaders have an obligation to protect life (not only in terms of preventing people from being killed but also in terms of the destruction of the economy and infrastructure that sustains life). On the other hand, surrendering sovereignty, surrendering self-determination, and conceding to demands made under the threat and use of force (both of which are explicitly forbidden by Article 2 of the United Nations Charter) also carries grave ethical risks. Diplomacy must also navigate the security dilemma: steps taken by one state to ensure its security may be viewed as extremely threatening to the security of another state. One of the diplomatic roadblocks in the run-up to this crisis was that the demands Russia and Ukraine were making to each other and to the NATO countries exacerbated the security dilemma. Under those conditions, there was no acceptable diplomatic compromise and Russia, ultimately, chose to use force.

We have accepted the ethical obligation that we must respond to assist Ukraine, but how we assist has to be balanced against both the ethical and strategic consequences of dealing with a power that has nuclear capabilities. This is not merely a fear lurking in the background: Putin has threatened that Russia would be prepared to deploy nuclear weapons if it felt its own existence was existentially threatened. This threat must be a consideration in any ethical and strategic calculations. The North Star of the statesman must always be prudence—not emotionalism, but prudence—and we have a terrifying reason to proceed cautiously.

—Nikolas Gvosdev

Nikolas Gvosdev is a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and co-host of The Doorstep podcast.