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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Reflections on Ethics and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

David E. DeCosse

Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press

David E. DeCosse (@DavidDeCosse) is the director of the Religious & Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. His latest edited volume (with Kevin Baxter) is called Conscience and Catholic Education: Theology, Administration, and Teaching (Orbis 2022). Views are his own.


Any reflection on the ethics of war and the war in Ukraine must begin with what is brutally obvious: The Russian invasion is a moral outrage that has no justification in the ethics of war.

But even in the hell of this war, distinctions about moral reasoning can be made. By making such distinctions, we can make clearer the moral responsibility for the conflict and vouch for the thin but powerful reed of hope that comes from the capacity to make moral judgments in the face of relentless gaslighting in service to murderous violence.

Here, then, are four key ethical points about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Basis of Moral Outrage

To understand why the invasion is a moral outrage, we must take note of what may seem odd: The ethics of war is properly understood as an ethics of politics. I don’t mean politics in a reductionist, horse-race sense. But I mean it in the sense of politics as the ways by which large groups of people organize themselves into societies with laws that require obedience; with leaders who have authority; and with processes by which power is transferred from one leader to the next. The outrage of the war—the outrage that gives rise to all its other outrages—is that the Russian invasion is precisely aimed at denying the people of Ukraine the right to determine the shape of their own political community. In the language of just war theory, the rights to “territorial integrity” and “political sovereignty” are meant to protect the more fundamental right of a people to political self-determination. When Russia sent tanks across the border (and thus violated territorial integrity) with the aim of deciding for itself Ukraine’s political future (and thus violating political sovereignty), it not only violated Ukraine’s right to self-determination but also threatened the order of the world which, whatever its faults, is based on the inviolability of this right.

Self-Defense in the Face of Overwhelming Odds

Self-defense is the classic ethical justification for going to war: You are attacked and you may respond by using violence for the sake of political justice. But it is also an ethical requirement of going to war that there should be a reasonable hope of success. If going to war likely means you’ll lose badly and many people will be killed, then even if you have a right to self-defense it would be more prudent and just not to fight back and thus avoid a needless loss of life. But the war in Ukraine has challenged how we interpret the requirement for success. No one thought the Ukrainians had a chance against the Russians. But four weeks into the war, the Ukrainians are holding out and inflicting terrible damage on the Russian army. Does success mean having to defeat another army? Or does it mean inflicting enough damage to get better terms at the negotiating table? Or is there an intangible but powerful success achieved by the self-respect and courage that comes with fighting for great values, no matter the odds?

Siege Warfare and Direct Attack on Civilians

Unable so far to succeed in battle against the Ukrainian military, the Russians have turned to what for them is a familiar tactic: siege warfare. In doing so, they have signaled clearly that they intend to terrorize the civilian population of Ukraine as a means of compelling the government to give ground at the negotiating table. The immoral logic at work here is: “Unless you surrender, we will be unable to stop shooting directly at hospitals, apartment buildings, and shelters.” Nothing is clearer in the ethics of war than the absolute prohibition on precisely what the Russians are doing: directly targeting civilians. And, for this immoral logic to work, there must be civilians to terrorize. Thus it was no accident that the Russians consented to the evacuation of civilians from besieged cities and then directly attacked the civilians as they were evacuating. Terror is that much worse when it descends from blue skies on the desperate expectation of safe passage out of hell. Humanitarian no-fly zones established by NATO could be a powerful response to this problem. Such zones could offer greater protection to civilians fleeing a city under siege. And such zones could also weaken Russia’s military advantage by depriving them of what is now their awful but best negotiating tool: dead and injured Ukrainian civilians.

Ethics and Endgames

I noted already that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens the global order premised on the right of states to determine their own political life. But we need to specify the values being threatened. The political right to self-determination could lead to a variety of kinds of government. But, in this case, the Ukrainians are defending their right to determine themselves specifically as a democracy—and as a democracy after years of living under the outright or proxy authoritarian rule of Russia. How the war will end is far from clear. But it will be impossible to evaluate its outcome without close attention to the fate of democratic values and not simply to military power. Ukrainians have moved the world by their willingness to die for such values. Putin has decided to kill Ukrainian civilians in order to eradicate these values. Unless we see this moral component of the war, we cannot properly understand what is going on now and how it might end.


Mar 22, 2022

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