On February 24th, Russia began an invasion of Ukraine, starting with missile strikes on several locations, including Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and since then has continued its attack via air and ground warfare, despite near universal international condemnation of its actions.
As the Russians, according to The New York Times, move to “encircle and capture critical cities in Ukraine,” ordinary Ukrainian citizens have taken up arms, volunteering to defend their country against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, the international community has responded with economic sanctions and other measures to financially coerce Russia to end its attack, and various countries have supplied military and humanitiarian aid to Ukraine. A helpful video explainer on the background of Russia’s attack on Ukraine can be viewed here, and you can get a sense of how things are inside Ukraine during the war via the Twitter feeds of Ukraine News Now and The Kyiv Independent, among other sources. If you are interested in helping the Ukrainians, there are several sources of information about how to do so here.
The midst of a war, with people being killed and injured, homes being destroyed, lives being disrupted, and dictatorship threatening, might seem like a poor time for philosophy. Yet the urgency of war and the significance of its effects makes it all the more important that those whose jobs involve thinking through the thorny moral problems war presents contribute to public discourse. The moral questions war raises have long been of interest to philosophers, and contemporary philosophy of war is a very active field.
For this installment of Philosophers On, I asked philosophers who have written about war and conflict to turn their attention specifically to the issues raised by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The contributors are Saba Bazargan-Forward (University of California, San Diego), Jovana Davidovic (University of Iowa, U.S. Naval Academy) Christopher J. Finlay (Durham University), and Helen Frowe (University of Stockholm). I’m grateful for their willingness to contribute to this post on rather short notice.
(Philosophers On is an occasional series of group posts on issues of current interest, with the aim of showing what the kinds of thinking characteristic of philosophers and scholars in related fields can bring to popular ongoing conversations. Contributors present not fully worked out position papers but rather brief thoughts that can serve as prompts for further reflection and discussion.)
“War Ethics and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine” by Saba Bazargan-Forward
“Why Russian Soldiers Should Lay Down Their Arms” by Jovana Davidovic
“Arming Democratic Rebels Abroad” by Christopher J. Finlay
“Ukraine and the Ethics of War” by Helen Frowe
War Ethics and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
by Saba Bazargan-Forward
It might seem that the study of war ethics has little to add when it comes to morally evaluating Russia’s war in Ukraine. Consider Vladimir Putin’s motivations for the invasion. His goals might be security-driven, in that he fears NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. Or perhaps a revanchist nostalgia for the Russian empire is what motivates Putin. Or maybe he seeks to re-litigate the outcome of the Cold War. Or maybe Putin fears that the recent liberalization and democratization of Ukraine might spread to Russia, threatening his brand of kleptocratic authoritarianism. What is notable about these (and other) candidate explanations, is that none of them morally justify invading a peaceful, sovereign nation. His purported justifications are risible and fail to withstand even cursory examination. It is luminously obvious that Putin’s war in Ukraine is unjust. Given this, what can the study of war ethics, with its myriad principles, distinctions, and doctrines, possibly add to a moral evaluation of this war? Bringing the study of war ethics to bear on the invasion of Ukraine seems, to borrow a phrase from Hermine Wittgenstein, like using a scalpel to open up crates.
It turns out, though, that there is much to consider. I will focus on just one issue. A foundational principle in war ethics is that we ought not to resort to ineffective or unnecessary bloodshed. It might be argued that Ukraine is violating this constraint. After all, Ukraine’s resort to defensive violence will result in the loss of life and limb. And to what end? Though Ukrainian forces have proved quite robust much to the surprise of Russia and the rest of the world, Putin’s forces could respond with overwhelming brutality from land, sea, and air. The use of nuclear weapons is a possibility as well. Alternatively, Putin might adopt a more insidious approach, by blockading the Black Sea ports of Mariupol, Kherson and Odessa, which are crucial to Ukraine’s economic viability. Putin could then just wait until Ukraine collapses into a failed state. In any case, if we suppose that the Ukrainian military is unlikely to emerge victorious against Russian forces, the continued loss of life—especially of Ukrainian civilians—does not seem to achieve a good sufficiently important to justify that bloodshed. As a result, some might argue that Ukraine should surrender, thereby saving the lives of many Ukrainians who would otherwise have died for no seemingly useful purpose.
To be clear, this is not a pacifist argument. The claim is not that it is wrong to defend ourselves against unjust aggression. Neither is it wrong to ‘go down fighting’. Rather, the issue is whether Ukrainian armed forces, as a whole, should fight to the bitter end when doing so will mean that those they are charged with protecting—namely, Ukrainian civilians—will be maimed and killed in the continuing conflict. In some circumstances it is heroic to sacrifice yourself when the alternative is capture. But sometimes the best way to protect others might be to forego a heroic death in favor of surrender. And the purpose of the armed forces is, after all, to protect the people. The claim, then, is this: if we suppose that defensive violence has little chance of ultimate success, and if we suppose that a resort to such violence will cost the lives of many innocent civilians (which is always an outcome in war) then military surrender is preferable. Or so it might be argued.
I believe, though, that this argument, though compelling, is ultimately mistaken. There are three reasons why.
First, fighting to the bitter end does indeed serve a useful and morally important purpose: it imposes a cost on unjust international aggression thereby making it less likely that the aggressing party will resort to such measures against other countries in the future. If Putin’s forces were able to just waltz into Ukraine, Putin might be more likely to do the same in other ex-Soviet bloc countries. Ukraine’s military resistance, even if it fails to repel Russian forces, helps increase the chances that other countries will remain free from Russian aggression. And that is an important good.
Second, though Ukrainian armed forces are ultimately charged with protecting Ukrainian citizens, those citizens might actually prefer that the armed forces continue fighting even if it increases the chances that those civilians will be maimed and killed. In such a case, the decision to continue fighting does not violate the rights of the civilians consequently killed if such civilians antecedently indicated a willingness to accept that risk. Of course, not all civilians might agree to this gamble. And some, such as children, cannot even in principle agree to it. But reports indicate not only widespread civilian support for military resistance, but also widespread civilian participation in such resistance, which suggests that they are willing to risk life and limb in the face of overwhelming odds—at least for now.
Third, and relatedly, fighting in the face of overwhelming odds serves another useful and morally important purpose: it helps preserve the self-respect of the Ukrainian people. Self-respect is seldom invoked by my fellow war ethicists. Perhaps they are inclined to think that though preserving self-respect is important, it is not sufficiently important to warrant killing or dying. But I believe this underrates the importance of self-respect. Perhaps the most influential 20th century political theorist, John Rawls, said in his groundbreaking work A Theory of Justice that “perhaps the most important primary good is that of self-respect”. He defines self-respect as including “…a person’s sense of his own value, his secure conviction that his conception of the good, his plan of life, is worth carrying out.” Construed in these ways, an individual’s self-respect is every bit as important as her own life. If the prospect of surrendering to foreign oppression is sufficiently inimical to the self-respect of the Ukrainian people, then such resistance achieves an important good after all, regardless of whether it succeeds in military terms.
So, even if we suppose that Ukrainian resistance is unlikely to succeed, it is still worth it. Such resistance does not violate the constraint against unnecessary or ineffective bloodshed, even if we suppose that Russian forces will ultimately prevail. Nor does it violate the duty that Ukrainian forces have toward their civilians, even if such resistance puts those civilians at risk. (This might change, though, depending on the military tactics Russia adopts).
There is much more for war ethicists to assess as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned. For example: are the Russian combatants, by waging an unjust war, violating the rights of Ukrainian soldiers? Does the US have the moral standing to criticize Russia’s aggression given the dubious basis for the 2003 US-led war in Iraq? What duties of aid do other countries have toward Ukraine – especially the countries that enriched Russia, and thereby indirectly funded its military by purchasing Russian oil and gas?
I fear countless other ethical quandaries will arise, given the horrors to come.
 To be clear, we can indeed force individuals to act in ways that violate their sense of self-respect if their self-respect is grounded in behavior that wrongs others. For example, a racist who supports segregation might allege that dining at the same restaurant as a Black family violates her sense of self-respect. The racist cannot defend her conduct by invoking her sense of self-respect because it is grounded in morally wrongful conduct.
Why Russian Soldiers Should Lay Down Their Arms
by Jovana Davidovic
Video after video shows lines of Ukrainian men and women waiting to sign up, join up, and fight the Russian invasion. They walk up as ordinary citizens; Zakhar, an aspiring actor, Hlib, a scruffy computer programmer, Olena, a business manager from Kyiv, Stepan, a student no older than 20, and Sergiy, more life-worn, but just as ready to fight, all wait to join up. They walk up ordinary citizens and walk out as some kind of soldier. As Hlib puts it, “I am just a regular civilian. I basically have nothing to do with war or anything like it. And I wouldn’t really want to participate in anything like this, but I have no choice, this is my home.”
To me, born and raised in the Balkans, this seems all too familiar. Every generation in my family as far back as I can see lived through and fought in wars. All four of my grandparents fought with the partisans against the Nazis. My paternal grandmother spent three years in a concentration camp for fighting with the Sarajevo underground, and then mere weeks after her release from the camp she rejoined the partisans, this time in the hills. Like Hlib, she felt she had no choice, this was her home.
Who in their right mind would have called her a moral equal to a Nazi soldier, and who in their right mind would call Hlib a legitimate target for the Russian military. And yet, traditionally in just war theory, and legally in practice, we think of combatants fighting in the war as moral and legal equals regardless of the justice of their cause. The moral and legal equality of combatants is so deeply embedded in our societies that we see no dissonance in supporting the troops even when we do not support the war. Soldiers are never prosecuted or held responsible simply for fighting in unjust wars. And combatants on all sides of the conflict are seen as legitimate targets; equally justified in killing the enemy. The reasons behind this widely spread (moral, legal, and social) norm of combatant equality are varied.
Three common arguments given in support of the equality of combatants include arguments from consent, arguments from ignorance, and institutional stability argument. Some scholars, for example, believe that those that pick up arms, in virtue of doing so, consent to being seen as targets. This, consent-theorists argue, makes them legitimate targets and as such- it makes them equals to all others that are fighting in that war. Others argue that we cannot hold combatants responsible for decisions that politicians make. “Theirs is not to reason why.” These scholars argue we cannot expect soldiers to know or question whether their wars are just, making them equally justified in fighting in wars their politicians send them to. And yet others worry about undermining our military institutions. How could we protect sovereignty and human rights, they argue, if we had soldiers disobeying orders to go to war because they didn’t believe in that war. Whether their arguments are grounded in consent, ignorance, or institutional stability these scholars believe that we cannot hold soldiers responsible simply for fighting in unjust wars. We can hold them responsible for how they fight in wars, we can hold them responsible for obeying the Geneva Conventions, we can hold them responsible for that which is within their control, but we cannot hold them responsible simply for fighting in an unjust war.
If there ever was a time to reconsider this view, this seems to be that time. Regarding arguments from consent, those that join up solely to fight in a single war against occupation cannot be moral equals to those that occupy. Their “picking up the arms” cannot signal consent to being a target, even if we think that joining a standing military ordinarily does. Regarding arguments from ignorance, those soldiers whose military crosses someone else’s borders, cannot claim ignorance. At a minimum those that cross the borders have strong reasons to question whether their country is the one engaging in self-defense. And those that worry that without obedient armies we will lose just wars, have only to look at what happens when one needs to fight a war of just self-defense like Ukrainians are doing now.
The arguments from consent and ignorance, and the argument for importance of obedience all fail when faced with examples such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But one final argument for the equality of combatants remains. Even if we accept that a Russian soldier today is not a moral equal of a Ukrainian civilian that has just picked up arms (or a Ukrainian soldier for that matter), it doesn’t follow that we should have laws that prohibit fighting in an unjust war and that ask soldiers to question the justice of the wars they fight in. If we attempted to pass laws that would hold soldiers responsible for fighting in unjust wars we would end up with bloodier, more deadly wars that would get fought until the bitter end. What soldier would put down her arms if she thought she’d be prosecuted simply for fighting in a war. But is this really the case? This common argument envisions that instead of equality of combatants and justification for soldiers fighting unjust wars, we would simply have a prohibition. But there is no reason for such limited imagination. The alternative to moral and legal equality is not simply its rejection, but creative mechanisms for allowing soldiers the path and the understanding they need to choose not to fight in wars of aggression. This can take a form of selective conscientious objection, changes in the social norms around why and when we praise our soldiers, and encouragement to soldiers fighting in unjust wars to stop. In the recent days we have heard such encouragement from President Zelensky, Estonian president, a brave Belorussian lieutenant commander, and others. Encouraging Russian soldiers today to remember what honorable fighting looks like, and put down their arms, is maybe a pie in the sky, but changing our norms regarding equality of combatants and what legitimate fighting in a war looks like, is not. Seeing at least some in the Russian military stand up against this unjust invasion will pay dividends in the days and years to come. Long-lasting peace can only come from respect and reconciliation. And knowing that at least some Russian people and Russian soldiers did the right thing can help sustain a healthy peace one day.
Arming Democratic Rebels Abroad
by Christopher J. Finlay
Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign, democratic state, presents western democracies with an acute moral and strategic problem. One way to solve it is to arm popular resistance against a possible Russian occupation. The fact that so many Ukrainians have expressed support for insurgency means that doing so is likely to be justified. But it’s a possibility that takes us right to the borders of the ‘just war’ framework that many philosophers use to make sense of the ethics of force. If things were simpler, the right thing to do might seem obvious: democracies ought to defend the sovereign rights of Ukraine and the democratic rights of its citizens by sending their own military forces to assist in national defense. This would be right both for the sake of Ukraine and its people and for the sake of other states in the region fearful of what an emboldened, unresisted aggressor might do next.
But things are rarely simple and this case is no exception. Any state joining forces in alliance with Ukraine would thereby find itself at war with Russia. European states rightly fear that this would bring war into their own territory. And all states must consider the extraordinary danger of escalating conflict with a power that has already signaled a willingness to consider using nuclear weapons.
The tension between a moral duty to protect victims of aggression and the duty to avoid uncontrolled escalation has led some US policy-makers to consider a possible middle way: instead of sending soldiers to Ukraine to thwart Russia’s invasion plans, it might be better to prepare for the eventuality that Ukraine’s regular forces might be defeated and then resist Russia’s occupation by arming Ukrainian guerrillas.
Philosophers have often debated the question of whether assisting rebels abroad can be justified. Still probably the most influential argument is Michael Walzer’s advocacy of non-intervention which draws on J S Mill’s essay ‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’ from 1859. Both Mill and Walzer thought that intervening in a purely domestic foreign conflict—between rebels and indigenous government forces—would be wrongheaded. It would distort the foreign state’s historic process of political struggle, violating its people’s right of self-determination.
Of course, a Ukrainian insurgency wouldn’t be a purely domestic struggle: it would be a national liberation war waged against a foreign occupier. Then again, Russia might install a puppet regime headed by compliant Ukrainians. But, even so, Mill and Walzer argue that assistance to foreign rebels might be permissible in cases where another power has already interfered in the process of national self-determination. So, in cases like Ukraine, even the Mill-Walzer account endorses ‘counter-intervention’ if it could restore to people the ability to shape their own political destiny. It would do so by resisting the foreign forces that Russia has intruded into Ukrainian politics.
Recent public debate tends to litigate arming Ukrainian insurgents in terms of the interests of others rather than of the rights of Ukrainians defending their independence. Former Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Andris Zagorodnyuk, advocates arming resistance as a means of imposing costs on Russia, thereby diminishing the chance that Putin will go on to ‘dismantle the entire post-Cold War European security architecture and reestablish a Russian sphere of influence over Eastern and Central Europe.’ Increased costs might deter ‘additional acts of Russian aggression from the Baltic to the Balkans.’ From the other side of the debate, Ted Galen Carpenter argues that the US mustn’t arm insurgents because ‘[a]ssisting guerrillas to maim and kill Russian soldiers might well create an irreparable breach between Russia and the West.’
These arguments deflect attention from the moral concerns motivating most philosophers arguing in the wake of Walzer’s Millian account. Any analysis of the ethics of assistance to resistance groups must surely start with the rights and interests of the Ukrainians themselves. The interests of citizens in other states potentially under future threat from Putin are part of the wider moral picture too. But they could have little claim on either the insurgents themselves or on states assisting them were it not for the primary fact that the Ukrainians have a right to resist forces attempting to snuff out their political freedom.
Then again, we shouldn’t rush to conclusions either. While the claims of Ukrainians might support an in-principle justification for assisting insurgents, it’s also possible to imagine them pointing in the opposite direction. As Carpenter points out, what a successful intervention of the kind President Biden currently contemplates looks like is full-scale civil war. And we hardly need to invoke Thomas Hobbes to be reminded why outsiders shouldn’t be hasty to wish this on Ukrainians—just cast your mind back over the past eleven years or so in Syria.
So it looks like Ukrainian citizens face a terrible dilemma: should they choose the rock of capitulation to Russian domination or the hard place of civil war? Their interests are objectively conflicted in this case, so appealing only to their right to resist won’t provide unequivocal guidance. That being the case, those considering intervention must ask: what would Ukrainians prefer? They ought to respect Ukrainians’ right to choose: would they support resistance and welcome the gift of more arms from the west or not?
While some philosophers argue that widespread popular support is usually required for armed resistance to be morally legitimate, Allen Buchanan questions how realistic it is to expect the leaders of rebellion against violently oppressive regimes to satisfy this condition. Interveners shouldn’t expect too much. But Ukraine is an unusual case. Not only does it already have legitimate leadership as a result of its democratic institutions, but there is also polling evidence indicating support for resistance. Just over 50% said they would resist, with one in five respondents saying they would be willing to engage in civil resistance, and one in three that they would take up arms. Reports and images of citizens stepping forward to claim weapons and take up training from the government abound.
Whether this level of support is enough to justify taking on the risks of insurgency is an interesting question. But, as Jonathan Parry recently argued, it could be: the good of defending just over 50% of Ukrainians might be enough on its own to justify the risks and costs of resistance. Another worry, as Carpenter insists, is the US’s record historically of supporting groups that were worse than the ostensibly oppressive regimes they were funded to challenge. He highlights the danger that support might find its way to the Azov Battalion, a far-right unit in the Ukrainian National Guard.
If it does support insurgents, the US should certainly be careful about which elements it assists. This is all the more important because the factions that benefit most militarily from that assistance are also likely to increase their influence politically. Analysts of civil war like Stathis Kalyvas have shown how political allegiances often follow military successes. This suggests that any military force that outsiders introduce within Ukraine will likely leave an imprint on the political complexion of the country. And this cuts both ways. Supporting democrats may be politically beneficial. Failing to assist them would leave the field open to other political influences. The current Russian leadership has an acute sense of how to reshape the political map of a foreign state in whatever way best suits their interests, as it has demonstrated in Syria and elsewhere. And the invasion of Ukraine shows that it has even fewer scruples about doing so than observers realized.
So, offering arms to Ukrainian insurgents no doubt poses risks, but then so does non-intervention. If more assistance is coming, it should arrive sooner rather than later, while democratic political forces in Ukraine remain strong.
Ukraine and the Ethics of War
by Helen Frowe
You don’t really need a just war theorist to shed light on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s campaign has already killed or injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Best guesses about the motivation for the war range from Putin’s having read some dodgy history books whilst developing lockdown-induced mental instability to a long-held desire to return Russia to its USSR glory—an agenda now being pursued via a charade of saving people from genocide in a country where no genocide is occurring. Unsurprisingly, neither explanation—nor even their combination—constitutes a just cause for war.
Nevertheless, the war does shed light on one of the central debates in recent work on the ethics of war. According to what we might call the traditional view of the ethics of war, the fact that a war is unjustified has nothing to do with whether it is being justly fought. This position is famously defended by Michael Walzer in his seminal 1977 book Just and Unjust Wars. It continues to dominate public and political discourse about war, not to mention international law. On this view, the fact that Putin’s war is unjustified is no bar to its being justly fought. This is why, faced with an unjustified war, commentators routinely debate whether its particular offensives are proportionate, or suitably discriminate, or satisfy the criterion of necessity. But such wars make a nonsense of these criteria. There is no number of casualties that is proportionate to achieving the occupation of Ukraine. Proportionality requires that the morally good end that one (reasonably hopes to) achieve outweighs the morally significant harms one expects to cause. The fact that an offensive will promote the wrongful ends of occupying Ukraine and toppling its democratic government is just a further moral evil, incapable of justifying any harms caused by Russian troops.
The same goes for necessity. The fact that a harm is unavoidable if one is to achieve some morally good end can help to justify causing that harm. But the fact that a harm is unavoidable if one is to achieve an impermissible end has no justificatory power whatsoever. Adding the prefix ‘military’—implying some special category of military necessity—doesn’t somehow enable us to ask sensible moral questions about whether, for example, besieging Kyiv is really justified, as a matter of necessity. Such questions might make sense in discussions about strategy or expedience—what is the best way to grind a people into submission?—but treating them as plausible parts of discussions about the ethics of war is fundamentally misguided. It lends credence to the idea that some Russian offensives—the necessary parts of the aggression—might be morally permissible and, if so, then the combatants who carry out these offensives do nothing wrong. This kind of vertigo-inducing moral reasoning is clearly mistaken.
We are already seeing, as always, a sharp distinction being drawn between civilian and combatant casualties in Ukraine, as if it matters, morally, which particular innocent people are being killed in pursuit of Putin’s expansionist aims. I think we should resist this distinction in general: it’s typically no morally better to kill combatants in the pursuit of unjustified ends than it is to kill civilians. Indeed, as Victor Tadros has argued, insofar as killing combatants makes it more likely that the unjustified war will succeed, there’s at least one important respect in which killing combatants is morally worse than killing civilians. Killing combatants isn’t just wrong in itself; it’s also a means of achieving further grave wrongs.
The fact that Ukraine’s defence looks set to be waged in large part by conscripts and civilians who have voluntarily taken up arms makes the pernicious nature of this distinction all the more apparent. Of course we want to condemn the killing of civilians. But doing so by emphasising that the victims are civilians gives a veneer of legitimacy to the killing of combatants, implying that they, at least, are legitimate targets. We should be unequivocal: Russia has no legitimate targets in this war. Ukraine’s existing armed forces are made up of Ukrainians who have either been conscripted or who have chosen to enlist primarily because of the threat that their country faces from Russia. None of these people forfeit their usual rights against harm by trying to defend themselves and their co-citizens against Russia’s unjustified attacks. Their deaths do not count for any less than the deaths of unarmed civilians. None of this is to say, of course, that unjustified wars cannot be morally better or worse. An unjustified war that causes more harm is worse than one that causes less harm. But all we have here are degrees of wrongness. All the harms caused by Russia forces are impermissible.
There’s nothing that those of us who work on the ethics of war can do to curtail Russia’s aggression. But we can at least refuse to entertain the idea that there might be permissible ways of pursuing this aggression. This means, amongst other things, resisting the habit of reverting to the in bello checklist when news outlets ask us to comment on the war. Ukraine is an abject lesson in why we should reject the idea that the fighting of war is morally independent of the justness of the war itself. It is also a lesson in why we should, in general, resist the idea that there are special moral principles that govern war. Our very ordinary moral principles, familiar from everyday life, tell us that it’s impermissible to use force to try to acquire something to which you’re not entitled in the first place. Nothing changes when that force is deployed by states or other political collectives: the Russian regime does not enjoy special permissions to do violence that are denied to individuals. Putin’s war wears its injustice on its sleeve; it is condemned by our most familiar, fundamental convictions about people’s rights against harm. Again, you don’t need a just war theorist to tell you that.