The Moral Implications of the Ukraine Invasion


Authors: Lukian De Boni, Sahasranshu Dash, and Victor Wolemonwu*

Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February after months of military build-up across its border. Alarming scenes of siege and destruction, heroic resistance, unprecedented sanctions, skyrocketing oil and gas prices and the spectre of nuclear Armageddon have kept the world on edge ever since. But how would future historians and philosophers see this, given that the world has lived through similar cataclysms in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Myanmar, and Yemen? How will Putin’s so-called ‘special military operation’ reshape global norms and our collective moral a prioris?

In just 4 weeks of conflict, the UN High Commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, confirmed that 10 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine: a quarter of the population. 3.5 million of these have fled the country, which underlines in stark utilitarian terms the extreme urgency of the unfolding human catastrophe. For comparison, in 10 years of conflict, the Syrian civil war caused 5 million Syrians to leave the country.

Vladimir Putin’s jus ad bellum (‘right to go to war’) was predicated upon the Russian Orthodox Church’s just war doctrine, itself a corollary of similar thoughts expressed earlier by St. Thomas Aquinas. In a televised address, Putin stated his twin objectives as being the ‘de-Nazification’ and demilitarisation of Ukraine. This neo-Kantian justification of war against an aggressor as a form of defence hinges on the understanding that states are moral entities whose moral obligations are to promote peaceful co-existence amongst the citizens, to ensure that their rights are protected, and more fundamentally, to protect the state’s existence and independence.

Thus, Putin’s assumption was that having waged a just war, he would be greeted on the streets of Ukraine as a liberator from neo-Nazis that had been suppressing Russian-speaking Ukrainians. However, the pulverisation of ethnically Russian Volnovakha and war crimes on an industrial scale in predominantly Russian-speaking Mariupol and Kharkiv give a lie to any such pretensions. The assumption that Ukraine needs de-Nazification is further problematised by the fact that neo-Nazi parties won a mere 2% of the vote in comparison with much larger percentages in established democracies such as Germany, the US, India, and Sweden. Furthermore, the Ukrainian president is of Jewish origin and his grandfather died fighting the actual Nazis led by Hitler. What is more, Putin’s Russia itself has turned more towards ‘early-stage fascism’ as recognised by major Russia scholars such as Anton Oleynik, Alexander J Motyl, Mikhail Iampolski, and Vladislav Inozemtsev. In Putin’s Russia, dissidents like Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Nemtsov are often poisoned or shot dead. Or we take the case of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya: she reported on Chechnya where Putin killed a quarter million Chechen Muslims during the bombing of Grozny in 1999 and where egregious human rights violations have become routine under Putin-appointed warlord Ramzan Kadyrov- including anti-gay purges, restrictions on women’s rights, and regular forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial assassinations. In 2006, on Putin’s birthday, Politkovskaya was gunned down outside her apartment. Not long after this, in 2009, the Russian president personally consecrated the grave of Ivan Ilyin, the early 20th century Russian philosopher and proponent of ‘redemptive fascism.’ Putin’s favourite contemporary philosopher and public intellectual Aleksandr Dugin is a self-declared opponent of liberalism and in 2014 called for genocide to be committed against Ukrainians because they are ‘a race of bastards that emerged from the sewer manholes,’ echoing similarly chilling statements made by Goebbels in the 1930s. If the categorical imperative of de-Nazification actually held, President Putin would have done better to start at home, within the internationally recognised borders of the Russian Federation. His recent threat to undertake a ‘national cleansing’ of ‘traitors’ and ‘scum’ sounds a lot more Nazi than anything he is accusing the Ukrainians of.

An added ‘realist’ theory of international relations popularised by the likes of John Mearsheimer justifies the invasion on the basis of NATO ‘encroachment’ upon the Russian ‘sphere of influence.’ This position has some superficial merit in that it attempts a stable Hobbesian equilibrium between major powers and delivers peace. However, in treating individual states as pieces on a chessboard, we deprive them of the sovereign right to choose their destiny. This right is essential to a Kantian understanding of humanity being not just a means to a desirable end, but as a moral end in itself, with intrinsic value and dignity. Cuba in 1962 had a right to choose Soviet influence- after the missile crisis, the US abandoned all plans to invade and hasn’t reneged in 50 years unlike Russia, which reneged upon the 1994 Budapest Agreement that denuclearised Ukraine in exchange for security guarantees. Likewise, Ukraine has a right to choose a more European and democratic future away from a country that killed 3.9 million Ukrainians in the Holodomor and has repeatedly sought to extinguish its national identity.

But in just war theory, jus in bello (‘the way that war is conducted’) is often more important than the initial jus ad bellum. In using thermobaric weapons, threatening tactical nuclear warfare, and bombing maternity hospitals and a theatre in Mariupol outside which ‘Children’ had clearly been written in Russian, Putin’s troops have shown themselves capable of causing intentional harm to combatants and non-combatants alike. Recent reports confirm that over 4500 Ukrainians are being forcibly sent to distant parts of Russia without their passports and forced to sign documents enjoining them to work for free for 2 to 3 years. The International Red Cross confirmed that Russian troops had deployed butterfly mines on humanitarian corridors. Much like the carnage in Yemen, this runs the risk of setting a dire precedent for the 21st century.

The moral depravity of the Second World War led to the Nuremberg trials and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The moral depravity of the Cold War led to the globalisation of democratic norms in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The moral depravity of the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims led to the trial and conviction of Slobodan Milošević and his cronies. Will we see something similar for unconscionable war crimes in Ukraine and Yemen, or blanket impunity? Jus post bellum (‘justice after the war’) must ensure not just lasting peace, but also dignity for survivors and culpability for depraved actions.

Last but not least, intense media coverage of the Ukraine war and the ensuing refugee crisis reminds us of our implicit hierarchies of concern. Poland, which was deploying its military against non-white refugees a few months ago, has accepted over 2 million Ukrainian refugees in a matter of weeks. Russia’s unconscionable bombardment of Aleppo and Grozny and extreme humanitarian crises in Yemen (famine and destruction) and Libya (open air slave markets) were overlooked. If a 1945-style moral reconstruction is to be attempted at the end of the gruesome war in Ukraine, we must insist on our generation’s version of ‘Never Again.’ But it must apply all over the world.

The recently deceased anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” The Rawlsian difference principle, applied on an international scale, also requires that social justice must benefit the least favoured in society. A civilised world must recognise its obligations to refugees and non-combatants and victims of repression. This puts a constraint on state sovereignty and makes the neutrality of bystanders morally untenable.

Failing that, we move back into the dark, mediaeval normative realm of Thucydides’ maxim ‘The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must…’ God forbid.

*Sahasranshu Dash is a research associate at the South Asia Institute of Research and Development, Kathmandu, Nepal. Victor Wolemonwu is a PhD candidate in Bioethics and Social philosophy at the University of Sheffield

Lukian De Boni
Lukian De Boni
Lukian De Boni is a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.


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