Fighting for a just peace in Ukraine

Some may believe that there is no such thing as a just war, claiming all war is immoral. But political and military leaders who represent democracies and are responsible for the security of their nations and its citizens don’t have that luxury. They understand that there is a relationship between war and justice, and it flows from this question: What justifies resorting to armed violence? Among the multiple arguable answers to this question, one is unambiguous: defense against unprovoked aggression. Ukraine clearly falls into this category. 

The Zelensky government is justified in repelling Russia’s invasion and seeking reasonable ways to prevent Vladimir Putin from reinitiating hostilities later. Talk about Ukraine’s supposed neo-Nazi regime threatening Russian citizens has no basis in fact. There are no Nazis, except in Putin’s mind. And Putin’s aggression meets none of the legal criteria justifying pre-emptive war.  

Further, talk about “NATO expansion” threatening Russia’s sovereignty is mere smoke. NATO expansion resulted from many interrelated dynamics, not the least of which was the former Warsaw Pact members’ desire, having suffered under the heel of the former Soviet Union for decades, to prevent Russia from ever subjugating them again. The only threat NATO poses to Russia is blocking Putin’s desire to re-create a new version of either Imperial Russia’s or the Soviet-era’s vassal system. 

Those who promulgate the geostrategic reductionist position that NATO expansion was some form of evil should revisit that period’s complex history — the fall of the Berlin Wall; German unification; denuclearization; attempts to mitigate the economic implications of the Soviet Union’s and Warsaw Pact’s collapse; and internal domestic politics in Europe, Russian, and the United States. Certainly, the result was a geostrategic “gain” for self-determination and democracy. But equally certain, the Russian “loss” was more the fruits of internal Russian dynamics — the Soviet social and economic disintegration, the failures of the communist state’s governance structure, Boris Yeltsin’s military operations in Chechnya, and domestic Russian power struggles — than of anything done by external actors. 

None of this justifies Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The prime movers that drove him to start this war were his desire to restore Russian influence and power, plus his false calculation that he would meet little resistance in Ukraine, Europe, or internationally. His war is illegal aggression, pure and simple. Legally and morally, Ukraine is justified in defending itself and seeking reasonable post-fighting security guarantees. And other nations are justified in helping Kyiv achieve both.

The relationship between war and justice is not only about judgments of a war’s beginning, however. Justice also demands that warring parties take reasonable measures to keep the fighting between combatants and prevent wanton brutality and destruction. All wars are terrible, because they all use and risk lives — of those fighting, of the innocent, and sometimes of the political community itself. But the brutality of war can be limited without taking away from fighting for legitimate military objectives. The Law of Armed Conflict and rules of engagement derived from it do just that. 

Violations of these laws are crimes. Sometimes violators are individual soldiers or their leaders. These can — and should — be prosecuted by the warring parties. Other times, however, when war crimes become the norm, or when they are incorporated into a military’s “way of war,” the crime is more general and the criminals more difficult to prosecute. Such is the case for Putin and his senior military leaders: They are using war crimes as a way of war. Their crimes are not the result of aberrant behavior of individuals. They are reflections of policy.

Ending Putin’s illegal war, one in which he uses criminal behavior as a matter of policy, places special demands on how this war ends — the third way that justice is related to war.

Ending any war should create conditions for a stable, durable and sustainable peace. Otherwise, the war will continue, even if the fighting temporarily stops. Justice in ending the Ukraine war will never be perfect, but it must meet certain minimums to make sense of the death, destruction, suffering and sacrifices that Putin’s aggression caused. Putin started an unjustified war. Further, he is using suffering of the innocent, destruction of non-military-related infrastructure, and mass killing of non-combatants to achieve his war aims. These crimes cannot elude just accountability.  Such accountability may be imperfect, but injustice of this magnitude cannot be ignored. The Ukraine war must end with a sufficient sense of justice in Ukraine’s eyes — for they were the ones upon whom war was forced.

For the Zelensky government, minimums might include some variant of the following: the withdrawal of Russian troops to pre-February positions; a satisfactory security guarantee; an economic and humanitarian assistance program structured to stimulate growth, not dependence; and international arbitration processes to address war crimes and the future of occupied Crimea and the Donbas. With these conditions, President Volodymyr Zelensky may be able to claim a restored Ukrainian’s right of self-determination.

The obvious impediment is Putin. The sine qua non for Putin to even consider ending this war is his military being forcibly thrown back to their pre-February positions — if not fully ejected, then so far along that path that the final end is in sight. Other contributing factors may emerge from pressure inside his inner circle or from the Russian population. But Putin seeing Russian military defeat as a reality is the key to beginning sincere negotiations. 

That requires an American and European citizenry standing behind full support for a Ukraine counter-offensive, continued sanctions, expanded penetration of Putin’s digital Iron Curtain, and a staunch defense of NATO’s eastern flank to prevent the war from widening or escalating. 

Fighting a war to a successful military outcome is the first step toward establishing the conditions for a just peace. 

James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.

Tags NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian propaganda Russian war crimes Vladimir Putin

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