From The Editor’s Desk of THE TABLET, 4 March 2022

Events are unfolding in Ukraine with lightning speed, so that what was unthinkable at the start of the week could be inescapable by the end of it. For instance, at what level of suffering experienced by the ordinary people of Ukraine does the Western resistance to direct military help start to crumble? Wars can be driven by public opinion as much as by generals and politicians, and already a transformation in attitudes and approaches to economic sanctions is taking place across the globe.

There are now two wars being fought side by side, one with missiles, bullets and tanks, and the other with credit cancellations, freezing or closing accounts, confiscating assets and abandoning sporting fixtures. Nato may inch towards military options, even the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Western Ukraine or at least the use of its stock of armed drones, while civilians on all sides inch towards deprivation, even destitution.

Both these campaigns are inevitably aimed at whole populations. Residents of apartment blocks in Kyiv and Kharkiv tremble as Russian tanks approach, while an unprecedented programme of economic and trade sanctions, aimed at causing the collapse of the Russian economy, can only mean if they succeed the emptying of supermarket shelves in Moscow and St Petersburg, the drying up of cash machines and petrol stations, and power cuts across the land. In both cases it will be the poor that suffer most severely.

This is not to apportion blame, as if any of it falls on the brave people of Ukraine. All they are doing is exercising their God-given right to defend themselves. Nor are the people of Russia, repressed and lied to by their own leaders, accountable for the aggression against their peaceful neighbours. It is all down to the Russian president Vladimir Putin, his expansionist appetites and his semi-mystical belief that Providence has called upon him to reinvent Ancient Rus. This was a vast empire comprising Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, whose last incarnation was the Soviet Union and which was protected by a geographical border zone of satellite nations, the communist states of Eastern Europe. Putin has called the collapse of that system “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”, words to strike fear into the hearts of every one of those nations which are no longer subordinate to Russian power. In the unlikely event that he succeeds with his present venture to restore the land of Ancient Rus in the form of the old Soviet Union, he will find Nato countries right on its doorstep from Poland to Estonia. Logic will dictate that he must subordinate them to Russian interests once more. Only Nato can stop him.

There are two strands to traditional Just War theory as it applies to the present conflict. Jus ad bellum refers to the legitimacy of going to war, and, at least in the modern age, the only category regarded as passing that test is war against an unjust aggressor. The United Nations’ Charter, which has the status of international law, allows self-defence, but stops short of permitting a pre-emptive strike. Putin has argued that Ukraine’s request to be admitted to Nato constitutes such a threat to Russia’s security. Significantly, though, he justifies his present offensive not as retaliation against a threat by a neighbouring sovereign power but by denying Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation, and he calls its present legitimately elected government a Western puppet junta. That makes any climb-down by him almost inconceivable. Recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty would constitute defeat, pure and simple. Yet without it, it is impossible to see how the war could end. Putin has no exit strategy. Hundreds of Russian soldiers are dying for no purpose, and the Russian people may soon realise it.

Jus in bello describes how just wars may morally be fought once started, and these principles are enshrined in international humanitarian law, Geneva Conventions and the laws against torture and genocide. It is not permissible to target civilian populations with military force. In any event, experience has repeatedly shown that, far from breaking civilian morale, attacks on civilian populations generate greater patriotic zeal and national feeling even while buildings burn and corpses lie unburied. This is what happened in Coventry and London; this is what happened in Hamburg and Berlin. This is what is happening in Kyiv and Kharkiv. The West must not assume it will not happen in Moscow, as sanctions bite. All wars polarise, including economic ones.

Putin’s war has already brought about an extraordinary and historic change in the attitudes of governments across the world, supported by, and often even lagging behind, public opinion. Solidarity with Ukraine has been demonstrated in capital cities almost everywhere, and radical policy changes are happening by the hour. Both the European Union and Nato have been invigorated; Western nations are reassessing the strength of their armed forces. But solidarity is of the heart as well as of the mind, and Putin’s aggression is seen as being an attack not just against innocent men, woman and children in Ukraine, but against civilised values everywhere. Democracy, the desire by a people to be governed by those they have freely elected – government of the people, by the people, for the people, in Lincoln’s famous phrase – is, in the modern age, not negotiable. Defending it is the ultimate just cause.

Just war theory concerns the morality of state actions, but there is another personal realm where morals and legalities apply. The trial of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg confirmed the principle that obedience to immoral and unlawful orders is no defence in law. Military codes across the world now oblige individual soldiers to disobey such orders or face penalties themselves. That may call for an extraordinary degree of individual heroism and courage on the battlefield, but collectively, if such a mood spread and began to prevail, it would become a real threat to Putin’s war plans. It is already plain that many soldiers in the Russian army do not know why they are there. They have not been told they are fighting to restore the boundaries of Ancient Rus, because they would realise that that is ridiculous. So there is a propaganda war to be fought against Putin’s lies, that will lift the scales from the eyes of his associates and of the Russian people. That may be where the greatest hope now exists for a swift end to the horror that he has unleashed.

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