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What is the realistic plan in Ukraine?

Just war principles do not endorse the funding of perpetual armed conflict


President Joe Biden shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 20. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

What is the realistic plan in Ukraine?
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Western leaders marked the one-year anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with a series of rousing denunciations of Russian aggression and enthusiastic assertions of solidarity with the Ukrainians’ fight for freedom and democracy. President Biden took the extraordinary step of journeying in person to Kyiv and giving a speech alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A couple of days later, the United Nations General Assembly enacted a formal resolution censuring Russian aggression and repeating “its demand that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

All of this comes on the heels of two months of dramatic ramp-ups in Western military aid for Ukraine, as several countries, including the United States, have agreed to supply advanced tanks to the Ukrainian army after previously declining to do so, and have even begun to toy with the idea of supplying fighter jets. These developments, it might seem, should warm the hearts of any Christians passionate about justice, for surely Ukraine’s cause is just. There is more, however, to traditional just war theory than “just cause” alone.

Nearly two millenia ago, St. Augustine in his City of God wrote that “it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war.” While from any rational standpoint that should be obvious, it is less clear that all humans are so rational; plenty of men throughout the ages, following the maxim “the struggle is the glory,” have been tempted to think of the strife of war as something worthy in itself, especially in a noble cause. Indeed, we are all tempted by the romantic allure of the vain but glorious struggle to defend one’s homeland or defy a tyrant, even if it means carrying on a bitter war with no end in sight, no realistic prospect of peace.

Accordingly, Christian just war theory has stressed that it is not enough to have a just cause to go to war; you must have a plausible endgame in mind—one less evil than the current state of affairs. There must be some concept of the just and sustainable peace that the war aims to establish, and “a reasonable probability of success” of establishing that peace. To initiate, support, and carry on war indefinitely merely on the grounds that the bad guys deserve to be killed may feel morally satisfying, but it is neither just nor rational.

Ukraine alone seems unlikely to achieve more than a defensive stalemate, and is likely to demand ever-more overt and dramatic forms of Western support in pursuit of victory.

Unfortunately, that is what the Western powers run an increasing risk of doing in the case of the Ukrainian conflict. Although the UN resolution does announce a clear end goal—“that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”—it suggests no strategy for achieving that goal.

Given that the resolution tacitly includes the reconquest of Crimea (Russian territory for nearly a decade now) as a war aim, the just war theorist may well question the probability of success, the likelihood that Putin could be brought to the peace table on such terms. Ukraine alone seems unlikely to achieve more than a defensive stalemate, and is likely to demand ever-more overt and dramatic forms of Western support in pursuit of victory.

Unchastened by our experience in Vietnam, the United States seems to think it can have its cake and eat it too, allowing a distant ally to successfully fight out a proxy war on our behalf while we lustily cheer from the sidelines. This time around, we told ourselves that the bloodless new weapons of economic warfare would allow us to bring Russia to her knees with merely a wave of a wand, with President Biden boasting last March that thanks to sanctions, Russia’s economy was “on track to be cut in half.” The revelation last month that Russia’s economy had contracted by just 2.9 percent in 2022 was met with an embarrassed silence.

Undeterred, President Biden enthused in his Kyiv speech that thanks to Ukraine’s noble resistance, “democracy stands,” and in return offered a vague yet sweeping blank check: “You remind us that freedom is priceless; it’s worth fighting for for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.” We are readily moved by such declarations, and few Americans have hearts hard or twisted enough not to sympathize with the Ukrainians’ struggle. But sympathy is not a war policy. The time is soon coming when America and the other Western nations will have to make up their minds just what sort of peace is sought by the present war, and what means they are willing to deploy to realistically achieve this end. Anything else is simply unjust.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the proper name of the United Nations General Assembly.


Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.


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