Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Justice and War in Ukraine: Part I

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 18, 2022

Too many good Catholics have succumbed to simplistic thinking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some see only the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and insist that we must do everything within our power to repel the aggressors. Others see Vladimir Putin as the unlikely defender of Christian tradition, provoked by the decadent West. Both approaches are wrong.

The Russian invasion is indefensible; our sympathy for the Ukrainians is both natural and healthy. But not every step that we could take on their behalf would be prudent or morally licit. The sins of the West are scarlet, but Russia’s aggression is not a remedy for our faults. The long Catholic tradition of thinking and teaching about justice in warfare bids us to dig a little deeper into the issues, to weigh options more carefully.

My purpose in this essay is not to offer a simple solution to the suffering of Ukraine—I don’t even pretend to know what the solution might be. But I do hope to clarify some of the muddled thinking among my fellow Catholics. Specifically, I want to help readers understand:

  • the reasons why Putin launched an invasion;
  • the different options that American policy-makers could consider, with their benefits and drawbacks; and
  • the possible outcome of this war—including one possible result that very few commentators seem to have noticed.

Warfare as a form of politics

War, said that great 19th-century Prussian military theorist Von Clausewitz, is “the continuation of politics with other means.” The quote is often inaccurately translated, with “by other means” rather than “with other means.” The difference is important. To say that war is politics by other means leaves open the interpretation that once war begins, other forms of political interaction cease. That is a profoundly wrong—in fact dangerous—approach. Military actions must always be oriented toward political goals, and honorable leaders should be constantly weighing the possibilities for achieving those goals without further bloodshed.

War excites the emotions, and emotions can cloud judgment. Wise generals must preserve their ability to think dispassionately—no small feat, when they are surrounded by the clamor and confusion that characterize any battle: the notorious “fog of war.”

Reliable information is always at a premium. “Truth is the first casualty of war,” as the saying goes, and every report can be tainted by horror, fear, haste, and anger. Every combatant will engage in propaganda, issuing reports designed to generate support for this cause—very likely at the expense of accuracy. Civilians are likely to develop idealized views about the nobility of their own troops and the perfidy of their opponents.

Thus in the current conflict it is easy to admire the bravery of Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and to forget that just a few months ago his government was being lambasted for corruption. It is quite understandable that internet service providers have blocked Russian news outlets, in the drive to isolate an outlaw nation; but as a result, we have no first-hand knowledge of what Russian propagandists are saying to their people.

In these circumstances, careful analysis is difficult, yet it is indispensable—especially if we wish to be guided by moral standards of justice in warfare.

To be just, the Catholic tradition teaches us, a war must have a proper cause: a serious harm that must be made right. War is justified only if every other option (negotiation, economic sanctions, etc.) has been exhausted. The use of military force must be proportionate: that is, the damage caused by the war cannot be greater than the harm that provoked it. And (a condition that is particularly relevant in Ukraine) there must be a reasonable expectation that the military action will succeed—in other words, there is no justification for a suicidal war.

It goes without saying, I hope, that Russia is not fighting a just war in Ukraine. Russia has suffered no major harm. Putin’s defenders say that he may fear future harms, but warfare cannot be rationalized by speculation. A war of aggression can never be justified. Putin’s claim that ethnic Russians are being oppressed in Ukraine is a canard: the same sort of bogus claim that Hitler used for moving into Czechoslovakia and Stalin used for invading Finland.

Ukraine certainly has a just cause for the use of military force: to defend the country against an attack that has unquestionably caused serious harm. But remember that a righteous cause is not sufficient to justify a war. Do the Ukrainians have a realistic prospect of victory? If not they may be shedding blood in vain.

With those preliminary thoughts in mind, let’s look more carefully at the situation in Ukraine. Here I am examining the conflict from an American perspective; other nations will look at the conflict from their own perspectives.

Know the terrain

When I teach undergraduates about the Church’s just-war tradition, I insist that they read The Art of War, the timeless classic written by Sun Tzu sometime around 500 BC. (In fact I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in conflict or negotiation.) The great Chinese philosopher/strategist takes a cerebral approach to military matters, teaching that one must recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of one’s opponent. The successful general is always mindful of his ultimate objectives, Sun Tzu tells us, and always mindful of the terrain.

Let’s take the question of terrain first, because it is a crucial one. A quick glance at a world map should give Americans their first clear understanding about the conflict. Ukraine lies next to Russia. (In fact Putin, and many other Russians, would argue that Ukraine is part of Russia.) Kiev is roughly 5,000 miles from Washington, DC, and the events there pose no immediate threat to our security. There are grave political crises in other countries (Venezuela and Nicaragua come to mind), much closer to our shores. Especially since we have no formal alliance with Ukraine, the US would be foolhardy to fight in Russia’s backyard, where we could not match our adversary’s power to project force in conventional arms, and dare not risk a nuclear exchange.

Next consider the correlation of forces. Russia is a great power, with a military capability that dwarfs that of Ukraine. Even with help from sympathetic countries, Ukraine cannot expect to defeat Russia in a conventional war.

However, Ukraine does not need to defeat Russia in order to secure its objectives. Ukraine only needs to persuade its more powerful neighbor to withdraw. (Remember that in the American Revolution, the colonists could not match the might of the British empire, yet managed to convince the British that they should go home.) Putin, on the other hand, must score an outright win in order to achieve his objectives. So Ukrainian forces only need to forestall a Russian victory.

At the moment, with Russian troops failing to perform as expected, it does seem possible that Ukraine could ward off the Russian attackers, making the price of victory higher than what Moscow is willing to pay. But if Putin responds to unexpected resistance by escalating, eventually Russia can muster forces that Ukraine cannot match.

Already Russia is viewed by nearly the entire world as an outlaw state and economic sanctions will take a heavy toll, perhaps forcing Moscow’s leaders to reconsider their military options. Notice, by the way, that in this case the Western world is turning the Clausewitz dictum on its head; rather than using warfare as an instrument of politics, we are in effect using politics as an instrument of bloodless warfare.

We can provide aid to the Ukrainian resistance as well, of course. But what will that aid accomplish? If we enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, are we risking a direct confrontation with Russia, and awakening the slumbering specter of nuclear confrontation? If we supply arms to the resistance fighters, are we merely adding to the suffering that Ukraine will endure before the inevitable Russian victory?

In short, how can we calculate the moral hazard involved in support for Ukraine? We want to help them repel an aggressor, but not at the cost of causing a war that no one can win. How can we assess what means are proportionate to the desired end: a halt to Russian aggression? To answer these questions, we need to take another step down the path that Sun Tzu explored in The Art of War, and try to gain a better understanding of what our adversary is trying to achieve. What provoked Putin to launch this invasion? What might prompt him to escalate? What would convince him to withdraw?

Next, in Part II: What Putin wants

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 20, 2022 8:37 AM ET USA

    Thank you for the good effort to explain what, so far, appears to be unexplainable. Our Lord used in His teaching a common-sense example: "What king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms." Before this war there were no attempts to negotiate peace terms. For some reasons.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Mar. 19, 2022 5:04 PM ET USA

    Agree, agree, agree. What can reasonably be given to Putin in return for withdrawal (and restitution?) I would argue that he already has the "no NATO membership" warranty. Let NATO agree to that. Demilitarization of Ukraine? Proven stupid in the last month. Bargain with neutrality; the West has proven that they can slow Putin down by supplying equipment as they are now.

  • Posted by: toddvoss1511 - Mar. 19, 2022 2:03 PM ET USA

    So far so good