Russia is hinting at peace. Here's why Ukraine shouldn't take it.

There's a moral reason for Ukraine to keep fighting

Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine opened in Istanbul on Tuesday with low expectations for success. Russian officials promised to limit combat operations around Kyiv and hinted that they are willing to accept more limited goals than announced at the beginning of the invasion. But observers warn that withdrawal from contested areas may just be a pause to allow Russian forces to regroup and refit — a tactic that may explain Russia's continued shelling of the areas of its supposedly "limited" operations overnight.

For its part, the Ukrainian government has indicated it's willing to give up its bid to join NATO in exchange for security guarantees. As my colleague Damon Linker cautions, though, it's not clear why the United States and its European partners would be willing to offer — or Russia to accept — this kind of de facto membership in the Western alliance.

In addition to other factors, including the astonishing frequency of illness among people that Putin regards as threatening, these conditions suggest there's a long way to go before any resolution is likely. For the people of Ukraine, that's a disaster. According to the writer Zach Beauchamp's summary of the toll, nearly 4 million Ukrainians — around 9 percent of the total population — have fled their homes in the last month. The official civilian death toll of 1,119 is low by historical standards for interstate war, but the real total is almost certainly higher than that. And the State Department has accused Russian forces of war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets.

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From a moral perspective, then, it would seem that the case for peace is overwhelming. What could be more important than reducing the suffering as soon as possible?

On Monday, UN Secretary General António Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire to protect civilians. And some critics of U.S. policy have argued since the beginning that military aid will only prolong the conflict and increase the misery.

But there's more to morality than minimizing suffering, urgent though that is. A form of moral reasoning that derives from religious sources including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas but has been adapted by secular thinkers, the just war tradition, is an attempt to think systematically about the legitimate causes, conduct, and purpose of organized violence.

Standard treatments of just war theories tend to emphasize the first two elements. In other words, they consider the conditions under which states are morally entitled to fight and the restraints they should observe when doing so. By these standards, Russia is doubly in the wrong and Ukraine mostly in the right. Russian forces crossed Ukrainian borders. The defense of territorial integrity is the most basic, although not only, justification of war. And while there are allegations that Ukrainian forces have abused POWs, there are no credible charges so far that they've targeted civilians — a far more serious charge. Writing in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, political theorist Michael Walzer, the leader of the 20th-century revival of the just war tradition, concluded that the war in Eastern Europe demonstrates the enduring value of the approach, even for those who question its political and historical premises.

Yet just war theories aren't only about the acceptable causes of war — known as jus ad bellum — or the appropriate tactics within it. They're also, and more fundamentally, concerned with its goals. Unlike pagans who glorified war as the noblest human activity, the Christians who developed the just war tradition insisted that violence could only be justified instrumentally. In other words, it was permissible only when it was a necessary means toward another, higher good. That ultimate good, both religious and secular just war thinkers agree, is peace.

Not every kind of peace can justify war, though. After all, a brutal conqueror might extract submission at the point of a sword — or pacify a rival by simply exterminating its population. In order to avoid a kind of peace that seems worse than the fighting it concludes, just war theorists specify that violence must aim at a particular kind of peace. A just peace doesn't only mean that the guns stop firing; it is a condition in which human dignity and political rights are protected.

That's where the humanitarian argument for a quick deal in Ukraine falls short. Freezing the conflict in its current condition might save hundreds or thousands of non-combatants who would otherwise face injury or death. But it would also effectively reward Russia for its act of aggression, adding to the territory under its control and giving its forces the opportunity to rebuild. Even a sustained pause in fighting would not really be peace. Instead, it would merely begin a countdown to the next war, when Russia might try again to dismember or even annex its neighbor.

Russia's not the only consideration, either. As the old antiwar slogan goes, "the whole world is watching." Allowing Russia to escape the political, military, and economic consequences of its invasion sends a signal to other states that they can expect to get off easy, too. It might even create a perverse incentive to maximize threats to civilians. If preserving lives is the paramount objective, after all, civilian suffering can then be invoked cynically to lock in ill-gotten gains.

I've written in the past about the dangers of a vindictive response to the war. Demonizing the Russian people and culture is also an obstacle to just peace, because it heightens fears that Russia's very survival is threatened under the status quo.

But avoiding one extreme of moral crusading doesn't require lapsing into the opposite vice of naive and counterproductive humanitarianism. The just war tradition holds that pursuing a peace worth having means continuing to fight. For the moment, that is still the case in Ukraine.

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