Throughout my travels in Ukraine, I have met a handful of people - not more than a handful, mind - who have expressed to me views in the nature of pacifism. They say that they just want this war to be over, and the implication of what they are saying is that Ukraine and the West should sue for peace with Russia and accept on a de jure basis the permanent Russian occupation of the territories to the south and east of the Dnieper River and in Donbas and the four new Russian Oblasts that have been illegally annexed, all for the sake of bringing the war to an early end. The people I have met with these views have been some Ukrainians, often with family on the other side of the line of occupation, and a handful of foreigners. I have every sympathy for pacifism.
Particularly from my prior experiences as a peacekeeper in and scholar of the conflicts in the Western Balkans, I think that war is the greatest evil that humankind can bring upon itself, and I have spent much of my life and professional career in the study of armed conflict, what causes it, how to bring it to an end and how to maintain the peace afterwards. Nevertheless, with all respect to those people who have expressed views inclining towards suing for peace with Russia, I strongly object. I think this is one of the handful of wars that the medieval political philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas would properly categorise as “the just war”, jus ad bellum, and that it must be fought and that Russia must be defeated. I am well aware of the colossal costs in terms of blood and treasure, not just for Ukraine but for every country involved in this horrendous conflict. Nevertheless the fact is that Russia has conducted the biggest single unlawful land grab, in contravention of every principle of international law and European international relations, since the end of World War II. And she must be stopped.
I take no pleasure in employing these words. Russia has engaged in great violence, driven by a deranged political leaders with delusions of imperial grandeur wholly inappropriate to Europe in the twenty-first century. We thought in the latter half of the twentieth century that the invention of nuclear weapons might stop this sort of heinous international crime; but unfortunately it turns out not to be so because everyone has realised the problem with nuclear weapons: they are so catastrophic in their impact and in the potential for global escalation that nobody is ever actually prepared to use them. Also aerial warfare has come to an abrupt halt because it turns out that missiles that can accurately shoot down combat aircraft are far cheaper and easier to produce than combat aircraft themselves. Therefore in an approximately symmetrical war (as opposed to the asymmetric warfare typical of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts amongst others), nobody will fly aeroplanes anymore in light of advances in ballistic missiles technology. That is why this war , which I have described as World War III, now looks more like World War I than World War II.
The international legal order that has kept Europe approximately at peace since 1945 cannot be allowed to be disrupted by the actions of a giant aggressor nation on Europe’s doorstep herself riven with internal instabilities and constantly at threat of breaking up, just as the Russian Empire was and the Soviet Union was. Russia has always been inherently unstable and nobody has ever wanted to deal with this problem adequately. The consequence of Russia’s instability throughout history is that she has been driven to imperial ambitions and aggressive militaristic actions in order to divert domestic attention away from the failings of government in a country that is frankly far too large and devoid of adequate infrastructure to govern properly from a single centre, whether in Moscow or St Petersburg. Instead Russia engages in perpetual war, or as Stalin called it “permanent revolution”, in order to suppress her own people and extinguish the centrifugal forces of democracy, freedom of thought and federalism that threaten to pull Russia apart. Russia’s leaders throughout history have achieved this by perpetually fighting over the borders of neighbouring countries. The furthest extent of Russian imperial domination was in 1945, when the Red Army occupied half of Berlin.
The only thing that stopped the Red Army from progressing further in 1945 than it did was not the infamous “percentages agreement” negotiated between Churchill and Stalin in Moscow 1944 (it was later disregarded in its entirety by Stalin) but rather the fact that the Red Army came up against the army of the United States of America, by far the strongest army in the world, and the armies of the US allies. That was what stopped the Red Army and that line of contact was where the Iron Curtain would subsequently be drawn. Russia has proved throughout her history that she respects power only, and diplomacy, international law and civilised observance of agreements are empty concepts for her. That is why we must fight this war. The US army and her allies subsequently joined together as NATO, and by reason of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine Ukraine must join NATO as well. So far the valiant Ukrainians, backed by the West’s financial might and institutional muscle, have fought the Russians to a halt and even pushed them back to a degree. That struggle must continue. Heartbreaking as it is for the families of those killed and injured, the Russian Armed Forces have, as has been the case repeatedly throughout history, proven themselves monsters, inflicting the most wanton destruction and privations upon the civilian population and indeed upon their own military. They do not care for life or wellbeing of people. As Stalin infamously put it, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
This is the sort of barbarism with which we are dealing in using all of our might and resources to oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is the just war, because Russia cannot be allowed by her own sword to disrupt the peace, harmony, promotion of democratic values and rule of law, and harmonious economic growth, that European Union expansion across the European continent has brought to the peoples of Europe and the peace this has engendered for the wider world. In resisting Russia, nothing less than European civilisation is at stake. This is a war fought for values, and if the globe is not dramatically to recede in the pursuit of Enlightenment goals of perpetual peace, rational harmony and material advancement, then Russia’s aggressive imperial ambitions must be thwarted. Let all civilised nations unite to achieve this goal. Under the weight of international pressure the Soviet Union eventually dismantled itself, and this new Russian political system will likewise eventually do the same thing. The vast majority of Ukrainians know this, and while they understand that this will be a long struggle, this is the paradigm of the Just War.
With thanks to the photographer for allowing me to use an exceptional set of photographs from the Russian assault on Kharkiv in the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. She knows who she is.