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Just War: A reflection on one year of war in Ukraine

Just War: A reflection on one year of war in Ukraine

One year on from the start of the war in Ukraine, George Lapshynov looks into the responsibilities of the West in the conflict and questions its role moving forward. 24/02/2023

Today, 24 February 2023, marks the one–year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. The war record: soul–wrenching, to say the least. 

At the time of writing and according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 7,155 civilians, though some sources estimate the number might be as high as 30,000. 

The war has also triggered the Ukrainian refugee crisis – the fourth largest refugee crisis in history, and the largest in Europe since World War II. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that some 5.3 million people are displaced internally within Ukraine. Over eight million Ukrainians have left their country and are dispersed throughout Europe, especially in neighbouring Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, but primarily in Russia, where an estimated 2.85 million currently reside. The United Kingdom in comparison has recorded only 161,400 Ukrainian refugees on its territory. 

Military deaths are harder to assess due to the fog of war, but estimates from the United States place the number at around 200,000, with roughly 100,000 deaths on each side. 

By way of comparison, the Kosovo war, the anniversary of the start of which is in just four days, caused the death of 13,548 civilians and military, all sides combined. In other terms, over a similar time period of a year, the war in Ukraine has already had the human cost of 17 Kosovo wars. The war in Afghanistan, which lasted 20 years, is estimated to have caused the death of 176,000. The war in Ukraine, then, has had the human cost of twenty years of war in Afghanistan in just a fraction of the time.  

I am not, of course, trying to compare the incomparable – the infinite suffering caused by one conflict with that of another. Why then the macabre exercise of mathematics and statistics of death and suffering? What are 200,000 dead young soldiers fallen 1,500 miles away? How high a hill do their corpses make? How deep a trench do they fill? The human brain is infamously bad at computing large numbers. As one article on our inability to grasp what one million Covid deaths means explains, we easily forget, when dealing with abstract quantities, that “every single numerical increase represents the entire lived experience of another human being”. 

And here is where I am compelled to be honest. Behind the overwhelming statistics of the war, the numbers that matter most to me are small: three conscripted cousins fighting at the front, one disabled grandfather living in his canning cellar, and several more close family members living without heating, gas or electricity. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, the brains of our leaders are just as inept and just as poorly suited as our own to understand what 200,000 dead people means. It is easy to look at abstract numbers of deaths from the safety of 10 Downing Street or Nato HQ in Brussels. They might, in fact, just as well be looking at numbers of potatoes and cabbages – the human brain is simply incapable of understanding these kinds of numbers properly. Of course, some might say making cold and objective calculations about how many hundred thousand more young people Ukraine or Russia can afford to lose is arguably part of the job. Yet, is there not, in the cold–hearted business of war, even a small space for a human–centred rationale? 

We cannot, of course, just wake up tomorrow and decide to live forever in loving peace. That would be optimistic to the point of fantasy. Human nature is flawed and bellicose. It is thus in recognition of these shortcomings that Christians, since at least the fourth century, have sought to delineate what would constitute a ‘just’ war, a field of research now aptly named ‘just war theory’. In the face of grave injustice, of invasion and oppression, war can be considered ‘just’, i.e., necessary, and killing, though strictly forbidden by Scripture, is under certain circumstances unavoidable and permissible. In such a case, the argument goes, remaining idle would be worse than taking up arms. Consequently, while a war waged against an invader can be justified vis–à–vis the proscription against killing, that is not sufficient: other important conditions must also be met for it to be ‘just’. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992, reflecting on two millennia of thinking on how a war can meet the moral standards set by Christian Scripture, notes that the “use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” and that “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective”. It states that if a war is indeed necessary, then it must be as bloodless as feasible, only as long as necessary, and it must be humane. Military action must be a last resort, and even then, must be restrained and be compassionate. 

Western countries, and the UK in particular, have justified their financial and military support for Ukraine through a narrative around moral duty. While the argument they make is defensible, they should not forget it is their moral duty also to ensure it remains ‘just’. This means they must do all that is in their power to spare as many lives as possible. It means they must employ all means available to them to look for a path to peace, or at the very least to push for negotiations and steer them towards a ceasefire. 

The West is confidently acclaiming its instrumental role in the war and in Kiev’s unwavering defence against the Kremlin. That being so, even though no Nato country is in an official state of war, it is only fitting that the West should also carry the burden of the moral dimension of the conflict. To assess the ‘justness’ of this war is then also to assess that of the West’s actions. It is an invitation to reflect carefully on the “evils and disorders” produced by all – including Western – weapons in Ukraine. It begs the question of whether all means of putting an end to this war other than more violence and destruction have truly been tried. Yet, there does not appear to be a space for these very Christian and very human–centred questions today. 

What does this mean for the argument that we can justify prolonging the war in the hope of exhausting the Kremlin and bringing it to its knees? Aside from research by the pro–US think tank RAND dated January 2023 suggesting that prolonging the war is the surest way to Russia using nuclear weapons and so to a Nato–Russia war, and that a change of course towards a “political settlement” or at the very least an armistice, should be “the paramount US priority”, the problem this argument poses is a deeply moral one. Can we really defend sacrificing innocent human lives in their hundreds of thousands to buy global strategic advantage? Certainly, such a use of war falls short of being ‘just’ by a very wide margin. 

It is incredibly hard to believe there is nothing we in the West, can do to limit human cost in this conflict or force the parties to the negotiation table. Surely this country, or any involved Western country, has more to offer than just sending more tanks to stop this bloodshed on European soil, if not in lieu then at least in addition to them? We know there is more we can do – and therefore more we must do – to stop the deaths of more innocent young men and women. 

On 14 February 2003, speaking out at the UN Security Council against the UK and US’s call for an invasion of Iraq, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Dominique de Villepin said: “In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The onerous responsibility and immense honour we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament in peace.”[1] While Iraq was in many respects a very different case, the responsibility of this country “to give priority to disarmament in peace” undeniably remains. 

By sending weapons and keeping the war going, the West is happy to invest just enough so that young people across the continent may continue to struggle in the slime and feed the guns[2] day after day. No genuine efforts are made to mediate negotiations or to save human lives. 

Indeed, we have simply chosen for ourselves the easy path, the one that requires minimal commitments and minimal effort. It is easy to send some weapons – but how many human lives can you buy with a gun? It is easy to wave Amazon–bought Ukrainian flags atop public and government buildings – but how many dead do you bring back with a flag? It is easy to gesticulate and vociferate in grand emotive speeches while others fight – but how many words does it take to console 200,000 crying mothers? The path of minimal involvement is a very easy one indeed. 

While this war is undeniably costing the United Kingdom some money – a mere 0.32% of its GDP over the whole of 2022 – it is costing Ukraine hundreds of thousands of human lives. The sacrifice hardly compares. 

Having come to this unsettling conclusion, I can now finally ask: if not from the West, from whence then come our peacemakers? Who will be saving my conscripted cousins currently fighting at the front, risking daily the most brutal death? Who, for my family’s sake and for the millions of families affected by this war, will be saving lives? 

If the question sounds philosophical, do not be fooled: it is extremely practical. Every minute the fighting continues, more innocent men and women die. 

What then, one might ask, is the West to do? Should we withdraw completely? Should we send our armed forces and enter in earnest in the war? That, I cannot say. The aim of this piece is not to convince the reader either way. Rather, it is to sharply underline that the current path, the lukewarm by–default middle path of ‘neither here nor there’, is not nearly as morally justified as it seems. 

If this country, Nato, the West, continue down the path of progressive escalation, of protracted war, of keeping the fire of the conflict slowly burning one log at a time – for reasons they believe are justifiable – then so be it. But let them do it transparently. Let them do it honestly. Let them do it by acknowledging openly the real cost, which is not counted in billions of US dollars or Pounds Sterling. It is paid in suffering, in bucket–loads of bitter tears, and in the cries of the injured just far enough away that we are able to conveniently filter out the worst. 

I do not have a recipe for peace in the region, and I fear it might well be far down the line. Yet I am convinced the road leading to peace starts right where we stand. It starts with the realisation that the West carries an immense responsibility for its decisions in this war. And it starts with asking ourselves some very important questions, not the least of which is, what is our excuse for not choosing to save lives when we have the opportunity? 

Countless men and women have already died, but do we not have an imperative to save countless more? The answer to that, unlike our current approach, is not easy. It involves us interrogating what we are after in this war, what “victory” looks like, and recognising the true, human cost. 

“Young faces bleared with blood,
Sucked down into the mud,
You shall hear things like this,
Till the tormented slain Crawl round and once again,
With limbs that twist awry Moan out their brutish pain,
As the fighters pass them by.” [3]

Siegfried Sassoon (spring 1917)


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[1] Original in French: « Dans ce temple des Nations Unies, nous sommes les gardiens d’un idéal, nous sommes les gardiens d’une conscience. La lourde responsabilité et l’immense honneur qui sont les nôtres doivent nous conduire à donner la priorité au désarmement dans la paix. »

[2] A reference to Siegfried Sassoon’s Passing The New Menin Gate, 1927.

[3] Extract from the poem To the Warmongers by Siegfried Sassoon

George Lapshynov

George Lapshynov

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of sacred music.

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Posted 24 February 2023

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