Russia’s Invasion Is Defeat for Humanity — How Should We Respond?

COMMENTARY: While direct military intervention is not warranted, other punitive responses are in order.

Smoke billows over the town of Vasylkiv just outside Kyiv on Feb. 27, after overnight Russian strikes hit an oil depot. Ukraine's foreign minister said Feb. 27 that Kyiv would not buckle at talks with Russia over its invasion, accusing President Vladimir Putin of seeking to increase "pressure" by ordering his nuclear forces on high alert.
Smoke billows over the town of Vasylkiv just outside Kyiv on Feb. 27, after overnight Russian strikes hit an oil depot. Ukraine's foreign minister said Feb. 27 that Kyiv would not buckle at talks with Russia over its invasion, accusing President Vladimir Putin of seeking to increase "pressure" by ordering his nuclear forces on high alert. (photo: Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images)

As the third millennium began, St. John Paul II, reflecting back on the last century, the bloodiest and cruelest in human history, reminded us in his World Day of Peace statements of the futility of war, including in 2000

“Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore, in addition to causing horrendous damage, they prove ultimately futile. War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.”

Respect for human dignity, international law, human rights and European peace were grossly violated by Vladimir Putin and the nation of Russia this week. But this is not really something new. Putin has committed countless crimes against his own people and his neighbors for decades. The list is much too long to recount fully here, but includes corruption, cronyism, repression and aggression. He has jailed journalists, poisoned and killed political opponents, manipulated the Russian political process to cling to total autocratic power for 22 years, and suppressed human rights at home. He has committed the international crime of aggression against Georgia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. He has propped up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one of the most vicious dictators in human history. The world has also been plagued by numerous cyberattacks, election interference and disinformation campaigns directly or indirectly sanctioned by Putin’s government. From his time in the KGB to assistant mayor of St. Petersburg to today, Putin has not been a force for good for Russia or the world. 


Russia’s Ongoing Crime of Aggression

Russia’s devastating and deadly violation of the sovereignty of the Ukraine and the peace of Europe is nothing new. Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. However, the massive attacks this week escalated this unjust aggression to new levels not seen in Europe since World War II.

This crime of aggression cannot stand. Hopefully, all the world has learned the lessons of the 20th century: Appeasement of dictators, authoritarian rulers and rogue nations will not work. If we are to live in a world of at least minimum adherence to the rule of law, national sovereignty and international borders cannot be violated by illicit military incursions. Aggression must be challenged, checked and reversed at every turn. 


UN Special Emergency Session On Ukraine
Members of the UN Security Council listen as Vasily Nebenzya, permanent representative of Russia to the United Nations speaks during a special session of the General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters on on Feb. 28 in New York City. The U.N. Security Council voted on Sunday to hold a rare emergency special session of the General Assembly to discuss Russia's attack on Ukraine. The meeting gave all 193 members of the global body a chance to present their views on the invasion.(Photo: Michael M. Santiago)2022 Getty Images

The World’s Response

This may well be a pivotal moment in world history. How should the U.S. and other nations respond? 

Ukraine has every right (and duty) to defend itself (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2265). Massive support to the Ukrainian resistance would be justified. Ukraine has a long history of resisting invaders. The British and Americans are justly proud of their efforts under Gens. Montgomery and Patton in the North African Campaign in World War II, but Ukrainian resistance fighters tied down more German battalions with their resistance during that war than Britain and the U.S. ever did in Africa. 

Many wonder if direct NATO or U.S. military intervention is appropriate. I would argue against this approach. Much like the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, one cannot always respond in kind. While these, too, were unjust aggressions, given the possibility of nuclear conflict and the extreme difficulty of fighting a direct war between large militaries without massive casualties and escalation, both the just-war theory criterion of “proportionality” and “probability of success” spoke against such a response. 

While direct military intervention is not warranted, other punitive responses are in order. Severe economic sanctions should be imposed on Russia. The nations of the world should clearly state that the crime of aggression cannot stand. Russia must return all seized territory, including the Crimean Peninsula, to the sovereignty of Ukraine. Nothing but total withdrawal will be acceptable. Until that time, Russia should be considered a rogue nation much like North Korea. All Russian national assets outside of Russia should be frozen until war reparations are paid to Ukraine. Russia’s ability to act in the world economy should be severely limited to food, medical supplies and other necessities to sustain life. All payments for Russian gas and oil should also be frozen until this unjust aggression ceases. Russia should be cut off from the swift global payment system. There should be no technology transfer to Russia.

These and other sanctions do not necessarily have to be imposed all at once. We must recognize that this battle could well be a long one. Much like the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russia must be shown that the cost of their occupation of another sovereign nation is too high. 


Is NATO Expansion at Fault?  

The short answer is No. NATO is a completely defensive alliance. Russia does not have any reason to fear NATO unless it plans on further aggressive action. Russia does not have and should not have a veto on the foreign policy of sovereign nations, even ones the country used to dominate. 

In fact, Russian actions in Ukraine and elsewhere prove the need for NATO and the prudence in supporting the freedom of the former Warsaw Pact and Baltic nations. 


What About China?

The Chinese response is a possible “wild card” in this crisis. If it so chooses, China could prop up Russia and mitigate a great deal of the impact of any economic or trade sanctions. Of course, to do so would clearly place China on the side of international lawlessness. 

While I have no illusion that China cares about the people of the Ukraine, the world should make it clear that similar sanctions will be placed on any country that aids and abets Russia’s criminal activity. If China chooses this unfortunate route, which everyone should pray they do not, it would clarify that we have entered a new world order — a world divided between autocratic, lawless regimes that know nothing but power and the rule of force and free nations dedicated to the basic principles of liberal democracy and international law.


Sacrifices Will Be Needed

No one should be under the illusion that these responses will not be painful for all. Wars and the rumor of wars always drain economic and social capital. Defense budgets will need to increase. New sources of oil and gas will need to be explored. Cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns will need to be endured and countered. Much human suffering will be in the offing. 

This moment also calls for many sacrifices from the United States. If our commitment to defend our NATO allies and defer further aggression is to be credible, serious consideration should be given to reinstituting the draft (but that’s a topic for another commentary). Gas and heating prices will most likely rise. Higher taxes are probably in our future. 

But perhaps more difficult political challenges will need to be met. This new threat to world peace (and ultimately, human survival as we know it) demands that we face the challenges of the real world in a mature way. The rather fatuous obsessions of political and social “wokeness” so dividing our nation and our allies, must be, if not abandoned completely, relegated to the proverbial “back burner” for the foreseeable future. 

This will be a political sacrifice that the “left” will need to make. But those on the “right” will also need to sacrifice. The obsession with opposing the current administration in all things (or worse, the fomenting of the illusion that it is not a legitimate administration) must cease. We must return to the era when political opposition ended at the water’s edge. Unity in our response to tyranny demands nothing less. 


The Particular Challenge and Call for Catholics

When one part of the Body of Christ suffers, all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26). The Catholic Church in Ukraine, China and elsewhere is suffering greatly. Pope Francis, echoing the teaching of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has called us to fast and pray for peace and justice in Ukraine. This is vital and is the least we all must do. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv appealed to all people of goodwill for solidarity with the suffering people of Ukraine. He has rightfully pointed out that, due to Russia’s action, “Irreparable damage has been done to the very logic of international relations, which are called to safeguard peace and the just order of societies, the supremacy of law, the accountability of state powers, the defense of the human being, human life, and natural rights.”

Tyranny must be exposed and opposed. We must stand in solidarity with Ukraine and all who suffer from tyranny’s vicious reign.