Russia-Ukraine Crisis Is a Moral Problem

EDITORIAL: The human cost of potential hostilities cannot be measured.

An Ukrainian servicemen lays flowers with the Ukrainian flag colors to the place where one of his friend was killed in 2017 on the frontline with the Russia-backed separatists near Avdiivka, Donetsk region, on February 2, 2022.
An Ukrainian servicemen lays flowers with the Ukrainian flag colors to the place where one of his friend was killed in 2017 on the frontline with the Russia-backed separatists near Avdiivka, Donetsk region, on February 2, 2022. (photo: Anatolii Stepanov / AFP/Getty)

Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border is a geopolitical problem — but, more fundamentally, it’s a moral one. Real human lives are affected by Moscow’s aggression and the possibility of war. Any assessment of the scenario — or what the U.S. and the international community should do in response — that fails to take this moral, human dimension into account is inadequate. We cannot reduce the conflict to a life-size game of Risk, just as we can’t make real-life economic decisions with the logic of Monopoly. Fundamentally, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a violation of justice, the virtue that governs relations between persons and communities, ensuring that each receives their due. Among nations, justice demands that a country’s sovereignty and the ability of its people to practice self-governance be respected.

This has not been the case in Ukrainian-Russian relations for decades — particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine as an independent country in 1991. From poisoning pro-Western presidential candidates to rigging election results, Russia has repeatedly sought to illegitimately manipulate internal Ukrainian politics, all in an effort to ensure that the mineral-rich and strategically located nation looks east instead of west for its cues. 

When Russia has not been able to achieve this control through political means, it has turned to violence — as it did in 2014, when it responded to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president by invading and annexing Crimea.

Russia has consistently justified its violations of Ukrainian sovereignty with nostalgic appeals to the two nations’ shared historical, cultural and spiritual heritage. “Ukraine,” after all, is likely derived from the old Slavic term for “borderland,” a reflection that much of the present-day country was once the western edge of the Russian empire. And, today, eastern Ukraine is home to a sizable population of ethnic Russians, many of whom associate themselves more with Russia than with Europe. 

However, Ukraine collectively has made its preference for a closer alignment with Europe and the West clear. And it is disingenuous for Russian President Vladimir Putin to say that he respects Ukrainian self-determination while positioning 100,000 troops along the border. How strong are these cultural and religious ties if they need to be secured by a potential military invasion? Russia and Ukraine might be brothers, but the familial relationship at present seems to be an abusive one.

Even without sending troops into Ukraine, Russia’s current bellicose antics and pressure tactics are an injustice among the community of nations, one that requires rectification. But it’s important that other injustices are not committed in the process.

Every possible effort must be made to avoid war, which all too often causes greater evil than it prevents. As Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, noted last month during a prayer service for peace in Ukraine, “It is even more scandalous that those who suffer the most from conflicts are not those who decide to start them but above all unarmed victims.”

The same can be said about economic sanctions that are often imposed upon rogue nations. Not only are they frequently ineffective, but they tend to negatively impact ordinary citizens far more than their wayward leaders. If the U.S. and our allies do pursue sanctions against Russia, we must ensure that they do not unduly burden the lives of ordinary Russians. Unjust means can never be used to pursue a just end.

Finally, the need to address injustices present in Ukraine-Russia dynamics should underscore the importance of international arrangements capable of mediating disputes between nations — something the Church has long called for. Playing the role of “international police” creates unnecessary conflicts of interest for the United States, and, as recent popes have advised, the common good of the international community can be more justly secured through a limited but effective public authority.

The human tendency toward self-interest is strong, including in geopolitical struggles like the one simmering on Ukraine’s border. But Pope Francis has encouraged us to ask God to intervene.

“May the prayers and invocations that are being raised to heaven today touch the minds and hearts of those in positions of authority on earth, so that dialogue may prevail and the good of all be put before the interests of one side. Please, no more war.”

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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