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  • Writer's pictureJeff McMahan

Moral Liability for the Russian Invasion and the Moral Necessity of Sanctions

According to traditional just war theory, soldiers who fight in a war with aims that are wholly unjust and impermissible (“unjust combatants”) are not engaged in moral wrongdoing, provided that they obey the moral principles governing the conduct of war, such as the traditional principle that prohibits intentional attacks on civilians. This is perhaps unsurprising, as just war theory evolved in tandem with the law of armed conflict, according to which soldiers who fight in a war that is illegal do not themselves act illegally, provided that they do not violate the laws governing the conduct of war. In short, traditional just war theory says the same about the morality of participating in an immoral war that the law of armed conflict says about the legality of participating in an illegal war.

For several decades “revisionist” just war theorists have disputed this claim of traditional just war theory, arguing that even if it makes good sense not to hold unjust combatants criminally liable for mere participation in an illegal war, it makes no sense to suppose that unjust combatants are acting morally permissibly when they kill enemy combatants (“just combatants”) who fight with positive moral justification and are perhaps even morally required to fight to prevent the achievement of the unjust combatants’ unjust aims. Revisionist just war theorists concede, of course, that acts of war by unjust combatants may be subject to a variety of mitigating or excusing conditions. Unjust combatants may, for example, be at least partly excused if they have been indoctrinated and lied to, so that they believe that their unjust war is in fact just. In these cases, unjust combatants may not be fully morally responsible, or fully culpable or blameworthy, for their objectively wrongful action.

The revisionist view seems luminously obvious in the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just as a third party who seeks to defend the innocent victim of an unjust attack does not thereby forfeit her right not to be attacked, so Ukrainian soldiers who seek to defend their fellow citizens from unjust attack by Russian soldiers do not forfeit their right not to be attacked. It makes no difference, morally, that Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are participants in a war – at least what appears to Ukrainians to be a war, even if to Russians it is only a “special military operation”. Ukrainian soldiers have done nothing to make themselves morally liable to be attacked, even when they engage in defensive action against the Russian invaders. Their moral status is the same as that of Ukrainian civilians, just as the moral status of a third party defender is no different from that of the innocent victim she seeks to defend. Indeed, until the moment of the invasion, many who are now soldiers in Ukraine were ordinary civilians. They were compelled to abandon their civilian status because the Russian aggression made it their moral duty to become soldiers. And people do not forfeit their moral rights by doing what morality requires them to do.

Russian soldiers have, of course, been systematically lied to, as those before them have been repeatedly lied to by Putin’s predecessors in the almost unbroken chain of tyrants and dictators who have ruled Russia and the Soviet Union for many centuries. Russian soldiers in Ukraine have been told that the Ukrainian government consists of militarist Nazis engaged in genocide against ordinary Ukrainians, who are really Russian rather than Ukrainian, and that Ukraine has posed a grave threat to Russia that was on the verge of becoming an existential threat with Ukraine’s imminent admission to NATO. (Ukraine does pose a grave threat to Putin – namely, the threat of a peaceful democracy in a formerly annexed state on Russia’s border.)

Ukrainian soldiers have done nothing to make themselves morally liable to be attacked, even when they engage in defensive action against the Russian invaders.

Yet it must have been obvious to Russian soldiers, once they were in Ukraine and besieging its cities, that there were no throngs of persecuted victims welcoming their liberators, only fleeing civilians and brave soldiers defending them against a vastly more powerful enemy. There were no military forces configured for offensive operations against Russia and there has been no military intervention by NATO. Faced with this evidence, any Russian soldier who also knows that the few independent news sources in Russia have been suppressed, that social media have been blocked, and that it is illegal to challenge claims made about the war by the government must be able to infer that he is being lied to about conditions in Ukraine. Russian soldiers in Ukraine have few, if any, epistemic excuses.

One reason why traditional just war theory is not just mistaken but pernicious is that it enables unjust combatants who are not obviously committing war crimes to believe that they are acting permissibly when they kill just combatants, who have done nothing to forfeit their right not to be killed, as a means of achieving unjust goals. And this in turn enables them to continue to fight even when they suspect, or know, that the goals for which they are fighting are unjust. Traditional just war theory thus facilitates egregious moral wrongdoing on an enormous scale. Most Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are murderers, or attempted murderers – even those, who seem to be rather few, who are attacking only members of the Ukrainian armed forces instead of bombarding apartment buildings, hospitals, civilian shelters, and nuclear power plants.

People in other countries have a duty to stop this campaign of mass murder if possible. But possibility includes moral possibility, and direct military intervention to protect the citizens of Ukraine from Russian aggression is not morally possible. That is because it would violate the requirement of proportionality. It would be disproportionate because of the substantial risk of escalation to nuclear war – a threat that Putin has both announced orally and signaled by placing Russian nuclear forces on high alert.

This is an instance in which unscrupulous aggressors can enhance the probability of success in their wrongdoing by limiting the options morally available to others. Putin has already demonstrated the credibility of his depraved threats of nuclear war through the barbaric attacks he has ordered and the utter contempt he has for the lives and well-being of others – not just of Ukrainians but of any who oppose him, including those members of the exalted Slavic nation – those “scum and traitors”, as he calls them – who have been sufficiently principled and courageous to take significant personal risks in protesting against the war.

Russian soldiers in Ukraine have few, if any, epistemic excuses.

Putin has, in short, made it morally impermissible for other countries – especially NATO countries – to intervene militarily in Ukraine. But, as many governments and international organizations, as well as some private corporations, has shown, there are potentially effective means of pressing the Russian government to end the war and accept some face-saving diplomatic resolution. These include the provision of military aid to Ukraine, but that also has a serious risk of escalation to nuclear war, though a less significant risk than direct military intervention. One can imagine what would happen if, for example, Russian forces engaged in interdiction by conducting strikes within the territory of a NATO state to destroy preemptively a stockpile of weaponry scheduled for transfer to Ukraine. This would, among other things, activate Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which commits all NATO countries to the collective defense of any member state that has been attacked.

By contrast, economic sanction and boycotts are very unlikely to lead to nuclear war. And the risk is lowered when, as is in fact the case at present, a broad range of states, international organizations, and private corporations impose sanctions; for in that case there is no rational target for a nuclear attack. Deranged though he may be, it would be absurd for Putin to order a nuclear strike against the headquarters of McDonalds.

There are, however, two concerns about the permissibility of economic sanctions and boycotts: first, that they may be ineffective or, in particular, counterproductive; second, that they are intended to harm the innocent.

Although there were initially some protests against the war by Russian civilians – though nothing on the scale of those, for example, in Berlin – these protests have now all but ceased. In early April, polls conducted by an agency independent of the Russian government found that 81 percent of Russians support the war and that Putin has an approval rating of 83 percent, 14 points higher than in January. According to the New York Times, there are indications that many Russians affected by the sanctions have interpreted them as evidence in support of Putin’s claim that, rather than being the perpetrator of aggression and atrocities, Russia is actually the victim not only of threats from Ukraine but also of persecution by the West in general. It is possible that, like the terror bombing of British cities by the Nazis, the sanctions may stiffen the resolve of the citizens to resist the pressures from those they regard as their enemies. If that is the case, economic sanctions violate the requirement of necessity, according to which defensive action must not inflict more harm than is necessary to achieve a just goal. Harmful action that is ineffective or counterproductive is necessarily in violation of the requirement of necessity.

Putin has [...] made it morally impermissible for other countries – especially NATO countries – to intervene militarily in Ukraine.

There is, however, a counter-narrative that can be heard in Russia despite the ubiquitous censorship and punishment of dissent. There is, moreover, the possibility that, as the hardships caused by the sanctions intensify, and as Russian sons, fathers, and husbands return home, either in body bags, or with wounds, or just with accounts of what they have seen and done, ordinary Russians will increasingly question the lies gushing forth from their government and the media it controls. Even at present, any minimally rational Russian has weaker excuses for believing Putin’s lies than even Trump supporters have for believing their idol’s countless outrageous lies; for at least in the US, even under Trump, the major media have merely been slandered rather than closed down, social media have remained accessible, and peaceful protesters and those who have voided their dissent have in general been neither beaten nor jailed by the police. It is, indeed, entirely possible that the evident censorship of independent media, the blocking of social media, the brutal treatment of peaceful protesters, and the punishment of mere verbal dissent – in short, the government’s desperate suppression of all sources of opinion other than itself – might lead ordinary Russians to suspect that their government’s claims are not entirely trustworthy.

It does not, moreover, take a high degree of intelligence to perceive that the conditions of ordinary life in Russia were far better before the economic sanctions were imposed, or to determine what precipitated the decline in those conditions. The sanctions did not appear out of the blue, but are instead subject to ordinary processes of cause and effect. And the cause was the sending of a vast array of Russian military forces into a neighboring country that had not attacked Russia. No Russian could possibly believe that the timing of the sanctions in relation to the timing of the “special military operation” was entirely fortuitous or coincidental. It therefore does not take unusual insight to understand that the sanctions are likely to end when what provoked them ends. Individual self-interest may eventually favor the risks involved in expressions of dissent over continued deprivation of benefits caused by the sanctions.

The foregoing comments on the potential effectiveness of economic sanctions seem to presuppose that the intended purpose of sanctions is to harm ordinary Russian civilians as a means of pressuring them to protest against their government’s aggression in Ukraine. Sanctions need not, however, be intended to harm ordinary citizens. They might be intended to harm only members of the government and the wealthy elites who support the government. Putin, after all, cares about power and his power will be weakened, not strengthened, if he is reduced to ruling a politically isolated and economically crippled state.

But, while diminishing the power of the Russian state is clearly among the intended aims of the sanctions, it would be naïve to deny that depriving ordinary civilians of economic benefits is also among the intended aims. Yet if ordinary civilians are innocent in the relevant sense, harming them as a means of applying pressure to their government may seem like a mild form of terrorism. Although the goal is not to provoke terror among civilians to compel them to pressure their government, one goal of sanctions is to cause sufficient hardship and discontent among civilians to prompt them to exert pressure on their government to end the war. But if Russian civilians bear no moral responsibility for their government’s decision to invade Ukraine, it does seem that harmfully using them in this way is specially morally objectionable, as it involves harming them when they have done nothing to make themselves morally liable to be harmed.

Each individual [Russian civilian] bears some small responsibility for the continuing war not so much because of what each has done but because of what each has not done – namely, speak out against or otherwise protest against the invasion of Ukraine, and against the atrocities that Russian forces are committing there.

I think, however, that a case can be made for the claim that individual Russian civilians do indeed bear some responsibility for the continuing war in Ukraine and are therefore liable to the comparatively small harms that they are experiencing as a result of the sanctions. Each individual bears some small responsibility for the continuing war not so much because of what each has done but because of what each has not done – namely, speak out against or otherwise protest against the invasion of Ukraine, and against the atrocities that Russian forces are committing there. If at any point since the war began, 100,000 Russians had gathered in the streets of Moscow or Petersburg, or both, the way 100,000 Germans gathered in the streets of Berlin, and if those protests had emboldened Russians elsewhere to protest as well, it would have been far more difficult than it has been for Putin to continue to defy morality, law, and world opinion by continuing the war, as he has done. There is of course a difficult coordination problem here, but if a large enough number of Russians were to protest together, the personal risk to each would be relatively low, as there are both logistical and emotional limits to the ability of the police to use violence against or incarcerate an enormous number of their fellow citizens.

I believe, therefore, that most adult Russian citizens – including every Russian soldier – have a duty to take some action to oppose Putin’s war. The duty is not to take grave risks but only to indicate some opposition, even if it is done clandestinely – for example, by going out late at night to write short statements of protest on walls. If a vast profusion of such statements were to appear, that could galvanize more open forms of protest.

Moral liability to harm is comparative. When harm is unavoidable and some people bear some responsibility for that fact while others bear none, that is sufficient to make those who bear some responsibility morally liable to be harmed – though only in necessary and proportionate ways. Because of Putin’s action, harm is unavoidable: either Ukrainians who bear no responsibility for the Russian invasion of their country will continue to suffer the gravest possible harms, or Russian civilians who have a duty to oppose their country’s unjust war will have to suffer the comparatively minor harms caused by economic sanctions – assuming that these sanctions do indeed have some probability of contributing to the ending of the war and are otherwise proportionate. In these conditions, it seems that many or most Russian civilians are morally liable to suffer the harms they are experiencing as a consequence of the sanctions. They have no reasonable complaint to be morally exempt from these comparatively minor harms, given what their leaders will continue to do in the absence of domestic opposition.

This, of course, is not true of those who have bravely opposed the war in whatever ways they can. These people are wronged by the sanctions, though only as a side effect; for they are not the intended targets. What one hopes is that their commitment to justice is sufficiently robust to enable them to understand that it is ultimately their government and their fellow citizens who bear primary responsibility for the harms they must unjustly suffer, and also to enable them to endure those harms with fortitude in the knowledge that they are probably necessary if the war is to be ended sooner rather than later, with fewer deaths among the war’s real victims.

I should stress that the harms inflicted on ordinary Russian civilians must be proportionate in relation to the degree of their responsibility for what their government and fellow countrymen are doing in Ukraine. While the withholding of many benefits is proportionate, preventing Russian civilians from having their lives saved or their diseases cured is not. Thus, while it is proportionate to deny them McDonalds hamburgers and Starbucks coffees, or to diminish their incomes or even to cause some of them to lose their jobs, it is not proportionate to prevent them from receiving medical treatments or equipment, pharmaceutical chemicals, or other supplies that are necessary for life and health.

But within these limits, and on the assumption that economic sanctions have some probability of contributing to the ending of the war, I believe that it is the duty of every institution that has the option of imposing sanctions on Russia to do so.

Jeff McMahan is Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford and author of The Ethics of Killing (OUP, 2002) and Killing in War (OUP, 2009).

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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