THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
UKRAINE AND RUSSIA
WEST MUST CLARIFY ITS WAR AIMS
It is time the Western powers supporting Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s attack engaged in a serious debate about their own war aims. They may not be identical to Ukraine’s. But the way the Ukrainian military effort has become more and more dependent on outside help means some moral responsibility for the eventual outcome has to be shared. Would Nato, the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom support a Ukrainian effort to drive Russia out of Crimea, for instance? If not, had they not better say so soon?
Ukraine’s military tactics have been defensive. It has successfully resisted the Russian invasion, especially its attempt to capture the capital Kyiv, decapitate the government and bring the country under its control. Russia has been forced to abandon that objective, at least for now. It is concentrating on carving out a slice of eastern Ukraine where there is a significant Russian-speaking minority and calling it part of ancient Rus, and on establishing a land bridge between Crimea and south-west Russia.
The Russian tactics of bombing and shelling residential areas until they are uninhabitable fully fit the ancient charge against the Roman Empire, of making a desert and calling it peace. President Vladimir Putin deserves all the infamy heaped on him and his government. But again this raises a war-aims issue: is it realistic to demand that the perpetrators of atrocities by the Russian military be brought to justice before the fighting can stop? Or that Putin must stand trial for war crimes? Such calls amount to a demand for unconditional surrender, which means real war with Russia, not proxy war.
The Ukrainians’ resistance to Russia’s attack on their territory is entirely justified. But the two provinces centred on the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, which Russia has declared to be independent republics but clearly wants to annex, have been fought over since 2014. Is their recapture also a Western war aim? Indeed, is the weakening of Russia militarily, so that, in the words of one senior United States official, “it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”, a legitimate war aim?
It is all very well for Western politicians to urge Kyiv to fight Putin to the last drop of Ukrainian blood – at not much cost to themselves. The prime minister’s address to the Kyiv parliament sounded like a cynical effort to conjure Churchill’s wartime spirit, to the glory of Boris Johnson. But in 1940 Churchill and his audience knew they were all in it together, which Johnson and the people of Ukraine are manifestly not.
Two moral imperatives must take pride of place if the West is to agree a reasonable and just end to the war in Ukraine. The first is the protection of human life and the reduction of human suffering; the second is the reversal of the grave injustice committed by Russia when it invaded on 24 February. In other words, the restoration of the status quo ante bellum. Putin and his generals have experienced a humiliating failure to achieve their aim of bringing Ukraine under Russian control. Talk of unconditional surrender, revenge and punishment is romantic rather than realistic, would require an unacceptable cost in bloodshed on all sides, and even if successful would create a resentful and embittered Russia that would be a grave threat to global security for many decades to come. Nor is seeking such an outcome compatible with Just War theory’s insistence on due proportionality between ends and means.
MORALITY IN POLITICS
RESTORE VIRTUE TO PUBLIC LIFE
It is a commonplace of modern politics that the public does not trust politicians, and a regular trickle of scandals keeps it that way. When this gets out of hand, democratic politics itself becomes impossible. The United States seems to be heading in that direction, with the very possibility of honest and fair elections being called into doubt. In the United Kingdom the issues are usually more personal. And they often involve sex, where the thresholds of what is ignorable and what is intolerable are shifting. The political environment may actually be becoming more moral. Abuses once regarded as “banter” are now seen as harassment and intimidation – which they always were. But to the public it looks like politicians are becoming less moral, and there are calls for stricter rules, more strictly enforced.
This is about culture as well as morality: politicians learn what conduct is acceptable from each other as much as from Erskine May, the Bible of parliamentary procedure. The party whips are supposed to maintain discipline, but their priority is the interests of their party. They use their knowledge of personal misbehaviour to apply pressure rather than to encourage virtue. Virtue is sometimes a mask for hypocrisy, but a culture devoid of it quickly becomes degraded. Virtue ethics, whose revival owes a great deal to the philosopher
Elizabeth Anscombe, should be more widely known. Anscombe and others rescued Aristotle from the dustbin of obsolete ideas where he had lain since the Enlightenment. The promotion of virtue as a religious duty, as in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, had been seen as too close to a “religion of good works”. But the question, “How do I become the best possible version of myself?” is perennial. The Catholic answer, before Catholic moral theology became preoccupied with sexual sin, was, “By practice of the virtues” – faith, hope and charity, but also prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
As the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales declared in its pre-election statement “Choosing the Common Good” in 2010: “The practice of virtue helps to shape us as people. By the pursuit of virtue we act well not because of external constraint but because it has become natural for us to do so.”
Simply tightening the rules on parliamentary behaviour could be a trap, if it encourages the idea that compliance with moral norms can be left to specialist committees. In business and finance, compliance has tended to become a matter of “How far can we go?” rather than “How do we maintain the highest personal and professional standards?” To produce a culture in which every person is treated with respect, rules and their enforcement are necessary, but not sufficient.
2 | THE TABLET | 7 MAY 2022
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