Barring a campaign where Ukrainian forces decisively and completely drive Russian forces out of its internationally recognized territory (including Crimea), or a regime change in Moscow which could precipitate Russia giving up its invasion of Ukraine and withdrawing from its long-suffering neighbor, we are faced with a protracted war. Regardless of this war’s outcome, again barring a regime change in Moscow with a new and constructive foreign policy toward its neighbors, a protracted war could take two forms. First, Russia invading other countries it borders while still fighting in Ukraine (the Russian military’s poor but determined fighting performance in Ukraine, makes unlikely in the near term), or the second form being the threat of Russia attacking its neighbor once their invasion of Ukraine ends, which would require a new NATO policy of containment akin to what was practiced against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
When Russia invaded, the immediate concern was the threat of a wider war in eastern Europe, including the use of nuclear weapons. Consequently, the United States and NATO have been involved in a difficult balancing act supplying Ukraine with weapons and other aid while not engaging Russian forces directly on the battlefield. However, the threat of a wider war is now being provoked by another global crisis which is being greatly aggravated by this conflict: the disruption of global food supplies. The editors of The Economist, in their May 19, 2022 edition wrote that Ukraine’s food exports provide the calories needed to feed 400m people, mostly in Africa and Asia. This crisis is exacerbated by lower crop yields from China, India, and possibly France and the United States, all countries who are major exporters of cereals and all caused by the lack of rain due to climate change. The global food crisis is acute enough that those same editors are recommending armed escorts of Ukrainian agricultural products out of the silos where they are now stored and in danger of rotting and supply Ukrainian and global markets, especially those vulnerable African and Asian countries. This could serve as a pretext on the part of Russia to widen the war, with Putin adding food as a weapon to his campaign.
It is the specter of a wider war coupled with its contributing to global crises which has raised the temptation of a realpolitik solution. Henry Kissinger, in a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum argued for Ukraine ceding territory to Russia to end the war. French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a compromise with Moscow over Ukrainian sovereignty. Considering Vladimir Putin’s behavior since taking office as Russia’s president, where he continually questions the sovereignty of neighboring states to reestablish Russia as the regional hegemonic power, if not restore the Tsarist Empire, these calls by Western leaders for compromise carry strong parallels with the Sudeten Crisis of 1938. It will temporarily buy peace at the expense of justice for Ukraine, until Putin inevitably precipitates another crisis or war, perhaps against the Baltic states. Others like Paul Griffiths, in his June 7, 2022 Commonweal article goes as far as to call for the end of military aid to Ukraine and let Russia erase it and its people from the map, all to end the carnage of a futile war. Again, Putin’s record of treating Russia’s near neighbors and challenging their sovereignty suggests he would follow a war of aggression against Ukraine with other wars and precipitate still more carnage.
What should be addressed is the question of the justice of a protracted war on the grounds of a reasonable chance of success. Rob McLaughlin, in his article The Reasonable Hope of Success as an Element in Jus ad Bellum Theory: Misplaced and Meaningless?, points out that the just war standard of reasonable probability of success is a Spanish Renaissance innovation developed by the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria and the Jesuit Francisco Suárez. According to Gregory Reichberg in his article Suárez on Just War this innovation was made to help ensure that a war which may begin as a just war would not deteriorate into a protracted revanchist and futile fight between two sides which would be an offence against charity.
Vitoria’s and Suárez’s reasoning is what underpins the United States Catholic bishops’ superb definition of the principle of reasonable chance for success in their pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. They begin by warning that this principle “is a difficult criterion to apply,” but the reason it is to be applied at all “is to prevent irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome of either will be disproportionate or futile. The determination includes a recognition that at times defense of key values, even against great odds, may be a ‘proportionate’ witness” (98).
An examination of the histories of different nation-states globally and across historical epochs demonstrate the difficulty in distinguishing the justice of a protracted fight for a just cause from hopeless resistance. Several peoples have fought and won protracted struggles for national identity and independence against long odds, of which fighting wars was an integral part of the strategy to achieve that goal. Consider some examples. Between 111 B.C. and 1973 A.D., Vietnam struggled to rid its territory of foreign domination, colonization or meddling in its internal affairs. Vietnamese fought against their historic enemy, China, then French colonization, the presence of United States forces supporting South Vietnam, as well as holding off Soviet and Chinese meddling in North Vietnamese affairs. Poland was erased from the map in 1795, and after a long series of insurrections and wars regained their independence in 1918, only to lose it again in 1939. Between the German and Soviet invasion that year and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, Poland struggled, resisted, and eventually won back their national independence. Our own American Revolutionary War was shorter, lasting eight years, but was fought (with the aid of France and Spain) against the British Empire. The Latin American wars of independence from Spain lasted twenty-five bloody years, with Simón Bolivar having to lead his armies to liberate Venezuela no fewer than three times. The Allied struggle against the Axis during World War II was a protracted struggle, where success in the early years was not assured to the point that people campaigned to appease Adolf Hitler. Length need not be a factor in applying this standard of probability of success. Israel’s war of independence lasted a year and (again, with foreign aid) fought and won against overwhelming Arab forces. If the standard of “probability of success” was applied in isolation or too strictly, then each of these wars and many others would have failed the just war criteria on this count alone.
Probability of success rests on three principles, the consent of a people and its leadership to fight (what Suárez would call a commonwealth), the belief of that commonwealth that fighting for their cause is just, and that justice of the cause of national survival, identity, and freedom proportionately outweighs the harm caused by war. This first principle is another innovation of Suárez’s right of rebellion. According to Reichberg, Aquinas placed authority for declaring a just war in the hands of a senior prince of the realm. Suárez does not do that. If a prince is unwilling to fight a just war, the commonwealth may fight in lieu of princely authority. This opens the door for many types of governing authority to declare and fight a war in the name of its people, including revolutionary movements or parties which form alternate governments and governments in exile. This principle is also a specific example of the medieval political principle of consent of the governed. Revolutionary movements, parties, or governments in exile have to demonstrate the capacity to rally and maintain popular support. However, history gives several examples how such movements begin not with the support of a majority of people, but instead with a dedicated minority who win popular majority support over time. Here is introduced an ethical complication in that winning over such support can be coerced by force. Communist and fascist movements in the twentieth century, for example, were notorious for claiming popular support which was at least forced as much as it was won, which was why their regimes’ moral legitimacy was always suspect. For a political movement to be morally legitimate, including waging war for national survival, identity, and independence, it must demonstrate that the people in who’s name they fight have freely consented with their support if not immediately, then gradually over time. Examples of this would include the American Revolution or the Free French in World War II.
The second principle of just cause carries the assumption that the national survival, identity, and independence of a people is a necessary good for their human flourishing. People who are forced to be something they are not may survive, but do not thrive. Granted, a people need not possess actual political independence to maintain their national identity. The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s polycultural experiment saw different nationalities (like the Poles) thrive culturally, but that polity fell apart because its peoples wanted their own nation states. Ukraine is representative of the norm in modern history. A neighboring power, in this case Russia, claims hegemony over a region and seeks to impose by force the idea that the only legitimate national identity is theirs alone. A Ukrainian national identity is tangential to the Russian one at best, or should not exist at all. Ukrainians fight for the same reasons the Vietnamese, Poles, and other nationalities fought: erasure from history as a distinct people with a distinct culture is an evil which must be fought against, even if it takes centuries to secure a victory. Otherwise, they cannot flourish under an occupation or a state of assimilation.
The third principle, that of proportionality, grapples with the question Frances Harbour articulates in his article Reasonable Probability of Success as a Moral Criterion in the Western Just War Tradition. Does the harm war bring to the people fighting it, a war fought against long odds without a clear chance of success, can that harm be outweighed proportionately by the good of defending and winning national survival, identity, and independence? Again, history is replete with examples of peoples by whose actions have voted in the affirmative, but that alone cannot carry the argument. Griffiths, in his article, assumes that wars for national survival like Ukraine’s will result in the very destruction of the thing they are trying to defend, a country and its people, better to survive and disappear from the map than fight an unwinnable war. However, any Pole, Vietnamese, or Haitian (the list could go on), would beg to differ. Griffiths never had to endure dictatorship, occupation, or having his hybrid Anglo-American identity forcibly erased. Would he have written a different article if he experienced that? In response, as Harbour points out, one need only win a war of attrition and stubbornly outlast one’s opponent if outright victory cannot be secured in war. Scores of peoples and nations forced their enemy to the negotiation table and won their independence and freedom that way. Furthermore, people do not simply use wars to secure their independence, the justice of any national cause must present to one’s opponent the prospect of a peaceful way out through negotiation. The European withdrawal from empire in the 20th century was as much the product of a political negotiation, as it was of armed rebellion, by the colonized.
If just war theory is to do justice to persons, it must recognize the historical reality that peoples and nations can and do fight over years, even centuries, to assert their identity and independence as contributory members of the family of nations. Their experience demonstrates that a protracted war against long odd, while difficult is not impossible to be won and won justly.