Is The Ukraine Conflict A Just War?

Apr 29th, 2023 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

That Russia is committing war crimes against the Ukrainian people is an indisputable fact.  Consider what Putin’s forces are doing to evangelical churches in Ukraine:

  • Meagan Saliashvili of Christianity Today reports that “The destruction of religious sites is often intentional and happening in tandem with attacks on civilian believers and pastors, said executive director Maksym Vasin.  Russian soldiers have repeatedly threatened to destroy evangelical Christians in Ukraine, calling them ‘American spies,’ ‘sectarians,’ and ‘enemies of the Russian Orthodox people,’ said Valentyn Siniy, rector of the Kherson-based Tavriski Christian Institute—one of scores of damaged sites belonging to evangelical groups.  Russian forces seized the seminary’s building as a headquarters, looted it, and then left it destroyed, he said.  ‘One Russian officer told an employee of our institute that ‘evangelical believers like you should be completely destroyed . . .  a simple shooting will be too easy for you. You need to be buried alive,’ said Siniy, according to the IRF report. In a translated video played during the panel, he elaborated, ‘During a telephone conversation, one of our employees was told, ‘We will bury [Baptist] sectarians like you.’  The IRF report found that ‘the scale of destruction of evangelical church prayer houses is immense.’ It tallied at least 170 damaged evangelical sites—including 75 Pentecostal churches, 49 Baptist churches, 24 Seventh-day Adventist churches, and 22 ‘other’ evangelical churches—comprising a full third of the total, even though evangelicals comprise less than 5 percent of Ukraine’s population . . . ‘In their entirety, Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine may indicate the existence of a special genocidal intent aimed at destroying the Ukrainian people, which is a distinct crime under international humanitarian law,’ Vasin said.”
  • “Pastor Dmitry Bodyu of Word of Life Church in Melitopol, in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region occupied by Russia since March 2022, recounted for summit attendees how he survived Russian captivity. He said the Russian military seized his church building, imprisoned him, and told him he would be killed. The IRF report noted that Bodyu escaped from prison yet local evangelicals continue to face deadly threats. In addition, two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests have been imprisoned for three months in Melitopol and routinely tortured, he said.  Russian forces have also abducted Ukrainian pastors and tried to enlist them as Russian spies and propagandists, according to the IRF report. From February 24 to July 15, 2022, the institute recorded 20 cases of illegal imprisonment of Ukrainian religious leaders, accompanied by attempted rape, mock executions, deprivation of water, food, and access to a toilet, and threats of violence against family members.”

Russian war crimes in Ukraine are incontrovertible.  For that reason Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s comments are particularly repugnant:   He dismissed the conflict there as a “territorial dispute” and as not vital to US interests.  As the Wall Street Journal editorially observed:  “This is flirting with GOP isolationism that has emerged from time to time in history and has usually been an electoral cul-de-sac.  The party’s isolationism in the 1930s consigned it to decades in the wilderness, and that naiveté was on national display when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  The electoral stigma wasn’t removed until Dwight Eisenhower, the victor of D-Day, rescued the GOP from Republican Robert Taft’s unwillingness to support [NATO] . . . Still relevant is Ronald Reagan’s 1983 warning, in his ‘evil empire’ speech:  ‘Beware the temptation of pride,’  the impulse to ‘blithely’ declare ‘yourselves above it all,’ to ‘ignore the facts of history’ and label the contest a ‘giant misunderstanding’ and ‘thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong.’  The Gipper’s ‘peace through strength’ remains the benchmark for Republican success in world affairs.”


Furthermore, columnist George Will places the silliness of DeSantis’s comments in context: “In autumn 1941, a few German units in Hitler’s drive toward Moscow reached the city’s outer suburbs, close enough to see the Kremlin’s spires. Then Soviet forces counterattacked against a German army that lacked winter clothing because the high command had promised that the Soviet Union would fall before snow did.  A year ago, Vladimir Putin launched what he believed would be a quick dash to Kyiv. A few army units briefly touched the city’s suburbs.  Russia’s estimated 60,000 military deaths so far are more than U.S. deaths in eight years in Vietnam, and four times what the Soviet Union lost in a decade in Afghanistan. The ‘Putin exodus,’ which began well before the invasion and is accelerating, has cost Russia hundreds of thousands of mobile, educated young civilians. Strategy scholar Eliot A. Cohen writes in the Atlantic that elements of Putin’s army ‘have to be kept at the front by the fear of blocking units that will gun down soldiers fleeing the battlefield.’ Putin’s gangster regime has scrounged for cannon fodder in Russia’s prisons, finding criminals to wage a war conducted as a war crime.  Hence the pertinence of Nuremberg, where in 1946 the first of the charges against some Nazi defendants was of aggression, which the tribunal called ‘the supreme international crime’ because ‘it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’ Other charges included war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. These categories are capacious enough to include Putin’s indiscriminate rocket and artillery attacks on civilian concentrations and infrastructure, and the rapes and tortures inflicted by his rabble soldiery.  Wartime atrocity charges often merit skepticism. When, however, Ukraine says Russians are scattering booby-trapped—explosive—toys to maim children, who then require caregivers, remember that Soviet forces did this in Afghanistan. And Putin’s abduction to ‘re-education camps’ in Russia of unknown thousands of Ukrainian children is an attempt at cultural erasure akin to what his Chinese soulmates are doing to the Uyghurs, which U.S. policy has branded genocide. Putin is refuting his war rationale that Ukrainians are culturally Russians.”  This is not the description of a mere “territorial dispute!”


If the human race has learned anything from history it is this proposition:  Credible threats of force prevent wars.  Lack of credible threats of force produce wars.  There is no better example of these propositions than the events leading up to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939.  Appeasement did not work.  Had the world (especially England and France) challenged Hitler’s rearmament, his occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, and Munich and Czechoslovakia, for example, the war could have been prevented.

It is therefore important for we who name the name of Christ to examine Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine through the lens of the Just War tradition.  Pacifism and activism are the two extremes on the war issue.  Pacifism says it is never right to use war as policy; activism says it is always right.  Throughout the history of the church, a mediating view has developed called the Just War tradition.  This tradition sees some wars as unjust and some as just.  The challenge lies in discerning which wars are just.  Since the time of the fifth century theologian Augustine, Christians have accepted the proposition that there exists a set of criteria whereby a war and its methods can be deemed “just.”  Augustine’s arguments were refined by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and Reinhold Niebuhr in the 20th century.  What follows is a summary of the most widely accepted criteria for the just war tradition:

  1. A Just Cause.  A just cause for the use of military force exists whenever it is necessary either to repel an unjust attack, to retake territory wrongly taken, or to punish evil.  An example of this criterion is Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  Ethically speaking, just war theorists argued that Saddam’s action was a flagrant case of aggression and therefore it was justifiable for the world community to repel this unjust aggression. Over a year ago, Putin invaded Ukraine as a blatant act of aggression.
  2. Right Authority.  This criterion focuses on established, legitimate, and properly constituted authority using military force for a “just cause.”  In the United States this “right authority” consists in the powers granted to the President of the United States by the War Powers Act or by a congressional declaration of war.  In international affairs today, “right authority” might involve action by the UN Security Council authorizing the use of force.  The point of this criterion focuses on legitimate authority, not private individuals who wage war.  The US and most of Europe have legitimately determined to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine against Russian aggression.
  3. Right Intention.  This criterion stresses the end goal for the use of military force.  The aim must be, for example, to turn back or undo aggression and then to deter such aggression in the future.  The end for the use of force must be peace, not aggression or continued war.  Again, the Gulf War of 1991 offers an example of this just war criterion.  The world community had no aggressive aims against the territory or people of Iraq.  “Right intention” in this conflict meant rolling back Saddam’s aggression, establishing the peace of the Middle East and assuring that safeguards would protect that peace in the future.  The goal of the Ukraine conflict is to roll back Russian aggression.
  4. Proportionate Means.  As a criterion, this point centers on just means in the use of force; it must be appropriate to the goal.  Allowing aggression, for example, to stand is condoning an evil in itself and opening the door to yet further evil.  Therefore, any military force must be proportionate to the goal.  Using nuclear weapons, for example, would be disproportionate in rolling back aggression of a nation with no air force or navy.  Using chemical and biological weapons is another example of disproportionate means.  Putin has threatened using nuclear weapons, but so far has not done so.  Therefore, the US and Europe have given Ukraine weapons proportionate to what Russia is using—rockets, artillery and tanks.
  5. Last Resort.  This criterion involves the legitimate government using all diplomatic and foreign policy resources, including economic sanctions, to force the aggressive nation to pull back.  If the aggressor responds with intransigence and continued belligerence, the legitimate government has no choice but the use of military force.  Again, the Iraq crisis of the 1990-1991 offers a classic example of this criterion: The allies used economic sanctions, diplomatic activity and personal diplomacy to alter Saddam Hussein’s aggressive actions against Kuwait.  He refused.  Therefore, just war advocates argue, the world community was just in rolling back his aggressive actions.  The US and Europe imposed severe sanctions on Russia, but to no avail.  So far, these sanctions have not thwarted Putin’s evil intentions.
  6. Noncombatant Immunity.  This is the most difficult criterion for the just war position.  The military force used must be discriminate; it must follow the moral principle that seeks to protect noncombatants in a military strike or in a war.  Of course this means going to all ends to not attack intentionally civilians, not to bomb civilian neighborhoods and not to kill intentionally and indiscriminately the civilian population of an enemy. Vladimir Putin has totally disregarded this proposition,.  He has wantonly and intentionally killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure such as water plants and electricity girds in Ukraine.  Thousands of civilians are dead because of his brutality.


In summary, the just war position argues that military action must be only for a just cause and not to pursue aggrandizement, glory or vengeance.  Military action must be authorized by a legitimate authority and have a reasonable chance of success.  The good that likely will result from the military action must outweigh the evil.  Such action must be a last resort after less violent approaches have failed.  Civilian populations must not be deliberately attacked; every effort must be made to minimize casualties among them and no unnecessary force must be wielded against either troops or civilians.


As the US leads the Western world in its support and aid of Ukraine’s sovereignty and national integrity, it does so in line with the Just War tradition.  Vladimir Putin is a criminal and should be treated as such.  Ukraine deserves the support of America; it is in our national interest.  Furthermore, history clearly demonstrates that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will continue his delusional dream to restore the Russian empire.  As Ronald Reagan declared in 1983, Russia is an evil empire.  Putin’s Russia must be stopped.

See Meagan Saliashvili, “500 Ukrainian Churches and Religious Sites Damaged by Russian Military” in (4 February 2023);  Wall Street Journal editorial (16 March 2023); George F. Will, “Putin can win only if Josh Hawley-esque isolationists multiply” in the Washington Post (22 February 2023); Henry Olsen, “Ron DeSantis’s stance on Ukraine is a serious political blunder” in the Washington Post (16 March 2023); and James P. Eckman, Biblical Ethics, pp. 59-68.

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