Ukraine’s current response is a just war, but what must happen next?

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The use of force to stop Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine is a “just war”, but there is no responsible alternative response for the West other than the current decisions to give defensive weapons, impose sanctions and offer humanitarian assistance, some academics believe.

The moral complexities and dilemmas of decisions that have not stopped the loss of life were considered by a panel at a Religion Media Centre briefing this week.

Esther Reed, professor of theological ethics at Exeter University, said there were justifiable circumstances in the Christian tradition where wrong aggressive acts of war were stopped by military force. Regarding Ukraine, she said: “To my mind, it is clear that this that the use of force here is justifiable now.”

Canon Sarah Snyder, co-founder of the Rose Castle Foundation, a peacebuilding organisation, agreed. “I think in defending peace in the territory of Ukraine and surrounding borders, there is a justifiable use of armed force,” she said. “And I regret saying that, but I think that has to be the response, coupled with sanctions and other means to bring the negotiating tables back into place.”

But when considering why armed force was not yet being used, Professor Jolyon Mitchell, from the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Edinburgh University, said the response involved weighing questions of duty and responsibility. As people viewed the impact from the immediate family to wider humanity, there were questions of escalation.

He agreed that the invasion of Ukraine met the criteria of a “just war” response, but in similar cases the response had varied according to context. He compared responses to Munich in 1938, with Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, when there were protests: “But we did not escalate. You could argue we wouldn’t be here discussing this if we had done.”

“It’s absolutely vital for religious leaders to be involved in peacebuilding efforts going on now, whether that’s easing suffering, or humanitarian aid, but also in the post conflict situation here in Ukraine and in Russia.”

– Professor Jolyon Mitchell

Professor Ilan Baron, from the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, said the weighing up of decisions on appropriate responses was challenging and involved considering what would be of the greatest benefit.

There was a regional element to the attack. “I think the international community probably exercised too much restraint when Russia annexed Crimea [in 2014],” he said.

He went on to explain how Russia had been continually aggressive, with its attempts to sow dissent to undermine the cohesion of western societies through disinformation and misinformation, for example in Brexit and the US election.

A colleague had told him that since the invasion began “there’s been a significant decrease in misinformation, malinformation, being disseminated through social media. And that’s because Russia is busy elsewhere.”

The pattern of aggression had been evident for several years, yet no one had figured out an appropriate response “and unfortunately, now we’re in a situation where Russia felt emboldened enough to actually invade, and we have this war”.

Canon Snyder said she would encourage a way of using social media to get the news of the reality of the war in Ukraine through to the people of Russia.

“I wonder if we could turn some of those tables and actually draw on some of that technology to get messaging across Russia in different ways,” she said. “Whether it’s through the churches or other means. There is there is clearly a need to embolden the Russian people who actually do not support the Russian regime.”

There were other roles that churches could play. Seventy per cent of the Ukrainian population affiliate to the Orthodox tradition.  The Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, which still controls some churches in Ukraine, charts is historic roots to Kyiv and this link has been viewed as a religious justification for war. Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, is known to have close ties with Vladimir Putin and has not condemned the war. Read our factsheet on this here >>

In 2019, the Orthodox church splintered, with a separate Ukrainian church formed with links to the Constantinople patriarchate.

Journalist Trevor Barnes, who chaired the briefing, asked whether there was anything coherent that any Christian voice could utter in Ukraine, considering the deep animosity within denominations.

Canon Snyder said she had become aware through many conversations in recent weeks, that there was an “enormous split within the Orthodox church, around the actions that Patriarch Kirill has been taking in supporting Putin”. She had also seen voices in opposition to Kirill silenced for fear of what would happen to family members.

The Pope had issued strong condemnation of the violence and though Professor Baron was sceptical of the impact this would have in Moscow, saying this was not a religious war, Catholic commentators pointed to the power of Vatican diplomacy.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish but had not made religion a centre-stage issue and it was good, Professor Baron said, that the war was not being bogged down in arguments around religious nationalism. But the large numbers of Ukrainians affiliated to religious groups meant their voice was important in negotiations for the future.

Canon Snyder said if a negotiated settlement were to be sustainable, it needed to include not only the military and politicians, but also religious communities, women and other decision-makers.

Professor Mitchell agreed, saying: “It’s absolutely vital for religious leaders to be involved in peacebuilding efforts going on now, whether that’s easing suffering, or humanitarian aid, but also in the post conflict situation here in Ukraine and in Russia.”

For example, he said Kirill’s views of sacred Russia, expressed in sermons, needed to be theologically challenged and community cohesion was being forged as denominations prayed together in the crisis.

Pacifism would not have worked for the Ukrainian people in the context of this war, said Canon Snyder, but the non-violent responses, including negotiation, were a part of the conflict.

The end could be “quite complicated and probably quite messy”, said Professor Baron, but he hoped the violence ended and suffering ceased. Longer term was a different question and the future relationship between Russia and the West was about opening up lines of communication so that Russia found a space where they were comfortable and secure.

View this media briefing on our YouTube channel below:


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