If there is such a thing as a just war, then Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression is truly it. As someone who has slowly embraced pacifist principles over the past few years, Ukraine’s war has given me pause. Like so many around the world, I have cheered the courage of Ukrainian defenses and been moved by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s heroism and eloquence. And the expanding list of Russia’s atrocities—which of this writing include forced deportations, mass graves and summary executions, and reports of mobile crematoria to incinerate victims’ corpses—has caused my heart to cry out for retaliation.
Mark Tooley, in his recent piece “Christian Realism vs. Cynicism & Idealism” states that pacifism “offers no substantive relief to Ukraine except denunciation of all violence.” A student who also holds pacifist beliefs recently told me that she has received texts from friends asking, “Where’s your pacifism now?” It’s a fair question worthy of an answer, and I thank Providence for the opportunity to offer one.
Pacifism Before the Breach
My pacifist beliefs are rooted in both Christian convictions and political science. Political science research on war finds that there always exists a pre-war settlement that is more materially advantageous to all sides than any outcome following war. This is because war always includes death, destruction, and displacement, as we have tragically seen. Political science asks why countries cannot reach a settlement that avoids these terrible costs. Pacifism asks the same question.
Henry V, after boldly declaring “Once more unto the breach” in William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, immediately follows by saying, “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man/As modest stillness and humility.” Such humility and sounded-mindedness are critical prior to war, before the necessity of “hard-favour’d rage.” Pacifists are often asked to justify their beliefs after the bullets have started flying, but pacifism does not begin “in the breach” when the situation is dire and violent retaliation is the best bad option. Rather, it begins before the breach when multiple options are possible that may preclude destructive violence. Pacifism warns that when leaders prioritize violence as a policy option, they more often disregard “modest stillness and humility” and risk escalation to war.
As of this writing, there is a growing consensus that a sustainable settlement will require Ukrainian neutrality. President Zelensky has acknowledged as much, and Ukrainian negotiators have made this a centerpiece of peace negotiations. Moscow proposed this months prior to invasion, but the Ukrainian populace and leadership strongly opposed neutrality, and according to The New York Times, it was“immediately dismissed by NATO officials.” NATO equivocated on Ukraine’s membership because it wanted to deter Russia without committing to the costs it would require. This only served to further militarize the conflict, provoke Russian pride, and give Ukraine false hope. More “stillness and humility” were needed to make difficult compromises and avoid the devastations of war.
Pacifistic Policies Are Already Happening
A pacifistic foreign policy, far from being naïve or non-strategic, prioritizes assurance, compromise, and de-escalation. Notably, Ukrainian and international policymakers have prioritized these since the war began. Kyiv has compromised by signaling its willingness to accept neutrality and is now seeking assurances that neutrality will be respected by Russia and protected by committed countries.
Foreign policy experts have also prioritized de-escalation by emphasizing the need to offer Putin an “off-ramp” that will allow him to withdraw while saving face. Yet, the atrocities listed above, in addition to the possibility that Ukrainian negotiators were poisoned, have seemingly foreclosed any off-ramps. (Note that pacifism does not preclude pessimism.) Still, the alternative of further escalation is far worse. A war of attrition without compromise would require Russia, as Zelensky warned, “to kill everyone, and take the city empty,” evoking memories of Grozny and Aleppo. Moreover, those who study nuclear politics warn that a desperate Putin using nuclear weapons is an increasingly real possibility. Despite how untrustworthy or repugnant Putin may be, refusing to negotiate with him is worse policy.
Foreign policymakers, mindful of the threat of escalation, have resisted Zelensky’s compelling pleas for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, which policy experts overwhelmingly oppose. Instead, international opposition to Putin’s war has relied primarily on the nonviolent strategy of coordinated economic sanctions. These have both materially and morally weakened Russia by limiting its war-making capacity and demonstrating that its vast resource wealth does not give it license for aggression. And more can be done to economically isolate and weaken Russia. Some may claim that since the sanctions are hurting Russian civilians, they are a form of violence. However, there is a significant difference between engaging in direct violence and refusing to support those committing aggression. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his “Christmas Sermon on Peace” that “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.” Nevertheless, we must draw a sharp line between coercive sanctions with strategic value and those that are merely vengeful. (Canceling vaccines to Bangladesh because it abstained from condemning Russia is particularly asinine.)
Foreign countries have of course also provided a significant amount of weaponry to Ukraine, and it would be disingenuous to ignore its impact. Pacifists should not ignore that violence can accomplish desired aims. But again we must ask, At what cost? We must also consider what will happen to these weapons once the war is over, particularly considering many light munitions have been distributed to civilians. Even if war ends in Ukrainian victory, Ukraine will have a weakened government with limited resources and a population with access to far more arms. This will likely increase the danger of postwar internal conflict and instability. In addition, these arms may flow to other conflicts, including in Afghanistan, Armenia, Iraq, and Syria. Declaring “Mission: Accomplished” does not end the cycles of violence.
Do We Only Care Because Ukraine Fought?
Many have admitted that their support for Ukraine is due in great part to the strength and success of Ukraine’s violent opposition. This raises uncomfortable questions: Does engaging in violence make Ukrainians more worthy of support? Would Russia be less deserving of punishing sanctions if Ukrainians had only opposed Russia nonviolently? Do Ukrainians have greater human dignity because of their violent resistance, or are they people worthy of support regardless of their response? These questions say far more about us than they do about Ukrainians.
None of this is meant to diminish the astounding courage of the Ukrainian people. All of us who comment from abroad do so from the safety of our homes. Nor can I in full honesty say what I would do if I faced the dangers Ukrainians—people who were living normal lives just weeks ago—are facing right now. So I celebrate every Ukrainian military victory, but I also cannot ignore the dangers of cycles of violence. I can simultaneously believe that Ukraine is fighting a just war and that violence begets further violence. Pacifism argues that the only means of breaking the cycles of violence is to recognize the short-term and long-term devastation of war, examine the decisions and dynamics that perpetuate these cycles, and make the tough decisions necessary to reject violence and ensure peace. May those of just-war and pacifist convictions pray and work together for peace.