We stand presently – and remarkably – at the two-year mark of Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine. On the same day in late February 2024 we read of Ukrainian soldiers withdrawing from the city of Avdiivka as well as of the death – and likely murder – of Russian activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. And on the very same day we also read of Ukrainian President Zelensky’s address to European leaders at the Munich Security Conference. There, against stiff odds, he challenged world leaders to wrestle with the question not of when the war will end but of why Russia was still permitted to wage it.

That is an eminently reasonable question, and one that forces us to make the connection between Avdiivka and Navalny’s death.

The former development brings Russian forces one step closer to Vladimir Putin’s strategic – and jaded imperialistic – goal of laying hold of all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east. Therewith Ukraine becomes a blueprint for stealing internationally recognized territory by totalitarian regimes. The latter event, by which a dictator was forced – once more, as with Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin – to eliminate a voice of opposition, reminds us of the need to resist and deter evil in this world. In Navalny’s own words, all that “is needed for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” Good people doing nothing.

Navalny challenges us in relatively free nations to take our moral responsibilities to fellow nations and fellow human beings seriously. After all, he did not have to return to Russia in January of 2021, following an illness that in all likelihood stemmed from poisoning by Russian sources. Let us consider with sobriety Putin’s great fear of Navalny: the latter was thus arrested immediately upon return from Germany, where he had been recuperating in a Berlin hospital. Ever since, up until his death, he has been in prison – in solitary confinement 27 times, according to those close to him. In December he was banished to a remote penal colony in the Arctic. Dictators and tyrants must remove voices of opposition. After all, who in the West will object? Navalny’s life graphically demonstrates that no tyrant is safe as long as one honest man is alive.

Following news of Navalny’s death, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has urged Washington to assist Ukraine by passing the “aid bill” and giving Ukraine the resources from seized Russian assets. McFaul is adamant: “Putin killed Navalny”; therefore, “there must be consequences for Vladimir Putin.” Yes, in a civilized world, if such exists, there must be consequences.

In 1939-1941, we do well to remember, no one could have predicted the casualties and costs of what became the Second World War. At the time, appeasement was the air we breathed. And yet, as political philosopher Michael Walzer has correctly observed, Nazism was so threatening to human civilization and human decency – so degrading and so murderous – that we accepted the consequences of “unconditional surrender,” despite the fact that the costs were literally beyond calculation.

War and coercive force, classically speaking, have been justified for four reasons based on just war moral reasoning: to defend against unjust attack/aggression; to recover what was wrongfully taken; to protect the innocent, guard the common good, and preserve peace; and to punish evildoers. Such moral reasoning assumes the value – indeed, the necessity – of deterrence. Half-measures do not deter, nor is the primary “just-war” criterion of “proportionality” merely another way of describing a war of attrition or a lethal stalemate. By removing punishment and desert from our response to socio-political evil, we empty justice of its moral meaning.

Traditionally, justice is committed to rendering what is due. Punishment is a form of justice that bears a retributive quality. In everyday language, punishment “fits the crime.” But by removing punishment, desert and a proportionate response, we abolish justice. Properly viewed, proportionality is not a tit-for tat response to an isolated act; it is, rather, a proportionate and just response to accumulated past acts and anticipated future acts. As such, its moral character is to hold nations accountable. Once we abolish guilt and desert, what will happen to law? The cumulative wisdom of just war moral reasoning is that greater evils will occur if coercive intervention and retribution are never permitted.

“Disproportionality,” alas, is a miscarriage of justice; disproportionality can result from either committing evil or failing to stop or eliminate evil when we have the wherewithal to do so. Whether in domestic or foreign affairs, a criminal forfeits his rights by committing evil acts. Vladimir Putin has committed Russian forces to doing disproportionate evil – crimes against humanity – that the civilized world will not or cannot do.

What the Ukrainian people have achieved in these last two years of hell, in a war they did not choose, is simply stunning. They deserve our greatest admiration. But they also deserve more. Western nations, with the U.S. in the lead, have demonstrated two problematic tendencies in these two years of war. One is the tendency to repeatedly give in to a “fear of escalation,” which plays perfectly into the strategy of the dictator Putin. The second is that we have denied Ukraine the tools – practically and militarily, through advanced weaponry – she needs to decisively reclaim stolen territory. These two flaws, if not fixed, guarantee not only the disappearance of Ukraine but greater conflict in Europe, and around the globe. Honesty requires us to ask: what nation in the world would allow an aggressor neighbor to steal one-fifth of its land and lay claim to it?

It is February of 2024, and time is running out. A policy reversal is imperative. This means, above all, providing immediate artillery ammunition, air defense, and long-range strike capability. As Richard Hooker, senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, has argued, a stirring Ukrainian success in 2024 would have far-reaching effects for European security and international stability. At the very least, aggressive and totalitarian regimes around the globe would be chastened, and Putin himself would likely be removed.

Supporting Ukraine should not be viewed as charity. Rather, it is the first and most important part of American U.S. foreign policy, contra those isolationists who presently argue that “we can’t solve all the world’s problems, since we have big ones ourselves.”
Such thinking is mistaken, for it fails to grasp the connection between Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific theater.

In the end, we are forced to ask: who will oppose evil?