Ukrainians want to be an independent nation, and this especially includes independence from Russia. Both are consistent facts throughout the last century of Ukraine’s history. The collapse of the Russian Empire following the 1917 Revolution saw Ukraine attempt to become an independent republic by fighting a war of independence which ran from 1917 to 1921. Pro-independence forces lost to Poland and then to the Bolsheviks. Ukraine was partitioned between Poland and a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The latter was a founding member state of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but quickly became a client state subject to the control of the central government in Moscow. Ukrainian independence was finally won with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Orange Revolution of late 2004 and early 2005 saw Ukrainians demand a more authentic democratic government, which drew the opprobrium of politicians in Russia, including Vladimir Putin. Now, according to Catholic Social Teaching, Ukrainians’ historic and contemporary struggles to assert and maintain their independence with a democratic government is a concrete example of their assertion of human rights on a community level. Their fight for existence is the assertion and defense of their human right to live according to their own language, culture, religions, and means of self-government. Of course, the same human rights which enables a nation’s people to assert their sovereignty also limit its exercise when one takes into account its relationship with other nations and the treatment of national minorities within its borders.
Russia’s violation of the human rights of Ukrainians and their country is grounded in a long-used tactic employed by the former country’s foreign policy in relation to the former Soviet republics it once dominated. Russia questioned the legitimacy of the borders of its neighbors and used the minority rights of Russians within those countries as a pretext to intervene. Consider the example of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which the Soviet Union occupied between 1940 and 1991 in violation of international law and without the consent of their people. Claes Levinsson, in a Fall 2006 article published in the journal Connections, wrote “By using its position as a regional hegemon, Russia has tried to interfere in Estonia and Latvia’s domestic affairs by tying the border issue to the question of the state’s historical legitimacy and alleged discrimination against cross-border minorities.”[i] Levinsson attributed Russian actions in part to a “domestic policy shaped and executed in a highly nationalistic and chauvinistic political environment.” That situation described Russian policy during Putin’s second term as President of Russia. It precisely anticipated the current crisis Putin has precipitated now with similar claims made against the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders, its existence as a sovereign nation, and the claim (made without evidence) of the necessity to defend oppressed Russian minorities. It should be added that the presence of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics like Ukraine is, in part, a consequence of the Soviet Russification policy. The U.S.S.R. central government deliberately planted Russian settlers in its constituent republics to help maintain Soviet unity and Russian hegemony over that union.
This history serves to decisively rebut the nonsensical arguments of people in the United States like Pat Buchanan, who in his February 25, 2022 syndicated column, blames the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a justified response to the United States’ and NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. According to his very selective memory, Russia saw their protectorate of Serbia bombed by the U.S. and NATO air forces. He left out the genocidal war that Serbia was fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that that bombing helped break the siege of Sarajevo and bring about a fragile peace with the Dayton Peace Accords. What also escapes Buchanan’s analysis is that Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia joined NATO precisely due to their memory of Russian and Soviet oppression and aggression against their respective states, which dates to at least the First Partition of Poland of 1772. At this writing, the governments of the historically neutral nations of Finland and Sweden have signaled an interest to align themselves more closely to NATO, and maybe join the alliance. Russia’s leaders and American commentators like Buchanan view NATO as an example of American imperial expansion. However, United States’ actions in Europe are not like its behavior in regions like Latin America or the Middle East. The securing and maintenance of peace in Europe since 1946 is a major achievement of United States foreign policy. These Baltic and Slavic nations arrived at their own, respective, conclusions that an anti-Russian bulwark is needed. Putin’s actions have confirmed the need to make NATO that bulwark. These same nations each have a national identity and a political consensus of how to govern themselves, in marked contrast to countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. And, these nations want U.S. and NATO’s presence and help.
Catholic ethicists may divide on how best to support Ukraine either through the use of supporting nonviolent direct action or fighting a just war. However, both sides may serve to complement each other. George Lakey, in a February 25, 2022 column in the Waging Nonviolence website correctly argues that nonviolent direct action, like the protests we are seeing across Ukraine and Russia could confound and ultimately stop Putin by demonstrating to his supporters in the government that they stand on thin political ice. That, coupled with sanctions by the international community may bring this war to a halt. One hopes so. On the other hand, Lakey brings up the historic examples of Denmark’s resistance to Nazi Germany’s occupation during World War II and Czechoslovakia’s resistance against Soviet (i.e. Russian) invasion of their country in 1968 to put down the Prague Spring democratization reforms as examples of the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. Those examples demonstrate the limitation of nonviolent direct action and the need for just war to complement it. When Germany surrendered in 1945, Denmark was one of the few countries still under its military control. British Forces under the command of General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, with the other Allied militaries, forced Germany’s capitulation. Montgomery’s army corps had to supervise the orderly evacuation of German forces from Denmark. Lakey also claims that nonviolent direct action forced the Soviets to compromise and allow the Czechs to continue to govern themselves instead of from Moscow. Granting that point for the sake of argument, the Czechoslovakian government of Gustáv Husák which took power after the Soviet invasion and ruled with Soviet support for the next twenty years was a regime closely aligned with Moscow. And, while Husák’s government avoided the Stalin-like reprisals against Prague-spring reformers, Communist repression was nonetheless restored. Nonviolent direct action in the Eastern Bloc did contribute to the collapse of Communism there, but that was assisted by western Cold War containment and defense policies, the dry rot of Eastern Bloc nations brought about by Communism itself, and a collapse of the Soviet Union’s will to maintain their hegemony over Eastern Europe.
Suppose nonviolent direct action gets suppressed in Russia by its security forces and in Ukraine by Russia’s military, and Putin’s government could successfully resist international sanctions? Ukrainians have made it clear they want their country back now. They do no want to go through another occupation as they suffered during the Second World War, nor another spell of Russian domination with a puppet government taking the place of the one they elected. NATO, including the United States, and Ukrainian forces fighting to recapture the country by driving out Russian forces would meet the criteria of a just war. It is a defensive war against an aggressor. The damage Russia will inflict on Ukraine will be grave, certain, and lasting, as demonstrated by the latter nation’s history. And, the harm will spill over to countries who depend on cereals produced by Ukraine, like the Middle East. Retaking the country and keeping Russian forces out would be an achievable, limited goal because we would have the full cooperation of the people of Ukraine. The use of arms here would not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated, because Russia would be contained and deterred from another military adventure. NATO could begin such a campaign in a limited manner, with a no-fly zone across Ukraine to deprive Russian forces of their air cover, and even the odds for Ukrainian forces. Now, this is complicated by the fact that Russia is a major nuclear power. However, a battlefield nuclear attack is unlikely because it would despoil a land Russia wants to control. Ukraine is only of value to Russia if it is not significantly contaminated. As for a nuclear attack against NATO, then the old Cold War deterrence doctrines, in particular the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, would apply with its hazards.
Long-term, once Russia is contained, we need a strategy to deal with it that would win lasting peace in Eastern Europe. History is instructive here, too. On September 19, 1946, Sir Winston Churchill, in a speech given at the University of Zurich, envisioned a post-World War II Europe. There, he prophetically declared that any rebuilding of Europe that would bring about a lasting peace must revolve around a partnership between France and Germany. Of course, he meant a democratically reconstructed Germany in alliance with its historic enemy. What this new European war reveals is that any lasting future peace must include a partnership between Russia and its European neighbors. Like Germany, Russia must be freed of its imperial ambitions through an effective democratic government which can handle its security concerns not through a Stalinist lens which views its immediate western neighbors as Slavic colonies forming its security sphere of influence, but through negotiations which maintain the sovereignty of the former Eastern Bloc countries and the former Soviet republics like Ukraine through constructive exchanges of every kind. If people think this is not possible, many Europeans in 1946 thought the same of Churchill’s vision. Those European politicians who saw a similar vision, such as the Catholic founders of the European Community, remind us that our faith carries the resources for overcoming traditional enmities and developing new partnerships, and even new friendships.
Buchanan, Pat. “Did we provoke Putin’s war in Ukraine?” Real Clear Politics, February 25, 2022. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2022/02/25/did_we_provoke_putins_war_in_ukraine_147247.html.
Churchill, Winston. “September 19, 1946. University of Zurich.” WinstonChurchill.org, https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1946-1963-elder-statesman/united-states-of-europe/
Lakey, George. “Ukraine doesn’t need to match Russia’s military might to defend against invasion.“ Waging Nonviolence, February 25, 2022, https://wagingnonviolence.org/2022/02/ukraine-doesnt-need-to-match-russias-military-might-to-defend-against-invasion/
Levinsson, Claes. “The Long Shadow of History: Post-Soviet Border Disputes—The Case of Estonia, Latvia, and Russia.” Connections, vol. 5, no. 2, Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes, 2006, pp. 98–110, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26323241.
[i] Levinsson, 109.