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What would a ‘just exit’ to war in Ukraine look like?

Unthinkable: Just war theory may provide some guidance, and tactical pacifism could even play a role

Wars are easy to start and hard to end. More than eight months after Russia invaded Ukraine neither side has sight of victory. As troops dig in for winter, the question is increasingly being asked: Can a resolution can be found outside of total defeat for Russian president Vladimir Putin?

Just war theory (JWT) offers a guide on when it is ethically okay to take up arms but a moral framework to explain when exactly we should lay them down is less well developed. Looking at conflict generally, is there a moment when a duty to negotiate becomes paramount? In certain scenarios, might there even be an obligation to surrender?

To get a better grasp of the principles at stake, Unthinkable turned to political philosopher Chris Finlay, who has previously explained in this column how JWT underpins the legitimacy of Ukrainian self-defence.

A reminder of what the theory says: The right to go to war – jus ad bellum – is established if the following criteria are met: (1) just cause, (2) competent authority, (3) comparative justice – ie, the balance of righteousness falls on one side, (4) right intention, (5) reasonable prospect of success, (6) last resort, and (7) proportionality.


The theory, which has been refined by theologians and political theorists over centuries, is ostensibly a test for going to war. But Finlay says it “also equips commentators and decision-makers quite well to think carefully about things like war exit”.

For example, “if the chance of success diminishes over time it might be morally necessary to look at options for war exit”.

This is “a relatively new branch of just war thought”, and it is not without its pitfalls. Seeking to ensure all seven criteria are met at every stage of a conflict “might lean too far towards pacifism”, says Finlay, who hails from Omagh, studied at Trinity College Dublin and is now a professor at Durham University.

“My worry is that the theory of proportionality that many just war theorists work with makes it hard to explain why it could be permissible to fight at key points in a war like Ukraine’s. And yet I think we would be right to feel, intuitively, that continuing to fight was, in fact, justifiable at those points.

“So, for instance, if Ukraine apparently had little reason to expect victory back in February, it might seem that its war failed by the standard of ‘reasonable chance of success’. Commentators thought there was little chance of success . . . That assumption proved to be incorrect. But, if it had proven true, would we be happy to live with the moral belief that smaller, less well-armed states, ought simply to roll over and put up no resistance when invaded by much larger, much better-armed neighbours?”

Finlay believes “a decisive issue” in judging the morality of continuing the war is “whether Ukrainians are prepared to continue carrying the burden of the values they are fighting for and the price that has to be paid for them. Current evidence suggests that the majority of them are” – he cites a Gallup poll in September showing 70 per cent of Ukrainians favour fighting to win.

JWT is not the only way of evaluating the ethics of war but it does seek middle ground between two extremes: one the hand, a doctrine of “might is right” – the idea that whoever prevails in conflict is by definition morally correct; and, on the other hand, pacifism.

Is there much to be said for the latter?

Manus Charleton, a former lecturer in ethics and social policy at Atlantic Technological University Sligo, thinks so. While he doesn’t dispute that going to war can be “reasonable” under JWT principles, he argues that thinking about pacifism brings added perspective.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is particularly relevant. Says Charleton “some pacifists argue just war principles help validate and perpetuate war’s acceptance. And for Tolstoy pacifism is always the right policy.”

Ironically, Putin has been fond of quoting Tolstoy, even if the president shows no signs of actually reading him. While the author of War and Peace was influenced by Christian scripture and was drawn toward Buddhism, Charleton argues that humanistic secular philosophy also supports the “rationality” of pacifism. Political theorist John Rawls is especially compatible, says Charleton, who is author of Ethics for Social Care in Ireland.

“Pacifism does not have to mean passive endurance. There is the soft power of peaceful protest. And Tolstoy’s influence on leaders of non-violent movements, such as Gandhi, has shown how pacifism can be effective and compassionate.

“But pacifism continues to lack influence from being seen as marginal and unrealistic. The so called ‘realism’ of national self-interest is allowed to override fundamental ethical considerations. Putin sees the war to be in Russia’s national interest. It has led to his forces shelling targets close to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and to his threats to use nuclear weapons. They are stark evidence for the necessity to make a conditional pacifism the mainstay of a nation’s defence policy in accordance with just war principles.”

Asked about the merits of “tactical pacifism”, Finlay says it “sounds quite promising as a heading under which to think of various different possibilities”.

“Imagine, for instance, if it became evident that further fighting would necessarily lead to global nuclear war. In such a case, it’s hard to see how any good can be achieved by further fighting.”

However, he says, given Russia would also face annihilation “it’s hard to see how such a threat would really be credible. What is more likely is that Russia would use some sort of smaller-scale nuclear weapon to try to suggest a willingness to escalate to a much larger scale . . .

“It is very unlikely that the natural and right response to such an act would be to make any kind of gesture of surrender, given the urgency of maintaining deterrence against further such acts.”

While pacifism may not be the answer to Putin’s aggression, Finlay agrees the philosophy deserves more serious scrutiny. He cites the work of American political activist Gene Sharp who, in a 1973 reference book for protest movements, identified 198 “methods of non-violent action”, from vigils and mock funerals to street demonstrations and boycotts.

“He argued that a clever use of civil resistance techniques and careful training of democratic citizens in these methods would help protect a country against foreign invasion and occupation as well as regular armed forces would,” Finlay explains.

“I’m sceptical about the applicability of this argument to Ukraine . . . However, I think Ukraine has also shown something of the importance of a hybrid approach.

“Early in the occupation of Kherson, for instance, we saw footage of civilians protesting and confronting Russian armed forces non-violently. This sort of popular action is also very important in making it difficult for Russia to secure its political aims. I’d therefore be inclined to think that Ukrainian resistance has a lot to gain by drawing on the intellectual resources of various theories of civil resistance and nonviolent action, as well as just war theory.”

Controversially, Sharp recommended countries defund their armies entirely. Instead, civilians would be schooled in methods of nonviolent resistance to the point that any enemy force would find the society “ungovernable” if it invaded.

At first glance, the proposal might seem attractive to a country like Ireland, with its history of military neutrality and its relatedly puny Defence Forces. But Finlay sees a “civilian-based defence” as a poor insurance policy. Aside from questioning its effectiveness as a deterrent, he suggests organised civil resistance could be used to support fascism just as much as democracy.

It seems, then, as long as rogue states exists there will be a need for armies to repel them. Charleton acknowledges this short-term reality but believes it should not obliterate a longer-term view.

Citing Tolstoy as a guide, he says the author of War and Peace “asked us to reflect on our basic human condition of having frail and brief lives in a vast universe on which we are dependent for our existence. This will enable us to realise that fighting wars among ourselves makes no sense. It is irrational”.