Peace, Just Peace, and Ukraine

7 October 2022, 1050 EDT

Many around the world are on edge over the possibility of Vladimir Putin using tactical nuclear weapons to stem Ukraine’s battlefield successes. This has revived calls, present since before Putin invaded Russia’s neighbor, to negotiate a way out of this war. Those issuing these calls see themselves as defenders of peace, but they are missing a major portion of what peace requires.

Calls for “peace”

Many in America have urged restraint in our dealings with Russia, in the hopes that this will ease Putin’s antagonistic policies. President Obama hesitated to take action when Russia seized part of Ukraine in order to avoid a broader conflict. Mearsheimer and Walt called for the United States to withdraw from Europe and the Middle East, allowing Russia to take the lead in the latter. And as Russia began to signal a potential attack on Ukraine, some argued Ukraine should adopt a neutral status.

These calls intensified after Putin invaded Ukraine. Mearsheimer blamed the crisis on Western policies. Less dramatically, Walt suggested this was a case of a security dilemma, in which mutual mistrust–not Russian aggression–led to the war. Pope Francis has tried to stay neutral on the conflict. And famous diplomat Elon Musk argued for a peace treaty that included concessions to Russia. To these people and their defenders–like the Quincy Institute’s “Responsible Statecraft” blog–they are “advocates of peace.”

These are cheap calls for peace, a peace secured on the back of a suffering Ukraine.

There are a few problems with such calls for peace, though.

First, they often involve Western powers deciding what Ukraine should do. This is a war between Russia and Ukraine. The rest of the world shouldn’t get a say in how Ukraine responds to being invaded. One could argue it’s fair to impose conditions if America is helping Ukraine. But we have to be extra careful when deciding what is best for other countries. That hasn’t always worked out well.

Second, they ignore Russia’s crimes. Russia invaded another country–twice–and earlier invaded a separate country (Georgia). Russia has unleashed its trolls on Western and former Soviet states. And Russian forces have committed horrific war crimes during their invasion of Ukraine. Acceding to some of their demands in order to stop the fighting ignores these crimes. Even if the morality is not a concern, they ignore the fact that a lack of consequences only seems to invite further Russian aggression.

Overall, these are cheap calls for peace. These arise out of self-interest, a fear of a broader war that will affect the West. They require nothing of those issuing the calls. The peace would be secured on the backs of a suffering Ukraine.

A just peace

What is needed is not peace. What we need is a just peace.

I first encountered this term in an undergraduate seminar on the just war tradition. Critics of just war discussions argued they may secure peace, but not alleviate suffering. Instead, we should find ways to ensure peace that arises from conflict includes justice for its victims and a way to prevent future fighting. Some went further to argue for the rejection of a “just war” at all, in favor of efforts to prevent conflict by promoting just peace. One useful definition is that just peace is a reminder that “peace requires justice-making, but also peacemaking is the way to justice.”

The concept has not had the same impact as just war, but has provoked debate. Studies on just peace have explored how this framework can end cycles of violence and promote social development. Various Christian denominations have presented calls for just peace. Some critics of just peace argue it goes too far towards pacifism, which ignores the reality of the world. Alternately, some worry the desire to hold out for a peace with justice ensures conflicts will be long and bloody. Additionally, critiques of “liberal hawks” may apply to those advocating for a just peace. Securing a just peace may require intervening militarily in countries to advance humanitarian goals.

The relevance to Ukraine should be obvious. The “peace” people like Musk are calling for is a negative thing, the absence of conflict. But we need a peace that ensures Russia faces justice for what it’s done, and the people of Ukraine receive the aid they need to rebuild. None of the current “peace” proposals satisfy that.

A just peace will require a longer conflict than peace without conditions. But it will be worth it.

The fears about what “just peace” in Ukraine means are equally obvious. Refusing to give in to some Russian demands raises the risk of conflict escalation. An attempt by America to secure a just peace for Ukraine means greater involvement for the United States, with further risk for escalation. At the same time, the pacifist elements of just peace lead to some confusion, as critics of US involvement can point to the need to secure a just peace rather than justify a war.

Towards a just peace in Ukraine

So how would we secure a just peace in Ukraine? It is too late for a pacifist solution, but no one wants a military engagement between the United States and Russia.

The first step is to stop telling Ukraine what to do. If Ukraine desires to keep fighting to maintain its sovereignty, it can do so. This should be an explicit platform of Western powers, framed in terms of a just peace.

Beyond that it is unclear. America could passively support a just peace by refusing to grant legitimacy to any of Russia’s war crimes. It would do little else to help Ukraine. In practice, that means just peace will fail, as Ukraine will fall.

America could maintain its support for Ukraine. This has not provoked a Russian attack on NATO or nuclear strike on Ukraine. Things may change as more Russia-seized territory falls to Ukraine, but Putin is unlikely to risk the destruction of his country. Obviously, being wrong here would have huge consequences for the world. But we can’t let the vague threats of a bully determine international relations.

But America should do more than just supply arms. We need to keep making the case for a just peace in the United Nations. The UN’s impact is of course limited by Russia’s veto power, but repeated attempts to pass resolutions calling for a just peace for Ukraine will pressure Russia and the states that have avoided turning on it.

Ultimately, a just peace will require a longer conflict than peace without conditions. But in the long run it will be worth it.