“There’s an old saying: ‘Even the Devil can quote Scripture.’ Just because people or countries claim their actions are justified does not make it so. The task for them, as we’ve strongly asserted, is to show that their subjective beliefs correspond to objectively defensible standards and to inter-subjectively plausible evidence.” (Morality of War, Brian Orend 2013)

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Morality Issue: Russia’s Annexation of the Crimean Peninsula

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Brian Orend, the author of the ‘Morality of War,’ is illustrating here a philosophical conflict as old as time itself: the ethics of war. Wars come from many different sources of animosity between territories, and in this particular novel Orend defends war in the lens of jus ad bellum: ‘when it is just to go to war.’ (Orend, 3) The morality of war is so complex, in fact, that the concept of jus ad bellum is pillared upon six considerations – all of which need to be fulfilled to justify a state going to war. In this paper, I will use my expansive knowledge of jus ad bellum specifically to address the issue of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Justifying whether Russia had a historical claim to Crimea is an arbitrary inquiry to make in comparison to the larger, more probing philosophical question of the morality of this political decision. As the media reported what appeared to be Russian troops donning insignia on their uniforms, the world became spectators to a potential stealth invasion occurring on the Crimean peninsula. Only a month later, the Crimean parliament declared their independence from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian federation; an event that provoked questioning from the UN general assembly. Through this philosophical investigation, I will determine how exactly the features of jus ad bellum paired with similar contemporary theories of war demonstrate that Putin was in fact not morally justified annexing the territory of Crimea.

The case of Russia invading Crimea, morally, is particularly vexing because of its almost passive execution by the Russian military. In the annexation of Crimea, Russian troops were careful not to promulgate their war by taking lives and causing destruction. The non-violent nature of the annexation appeals to those who do believe the act of war is morally justified, but that would invite a more pressing philosophical inquiry: does violence or murder need to occur to indicate that something is immoral? Of course not. The definition of ‘moral,’ according to Steven Shavell, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, is more complex than a mere adjective attributing distinction to something, but rather, “rules of conduct… which have properties that [allow] individuals to feel a sense of virtue, and if they disobey a rule they will feel a sentiment of guilt. Behavior that comports with moral rules, will be called good and behavior that doesn’t will be called bad. The establishment of moral rules comes about through socialization, learning and inculcation.” (Shavell 229) This particular analysis of morality, similar to all the other definitions of morality featured in encyclopedias, mention nothing about the description of the behavior, per say, whether it be specifically murder, theft, adultery etc. The most telling feature of morality appears to be the abstract resulting feeling, or byproduct, associated with the particular act. The war act of annexation is of course a formidable example of aggression from one territory onto another, which almost immediately suggests a ‘bad’ or ‘guilt’ associated with the aggressor, i.e. Russia.

Interestingly, there is evidence which points to Russia’s own acknowledgement of a potentially immoral war act, with Putin stating, “In our hearts, we know Crimea has always been an inalienable part of Russia,” he said. (CNN) Here of course, is where the conflict begins to really unravel. According to the first but arguably the most important tenet of Brian Orend’s jus ad bellum, which is “just because,” Russia had no initial strike from Crimea to launch an invasion, but rather, they felt that they know it in ‘their hearts’ that annexing Crimea was justified.. Orend’s explanation on ‘just cause,’ delivers all of the violations a territory might endure in order to initiate a war, like, “self defence from external attack; the defence of others from such; the protection of innocents from brutal, aggressive regimes; and punishment for a grievous wrongdoing which remains uncorrected.” (Orend 3) The first chapter in the annexation of Crimea unfolded on March 2, 2014 when “A convoy of hundreds of Russian troops heads towards the regional capital of Crimea. Arseny Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s new prime minister, accuses Russia of declaring war on his country.” (Al Jazeera) We know of course, that the Crimean peninsula is an independent territory of Ukraine, and to argue that by annexing the peninsula Russia did not commit an act of aggression against Ukraine would be to venture into the domain of absurd, almost dismissive logic. One cannot even make an allowance for what Orend terms ‘pre emptive strikes against anticipated aggression,’ because Russia was nowhere near any anticipated danger from the Crimean people. According to Petro Poroshenko, a Ukrainian member of Parliament, Russia’s annexation is not only immoral because it was not ‘just cause,’ for one territory but also because it provides an example for other nations to mimic, if they do so believe they have a disillusioned right for ‘just cause’ as well, saying, “[Ukraine] had a guarantee that nothing [would] happen with the Crimea. We had [a situation] that there is not any military presence on Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea…I strongly believe that this is not only Ukrainian territory is now threatened.”

There is more to the case for Crimea’s defense in light of Orend’s jus ad bellum, and that lies in the second tenet of its theory. War is considered a violation of another country when there are ulterior motivations, and in the case of Russia’s geographical proximity to Crimea there is evidence that Putin was incentivized by the Black Sea Fleet. According to Paul Schwartz, at the Center for International Studies, “control of Crimea gives Moscow continuing access to the naval base at Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Sevastopol’s warm water port, natural harbor and extensive infrastructure make it among the best naval bases in the Black Sea.” This fact alone is indicative of an ulterior military strategy which will certainly benefit Russia, beyond what Putin had stated as a desire for Russia to engage in annexing Crimea because it was ‘inalienable’ to the Soviet territory. It is also not too far fetched to presume another ulterior motive for Russia, which would be to upsurge their control over Ukraine and preserve their influence in Sevastopol.

So far, we have seen two of the six tenets of Orend’s jus ad bellum confirm that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was in fact unjust and immoral. In order to pass the jus ad bellum theory for war, all six tenets are required; Russia also violated the fourth tenet, ‘last resort,’ seeing as there were no string of actions prior to the invasion of Crimea – Russia had already planted their troops their to anticipate Putin’s command to invade. In addition to this violation, Russia infringed on Crimea’s situation because they had no ‘probability of success,’ a tenet which according to Orend calls for commencing war when there is a threat of mass violence or rather, to improve a situation where their citizens are in danger. Of course, there was no impending threat to Russia and the probability of success could not exist when there were no odds to gamble in the very beginning. Orend’s last tenet, which Russia violated, endangers even a potential for morality in this annexation; this is the tenet that calls for ‘proportionality,’ or waging war for the “benefits proportional to the worth or costs which the war action may proceed.” (Orend 5) Russia’s annexation of Crimea was only beneficial for the war state to acquire the peninsula as an asset, and the invasion did not consider the effects that proliferate universally. The annexation had profound effects on nations not involved in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, such as Great Britain, with British Prime Minister David Cameron saying it sends “a chilling message across the continent of Europe.. It is completely unacceptable for Russia to use force to change borders, on the basis of a sham referendum held at the barrel of a Russian gun.” (Smith) It is evident that Orend’s discussion on the ethics of war wildly opposes the reasons for initiating war with Crimea; a territory which although may seem like another stepping stone for Russia to advance on Ukraine, is in fact its own state with its own unique citizenry. That being said, no justification existed for Russia to annex Crimea and therefore – it is an immoral act of war.

  • Orend, Brian. The Morality of War. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2006. Print.
  • Orend, Brian. “War.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2000). Web.
  • Shavall, Steven. “Law Versus Morality as Regulators of ConductS.” American Law Economics (2002). Web.
  • Smith, Matt, Alla Eshchenko Reported from Moscow, Matt Smith Wrote in Atlanta. Laura Smith-Spark, Frederik Pleitgen, Nick Paton Walsh, Elena Sandreyev, and Mick Krever. “Ukraine Cries ‘robbery’ as Russia Annexes Crimea.” CNN. Cable News Network. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
  • “Timeline: Ukraine’s Political Crisis.” – Al Jazeera English. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.