During the night Wednesday, Russia launched a military strike against Ukraine, referring to it as a “special military operation” intended to demilitarize Ukraine. So far, the invasion has included strikes against the capital Kyiv, the largest city Kharkov, and the area surrounding Crimea. By the end of the first day, Russian troops had killed 137 Ukrainians and wounded more than 300. Experts estimate that casualties will spike in upcoming days.

Putin’s Rationalizations

President Putin has attempted to justify the war with at least four arguments. First, earlier this month Putin claimed Ukrainians were committing genocide against ethnic Russians in the Donbas region. Second, in a speech Monday, Putin claimed Ukraine is not a sovereign nation: “Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood. There has never been a sustainable statehood in Ukraine.” Third, in a speech Thursday morning, Putin that Russia’s invasion was an act of self-defense against NATO expansion. Fourth, Putin has conjectured that Ukraine is acquiring nuclear weapons for potential use against Russia.

Additionally, most experts recognize something that Putin has never said forthrightly: that he wishes to build a Russian empire.

Criteria by Which to Judge Putin’s Claims

Is Russia’s strike justified? Are Putin’s arguments valid? And what are the criteria by which we would make such judgments? Although many contemporary political leaders and thought leaders seem confused about what qualifies as a “just war,” there should be no confusion.

For thousands of years now, the just war tradition (JWT) has been articulating, developing, and refining a set of criteria by which we can determine whether a given nation is morally justified in launching a war. I will outline each criterion briefly before drawing conclusions about the Russian strike.

  1. Just Cause:The first principle is just cause. According to this criterion, a nation must have a morally just reason for entering into a state of war. It may enter into war only if it is responding to a specific act of injustice. Just cause may include responses to the military aggression of a foreign nation, the protection of innocent human life, the restoration of human rights, or the restoration of a just international order.
  • Legitimate Authority: The second principle, legitimate authority, states that a war is just only if the decision to go to war was made by the political leader or civil body ultimately responsible for maintaining order and providing security. Legitimate authority, therefore, is both a negative principle that restrains illegitimate actors from the private use of force and a positive principle empowering legitimate authorities in the public use of force.
  • Right Intent: The third principle, right intent, states that a just war is one waged with morally upright intentions, which is to say that its purpose is to restore a previous state of peace. In other words, a just war is one which pursues a humane and just civic order. A war is not just if its purpose is to glorify one’s nation, enlarge one’s territory, humiliate one’s enemy, or “practice” warfighting in order to keep one’s military fit. If right intent is ignored, all other criteria are corrupted.
  • Comparative Justice: The fourth principle, comparative justice, is related to just cause. It states that a nation wages war justly only if the moral merit on its side clearly outweighs the moral merit on the side of the opposing nation.   As a principle, comparative justice opposes crusaderism/jihadism/militarism which operates without sufficient moral restraint, but also opposes moral skepticism which thinks we are unable to arrive at firm moral judgments.
  • Last Resort: The fifth principle, last resort, states that a war is just only if all realistic nonviolent options have been considered in principle and exhausted. After all, if a nation has right intent, its ultimate goal is to restore a previously existing state of law and order. And if that can be achieved without going to war, all the better. It is important to note that the criterion of last resort does not state that a nation must delay war perpetually or exhaust all unrealistic nonviolent options, only that a good faith effort has been made to avoid war.
  • Probability of Success: The sixth principle, probability of success, states that no war may be justified if the attempt to win the war would clearly be futile. A nation’s political and military leaders must work in unison to determine whether their nation’s forces have a realistic chance of victory. This criterion restrains idealistic or narcissistic leaders who would wage war without any care for the slaughter of its own warfighters.
  • Proportionality of Projected Results: The seventh principle, proportionality of projected results, states that a just war is one in which the good a nation expects to achieve upon winning a war must be greater than estimates of what it will cost to achieve it (e.g. loss of life and property). This criterion restrains nations from going to war when the victory would cost more than non-engagement would have cost.
  • Right Spirit: The principle of right spirit focuses on the disposition one maintains as one considers going to war. It states that a just war is one which should be waged with regret rather than with glee or hatred. Using lethal force against enemy soldiers is regrettable even when morally justified. This criterion reflects the fact that war is sometimes necessary and, even when so, it is always a tragic necessity.

These eight criteria, honed and refined over thousands of years by ethicists, military leaders, and politicians, interlock with one another such that a violation of any one criterion effectively rules as “unjust” the military strike under consideration.

Putin’s Egregious Injustice

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine clearly fails to meet two of the criteria: just cause and right intent. Rather than striking Ukraine to correct a specific injustice, Russia has justified its invasion with ambiguous claims and false justifications. His dismissal of Ukraine as a sovereign nation is manifestly false. His claims about NATO’s expansion are irrelevant; they do not point to any specific injustice. His argument that Ukraine will use nuclear weapons against Russia is conjecture. And even if his claim is true about ethnic genocide against Russians in Donbas, those claims do not justify a full-scale invasion. Thus, Russia does not have just cause.

Similarly, Putin’s war fails the criterion of right intent. Under this criterion, a nation must intend to restore a previous state of peace. Instead, it appears that Russia intends to expand the Russian empire, send a deathly message to NATO members, and punish a yet-to-unfold scenario in which Ukraine acquires nuclear weapons to defend itself against Russia.

Putin’s brazen violation of just war criteria should not go unpunished. As I have outlined in this series of short articles, moral accountability is vital for nations, if we are to avoid the atrocities of the twentieth century. Thus, Americans should urge our nation’s leaders to consistently and unflinchingly oppose Putin’s egregiously unjust war against the sovereign nation of Ukraine.


Bruce Ashford (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a book writer, speaker, columnist, and speech writer. He is Provost and Professor of Theology & Culture at SBTS. He is also a Fellow in Public Theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (Cambridge, UK), a participant in the Dulles Colloquium of the Institute on Religion & Public Life, and a trustee at the Institute for Religion & Democracy. Bruce has authored or co-authored six trade books, including Letters to an American ChristianHow To Survive an Election SeasonEvery Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians, and One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics. He has also authored three academic books: The Doctrine of CreationThe Gospel of Our King, and Theology & Practice of Mission.