A moral evaluation of Sanctions in the Ukraine War

It is Morally Wrong to Punish a People for the Actions of its Government

During World War 2, the U.S. forced persons of Japanese descent into internment camps.

History.com: “Japanese internment camps were established during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through his Executive Order 9066. From 1942 to 1945, it was the policy of the U.S. government that people of Japanese descent, including U.S. citizens, would be incarcerated in isolated camps. Enacted in reaction to the Pearl Harbor attacks and the ensuing war, the incarceration of Japanese Americans is considered one of the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.”

Japan committed acts of military aggression during World War 2 in the Asia-Pacific region, while Germany and Italy were attacking Europe and Russia. No sane person doubts the wickedness of the acts and goals of Nazi Germany, nor the grave immorality of Japan’s war of aggression. But such evil acts do not justify immoral acts by the other side in the war.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. the end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation.”

The condemnation of even one innocent person cannot be justified by the intension to oppose or to win a war, even if that war must be won to save the nation. Therefore, the condemnation of an entire people — regardless of their intentions, actions, or opposition to an unjust war by their own nation — is certainly not justified by efforts to oppose or win a war.

CCC 2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.” [Gaudium et Spes 79]

Direct targeting of civilians, as well as any other immoral acts, are not justified by either side in any war. The nation acting in its own defense is not justified in using immoral means toward that defense. The aggressor nation is not justified in its aggression, nor in any immoral means used to carry out the war.

When two nations are at war, other nations are not justified in any immoral acts, regardless of their evaluation of which side is in the wrong. An act is immoral if it has a bad intention. An act is immoral if it is intrinsically evil, such as the unjust war of aggression, or the direct targeting of civilians. An act is immoral if the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences; it is always wrong to act, if you reasonably anticipated that your act will do more harm than good.

The attempt to punish the entire people of the aggressor nation in a war is an act of moral violence against the innocent. Violence against the innocent is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.* Government officials involved in the war, military personnel, and only those civilians directly involved in conducting the war are the persons responsible for an unjust war. The entire populace cannot be treated as if they were guilty of the immoral acts committed by their government or by their nation’s military.

Sanctions against Nations

The U.S. and other nations have issued sanctions against Iran, to prevent them from making nuclear weapons. The sanctioned items include maraging steel and carbon fiber, both used to make centrifuges for enriching uranium toward a weapon-grade purity. In this example, the sanctions do not punish the people of the nation, have a good intention, and do not do more harm than good. However, a broader scope of sanctions, even against a State sponsor of terrorism which is attempting to obtain nuclear weapons, would be immoral if the entire set of sanctions broadly and directly harm the general population.

For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Iran had difficulty obtaining enough medicines to treat its population. Even if medications are not directly sanctioned, a broad set of sanctions against commerce with a particular nation and its people usually results in a refusal by companies to do business of any kind with that nation, lest they run afoul of the broad sanctions in some way. Laws are complicated in their interpretation and application, and so selling medicine, which is not sanctioned, to a nation under broad commercial sanctions might be illegal. What if the medicines include medical instruments or items that have multiple uses, in medicine as well as in other fields? Clauses that exclude medicine or food from broad commercial sanctions are ineffective, and result in a de facto sanctioning of that medicine or food from the sanctioned nation. This reasonably anticipated consequence must also be taken into account in any moral evaluation.

In the case of sanctions against Russia, it is not moral to issue broad sanctions that can be reasonably anticipated to substantially harm the population, as such an act is intrinsically evil. Moreover, no one opines that these sanctions will end the war or otherwise be effective. See the article: “Russia Doing Better Than Expected Despite Sanctions – IMF” Source].

Then there are other harmful consequences, in addition to the burden on the population of Russia. Food and fertilizer are not sanctioned, but companies are refusing to buy food or fertilizer from Russia because they fear they might inadvertently violate the sanctions, while the U.S. has been trying to overcome that hurdle, to obtain food and fertilizer from Russia. Similarly, “a number of medicines cannot be bought at all” in Russia, even by charitable organizations, due to the unintended effects of sanctions [Source trans. by Google Chrome].

“The EU and the US have built exemptions into their restrictions on doing business with Russia to allow trade in fertilizer, of which Moscow is a key global supplier. But many shippers, banks and insurers have been staying away from the trade out of fear they could inadvertently fall afoul of the rules. Russian fertilizer exports are down 24% this year.” [Source].

The world agricultural system is a “just in time” system. There is not a large enough supply of food or fertilizer or fuel for agricultural machinery in storage anywhere. (The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, when a portion is released during an oil crisis, must be sold to the highest bidder, by law, even if that means the oil goes to another nation, and does not benefit the U.S. — Ah, the wisdom of Congress!) So when fertilizer, fuel, or food is no longer available from Russia and its ally Belarus, there is nowhere else from which to obtain these items. It is like musical chairs; remove a few chairs, and there will not be enough for everyone.

“According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Russia was the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers such as urea, the second leading supplier of potassium fertilizers, and the third largest exporter of phosphorus fertilizers in 2021.” [Source]

Sanctions on Russia are one of the major causes of the current food crisis. Fuel, fertilizer, and commodity foods like wheat are all affected. Other factors also contributed to the food crisis: bad weather in many regions; Sri Lanka’s attempt to “go organic”, which collapsed its agricultural system in less than a year; E.U. excessive restrictions on fertilizer that have shut down many fertilizer companies; Netherlands and Canada’s attempt to greatly reduce nitrogen fertilizer, due to their concerns about climate change, regardless of the effect on food production; the war in Ukraine is preventing much food from being exported.

The effects of the crisis have not yet reached consumers in Western nations. But the dominos are falling, and it is only a matter of time before the last dominos, the ones at the consumer end of the chain of events, fall. The USDA [Wheat Data Yearbook Recent Years] gives the “Weighted-average farm price” in dollars per bushel of wheat at $5.05 in the 2020/21 market year (June 2020 to May 2021). For 2022/23, the price is $10.50 per bushel of wheat, which is more than double. But prices for inputs used by farmers to grow wheat and other crops (diesel, fertilizer) have gone much higher, all while there is a drought in the U.S. stretching from California to Texas (and affecting some other regions as well). So the higher price for wheat might not be enough. A farmer using pivot irrigation and conventional tilling uses more than ten times the diesel fuel compared to a farmer with a rainfed no-till system. The higher diesel prices can bankrupt or shutdown some farmers.

It is morally wrong to issue broad sanctions against Russia. The harmful consequences to innocent persons in the nations issuing the sanctions (U.S. and E.U. primarily) far outweigh any benefit regarding the war in Ukraine. It is not moral to act when you reasonably anticipate that your act will do more harm than good. It is not moral to attempt to harm an entire population of a nation, even during an unjust war by that nation’s government and military. Targeting the innocent civilians of a population for harm is not moral, even when the targeting is not with weapons, but with commercial sanctions. In addition, no one anticipates any weighty good result from sanctions. No one opines that sanctions will pressure Putin to end the war. And such broad sanctions are more likely to have the additional negative effect of isolating Russia, leading to more severe actions by that nation in the future. A nation isolated from the world community of nations is less likely to consider the common good among nations of their future actions.

Worse still, the United States has threatened the hungry suffering nations of Africa with sanctions, if they attempt to buy any sanctioned items from Russia, regardless of the needs of their people. Punishing a third party nation, not involved in the war, merely because the purchase goods needed by their people from a nation at war, is a particularly clear example of the injustice of punishing an innocent population with sanctions. See the article: “US: Africa can buy Russian grain but risks actions on oil” [Source]. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, stated that African nations can buy non-sanctioned goods from Russia. But in the next breath she threatened sanctions against those nations, if they buy any sanctioned goods. “We caution countries not to break those sanctions because then … they stand the chance of having actions taken against them,” she said.

In my view, such a threat by a U.S. official has the chilling effect of causing nations and companies to decline to buy those non-sanctioned goods. Then, even if an African nation decided to buy non-sanctioned goods, they might not be able to do so, as they require the cooperation of bankers, shippers, and insurers. “But many shippers, banks and insurers have been staying away from the trade out of fear they could inadvertently fall afoul of the rules.” [Bloomberg].

Finally, we must consider the actions taken against individual Russians. Prohibiting an athlete from participating in a sport, merely because his nationality is Russian, is immoral. It is morally no different from the same type of prohibition applied because of race or religion. Wimbledon banned all Russian tennis players from this year’s international tournament — one of the most important in tennis — merely for being from Russia or Belarus. See this article: “Wimbledon chiefs fuming as British tennis handed huge fine over ban of Russian athletes” [Source]. The separate fines for banning players from Russia and Belarus totaled about one million U.S. dollars. The tennis orgs behind Wimbledon are appealing, with the support of the British government.

The U.S. Justice department has taken action against “Russian oligarchs”. What the crimes of these persons might be is not clear. The news reports simply state that they are associated with President Putin of Russia. Are they being targeting merely because they are wealthy Russians? Why is the current U.S. administration so focused on taking their yachts away from them? It is difficult to believe that every single one of these wealthy Russians is necessarily guilty of serious crimes related to Putin and the war in Ukraine. None seem to have been investigated prior to the war. If they ever receive due process, I think some of them will not be prosecuted and will have their yachts and funds returned to them. It is not a crime to be Russian or wealthy. And a nebulous or merely personal association with a government leader does not imply a conspiracy with that leader to undertake an unjust war or to commit other crimes.

The United States government should have pressured Ukraine and Russia to negotiate to avoid the war in the first place. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken is said to have warned Zelenskyy of the impending invasion. But nothing was done to prevent it. The decision of Ukraine to try to join NATO seems to have at least triggered the start of the war. That decision has done more harm than good, and should have been reversed. Then the support for Ukraine in the war with billions of dollars and advanced weapons has kept a very harmful war going. Instead, the U.S. should have pushed Ukraine to the bargaining table, with threats to withhold money and weapons, so as to end the war.

A just war is not merely any war in defense of a nation. To be a just defense, the war must not do more harm than good; there must be a reasonable chance of winning; and more:

CCC “2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: – the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; – all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; – there must be serious prospects of success; – the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. the power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

These conditions for just war do not seem to have been met in the war of defense by Ukraine. Nor are them met in the war of aggression by Russia.

It seems likely that Ukraine could have avoided war by negotiation. A war that can be avoided by agreeing to conditions which do far less harm than the war of defense itself is not a just war. Then Ukraine was asked by Russia to negotiate an end to the war, by giving up territory, which they refused. It is not moral to continue a gravely harmful war, when a negotiated end to the war will do far less harm. And we must also consider the possibility that, if Russia begins to lose large amounts of captured territory, that Russia might use nuclear weapons. This possibility must weigh in the consequences in the moral evaluation of decisions. Giving Ukraine weapons and money might have the effect of pushing Russia to take more extreme measures. The United States and other nations not directly involved in the war should be focused on preventing war and ending any wars that do occur by negotiation. We should be peacemakers, not warmongers.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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* Is violence against the guilty justifiable? Only sometimes. Every guilty person is innocent beyond the measure of their guilt. Therefore, any violence against the guilty must be within the measure of their guilt, that is to say, it must be proportionate; in addition, violence against the guilty must not be intrinsically evil, and must have only good in the intention. Generally, violence is possibly justifiable, depending on intention and circumstances, in cases of self-defense, defense of other innocent persons, defense of the community by law enforcement officers, and defense of a nation by troops.

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3 Responses to A moral evaluation of Sanctions in the Ukraine War

  1. Vít Lacman says:

    Dear mr. Conte
    May I ask you one last question. It’s very similar, maybe even the same as the previous one. A protestant theologian, Gregory Beale defined an idol as:
    “anything that becomes the ultimate object of desire and source of SECURITY in our lives.”
    I have also found the relation between idols and security in a sermon by pope Francis:
    “we have to empty ourselves of the many small or great idols that we have and in which we take refuge, on which we often seek to base our security”

    So, would someone who has a source of security in anything apart from God be an idolater and on the path to hell? Is G. Beale right in his view of idols?

    God bless

    • Ron Conte says:

      No, not at all. The grave sin of idolatry is not committed by any and all faults or sins that tend in the direction of replacing God. This is too broad a definition, when we are speaking of a mortal sin. Perfection is to put God first in all things. But we fallen sinners often fail to do so, when many earthly concerns intervene, without reaching to the terrible extent of actual idolatry.

    • Vít Lacman says:

      Thank you, mr. Conte. Your two answers were a great help.

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