Argument
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It’s No Crime to Be a Russian Soldier in Ukraine

Moscow’s war is unjust, but there’s no moral obligation for soldiers to refuse to fight.

By , a professor emeritus of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study.
A billboard promoting military service is seen in Russia.
A billboard promoting military service is seen in Russia.
Young men walk in front of a billboard promoting contract army service in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 29. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Theorists of just and unjust war shouldn’t have much difficulty when writing about Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The attack is doubly unjust. It is, first of all, a classic example of military aggression; it is a war without a just cause. Second, the conduct of the war by Russian forces violates the most basic rule of jus in bello, justice in battle: that civilians must be shielded as much as possible from the impact of the fighting.

Theorists of just and unjust war shouldn’t have much difficulty when writing about Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The attack is doubly unjust. It is, first of all, a classic example of military aggression; it is a war without a just cause. Second, the conduct of the war by Russian forces violates the most basic rule of jus in bello, justice in battle: that civilians must be shielded as much as possible from the impact of the fighting.

The two crimes against morality don’t necessarily go together. Think of World War II in Europe: The allies were certainly fighting a just war, but their attacks on German cities, deliberately targeting residential areas, were unjust. Russia today has avoided any similar moral complexity.

Recently, I was interviewed by a Russian journalist, a dissident working from exile in Georgia, broadcasting, he hoped, into Russia but also aiming at the new Russian diaspora. He asked smart questions about the justice of the attack and the Russian army’s tactics and strategies.

No one doubts that leaving, refusing to fight against Ukraine, is a good thing, a commendable act, but is it morally obligatory?

But then he asked a question that I wasn’t prepared for, though it touched on an issue much debated among philosophers writing about justice and war: “Was I right to leave?”

His question highlights a major debate among just war theorists. No one doubts that leaving, refusing to fight against Ukraine, is a good thing, a commendable act, but is it morally obligatory?

In other words, are the men (in Russia’s mobilization, women were not called up) who don’t flee, who willingly or unwillingly join the army—are they guilty of the injustice of the war they fight? What are the moral burdens that citizens bear when their country is fighting an unjust war?


Classical just war theorists (I am one of them) try to limit the burdens on those in the trenches. The only people responsible for an unjust war are the political and military leaders of the country; ordinary soldiers are responsible only for their own conduct in the war.

On the battlefield, I have argued, soldiers fighting just and unjust wars are moral equals: They have the same right to fight. They have all been told by their presidents, prime ministers, teachers, and preachers that the war they are fighting is just and necessary; they are all subject to the same military discipline; and they are all bound in the same way to their comrades.

The Geneva Convention on prisoners of war seems to confirm this view. All captured soldiers are entitled to benevolent quarantine for the duration of the war, whether their cause was just or unjust. They are morally equal in the eyes of their captors. So German soldiers captured by the U.S. Army in World War I and World War II were not held responsible for the criminal war in which they fought; they were not punished but rather interned benevolently. It is enough to hold all soldiers to the rules of engagement that set out what they can and should not do in battle. They must disobey illegal and immoral orders, which is hard enough; they don’t have to refuse to fight in an unjust war. But they must not act unjustly themselves.

When American prisoners of war in North Vietnam were coerced into standing in front of a camera, denouncing the war they had fought and apologizing for fighting it, classical just war theorists like me thought that the coercion was abhorrent and the statements excusable—because of the coercion. Even those of us who believed that the Vietnam War was unjust agreed. For these prisoners, the war was over; they should have been allowed to rest in prisoner of war limbo. Unless they had themselves committed war crimes, they had nothing to apologize for.

The critics of classical just war theory, who call themselves “revisionists,” believe that the idea that soldiers are moral equals on the battlefield is radically counterintuitive. Their own intuitions about moral equality begin in domestic society: Imagine an armed bank robber confronting an armed bank guard. They don’t have an equal right to fire their guns. The robber has no right at all; the guard has a right to fire if they believe that the lives of the bank tellers, say, or their own life is at risk. The two are certainly not moral equals in the battlefield of the bank. So how can soldiers invading a country, like Russians marching into Ukraine, have the same right to fight as Ukrainians defending their homeland?

According to this view, the invading soldiers have no battlefield rights; in the revisionist view, they are wrongdoers—moral, if not legal, criminals. Further distinctions are probably necessary: Soldiers who have volunteered to fight an unjust war are more guilty than conscripts; professional soldiers fall somewhere in between, but no member of any of these groups is exempt from blame. They should have refused to fight; they have no right to shoot, to try to kill, people who are defending their country.

Revisionists are hard-pressed to say whether or how to punish these unjust soldiers. I don’t know of any revisionist philosopher who would want them peremptorily punished if they are captured or malevolently rather than benevolently quarantined. A really tough revisionist might encourage their neighbors to shun them—as some American soldiers returning from Vietnam were shunned. The most common revisionist view is more forward-looking: If enough people come to believe that it’s wrong to fight in an unjust war, then there will be more refusals to fight, more draft resistance and evasion, and governments will find it more and more difficult to sustain aggressive or imperial wars.


Perhaps the flight of hundreds of thousands of young Russians, some of whom just don’t want to fight but many of whom don’t want to fight unjustly, is a point for the revisionists. Their flight might be seen as evidence that they believe that it would be wrong to fight—a moral crime, as revisionists say.

Citizens in many countries and in many wars have refused to fight: fleeing, as some Americans did in the 1960s; invoking the right, where it exists, of conscientious objection; or just saying no and going to prison. But the numbers have been small, and in the past, many of the refuseniks have been religious pacifists who won’t fight in any wars, just or unjust—so they don’t have to make the particular judgements that revisionism would require.

But the huge numbers of fleeing Russians don’t necessarily suggest a new, wider acceptance of the revisionist argument that young people of military age must think about the justice of the wars they are called on to fight. It is an exceptional case. Russia is led by an authoritarian regime that is brutal in its repression of internal dissidents but doesn’t seem particularly interested in preventing the flight of conscientious (or fearful) citizens.

In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view, the more people who flee, the fewer dissidents within. Russia’s army relies on soldiers who are poorly trained and inadequately armed and whose officers seem to have little concern for the well-being of the young men they command. This is a cruel but very loose, corrupt, and inefficient authoritarianism, so the number of citizens who don’t believe the propaganda and who flee its territory shouldn’t be a surprise. Nor should we take it as a sign that there will be large numbers of citizens in other countries refusing to fight unjust wars.

It is indeed commendable to object and resist. But those who accept mobilization have not acted wrongly.

But there is a more important argument for battlefield equality rooted in the classical version of just war theory. It is simply inconceivable that anyone would want to hold Russia’s bedraggled soldiers responsible for Putin’s war. The war is not the project of these soldiers in anything like the way stealing a bank’s money is the project of the bank robber. The domestic analogy doesn’t work—or, better, it would only work, as I have argued before in debates with revisionists, if war was a peacetime activity. But it isn’t.

War is a special place, a highly coercive place, and people caught up in it have to be judged with reference to their actual circumstances. Think of yourself in that place, very young, conscripted, believing in your country’s leaders, or maybe skeptical but not ready for heroics, quickly finding comrades among others like yourself, and fighting first of all with them and for them.

Assume that you don’t commit murder or rape. Surely you would want, and expect, to return to your family when the war was over. You might have to deal with mental trauma, remembering the fear and horror of battle. You shouldn’t have to deal with a guilty conscience.

The question about the moral burden of an unjust war has a correct answer. It is indeed commendable to object and resist. But those who accept mobilization have not acted wrongly. Individuals should be tried and punished for the crimes they have committed; the rest of the soldiers should go home soon, I hope.

Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of Just and Unjust Wars and served as co-editor of Dissent.

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