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A New Age in Peace Ethics? Pacifism Faced with the Russian Attack on Ukraine

Since February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine, which started as a hybrid war back in 2014, has been waged openly and with the use of large-scale military force. Since then, this date has been referred to as a historical epochal break. In peace ethics, too, there is talk of a new age, or at least of a necessary reorientation. In particular, pacifism has been criticized for its insistence on the primacy of non-violent conflict resolution. Karl-Heinz Paqué, Chairman of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, believes that “the end of (unconditional) pacifism” has come with the political turning point; Sascha Lobo wrote of “German Lumpenpacifism” (Pacifism adopted without thought or intelligence; on the model of Lumpenproletariat)”, in a column in Der Spiegel; Jagoda Marinić writes: “I am slowly losing my temper listening to those who are posturing as pacifists right now.”[1] Those addressed, such as the former Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Margot Käßmann, have defended themselves: “Why I am still a pacifist in 2022”.[2]

The debate extends well beyond the usual peace ethics campaigners, and is being conducted in all mainstream media. Various open letters with opposing demands are circulating; polemics and polarizing rhetoric have not been spared. Two issues have emerged as the key points of disagreement: Is it acceptable, and indeed should Ukraine be supplied with weapons to help the country defend itself against Russian aggression? And: Should Ukraine be pressured to enter into peace talks as soon as possible and stop fighting, even if this involves making territorial and other concessions?

Studying the debate more closely, we can identify a fundamental controversy that has always shaped peace ethics and underlies all the present discussions: the question of the legitimacy of military force.

The extreme positions of peace ethics

Between a categorical Yes and a categorical No to the use of military force, there is a whole spectrum of possible positions, and the entire current ethical debate takes place within this spectrum, without anyone adopting either extreme position. Nevertheless, it makes sense to examine these positions first, to obtain a reliable analytical tool. At one extreme is an unqualified Yes to military force, which requires no further justification for its use than its opportuneness, considered solely from a standpoint of realpolitik. In this view, political interests may be asserted by military means without any kind of reservations or special need for legitimization. If this is accompanied by an enthusiasm for war, it is called bellicism. One may be tempted to attribute this position to the Russian Federation in the current conflict, and for some Moscow hardliners and nationalists this may indeed be true. Nevertheless, official Russian communications attempt to invoke classic justificatory criteria from the doctrine of just war, by declaring the invasion of Ukraine to be a necessary evil that was forced upon Russia: to halt the ongoing “genocide” of the ethnic Russian population in the Donbass; as legitimate self-defense in the form of a pre-emptive strike to forestall a military attack on Russian territory from Ukrainian soil; and as a recapture of Russian soil falsely claimed by the illegitimate Ukrainian state. Although these arguments seem to be employed as a pretext, they evince a need for legitimacy that distinguishes the current Russian position from classical bellicism. The latter can be characterized as the “unrestricted right of states to wage war” of the Westphalian order, which underpinned imperialist wars of conquest into the 20th century. Yet it is clear that the Russian campaign against Ukraine cannot be reconciled in any way with the criteria of the just war doctrine as “just and limited warfare”, whereas supplying arms to Ukraine to curb Russian aggression can. It is therefore completely unwarranted to equate support for arms deliveries with bellicism[3] and the spirit of 1914.[4]

At the opposite extreme to bellicism is a radical pacifism that considers any use of military force to be illegitimate, even for the purpose of self-defense. This position is founded on an absolute belief in non-violence, which is extrapolated from the private to the political sphere. Among the questions debated by adherents of this belief, for example, is whether it is legitimate to call the police in a situation where you are personally threatened, knowing that the police are prepared to use force.[5] It is often supposed that pacifism is a form of passivity, of wanting to stay out of everything. But this is a misinterpretation. Pacifism is certainly proactive, only the actions taken should be non-violent. In the 1970s, one of its proponents, Gene Sharp, did some counting and arrived at 198 “methods of nonviolent action”.[6] Of note with regard to military conflicts are the Christian Peacemaker Teams, for example, who risked their lives to stand in the front lines of the Iraq war in 2003, urging the combatants to cease fire.[7] In the early days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was suggested along similar lines that the Ukrainians should renounce military resistance and defend themselves non-violently – for example by demonstrating or holding a general strike. But after demonstrators in Kherson were gunned down in the first days following the occupation, these pacifist voices grew quieter. In the German peace movement, the right of Ukrainians to defend themselves militarily is no longer contested.[8] On its website, the German Federation for Social Defense (Bund für Soziale Verteidung, BSV) refers to a “system of total defense” which “also [!] includes civil resistance”.[9] In light of events, the German peace movement is not advocating an absolute renunciation of violence, but rather its minimization and the inclusion of non-violent means. With such statements, radical pacifism has been abandoned.

The pacifist No to arms deliveries

Even though the peace movement has come around to saying Yes to Ukraine’s right to self-defense, it remains attached to radical non-violence in that it is skeptical about arms deliveries from other states that help Ukraine defend itself militarily. Bishop Friedrich Kramer, Peace Commissioner of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), reiterated his No to arms deliveries at the EKD synod in November 2022, against criticism from within the church. The point is not explicitly mentioned in other recent statements, but the call to “Stop the killing in Ukraine – arms are not the solution!” – which was the theme of a joint day of action by various groups in the German peace movement on November 19, 2022 – indicates the general drift. One might now ask how this No can be reconciled with granting Ukraine a right to self-defense, including by military means. Doesn’t this right, once granted, necessarily imply that it can be exercised by the best possible means, which then also legitimizes outside support? Isn’t this one of the inherent contradictions in any attempt to advocate a pacifism which has been moderated from the extreme position described above?[10]

The groups behind the call would dispute such an interpretation. Despite conceding that Ukraine has a right to military self-defense, in their view this strategy is ethically permissible – if at all – only temporarily. Arms deliveries are viewed critically because they fuel a “spiral” of violence and are thus ultimately not conducive to peace: “The current arms spiral, in which many countries of the world – including Germany – are involved, must be stopped for the good of all people.”[11] The question for the peace movement therefore shifts from the possible contradiction to the question of whether its general criticism of any rash and excessive use of military force applies to arms deliveries to Ukraine in the current conflict.

Pacifism of conviction and pacifism of responsibility

Behind the pacifist criticism of arms deliveries, it is easy to hear an argument that Max Weber formulated long ago as an incontrovertible fact or Pragma: “Violence and the threat of violence inevitably beget new violence, following an inescapable Pragma of all action.”[12] In keeping with this idea, a statement by the Task Force of the German Mennonite Churches (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden in Deutschland, AMG) issued shortly after the Russian invasion, reads: “Arms deliveries do not end war, they fuel it and make warfare and human rights violations possible in the first place. They neither stop the perpetrators of violence nor can they protect those who are threatened.”[13] Because of its categorical adherence to this Pragma, it is often assumed that pacifism represents an ethics of conviction in the Weberian sense, as opposed to an ethics of responsibility that includes the concrete circumstances of action in its judgment, and is therefore the only ethics that is appropriate for the political realm. The former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once put it like this: “I do not believe [...] that one can extract exhaustive or even halfway sufficient guiding policy ideas or political maxims for concrete situations from any kind of abstract ethical principles.”[14]

Yet we do not do justice to the pacifist argument against supplying weapons to Ukraine if we label it as “abstract ethics of conviction”. It is rather that they are raising the objection that proponents of the military option are making their ethical and political judgments in disregard of the empirical facts, whereas they themselves have examined the possible consequences of the various options and on this basis – an empirically informed one – they have reached a different conclusion. The keyword is “responsible pacifism”.[15] In the concrete case, this is argued on two levels. Against arms deliveries, the risk that these might lead to escalation is pointed out, especially in the fight against a nuclear power. “What can possibly be the point of armed resistance against a nuclear power? If armed conventional resistance were to defeat a nuclear-armed power conventionally, victory would depend on this power not resorting to its nuclear weapons. Any such trust in the civility and humanity of an aggressor (!) seems irrational to us.”[16] And in support of non-violent resistance by Ukraine, reference is made to empirical research which is claimed to show its superior effectiveness in historical comparison. Both arguments deserve closer scrutiny.

Is non-violent resistance always the better option?

To support the argument that non-violent resistance is empirically proven to be the more successful option instead of military measures, the peace movement refers in particular to a study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, who analyzed data on non-violent and violent resistance movements over a period of more than 100 years: “The most striking finding is that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.”[17] Direct references to the study in the debate on the Ukraine war can be found in articles by the peace researcher Véronique Dudouet and the coordinator of the “Rethinking Security” initiative, Ralf Becker.[18]

In his article, Becker acknowledges that the Chenoweth/Stephan study also reports on failures of non-violent resistance, and he does not conceal the fact that their new data for the years up to 2019 shows a significantly lower success rate. However: “On average, non-violent resistance in 2019 is still twice as effective as violent resistance in achieving political goals.”[19] One may draw such a conclusion, but the question remains as to what is gained from this when it comes to concrete decision-making in dealing with the Russian invasion. Average figures are no help in a complex reality where every situation has to be assessed differently. Moreover, most of the resistance movements examined by Chenoweth and Stephan had an internal configuration – i.e. resistance within the country against their own government – whereas Ukraine has been attacked militarily from outside. Making a comparison here is to compare apples and oranges. And thirdly, we should not dismiss the declining success figures reported by Erica Chenoweth as lightly as Becker does. In a new publication, she ascribes this decline primarily to problems in the resistance groups themselves; but she also notes that authoritarian regimes have changed their approach: In the past decade authoritarian leaders have also established a savvier playbook by which to suppress domestic challengers.”[20] If we look at all the experiences of the last few years in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Belarus and now Ukraine together, then we have to take this observation very seriously – more seriously at any rate than those in the peace movement who, referring to Chenoweth, claim a general likelihood of success for non-violent resistance.

The argument about the risk of global and nuclear escalation

The fear of a nuclear escalation of the war in Ukraine is justified, as it has been deliberately stoked by the Russian Federation time and again. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the risk of escalation is cited far beyond the peace movement as a reason to urge Ukraine to exercise military restraint and immediately enter into ceasefire negotiations. For example, on June 29, 2022, the weekly newspaper Die Zeit published an appeal under the headline “Ceasefire now!”, which read: “The West must do everything in its power to ensure that the parties promptly reach a negotiated solution. This alone can prevent a war of attrition lasting years, with calamitous local and global consequences, as well as a military escalation that could go as far as the use of nuclear weapons.”[21]

So here too, entirely in keeping with the idea of responsible pacifism, the argument is based on the short and long-term consequences of today’s actions. To evaluate this argument, it should first be pointed out that estimates of consequences are notoriously unreliable. For precisely this reason, it is good ethical advice to listen to reason and not impulsive emotions when making them. How likely is it, in the cold light of day, that the Russian Federation will take the Ukraine conflict to a whole new level by resorting to the nuclear option? This question has to be asked again and again as the conflict progresses, and possibly assessed differently, with developments observable via satellite reconnaissance playing a role in the assessment alongside statements by the Russian leadership (see also the article by Peter Rudolf in this issue). At the present time, experts largely agree that this likelihood is very low. It would precisely not be the “face-saving” outcome of the conflict for the Russian Federation that those in the West who advocate immediate negotiations imagine to be the Kremlin’s wish. China and India have signaled unequivocally that they would condemn such a move and take appropriate action. It would contradict Russian interests in Ukraine – whether liberation or mineral resources – to contaminate Ukrainian soil with radioactive debris for decades. Moreover, Russia’s own population would be endangered by any fallout.

Given the – currently – low likelihood that the nuclear scenario will occur, it cannot reasonably be argued that its existence makes it necessary, on ethical grounds, to yield to Russian aggression – which would then inevitably imply immediate ceasefire negotiations. The “war of attrition” argument is different and has to be considered separately. This, too, involves an impact assessment that compares and contrasts the local and global consequences of the decision to continue the military defense of Ukraine with the consequences of the decision to give in to the Russian Federation’s aggression, as happened in 2014. This is a decision that the Ukrainians – but also those providing them with military assistance – have to make. Would yielding actually pacify the region? And what would the global impact be on other conflict scenarios where the rules-based international order is at stake? On both levels, yielding is not consistent with the concept of a lasting, just peace. Ukraine’s struggle is also a struggle for human rights, and anyone who withdraws support here must expect to be held to account on what the idea of human rights actually means to them.

Thus the pacifist arguments against continuing the military defense of Ukraine appear unconvincing also with regard to possible escalations.

A new age in peace ethics?

Pacifism as a peace ethics option has come under pressure since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The arguments put forward against a military defense of Ukraine are not persuasive, and actually there are now voices in the peace movement that recognize Ukraine’s right to self-defense and support arms deliveries. Does this imply a new age in peace ethics?

The idea of a new age suggests a major change of direction. I do not discern any such change in the peace ethics discourse, nor does it seem necessary to me. Firstly, it must be taken into account that large parts of the peace movement had already abandoned the radical pacifist extreme position described above before the Russian invasion. The establishment of the concept of “just policing”, which has been discussed for decades in pacifist circles and is also shared by Margot Käßmann,[22] for example, implies a fundamental Yes to the state’s use of force and blurs the lines to allow a limited use of military force in keeping with the just war doctrine.[23] Secondly, some pacifist demands continue to carry weight: insisting on always looking for options that are as non-violent as possible, as well as strengthening civil society through state support.

It is certainly true that radical pacifist demands such as calling for the abolition of the German armed forces have been disavowed as a result of the changed security situation. The separation of a “peace logic” and a “security logic”[24] also seems even less convincing than before. But these have always been marginal views in peace ethics. The concept of just peace, which has found approval in the two main churches in Germany and far beyond, combines the right to self-defense and protecting human rights by military means under the rubric of “force to uphold law” (rechtserhaltende Gewalt). Its use is always an evil, but can be ethically justified under certain circumstances – and these are certainly given with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The continuity here with the traditional doctrine of just war has often been overlooked, but that does not change the fact that it exists. What has taken place in peace ethics is therefore more of a shift in emphasis than the dawning of a new age. At present, however, much more important than such adjustments in peace ethics reflection is that everything is done to assist the people affected by the war in Ukraine by providing military and humanitarian support, without losing sight of the guiding concept of just peace.


[5] York, Tripp/Barringer, Justin Bronson (eds.) (2012): A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence. Eugene, Oregon.

[7] Kern, Kathleen (2009): In Harm’s Way: A History of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Eugene, Oregon.

[8] “There is agreement that we do not question the right of the Ukrainian people to military defense.” This is point 15 of the statement on the war in Ukraine, as adopted by the general meeting of the Action Committee Service for Peace (Aktionsgemeinschaft Dienst für den Frieden, AGDF) on September 24, 2022.

[10] On these inherent contradictions, cf. Lohmann, Friedrich (2018): Myth and Reality: Pacifism’s Discourse on Violence Revisited. In: Studies in Christian Ethics 31, pp. 186-200 (doi: 10.1177/0953946817749092).

[12] Weber, Max (1920; 2012): Religion und Gesellschaft. Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. Darmstadt, p. 541.

[14] Schmidt, Helmut (1976; 1980): Gesinnungsethik oder Verantwortungsethik. In: Reinhard Gramm and Peter H. Blaschke (eds.): Ernstfall Frieden. Christsein in der Bundeswehr. Stuttgart/Berlin, pp. 203-204.

[15] Schweitzer, Christine (2000): Pazifismus heute.

[16] Freise, Josef u. a. (2022): “Die Perspektive des Evangeliums fehlt”. Stellungnahme zur Erklärung der deutschen Kommission „Justitia et Pax“ zum Krieg gegen die Ukraine vom 26. März 2022, p. 2.

[17] Chenoweth, Erica / Stephan, Maria J. (2011): Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York, p. 7.

[18] Dudouet:!5846168/. Becker: Both articles were published in the first weeks following the Russian invasion. In an interview published later, on November 2, 2022, Becker approves of arms deliveries to Ukraine: “I personally am in favor of these arms deliveries. I think that now the war has started – which could have been prevented – it actually makes sense to oppose President Putin with this show of strength” (translated from German).

[20] Chenoweth, Erica (2021): Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know®. Oxford/New York, p. 233.

[22] Cf. Käßmann, Margot (2015): Plädoyer für eine Prima Ratio. In: Margot Käßmann/Konstantin Wecker (eds.): Entrüstet Euch! Warum Pazifismus für uns das Gebot der Stunde bleibt. Texte zum Frieden. Gütersloh, pp. 85-108, 103: “But we can positively advocate for an international peacekeeping force that can only be legitimized by the United Nations. This is what this narrow corridor of legitimizable force can look like, for building peace and defending human rights, as described in the 2007 EKD peace memorandum” (translated from German).

[23] Werkner, Ines-Jacqueline (2017): Militärische versus polizeiliche Gewalt. Aktuelle Entwicklungen und Folgen für internationale Friedensmissionen. Wiesbaden; Lohmann, Friedrich (2018), see endnote 10.

[24] Informationsstelle Wissenschaft und Frieden in Zusammenarbeit mit der Plattform Zivile Krisenprävention (ed.) (2014): Friedenslogik statt Sicherheitslogik. Theoretische Grundlagen und friedenspolitische Realisierung. Wissenschaft und Frieden, Dossier 75.


Friedrich Lohmann has been Professor of Protestant Theology with a focus on Applied Ethics at the Bundes­wehr University in Munich since 2011. Prior to that, from 2008 to 2011, he was Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University Berlin. He co-publishes the magazine “zur sache bw” and a two-volume manual on military professional ethics. From 2016 to 2019, he was a member of the academic advisory committee for the recently completed consultation project “Orientational Knowledge for Just Peace” at FEST Heidelberg.

All articles by Friedrich Lohmann

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All articles in this issue

"Russia is playing a high-stakes game"
Tatiana Zhurzhenko
The Ukraine War as a Challenge for the Development of Christian Peace Ethics
Markus Vogt
A New Age in Peace Ethics? Pacifism Faced with the Russian Attack on Ukraine
Friedrich Lohmann
Be Able to Fight so You Won't Have to Fight – Does this Motto Still Hold True?
Eberhard Zorn
Fit for Deterrence and Defense? The NATO Summit in Madrid and the Future of the Alliance
Anna Clara Arndt, Göran Swistek
Competition in Risk-Taking: Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the Risks of Nuclear Escalation*
Peter Rudolf
"The question of the effectiveness of sanctions is a complex one overall"
Clara Portela


Stephan Schoeps Petro Stanko, Iurii Kuliievych Jan Claas Behrends Danutė Gailienė