In Ukraine's Struggle for Survival, a Reminder of War's Harsh Moral Compromises

There’s no neat and clean way to fight a war, even for victims of aggression.


The main goal of nations at war, especially when the struggle is desperate, is to win and not necessarily to be nice about achieving that end. That can lead even sympathetic parties fighting for survival to commit immoral acts against their own people, allies, and civilians. As Ukraine and Russia alike deny responsibility for the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam and the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, and while the bodies of the innocent pile up in the wake of Russia's invasion of its neighbor, it's a reminder that war may sometimes be necessary, but it's always messy and destructive.

The Bombings That Nobody Admits Doing

Last week's dam collapse in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine and the earlier demolition of pipelines carrying natural gas from Russia to western Europe left people tallying up the long-term costs. Both belligerent nations deny responsibility for the attacks, but evidence suggests that Russians took out the Nova Kakhovka dam and that Ukrainians were responsible for the pipeline.

"This is a logical move for the Russians…at least in the short term," geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan commented about the dam. "To impede the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the Russians eliminated one of the few viable land crossings in the area and caused flooding further downriver. I wouldn't expect this to be an isolated event, either. As the Russians seek to inhibit Ukrainian advances, other crossings and dams will likely be targeted."

"New intelligence reviewed by U.S. officials suggests that a pro-Ukrainian group carried out the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines last year," The New York Times reported in March. "Ukraine and its allies have been seen by some officials as having the most logical potential motive to attack the pipelines. They have opposed the project for years, calling it a national security threat because it would allow Russia to sell gas more easily to Europe."

Why Not Claim Credit?

So, Russia benefited from the dam's destruction and Ukraine benefited from the severed pipeline. Why be coy about it? Well, both countries may have gained from their actions, but there was a lot of collateral damage. Civilians will suffer from the loss of the dam long after military planners move on.

"The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam was a fast-moving disaster that is swiftly evolving into a long-term environmental catastrophe affecting drinking water, food supplies and ecosystems reaching into the Black Sea," notes the AP.

Crimea's generally pro-Russian population also suffers, because the dam's destruction threatens the flow of fresh water to that peninsula.

Ukraine's government has its own reasons to deny responsibility for the pipeline attack.

"The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned the Ukrainian government not to attack the Nord Stream gas pipelines last summer after it obtained detailed information about a Ukrainian plot to destroy a main energy connection between Russia and Europe," reports The Wall Street Journal.

Obviously, the operation went forward anyway, and Ukraine's government undoubtedly prefers to maintain at least a shred of ambiguity regarding its responsibility. That takes on extra importance if it received help from Polish officials who long opposed Nord Stream because of the leverage it gave Russia, and whose relations with Germany have suffered over suspicions of a role in the incident. Maintaining not-so-plausible deniability allows alliances to continue while everybody pretends to not be furious with one another. That's not uncommon in warfare when governments take actions that have consequences beyond enemy combatants.

War as a Public Relations Game

"Political scientists have found that credit-claiming when it comes to warfare follows a strategic logic," Northeastern University's Max Abrahms and Joseph Mroszczyk of the U.S. Naval War College wrote earlier this month. "It turns out, both states and non-state actors are concerned with public relations to maximize their supporters around the world and avoid needlessly provoking adversaries. In practice, this means claiming credit for only a portion of their attacks—usually ones directed against military and other government targets which are seen as more legitimate."

Abrahms and Mroszczyk wrote specifically about Ukraine's selective claims of responsibility for some attacks, while remaining vague or denying responsibility for assassinations, drone strikes, and infrastructure attacks that hurt civilians or harm allies. Of course, the same considerations apply to the aggressor in this war: Russia.

"It's important to note that Russia has killed far more civilians than Ukraine at this point in the conflict," they added. "And yet, the evidence suggests that Ukraine has killed more Russian civilians than it has admitted to."

Ukraine is in the difficult position of defending against an invasion by a powerful neighbor. To survive, its government and military have resorted to tactics that aren't necessarily surgical or selective, that may do damage to friends, and that hurt the innocent. They do immoral things that they consider necessary, but they don't want to be blamed for them. The moral erosion of war has also affected the country's tolerance for dissent and eroded its people's freedom.

Compromises on the Home Front

Unsurprisingly, The Economist's Democracy Index 2022 reports that in already authoritarian Russia, "The regime sharply curtailed civil liberties in the aftermath of the invasion, further clamping down on dissenting voices and eradicating the last remnants of any opposition or critical media."

But citizens of the aggrieved nation also suffer at the hands of their own government. "In fighting a war that is widely understood to be existential, Ukraine's leaders have sometimes curtailed the rights and freedoms of citizens, political parties and the media," Democracy Index 2022 notes. "Much of this is par for the course in wartime, but such extraordinary measures have inevitably resulted in downgrades in various indicators in the Democracy Index."

Unfortunately, there's no neat and clean way to fight a war. Nations with their backs to the wall may have no choice as to whether to fight unless they want to surrender independence. Their efforts to prevail entail the temptation to kill innocents, hurt allies, muzzle critics, and otherwise win, or just survive. They justify such acts by claims of necessity.

Ukraine has every right to defend itself. Just by holding out, the country has already provided an important lesson to Russia and for potential aggressors elsewhere hoping for easy imperial conquests. But this conflict also reminds us that any war, even a justified one, involves death, destruction, and the suffering of innocents. Such moral compromises may be unavoidable for countries on the defensive, but they're very real.