Ukraine, MH17 & What is Wrong With Supplying Weapons

The Dangers Of A Leading Diplomatic Strategy In Eastern Europe

By Professor James Pattison (Manchester University)

April 1, 2015         Picture: Thomas Peter/REUTERS.

This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive The Great War Series Part I: Gaza, Isis and The Ukraine.

The downing of the MH17 passenger plane, which led to the deaths of 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers, has been widely alleged to have been carried out by rebels pursuing independence in the aftermath of Ukrainian revolution.

Wall Street Journal: MH17: When It Lost Contact and Crashed

The rebels identify with Russia and have Russian political backing. However, Russia’s backing allegedly goes beyond political support: it has been widely claimed that, first, Russia has supplied the rebels with various weapons and, second, a Russian-made weapon—the Buk ground-to-air missile system—was used to down the MH17.

For instance, the Financial Times reported in July 2014 that, according to Western intelligence:

“[t]he downing of MH17 was achieved…with sophisticated Russian arms and expertise as part of a smuggling programme directed by Russian military and intelligence officials that has seen materiel moved over Ukraine’s border in ever-larger amounts in recent months as Kiev’s fightback has grown in intensity”.

At the time of writing, these claims seem accurate, but whether they are certain has not been established. Yet, let us suppose that they are, that is, that Russia has supplied weapons to the Ukrainian rebels and that a Russian weapon was used to shoot down the MH17.

In my essay, I want to consider why this was morally wrong. To be clear, I think that it was wrong. But it is not wrong for the reasons that it may at first seem—and the implications of this are relevant for theUS’s mooted plans to send arms to Ukraine. Let me explain.

Ukraine Today: U.S May Arm UKRAINE

At first sight, one might think that Russia (again, if the facts are as supposed) acted wrongly because it was complicit in the downing of the MH17. However, Russia could claim, perhaps plausibly, that it was not reasonably foreseeable that the rebels would use the weapons supplied to fire at an international passenger plane.

Indeed, it has been reported that the shooting down of the MH17 was a mistake. As such, Russia could claim that it did not act wrongly, in this regard at least; it was not complicit in the shooting down of the plane [Read Schwenkenbecker on MH17 & Collateral Damage].

Analogously, suppose that five robbers agree to hold up a bank with guns that are not loaded. However, one of the robbers loads her gun with bullets, unbeknownst to the others. During the robbery, she shoots dead the bank manager. Should we view the other robbers, such as the getaway driver, as complicit inmurder? It seems not. The getaway driver should be tried only for robbery. What matters for complicity is what was reasonably foreseeable and, as for the getaway driver, it was perhaps not reasonably foreseeable that the rebels would shoot down an international passenger plane.

We might think instead that Russia acted wrongly because the arms were transferred to what seemed to be an unjust rebel group—the Ukrainian rebels. Again, at the time of writing, the facts are not certain as to whether the rebels are fighting an unjust war, but it seems that they are because, for instance, they should have pursued peaceful means instead to resolve their grievances.

Yet this too does not explain—or at least fully explain—why Russia acted wrongly in arming the rebels. I think, in general, it is wrong to assist those pursuing unjust wars. However, this is not always true. This is because there might be cases where it is permissible to arm unjust rebels.

An example might be the call in October 2014 to supply arms to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been alleged to have conducted several recent terrorist attacks, in order to help defeat the more egregious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rebel movement.

Despite the PKK’s alleged abuses against civilians, it is not wholly implausible (I take no position here) that supplying arms to it might be permissible, given the potentially beneficial consequences that this could achieve if it were to halt the ISIS advance.

Accordingly, even if a rebel group is pursuing an unjust war, supplying arms to it could still be permissible if the overall supplying of weapons to them would be likely to lead to extremely beneficial consequences (and if arming them meet the other conditions of Just War applied to arming rebels, such as having the right motive).

Of course, it seems highly unlikely that, in the case of Ukraine, arming the rebels led to extremely beneficial consequences. On the contrary, there is a notable worry that arming unjust groups can strengthen their fighting capacity and mean that they are more likely to achieve an unjust end.

My point, more precisely, is that it is not wrong per se to arm unjust rebels. As such, hanging the wrongness of arming the Ukrainian rebels solely on this point leaves it vulnerable to the response that arming them achieved extremely beneficial consequences, and so assisting them was morally permissible.

Perhaps more relevantly, it also leaves it vulnerable to claim that the rebels acted justifiably. To that extent, it may seem plausible that it is morally acceptable to assist rebels that are fighting a just war.

VICE News: Should the US Send Lethal Aid to Ukraine?

As I have already said, I do not think the rebels in Ukraine are fighting a just war, but Russia has certainly pushed this line. Moreover, it might seem plausible to hold that it is acceptable to assist the rebels fighting a just war and, if when doing so, the rebels engage in actions that are not reasonably foreseeable—such as shooting down a passenger plane—those supplying the arms do not act wrongly.

Consider, by analogy, the following case. I give £100 to a cancer charity. This enables Tessa, a cancer-sufferer to live for five more years. But, unbeknownst to me, Tessa has a history of violent conduct and kills her partner, Sian, out of jealousy. Should I be held morally responsible for Sian’s death? It seems not, since I was supporting a justifiable objective—the extension of a human life—and it was not foreseeable that Tessa would be violent. So, just as one might think that supporting a just objective, such as the extension of life, is acceptable, even if it leads to unforeseeable negative consequences, one might think that supporting a just rebel group is acceptable, despite unforeseeable negative consequences.

However, I think that the analogy breaks down and that it is generally wrong to arm even just rebel groups. This is because, unlike giving money to charity, it is foreseeable that arming even just rebels will lead to highly problematic consequences. As such, even if Russia is right that it is supporting a just cause, it is often wrong to arm rebel groups.

One notable foreseeable consequence is that of escalation. It seems highly likely that, if a state provides arms to a rebel group, the opposing government will seek arms from elsewhere in order to defeat the rebel group. There will be an escalation of the conflict and many more innocent civilians can be expected to die. Indeed, as noted above, the US is currently considering arming the Ukrainian government.

The likely ramping up of the civil war—and the horrors that this will cause—was reasonably foreseeable to Russia. My assertion here is supported by a recent quantitative study, which finds that, in the over 100 major civil wars between 1946 and 2002, no rebel group has transferred major conventional weapons without the government also receiving arms.

Another notable foreseeable consequence is the spread of weapons. It seems highly likely, given what we know about the diffusion of arms (and particularly small arms), that even if a state attempts to supply arms to a just rebel movement, they will not stay in the hands of the just rebels.

They will be lost, stolen, and sold. And, after the war, they will be used to support criminal activity and lead to higher murder rates in the affected society, as well as fuel conflicts in other states. Again, this is foreseeable. And it helps to provide a clearer sense of why Russia acted wrongly.

That is, arming rebels in general, regardless of the justice of their war, is likely to lead to hugely negative consequences, both for the conflict, as it escalates, and, for the long-term enjoyment of human rights within the affected society and beyond.

The crux, then, is this: even if (1) the shooting down of MH17 was not reasonably foreseeable and (2) the rebels are fighting a just civil war, it was still wrong of Russia to supply arms to the rebel group, given the risks of escalation and the diffusion of weapons. Escalation and diffusion were (and are) reasonably foreseeable and Russia is (and would be) complicit in harms to innocents that result from the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict and the diffusion of the weapons that it has supplied. Moreover, it acted wrongly (3) to the extent that the rebels are fighting an unjust war and the supplying of the arms would not do much more good than harm (which seems likely). Moreover, it acted also wrongly (4) if the shooting down of MH17 was reasonably foreseeable (which seems more doubtful).

Interestingly, some of the reasons why Russia’s arming of the rebels in Ukraine is morally wrong also suggest that the US’s mooted arming of the Ukrainian government would be wrong, even if the government is legitimate (which is disputed by some).

This is because it is foreseeable that there will be an escalation of the conflict—as rebels will seek further arms in response to the increase in arms by the state—and that there will be an increase in the diffusion of the weapons—as the government’s weapons are sold, lost, and stolen by the rebels.

What is clear, then, is that supplying weapons to both rebels and states is likely to be highly problematic and states should be much more cautious in doing so than they currently are.

James Pattison
James Pattison
James Pattison is Professor in Politics at the University of Manchester. His first monograph, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene? (Oxford University Press, 2010) was awarded a ‘Notable Book Award’ in 2011 by the International Studies Association (International Ethics Section) and has recently been published in paperback, with a new preface on the intervention in Libya. His second monograph is on the ethical issues surrounding the use of private military and security companies, The Morality of Private War: The Challenge of Private Military and Security Companies (Oxford University Press, 2014). He is currently working on third book, Just and Unjust Alternatives to War (under contract with Oxford University Press), which is bases on an AHRC-funded project on the ethics of the alternatives to war (AHRC Ref AH/LOO3783/1). This considers the normative case for the alternatives to war, such as economic sanctions, arming rebel groups, and nonviolent resistance, and their relation to Just War Theory. He has published various articles on the ethics of force, including in the British Journal of Political Science, Ethics & International Affairs, International Theory, Journal of Political Philosophy, and Review of International Studies.
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