Is It Moral to Arm a Country Under Martial Law?

Back in early March, when the war in Ukraine was only 10 days old, I asked whether it was wise for Western countries to pour arms into Ukraine, since this could easily prolong the conflict, leading to many more Ukrainian deaths. Other commentators have raised the same question, including the New York Times editorial board.

A common answer is that Ukrainians want to fight. In other words, even if pouring arms in does prolong the conflict, that’s a risk Ukrainians are willing to take. And certainly, many Ukrainians do want to fight. But is this true of enough Ukrainians to give the argument force?

After all, Ukraine is under martial law. As of 24th February, able-bodied men aged 18–60 are banned from leaving the country – a measure which arguably violates their human rights. Even citizens who live abroad but happened to be visiting on the date of Russia’s invasion have been unable to leave.

At the present time, only soldiers and reservists are obliged to take up arms. But as losses mount, others could be drafted. And evidence suggests that losses are mounting. Zelensky recently told Newsmax that Ukraine is losing about 600 men a day – 60-100 killed, plus 500 wounded. Over a month, this adds up to 18,000 men. These figures almost certainly underestimate total casualties, as they refer only to the Donbas, and may not include those who are missing in action.

In a recent interview with Channel 4, one British man who went to fight said he wouldn’t stop others from going “as long as you understand the reality that you will be used as cannon fodder”.

Supplying arms to a country that has banned men from leaving is fundamentally different from supplying arms to a country that has a wholly professional (i.e., volunteer) army. In the latter case, everyone who takes part in combat was aware of the risks when he signed up. In the former case, this simply isn’t true.

Weapons the West has supplied to Ukraine may end up in the hands of men who never wanted to fight. And some of those men may die. Back in April, the New York Times spoke to a number of men who did not want to fight. One said he had two nephews in the Russian army, and did not want to “kill my own family”.

If the West is to continue arming Ukraine, we should – at the very least – insist that those men who wish to leave the country be allowed to do so.

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