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The West’s Ukraine policy is no longer ethical

Conscription is a moral evil we should not support

Artillery Row

“At the beginning of the war, a patriotic fervor overran Ukraine, with men and women volunteering in the tens of thousands,” writes the journalist Tom Mutch. “Now, it is a different story.”

“In the first wave most of the recruits were voluntary; queues outside draft offices were a frequent sight,” writes the Economist. “Now officials are recruiting from a much less enthusiastic crowd.”

“At the start of the invasion, Ukrainians rushed to volunteer for military duty,” write three journalists in the Washington Post, “but now men across the country who did not sign up have begun to fear being handed draft slips on the street”.

“When Russia invaded in February last year, thousands of volunteers lined up outside military recruitment centers,” writes the journalist Matthew Luxmoore. “With many of them now dead or injured, Ukrainian authorities are scrambling to recruit replacements, often drafting those who have neither the desire nor the training to serve.”

You get the idea. Whilst Ukraine initially relied overwhelmingly on volunteers, it now relies increasingly on conscripts.

What is a conscript? In cold bureaucratic terms, it’s a man who has been enlisted by the state to serve in the armed forces. This is like describing the accidental droning of a wedding party as “collateral damage”. The reality is much more insidious. A conscript is a man who has been sent — under threat of imprisonment or worse — into “unspeakable martyrdom”, as Ayn Rand put it.

Conscription involves an agent of the state holding a gun to an innocent man’s head and saying, “Go kill that guy over there, and make sure he doesn’t kill you first.” It’s essentially kidnapping and then forcing someone into armed combat. There is no other circumstance where such an act would possibly be considered moral. If one private citizen did it to another, he would be guilty of a heinous crime.

Ukraine’s military-aged men, who have been banned from leaving the country since last February, are all potentially subject to the draft. According to newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, “currently there is a drop in enthusiasm amongst people of draft age.”

Recruitment officers roam the streets, handing out draft notices at random. Until recently, there were various Telegram channels providing real-time, crowdsourced information on their locations. In March, Ukraine’s security services closed the channels down. Many young men now simply avoid public spaces. As the Washington Post reports, the “pace and aggression” of Ukraine’s mobilisation effort are “sowing panic amongst those who feel unprepared or unwilling to serve”.

Ukraine might have sued for peace by now if not for the supply of Western arms

Whilst some young men simply ignore draft notices, others bribe their way out of serving — or out of the country altogether. “One Ukrainian paid almost $10,000 to flee the draft,” writes the Wall Street Journal.

As a rule, draftees are less reliable than professionals — and Ukraine’s are no exception. In an interview with the Washington Post, one experienced fighter recalled how new recruits “readily abandoned their positions under fire”. Owing to such incidents, President Zelensky recently signed into force a law that “introduces harsher punishment for deserters” and “strips them of their right to appeal”. Human rights groups criticised the move.

Why are Ukrainians less willing to fight than they were at the start? The most important factor is surely selection. Individuals in any population differ in their willingness to take up arms, and the most willing do so first. This means that each successive wave of mobilisation yields less and less willing recruits. Another potential factor is that today’s recruits are more informed about the nature of the war, having heard harrowing stories and watched gruesome videos on social media.

Ukraine’s increasing reliance on conscripts raises serious questions about the ethics of Western policy. When you supply weapons to a country with a wholly professional army, you’re simply helping men to fight more effectively on the battlefield. When you supply weapons to a country with conscription, what you’re doing is enabling the government to send men into combat against their will.

Is the West’s current policy ethical?

One might argue that Ukraine is going to use conscripts regardless of whether we like it, so what we need to do is help those conscripts win the war as quickly as possible by giving them the weapons they need. The problem is that the war’s duration, and hence the total number of men conscripted, is not independent of our policy. Ukraine might have sued for peace by now if not for the supply of Western arms.

Another argument is that there’s nothing wrong with conscription in the first place. Taking up arms to defend one’s country is an obligation men have to the rest of society, and the state is justified in coercing those who refuse. To put it another way, the state is justified in using coercion because other members of society have a right to be defended, and this right supersedes men’s right to refuse to take up arms.

Whilst this argument might work as a justification for making people contribute to the war effort in general (by serving in a non-combat role, say), I’m not convinced it works as a justification for conscription. Forcing someone to “risk death or hideous maiming and crippling”, to quote Rand again, is an immoral thing to do.

Suppose you were in a shopping mall when armed terrorists entered and began taking hostages. Would the managers of the mall be justified in forcing you to confront the terrorists on the grounds that you have an obligation to defend the other shoppers? Obviously not. Some men might confront the terrorists voluntarily, and we would call them heroes, but that doesn’t mean other men should be forced to do so.

If there happened to be a policeman in the shopping mall at the time, and he refused to confront the terrorists, his bosses would certainly be justified in punishing him — potentially very severely. This just illustrates the difference between a conscript and professional soldier: the latter is made aware of the risks and obligations when he signs up.

We are turning a blind eye to mass coercion by a supposed ally

From what I see, there are two fallacies that lead commentators to overlook the problems inherent in arming a country with conscription.

The first is the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy: Russia uses conscription, so why shouldn’t Ukraine? This logic is so obviously wrong that it scarcely needs a response. If Russia sends conscripted soldiers on suicide missions by threatening to kill their families, should Ukraine do that too? Obviously not. Just because your enemy violates his citizens’ rights, that doesn’t mean you should do the same to yours.

The second is the state-as-actor fallacy: Ukraine was invaded by Russia, and by sending arms we are simply helping “Ukraine” to resist that invasion. Of course, Ukraine is a non-human entity. What we care about is Ukrainian people. By supplying arms, we are making some Ukrainian people worse off — namely those men who would have not been conscripted but for the arrival of Western arms.

It is particularly egregious when commentators say that we must keep sending arms because Ukraine “wants to fight”. No, what’s happening is that the government and a large share of citizens want to fight, and as a consequence military-aged men are being forced to fight — regardless of whether they want to. This is being done in the name of “Western values”, even though most Western countries have abolished conscription and they rightly scorn Russia’s use of “expendable” conscripts.

It seems, then, that the West’s current policy is unethical. At best we are turning a blind eye to mass coercion by a supposed ally, and at worst we are actually enabling it. If we continue supplying arms to Ukraine, we must make future arms supplies conditional on Ukraine only enlisting well-informed volunteers.

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