Taras Dobko is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Senior Vice-Rector at Ukrainian Catholic University and a Nanovic Institute Visiting Scholar.
Wars are not all alike. They differ in intensity, strategy, and weaponry. But ultimately, all are violent and remain an affront to human dignity, whether they are small in scale or genocide.
Pondering integral human development (IHD) in times of war might appear absurd, an attempt to square the circle. IHD prioritizes human dignity at every level: in founding principles, policies, laws, and institutions. True development is possible when people have the resources to flourish; but war is about surviving, not living. That said, IHD provides an invitation to build a dignity-centered, dignity-sensitive, and dignity-affirming culture regardless of circumstance, in war and in peace.
Scarred by unbridled violence in history, humankind has developed many mechanisms to deter war, such as diplomacy, mediation, and negotiation. Further, international structures, multilateral agreements, and international legal conventions help mitigate or resolve interstate conflicts, reduce tensions, and address grievances. If war becomes a fait accompli, we have also developed ways to curb its brutality, including codes of conduct, the concept of just war, rules protecting prisoners of war, principles for peacefully resolving conflicts, bans on certain kinds of weapons, and nuclear nonproliferation agreements.
These conventions have gone out the window in Russia’s total war against Ukraine, the largest war in Europe since World War II. Bombing and shelling by Russian armed forces have damaged or destroyed more than 2,700 educational institutions and 270 sites belonging to Ukraine’s many faith communities, including churches, mosques, and synagogues. A third of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, creating one of the world’s largest human displacement crises in recent years. Most recently, Russia began targeting Ukrainian thermal power plants and energy grids. On multiple occasions, Vladimir Putin has hinted that Russia may use nuclear weapons.
How can IHD possibly apply in such a context?How does it apply when a nervous nuclear power, driven by conspiracy theories, weaponizes the resentment of its people? How does it apply when that power shows sheer contempt for international agreements and borders by invading its neighbor—a neighbor that had voluntarily relinquished its own nuclear weapons by trusting the international community? How does IHD apply when the civilian population and civic infrastructure are systematically targeted? How do we talk about human dignity while experiencing war crimes, and what role could religious actors and civil society play?
I believe that there are two major areas of inquiry that an IHD mindset inspires under such grave circumstances: one that considers human dignity from the perspectives of innocent victims of violence, and another that seeks to preserve the dignity of combatants, to help them hold onto their humanity before it is too late.
Institutional and personal resilience
First, to advance the dignity of ordinary people in times of violence, it is vital to maintain social order. In his book Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder shows that the Holocaust became possible when Nazis moved into the lands where the legal and social structures had been decimated by the Soviet Union. It is in these areas where the Germans attempted the total extermination of the Jews. To convince a soldier to kill other people with impunity, one needs to first destroy law and order.
Putin started this job of dismantling the Ukrainian state well before the military war by means of psychological war: a narrative about Ukraine as an artificial, fake, and failed state created to antagonize Russia and diminish its glory. Putin’s cynical talk reminds me of how Stalin’s minister of foreign affairs, Viacheslav Molotov, called Poland “the ugly brainchild of the Versailles Treaty,” justifying the partition of Poland in 1939.
Second, it is critical to preserve a sense of agency. Fortunately, Ukrainians have responded to the crisis admirably. Public utilities have done an amazing job in restoring energy and water supply to civilians, repairing pipelines and railroads, and preserving normalcy for everyday citizens. The banking sector is alive and well, trains are running, business is booming, and classes are in session.
Beyond public services, the volunteer movement in Ukraine is spectacular. People show a clear sense of ownership of their country. They have crowd-funded resources for everything, from food and clothing to tactical medicine and defense equipment. Recently, a foundation created and led by a student from our university collected money to buy a satellite for reconnaissance purposes. The foundation also launched a collection to purchase 50 armored vehicles suited for swift passage in the winter mud. On the very first day, people donated enough money to purchase 60 vehicles.
To advance the dignity of ordinary people in times of violence, it is vital to maintain social order.
Meanwhile, Emmaus-Oselya, an NGO that helps homeless people discover and recover their dignity in the community and in society, is a striking example of promoting agency through mutual aid. Because of the war, millions of people have become homeless. And Emmaus-Oselya has responded robustly, inspired by its core principles of community, work, and solidarity. Community residents, with the help of social workers, run a center where people experiencing homelessness can bathe, get a haircut, access fresh clothes, do laundry, eat, and receive other services. Emmaus-Oselya has greatly expanded its work during the current war. At the same time, sister organizations from other countries have swiftly mobilized in solidarity. Emmaus-Oselya is a great example of IHD practices that increase resilience and mitigate the most stressful impact of war on human lives.
Third, it is critical to reduce prospects for military escalation. Such a problem is one of the primary concerns of Vatican diplomacy. (Until recently, it was unclear if the Vatican would even support other countries providing military aid for Ukraine out of concern it might lead to escalation and greater suffering of innocent civilians.)
Driven by Catholic Social Teaching with IHD at its center, the Holy See cares for the dignity of the human person. In keeping with its core values, it advocates for dialogue, negotiations, and peace whenever it can. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church has been less circumspect by approving of the war and backing Putin.
The editor-in-chief of the Polish magazine Więź, Zbigniew Nosowski, offers another reason for the Vatican’s position: the desire to avoid the perception that the West is engaging in some kind of holy war against Russia. The Vatican wants to appear balanced, instead of giving the impression that it is simply piling on.
But while it is important to avoid escalation, it is also critical to resist unlawful aggression. Ukraine has no option but to resist; peace negotiations on Russia’s terms are impossible to accept. With the backing of religion, Russian propaganda portrays Ukrainians not only as enemies but as traitors. Putin told journalist Aleksey Venediktov that “People who are against me come in two types: enemies and traitors. . . . With traitors, no conversation is possible.” Russia seeks escalation as leverage to force Ukraine into a ceasefire, possibly as a tactic to regroup for further and even more brutal aggression. The conundrum brings to mind an insight of Ukrainian journalist Kateryna Kruk: “If Russia stops fighting, there’ll be no more war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there’ll be no more Ukraine.”
Given these dire options, Catholic theology must reflect urgently, since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has come at a time when the Pope is in the midst of rethinking the traditional concept of a just war. What needs to be done from the moral and biblical point of view? What should be done in the face of cruel naked violence with genocidal intent to destroy a nation?
Strategies to protect the humanity of combatants
This brings me to the second major point of my reflection: saving soldiers from their own inhumanity. Even a just war leads to dehumanizing the enemy in order to justify killing them. What does IHD mean for combatants in the context of waging war?
This is not an idle question. We should remember the weakness of human nature. Not everybody maintains their humanity under adverse circumstances. It is very easy to fall into darkness. Things have not been good in Russia, and it is easy to transfer one’s own suffering under domestic humiliation into resentful aggression. The temptation to slide into wickedness and barbarism is especially strong when one possesses powerful weapons. Power enables one to act with supremacist delusions under the spell of an imperialist ideology.
On the flip side, for Ukrainians, the question is how to stay human in the act of resistance, which also requires violence. First, Ukrainians should remember that the end does not justify the means. They must maintain the moral high ground. They are ultimately fighting for their freedom and dignity. By committing war crimes and terrorizing civilians, Russia is trying to provoke Ukrainian soldiers into similar brutality. The more brutal and uncivilized Ukrainians become, the more likely the victim of aggression will be equated with the aggressor: “Ukraine is no better than us.”
Even amid military conflict, the search for human dignity is not out of reach. It is crucial to protecting humankind from its worst impulses.
Second, Ukrainian military leadership must ensure the dignity of its troops. It must oppose any attempt to have them reduced to mere instruments of war. Thorough training, practice of subsidiarity in command, and combination of both vertical and distributed leadership in the exercise of military operations are the best tools to advance the agency and self-respect of combatants. Society, in turn, can affirm and guard their dignity by standing with their families, by sacrificing its comfort for the sake of support for its soldiers, by welcoming them in public, and by taking vivid interest in their liberation and return from captivity, never humiliating them as cowards. Ukrainian Churches—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—advance dignity through chaplains who provide spiritual support. Something as simple as Ukrainians transforming wartime objects by painting them with religious icons can help combatants realize that the war is not an end point in their life narratives, but something that can be transcended and left behind. Humor and humanizing stories also play a therapeutic role.
Finally, Ukrainian society must continually remember that dignity is important not only for the living, but also for the dead. When the fallen are transported through Ukrainian villages and towns, people honor their selfless service by kneeling. Death can also be marked with dignity.
The medieval prince Volodymyr Monomakh expressed what has become a founding principle of Ukrainian moral ethos: “Do not let the strong destroy the weak.” Every war is an assault on human dignity. Violent conflict poses a challenge to human flourishing. But even in the context of a military conflict of the scale we see in Ukraine today, the search for human dignity is not out of reach. It remains a crucial imperative, a way to protect humankind from its worst impulses while we work together for a just peace.