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Ethics as a Strategic Resource in an Age of Strategic Competition

  • Published
  • By Prof. Robert S. Hinck

Following a massive troop buildup under the guise of a military exercise, on February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. Labeling the invasion a “special military operation,” President Putin offered multiple pretenses for the conflict, including the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, in addition to challenging Ukraine’s right to statehood. Despite predictions of Ukraine as unable to withstand the onslaught of Russian forces, the Ukrainian military has proven adept and highly motivated. NATO support, likewise doubted at first, has proven effective by indirectly aiding Ukraine in its resistance to Russian forces. In contrast, the Russian military suffers from a severe loss in morale and operational deficiencies, with Russian leadership disorganized and facing significant domestic tumult at home, while further admonished by the international community.

In this article, I argue that ethics is a strategic resource influencing state power. In the case of Russia, it suffers from a severe lack of it, contributing to its failing military operation in Ukraine. Thus, Russia’s past attempts to construct its national identity along virtues of strength, masculinity, and moral conservatism, all made in contrast to the West, has resulted in an inflated ethic unconcerned for the wellbeing of its soldiers, and citizens, culminating in hubris. As Ukrainian successes on the battlefield mount, Russia’s imagined sense of self crashes with reality, reducing the morale of its soldiers and the legitimacy of the Russian state, all while weakening Russia’s international position.

Defining Ethics and its Usage as Strategic Resource

As a practical art, ethics concerns itself not with philosophy but action. While ethics can be understood as a quest to understand our moral character, its manifestation comes not solely from the mind but through our habits of practice.[1] Our ethical values provide us with a sense of right and wrong from which we decide on how to act in the present. Whether it be individuals, organizations, or states, our beliefs form our codes of conduct and routine ways of doing, with the enactment of such beliefs defining who “we” and “others” are, constraining and enabling our behavioral actions, while invoking a sense of duty to those around us.  

Broadly speaking, ethics reflect our beliefs about what we owe to each other.[2] Ethics comprises itself with shared reasons for behavior, those that are reasonably acceptable to others in our communities. When our actions implicate others, we must justify our conduct in terms others find acceptable with such accepted justifications laying the foundation upon which our communities of being are constructed. Thus, as a community, we rely on others to act in appropriate and predictable ways for coordinated action to occur. Those who act contrary to our principles prove unreliable partners, admonished for their behavior; in severe circumstances, offenders may be ostracized from the community and their actions stigmatized. In contrast, societies motivate members to align their actions with the communities’ values by offering praise for appropriate behavior, playing on our social desires for recognition in the form of honor, courage, and magnanimity.   

Importantly, our sense of ethics is contextual. Our communities’ virtues are embedded in the stories we tell about ourselves.[3] Our communities’ values take hold of us through our interactions with others, and our media, as we learn about our past and are given lessons for our future. Different communities may tell different stories about who they and others are at certain times, leading to different cultural and individual beliefs of right and wrong guiding our actions. This doesn’t suggest, however, that ethics is purely subjective. When called to account for our actions, we are required to respond not just with any reason, but good reasons; reasons that resonate and legitimize our behaviors to others.

Ethics is a strategic resource. Collective agency resides in trust that ourselves, others, and institutions will act according to our collective standards of good behavior. The complexity of modern society, and warfare, require substantial organization and specialization. As Nathan Crick notes, power is the “capacity to act in concert through communicative understanding, using available resources, technologies, and mediums, to overcome resistance in pursuit of an imagined good.”[4] Power, then, whether employed at the tactical, operational, or strategic level, requires common understanding and belief that an actor’s purpose is grounded in ethical or just terms. When belief in the purpose of one’s actions is doubted or contested, trust erodes, limiting the pursuit of joint goals. So too, on the international level, do states rely on ethics as providing common norms and institutionalized ways of being, like protecting sovereignty and promoting trade, to reduce risk and uncertainty in the international environment. Thus, trust in one’s leadership, trust in the Profession of Arms, and trust in the international community, all become vital commodities, especially in an age of strategic competition, when opposing values and actions are contested by states competing in constructing and defending various communities of partnership, while rallying domestic support for their interests.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and the Consequences of Depleted Ethical Resources

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illustrative of the power and importance of ethics in an era of global competition. Under Putin, the Russian state has invested substantially in crafting narratives of Russian strength and honor. Such stories serve to bolster Russian identity and domestic cohesion, furnishing the nation with the capacity to act towards its stated goals and weather sanctions from the West.[5] Painting itself as the defender of a pluralistic world order, Russian narratives emphasize traditional virtues of religious conservatism, self-reliance, and masculinity contrasted with characterizations of the West as immoral, decadent, hypocritical, and effeminate.[6]

Such stories, while seductive with their evocation of nostalgia and agency from the past, create a fragile belief system. Rather than offering a constructive vision of how Russians should treat each other and those in the international community, the Russian ethic has become grounded in martial pride and blame, cemented in negative perceptions of the West, obfuscating real issues plaguing Russian society.[7] Rather than integrative, these stories are designed to agitate, and are amplified when domestic support wanes.[8]

While all communities require a sense of self grounded in shared values, excessive attachment to the past and rationalizations of the present can hinder the pursuit of one’s interests. As Aristotle argued, virtues and vices exist not in binaries but on a continuum; whereas we recognize cowardness as something to avoid, and work towards being courageous, too much courage can lead to recklessness. In the case of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian hubris has unmasked its depleted reserves of strategic ethical resources.

Russia’s martial virtues have long emphasized soldiers’ masculinity.[9] Although used primarily as a recruiting tool, Russia’s militarization of masculinity feeds into its failed strategic, operational, and tactical designs. By creating an ethos of brutality, Russian soldiers accept orders to terrorize civilian populations. Such actions, while traumatizing for the individual, may be rationalized in the short term if quickly achieving one’s ends. Believing in their relative strength over a supposedly weaker foe, Russia began its brutal shock and awe campaign. However, as time wears on, with Ukrainian resolve undaunted, Russian morale is on the decline, as Ukrainian “brains and adaptability” prove more effectual than Russia’s “ruthless brutality;”[10] leaving Russian soldiers to question their “strength” when losing to an “inferior” foe.

Such attempts to militarize masculinity may hold aspirational acclaim for individuals living in societies decrying post-modernity’s pluralism and acceptance of diversity, but when placed into operational practice it relegates concerns for the individual.[11] Taken to the extreme, it creates a trained incapacity whereby the Russian state ignores its soldiers’ welfare and treats its people with contempt, evident in part by continued reports of a lack of supplies and shelter in addition to claims that Russian soldiers were mislead regarding where they were being deployed and why. While Russia’s enlisted army may have chosen to become a part of this community—having been trained, indoctrinated and hazed into this masculine ethos of self-deprivation, Russian conscripts are less likely to accept this treatment.

Further decline in morale will only continue. Ethics impacts the morale of soldiers engaged in warfare, helping maintain belief in its honorable purpose. While not always truthful, with empires going back to ancient Rome offering loose pretenses for preemptively invading peaceful bordering communities, some rationale and promise of success is required.[12] Whereas cheap statements like de-nazifying Ukraine may have been sufficient in the beginning—when Russian pride and strength were still assumed true, the failures of the Russian state to live up to its ascribed identity leaves its soldiers doubting their purpose. As casualties mount, conditions worsen, and the atrocities of war become clearer to both those on the frontline and at home, the façade of honorability turns farce, leaving the Russian soldiers and people to confront the ramifications of their actions.

On the strategic level, Russia’s military strategy causes international outcry. Its terror strategy of indiscriminate bombing and targeting of civilians places itself in contrast to international norms and values. While intended to demoralize Ukrainian forces, its effect has emboldened and solidified Ukrainian opposition. In a similar fashion, Russia’s behavior has spurred the international community to rally in support of Ukraine. While convincing domestic audiences to sacrifice blood and treasure for a foreign people in a distant land is difficult, especially when such actions may risk one’s own security, atrocities committed against women and children prove powerful motivating factors that are hard to ignore. Indeed, whereas many doubted the extent to which NATO countries would respond, with some heavily reliant on Russian energy, the alliance has only become more unified through its witnessing of Russia’s aggressive actions. Even Russia’s allies and partners have found it difficult to support Putin’s war, with China walking back its initial, tacit support, leaving only Iran, another international pariah, suspected as offering Russia military hardware.[13]

With the curtain pulled back on Russia’s failed power, Russia’s influence and prestige have taken a hit. Its hierarchical vision of itself as paternalistic leader of the post-Soviet states, drawing from a traditional ethic of obedience and deference from its regional community, shows signs of cracking. Governments from Moldova to Kazakhstan are reportedly distancing themselves from Putin’s Russia while analysts claim Azerbaijan is testing Russia’s influence by renewing its conflict with Armenia, as Russia has traditionally supported Armenia over Azerbaijan in their territorially dispute. Thus, the story of a community of “brotherly nations” appears to be unraveling, replaced by the belief that modern Russia, like Soviet Russia, will never pursue true equality with its neighbors, “not now, nor a century ago.”[14]


Ethics, as a strategic resource, operates at the organizational, domestic, and international level. Not only does it provide states with domestic cohesion and legitimacy, but also offers a vision and belief of the nation’s appropriate use of force, furnishing soldiers with a reason for their honorable sacrifice. Internationally, it creates our routine ways of doing business and diplomacy, setting the standards by which we expect others to behave, even if the application of these standards or values are at times disputed. When actors blatantly violate our communal values, our beliefs about who we and others are becomes open for change. In Russia’s case, both its partner nations and its people are reconsidering what Russia is and whether Russia’s identity, defined by its actions, is something worth following or turning away from.  

Although Russian media censorship insulates its population from witnessing the full brunt of its failures in Ukraine, no story can withstand total separation from the lived realities of its audiences. Despite Putin proving himself an adept storyteller, stoking national identity of a resurgent and strong Russia, the country’s struggle with Ukraine undermines this narrative told of itself to its people. As not all Russian casualties can be hidden, fissures in the Russian narrative will widen, prompting greater challenges into the future. Like Chinese identity and belief in its own cultural superiority justifying its tributary relations with its neighbors during the nineteenth century, China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 proved so destabilizing for its people that it led to the fall of Imperial China, albeit ten years later.[15] Whether Putin’s Russia faces a similar fate is unknown, but when viewing ethics as a strategic capacity holding society together, the fate of Putin’s Russia seems dire as Russia’s actions have bankrupted the country not just economically but morally.

Russia’s projected ethos offers a further lesson for US audiences. While US politicians have decried the US military’s attempt to foster a more inclusive and caring military, often pointing to Russia as the idealized model of a more masculine fighting force, we can see the limits, and negative consequences of such critiques, as Russian soldiers face a crisis of identity by losing a fight they are supposed to win, thereby degrading their morale and combat ability.[16] In this sense, US actions may contribute to a more resilient force bolstering soldiers’ morale and resiliency, while also ensuring institutional concern for their welfare. Such care could become an excess; but recent attempts preparing Airmen for a potential, future high-end fight, one in which significant causalities may occur, demonstrate the US military maintaining its martial virtues, albeit valuing those of greater independence, empowerment, and prudence. Indeed, movement towards an Agile Combat Employment concept offers additional evidence of US military preparedness by asking Airmen to consider how to maintain operational effectiveness when the chain of command breaks down or supplies lines are disrupted. Taken together, ensuring one’s actions align with values accepted by others, rather than just edicts from above, can protect one’s ethical wellspring from running dry, enabling greater combat effectiveness.


Dr. Robert S. Hinck
Dr. Hinck is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Director of Research at Air War College’s Leadership and Innovation Institute (LII). He also serves as Deputy Director of AU’s Quality Enhancement Plan responsible for developing and assessing curriculum on ethical leadership across the continuum of learning. He received his PhD in Communication Studies from Texas A&M University and is lead author of two books, the most recent entitled: “The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian Media.” His teaching and research have been recognized for excellence from multiple institutions, including most recently being awarded the Ira C. Eaker Center’s 2022 Educator of the Year.



[1.] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans Roger Crisp (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[2.] Thomas M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[3.] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[4.] Nathan Crick, Rhetoric and Power: The Drama of Classical Greece (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 6.

[5.] Skye C. Cooley and Ethan C. Stokes, "Manufacturing Resilience: An Analysis of Broadcast and Web-based News Presentations of the 2014–2015 Russian Economic Downturn," Global Media and Communication 14, no. 1 (2018): 123-139.

[6.] Emily B. Damm and Skye C. Cooley, "Resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church: Narrative of Analysis of the Russian National Myth," Social Science Quarterly 98, no. 3 (2017): 942-957; Robert S. Hinck, Randolph Kluver, and Skye C. Cooley, "Russia Re-envisions the World: Strategic Narratives in Russian Broadcast and News Media during 2015," Russian Journal of Communication 10, no. 1 (2018): 21-37.

[7.] Robert S. Hinck, Sara R. Kitsch, Asya Cooley, and Skye C. Cooley, The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian and Media (London: Routledge, 2022).

[8.] Hinck et al, “Russia Re-envisions the World”; Morena Skalamera, "Understanding Russia’s Energy turn to China: Domestic Narratives and National Identity Priorities," Post-Soviet Affairs 34, no. 1 (2018): 55-77.

[9.] Maya Eichler, Militarizing Men: Gender, Conscription, and War in Post-Coviet Russia (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[10.] Phillips P. O’Brien, “What Ted Cruz and Tucker Carlson Don’t Understand About War,” The Atlantic, September 28, 2022,

[11.] Christopher Bort, “Why the Kremlin Treats Its Own Citizens With Contempt,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 12, 2022,

[12.] Philip Taylor, Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[13.] Andrew J. Nathan, “Why China Threads the Needle on Ukraine,” Foreign Policy, June 2, 2022,; Julian E. Barnes, “Iran Sends Drone Trainers to Crimea to Aid Russian Military,” New York Times, October 18, 2022,

[14.] Erica Marat and Johan Engvall, “Former Soviet States Are Distancing Themselves From Their Old Imperial Master,” Foreign Policy, May 10, 2022,

[15.] Jonathan D. Spencer, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

[16.] O’Brien, “What Ted Cruz”

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