Stephen Walt’s recent commentary, “The Morality of Ukraine’s War is Very Murky,” in Foreign Policy calls into question the received wisdom about the morality of the war in Ukraine. Walt cautions against a black-and-white portrayal of bad Russia versus good Ukraine and argues that intrinsic reasons to support Ukraine – just because it’s a democracy, even if imperfect, and just because it’s fighting a just, defensive war – compelling though they are, are insufficient to determine the morality of choices regarding this war, including the unqualified Western military support of Ukraine.
Instead, he says decision-makers should assess the prospects of Ukraine’s success and consider the costs of producing it, namely human lives. He concludes that 1) Ukraine’s chances of prevailing are poor, as evidenced by what he calls the “disappointing (even disastrous)” Ukrainian counteroffensive, and that 2) under these circumstances, continued Western arms shipments to Ukraine would only prolong the unwinnable war and cost more Ukrainian lives. To support his argument, Walt draws parallels with the United States in Afghanistan. For all the blood and treasure poured into the fight over two decades, the United States could not vanquish the Taliban and, in the end, withdrew, but not before more lives, U.S. and Afghan, were lost unnecessarily.
Walt, a regular columnist at Foreign Policy, is a prominent scholar working in a realist tradition of international relations and a colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School. There is no cause to doubt the genuineness of his concern for Ukrainian lives. But his argument about the morality of the war in Ukraine, though more balanced than the “very murky” title suggests, is nevertheless deeply flawed.
Ukraine’s Prospects and Their Costs
In his concern for Ukrainian lives, Walt remains impervious to Ukrainians’ own interests and ability to assess their options. True, the total number of losses have not been made public. But anyone driving through the Ukrainian countryside will pass cemeteries brimming with dozens of fresh graves, and anyone walking in a Ukrainian city will encounter dozens of amputees. Civilians live under constant air raid sirens and missile strikes. No one in Ukraine has been untouched by this war, no one is oblivious to its costs. Ukrainians did not choose this war. But it is up to Ukrainians to determine when to end it and how to relate their costs to their stakes.
Indeed, the reason why the Ukrainian counteroffensive is slow and grinding and thus so disappointing to Walt is precisely because the Ukrainian leadership refuses to sacrifice their troops in the kinds of frontal assaults that Russians have been mounting at an enormous human cost. And the reason why Ukrainians are pleading for more Western arms to be delivered more quickly is precisely to save Ukrainian lives on the battlefield and in the cities.
Incidentally, those with direct experience with military operations are not so quick to write off the Ukrainian counteroffensive. But because the Ukrainians have not delivered a glorious and decisive victory in just 18 months of fighting and are up against a major military power, Walt concludes that Ukrainians are unlikely to achieve their goals militarily and must now stop resisting before more lives are needlessly lost.
Walt implicitly dismisses the ability of Ukrainian society, Ukraine’s political leadership, and its military command to calculate their own costs and determine for themselves what is sustainable and what is “unnecessary.” He suggests that the United States and the collective West should know better and offers an analogy that a person has no moral obligation to aid a friend determined to do something dangerous.
The insinuation that a country with its own political process and decision-making, fighting for its survival as an independent state and a distinct nation, can be likened to a misguided friend given to self-harm, is hardly sustainable. But even if we are to follow the logic of responsibility to a friend, surely the ethical prescription would be to discuss options and their costs with this friend, to make sure they have the best information and see all the pitfalls before deciding for themselves, rather than to stop supporting this friend in their hour of need.
Ukrainian Lives Now and in the Future
Following Walt’s advice, the United States and the collective West should halt the military support of Ukraine and urge it to negotiate — if not a peace, then an armistice with Russia. Leaving aside his apparent assumption that Ukraine would stop fighting absent Western arms, which is far from certain, the immediate cessation of hostilities would doubtless save Ukrainian and Russian lives. That is, if the ceasefire holds. But the sustainability of a Russian-Ukrainian armistice is not part of Walt’s discussion. Perhaps he assumes that Russia would simply honor it indefinitely, abandon its proclaimed designs to wipe Ukraine off the political map, and be content with its gains in eastern and southern Ukraine, even though the fact that the Crimean landgrab in 2014 and the war in the Donbas failed to sate Russia suggests the contrary.
Even if the ceasefire were to hold and save lives short-term, Walt offers no long-term solution to secure the rump, post-armistice Ukraine. While historical parallels are always tricky, the examples of West Germany post-WWII and South Korea post-Korean War seem instructive. These rump post-war states and their economies benefited greatly from a U.S. security guarantee, within an alliance or in a bilateral defense commitment. The United States even deployed its nuclear weapons in South Korea until 1991, and still deploys them in Germany today.
By similar logic, to secure what’s left of Ukraine’s territory long-term would entail either its membership in NATO or an alliance relationship directly with the United States. This is certainly not the solution Walt advocates. Quite the opposite: he argues that Ukraine’s NATO prospects would only motivate Russia to continue fighting, although he offers no evidence that blocking Ukraine’s NATO membership would lead to a markedly different outcome.
Walt’s views on the folly of NATO enlargement and the claimed Western culpability in provoking the war in Ukraine are well-documented. The dead horse that NATO enlargement is the West’s cardinal sin responsible for all bad Russian behavior has been beaten mercilessly, and no amount of evidence that points to other causes of Russian aggression can sway Walt and other scholars belonging to his theoretical creed, realism, to revise their conclusions. In that, realism has become more akin to ideology than a falsifiable social-scientific theory.
It matters little to these realists that Russia unleashed a war against Ukraine in 2014 not over NATO membership – the country’s neutrality was encoded in its constitution at the time – but over its association with the European Union. Nor are historical and domestic-political drivers of Russian foreign policy given any weight, despite abundant scholarship by competent observers of the Russian regime, Western as well as Russian, exposing the salience of these drivers. President Vladimir Putin’s ire over NATO enlargement is to be taken at face value, but his genocidal claims that Ukraine and Ukrainians should not exist are to be dismissed as mere propaganda.
The empirical evidence aside, realism’s own maxim that “power abhors a vacuum” invites a conclusion that it was the security vacuum in Ukraine, left outside of the alliance system, unprotected by deterrence of its own or extended by an ally – a deterrence that seems to hold firm between NATO, old and new, and Russia during this war – that enabled Russia to invade Ukraine. Leaving Ukraine in that same security vacuum after the war will not substantively change the set of permissive circumstances that led to this war in the first place. What is to prevent Russia from recovering, rearming, and relaunching a new major offensive against Ukraine to finish off what it had started in February 2022, if not a NATO membership or a bilateral alliance with the United States? Walt offers no ideas.
In sum, Walt’s moral solution to save Ukrainian lives short-term, comes with no long-term plan for Ukraine’s security, kicking that can down the road, something Ukrainians have no luxury of doing. They refuse to hand over this war to their children and grandchildren, and Walt would probably do the same in their place.
Afghanistan and Ukraine
Walt’s comparison between the U.S. roles in Afghanistan and Ukraine is astonishingly misplaced and myopic. If anything, Afghanistan is a cautionary tale about “great powers” and their ill-conceived foreign wars of choice. It is a vivid illustration that there is more to war than the balance of military capabilities and that, in the long run, indigenous actors can prevail because they have the staying power: they are on their home turf with no other place to go. In other words, what the United States has been to Afghanistan, Russia might well be to Ukraine.
It could be argued that Russia’s stakes in Ukraine are higher than U.S. stakes in Afghanistan and that Russia has a greater determination and capacity to rule and assimilate the occupied parts of Ukraine – or, given a chance, the entire country – as if they are constitutive parts of Russia than the United States had in Afghanistan. This, however, only adds credence to the argument that for Ukraine this is a war of survival in a way that it was not for Afghanistan.
Ukraine is also not Afghanistan. It is an industrialized nation with an open and democratic political system, however imperfect, that held firm in the face of the Russian invasion, with a State and society that came together in unprecedented unity to counter this invasion, with decent political leadership that enjoys wide public support, and modern, capable, and highly motivated armed forces that learned to play to their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. As with any such comparisons across time and space, the differences are more important than the similarities.
‘What’s in It for Us?’
There is another argument that Walt and others make for the United States to stop supporting Ukraine: the “what’s in it for us?” reason. Realists have a time-honored tradition of arguing for U.S. restraint in international affairs. The United States should mind its national interests, which realists contend to understand better from their academic perches than anyone dirtying their hands in the actual political and policy enterprise. Among other things, U.S. restraint means that unless U.S. national security is directly affected, if people elsewhere decide to start killing each other, it’s none of America’s business, whether it’s the Rwandans hacking each other with machetes, the Serbs committing genocide against the Bosnians and Albanians, or the Russians slaughtering the Ukrainians.
In the realist world of international anarchy and national self-help, as long as the United States remains safe and prosperous, these unfortunate events in the world out there might pull at American heartstrings but should not affect U.S. foreign policy. But if that’s really the argument at the end of the day, then let’s be transparent, drop the pretenses and, with them, any allusions to morality, at least in a humanly comprehensible sense of the word.