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The Fact That the Ukrainians Want to Keep Fighting Doesn't Mean That We Have a Moral Obligation to Help Them
In my previous essay, I argued that providing military assistance to Ukraine was not in the West’s interest, but as I conceded in the conclusion it doesn’t follow that we don’t have a moral obligation to do so because often people have a moral obligation to do things that are not in their interest. In this essay, I want to discuss a popular argument against the view that we should withhold military assistance to Kiev, on the ground that providing such assistance will prolong the war and increase its cost for Ukraine. The argument is that, since the Ukrainians themselves want to keep fighting, we can’t invoke the cost for Ukraine of prolonging the war to deny them military assistance.
This line of argument is prima facie convincing, which probably explains why it’s so popular. After all, if the Ukrainians are willing to incur that cost then it would seem that we can’t decide for them that it’s not worth it, since by definition it’s them who will have to bear it. However, I will argue in what follows that although superficially convincing this argument is confused and that it’s even more confused to argue, as some people do, that from the fact that the Ukrainians want to keep fighting it follows that we have a moral obligation to help them. I will conclude with some general remarks on morality and foreign policy.
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Before I turn to the argument that, since the Ukrainians themselves want to keep fighting, we can’t refuse by invoking the cost of prolonging the war for Ukraine, I want to point out that it’s as clear as the proponents of military assistance to Ukraine assume that the Ukrainians want to keep fighting. Sure, if you ask them in a poll, the vast majority of Ukrainians will say that they want to keep fighting. However, even putting aside the issue of social desirability bias (which is likely huge in this context), it’s not clear that we can infer from those results that the Ukrainians want to keep fighting in the sense that is morally relevant here.
Indeed, while Ukraine is a country of more than 43 million people (at least before the war), the actual fighting is done by only a few hundred thousands people. We don’t know what their honest view on the matter is and, although the rest of the population is also affected by the war (especially the people who stayed in Ukraine), it’s hardly obvious that we should weigh the opinion of combattants and non-combattants equally. Moreover, there are laws preventing Ukrainian men from leaving the country and coercing them into fighting even if they don’t want to, so in the absence of such legal constraints revealed preferences might show something very different from what polls say.
However, even if that were true, it’s not clear that it would show that the Ukrainians — including those who currently serve in the armed forces or might be called upon to do so — don’t want to keep fighting, because it could be argued that it would speak less to what Ukrainians think than to a collective action problem that laws against desertion and border-crossing solve by disincentivizing free-loading. Thus, if only for the sake of the argument, I will assume in this essay that the Ukrainians do want to keep fighting. To be clear, despite what I just said I find this claim plausible and, if I had to bet, I would bet that it’s true. I wanted to point out that it’s not as obvious as most people assume.
Now let’s discuss whether the fact that the Ukrainians want to keep fighting, if that is indeed a fact, implies that we can’t refuse them military assistance on the ground that it would increase the cost for Ukraine by prolonging the war. As I acknowledged above, this argument is prima facie convincing, but upon closer examination it proves to be flawed. First, it implicitly assumes that the Ukrainian preference to continue to fight is not premised on unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve by doing so, which is hardly obvious. In general, we certainly don’t accept that the satisfaction of someone’s preferences always makes him better off and the same thing is true for countries, if only because those preferences may be based on false beliefs.
Many people seem to assume that the Ukrainians necessarily know better, but there are many reasons to doubt that. Indeed, while they are privy to information we are not about what is happening on the ground, people in the West, especially government officials, are privy to information the Ukrainians are not that will also determine their prospects in a long war, such as what level of support they can realistically expect. Beyond the issue of what information is available to whom, the idea that people who have just suffered a massive attack and, in many cases, have lost friends and family members are necessarily best equipped to reach a sober assessment of their prospects strikes me as a rather strange notion. The fact that, according to The Washington Post, the Ukrainians were initially planning to do a massive offensive sweeping across the entire South last summer — which would surely have resulted in the destruction of their armed forces — before the Americans talked them out of it should be enough to disabuse anyone of that notion.
Surely, if we knew for a fact that prolonging the war could only bring disaster upon Ukraine, most people who now argue that we should provide military assistance to Kiev would revise that view, even if the Ukrainians wanted to keep fighting. Thus, depending on one’s assessment of Ukraine’s prospects should the war continue, it may be perfectly legitimate to deny it military assistance by invoking the cost for Ukraine. People who make the argument I’m criticizing here must therefore implicitly assume that, by continuing to fight and prolonging the war thanks to Western military assistance, Ukraine can achieve a better outcome than it could achieve now by making a deal with Russia. Now, they may be right about that, but it’s hardly obvious and I personally think it’s dubious.
Indeed, as I argued previously, I think it’s unlikely that Ukraine can win a decisive victory quickly and that it probably never will even after several years. In what I consider the most likely scenario, I think it will end up with more territory and secure technical concessions from Russia, but I don’t think it will be able to force the Russian armed forces to withdraw unconditionally. To be sure, it’s also possible that, if the war continues for long enough and the Western military assistance keeps flowing at the necessary level (which no Western leader can guarantee if only because he may not be the one to make that decision a few years from now), Russia will eventually call it quits, but I don’t think it’s very likely and, should it happen, it won’t until several years from now. I don’t think such a long war, even if Russia eventually withdrew unconditionally, would be in Ukraine’s interest, not only because it would result in far more death and destruction but also because it would have catastrophic demographic consequences.
I don’t think people fully appreciate the extent to which, if the war lasts more than a few years, Ukraine will undergo a total demographic collapse from which it will not be able to recover this century. There is no point in ending up with more territory if it’s going to be empty. A nation can survive even without a state, but it can’t survive without people. (Not, to be clear, that if there were a negotiated settlement now it would result in the liquidation of the Ukrainian state, which I think is completely unrealistic.) When they think about Ukraine’s post-war future, I think people have in mind the model of European post-WWII recovery, but the war is going to have very different consequences in a country that, even before the invasion, had a TFR barely above 1. Unless the war ends soon, there won’t be a Ukrainian equivalent of the “German miracle”.
Even if you could show that, were the Ukrainians told by someone from the future exactly what outcome they will achieve by continuing to fight and at what cost, they would still want to keep fighting, it wouldn’t follow that we can’t deny them military assistance by invoking the cost for Ukraine of prolonging the war. Indeed, just because the Ukrainians are the victims of a war of aggression, it doesn’t follow that we should completely outsource moral judgment to them. For instance, if they told us that, in order to expel Russia from their country, they were willing to sacrifice every Ukrainian child or let millions of their citizens die in a nuclear holocaust, we surely would not think that we can’t tell them that we refuse to help them pursue such a criminal policy.
Obviously, the Ukrainians don’t have such absurd preferences, but this thought experiment shows that, while some deference to their preferences is arguably justified, this deference has limits and we still have to make our own moral judgments at the end of the day. Thus, to show that Ukraine’s desire to keep fighting is a reason for the West to provide military assistance to Kiev, it’s not enough to show that it’s not based on unrealistic expectations about what Ukraine can achieve and at what cost if the war continues, you also have to show that it’s not based on preferences that are morally unacceptable to us. I personally think that, given how long the war is likely to last if we continue to provide military assistance to Ukraine and the likely consequences in terms of poverty, death and injury, the priority should be to stop the killing even if the price is a settlement that is unjust to Ukraine and the Ukrainians want to keep fighting.
I think proponents of military assistance to Ukraine care too much about abstract principles of justice and not enough about the concrete effects of prolonging the war. To us and even to most people in Ukraine, casualties are just statistics, but for the people who were killed or maimed and for their friends and family, they are real human lives that are destroyed. Every day the war continues, this human toll gets worse. I’m not a starry-eyed idealist and I understand that stopping the killing is not the only thing that matters, but neither is ensuring a just outcome. In the past, such as during the Bosnian War, Western officials had no problem saying that and were even criticized for it, but I think they were right on this point. Unfortunately, due to the ubiquitousness of sophomoric comparisons with WWII, it has become impossible to make this point today without being immediately accused of “appeasement”.
I may be wrong about Ukraine’s prospects if the war doesn’t stop and the way in which I weight different moral considerations against each other may also be flawed, but even if that is the case, simply pointing out that the Ukrainians want to keep fighting doesn’t settle the issue and it certainly doesn’t show that we have a moral obligation to provide military assistance to Ukraine, because many other considerations besides the Ukrainian preference for continuing the war are relevant to the question of how we should respond to Russia’s invasion. Indeed, while the Ukrainians are the people most affected by the war, they are not the only people to be affected by it. The war is highly disruptive to the rest of the world, it creates a potentially very dangerous situation and, with the possible exception of Ukraine, I think it’s in everyone’s interest that it stops as soon as possible.
I discussed at length the cost for the West of military assistance to Ukraine in my previous essay, but the prolongation of the war that policy is causing also has a significant cost for the rest of the world. For instance, because Russia will no longer sell natural gas to Europe and lacks the infrastructure to redirect that supply to other markets, low income countries such Pakistan and Bangladesh are being priced out of the LNG spot market. As a result, businesses and households in those countries are confronted with regular power outages, which in addition to the inconvenience has serious economic consequences. Now, lacking electricity and being unemployed is not as bad as being shelled, but it’s still bad and it can’t be ignored in the moral calculus. Even Russian casualties are relevant to the question of whether the West has a moral obligation to provide military assistance to Ukraine, because while their government is guilty of the crime of international aggression, most of them are innocent and just as much victims of this war as the Ukrainians, so it would be immoral to ignore the effect that prolonging the war has on them.
The main reason why I disagree with the dominant opinion is that I think it’s based on a wildly exaggerated view of what is at stake in Ukraine. It’s simply not true that the “rules-based international order”, a notion that should be deconstructed anyway because it’s largely a propagandistic fiction, will disintegrate if Russia wins. Nor is it the case that, unless Ukraine prevails, democracy will be in danger everywhere. We are not in 1949 and Russia is not the Soviet Union. (In fact, even at the time the US and its allies exaggerated the threat of a Soviet military intervention against Western Europe, but at least the Soviet Union had capabilities that made such a threat credible, whereas Russia is far too weak to pose a serious threat to NATO and a victory in Ukraine would not change that.) It’s also false that, should Russia win, the Ukrainians would face genocide. Unfortunately, we can’t have a sober debate about the war and how to respond to it, because people make hyperbolic statements and use over-the-top rhetoric that make that impossible.
Proponents of military assistance to Ukraine often portray opponents of that policy as cynics, but I completely reject this characterization. I may be wrong about whether the West has a moral obligation to help Ukraine, as we have seen it’s a very complicated issue and I think anyone who is very confident that they know what ought to be done is a fool, but my position is ultimately based on moral considerations. I think that not providing military assistance to Ukraine is the right thing to do, not just the policy that happens to be in the West’s interest. While people generally present realism in foreign policy as amoral, I think that view misconstrue the nature of realism. The kind of realism I advocate, which I have defended at length in my essay against liberal imperialism, is primarily a moral position. A key insight of the realist tradition is that failing to appreciate the limits of one’s power in formulating one’s foreign policy and, as a result, pursuing unrealistic goals with potentially disastrous consequences is a profound moral failure.
Thus, not only do I think that it’s not immoral to oppose the West’s policy of providing military assistance to Ukraine, but I think it’s this policy that is immoral, because it will prolong the war and increase its cost, not only to Ukraine and Russia but also to the rest of the world, without sufficient benefits. That is not to say that I think the people who support that policy are evil, a courtesy most of them are unfortunately not willing to extend to me, I just think it’s a complicated issue about which even good people arguing in good faith can be wrong. Even if I’m wrong that we shouldn’t provide military assistance to Ukraine, despite what proponents of that policy evidently believe, what is certain is that simply pointing out that the Ukrainians want to keep fighting doesn’t settle the issue.
While I think a negotiated settlement may have been possible in the early weeks of the war, I don’t think it’s realistic at the moment, but there will probably be another opportunity after Ukraine’s counteroffensive. When this window of opportunity opens, the West can facilitate a ceasefire, but this will require to accept that we live in a less than ideal world and to be willing to make compromises, even if that means leaning on the Ukrainians to accept a solution they would otherwise reject. My goal in this essay has been to convince you that doing so is not necessarily immoral, but that on the contrary it may actually be the right thing to do. Again, what the Ukrainians want is obviously relevant to the question of what the West should do, but we cannot defer entirely to them and at the end of the day we have to make decisions based on our own preferences. Not only is doing so not immoral, but it’s what morality requires.
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