Argument

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The Perpetually Irrational Ukraine Debate

The war continues to be discussed in ways that are self-serving—and self-defeating.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Activists hold placards and flags as they gather in Lafayette Square to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Washington on Feb. 24, 2022.
Activists hold placards and flags as they gather in Lafayette Square to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Washington on Feb. 24, 2022.
Activists hold placards and flags as they gather in Lafayette Square to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Washington on Feb. 24, 2022. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

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Because war is uncertain and reliable information is sparse, no one knows how the war in Ukraine will play out. Nor can any of us be completely certain what the optimal course of action is. We all have our own theories, hunches, beliefs, and hopes, but nobody’s crystal ball is 100 percent reliable in the middle of a war.

You might think that this situation would encourage observers to approach the whole issue with a certain humility and give alternative perspectives a fair hearing even when they disagree with one’s own. Instead, debates about responsibility for the war and the proper course of action to follow have been unusually nasty and intolerant, even by modern standards of social media vituperation. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is the case.

What I find especially striking is how liberal interventionists, unrepentant neoconservatives, and a handful of progressives who are all-in for Ukraine seem to have no doubts whatsoever about the origins of the conflict or the proper course of action to follow today. For them, Russian President Vladimir Putin is solely and totally responsible for the war, and the only mistakes others may have made in the past was to be too nice to Russia and too willing to buy its oil and gas. The only outcome they are willing to entertain is a complete Ukrainian victory, ideally accompanied by regime change in Moscow, the imposition of reparations to finance Ukrainian reconstruction, and war crimes trials for Putin and his associates. Convinced that anything less than this happy result will reward aggression, undermine deterrence, and place the current world order in jeopardy, their mantra is: “Whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”

Because war is uncertain and reliable information is sparse, no one knows how the war in Ukraine will play out. Nor can any of us be completely certain what the optimal course of action is. We all have our own theories, hunches, beliefs, and hopes, but nobody’s crystal ball is 100 percent reliable in the middle of a war.

You might think that this situation would encourage observers to approach the whole issue with a certain humility and give alternative perspectives a fair hearing even when they disagree with one’s own. Instead, debates about responsibility for the war and the proper course of action to follow have been unusually nasty and intolerant, even by modern standards of social media vituperation. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is the case.

What I find especially striking is how liberal interventionists, unrepentant neoconservatives, and a handful of progressives who are all-in for Ukraine seem to have no doubts whatsoever about the origins of the conflict or the proper course of action to follow today. For them, Russian President Vladimir Putin is solely and totally responsible for the war, and the only mistakes others may have made in the past was to be too nice to Russia and too willing to buy its oil and gas. The only outcome they are willing to entertain is a complete Ukrainian victory, ideally accompanied by regime change in Moscow, the imposition of reparations to finance Ukrainian reconstruction, and war crimes trials for Putin and his associates. Convinced that anything less than this happy result will reward aggression, undermine deterrence, and place the current world order in jeopardy, their mantra is: “Whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”

This same group has also been extraordinarily critical of those who believe responsibility for the war is not confined to Russia’s president and who think these war aims might be desirable in the abstract but are unlikely to be achieved at an acceptable cost and risk. If you have the temerity to suggest that NATO enlargement (and the policies related to it) helped pave the road to war, if you believe the most likely outcome is a negotiated settlement and that getting there sooner rather than later would be desirable, and if you favor supporting Ukraine but think this goal should be weighed against other interests, you’re almost certain to be denounced as a pro-Putin stooge, an appeaser, an isolationist, or worse. Case in point: When a handful of progressive congressional representatives released a rather tepid statement calling for greater reliance on diplomacy a few weeks ago, it was buried under a hailstorm of criticism and quickly disavowed by its own sponsors.

Wartime is precisely when one should think most dispassionately and carefully about one’s own interests and strategies. Unfortunately, keeping a cool head is especially hard to do when the bullets are flying, innocent people are suffering, and rallying public support takes priority. A narrowing of debate is typical of most wars—at least for a long time—with governments encouraging patriotic groupthink and marginalizing dissident views. And the war in Ukraine has been no exception thus far.

One reason public discourse is so heated is moral outrage, and I have a degree of sympathy for this position. What Russia is doing to Ukraine is horrific, and it’s easy to understand why people are angry, eager to support Kyiv any way they can, happy to condemn Russia’s leaders for their crimes, and willing to inflict some sort of punishment on the perpetrators. It’s emotionally gratifying to side with an underdog, especially when the other side is inflicting great harm on innocent people. Under the circumstances, I can also understand why some people are quick to see anyone with a different view as being insufficiently committed to a righteous cause and to conclude that they must somehow sympathize with the enemy. In the present political climate, if someone is not all-in for Ukraine, then they must be siding with Putin.

Moral outrage is not a policy, however, and anger at Putin and Russia does not tell us what approach is best for Ukraine or the world. It’s possible that the hawks are right and that giving Ukraine whatever it thinks it needs to achieve victory is the best course of action. But this approach is hardly guaranteed to succeed; it might just prolong the war to no good purpose, increase Ukrainian suffering, and eventually lead Russia to escalate or even use a nuclear weapon. None of us can be 100 percent certain that the policies we favor will turn out as we expect and hope.

Nor does outrage at Russia’s present conduct justify viewing those who warned that Western policy was making a future conflict more likely as being on Moscow’s side. To explain why something bad happened is not to justify or defend it, and calling for diplomacy (while highlighting the obstacles such an effort would face) does not entail lack of concern for Ukraine itself. Different people can be equally committed to helping Ukraine yet favor sharply differing ways to achieve that end.

Debates on Ukraine have also been distorted by a desire to deflect responsibility. The United States’ foreign-policy establishment doesn’t like admitting it’s made mistakes, and pinning all the blame for the war on Putin is a “get out of jail free” card that absolves proponents of NATO enlargement of any role in this tragic turn of events. Putin clearly bears enormous personal responsibility for this illegal and destructive war, but if prior Western actions made his decision more likely, then Western policymakers are not blameless. To assert otherwise is to reject both history and common sense (i.e., that no major power would be indifferent to a powerful alliance moving steadily closer to its borders) as well as the mountain of evidence over many years showing that Russian elites (and not just Putin) were deeply troubled by what NATO and the European Union were doing and they were actively looking for ways to stop it.

Proponents of enlargement now insist Putin and his associates were never worried about NATO enlargement and that their many protests about this policy were just a giant smokescreen concealing long-standing imperialist ambitions. In this view, what Putin and his allies really feared was the spread of democracy and freedom, and restoring the old Soviet empire was their true objective from their first day in power. But as journalist Branko Marcetic has shown, these lines of defense do not fit the facts. Moreover, NATO enlargement and the spread of liberal values weren’t separate and distinct concerns. From the Russian perspective, NATO enlargement, the 2014 EU accession agreement with Ukraine, and Western support for pro-democracy color revolutions were part of a seamless and increasingly worrisome package.

Western officials may have genuinely believed these actions posed no threat to Russia and might even benefit Russia over the longer term; the problem was that Russia’s leaders didn’t see it that way. Yet U.S. and Western policymakers naively assumed that Putin wouldn’t react even as the status quo kept shifting in ways that he and his advisors found alarming. The world thought democratic countries were benignly expanding the rules-based order and creating a vast zone of peace, but the result was just the opposite. Putin should be condemned for being paranoid, overconfident, and heartless, but Western policymakers should be faulted for being arrogant, naive, and cavalier.

Third, the war has been a disaster for Ukrainians, but supporters of U.S. liberal hegemony—especially the more hawkish elements of the foreign-policy “Blob”—have gotten some of their mojo back. If Western support enables Ukraine to defeat an invading army and humiliate a dangerous dictator, then the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans can be swept into the memory hole and the campaign to expand the U.S-led liberal order will get a new lease on life. No wonder the Blob is so eager to put Ukraine in the victory column.

This same desire to put past failures in the rearview mirror dovetails perfectly with the ongoing effort to marginalize advocates of foreign-policy restraint. Although restrainers remain a tiny minority within Washington, they had been gaining some degree of traction before the war broke out. Given the foreign-policy failures of the past 30 years and the incoherent chaos of the Trump era, this development is hardly surprising. Although prominent restrainers have repeatedly criticized Russia’s actions and endorsed Western support for Ukraine since the war began, they have also warned of the risks of escalation, emphasized the need for more flexible diplomacy, and reminded people that incautious efforts to spread liberal ideals helped cause this tragedy. For die-hard proponents of liberal hegemony, however, such views are anathema and must be discredited, and the active use of U.S. power on a global scale must be rehabilitated and redeemed.

Compared to the suffering of Ukrainians (and millions of other people around the world), of course, quarrels among foreign-policy cognoscenti are not that important. Who cares if hard-liners in the United States engage in hyperbolic attacks on those with whom they disagree or if the targets of their ire fire back in their turn? The participants in these exchanges all lead enviably comfortable lives, and one’s egos can surely tolerate a certain amount of abuse. Does any of this inside-baseball stuff really matter?

It does because the Biden administration could find itself in an awkward position in the months or years ahead. On the one hand, it is publicly committed to winning the war and hopes U.S. soldiers aren’t involved in combat, but the entire national security establishment is helping Ukraine in lots of ways. On the other hand, the administration also seems mindful of the risks of escalation, does not want to get into a shooting war with Russia, and some U.S. officials apparently believe that a total Ukrainian victory is unlikely and that eventually there will have to be a deal.

Here’s the rub: What if the war does end in a messy and disappointing compromise instead of the happy Hollywood ending most of the world would like to see? Despite the welcome progress Ukraine has made in recent months, such an unsatisfying outcome may still be the most likely result. If Russia still controls substantial amounts of Ukrainian territory a year from now, Ukraine has suffered additional damage in the interim, Putin still rules in Moscow despite the harm his war has done to Russia, and the United States’ European allies have had to absorb another influx of refugees and endure difficult Ukraine-related economic hardships, then it will be increasingly difficult for the Biden administration to spin this war as a success story. The finger-pointing, blame-casting, and blame-avoidance will then make today’s rancorous debate seem mild by comparison.

Unfortunately, these are the sort of political circumstances that lead presidents to keep distant wars going. Even if there’s no plausible path to victory, the desire to avoid being accused of not having done enough tempts them to escalate in some way or kick the can down the road. (In case you’ve forgotten, that’s pretty much how the United States ended up in Afghanistan for nearly two decades.) U.S. President Joe Biden and his team haven’t given themselves a lot of wiggle room, and their freedom of action is further reduced when any hint of less-than-total support for Kyiv generates a firestorm of hawkish denunciations. If the world is forced to choose the lesser evil from a set of bad choices, a more civil and less accusatory discourse would make it easier for policymakers to consider a wider range of alternatives as well as make it more likely that Ukraine and the coalition that is presently supporting it make the right call.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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