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The Immorality of Hawkish Moralizing

Max Boot is frustrated that the U.S. isn’t setting Ukraine up for more destruction:

Refusing to help the Ukrainians with military aid is not only stupid strategically. It is immoral. The Ukrainians will bear the risks of fighting the Russians to defend their country. It will be Ukrainians, not Americans, in harm’s way. The least we can do is to give them the tools to fight for their freedom.

It’s no surprise that this is where Boot’s “analysis” ends: throw weapons at the problem because that’s supposedly the moral thing to do. There is no consideration of what could happen to Ukraine if the U.S. did as he wanted, nor is there any thought given to the possibility that “helping” Ukraine in this way is the fastest way to ensure a larger, more destructive war that would be fought entirely in Ukraine. I’ll quote Lieven again:

For even if the West were to provide Kiev with enough military aid to give a real chance of crushing the rebels, this would also create a real chance of a full-scale Russian invasion. Such an invasion could only be stopped by the introduction of a Western army — something which is simply not a possibility. A Russian invasion would be a disaster for both Ukraine and Russia — and a disastrous humiliation for NATO and the West.

Simon Shuster pointed out how the introduction of Western-supplied weapons could be used by Moscow to gin up support for a larger war:

If Ukraine’s forces were equipped with Western arms, it might in fact be easier for Putin to justify a broader offensive against them. His narrative at home would no longer be about the “fascist” Ukrainian military and the beleaguered freedom fighters dying for their right to speak the Russian language. It would be about Western weapons slaughtering the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine.

Encouraging Ukraine to keep fighting a war it can’t win isn’t smart for the U.S., and it certainly isn’t moral. There are few policies less morally defensible than setting up another nation to suffer an even worse defeat so that we can say that we “did something” in a foreign conflict. As Shuster wrote, arming Ukraine “may do some good in assuaging the West’s wounded pride, but it would hardly help Ukraine find a way out of this war.”

At each stage in the Ukraine crisis and for many years before that, Russia hawks in the West have urged the U.S. and its allies to goad and provoke Russia on the assumption that Russia won’t respond. Then each time that Russia responds more aggressively than they thought possible, the same people insist on more goading and provoking in order to “stop” Russia from what it is doing, which of course just leads to another harsh Russian response. It doesn’t occur to them that Russia will most likely keep matching any action that the U.S. takes by taking even more aggressive measures of its own. The country that stands to lose the most from continuing this back-and-forth is Ukraine.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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