Analysis | A Limited Ukraine Policy Might Be Rational, But Is It Moral?

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The U.S. and its allies are quite pleased with themselves just now — more than they should be. Perhaps they too need to pause and reflect.

They can certainly point to some achievements. The sanctions they’ve put together are vastly more comprehensive and effective than Russian President Vladimir Putin (or anyone else) ever expected. They’re arming Ukraine and the strength of its resistance has set Russia back. Putin might fail and be seen to fail, they tell themselves, if only the West can keep this up. It’s hard work — have you seen what a gallon of gas costs lately? — but freedom demands its price.

Blue and yellow flags notwithstanding, the people of Ukraine might wonder whether the West’s sacrifice in the name of solidarity quite measures up.

To be sure, the allies’ actions might be rational. Perhaps it’s in their interests that Putin’s invasion humiliates him and leads to his removal — but not enough in their interests to put their own solders’ lives at risk, much less take a chance on escalating the conflict to the point of nuclear war. So the U.S. and Europe help Ukraine with supplies of weapons (within limits) but not with outright military intervention, and the world punishes Russia with sanctions, hoping its forces are fought to a standstill and domestic opposition to Putin builds.

The troubling ethical question is whether this is really helping Ukraine. Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that the goal of the U.S. and Europe has been to maximize the pain inflicted on Ukraine. Consider which policies might have best achieved that goal. Would they have been any different than the ones they actually chose?

Before the conflict started, the West encouraged both Russia and Ukraine to believe that Ukraine might join both NATO and the European Union in the foreseeable future — without having any serious intention that this would actually happen. This misdirection put Russia and Ukraine more squarely at odds. As Putin began his military buildup, the U.S. and Europe did nothing to deter him, and kept the friendly non-overtures to Ukraine coming. (NATO has an open-door policy, and so forth.) So Ukraine took a chance on being brave, and Putin took a chance on war.

Once the invasion began, the West applied forceful unanticipated sanctions. If they had been announced earlier, they might have deterred Putin; deployed at this stage, they help to sustain the conflict.

Meanwhile, celebrating its newfound solidarity, the West talks for all the world as though it plans not just to stop Putin but to remove him from power — while continuing to rule out full military support. That makes it harder for Putin to back down while moderating the costs of his continued assault. He might still win this war, he reasons, and he can’t afford to lose it. So he’ll gamble on escalation.

And what about Ukraine’s incentives? Zelenskiy can still plausibly hope that the allies will join the battle if Putin’s crimes rise to a sufficient level. So he makes his case to Western public opinion over the heads of its legislatures. Maybe start by asking for a limited no-fly zone, then a wider no-fly zone, and then by degrees outright war. Ukraine might yet prevail.

All along, the West applauds Zelenskiy’s resolve. He received a standing ovation after his video address to the U.K. Parliament last week, and can expect the same when he addresses the U.S. Congress on Wednesday. But it does not accommodate his requests. The end result is that Ukraine fights on — maybe losing in the end, maybe winning. Win or lose, however, the country is assured of greater destruction.

In reality, needless to say, what drove and still drives this catastrophic sequence was not calculation but miscalculation upon miscalculation — on every side. In war, it was ever thus. But it ought to give one pause that events are still being pushed toward a terrible outcome for Ukraine as surely as if this had been the West’s purpose all along. No doubt the U.S. and Europe sincerely want to help Ukraine, and their actions are indeed wounding Putin. But their posturing and vacillation over ends and means continues to make things worse for the principal victims.

It’s morally right, of course, to want to avoid escalation that might cause death and destruction on a much larger scale. But it’s wrong to lead Ukraine to accept bigger losses and Putin to double down unless the allies are willing to bear their full share of the consequences. It’s way past time for the West to make up its mind. If it belatedly wants to be Ukraine’s ally against Russia, it should act like one and join this fight. If it isn’t willing to do that, it should stop applauding its own resolve and make ending the war its overriding priority.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics, finance and politics. A former chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, he has been an editor for the Economist and the Atlantic.

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