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Why we fight
NATO and the EU are committed to victory for Ukraine. But are they committed to victory for the West?
As Western leaders headed into summit season — with the G7 meeting in Bavaria and NATO gathering in Madrid — their policy advisers were nervous: Would the coalition that has gathered in support of Ukraine hold together?
There was reason to believe that the coalition would fracture. A deal to reduce the purchase of Russian oil and gas had barely been agreed by the EU, and then only with unpalatable concessions to Budapest. Ankara was still holding up the NATO accession process for Finland and Sweden. As Ukrainian troops withdrew from Sievierodonetsk, all but cementing Russian control of the Luhansk oblast, the calls for compromise — at Ukraine’s expense, of course — grew louder.
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As usual, Vladimir Putin focused Western minds, unleashing renewed ballistic attacks on Kyiv and Kharkiv. The scenes from Kremenchuk, where a missile reduced a busy shopping center to ashes in the middle of the day, killing at least 20, horrified the world. That same day, the G7 announced that its members would block trading in Russian gold. An agreement was reached to press forward with hydrocarbon embargoes, while seeking to cap oil prices. And when he arrived in Madrid, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rescinded his veto on NATO expansion.
“We must not cease to support Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared. “Even if the costs are high.”
As NATO announced plans massively to increase the size of its rapid reaction forces, and the US moved more troops to the alliance’s eastern flank, however, Western leaders continued to insist that this is Ukraine’s war with Russia, not the West’s. There is much to admire in that sentiment, especially the insistence that only Kyiv can determine how long this war will be fought, and at what cost. But the truth of the matter is that the West is at war with Russia.
Sanctions — once thought of as a deterrent, and then as a punishment — are increasingly understood by Western policymakers to serve one overriding purpose: to degrade the ability of the Russian economy and the Russian state to sustain the war effort. To insist that they are not a weapon of war is a necessary fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. It is plausible, I suppose, to argue that providing Ukraine with weapons is, in and of itself, not equal to participation in the war, although that, too, seems difficult, given the volume of weapons supplied. But the provision of intelligence and on-the-ground training — both meant to help Ukraine not only fight, but win — suggest, like the sanctions, that the West is very much a party to this conflict.
Now, to be clear, I think the West should be a party to this war, for reasons that ought to be clear, but which I will nevertheless elaborate a bit further down. But the fact that Western leaders cannot talk openly about participating in the war means that they cannot talk openly about what their aims are, about what would constitute victory, and thus why the sacrifices being asked of Western societies are worth it. As a result, there can be no open conversation, as befits democratic societies, about how this war should be prosecuted. And as a further result, when the emotional fatigue eventually sets in — and it will set in — there will be no intellectual commitment to victory.
In the absence of a robust Western discourse about the ends and means of this war, we risk instead falling hostage to discourses that are not our own. As concerns the Ukrainian discourse, that may be no bad thing: Ukraine’s cause is just and unassailable, its spirit indomitable. In large measure, it is Ukraine’s will to fight that has given rise to the Western will to fight. But we are already hearing voices — thus far on the fringes, but growing louder — questioning why Western countries should identify themselves so closely with Ukraine. Over time, those voices will grow louder.
If Western leaders cannot formulate a response — an explanation of why Ukraine’s victory is our victory — Russia’s discourse on the war will creep in. Western societies will begin, as some Western voices already are, to seek out opportunities to “compromise”, by which they of course mean sacrificing Ukrainian sovereignty and territory and lives so that we can move on to happier pursuits. While those voices will pledge undying moral support for Kyiv’s right to fight on, they will also note that Kyiv will struggle to maintain the fight without Western military and economic aid.
To understand why this is a war worth fighting, we need to understand what victory might look like for each of its participants — including for the West.
For Russia, oddly enough, this is a deceptively easy question to answer: Victory is whatever Russia can claim on the day it decides to stop fighting, provided — and this is key — that it stops fighting of its own volition. As I’ve written since this war began (and even earlier, actually), the stated aims of this war are nonsensical, and Putin’s declared terms for victory — ‘denazifying’ and ‘demilitarizing’ Ukraine — are and always were entirely unachievable. Below the surface, to be sure, that rhetoric masked a very real objective: to halt the eastward expansion of the Euro-Atlantic geo-political and geo-economic project, and to ensure that Ukraine, in whatever form, remained part of the ‘Russian world’.
But all of that is now out the window. As Lawry Freedman has explained, wars, once they are launched, become games of opportunism, especially for the aggressor. Whatever an invader might have hoped to achieve before the bombs started falling is quickly replaced by a dynamic and open-ended evaluation of what he can achieve as the battlefield evolves. To take a phrase from basketball, you take what the defense gives you. For the moment, that looks like much of eastern and southern Ukraine, where Russia’s troops are digging in and its political operatives gearing up for a creeping annexation.
If things shift and he has to retreat, Putin will retreat. If he can advance, he will advance. Either way, as long as he has a say in the ebb and flow of the fighting, he will be able to declare victory on Russian television, and a sufficient number Russian citizens will believe him for his regime to go on. Whether he will really have halted NATO and EU expansion, or even gained much leverage over Ukraine, will concern him only in the witching hours of the night.
But because his ability to declare victory depends on him having a measure of control, he will, I believe, become increasingly risk-averse. The attack on Kremenchuk notwithstanding — or perhaps proving the rule by means of exception — he will not want to do anything that will risk further strengthening Western resolve. He needs the voices of fatigue and doubt to grow in prominence in the West, and to recede in Russia itself. Massive offensives, even if he had the means to launch them, would not serve either purpose. A more direct Western intervention, the provision of even heavier weaponry, or a further degrading of Russian morale would all deprive Putin of the initiative he needs to carve out a victory.
That, in turn, brings us to Ukraine. Despite taking losses in the east, despite mounting casualties all along the front lines, and despite the renewed terror raining down on Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s vision of victory remains remarkably undiminished: the full restoration of territory and sovereignty. While surveys conducted during wartime should be treated with some skepticism even in a democracy, a recent poll suggests that some 89 percent of Ukrainians reject ceding any territory — including Crimea and the Donbas — for peace; fully two thirds believe Ukraine can push Russian troops out of the country entirely.
Now, that can, of course, change — although the opportunism that afflicts aggressors might be expected to work differently for those whose country has been invaded. Ukrainians have shown that they understand themselves to be fighting for their country, not their government (whatever Putin and his advisers might have imagined). If things on the battlefield shift dramatically, or if Western support slackens, Ukrainians could conceivably come to believe that it is worth ceasing to fight, even if victory hasn’t been achieved. But that doesn’t mean that they will accept the loss of territory (about which more in a bit). And most importantly, while Volodymyr Zelenskyy may be able to help shape Ukrainian public opinion, he cannot stray too far from it. If Ukrainians want to fight, Ukraine will fight.
It has become commonplace to say that Ukrainian victory depends on Western support, but that is a lie. With or without Western support, if Ukrainians want to fight, Ukraine will win — and Russia will lose. The question, however, is when, and it is on that question that Western support is decisive.
Absent mass genocide or forced migration, all occupying armies fail eventually, and in the post-World War II era even wholesale ethnic cleansing has generally been insufficient to give one country permanent control over another. But while occupying armies fail, they do not often lose. Whether we remember the Americans in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the French in Algeria or the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, countries that fight wars on other people’s territories have not tended to be beaten in the modern era. Rather, they have grown tired and gone home — often after decades of destruction — defeated by fatigue.
For as long as this war is fought exclusively on Ukrainian soil, fatigue will likely remain the only thing that can send the Russian army home. Only committed Western engagement can increase that fatigue, and only a clear understanding of what’s at stake can bolster that Western commitment.
The West’s War
And so it is time to think seriously about the Western casus belli.
In the West, most rhetoric in support of the war effort has focused on one of two arguments. The first of these is justice: Ukraine has been invaded without provocation or justification; it is a democracy being raped by an autocracy; Ukrainians are thus fighting for the values that we in the West hold dear, and thus we owe them our support. Each of these things is true, and the list could go on. They are all noble reasons to support Ukraine, and in a world ruled by morality they would be sufficient.
But as an argument for Western participation in the war, and for the sacrifices that participation will demand, the idea of justice may turn out to be lacking. The problem is not only that there are myriad equally just causes for which we have failed to fight — as though the moral failings of the past somehow require us to adhere to future moral bankruptcy in the name of consistency. The problem is also that claims of justice are open to questions of “who are we to judge”, and to claims of competing morality, including the morality of helping a deadly war persist on someone else’s soil. All of these charges will grow in strength as fatigue sets in.
The second argument, present in Western rhetoric ever since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 and leveled equally at China for its activities in the South China Sea, is the defense of the ‘rules-based order’. I’ll be honest: I have never figured out how any Western leader manages to say that phrase with a straight face. I have certainly never seen anyone from the Middle East, South-East Asia, Africa or Latin America — or even a great many Westerners — respond to that phrase with anything approaching a straight face. We have much for which to atone.
And yet the idea of the ‘rules-based order’ comes closer to explaining why the West should be party to this war — because it raises the question of what the world would look like if Russia wins.
A world in which Russia wins is a world in which great powers go to war over trade treaties. It was, after all, a trade treaty with the EU that prompted Russia to invade Ukraine in 2014, and it is still that geo-economic relationship that motivates Russia’s present war. Now, if that becomes the way geo-economic conflicts are to be handled, project that scenario onto relations among the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, or the fractious trade politics of Mercosur, or any point along China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative. How will we handle tensions in, say, the Horn of Africa, where American, Chinese and Gulf interests all intersect?
Likewise, a world in which Russia wins is a world in which medium-sized powers will never again be dissuaded against pursuing a nuclear weapon. Experts will quibble that keeping the nuclear arsenal it gave up in 1994 — and over which Kyiv never had full control — may well not have saved it from this invasion. But Iran, North Korea, Israel and any number of other states flirting with nuclear weapons will have control over whatever arsenals they create, and if Russia wins, those arsenals will look a much more powerful source of protection than any imaginable treaty.
Western leaders, then, may find that there are reasons to engage in this war that go well beyond abstract principles of justice and ‘order’ — reasons that come down to whether we want to live in a world characterized by war and the threat of mass devastation, or whether we do not.
The Shape of Victory
If that is not the world we want to live in, then we have to ask what victory looks like from a Western perspective. Because this war is being fought in Ukraine and by Ukrainians, only Kyiv can determine the territorial contours of victory, or of a cease-fire that stops short of victory. Even if Western leaders wanted to dictate those terms to Zelenskyy, they could never hope to dictate them to the Ukrainian people.
But if the West wants to avoid the emergence of a world of permanent peril, it will need to focus on something more than Ukraine’s victory. A Ukrainian victory will need to become symbolic of the ability and willingness of great powers to prevent one another from bullying smaller powers.
That means, at the very least, three things. First, the price Russia pays for this war must be sufficient to deter any other power from trying anything similar. That will almost inevitably have to be a price much higher than the one currently being imposed, and will thus come at a much higher cost to the West, as well.
Second, the end of this war must eventually — and sooner, rather than later — give rise to a renewed commitment to multilateralism, empowering the UN to ensure that the US, too, is deterred from adventurism. (For what it’s worth, a system that can be trusted to bind Washington is also one that can be trusted to bind Moscow and Beijing.)
And third, the war must end quickly. If Ukrainians are allowed to suffer for years, or if their diminished sovereignty and territory persist for generations, the first two pillars of victory will crumble.
If Western leaders want to fight for a future that has less war, they will need to be clear about what victory really means. Yes, it must mean that Russia loses. But it must also mean that the world as a whole wins. And above all, it means making sure that Ukraine wins, and that Ukraine wins quickly and convincingly. Anything short of that will be no victory at all.
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