Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Morality of Ukraine's War Is Very Murky

| Sep. 22, 2023

The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.

What is the morally preferable course of action in Ukraine? At first glance, it seems obvious. Ukraine is the victim of an illegal war, its territory is occupied, its citizens have suffered mightily at the hands of the invader, and its adversary is an autocratic regime with any number of unsavory qualities. Strategic calculations aside, surely the proper moral course is to back Ukraine to the hilt. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a gathering at the Yalta European Strategy meeting in Kyiv this month: "When we are talking about this war, we are always talking about morality." Not surprisingly, he conveyed the same message when he visited Washington this week.

If only the moral calculus were that simple.

Ever since the war began, those who favor giving Ukraine "whatever it takes" for as long as it takes have sought to portray the war in the usual U.S. fashion: as a straightforward contest between good and evil. In their telling, Russia is solely to blame for the war, and Western policy had absolutely nothing to do with the resulting tragedy. They portray Ukraine as a struggling but plucky democracy that has been brutally attacked by a corrupt, imperialist dictatorship. They see the moral stakes as nearly infinite, because the outcome of the war will supposedly have a far-reaching impact on the future of democracy, the fate of Taiwan, the preservation of a rules-based order, etc. Not surprisingly, they are quick to condemn anyone who challenges this view as a naïve appeaser, a Russian lackey, or someone lacking any sense of moral judgment.

None of these claims should be accepted without qualification. There's no question Russia started the war and deserves to be condemned for it, but the claim that Western policy had nothing to do with it is risible, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently acknowledged. Yes, Ukraine is a democracy, but also one that still contains some unsavory elements, even if Russian President Vladimir Putin's depiction of it as a "Nazi regime" is grossly exaggerated. The suggestion that the outcome of this conflict will have a profound impact around the world is even less convincing: The Korean War ended in a stalemate and negotiated armistice and the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were clear U.S. defeats, but the geopolitical consequences of these failures were mostly local; this is likely to be true in Ukraine, whatever the ultimate outcome. The same is true in reverse, by the way: The West's overwhelming victory in the first Gulf War and Serbia's defeat in the Kosovo War didn't spark an enduring democratic renaissance. Democracy is in trouble in many places—including the United States—but military setbacks abroad are not the main reason, and a decisive Ukrainian victory wouldn't restore the U.S. Republican Party to sanity or make France's Marine Le Pen and Hungary's Viktor Orban abandon their illiberal political programs.

Even so, it's understandable why almost everyone in the West—including me—thinks the moral case favors Ukraine. Whatever Moscow's prewar fears or grievances may have been, Russia did start an illegal preventive war. This fact doesn't make Russia uniquely evil (Operation Iraqi Freedom, anyone?), but Ukraine is still the victim here. Russia has deliberately attacked civilian targets and committed other war crimes on a scale that greatly exceeds Ukraine's own violations of the laws of war (although the U.S. decision to give Kyiv cluster munitions muddies this picture somewhat). It is hard to see a lot of moral virtue in a Russian regime that poisons exiles and rejects key human rights principles, and in which opposition figures fall from high windows or suffer other fatal "accidents" with statistically improbable frequency. These and other features go a long way to explaining why most of us feel genuine sympathy for Ukraine and would like Kyiv to win....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Morality of Ukraine's War Is Very Murky.” Foreign Policy, September 22, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt