Analysis & Opinions - Just Security

The 'Murky' Morality of Opposition to US Support for Ukraine: A Response

| Oct. 10, 2023

Stephen Walt's recent commentary, "The Morality of Ukraine's War is Very Murky," in Foreign Policy calls into question the received wisdom about the morality of the war in Ukraine. Walt cautions against a black-and-white portrayal of bad Russia versus good Ukraine and argues that intrinsic reasons to support Ukraine — just because it's a democracy, even if imperfect, and just because it's fighting a just, defensive war — compelling though they are, are insufficient to determine the morality of choices regarding this war, including the unqualified Western military support of Ukraine.

Instead, he says decision-makers should assess the prospects of Ukraine's success and consider the costs of producing it, namely human lives. He concludes that 1) Ukraine's chances of prevailing are poor, as evidenced by what he calls the "disappointing (even disastrous)" Ukrainian counteroffensive, and that 2) under these circumstances, continued Western arms shipments to Ukraine would only prolong the unwinnable war and cost more Ukrainian lives. To support his argument, Walt draws parallels with the United States in Afghanistan. For all the blood and treasure poured into the fight over two decades, the United States could not vanquish the Taliban and, in the end, withdrew, but not before more lives, U.S. and Afghan, were lost unnecessarily.

Walt, a regular columnist at Foreign Policy, is a prominent scholar working in a realist tradition of international relations and a colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School. There is no cause to doubt the genuineness of his concern for Ukrainian lives. But his argument about the morality of the war in Ukraine, though more balanced than the "very murky" title suggests, is nevertheless deeply flawed.

Ukraine's Prospects and Their Costs 

In his concern for Ukrainian lives, Walt remains impervious to Ukrainians' own interests and ability to assess their options. True, the total number of losses have not been made public. But anyone driving through the Ukrainian countryside will pass cemeteries brimming with dozens of fresh graves, and anyone walking in a Ukrainian city will encounter dozens of amputees. Civilians live under constant air raid sirens and missile strikes. No one in Ukraine has been untouched by this war, no one is oblivious to its costs. Ukrainians did not choose this war. But it is up to Ukrainians to determine when to end it and how to relate their costs to their stakes....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Budjeryn, Mariana.“The 'Murky' Morality of Opposition to US Support for Ukraine: A Response.” Just Security, October 10, 2023.

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