Why the West should support Ukraine but not appropriate the war
In discussions about war and peace in Europe the charged word ‘appeasement’ is never far away. The debate on Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine is no exception. The use of the term is obviously meant to conjure up the image of British Prime Minister Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938 and brandishing a document signed by Hitler that promised ‘peace for our time’. Having been allowed to annex parts of Czechoslovakia, Germany would violate the agreement within a year by invading Poland. The anti-appeasers’ message is clear: never make concessions to tyrants’ demands because they are not to be trusted.
Today, much of the conversation revolves around the idea to provide Russia with off-ramps in order to encourage Moscow to settle for a cease-fire and subsequent peace talks. The American historian Anne Applebaum has argued against this approach. She rejects the apparent assumptions of the off-ramp school of thought by claiming that Russia still aims for total victory, that Russian promises made during negotiations would anyhow count for nothing and that no Ukrainian leadership is in a position to swap territory for peace. Rather, she believes, the West’s aim should be the defeat of Russia which, remarkably, could ‘force the reckoning that should have happened in the 1990s’. Or take the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Stephen Blank who reasons along the same lines and chastises the likes of Henry Kissinger and the leaders of France, Italy and Germany for suggesting avenues that might involve territorial compromise. He, too, believes Russia’s goal is to destroy Ukraine and concludes the only meaningful objective should be Russia’s total defeat.
The off-ramp discussion is still premature
These and similar arguments raise various questions. Firstly, right now the West is not exactly in a position to propose off-ramps to anyone. It is rather battlefield dynamics that will determine the emergence of alternatives for either combatant party. The state of play in the artillery war in the east doesn’t seem to suggest Ukraine and Russia are yet at their wits’ end as both sides are still committed to territorial gains. Ukraine’s forces are still hanging in while the slow but incremental advances made by Russian forces in the Donbas region will delay the point at which the Kremlin may decide enough has been accomplished to justify a victory of sorts and the time for talks has arrived. As the saying goes, Russia is never as strong, nor as weak, as she looks.
Secondly, if the Russian leadership, who indeed prior to the war consistently denied being poised to invade Ukraine, is never to be believed, why should its alleged aim to destroy the entire country be taken for granted? And if that was the original idea, then why didn’t Russian armed forces employ the entirety of their available arsenal? Russia’s fuzzy end goals seem to have been modified on various occasions, are probably still undefined and will be influenced more by developments on the ground than by Tsar Peter the Great’s historical example. Recently, Foreign Minister Lavrov told French journalists that Russia’s focus is on the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions and that elsewhere it is up to the populations to decide whose side they’re on. Given ongoing russification preparations and relentless propaganda campaigns in the southern Kherson region that statement may be classified as another deception but Russia’s underwhelming military performance may lead to more changes of course by default.
Russia’s underwhelming military performance may lead to more changes of course
Thirdly, how to define Russia’s defeat and at what cost should this be delivered? To all intents and purposes, Russia has already lost because it seems highly likely that, in one form or another, a sovereign Ukraine will persist. But if the defeat argument is amplified to cover Russia’s own sovereignty or territorial integrity, then at least its nuclear doctrine ought to be considered. Russia’s most recent document outlining nuclear deterrence policies reiterates that nuclear weapons may be used when ‘the very existence of the state is in jeopardy’. Blank nor Applebaum elaborates on these questions. The latter’s suggestion that defeat could be military or economic and might involve ‘some type of NATO membership for Ukraine’ anyway doesn’t offer much guidance.
U.S. President Biden has recently specified his country’s involvement in Ukraine. He announced the delivery of advanced rocket systems and munitions that will help Ukraine defend itself, but added that shooting at targets on Russian soil should be avoided. Contradicting earlier remarks, Biden also stated that the U.S. does not seek President Putin’s ouster[i]. As long as the West assumes the critical role of weapons and intelligence supplier but does not engage directly in combat, it is rather gratuitous to call for a Russian defeat to be inflicted by Ukrainian soldiers. These troops have mounted a heroic defense, but cannot be expected to be able to push Russian forces all the way back to a status quo ante bellum, let alone to recapture areas that have been under separatist or Russian control since 2014 or to move beyond.
‘Russia as never as strong, nor as weak, as she looks’
So the West should not engage in geopolitical appropriation on Ukraine’s behalf. Nor should it frame this battle as an overture to a global, but abstract, struggle between democracies and autocracies. In such a scenario defeating the autocrat would be the West’s sole option, but that rigid dichotomy is not applicable. Instead, it should regard this war as the specific territorial conflict it is, in which Ukraine is fighting for its sovereignty. This war also exposes Russia’s many weaknesses that put a curb on the grander imperialist ambitions the total defeat advocates attribute to its leadership.
Russia not winning this war will amount to its defeat, and a concurring sense of humiliation should be self-motivated rather than externally imposed. In order to get there, the West should do its utmost to ensure a sovereign and viable Ukrainian state indeed persists. To that end it should preserve its unity, continue to extend material support to Ukraine to succeed in this war, punish Russia economically and prepare for a post-conflict role with an eye to Ukraine’s rehabilitation and security guarantees, including diplomatic engagement with Russia. Because if history is a guide, then it appears inclusive peace arrangements stand a better chance than exclusive deals. As unpalatable as it may be, it pays off to involve the trespasser in hammering out provisions that can stand the test of time. To what extent Russia will qualify for any responsible post-war capacity is very much at its own discretion.
The West should not engage in geopolitical appropriation on Ukraine’s behalf
Ukraine does the fighting, but the West’s supplementary tasks are daunting enough as to convince policy makers not to succumb to what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, or to go beyond their remit by formulating grandiose designs that may complicate matters even further.