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Why Giving Arms to Ukraine Is Not Pro-War

Sniper Rifle
A competitor in the United States Army Special Operations Command International Sniper Competition uses a digital range finder on his weapon while engaging long-distance targets at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, March 19, 2019. Twenty-one teams competed in the USASOC International Sniper Competition where instructors from the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School designed a series of events that challenged the two-person teams’ ability to work together, firing range, speed and accuracy in varied types of environments. (U.S. Army photo by K. Kassens)

“Western Support for Ukraine is Not ‘Pro-War’” – Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a small but vocal clutch of Twitter and television personalities have argued that Western support for Ukrainian resistance is ‘pro-war,’ a worsening of the conflict via the provision of aid which prolongs the fighting. This posture might be best described as ‘anti-anti-Putin.’ That is, these voices read Western dislike for Russian President Vladimir Putin since February as overwrought and exaggerated, thereby deepening the war.

To critics, this position is nearly indistinguishable from a pro-Kremlin posture that refuses to admit Putin’s apparent agency in launching the war.

The most prominent voices in the group are Tucker Carlson, the highly-rated Fox News host, and his frequent guest Glenn Greenwald. Others include former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and Substack gadflies Michael Tracey, Michael Brendon Dougherty, and Matt Taibbi. All seem to suggest that the West should cut off aid to Ukraine, on the premise that the war would end sooner.

Some go further. Carlson, Tracey, and Greenwald are arguably pro-Kremlin, having floated conspiracy theories about US biolabs in Ukraine and faked Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian Defeat would End the War Faster, but Not Necessarily the Violence

If ‘peace’ is our only goal in Ukraine, then Western support is indeed bad, because it lengthens the war.

Western support is equipping the Ukrainian army and keeping it in the field. Ukraine has basically fought Russia to a standstill. The war now looks likely to drag on for months, or even years, as Putin tries to consolidate his gains against the inevitable Ukrainian counteroffensive. Without Western assistance, though, Ukraine would likely lose quickly. ‘Peace’ would then follow, per these ‘anti-war’ voices.

If peace is the most desired goal in this conflict, then indeed, Ukraine should surrender immediately and the West could cut off aid to force that outcome. (Curiously, the anti-anti-Putin voices do not much note the opposite: that Putin could surrender or withdraw immediately to end the war.) But of course, peace is not the highest social value for many peoples. Other values – such as sovereignty, democracy, liberalism, national dignity, territorial integrity, and so on – are more critical.

No one opposes peace in the abstract, and no serious voices in the West are encouraging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to reject negotiation with Putin in pursuit of total victory.

Instead, Western support is premised on the desire of the Ukrainian government, repeatedly expressed by its democratically elected head of state, for assistance in defending its sovereignty and freedoms.

By contrast, the anti-anti-Putin logic would blame defenders in an aggressive war for the lack of peace: defenders should give up to end the war as soon as possible and restore. This is both empirically bizarre – what country automatically surrenders on enemy contact? – and morally questionable – should the USSR have surrendered in 1941, or the American Union in 1861?

Finally, it is not even clear if the anti-war camp is correct that ending Western aid would reduce the violence. Victorious Russia might abuse the Ukrainian people even more harshly than it has to date. Defeated Ukrainians would likely launch an insurgency, and those are bloody, long, and harsh on civilians. It is unclear if supporting a Ukrainian victory, which now actually seems attainable, might actually lead to less violence than a quick defeat that morphs into a years-long bloody revolt.

In short, some wars are worth fighting, because there are things worse than war, such as imperial defeat, loss of self-determination, brutal occupation violence, and so on.

Too Focused on US Foreign Policy, Not Enough on Others’ Agency

A common error in American foreign policy analysis is the reduction of complex foreign events to decisions made in Washington. Ironically, even as the anti-anti-Putin apologists lament American ‘imperialism,’ they make the same imperial error of focusing all their attention on the US while ignoring others’ choices.

Most obviously, blame for the war rests with Putin, not with President Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, neoconservatives, and other favorite targets of the anti-imperial left. These actors played a role in the much-hated Iraq War, but that is simply not very germane here. One can agree that Iraq and other US overseas wars since the Cold War were mistaken without broadcasting that onto the Ukraine. We should not ‘Americanize’ this war, ignoring the fare greater agency of Putin and the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian population is doing far more to prolong the war than Biden by fighting vigorously, but it would be outlandish to suggest the Ukrainian people are ‘pro-war.’

Indeed, Biden and Western leaders dragged their feet on equipping Ukraine in the months before the war, precisely as the anti-war group now seeks. Biden also repeatedly sought to engage Putin over Ukraine, as the anti-war voices also sought. But Putin abjured all that for his own reasons. Putin has been quite clear that he sees Ukraine as a fake country and seeks to restore some measure of Russian imperial control in its neighborhood. This has little to do with concerns raised about American imperialism. The war is not about us.


Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a military parade on Victory Day, which marks the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2022. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool.

There Are Outcomes Worse than American Assistance

The US is not blameless. There is a vigorous debate about the wisdom of NATO expansion. Many have argued it could have gone slower or been handled better to accommodate Russia’s grievances. But that does change the core fact that Putin is the primary instigator of this conflict, seeks to dismember democratic Ukraine, and has tolerated (encouraged?) widespread war crimes. Preventing these abuses is more important than an abstract commitment to ‘peace.’ This is intuitive, as widespread American support for helping Ukraine attests. There are more important values than peace alone.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.