I am writing this mostly to get some things off my chest, and also for the sake of posterity. Perhaps some others will also find my thoughts of interest.
Eight years ago when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time in their occupation of the Crimea, I was dismayed at the lack of Western response. I was sure that such timid reactions would encourage further aggression. Now it seems we are seeing such policies come home to roost. In my view, the West has neglected its moral duty in refusing to come to the assistance of the people of Ukraine. More should have been done in the leadup to deter Russian aggression, and more should have been done at the time of the invasion and afterwards to help defeat it. I think it is totally unsatisfactory for a large country to simply invade a smaller neighbour in an aggressive war and not have any other country lift a finger to provide meaningful military assistance. Sanctions will hurt Russia in the long run, but they won’t help Ukraine, and it is unclear whether they will even help to undermine Putin’s popularity, since the resulting economic problems are likely to be blamed on the West.
Foreign Military Interventions
First I want to discuss the general issue of foreign military interventions. These have gotten a bad name in the West in the past decade or so, largely a result it seems of the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are those across the political spectrum who oppose all foreign military interventions as a matter of principle, whether it be on the basis of humanitarian, ‘America-first’, or anti-imperialist reasons. We have seen this reluctance manifested in the refusal of America and other Western nations to commit significant forces to defend Syria against its homicidal dictator, to keep order in Libya following the overthrow of their homicidal dictator, and the willingness to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. As such, I am somewhat in the minority in my view that foreign military interventions can be and have often been highly effective, and should continue to be a major foreign policy instrument of Western states, especially the US. (Note that I am talking about public military interventions, not secret CIA plots or backdoor deals to elicit regime change). Ideally such interventions should be undertaken with a UN mandate, but for many reasons this is often not possible, and so I do not regard it as an essential pre-requisite.
Why do I say foreign military interventions can be highly effective? Primarily on the basis of historical experience, augmented by some theoretical considerations. The theory is fairly straightforward. The US and its allies hold the preponderance of military power on the planet, and as such they are often in the position to use that power to achieve particular ends. Military power is often necessary to restore order in a power vacuum, to prevent the escalation of violence in certain volatile circumstances, to defeat terrorist and other paramilitary groups, and to defend weaker nations against foreign aggressors. In many such cases military force on the ground is essential to bring about the desired goal of peace, freedom, and stability in the long term. We have seen many effective examples of foreign military interventions in the past 80 years or so. In addition to a large number of UN-backed peacekeeping missions, there is also the US invasions of France, Germany, Italy, and Japan during the Second World War. For some reason we don’t seem to think of these as invasions or aggression, but that’s exactly what they were. Of course they were fought for a good cause to defend the rights and freedoms of other peoples, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t foreign military interventions. To this I would add the Korean War, the invasion of Grenada, NATO intervention during the collapse of Yugoslavia, the First Gulf War, and the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Some of these may be controversial, as are others that I do not list here. Nonetheless, I believe there are enough examples from history to show that foreign military interventions can be used to keep the peace, stop genocide, overthrow horrific regimes, and defend countries from aggression.
Arguments Against Intervention
Of course, just because foreign military interventions can be effective doesn’t mean that they always are. There are examples of failures too, not just successes. This leads me to consider the specific arguments given against Western military intervention in Ukraine.
First, it is argued that US intervention would trigger a nuclear war, which is too high a price to pay. I think this is a weak argument, as its unclear how or why this huge escalation is supposed to take place. Nuclear powers have fought before without triggering a nuclear war (India and Pakistan in varying capacities since 1999, and Russia and China in the 1960s). The USA and USSR also indirectly engaged with each other many times during the Cold War without triggering an exchange. There is no logical reason for either side to escalate the conflict to such a degree; in particular, Putin would know that even limited use of nuclear weapons would certainly by the end of his regime one way or the other.
Second, it is argued that ‘its not our war’, or something to this effect. This is the same argument given to defend the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. I don’t really understand this argument. How is it decided whose war is whose? If a country or people are being attacked (by a foreign power, their own government, or an insurgent force) and they ask for assistance which we are in a position to give, why exactly is that ‘nor our war’? If our neighbour’s house is on fire, do we stand by because its ‘not our fire’? Of course, we must exercise caution in determining whether intervening will help or just make things worse, but that is a different line of objection to just noting that foreign military interventions indeed involve foreign peoples and nations.
Third, it is argued that the US cannot fight against Russian forces because this would be the start of World War III. Though Biden himself has made this argument many times, I don’t understand the logic at all. It would seem that this argument would apply to any instance of military engagement between US and Russian forces. So if Russia invaded a NATO state like Lithuania or Poland, would the US argue that it can’t get involved because fighting Russia would be the start of World War III? If the answer is yes, then the US has totally given up on any policy of deterrence and is willing to just let Putin do whatever he wants. If the answer is no, then it shows the argument has nothing to do with the US fighting Russia per se, and is all about which alliance the nation in question is part of. This leads to the final argument.
Four, it is argued that Ukraine is not part of NATO, and so they have no treaty obligation to aid them. This is true legally speaking, but its unclear to me what relevance this has in determining whether they should aid the Ukraine. Just because they aren’t treaty-bound to do so doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t assist. The US didn’t have any treaty obligations to defend South Korea or Kuwait during the wars there. Why exactly are they needed to defend the Ukraine against clear and blatant foreign aggression?
Arguments for Intervention
Having responded to some arguments against intervention, now let me offer some additional reasons for intervention aside from general appeals to protecting the rights and freedoms of the Ukrainian people. In particular, my argument here appeals to the vital importance of effective military deterrence of aggressive states. Deterrence requires that aggressive states rationally believe that if they push too far, they will encounter forceful opposition. The failure of deterrence in the name of avoiding war or foreign involvement typically only fosters war in the long-run, since aggressive regimes see the lack of resolve as an invitation to push further and further.
This is not a purely hypothetical argument, but also a description of what happened in the leadup to World War Two. Aggressive nations like Germany, Italy, and Japan repeatedly engaged in aggressive military actions with little or no effective response from the Western powers. This included invasions of Manchuria, Ethiopia, China, Albania, Austria, and Czechoslovakia during the period of 1933-1939. Britain and France imposed sanctions, denounced the aggression, and invoked the League of Nations, but did not actually do anything to prevent the aggression or defend any of the victims. Even when Poland was invaded, though Britain and France at last declared war, they took very little military action to actually assist Poland in fighting Germany. If Britain and France had acted stronger and sooner, the Second World War could probably have been prevented. It certainly would not have been as long or as bloody as it turned out to be, since the aggressors had a chance to grow in power and boldness and consolidate early gains.
Now fast forward to the 2010s. In the past 15 years we have witnessed Russian military intervention in Georgia, Syria, Crimea, the Donbass region, Kazakhstan, and now a major invasion of Ukraine. At each step, the West did very little to stop Putin. I’m not saying military intervention would have been appropriate in each case, but this history of increasing aggression should by now have increased Western resolve to draw a clear line and commit to some form of military intervention on behalf of Ukraine. This need not have taken the form of a full alliance. Other possibilities included enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or specific conflict zones, a naval blockade of the Black Sea coast, deploying NATO troops as peacekeepers in certain crucial urban areas (including Kiev), or announcing in advance particular ‘red lines’ across which any Russian advance would result in a NATO response. All of these types of strategies have been employed before in different situations. I don’t know if any such possibilities were considered in the current crisis, but clearly the decision was taken to simply not intervene at all. Announcing this in advance as Biden did is especially bizarre in my view, as it totally killed any possible lingering deterrence the US might have had. I cannot fathom what advantage the US could gain from categorically announcing that it would not intervene in Ukraine under any conditions. Of course, as the crisis unfolded there was a desire to avoid escalation, but as I have argued, lack of effective deterrence is itself very likely to escalate the crisis, as indeed seems to have been the case here.
Reflecting on the Future
So what will be the likely course of events now the invasion has begun and the West isn’t going to do anything about it? I expect that the Russians will gradually occupy all of eastern Ukraine, then pursue the remaining Ukrainian military forces across the Dnieper into the west of country. Once they have taken the capital they will probably set up a puppet government, maybe even trotting out former president Viktor Yanukovych for legitimacy (they will argue he was illegally deposed). The southern and eastern parts of the country will be split into more ‘breakaway regions’, which will then have ‘referenda’ in which they ‘vote’ to by annexed by Russia. Of more immediate concern, as the Ukrainian military retreats westerwards, they will come up against the borders of Romania, Hungary, and Poland. If the Russians fail to cut them off beforehand, will these NATO states allow the Ukrainian forces in? Will the Russians pursue them? Will there be skirmishes at the borders that spill over into the neighbouring states? I don’t know what will happen here, but I expect this to be a very difficult aspect of the conflict. Wars, after all, tend to spread.
Longer-term, now that Putin knows he can invade a neutral country in a blatantly aggressive war and mostly get away with it, will it stop here? I doubt it. Putin has other objectives beyond Ukraine. At the minimum I expect him to take the opportunity to gobble up the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria in eastern Moldova. He might even take that whole country while he’s at it. After that, perhaps he will set his sites on Finland, another region that until recently was a part of Russia. If Russia invaded Finland, also not a NATO member, would the West do anything? If so, why not for Ukraine? Then there is the issue of the Baltic states. These have been a thorn in Russia’s side for a while, providing NATO with bases so close to the city of St Petersburg. There is also the precedent this sets for others aggressors, in particular China with their long-held ambitions of the reintegration of Taiwan. I believe the CCCP will be watching the West’s response to Putin (or lack thereof) with great interest. Of course, perhaps this will mark the turning-point, and the West can look beyond its own internal squabbles to take a more active global role in establishing credible deterrence against aggression. On the other hand perhaps we will listen to those who ask, as they once did for Danzig: why die for Ukraine?