If you’ve spent any time on social media in the past few months, or tuned into a number of popular alternative information sources of the right and left, you’ve come across people arguing that we – Canada, the United States, NATO, the West – should not be involved in the war in Ukraine. Their arguments tend to fall into two broad categories. Let us examine them.
The first type of argument is a moral claim: That responsibility for the war lies not with the Kremlin, but rather with Ukraine and NATO. Russia in this view is blameless, or at least less blameworthy than Kyiv and the governments of the West, especially the Biden administration.
As such, the West should not be sanctioning Russia or arming Ukraine, because in doing so we are not only prolonging the war, we’re backing the bad guys. We’re in the wrong, and so is Kyiv.
Such claims are not easy to square with the facts. In the run-up to his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine – the second in eight years – Vladimir Putin penned a long essay on why he believes Ukraine is, and must remain, part of the “Russian world.” His claim is not based on human rights, democracy or self-determination, but rather their opposite: because Ukraine had been part of the Russian Empire, and was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, it is not a real country and its people should have no choice but to remain within the Russian sphere; and because Stalin and Khrushchev changed Ukraine’s Soviet borders, the Kremlin should be free to redraw Ukraine’s borders today, with or without its consent.
The idea that Ukraine caused the war doesn’t withstand scrutiny. One UN-member state invaded another UN-member state, for the second time in eight years, and – also for the second time – annexed territory. The country doing the invading is Russia; the country subjected to annexation is Ukraine.
The only way in which Ukraine “provoked” Russia was by existing. Under international law, this is an open and shut case.
Which brings us to the second argument against Western support for Ukraine. It’s not an argument about who is at fault, but instead one of practicality and realpolitik. It doesn’t necessarily claim that Ukraine is in the wrong, but rather that supporting Ukraine brings no benefit to the West, and risks triggering World War Three. Russia may be in the wrong, goes this view, and Russia may even be breaking international law and committing war crimes. But given that Mr. Putin has nuclear weapons, and has hinted at using them, it would be prudent to not get involved.
This is at least a more challenging argument. The world, after all, is filled with international and intra-national disputes where Canada and our NATO allies have a foreign policy involving some degree of disinterest: we send no weapons, we levy no sanctions. We can’t fix all the world’s problems, so we pick our battles.
Why pick Ukraine?
There are several reasons. Mr. Putin’s attempt to redraw international borders is unprecedented. He’s doing it in the heart of Europe. And his arguments for invading and carving up Ukraine apply to any country that was formerly part of the Soviet Union or the Soviet sphere in Europe. The Baltic states, Poland and others feel threatened, and history plus Mr. Putin’s own statements provide them with ample reason.
This is also, remember, Mr. Putin’s second go at making a meal out of Ukraine.
After his first helping – Crimea plus Donbas – the West took a realpolitik approach. We imposed mild sanctions, but also encouraged both sides to reach an agreement that left de jure Ukrainian territory in de facto Russian hands. That did not mollify Mr. Putin. It rather seems to have convinced him that the door was open to further indulge his appetite. It’s not difficult to believe that a stronger Western response in 2014 might have made him more reluctant to pursue a sequel in 2022.
The threat of a wider war, including the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, is real. It’s why Western armies aren’t in combat with Russia; it’s why Ukraine isn’t in NATO; it’s why the lines of communication with Moscow have to be kept open.
But it’s difficult to argue that the West’s wisest response to Mr. Putin’s threats is to simply walk away.