Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united Western states and societies in outrage. But after a hundred days of war, some analysts are now striking a different note. They Argue that Western and Ukrainian interests differ and that the West should choose the former. Distrustful of moral fervor, they prevent against getting carried away “in the mood of the moment”. Instead, they argue that a quick end to the war is imperative. They advocate a settlement which they believe will restore stability by satisfying the major powers – and that Ukraine should be under pressure accept that.
This position has the virtue of clarity and honesty. After all, the first duty of governments, including Western ones, is to protect the country. The West has prioritized national interests over moral concerns on several occasions – most recently, abandoning its two-decade commitment to Afghanistan. If increased support for Ukraine poses a serious threat to Western security, then seeking a compromise peace would be rational, if ruthless, policy.
So the real question is not whether the West should take risks for the moral cause of supporting Ukraine. The question is whether supporting Ukraine is in the interest of the West. What are the risks and benefits of doing so?
The main concern of those who want to accommodate Russia rather than increase support for Ukraine is the fear of nuclear war. But almost everyone who has studied this closely deems the risk to be low and deterrent. If Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is motivated by his concern for legacy, he is unlikely to contemplate actions that could lead to the end of Russian history.
Avoiding escalation is never a top priority. If that were the case, the West would not have to try to thwart the ambitions of any nuclear adversary, and would have behaved very differently in the many crises of the Cold War. The risks of escalation must be weighed against the consequences of avoiding it. While the former have been much discussed, the latter have not. What are the implications for Western interests of agreeing a compromise beneficial to Russia and pressuring Ukraine to accept it?
First, it would make Russia stronger. If Russia secures control of all of Donbass, it will likely annex it as it did in Crimea in 2014 and present these gains as irreversible. Control of Ukraine’s southern coast would give Russia a grip on Ukraine and its exportsleaving him well placed to force concessions on other issues, including the lifting of sanctions. Some claim that Russia is already severely weakened by military casualties. But in absolute terms, and compared to Ukraine which also suffered significant losses, Russia remains a formidable regional power. A compromise peace would also ease the unprecedented pressure on Putin’s regime by allowing him to claim victory at home.
Second, it would not satisfy Russia and stabilize the region. There is no indication that Russia has abandoned its goal of subjugating all of Ukraine. Kremlin sources have reiterated this, just like General Vladimir Shamanov, a big beast in military policy who played a brutal role in the two Chechen wars and chaired the State Duma defense committee until last December. He recently declared that the “demilitarization” of Ukraine would take 5 to 10 years under a regime “unsullied by these neo-Nazis”. There is no prospect of a real settlement as long as Putin’s regime remains intact – only a respite before Russia resumes aggression.
Third, Russia would learn the lesson that it can beat the West in a contest of resolve by exploiting the threat of nuclear escalation. Since Putin’s regime now finds itself locked in a war against the West, it will be encouraged to use this threat at other times and in other places. Other states, too, would conclude that the West can no longer respond effectively to gross violations of fundamental norms. It would embolden the West’s adversaries, alarm its allies and erode the international order.
What is the alternative? The accommodating are right to say that a long war carries risks. The way to end it more quickly is not to compromise with Russia but to defeat it. This means, at a minimum, that Russia is no better off in every way, much worse overall, and unable to ever attempt another invasion of Ukraine. This in turn demands that the West step up its military support for Ukraine and its sanctions against Russia, and quickly.
This will confuse more than one. But the West faces an inescapable choice: either a negotiated outcome that strengthens Russia, weakens Ukraine, harms Western security and undermines the rules-based order; or a resourceful commitment to help Ukraine defeat the Russian invasion. The West’s choice of these will depend above all on how it weighs the large and foreseeable costs of the former against the low and theoretical risks of nuclear escalation if it embarks on the latter – a risk that Russia would not initiate rationally, but fears that it stokes assiduously.
The compromise argument is the latest in a series of calls to solve the problem of Russian aggression by imposing constraints on Ukraine. Before the war it was argued that the West should pressure Ukraine to make concessions. When the invasion began, which the West does not send weapons because Ukraine would be defeated quickly. When Ukraine has not been defeated quickly, the West’s priority should be to avoid escalation. We now learn that Ukraine should end the war in to sell more sovereignty.
But if Ukraine had lost the war in the early days and Russia had imposed a puppet regime, the results would have been disastrous for the West. Putin would have restored his reputation as a daring strategist, projecting Russian influence in Europe, renewing domestic support, winning admiration from China and throwing the West into disarray. At great cost, Kyiv avoided a defeat that would have severely undermined Western security and morale. It would be completely wrong to repay this debt by seeking a peace that would seriously weaken Ukraine.
The arguments for helping Ukraine defeat Russia are not only ethical, but utterly selfish. It aligns three core Western goals: responding to a major security threat, punishing a flagrant violation of the rules-based order, and supporting a democratic state against authoritarian aggression. There are none of the Cold War moral ambiguities of supporting friendly but oppressive regimes, nor the more recent agonies of intervening in countries we did not understand. It is hard to imagine a stronger argument for using Western power, far superior to that of Russia in multiple areas.
Self-interest and morality often pull in different directions in international relations. But here they stick together. On the urgent and overriding issue of the time, Ukraine’s interests are also those of the West. We really are all Ukrainians now.