Steelmanning Support for Ukraine
Why providing American military aid and not pushing for peace might make sense
In the run-up to war, I angered a lot of people by saying that Ukraine should surrender. I was of course wrong, like everyone else was, in overestimating the competence and capabilities of the Russian military. But from the perspective of the interests of Ukraine itself and taking a purely materialist view, I don’t think there is any doubt that the country would have been better off surrendering a good chunk of territory and pledging not to join NATO in order to avoid a war.
Consider that Ukraine officially had a population of 44 million as of 2020. If you excluded Crimea and parts of the Donbas that were occupied, and took into account recent migration, it was probably closer to 37 million. According to the UN, 7.8 million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded across Europe since the start of the war, and 7.7 million have been internally displaced. I don’t know how much double counting there is in these numbers, but we can say that something like 25%-40% of the population has been forced to leave their homes. The economy is now expected to shrink by about 45% in 2022, which seems way too low given how many people have left, but this is all pretty much guesswork. The coldest months of winter haven’t yet arrived, and Russia in recent months has been having success in taking out Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, meaning that the worst is probably yet to come. Even if the war ended today, Ukraine would still face a long and uncertain path towards matching the same living standard it had in 2021. That’s putting aside all the dead and injured, which is estimated to be at least 100,000, not counting civilians.
Some have argued that Ukraine was fighting for the principle of self-determination, but that principle is violated all the time and nobody ever argues that aggressors should always be resisted no matter the consequences. The US invading Iraq may have been a crime under international law, but was it a good idea for Iraqis to resist? Definitely not. Sure, being occupied by the US is certainly better than being occupied by Russia, but either is preferable to having the US or Russia tear your country apart in frustration because it can’t achieve its aims.
That being said, in part due to my discussions with Chris Nicholson, I think there is a steelman case for the US supporting Ukraine, which I define as providing it at least enough to weaponry to maintain the current war effort and make advances and not pushing Kiev too hard to reach a settlement in the near future. It has nothing to do with the well-being of Ukraine itself. That nation has been destroyed, and as already mentioned, it’s impossible to imagine a situation in which it wouldn’t have been better off just letting Putin dictate the terms of its surrender. That being said, one could respectably make the case that supporting Ukraine has been a benefit to humanity.
A Simple Rule to Live By
International relations theorists have noted the development of the “territorial integrity norm” since the end of the Second World War. As I noted in an academic paper written back while I was in law school,
Between 1648 and 1945, ninety-three out of 119 armed conflicts could be classified as “territorial wars,” defined as wars “concerned with . . . issues that clearly involve state control over territory.” Eighty percent of territorial conflicts resulted in a redistribution of territory. But for the time period from 1945 to 2000, there were forty territorial wars, and less than thirty percent led to a change in international borders. Even the few post-World War II cases of territorial aggrandizement through war were concentrated during the period of decolonization. Since 1976, no country has successfully used force to take territory from another state. Perhaps even more impressively, no country has disappeared as a result of conquest since 1945. The normal international reaction to classic invasions explains why.
For most of human history, countries wanted land, and they would take it from others. The story of the post-1945 world is that this has largely stopped, in part because the United Nations made current borders sacred. Wars still happen, but invaders very rarely annex territory they conquer, and when they do almost nobody recognizes their gains. Saddam Hussein, for example, permanently became an international pariah after he invaded Kuwait. The strength of this norm can be seen in the fact that even after the US accepted Israeli claims over the Golan Heights in 2019, no other nation followed its lead. It doesn’t matter if current borders are to a large extent arbitrary – what’s important is that we just stick to the ones we’ve got. That might be tough for groups that want self-determination like the Kurds, or Russians living in Eastern Ukraine, but any other rule would mean endless conflict. Steve Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Internationalists by Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro (yes, the Twitter troll) are the two best books I’ve read on the decline of violence and the importance of territorial integrity.
In contrast, “don’t interfere in the sovereign affairs of another country” is not a rule to organize international life around. Trying to do so only leads to endless accusations of hypocrisy and “whataboutism” debates. Yes, there should be some respect given to the principle of sovereignty, but it’s always going to be constantly negotiated. “Respect sovereignty” is a norm in international politics like “don’t be rude” is a norm in social life. The idea that you shouldn’t invade other countries, in contrast, is more like “don’t punch people in the face.” It’s clear what a violation looks like, and social peace depends on society treating such behavior harshly.
Thus, the US and Russia might have been moral approximates before 2014. Neither respected the sovereignty of Ukraine and both were interfering in the affairs of another nation. But when Russia invaded, it crossed a line and needed to be punished. The 2022 invasion is the result of a lack of resolve in 2014. While Ukraine would’ve been better off surrendering in February of this year, the world ends up better off by making sure that territorial conquest does not pay off.
Of course, the “whataboutist” response here is to point to Iraq and Libya. There are two answers to this. First of all, no matter how ill-advised those wars were, the US at least did not try to annex either country. Second, this doesn’t have much to do with whether Russia needs to suffer consequences for invading Ukraine. A world where the US can overthrow other countries and get away with it is not ideal, but it’s better than a world where both the US and Russia can do so. One can oppose Washington engaging in regime change and at the same time want it to take the lead in punishing international aggression. The US may always be open to charges of hypocrisy, but moral pleading has less of a place in geopolitics than anywhere else.
What about the Risk of Nuclear War?
A more immediate problem than the breakdown of the territorial integrity norm is the need to avoid nuclear war. I’ve become less worried about this possibility as time has gone on, given Russian willingness to lose territory and respond quite passively. The US and its allies have what IR scholars call “escalation dominance,” which in this context means that they are better positioned to increase pressure on Russia as they see fit with less of a cost to themselves. In thinking about the relative sizes of nuclear arsenals, Matt Kroenig asks us to imagine a large car and a small car playing a game of chicken. Either one would be better off swerving, but we would naturally expect the small car to get out of the way first. Moreover, each side knows that the other side knows the probable outcome, which turns the already-likely result into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before the war, one might’ve thought that Russia and the US might be somewhat evenly matched in a standoff over the future of Ukraine. Yet a series of things have happened that show that the gap in capabilities between the two sides is tilted in favor of the US to a larger extent than anyone expected it to be. Relative to pre-war expectations:
Ukraine has shown itself more capable of resistance.
The Russian military has been shown to be much weaker.
The US and Europe have been more robust and united in their response to the invasion than anyone expected.
China has provided a lot less support to Russia than many thought it would.
The world seems more united than anyone expected in upholding the nuclear taboo.
If things had gone differently, the situation would be much more dangerous. Imagine if Europe was divided, China recognized Russian annexations and refused to go along with sanctions, most of the world shrugged off Putin’s nuclear threats, and the Russians actually were able to hold major urban areas across Ukraine. None of that happened, which means Russia is much weaker than anyone thought it would be after an invasion, and clearly in a position of inferiority relative to the West that will make it hesitant to escalate.
The US has not yet provided tanks, fighter jets, or missiles that can hit Russia, despite the Ukrainians asking for them. The Biden administration is being careful to not cross certain red lines, and behaving in a responsible way by giving Ukraine enough to defend itself and upholding the territorial integrity norm but not taking the fight to Russian territory. The next administration would perhaps act differently, but the position of the Democratic establishment at least appears to be a responsible one.
Why Not Give Putin Crimea?
The case for making concessions goes something like this: Ukraine does not have the capability to dislodge Russia from Crimea, and Putin might use nukes if it did. Therefore, why not work towards some kind of deal in which Russia gets Crimea, maybe some parts of the Donbas, and a pledge that Ukraine will not join NATO?
The non-NATO pledge seems to be the least problematic part of this package, and should’ve been something that the US was willing to grant before the war started. But giving Russia any land that wasn’t recognized as its own before the war, officially and by universal assent, risks creating the most significant breach of the territorial integrity norm since 1945 (again, the norm is about annexation, not just invasion). It matters that after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the act was only recognized by Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, and a few other powerless and low status basket cases. Perhaps we could at the end of the war go back to the status quo ante where Russia had de facto control over the peninsula but its claim wasn’t accepted by anyone who matters. Legal recognition of any formerly Ukrainian territory, however, would mean that not only has a norm been broken, but Russia’s invasion could potentially be seen as a win.
In the end, history remembers leaders for territory gained or lost. We look at maps of the extent of Genghis Khan’s empire rather than tables estimating the number of people he killed or GDP growth under his rule. From the perspective of the well-being of the average Russian, Putin’s war is going to end up being a disaster no matter what. But if it concludes with him expanding the Russian map, it sets a dangerous precedent for future leaders who care less about economic growth and think more in terms of leaving a historical legacy, as Putin does.
From this perspective, you would support Ukraine enough to try to send Russia back to pre-February 24 borders at the very least, and maybe accept a permanently frozen conflict at that point. Let Crimea remain under Russian control if you must, but make sure it’s a sad, poor, and isolated part of the world that stands as a reminder of what happens when you violate the territorial integrity norm. In fact, that’s what Russia itself should be as long as it doesn’t renounce its claims on Ukrainian territory. Crimea becoming recognized as part of Russia and then experiencing an economic boom as it turned into a popular tourist destination for wealthy travelers from across Europe and the Middle East would send a very bad signal.
It’s funny that early in the conflict there were all these stories about opera houses and other institutions “cancelling” Russian culture, and many smart people stood up to denounce this as a stupid thing. But one could argue that it was a low-cost way to enforce international norms. Given the extent to which international politics involves struggles over status, why wouldn’t we expect populations to be less likely to support aggressive wars if it will reduce their moral and cultural standing in the eyes of the rest of the world? Maybe we should do more mindless cancellations and fewer economic sanctions.
Do I Believe All This?
I’m not fully convinced by this argument. One reservation about the case made above is that this war is going to end up looking like a disaster for Russia no matter what. Recognizing Crimea as part of Russia would violate the territorial integrity norm, but it would also be seen as a face-saving gesture granted to a dictator who had permanently damaged his country. The Ukrainian resistance has shown that even modern people who’ve largely given up on reproduction can take up arms against an invader, which certainly surprised me. The most important upholder of the territorial integrity norm in the modern era is not the American empire but human nature – people are much more willing to fight and die to resist an occupier than to conquer their neighbors. The relative performances of Ukrainian and Russian forces and the state of public opinion in each country serve as the best testaments to that. Future leaders considering trying to conquer territory are sure to take note.
More importantly, Putin seems unable to escalate further or mobilize Russian society in part because the nation is not under direct threat. If there was the possibility of Ukraine taking back Crimea or if it started firing missiles at Russian cities, he might have more options. Thus, the US cannot be blasé about the possibility of escalation; at some point, if support for Ukraine continues and everything goes according to plan, it will lead to the Russian government facing tougher choices. Finally, I’ve said that the Biden administration has been relatively sane so far, but there’s no guarantee that the next administration won’t be less trustworthy, which would argue for making a deal now. After all, this is a country that not that long ago had John McCain as the presidential candidate for one of its two major parties (with Palin as his running mate!).
In the end, what position one takes on Ukraine, and the idea of the US as the enforcer of international norms more generally, depends in part on what theory you have about why the post-1945 world has been so peaceful. Is it a matter of Pax Americana maintaining order? Or have there been larger cultural, political, and economic changes on a global scale that make war less likely? No one knows for sure. Last year, I interviewed John Mueller about his book The Stupidity of War, in which he takes an absolutist position that after 1945 everyone just decided it was dumb to fight and that was it. I tried to press him on this, arguing that maybe the Flynn Effect had something to do with this, but he seemed adamant that he thought it was simply a matter of good ideas triumphing over bad ones. This is unsatisfying as an explanation from a scientific perspective, and also has disturbing implications, since we could just as easily wake up one day and decide war is good again.
Note that the steelman case for the US position has nothing to do with the popular idea that we should “stand with Ukraine” for its own benefit. Rather, Ukraine is sacrificed for the greater good. Of course, the main problem with this position is that it leaves Ukraine, Russia, and the global economy all much worse off for the foreseeable future. One has to be fine with accepting sure losses for a theoretical concern about how violations of international norms change geopolitics. That being said, I think that the territorial integrity norm has been so important that the idea that such sacrifices are worth making cannot be dismissed out of hand.
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