Ukraine: To Liberate or Not to Liberate? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Ukraine: To Liberate or Not to Liberate?

In a perceptive essay published in the Winter 1995 issue of Dissent, just war theorist Michael Walzer questioned the morality of nonintervention-as-absolute policy on the part of nations having the wherewithal to prevent gross evil.[1] To intervene or not intervene, Walzer acknowledged, should always be a difficult and disquieting question. The use of force in other nations should always generate hesitation and anxiety. At the same time, what worried Walzer was the tendency of governments and leaders to make decisions regarding intervention based chiefly on their political standing at home rather than the suffering and oppression of men, women, and children who are the direct victims of war. Walzer questioned whether onlooking nations are justified in only “ameliorating” the effects of siege and bombardment, for example, bringing food, temporary shelter, or medical supplies — rather than actually helping to “alter power relations on the ground” and directly interfering with the actual siege and bombardment.

At the time that he penned his essay, Walzer had in mind the U.S. experience in Somalia, the European experience in Bosnia, and the tragedy of unbounded butchery in Rwanda, the wounds of which were quite fresh. When should the world’s agents and powers merely watch and protest? And when should they protest and then intervene?

The backdrop against which Walzer was writing was, of course, very different from that of our day. In our day, a superpower (Russia) has attacked a former Soviet satellite state (Ukraine) out of imperial lust and pretension. It thereby has violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the inviolability of its borders which were affirmed through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by Ukraine, the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia herself. And it continues presently to wage a wholly unjust war against Ukraine, violating all conventions of war in the process. The signatories of the memorandum, it needs emphasizing, were pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.[2]

But 2022 is the not the first time since 1994 that Ukraine’s borders have been breached by the threat of military force. Russia violated the stipulations of the memorandum with its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its waging war via Russian proxy forces in Ukraine’s eastern regions. By one estimate, since 2014 (but before the current war began), more than 13,000 Ukrainian lives have been offered along with roughly two million people being driven from their homes.

Pallets of ammunition bound for Ukraine are secured onto a commercial plane during a security assistance mission at Dover Air Force Base, Del., July 21, 2022 (Air Force Senior Airman Faith Schaefer/Department of Defense)

Pallets of ammunition bound for Ukraine are secured onto a commercial plane during a security assistance mission at Dover Air Force Base, Del., July 21, 2022 (Air Force Senior Airman Faith Schaefer/Department of Defense)

As of June 23, 2022, according the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the war has claimed roughly 4,700 civilian lives, with over 5,800 injured. But this does not include the weeks-long siege of the port city of Mariupol, whose mayor has said that more than 10,000 civilians died, with the possibility that the death toll is as high as 20,000. Russian forces were said to have brought mobile cremation equipment into the city to dispose of the thousands of bodies that had “carpeted” the streets. And, of course, nearly seven million Ukrainians have been displaced as refugees. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, approximately 6,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been taken prisoner, while an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that about 200 soldiers are being killed each day. (This state of affairs does not even include the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens who have been deported to Russia.) With Russian advances in — and from — Eastern Ukraine, this dismal pattern can only be expected to continue.

In examining “the politics of rescue,” Michael Walzer acknowledged that the Cold War provided “appropriate moral and political terms” guiding governments when and where they must “act effectively abroad.” In the aftermath of the Cold War, nothing equivalent has been in place. In 2022, we find ourselves confronted with the reality of a new Cold War (or, the reemergence of an old one) and the need to make moral and political judgments in light of not only terrorism but political aggression, barbarism, and tyranny. Three decades after the supposed Cold War’s end, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are deepening their ties against the U.S. and its allies, with numerous Middle Eastern countries plagued with conflict and jihadist violence in Africa seemingly unabated.[3] In our day, it is a sad truth that the only war Western nations — affluent, comfortable, and morally dull — are willing to wage is a sheltered conflict — one that is absent a clear will to win. China, of course, is watching closely, and taking notes. Taiwan will be the West’s next major geopolitical crisis.

The presumption against coercive intervention must always be strong, as Walzer has reminded us, and there are important reasons for that presumption. We should be guided by an abiding opposition to imperial politics, willing to tolerate other imperfect and less democratic forms of governing. And yet, as Walzer cautions, nonintervention is not an absolute moral rule, even when by nature intervention is complex, messy, and susceptible to unjust intentions. Sometimes what is going on in other lands and among other people-groups should not be tolerated by the community of nations. Even when intervening can be wrongly (or inadequately) justified, humanitarian and military intervention — and the two almost always must go hand in hand — may be morally necessary “whenever cruelty and suffering are extreme.” The aim of intervention, alas, is “profoundly negative” in character. That is, nations and governments can do things to their own people or to other people-groups that quite simply are inhumane and must not be tolerated. Thus, human beings and governments, on occasion, are required — because of human dignity — to put a stop to actions and events that shock the conscience of humankind. The agent of last resort, alas, is “anyone [or any coalition of nations] near enough and strong enough to stop what needs stopping.” This includes — even when Western nations greatly fear a war’s escalation — inhibiting totalitarian regimes that have nuclear capability.

There are some who argue that Western nations have no political or “legal” obligation to participate in the fight against Russian forces in Ukraine. Legality aside, whether Western nations have a moral obligation to offer military aid to Ukraine is a different matter. Why, we may ask, should the United States care so much about Ukraine, a country 5,000 miles away? One important reason is that U.S. officials told the Ukrainians in 1994 that the United States would care when they helped negotiate the Budapest Memorandum on security assurances. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the meantime, has decided that Ukraine actually does not have the right to exist as a state any longer; he has decided to exert military force to bring the country back under Russian rule.[4] We in the West forget Putin’s promise that if Ukraine were to enter NATO, there would be no more Ukraine.[5] (READ MORE: Will Ukraine Survive Putin?)

Putin’s goal is to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure, disorient or dispel its 44 million citizens, and wage war on the West. As of this writing, Russian controls roughly 20 percent of Ukrainian territory, with Russian “re-education” and granting of Russian passports already underway in regions of Ukraine that have fallen.[6] No one believes that this massive injustice will be confined to Eastern Ukraine. For years, Putin has talked openly of expansion, and more recently he acknowledged Ukraine to be the first step. And indeed, in recent weeks, one Russian general announced his nation’s intent to occupy the Transnistria region of Moldova, which borders both Ukraine and Romania.[7]

Putin, we need reminding, is committed to undoing 1991. He is committed to ending the international system that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hence, the war in Ukraine was inevitable, for it represents a war against the West. Moreover, the embarrassment of Ukraine’s early resistance in the war has but one effect: namely, to increase the conflict and strengthen Putin’s resolve; there can be no negotiation. As supreme evidence thereof, several missile strikes were launched on Kyiv from Russian aircraft over the Caspian Sea on early Sunday, June 26, coming on the opening day of the G-7 summit in south Germany. Russian tactics will continue to be unrelenting and barbaric, even when particular “pauses” appear to characterize the overall conflict.[8] The question is whether the West has the will to respond to such atrocity.

Western nations — with the U.S. in the lead — are hereby being confronted with a moral reality: Should an entire nation that has been promised assurances of its “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” be denied the right to decide its future? And should that denial, which during the war thus far has been accompanied by all manner of war crimes, matter to us? Indeed, it should matter — to us and to everyone, and shame on those nations that cannot sympathize with Ukraine’s plight. President Zelensky has accurately framed the issue confronting us at present: we are at the moment when the world must decide whether brute force will triumph. The war is important, for it mirrors the values of democratic self-government over against totalitarian rule. The stakes, then, are high.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine evolves, Europe’s leaders give evidence of being divided on the stakes at hand. While France, Germany, Austria, and Italy in relative terms downplay Russia’s threat to NATO and wrestle with the economic effects of the war, former Eastern bloc nations such as Poland and the Baltic states, having suffered historically and more recently from Russian imperialist expansion, see Ukraine as a harbinger of future developments by Moscow.[9] From their perspective, Ukraine is the “front line” in a wider war against the West.[10] And they should know; after all, they have suffered egregiously in recent history as a result of Soviet–Russian imperialism. Eastern European states well recognize, unlike the West, that a world without war is but mere fantasy. Ukraine is simply the latest reminder.

Army soldiers assigned to the 101st Airborne Division arrive in Mihail Kogalniceanu, Romania, Jun. 28, 2022, with the goal of deterring further Russian aggression. (Army Capt. Angelo Mejia/Department of Defense)

Army soldiers assigned to the 101st Airborne Division arrive in Mihail Kogalniceanu, Romania, June 28, 2022, with the goal of deterring further Russian aggression (Army Capt. Angelo Mejia/Department of Defense)

Several European leaders have floated the idea of giving Putin an “off-ramp” for the purpose of de-escalation. Correlatively, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has publicly and unwisely stated that Russia should not be “humiliated.” Italy’s prime minister — in recent days forced to resign — and former prime minister have suggested autonomy for Crimea and Donbas, while former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has suggested something similar. Responding to such suggestions that Ukraine should cede territory in exchange for peace, Zelensky compared these to attempts to appease Nazi Germany in 1938. He does not overstate the matter.[11] And recently addressing the Ukrainian Parliament, Polish President Andrzej Duda stated that only Ukraine should decide any terms of peace with Moscow, while at the same time calling for a complete removal of Russian troops. If our aim is to save Ukrainian lives and honor Ukraine’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity,” then Western nations must arm Ukraine with every weapon needed to undermine Russian forces and prevent brute force from prevailing. If we learned anything from the Cold War, it taught us that we must oppose socio-political evil, fighting for the most basic of human freedoms. Those challenges confront us more than ever today, given the imperialist pretensions of Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and beyond, and given the West’s tragic commitment to appeasement since the Cold War’s assumed end.

On May 15 NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “Ukraine can win this war” — Stoltenberg’s strongest statement since the war’s commencement. In order for such a scenario to be realized, however, much must happen in the meantime. At issue is not Ukraine’s resolve; that much has been demonstrated over the last five months. Rather, what is needed is the West’s resolve to assist Ukraine by any and all means necessary. This must occur in terms of the addition of strategic weaponry (for example, long-range, multiple-launch rocket systems and air-defense systems,[12] drones,[13] and armored vehicles), replenishment of ammunition, intelligence, and training — not to mention Ukraine’s immediate and ongoing need to repair its railways, roads, and bridges faster than Russia can destroy them. And it must occur against the backdrop of Moscow’s persistent nuclear saber-rattling.[14] Up to now, the U.S. and NATO members have erred on the side of caution. We may be helping Ukraine to survive, but can we help her win? Time is not on Ukraine’s side, and the war is taking a toll on Europe, with two prime ministers stepping down in recent days and significant economic hardship on the way.

Biden’s reasons for hesitating to involve the U.S. in the war are ill-founded at best and unprincipled at worst. Chief among these is the fear of the war’s escalation. A moral response to this fear is twofold: (1) fear of doing the right thing — i.e., protecting the innocent and defenseless — demonstrates a lack of concern for our fellow man; (2) correlatively, that fear only emboldens dictators to escalate further. If the U.S. and its Western allies are too frightened to intervene, Putin can continue his barbaric provocation.

Ukraine’s resolve notwithstanding, Putin’s war is bound to get uglier. Given Russia’s advances in the eastern region of Ukraine, how much longer Ukraine can hold back Russian aggression depends on the immediate delivery of strategic military hardware — especially the Military Auxiliary Radio System, as Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has made quite clear. Putin’s grip on power and his future depend on the war’s outcome. The Russian dictator has crossed the Rubicon; there is no turning back. In the mold of dictators past and present, he will double down in terms of repression and brutality. We only delude ourselves in the West to think otherwise.

Speaking in Tokyo in late May at a meeting of Indo-Pacific region leaders, Biden said that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily if China attempted to take it by force. Asked if, after declining to send troops to Ukraine (aside from special forces authorized to protect the U.S. Embassy), the U.S. would involve itself directly in Taiwan, the president responded, yes we would. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, we agreed to provide Taiwan with a means of military defense, although the act was silent with regard to the U.S.’s direct role. Here we might ask if the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which was signed by the U.S., does not also commit us to safeguard Ukrainian freedom in much the same way that the Taiwan Relations Act does. Why would one agreement be binding — a moral obligation, if you will — and the other not?

Responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by the U.S. and Great Britain, the two significant signatories to the Budapest Memorandum, have often been ambivalent. Both nations have ruled out direct intervention, out of fear of war with Russia. The result of this ambivalence is twofold: it has the effect of emboldening Putin and it means that Ukraine is left to its own to fight a nuclear-equipped aggressor. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is a wake-up call to the West. This is a war that Ukraine did not choose. Bereft of allies since 1994, Ukraine became an easy target of Moscow, as the last decade has made abundantly clear. Clearly, Ukrainians have every right to feel betrayed, given the assurances of the Budapest Memorandum. The inability of this pact to deter one of four security guarantors from military aggression is catastrophic. Given this grotesque violation, it behooves the U.S to keep its word, both providing direct military assistance to Ukraine and urging its European partners to do the same.

A June 14 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal accurately depicted a familiar U.S. pattern — what the author called “midway measures” in which the U.S. initiates an involvement in a conflict but fails to commit itself to the goal of winning that conflict. Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam, of course, come to mind. What the U.S. lacks is the moral will to follow through on its commitments and ensure the defeat of the totalitarian threat. The lesson for America’s adversaries is quite clear: persist long enough and the U.S. will not take the costly but necessary steps to win. As Sergey Karaganov, the aforementioned adviser to Putin, has stated, “I … know from the history of American nuclear strategy that the U.S. is unlikely to defend Europe with nuclear weapons.”

No one wants the U.S to be the world’s policeman. And geopolitical reality confirms that no one — not even the United States — can undertake such a role. In economic terms, a “division of labor” is necessary. The prudent use of American power and influence in the context of international crises will often be to press other nations to do their share of the work. Nevertheless, because “to whom much has been given much will be required,” the U.S. will not infrequently need to take the initiative. And on occasion, hopefully the rare occasion, “we should help pay for and even add soldiers to an intervention initiated by somebody else.” Why? For the simple reason that in many cases, nothing at all will be done unless we are prepared to play a leading role, whether that is political, financial, or military.

To intervene or not to intervene? Walzer is right: this should always be a hard question and we need not fully abandon a presumption against intervention. Nevertheless, the moral position is to honor the exceptions to non-intervention — i.e., in those cases in which evil must be stopped and where tyranny rages. Walzer writes: “The vast numbers of murdered people; the men, women, and children dying of disease and famine willfully caused or easily preventable; the masses of desperate refugees — none of these are served by reciting high-minded principles.” Indeed, the massacre and rape of a civilian population are acts of barbarism that invite us — no, require us — to override the presumption against direct, coercive intervention in other nations. “High-minded principles” in public speeches indeed are not enough. As it presently applies to the war in Ukraine, what is abundantly clear is that if we withhold from this besieged nation what it urgently needs, Ukraine will be no more. People are perishing as we hesitate.

It is true that the norm is not to intervene in other countries. And it is true, at least arguably so, that the U.S. does not have a good record more recently in this regard. Moreover, it is true that, among Western nations, governments tend toward non-intervention in our day, for better or worse. But for the sake of those who truly are victims of oppressive tyranny, imperialist zeal, and unspeakable horror and bloodshed, those who urgently need outside help, the burden lies on the shoulders of those nations which have the wherewithal to provide that help. Recall Walzer’s words: the agent of last resort is “anyone near enough and strong enough to stop what needs stopping.” Moreover, “all states have an interest in global stability and even in global humanity, and in the case of wealthy and powerful states like ours, this interest is seconded by obligation.” As one dissident Russian journalist recently reminded us, an open society cannot dictate to rogue states how to live, but it should — it must — be able to prevent aggression like the invasion (and intended obliteration) of Ukraine.[15]

Zelensky has described Russia as “the biggest terrorist organization in the world” and the war crimes committed since the war’s inception suggest that this is no exaggeration. Do relatively free nations have a responsibility — both politically and morally — to impede and punish terrorists (as well as terrorist regimes) when and where they perpetrate their evil in the community of nations? Previous generations were resolute in their response: terror must be thwarted. Thwarting terror, it goes without saying, requires that we take risks — risks that were shown during the height of the Cold War to be morally and politically justified (they averted the nuclear totalitarian threat), and risks that are not only politically necessary but morally obligatory on behalf of fellow human beings who are suffering egregiously. Some risks are worth taking; one of them involves rescuing an innocent people from unjust assault and annihilation.

In the end, Walzer warned, those who pay “the moral price of silence and callousness” will eventually have to pay “the political price of turmoil and lawlessness nearer home.” How long, we need to ask ourselves, will decency survive here at home if we cannot display it to the truly needy in the global community? And to those whom we promised — in 1994 — the integrity of their national borders?

Walzer frames our present responsibilities succinctly: “It is not enough to wait until the tyrants … have done their filthy work and then rush food and medicine to the ragged survivors. Whenever the filthy work can be stopped, it should be stopped. And if not by us, the supposedly decent people of this world, then by whom?”

Indeed, if not by “the supposedly decent people of this world,” then by whom?

Daryl Charles is an affiliate scholar of the John Jay Institute and a contributing editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy and Touchstone magazine. He is co-editor of America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U.S. Conflicts (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019) and co-author of The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Books, 2012). He can be reached at

[1]The Politics of Rescue,” Dissent (Winter 1995): 35-41, reproduced in Arguing about War (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 67-81.

[2] The assurances of sovereignty and territorial integrity played a key role in persuading the Ukrainian government to give up what, at the time, amounted to the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

[3] This means, at the most basic level, that U.S. foreign policy will need to change.

[4] On Sunday, July 24, speaking at an Arab League Summit in Cairo, Egypt, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated: “We are determined to help the people of eastern Ukraine to liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime.”

[5] As early as 1997, Sergey Karaganov, former Kremlin advisor and current advisor to Putin, has predicted war should NATO expand and include Ukraine within its orbit. Karaganov has for years argued that Western dominance is now at an end.

[6] In recent days, the Kremlin has ordered referenda to approve the annexation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia by September 15.

[7] In a July 24 CNN interview, Moldova’s prime minister, Natalia Gavrilița, said that her nation fears an invasion by Russia — for reasons that are quite obvious: Moldova borders Ukraine on the southwest; since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moldova has never been truly free from Russian influence and, economically, it is one of Europe’s poorest nations (currently experiencing a 32 percent inflation rate).

[8] By one estimate, 670 square kilometers (260 square miles) of land have been taken over by Russians forces in eastern Ukraine; around 80,000 buildings have been destroyed or damaged, including 799 hospitals and 2102 schools (among these, two universities), with an estimated damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure by Russian forces of over $100 billion.

[9] As evidence of this conviction, according to one estimate, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland, all countries bordering either Ukraine or Russia, have pledged at least 0.4 percent of their GDP in aid to Ukraine since Jan. 24 while the U.S., as of May 10, has pledged 0.22 percent of its GDP in aid to Ukraine.

[10] Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has visited Ukraine twice since the war’s outbreak and who speaks regularly with Ukrainian President Zelensky, states the matter bluntly: “this is a war on civilization. This is about a war for the defense of Europe.”

[11] In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Zelensky insisted that any ceasefire would only encourage a wider conflict: “Freezing the conflict with the Russian Federation means a pause that gives the Russian Federation a break for rest.”

[12] Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, addressed the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, July 20, to request more defensive weapons, noting, “We would have answers if we had air-defense systems.”

[13] For example, Iran, as of mid-July, is preparing to send to Russia hundreds of sophisticated drones; at the very least, we must reciprocate.

[14] On Saturday, June 25, Putin met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and stated that within several months Russia would be delivering to Belarus missile systems capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads.

[15] Yulia Latynina, “The West Needs an Arms Race,” Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2022.

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