The Morality of Supplying Arms to Ukraine

Many commentators simply take for granted that supplying arms to Ukraine is the right thing to do. This is by no means clear to me – even if you believe Russia is entirely in the wrong.

Of course, Western countries have already sent billions of dollars worth of weapons (including thousands of anti-tank and anti-air missile launchers) over the last few years, and especially the last few months. So a more pertinent question would be, “Was it moral to arm Ukraine?”

Let’s consider the possible consequences of sending arms versus not doing so. If we hadn’t sent arms, Russia’s invasion would presumably have had a far higher chance of success. It’s not entirely clear what Russia’s objectives are, but a reasonable worst-case scenario is that they would have annexed half the country.

This is clearly a very bad outcome from the point of view of most Ukrainians, who would prefer to live under Ukrainian rule than under Russian rule. (I’m assuming that outside Crimea and the Donbass, there isn’t much support for Russian annexation.)

But are there outcomes worse than Russia annexing half the country after a swift military victory? I think we can clearly say there are worse outcomes. Here’s one: a very bloody conflict that drags on for ten years.

As I noted in a previous post, the Syrian Civil War is now in its eleventh year, having claimed more than 400,000 lives – more than double the number who died in the extremely bloody Yugoslav wars. And one reason it has dragged on for so long is external arming of rebel groups.

Now, Bashar al-Assad may be a very bad guy. You don’t have to like him or his regime to acknowledge there can be few outcomes worse than the Syrian Civil War – worse, I mean, for ordinary Syrians. Which raises the question, “Was it moral for the US to arm rebel groups in Syria?” And it seems very plausible to me the answer is, “No.”

Returning to Ukraine, some commentators have already said the West should try to turn Ukraine into “another Afghanistan” – a protracted conflict that depletes Russia’s military and financial resources to the point where the regime collapses (or something along those lines). This strikes me as deeply immoral.

First, it’s by no means clear that regime collapse in Russia would be a good thing. Yes, Putin is a bad guy. But he could be replaced by someone just as bad or worse. Alternatively, regime collapse could lead to chaos or anarchy, which is not something we want in a state armed with thousands of nukes.

Second, a protracted conflict in Ukraine could wreak the same kind of devastation as Syria’s civil war: entire cities destroyed, and hundred of thousands killed. This has led some commentators to cynically remark that “the United States will fight for Ukraine, to the very last Ukrainian”.

There are several possible replies from those who insist we must send arms (or that we were definitely right to do so). The first is that Ukraine has a much higher chance of actually winning. This is clearly their strongest argument. Hence I would say the risk of prolonged insurgency has to be balanced against the chance of a quick Ukrainian victory.

Another reply is that the Ukrainians want to fight. But which Ukrainians? And for how long? While some young men might relish the prospect of taking up arms to defend their homeland, the same is unlikely to be true of most women, let alone elderly citizens or those with families.

And will ordinary Ukrainians be just as keen to fight if the war drags on for months or even years? Once weapons have found their way into the hands of diehard fighters on the front lines, the rest of the population may be committed to an insurgency – whether it wants one or not.

Yet another reply is that we have to stand up to Putin’s aggression. But if the effect of doing so is to turn Ukraine into another Afghanistan, maybe not standing up to his aggression is the lesser evil. The West benefits from deterrence, but ordinary Ukrainians pay the price? This doesn’t seem like a very good deal for the Ukrainians.

The fundamental problem for the West is that we’re unwilling to “stand up to Putin’s aggression” by actually putting boots on the ground. And for good reason: we don’t want to risk a nuclear war. Conditional on this being the case, doing less on the military front might be better than doing more. Why not pressure both sides to negotiate?

Of course, if we lived in a world without nuclear weapons, we could enter the war on Ukraine’s side and probably achieve a decisive victory over Russia – thanks to America’s overwhelming military power. But that isn’t the world we live in. And we have to make plans based on reality.

Now, it’s entirely possible that, thanks to all the arms we’ve sent, the Ukrainians will either defeat the Russians, or will hold out long enough to bargain for a good settlement. But it’s also possible they’ll find themselves locked into a very bloody conflict that develops a momentum of its own.

The fact that Western leaders don’t seem to even be considering the latter possibility – or, like Hillary Clinton, are actively cheering it on – is not a good sign.

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November 2022
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