There are a great many unknowns about the war in Ukraine, but one thing is clearly known: the longer the war goes on the more people will die, and more property will be destroyed. That is the nature of war. The goal of opposing warring forces is to rain death and destruction down upon the other side. In the war in Ukraine the death and destruction is not limited to military forces. Civilians are being killed, and non-military property is being destroyed. Those are known, undeniable facts.
Among the unknowns is the ultimate outcome of the war. Will Ukraine survive as a sovereign nation, or will it be taken over by Russia? What is also unknown, and of great importance to Americans is: what is the policy of the U.S. government and the western powers in Europe? Do we really know?
Are we prepared to accept an ultimate Russian takeover of Ukraine? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then why are we sending more and more military assistance to the Ukrainian forces? If we are willing to accept a Ukrainian defeat, then why prolong the agony? By aiding Ukraine we prolong the war at great financial cost to ourselves and humanitarian cost to the Ukrainians.
If we are willing to ultimately accept a Russian victory, we also send a signal to China, North Korea, and Iran that we might also be willing to accept their respective takeovers of Taiwan, South Korea, and neighboring Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East. Other former Soviet bloc nations in eastern Europe might also wonder about our willingness to come to their aid if Putin threatens their sovereignty.
On the other hand, if we are not willing to allow Russia to prevail, what should we be doing?
I have been of the opinion from the very beginning that we could have prevented this war and the resulting destruction very easily. If, when Putin began to mobilize forces along the border, we had sent and stationed a minimum of 200,000 U.S. soldiers along the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia there would have been no Russian invasion. Putin, in my opinion, would not have risked a war with the U.S. by firing upon U.S. forces. We have been unwilling to send ground forces to fight along side the Ukrainians out of fear of a larger scale war with Russia. There is no reason to believe that Putin would have been willing to provoke a war with the US by firing upon US troops had we done as I suggested.
Unfortunately, by continuing as we have, we make a larger scale war almost inevitable. By sending just enough aid to keep the war going we risk an escalation. As long as Putin can stave off a Russian defeat by increasing Russia’s military effort to counter our modest contribution of military equipment, he will do so. While both the U.S. and Russia have the resources to continue supplying military assets to keep the war going for an indefinite period, Ukraine’s ability to continue the fight is limited. Large portions of the country are being reduced to ruble; its infrastructure is being destroyed; its fighting forces are being diminished; and its civilians are being impoverished.
If then, we are unwilling to accept a Russian victory we will have to become far more involved. That means a wider war. As long as each side believes it can prevent defeat by an incremental increase in its war effort, the war gets bigger as each step is viewed as just a small step. There is, however, a limit to the number of small steps that can be taken. At some point the weapons get bigger in the belief that just a little bit more is all that is needed.
Is there any reason to believe that Putin is willing to accept defeat after having expended so much effort already? He has already suggested a willingness to resort to limited nuclear weapons if needed to counter increased aid to Ukraine. He has already demonstrated his willingness to engage in a war of aggression. He does not care about international condemnation of his conduct. He wants to win, apparently, at any cost.
We need to answer these two questions: (1) are we willing to accept a Russian victory, and (2) if not, what are we willing to do to prevent it?
Howard Lurie is Emeritus Professor of Law, Charles Widger School of Law, Villanova University. During the early days of the Vietnam conflict he was an instructor at the Army Intelligence School.