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.

6 thoughts on “Howard Lurie: Asking the hard questions about Ukraine”

  1. It scares me you taught at AIS and law.

    Thus isn’t clever or insightful.

    Why didn’t we just station 200k military personnel on the border? Do you not remember Ukraine didn’t believe Russia would pull this? Do you remember NATO’s consternation over engaging at all with any support at risk of escalation? I can go on, since you seem unable to recall the plethora of reasons why the US is slow rolling this.

    But most importantly, in hopes of Russia shirking Putin themselves, creating destabilized alliances with China and Iran, etc. Etc. Etc. And we don’t get drawn into this conflict, distracting us from when China invades Taiwan next year.

    This article sounds like someone who has zero experience and should never be teaching anyone anything.

    1. Agree, you forgot to mention that he was an instructor at the Army Intelligence School. Tragic to say, any wonder why the Vietnam War was so brutal on our US troops.

  2. This article asks a question that needs to be addressed. What is the desired end state of the war in Ukraine? If the US and its NATO allies are unwilling to accept a Russian victory, must the end game be a withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine and Crimea? The US and the UK signed on to a guarantee of Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders when the West convinced it to surrender its nuclear weapons. Then neither the US nor the UK did anything to prevent the annexation of Crimea in 2014. At that point it was apparently clear to Russia that their guarantee was a paper tiger. The Russian separatist breakaways in the east of Ukraine that existed in virtual autonomy for the several years leading up to the invasion in February 2022 added fuel to the fire. Allowing the situation to return to such a status quo ante would probably doom Ukraine to eventual absorption into the Russian Federation. Is the US and its NATO allies willing to press forward a war that would expel the Russian occupiers? Would this ultimately include using their own troops? Or, does the West continue to provide munitions to Ukraine until there is nothing left of the nation to save? Tough questions that our leaders seem unwilling to fully discuss.

    1. Frank. WW III is here. China is moving and setting pieces. Russia was not prepared to have this fight, viewing the west as weak. Russia is now stuck in a drawn out power struggle while support erodes at home.

      This has distracted one of the 3 powers standing against the west and has caused China to have to watch another flank.

      This is what the West wants.

      It isn’t something people go and broadcast through a press conference. It’s war and we are currently behind and on defense hoping we drag out the broader conflict long enough to build up military technology and undermine authoritarian anti-west governments.

  3. The use of fictious names drags the dialogue to unfortunate lows. Stationing 200K troops is an effective thought exercise to expose the narrative about “the” Ukraine. Search for “Joyce Nelson | 11th September 2014 Ukraine opens up for Monsanto, land grabs and GMOs” – but be warned there is a very graphic photo of one of the 35 members of the neo-nazi Aidar Battalion (remember it was written in 2104 and you could still use old vocabulary words) killed in an ambush by rebels in East Ukraine from September 6, 2014 – very interesting article. Then read over the past 300 years of history in Ukraine and look up Russia’s warm water ports. Then look up where 90% of Ukraine’s coal is located. Stop with the nonsense. War mongers (literally a seller of war) are going to war monger. Unfortunately, the few brave leaders that try to stop it are usually either killed or subverted and replaced. How many wars did Trump Administration start? I didn’t vote for Trump initially. I switched from Democrat to Republican to vote in the primaries for Kathy Barnette. And despite the Hannity and Trump shenanigans towards her I will vote for Trump a second time if given the choice. I sincerely doubt my vote will be fairly tabulated, but I’ll still vote.

    Mike Sweeney
    Havertown, PA

  4. As an in-country Vietnam veteran, I dislike the use of the Vietnam experience as a touchstone for subsequent wars. Vietnam was in a position to have been successfully concluded except for politicians’ desire to so downplay and hide its reality for the sole purpose of domestic political advantage. I think reference to Vietnam to contextualize” subsequent wars is a lazy-minded way to try to justify both for or against positions. It is my opinion that the current war in Ukraine could have been foreseen years ago had anyone in the military and foreign affairs the courage to look facts in the face and draw the proper conclusions. To dodge the issue of what the endgame strategy should be (other than the default of continuously feed the war with money and supplies), like it or not we are in a proxy war with Russia, and it won’t end with “whimper, but rather a shout.” To point to China as the real danger is correct, but futile if you are going to continue to feed the Ukraine with money and supplies to our own detriment. China does not have to worry about its flank, it can just wait until we are totally distracted and weakened by our ever-growing commitment to the Ukraine.

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