Commentary: Foreign policy on Ukraine shows West’s arrogance

The destroyed bridge connecting the city of Lysychansk with the city of Severodonetsk in the eastern Ukranian region of Donbass, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine, on Sunday, May 22, 2022. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
The destroyed bridge connecting the city of Lysychansk with the city of Severodonetsk in the eastern Ukranian region of Donbass, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine, on Sunday, May 22, 2022. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The war in Ukraine has gone well from the perspective of Western pundits and officials.

Russia has seen a series of costly reversals on the battlefield because of poor military performance and overambitious plans.

Now many in the West are debating what should happen next. Shall we stay the course, continuing to fight on for more ambitious objectives -- Ukraine's full territorial integrity and further diminution of Russian power -- or should we sue for peace, solidifying gains -- a safe Kyiv and Russian drubbing -- and avoiding risks of widening the war or even nuclear escalation?

The problem with this question, and the surrounding debate, is that it is pretentious. It is not up to officials in the West whether Ukraine continues to resist Russian aggression or whether President Vladimir Putin persists or pulls the plug on his ill-conceived military campaign. The West has quite carefully, and consciously, absented its armies from Ukraine's battlefields. This policy of nonintervention has been supported by the Western public. The West is helping but not fighting.

With a policy of restraint comes the obligation not to engage in hubris (or timidity) by proxy. The fate of two sovereign nations is being determined by their own citizens and political leadership. The government on one side at least, Ukraine, was democratically elected and shows signs of acting in the interest of its people. Let's let President Volodymyr Zelenskyy keep it that way.

It makes no sense for Western pundits, from nations that are not fighting, to debate whether the war should continue. To personify this controversy, recent advocacy pieces in major news outlets from Matthew Kroenig and Charles Kupchan, each representing Georgetown University, alternately favor and oppose continuing the war.

What should a reader do if they are more persuaded by one advocate or the other? Shall we ask our leaders to prevail on officials in Kyiv, threatening them and weakening them unless they adopt our preferred policy? Do we instead go to Moscow, hat in hand, appealing to Putin's good sense or moral center? Or is the charge to act unilaterally, either abandoning Ukraine or spontaneously escalating the war by joining it?

Politics really does stem from the barrel of a gun. As a nation, we have chosen, wisely, not to intervene. But then it is not up to those who are sitting out the war to call the shots for those in the fight.

This is not just a moral position; it is a practical one. Restraint, which Kupchan claims to advocate, is first and foremost about not overplaying one's hand. The West has chosen to stay on the sidelines in this contest. It can help, it can assist and it can suggest. But it cannot dictate policies or outcomes. Attempting to do so is not just presumptuous but also foolish. Indeed, it is not restraint, but instead meddling, to attempt to restrain a country that is defending itself.

French President Emmanuel Macron has sought to play the statesman, shuttling back and forth to Moscow in an effort to achieve peace in his time. The problem, of course, is not that Macron wants peace, but that he is willing to barter another country's sovereignty to further his chosen goal. Leverage purchased with Ukrainian blood belongs to Ukraine, not to France.

This is not to say Western hawkishness is any better. Those in the West who are willing to resist Putin to the last Ukrainian are also attempting to use the prerogatives of others. Any claim to determine the outcome of a contest in which the West is self-consciously not engaged is problematic, both morally and practically.

This is a recurrent problem. In the midst of the crisis last fall, the Biden administration set out Ukraine's foreign policy on the White House lawn. Rather than directing questions about the status of Ukraine and its relationship with NATO to the proper organs in Kyiv or Brussels, U.S. officials took phone calls from Moscow and publicly debated what Ukraine or NATO should do. The Russians could plausibly claim that Ukraine was not a full-fledged nation and that NATO was just a U.S. proxy because Washington acted as if this was indeed the case.

Respect for Ukraine involves treating its people and leaders as grown-ups. Stop telling them what they should get from a war that they are fighting and we are not. Attempts to handicap the war from a distance won't work, and they make "experts" from the West look a bit silly.

Better to shape U.S. and European policy on actions we actually control, such as how much aid to supply and whether to admit Ukraine to the European Union, and how many sanctions to impose and how much fuel to buy from Russia. Barring consensus on these issues -- which the West actually controls -- and given clarity that Western powers are not willing to intervene directly in the war, the West should stop pretending that it can call the shots in someone else's war.

Erik Gartzke is professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

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