Will it be necessary to ‘destroy Ukraine in order to save it’?
Just weeks before the bloody 1968 Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, war correspondent Peter Arnett published an iconic dispatch in which he asked an unidentified U.S. Army major the rationale for the bombing and shelling of a town the Americans were seeking to capture. Citing the heavy infiltration of the town by enemy Viet Cong, this officer reportedly offered a justification in a phrase that has endured as a symbol of the futility of the Vietnam War and the tragic nature of all wars: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Arnett is referenced in a recent P.J. Media article by David P. Goldman, entitled “It Became Necessary to Destroy the Country to Save It.” Goldman suggests a toxic juxtaposition between U.S. policy and Russian aggression, asserting that “American fecklessness and Russian rapacity together will leave a grease spot where Ukraine used to be.” He adds that it was all “tragically, idiotically unnecessary.”
Similarly, a National Interest article, “Henry Kissinger and Ending the Conflict over Ukraine,” by Damjan Mišković warns that Ukraine is at “imminent risk of becoming irredeemably dysfunctional once [the war] comes to an end.” Kissinger has stressed the urgency of brokering a compromise peace agreement and was promptly denounced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a 1938-style “appeaser,” as was French President Emmanuel Macron for essentially supporting the same idea.
At work here are two parallel and dangerous processes. First, the intransigence of Zelensky and his public commitment to regain all Ukrainian territory lost to Russia since 2014, including Crimea, is being encouraged by some members of the Biden administration who evidently see this war in black-and-white terms and are pursuing an agenda of crippling Russia’s capacity to function as a great power on the world stage. Observers such as Kissinger and Macron apparently see the unreality of these professed war aims and realize that a protracted war could have massively damaging consequences for many nations.
In many countries, the war is considered to be a regional conflict, as Daniel DePetris and Rajan Menon point out in a recent Politico opinion piece. We saw the world’s reaction when some U.S. allies were among countries that abstained from a United Nations vote in April to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council.
Now, new “facts on the ground” may be triggering agonizing reappraisals across the world, including within the Western alliance. Suddenly the narrative of a stumbling, incompetent Vladimir Putin opening doors to his regime’s potential overthrow may be starting to unravel as Putin pushes to mobilize all the latent power of the Russian state and remains fully committed to reducing Ukraine to an economic and humanitarian basket case. Zelensky recently acknowledged the dire straits of his country, including an unsustainable toll of fighters killed or wounded and the strangulation of Ukraine’s economy from Russian control of Black Sea ports.
Even before Russia’s invasion, the health of the Ukrainian state was not robust, economically or politically. Since gaining independence in 1989, Ukraine’s population has steadily declined from a high of about 51 million people to an estimated 43 million in 2022, and with a low birth rate and high death rate, it is projected to continue to fall. Before the war, the United Nations estimated Ukraine could lose nearly a fifth of its population by 2050. (Since the war began in February, more than 14 million people have fled their homes, about half of them leaving for other countries.)
Among those who appear to be rethinking their attitude toward the war is the New York Times, as illustrated by a recent Ross Douthat column, “We Can’t Be Ukraine Hawks Forever,” in which he describes his own transformation from idealist to realist, stressing that we can’t “confuse what is desirable with what is likely, and what is morally ideal with what is achievable.” Douthat describes the United States as an “embattled global hegemon facing threats more significant than Russia,” and cautions that we are an “internally divided country led by an unpopular president whose majorities may be poised for political collapse.”
For the sake of Ukraine, and the rest of the world, let us hope that the Biden administration soon catches up with this brand of realism.
William Moloney is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.