Both compassion and rationality needed in response to Ukraine

The aftermath of the Russian rocket attack on the Kramatorsk train station is appalling. The images of civilians’ bodies on the streets of Bucha, and the accounts of rape, torture, and killings in other towns liberated from Russian occupation, are sickening. And the death toll from Russia’s bombing the Mariupol theater, clearly marked as a shelter for hundreds of children, is almost incomprehensible. 

These horrors have galvanized some previously hesitant people into strong advocates for supporting the Ukrainian people. Others, however, have the opposite reaction: They insist that we “not get carried away.” This response apparently seeks to demonstrate rationality triumphing over emotionalism. 

The best response is somewhere in the middle: showing compassion for suffering Ukrainian people while remaining analytical about both the problem and possible remedies.

Although in other settings we should take care not to be manipulated, the Ukrainians’ reports are entirely consistent with those from other victims of Russian state power since the early days of Putin’s leadership. The evidence of Russian responsibility is overwhelming, with intercepted radio traffic showing that mass slaughter was widely accepted throughout the Russian military.      

In numerous other respects, we are called upon to cut through emotional arguments to reach reasoned conclusions. For example, Putin insists that Russia deserves special deference on security matters because of what it endured during World War II. The world does indeed owe Russia a great debt for the terrible price it paid to help defeat Nazi Germany. The emotional appeal of this argument, however, can obscure the fact that Ukraine suffered even more during World War II: Although the Nazis occupied large swaths of Russia, they conquered all of Ukraine, slaughtered a higher fraction of its people, and then laid waste to it during their retreat. Honoring the memory of World War II, and heeding its lessons about nationalist aggression, is an argument for more robust support of Ukraine. 

Some of Ukraine’s advocates go too far in trying to throw Putin’s argument back at him. They invoke Hitler and the Holocaust with a casual ease that many readers, myself included, find disturbing. 

Yet just as we should not accept reductionist comparisons, neither should we ignore the lessons the world said it learned from the Nazi period. When a powerful regime wages war against innocents and denies their legitimacy as a people, horrific events will occur if other countries are unwilling to take substantial risks. Bellicose regimes equate appeasement with weakness and redouble their brutality. We must overcome our emotional need to believe that we can reason with anyone.

Irrational emotionalism also causes us to embrace some emotionally satisfying policies that do little to relieve the suffering of the Ukrainian people or to counter the threat Putin poses to democracy the world over. Some may take satisfaction in seeing friends and relatives of Putin, his odious Foreign Minister Lavrov, and other oligarchs added to the sanction list, but this will not hasten the end to the war on Ukraine. Putin will not accept the humiliation of withdrawing from Ukraine on the say-so of someone he has corruptly enriched; indeed, they are so dependent on him they are unlikely to ask. 

Similarly, the prospect of war crimes prosecutions will not deter Putin. Russia (like the U.S.) has not accepted the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction. And even if it did, countries do not hand over their sitting leaders for trial. The only remote chance of Putin being held accountable for war crimes is if he falls from power, but it is the prospect of losing power, not the risk of trial, that motivates him. 

And Russia could hardly care less about being suspended from the UN’s Human Rights Council. To put it mildly, human rights are not high on Russia’s agenda. 

Discussions of personal sanctions, war crimes trials, and symbolic exclusions may serve to maintain public focus on the war, but they risk distracting people from what the Ukrainians most urgently need.

Ultimately, the West has only three means of bringing Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine to an end:  accepting Ukraine’s invitation to close its air space; cutting off the energy purchases that sustain Russia’s war machine; and providing Ukraine with substantially more and better weapons. 

We have thus far refused to consider even a limited No-Fly Zone out of fear of direct conflict with Russia. We manage similar conflicts all the time in the de facto No-Fly Zones we maintain around our aircraft carriers. We also could support our allies in closing Ukrainian airspace rather than doing it ourselves.

We have ended our relatively trivial energy purchases from Russia, but the Europeans fear economic disruption.  

If those positions stand, that leaves sending the Ukrainians more and better weapons.

To date, we have largely sent weapons designed only to slow Russia’s advances. Short-range air defense systems may help particular Ukrainian units defend themselves but still leave Russian jets free to fly over much of the country wreaking destruction. Longer-range systems could help keep Russians entirely out of Ukrainian airspace. 

Similarly, the light anti-tank weapons we and our allies have provided can help Ukrainian soldiers defend themselves against isolated attacks and harass Russian supply lines. They are woefully inadequate, however, in allowing the Ukrainians to relieve besieged Mariupol, to resist the kind of massed armored attack imminent in eastern Ukraine, or to free occupied areas where atrocities similar to those in Bucha are likely underway. The Czechs recently sent the Ukrainians tanks for the first time. We need to do the same and more. 

After numerous morally ambiguous wars sold on dubious claims, we have naturally become skeptical. We are unprepared to respond to a war with the clarity of a brutal dictatorship invading a peaceful democracy. Yet that is precisely what this is.

We need to recognize that sometimes the morally appealing response is also the analytically rational one.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1 

Tags Bucha massacre countering Putin countering Russia Emotional competence Foreign policy military aid to Ukraine moral imperative National security no fly zone No-fly zone Russian energy imports Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian oil and gas Russian oligarchs Russian sanctions Vladimir Putin War crimes

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