Talking Points

How far will Putin's most vocal opponents go?

Just about everyone is appalled by Russia's actions in Ukraine, even many of those political writers and entertainers who've foolishly praised the toughness and perspicacity of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past few years.

But some have gone farther than expressing outrage toward Russia and solidarity with the victims of its aggression. I'm thinking of statements that take the form of absolute moral imperatives: Ukraine must not be allowed to fall. It must come out on top in its battle with Putin. Russia must lose because its president's disgraceful deeds must be fully undone.

Such sweeping declarations imply that NATO powers should commit to fighting a war with Russia. Yet those issuing these clarion calls also tend to stop short of advocating outright military intervention by the West, proposing instead that we should "do everything short of war." That might sound like restraint, but it really isn't.

It is a truism in moral reasoning: To will the end is to will the means. One cannot have a duty to perform an act one lacks the capacity fulfill. Can Ukraine prevail without more direct military support from the West? It's possible, but most analysts consider it very unlikely. Would Ukraine prevail with full NATO backing? Almost certainly. That implies NATO must be prepared to take up arms on Ukraine's side, to ensure the supposed moral commandment is fulfilled. To hold otherwise — to claim the West should stop short of joining the fight, when that might be the only thing compatible with fulfilling the commandment — sounds appalling.

What is leading analysts to end up lost in this moral thicket? The counsels of prudence, mainly, which tell them that war between nuclear-armed powers could be catastrophic and so should definitely be avoided. This is, in part, what led President Biden to clarify long before Russia's invasion of Ukraine that the United States would not become directly involved in any military conflict.

Yet some observers combine this prudence with moral proclamations that imply the need for much less prudent deeds. Why? I can only speculate that it follows from expectations set by the decisive conclusion of the Second World War, when the Axis powers unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. That brought the conflict to a maximally satisfying end. But of course such a resolution was made possible by the Allies' overwhelming military victory and would have been impossible without it.

I fear some of my fellow pundits have come to expect equally decisive outcomes without willing the means to achieve them.

As a corrective, they might opt to start outrightly advocating for war. But it would be far more reasonable for them to begin moving in the opposite direction, moderating their hopes for a morally satisfying conclusion to the current conflagration. Such a conclusion could well prove far more elusive than some people seem prepared to accept.