Ukraine: Morality and Reality

Ralph Leonard

August 26, 2022

The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force …. The Ukrainian question is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous role in the life of Europe.

Leon Trotsky


Six months after being invaded by Russia, Ukrainian society has suffered immensely and borne the majority of the costs of the war being waged against it. Numerous atrocities have been committed against civilians such as the massacre in Bucha. Terror bombing tactics used by Russia in Syria have also been applied in Ukraine. Cities such as Mariupol have experienced brutal sieges ever since the war started, and whole towns have been reduced to rubble. Mayors and other local officials who refused to cooperate with the Russian occupation have been executed. One-third of the population has been displaced, and tens of thousands of others forcibly deported to Russia. In the Donbas, tens of thousands of Ukrainian men have been forcibly drafted to fight for Russia’s proxy militias.

Ukraine has also been economically shattered by the war. Critical infrastructure has been wrecked across the country. Russian forces have seized vital Black Sea trading ports, the industrial and mining area of the Donbas, and important tracts of agricultural land in the south. Nearly a third of the civilian population has lost their jobs, and many households are surviving only on food relief and medical supplies delivered by volunteers.

And yet, despite this devastation and suffering, the Ukrainian willingness to resist the invasion, dismemberment, and subjugation of their country has not dissipated. Contrary to the sectors of “informed” opinion at the beginning of the war, which had simply taken it as given that the Russian army would steamroll its way into Kyiv and topple the Zelensky government with little effort, Ukraine has put up stern resistance. It has managed to beat back the Russian advance and inflict high casualties on Russia. This is in spite of many thousands of their own soldiers having lost their lives and the army being increasingly forced to rely on untrained and poorly equipped reserve units and civilian militias. Access to recently arrived NATO-supplied artillery and rocket launchers has provided the means to destroy Russian ammunition depots and command-and-control centers deep inside Russian-occupied territory. Just recently, Ukrainian forces managed to attack a Russian air base deep within Russian-occupied Crimea, destroying numerous warplanes likely used to bomb Ukrainian towns and cities.

Idealists, Realists, and the Left

Much of the debate surrounding the Ukraine war is really a quarrel between liberal internationalist idealism and realism. Liberal internationalism — the belief that liberal democratic capitalism should be spread across the world and the transnational institutions that undergird them should be upheld — seems to be the default ideology in foreign policy. Within mainstream ideology, its only formidable rival is realism (aka realpolitik). The simple difference between them is that, while liberal internationalism seeks to subjugate might to right, realism says that might makes right. In other words, liberals seek to use military, diplomatic, and economic power in service of morally just causes – “democracy promotion,” “humanitarian intervention,” etc. Conversely, realist statecraft is temperamentally conservative, having no faith in pursuing grand ideological projects or historical progress. The supreme objective of power should be to achieve the necessary conditions for security and stability in a chaotic world.

Liberal internationalists enthusiastically support Ukraine out of a fidelity to “European values” and a clarion call for the West to stand up to Vladimir Putin