Students of war psychology are familiar with a process in which public opinion moves by stages from a position of indifference or opposition to a war to one of passionate partisanship and active involvement in the military struggle. A key element in this movement is the accusation that a hostile power is committing war crimes and atrocities against civilians – particularly women and children.
The accusations often contain a dose of truth, since most wars are far more indiscriminate than “surgical” in their effects. There is no doubt that Russian activities in Ukraine have taken too many civilian lives. But war crimes charges tend also to be exaggerated. The United States entered World War I in 1917 on the heels of reports that the German invaders of Belgium were butchering babies while German U-boats sank ships filled with innocent passengers. (In fact, the Allies were attempting to starve Germany into submission by blockading European ports, and the doomed liner Luisitania was carrying a large cargo of weapons bound for Britain.)
This dynamic can now be witnessed in the West, where observers at first surprised and nonplussed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and then hoping for a peaceful settlement of the war, are now advocating escalation of the violence and rooting openly for a Ukrainian victory. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declares that “Ukraine must win,” a sentiment not echoed openly by the Biden administration, but perhaps motivating a huge increase in U.S. arms deliveries to the Zelensky regime. Calls for a truce in Ukraine and immediate peace negotiations between the parties (most recently joined in by Pope Francis) now seem increasingly forlorn.
Three factors make it difficult for peace-loving people to keep their balance in a situation like this. The first is that the invading force – in this case, the Russians – bears a very heavy responsibility for subsequent violence. This is no doubt true. But the other parties, the U.S. and members of NATO, also bear significant responsibility for creating the situation that led to the invasion. The responsibility for violence is actually shared. But the tendency, as war fever grows, is to deny this and to try to throw all the “war guilt” on the invader.
That is why we see figures like Bill Clinton arguing over the past few days that NATO was right after the Cold War ended to expand to the Russian border and to militarize Eastern Europe. The Russian invasion, says Clinton, proves that this expansion was justified. Only a few critics have pointed out the absurdity of this reasoning, which implies that the Russians are aggressive by nature rather than provoked to aggress by a sense of insecurity fostered by Western actions. The enemy is purely malicious, while we are purely benevolent: this is the classical “evil enemy” stereotype that develops as a regime moves more openly towards active participation in a war. The more “we” besmirch “them,” the purer we become to ourselves.
A second factor also has to do with how one characterizes the adverse party. To begin with, one defines the opponent as a regime or even as one person: in this case, the Russian man-in-charge, Vladimir Putin. By implication, the masses who have been misled by bad leadership are exonerated or at least considered not deserving of extreme punishment. But as war fever grows, the responsibility for the regime’s sins is extended downward. Ordinary Russians are thought of as complicit robots or fanatics blindly following the dictator’s lead. Sanctions that punish them as well as the elite are now said to be justified. Soon, killing them will also be justified as an appropriate punishment for members of an “enemy nation.”
Finally, as people get caught up in wartime passions (even if they are technically not direct parties to the conflict), they begin almost unconsciously to abandon the goal of a negotiated settlement in favor of some form of unconditional victory. This almost always extends the war and makes it massively more lethal. In World War II, for example, the Allies’ demand for Japan’s “unconditional surrender” was one of the factors that produced the atom-bombing of defenseless Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the case of Ukraine, a negotiated settlement would clearly require that Russia’s pre-war demands be taken seriously and that some of them be satisfied. By the same token, the sanctions imposed on Russian politicians and businesses would have to be reconsidered and to a large extent withdrawn. Apparently, these possibilities have already caused serious debate among factions within the Biden administration. Those who now seek to win the war in Ukraine are not interested in “rewarding Russian aggression” by lifting sanctions or limiting Ukraine’s sovereignty in any way, much less reconsidering the security architecture of Eastern Europe.
In a similar way, charges of war crimes against the invaders have already shifted the goal, in the minds of some Westerners, from a peace treaty to a Nuremberg-style tribunal designed to publicize and punish Russian war crimes and “genocide” in Ukraine. These demands are being made by many of the same figures who gave us the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan! Again, this does not mean that the charges are totally without substance. It may well be that if Putin’s verbal threat to eliminate Ukraine as an independent nation had been realized, this could have been considered a form of “politicide” punishable under the Genocide Convention. But the argument at present constitutes another step toward making a political settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian dispute seem irrelevant or utopian.
The key question is whether the West should continue to pour advanced weapons and other resources into Ukraine in search of a victory over Russian forces or seek a truce and a negotiated settlement that could establish the conditions for long-range sustainable peace. In theory, a middle-ground answer to this question is possible. That is, the U.S. can continue to arm Ukraine in search of some sort of military stalemate that would improve Zelensky’s negotiating position in subsequent peace talks. I have to say that although this sounds “realistic” and probably reflects the view of a sizeable group of Biden staffers, it actually plays with fire – the ultimate fire – in a wildly reckless way.
If Ukraine’s armed forces do well against the Russians in eastern Ukraine – for example, if their new weapons help to bring down Russian planes, destroy tanks, and, perhaps, sink some of their ships – the Russians will almost certainly bring more destructive weapons into play. If this happens, the pressures on the U.S. and NATO to enter the war more directly could become overwhelming. Already one hears morally exalted hotheads urging the West to “call Putin’s nuclear bluff.” There are policymakers in Washington and London willing not only to fight the war against Russia to the last Ukrainian, but also to risk starting World War III.
There is no vaccine for this growing war fever. We must simply resist it. Pope Francis and Noam Chomsky have it exactly right. Since the Russo-Ukrainian war must end in a negotiated settlement, the time to begin those negotiations is now.
 University Professor, George Mason University, author of Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War