What if NATO and the West were intentionally letting the war persist to terminally degrade Russia, its capabilities, and its very existence?

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Many of you will know of the famous philosophical trolley thought experiment.

For those who don’t: Imagine a trolley cart hurtling down a train track on course to hit five workers toiling on the tracks. You see this about to happen and can pull a lever to divert the trolley onto a different track, thus saving the five workers.

Unfortunately, there is one sole worker on this alternative track.

Do you pull the lever, knowing that your action will kill one person? After all, it will save five other people.

Via Shutterstock

This moral calculation gives the thinker a flavor of moral consequentialism—the idea that the morality of an action is derived from the consequences it obtains (beware, there are many flavors of this).

We saw this with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two events that seem to bypass our modern moral evaluation of the US and war. The idea was that the 200,000 or so civilians who died in the two bombings were the calculated cost for stopping the war that would save countless more Japanese and Americans. They were the single worker on the track, and the lever operated a hatch in the Enola Gay.

(Imagine the US now sending two such bombs onto the civilians of Moscow and St Petersburg, and the furor that would stoke.)

Fast forward nearly 80 years. We are considering the West’s reaction to Russia invading Ukraine and the military assistance that can and should be given to the defenders.

And yet Russia persists, unable to veer off the track inexorably leading them to existential demise.

The West and NATO have been supplying weapons and supporting Ukraine over time. For a whole host of reasons given, the support has come piecemeal and in a sense slowly, with Ukraine being given, at various points, only barely enough to overcome the larger Russian forces with more superior weaponry and training.

In military terms, this is capability overcoming capacity.

The way that the various equipment and materiel have been procured and provided—over an extended period and increasing in potency, and not all at once—suggests that this could be a cynical (if understandable) ploy of the West to degrade Russia’s armed forces and economy.

One could imagine a scenario wherein Ukraine was supplied HIMARS and NASAMS, AMRAAMs and NATO fighter jets, right at the early stages of the war, and Ukraine was able to “win” in a flash-bang conflict that was short and noisy.

The problem, the West might calculate, is that such a win would not kill the bear but would instead wound it temporarily, allowing it to come back in the near future stronger and angrier.

On the other hand, if Ukraine could be locked into a long-term attritional war with Russia over a protracted period, this would degrade the Russian forces in both capability and capacity in such a devastating way that the bear would be unable to recover, dying of a terminal disease requiring some form of rebirth.

It looks as though the Ukrainian forces are attriting the Russians so successfully that Russia is having to mobilize their population to plug the personnel holes in their frontlines, and dust off 60-year-old T-62s from their old compounds and those of neighboring Belarus to give them some materiel—something—to use against the more potent Ukrainian forces.

An extra 300,000 conscripts and more are being fed into the meat grinder while tank upon APC upon jet upon IFV are being donated to the burgeoning Ukrainian scrap metal industry. So many of these people won’t be returning home (let alone paying much-needed taxes or working in vital job placements). So much of this materiel will not feature in another future conflict. And yet Russia persists, unable to veer off the track inexorably leading them to existential demise.

But I keep coming back to this idea of a cynical intention to take on a more prolonged project, to bleed Russia dry in a death of a thousand cuts.

The Ukrainians have just enough HIMARS (though without the better, long-range ATACMS missiles) to do the job, are being given more and more air defense systems (and yet not the Patriot system) to defend against Russian cruise missiles, jets, helicopters, and drones. They are being given old Soviet stock tanks from Eastern Europe, but not NATO main battle tanks, old Soviet aircraft, but not NATO jets: good stuff, but not always the best stuff.

There are other reasons why this might be so: procurement issues, the West not wanting new technology to get into the wrong hands, not wanting to unnecessarily escalate the conflict, and so on.

But I keep coming back to this idea of a cynical intention to take on a more prolonged project, to bleed Russia dry in a death of a thousand cuts.

And, of course, to do this, there is a cost. Yes, a monetary cost of munitions and suchlike. But, more importantly, there is a human cost. In order to divert the trolley from the track where Russia is a geopolitical global threat for a long time to come, the lever is pulled such that the trolley slows down and causes this protracted death, on the alternative track, to not only Russians, but also more Ukrainian members of the armed forces and civilians.

Yes, this alternative track, preferred by many, also necessarily kills more Ukrainians and far more Russians, because this track is a year-long journey into Russian military and economic decimation.

Adapted Shutterstock image

But this image above is arguably not properly representative. Perhaps the track that the West has chosen has more workers on it. More Ukrainians and more Russians will die with the hope of taking Russia permanently out of the geopolitical game.

Should the West have allowed Ukraine to prevail much more quickly, but in so doing, giving Russia much shallower wounds?

The question, for this kind of moral calculation, is whether the Ukrainian cost is ultimately worth it. And, to whom? Ukraine? “The West”? NATO? Even China? This could benefit the Chinese arms industry that will almost certainly step into the hole in the market left behind by this war, once filled by Russia. Previously the second biggest arms exporter, Russia will be suffering for a long time in terms of arms manufacture and export as the world sees how poorly they have fared.

You might be wondering whether there is any actual evidence for this cynical theory and approach. Well, indeed there is. Very public evidence.

Back in April, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III publicly admitted that a key US goal in supporting Ukraine is “to see Russia weakened to the degree it can not do the kind of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” He said that Russia had “already lost a lot of military capability and a lot of its troops, quite frankly, and we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.” 

In other words, this idea of degrading Russia for the long term is very much in the strategic plans and thoughts of the US, and no doubt NATO. The question might remain as to whether this was the intention from the start, stumbled upon and adopted, a happy coincidence as a result of the Law of Unintended Consequences, or some such other option, is open to speculation.

And, of course, this is not to say that such an approach is wrong, either. Depending on what your goals were, and how bothered you were by the means of getting there, this could very well be a mastermind move.

What is for sure is that this is the intersection of philosophy and policy, morality and war. Perhaps, now, philosophers might show their worth here to the wider world.

Yet the question is still largely unanswered, and maybe ultimately unanswerable with any certainty: Will the policy of slow degradation be worth it?

[For daily updates on the war, follow Jonathan MS Pearce’s popular daily YouTube series, Ukraine War Update, and UWU EXTRA.]

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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