Revising, or Rejecting, ‘Reasonable Prospect of Success’ in Just Wars? Lessons From Ukraine

“It’s a victory when the weapons fall silent and people speak up.”

“It’s a victory when the weapons fall silent and people speak up.” Since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been especially vocal about victory —and glory—for Ukraine. As Zelenskyy put it, his people will fight “whatever the cost.” The cost so far, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is 18,000 Ukrainian civilian casualties and up to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed. As of February 2023, the U.S. estimates 200,000 dead or wounded Russian soldiers, but that figure may be as high as 270,000.

As well as the discourse surrounding victory, the war has been soaked with references to ethics and justice. U.S. President Joe Biden, for one, has claimed that support for Ukraine is “a profound moral issue” and “the right thing to do.”

But as the tanks first rolled across the border a year ago, Ukraine’s likelihood of defeating Russian aggression was considered remote. Most analysts expected a swift Russian take-over, seemingly doubting the smaller state’s willingness to fight, let alone triumph. Russia’s military ostensibly dwarfed Ukraine’s. Kyiv was forecast by experts to fall within the week. Two days after the invasion, world leaders urged Zelenskyy to leave and offered him a way out—to which he famously retorted, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” In other words, in the very early days, Ukraine did not seem to have a foreseeable prospect of success—or, to put it plainly, a reasonable chance of winning the war.

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