Posted by on September 22, 2014

I think that, like most Americans, I had a visceral reaction to the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And that visceral reaction went something like this: Putin is an incorrigible Cold Warrior and revanchist, in addition to being a lying thug, and he must be stopped.

After reading “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault – The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin” by John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago, I am beginning to think that I was only half right. Maybe Ukraine is just another example of the messianic approach to foreign policy, shared by “neo-con” Republicans and “smart power”, “Responsibility to Protect” Democrats, that has failed us so miserably in Iraq and elsewhere.

According to Mearsheimer, the fundamental mistake made by the West is the belief that the era of power politics is over and that notions like “spheres of influence” and “buffer states” are no longer relevant in a world made “flat” by the internet, globalization and the end of the Cold War. To quote Mearsheimer:

“Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics. They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy”.

Whether this view of international politics is “flawed” is a matter of debate. What is not debatable, however, is that Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership don’t share it. And let there be no doubt, on this matter Putin unquestionably reflects the will of a Russian people never known for their love of liberal ideals. Putin’s enormously high approval ratings are no illusion or propaganda trick. Russians, even relatively sophisticated and cosmopolitan ones, share Putin’s fears about the West, no matter how irrational they may appear in our eyes.

With this mindset, the West believed that it could safely push NATO and the EU further and further east without triggering a Russian response. After all, it was clear, at least to us, that this was not a policy directed against Russia, but rather a goodhearted attempt to wrap the former Eastern Bloc countries in a Western “security blanket” that would guarantee them independence and self-determination. To quote Mearsheimer again:

“(Western leaders) believed that the end of the Cold War had fundamentally transformed international politics and that a new, postnational order had replaced the realist logic that used to govern Europe. The United States was not only the “indispensable nation,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it; it was also a benign hegemon and thus unlikely to be viewed as a threat in Moscow.”

Unfortunately for the Czech-born Albright and the other adherents of liberal international dogma, the West’s efforts to convince Russia of our fundamentally benevolent nature fell on deaf ears. And, as Mearsheimer points out, “it is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them”. Mersheimer then goes out to catalog the myriad times that the Russians, over many years and through various Russian and American administrations, made perfectly clear their distrust of a NATO and EU “drang nach osten”, most vividly with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 when President Mikheil Saakashvili steered this country too far in our direction.

Mearsheimer summarizes the mutual incomprehension with the following words:

“In essence, the two sides have been operating with different playbooks: Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates, whereas their Western counterparts have been adhering to liberal ideas about international politics. The result is that the United States and its allies unknowingly provoked a major crisis over Ukraine.”

Mearsheimer then proposes a mental exercise to help us understand the Russian position better: “Imagine the American outrage if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico”.  This hits home.

Mearsheimer argues that the way out of this crisis is that “the United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer”. This would require, among other things, a commitment that Ukraine (and Georgia) will never be admitted to NATO and the EU, a cessation of the multi-billion dollar US support for pro-Western NGOs and other interference with the internal politics of Ukraine, and multi-lateral efforts (including Russia) to improve the Ukrainian economy. To Mearsheimer, the confrontational alternative of sanctions and military assistance is just “doubling down” on a failed policy.

This blog has repeatedly argued that the only basis on which America should make its foreign policy decisions is our vital interests. We therefore have to decide. If Putin is a modern-day Hitler, hell bent on reviving the Soviet empire, and Ukraine is his version of Munich in 1938, then we cannot afford to play the role of Neville Chamberlain. If this view of Russia is right, then Ukraine is simply act one (or act two if we count Georgia) of a drama that will play out over many years and involve most of middle Europe. This protracted battle would be a disaster for America, Europe and the world and it should be averted now, when the cost is relatively minor.

Conversely, if Mearsheimer is right and Putin and Russia have “reacted” to Western provocations, then we should choose a different path. It does not matter that we might disagree with Putin’s interpretation of our actions; Putin (and the Russian people, who stand directly behind him on this point and would surely pursue the same policies even with a different leader) is a fact that we must accept. We don’t have to like Putin, or the deep-seated Russian tendencies he represents, but we do have to live with him.

It also does not matter that the Ukrainians might not like this. They may truly want to draw closer to the West, although I can confidently say that they have a very long way to go before reaching Western standards of politics, civil society, law and ethics. Although we can sympathize with a Ukraine unwillingly neutralized or drawn into Russia’s sphere of influence like Belarus or Kazakhstan, we have to acknowledge that there is nothing more at play here than our sympathies and not our vital interests.

We also have to acknowledge that Western encouragement of the Ukrainians to snub their vastly more powerful neighbor is ultimately foolhardy for both them and us. As Mearsheimer points out, this would be writing the Ukrainians a “blank check” that the West has no intention or ability to honor:

“It would therefore be the height of folly to create a new NATO member that the other members have no intention of defending. NATO has expanded in the past because liberals assumed the alliance would never have to honor its new security guarantees, but Russia’s recent power play shows that granting Ukraine NATO membership could put Russia and the West on a collision course.”

I don’t know which interpretation of Russia’s actions is correct, although Mearsheimer makes a pretty strong case that Russia has been reactive and with limited goals. One would hope that, with the billions that we and our allies spend each year on the NSA, the CIA, the State Department and their foreign equivalents, we would be in a position to answer these types of fundamental questions. If this analysis is not conclusive, however, then we should ask ourselves about the risks and rewards of different courses of action. From this perspective, I can’t see much downside to trying Mearsheimer’s way.

Trying to appease an ascendant Germany in 1938 was a mistake because every day made Germany stronger. A potentially misguided attempt to appease Russia in 2014, a “declining great power with an aging population and a one-dimensional economy”, doesn’t carry the same consequences. In fact, if we use the time wisely, including by liberating Europe from Russia’s energy grip (for which, see my earlier blog “Poking the Bear” ), our ability to respond to the next step in Putin’s masterplan, if one exists, is much stronger. And if there is no masterplan, then we have averted a crisis the world certainly does not need.

Roger Barris, London

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4 Comments on "Ukraine"

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Tom Saylak

Phew Roger,

Good piece. One observation and one question: for an interesting allegory, see the naval arms race pursued by Great Britain and Germany leading up to WWI. Both sides grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted the motivations of the other, with disastrous consequences. Margaret Macmillan analyzes this well in her recent book. My question is: how do the assurances Clinton gave Ukraine regarding their forfeiture of nuclear weapons in return for Western guarantees of security, misguided though they may have been, play into our responsibilities in this matter? Seems difficult to unscramble those eggs!



David Kinnard
You know, no one, to my knowledge, mentioned NATO membership for the Ukraine. Sure, Yanokovich’s job was to get the best deal from both the EU and Russia, but his personal greed always took first place before the interests of the nation. This let the genie out of the bottle. The war, like Yanokovich, is Putin’s creation. The results of both are less than inspiring. What could the west have done? I can only think of one thing. Putin really wanted a personal friendship with Bill Clinton, and pressed this point with Hillary. It would have ruined her presidential hopes… Read more »