• Adith Srinivasan

Poking the Sleeping Bear: Is the Ukraine Crisis Still the West's Fault?

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/s/photos/russia-and-ukrain

On 24 February 2022, just days after officially recognizing the independence of Ukraine’s border regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, Russia declared a full-scale invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region by land, air, and sea, targeting military assets and cities across the country.[1] As this article is being written, the Russian military now sits just on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv and signs of it slowing down have yet to appear.

Shortly after the announcement of the invasion, NATO Secretary-General Jen Stoltenberg condemned “Russia’s reckless and unprovoked attack on Ukraine”, further observing that “despite our repeated warnings and tireless efforts to engage in diplomacy, Russia has chosen the path of aggression against a sovereign and independent country.”[2] Later that day, U.S. President Biden delivered an address on “Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine,” beginning by addressing the elephant in the room: “The Russian military has begun a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity.[3] Yet, to frame Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as reckless and unprovoked is to underestimate the influence of Western security strategy (that of the United States, the European Union, NATO, and the relevant member countries) in altering the payoff matrix for, and thereby affecting, Russian aggression. While Russia certainly lacks any valid legal grounds which justify its military invasion and occupation of Ukraine, geopolitical motives still abound, principally of Western creation.

Importantly, this is not a new position to hold in the debate on the Ukraine conflict. Shortly after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, well-known international relations (IR) scholar John J. Mearsheimer wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs entitled, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin,”[4] followed in 2015 by a public lecture on the same subject.[5] This article reviews and reframes the contributions and insights of Mearsheimer’s piece in the context of the most recent developments in Ukraine. In particular, it seeks to explore the geopolitical motivations behind Russian aggression in Ukraine, with a particular focus on Western security strategy. In so doing, it hopes to reconceptualise the role of European Member States (and the West, more broadly) in Eastern Europe and thereby chart a path forward on the Eastern front.

The 2014 Ukraine Crisis as the West’s Fault: Mearsheimer’s Geopolitics

For Mearsheimer, the 2014 annexation of Crimea was the result of three phenomena (by no means recent developments) which occurred simultaneously on the Eastern front of the European continent: (1.) the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), (2.) the expansion of the European Union (EU), and (3.) the democratisation of states in Eastern Europe (particularly on the initiative of Western liberal democracies).[6] In light of these developments, Mearsheimer argued that Russia’s militarism was a direct response to these threats by Western countries against its strategic position in geopolitics. To Russia, it would appear as though the expansion of NATO and its concomitant security guarantees (Article 5, in particular), the increasing inclusion of states in the EU’s partnership initiatives (and the basket of ideological commitments that such partnerships carries with them), as well as the social engineering efforts by Western liberal democracies in Eastern Europe, were all part of a larger strategy by the West “to move Ukraine out of Russia's orbit and integrate it into the West”[7], “to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia's border”[8], and perhaps most importantly to weaken Russia by attacking the last bastions of its ideological fortress. As Carl Gershman observed in an article for the Washington Post in September 2013, “Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents.”[9] For Russia, should NATO and EU countries have been successful, there would have been no buffers between itself and its enemies. It would have forever shared a backyard with states organised to erode the foundation of its institutions and weaken its hold on geopolitics:

“A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow's mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine. Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West.”[10]

Thus, as Mearsheimer put it, “Washington may not like Moscow's position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.”[11]

The Current Armed Conflict in Ukraine: Still the West’s Fault?

Flash forward. On 17 December 2021, Russia issued a list of security guarantees to ease what appeared to be building tensions in Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, among the items listed were a commitment against further NATO eastward expansion (near Russia) and a ban on Ukraine entering NATO.[12] Of course, this proposal was shot down by world leaders, with the U.S. and NATO refusing to relent to Russia’s insistence on limiting NATO membership.[13] Yet, the pushes against NATO’s eastward expansion which preceded the present invasion of Ukraine suggest that at the heart of Russia’s militarism yet again lies a concern about the strategic expansion of the NATO bloc near its territory. Indeed, in remarks dating back to Russia’s initial claim to Crimea in 2014, Putin drew parallels between NATO’s eastward expansion and a history of “humiliation” that the country was subject to at the hands of the United States and its allies following the collapse of the Soviet Union:

“‘They cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back, presenting us with completed facts...That's the way it was with the expansion of NATO in the East, with the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They always told us the same thing: “Well, this doesn't involve you."”[14]

Even further back, one could hardly forget the 2008 Russian-Georgian war which followed NATO’s promise at its 2008 Summit in Bucharest that Georgia and Ukraine would one day be members of the organisation.[15] Yet, then too, as Mearsheimer observed, “despite this clear warning, NATO never publicly abandoned its goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance. And NATO expansion continued marching forward, with Albania and Croatia becoming members in 2009.”[16]

More recently, U.S. intelligence officials had warned of a potential Russian invasion in early 2022 as early as December 2021.[17] Shortly thereafter, on 16 December 2021, during a meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, NATO Secretary-General asserted only that “Any further aggression against Ukraine will have severe consequences,”[18] and still held out hope that Russia would accept an invitation to meet NATO at the negotiating table to discuss potential terms of de-escalation and respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Yet, recall that it was precisely at this time that Russia’s terms were released and then rejected by U.S. and NATO leadership. This is not to say that the US and NATO should necessarily have relented to Russian pressures to abandon Ukraine. But that the Alliance nonetheless held out hope that Russia simply would not invade Ukraine of its own volition appears to be a strategic miscalculation. For Mearsheimer, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an inevitability that had to be stopped; it was the default, the status quo. Russia would continue to escalate military tensions unless Western leadership managed to quell the Kremlin’s aggression. It would not stop of its own accord. Cast in this light, the lack of an adequate deterrent against military invasion, as well as the absence of any potent auxiliary mechanisms to retaliate, should Russia choose to invade, were examples of failures of Western strategy. It thus appears that the West’s strategy has simply failed in Ukraine. Not only did its constant efforts to drive closer and closer toward Russia, armed with ideologies and alliances antithetical to those of the Kremlin appear to push the already empire-hungry country even closer to the edge, but its failure to strategically plan for the event of a Russian invasion appears to simply overlook the geopolitical motives that its security strategy in Eastern Europe has created for Russia.

By no means, however, is Russia a “victim” of Western strategic expansion. It is its military that is currently invading Ukraine, its ammunition that is tearing down the homes of so many, and its threats that are forcing locals to seek refuge. It thus bears principal responsibility for the armed conflict currently unfolding. In turn, the expressions of solidarity, as well as the provision of material assistance being spearheaded by NATO and EU members affirms the much-needed sort of organisational unity and integrity that serves as the symbolic foundation of such alliances and partnerships. Yet, just as Mearsheimer set forth in 2014, Western leadership cannot simply abdicate its failure to plan for and prevent the invasion. Strategic miscalculations still constitute failures, especially when they incur the costs currently being borne by the people of Ukraine. Thus, just as one does not solely fault the raging bear for the damage it causes, but also the one who poked it, so too must we acknowledge the strategic failures of Western leadership which culminated in the war unfolding before us.

Such a sober realisation is imperative in times like these. Armed conflicts of the sort currently unfolding in Ukraine bring with them displacement, death and destruction on a scale that demands not only global attention but learning, in order to prevent such catastrophes in the future. If any means exist by which we might prevent, or at least reduce the likelihood of such catastrophes, they must be explored. In this light, the current framing of the invasion as entirely out of the control of Western leadership risks setting a dangerous precedent if accepted. Should we refuse to explore what options may have existed for European and NATO states to prevent the havoc currently being imposed on the Ukrainian people, this would amount to a convenient shirking of the responsibilities of global leadership. Ignorance can certainly be bliss, but in a world where such catastrophes are visible, bliss no longer feels possible, and ignorance is unacceptable.

References [1] “Conflict in Ukraine,” Global Conflict Tracker, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), accessed February 25, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-ukraine; “Ukraine – Security Council, 8974th Meeting,” Meeings & Events / Security Council / Europe, United Nations, 23 February 2022, https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1j/k1j8unn1me. [2] “NATO Secretary General Statement on Russia’s Unprovoked Attack on Ukraine,” Press Release (2022) 044, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Issued on 24 Feb. 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_192401.htm. [3] White House Briefing Room, “Remarks by President Biden on Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine,” February 24, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/02/24/remarks-by-president-biden-on-russias-unprovoked-and-unjustified-attack-on-ukraine/. [4] Mearsheimer, John J. 2014. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” Foreign Affairs 93(5): 77–89. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24483306. [5] Mearsheimer, John J. 2014. “Why is Ukraine the West's Fault? Featuring John Mearsheimer / UnCommon Core: The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis.” Presentation to University of Chicago Alumni. Filmed June 2015. Video, 1:14:15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrMiSQAGOS4. [6] John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (September/October 2014): 80. [7] Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” 77. [8] Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” 78. [9] Carl Gershman, “Former Soviet states stand up to Russia. Will the U.S.?,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/former-soviet-states-stand-up-to-russia-will-the-us/2013/09/26/b5ad2be4-246a-11e3-b75d-5b7f66349852_story.html. [10] Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” 82. [11] Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” 82. [12] Andrew Roth, “Russia issues list of demands it says must be met to lower tensions in Europe,” The Guardian, December 17, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/17/russia-issues-list-demands-tensions-europe-ukraine-nato. [13] Steven Erlanger and Andrew E. Kramer, “In Responses to Russia, U.S. Stands Firm on Who Can Join NATO,” New York Times, February 2, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/02/world/europe/us-nato-response-russia-demands.html. [14] Steven Lee Meyers and Ellen Barry, “Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West,” New York Times, March 19, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/19/world/europe/ukraine.html. [15] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Bucharest Summit Declaration: Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council is Bucharest on 3 April 2008,” Press Release (2008) | 049, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Issued April 3, 2008, Updated May 8, 2014, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_8443.htm. See Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” 79. See also Jack Detsch, “12 Years After Russian Invasion, Georgia Sees No End in Sight,” Foreign Policy, August 10, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/10/russia-invasion-georgia-12-years-no-end-ambassador-david-bakradze-interview/. [16] Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault,” 79. [17] Shane Harris and Paul Sonne, “Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns,” Washington Post, December 4, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/russia-ukraine-invasion/2021/12/03/98a3760e-546b-11ec-8769-2f4ecdf7a2ad_story.html. [18] North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), “Joint press point by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Newsroom, Speeches & Transcripts, December 16, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_190292.htm, emphasis added.