As the world watches in horror, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has entered its fourth week. Civilians are being targeted. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has asked Russia to stop the invasion. The United States Senate, in a rare show of unanimity, has condemned Putin as a war criminal. Just about every major newspaper in the world has condemned Putin. At the United Nations General Assembly, 141 nations condemned his actions. Only four nations supported Russia while 35 abstained.
Ironically, a small number of political scientists in the West, proponents of what they call Realism Theory, have offered a different viewpoint. Instead of blaming Putin, they have placed the blame for Russia’s invasion on the West.
Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago has emerged as the leading voice of this minority. In the Economist, he writes: “There is no question that Vladimir Putin started the war and is responsible for how it is being waged. But why he did so is another matter. The mainstream view in the West is that he is an irrational, out-of-touch aggressor bent on creating a greater Russia in the mould of the former Soviet Union. Thus, he alone bears full responsibility for the Ukraine crisis.
“But that story is wrong. The West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis which began in February 2014. It has now turned into a war that not only threatens to destroy Ukraine, but also has the potential to escalate into a nuclear war between Russia and NATO.”
Mearsheimer boldly disagrees with the preponderance of opinion that is being offered in the West by political scientists, diplomats, politicians and other analysts that Putin is seeking to bringing greatness back to Russia. He ignores the fact that Putin, a former KBG officer, is on record as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst catastrophe of the 20th century.
The learned professor argues that Ukraine became a de factor member of NATO in December 2017 when the Trump administration decided to sell Kyiv “defensive weapons”.
Mearsheimer, without offering any evidence, says that Russia does not have any revanchist ambitions for expanding the boundaries of Russia because it lacks the resources. However, on Friday, Putin extolled Crimea for re-joining the Russian motherland in a speech to a massive rally in Moscow designed to celebrate the Russian conquest of Crimea.
In Mearsheimer’s view, Putin’s Russia feels threatened by the expansion of NATO. He was willing to live with several former Soviet Republics joining NATO, says Mearsheimer, but not Ukraine. The learned professor argues that Ukraine became a de factor member of NATO in December 2017 when the Trump administration decided to sell Kyiv “defensive weapons”. What counts as “defensive,” he says, is hardly clear-cut. It sufficed that they looked offensive to Putin.
“Other NATO countries got in on the act, shipping weapons to Ukraine, training its armed forces and allowing it to participate in joint air and naval exercises. In July 2021, Ukraine and America co-hosted a major naval exercise in the Black Sea region involving navies from 32 countries. Operation Sea Breeze almost provoked Russia to fire at a British naval destroyer that deliberately entered what Russia considers its territorial waters.”
Unsurprisingly, Mearsheimer’s views echo those of Putin. Two Eastern European scholars rebuke Mearsheimer for what they term ‘West-plaining’: “NATO did not expand into ‘Eastern Europe.’ Czechia, Poland, and Hungary in 1999 and the Baltic countries among others in 2004 actively sought membership in the alliance. This is not just semantics[…] the West has been a desired political direction associated with prosperity, democracy, and freedom—despite the limitations of Western liberal capitalist democracies and the implementation of that model in Eastern Europe. Being at the receiving end of Russian imperialism, many Eastern Europeans looked forward to membership in NATO as a means of securing their sovereignty. NATO, in other words, would not have “expanded” into Eastern Europe if the Eastern European nations had not wanted it and actively pursued it.”
They conclude: “After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine several times attempted to assert and defend its westward course, including in 2004 and in 2014, both times to great resistance on the part of the Kremlin. There is no point in denying that the West actively intervened in this. But so did Russia.
Putin could come up with any number of reasons for those interventions. For example, supplementing a threat to his national security with irredentist claims about the desire of these regions to re-join the ‘motherland.’
“Some pundits might argue that while this history is tragic, it is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things: Whether imaginary or not, Russia has security concerns that the West should have taken seriously. Although the parsimony of this explanation might be tempting, logically it does not hold. Implicitly, it is based on a counterfactual scenario in which NATO is not enlarged and Russia does not attack Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022. It fails at the same time to consider a different counterfactual scenario: NATO enlargement does not happen, and Russia invades its neighbours nonetheless. We cannot know what would have happened.”
Ukraine’s biggest mistake may have been its decision to give up its nuclear arsenal, which was the world’s third largest, to Russia. It should not make another mistake. Even if the West makes a binding commitment to Russia that (1) Ukraine will never join NATO and (2) Ukraine agrees to concede Crimea and Donbass to Russia, there is no assurance that a triumphant Putin will not intervene in the rest of Eastern Europe to enhance his ‘security.’ He could begin by absorbing Moldova and then Estonia and Lithuania.
Putin could come up with any number of reasons for those interventions. For example, supplementing a threat to his national security with irredentist claims about the desire of these regions to re-join the ‘motherland.’ This is not an unlikely scenario if he concludes that he can lull the West into inaction by just threatening to use nuclear weapons.
The world, not just the West, must force Putin to withdraw his troops from Ukraine and stop laying the country to waste by shelling it every hour of the day with guns, bombs and missiles.
The world cannot let Putin make a mockery of international law and flaunt it at will. It cannot let him make up excuses for invading other countries that have not attacked him. Doing so would create a precedent allowing any large nation bully its smaller neighbours into submission, invading them if they don’t comply with its diktats. If such a precedent is created, many other dictators and tyrants who are waiting in the wings, anxious to expand their sphere of influence, would begin the bullying process to brow beat their smaller neighbours into submission.
That would be a very unfortunate outcome, indeed.