There are very good reasons that neighboring countries are opposed to being governed by the political tradition of Muscovy, a political tradition consisting essentially of Despotism, Corruption, and Brutality.
John J. Mearsheimer, on June 16, gave a speech at the European Union Institute (EUI) on “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis.”
Professor Mearsheimer is a Russian apologist who blames the United States for “provoking” Russia into invading Ukraine. Mearsheimer’s sophistries have found an enthusiastic audience in the Nouveau-Paleocon Isolationist Buchananite wing of the Right.
Joe Ciricione offers a rebuttal of Mearsheimer.
In numerous essays and articles, Mearsheimer focuses his fire on U.S. and NATO policies for causing the Ukraine war and for its continuation. His speech, “Why Is Ukraine the West’s Fault?” has been viewed more than 27 million times. These views are echoed by many on the far left and the libertarian right, as well as the center. This makes it all the more vital to understand the gaps in his analysis that produce such a flawed result. His security equation is missing key variables.
The three most important are the security imperatives of Russia’s neighbors, the increasing authoritarianism of the Russian state and the true horror of Russia’s brutal war and occupation. By not adequately weighing these factors, Mearsheimer can explain Putin’s invasion of a peaceful, independent nation as a predictable reaction to Western provocations. He blasts the U.S. and NATO response as an overreaction to a limited conflict. Analyzing only parts of the equation, he arrives at a deeply flawed solution: In my understanding, he essentially calls on the West to militarily abandon Ukraine and to cede it to Russia’s sphere of influence.
Mearsheimer’s specific arguments are well known. (As one colleague told me, Mearsheimer’s writings are like Vivaldi’s concertos: beautiful, but they all sound alike.) He holds that “the United States is principally responsible for causing the Ukraine crisis.” That “Putin is not bent on conquering and absorbing Ukraine.” That the West has little to fear from Russia and only “began describing Putin as a dangerous leader with imperial ambitions” after the invasion and is doing so now only “to make sure he alone is blamed” for the war. He concludes that “the United States is not seriously interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the war,” bears primary responsibility for prolonging and escalating the war and is the principal obstacle to peace.
One can accept key points in Mearsheimer’s argument, as I do, without accepting his conclusions. NATO enlargement was problematic; I warned against it at the time and have criticized it more recently, preferring that the newly liberated states of Eastern Europe be brought into the European Union, not a military alliance created to counter the Soviet Union. Some U.S. policies have not taken into account legitimate Russian security concerns, particularly the deployment of missile interceptors in Poland and Romania that serve no useful purpose but, in Moscow’s view, do present a credible military threat, as I have long argued.
But NATO’s policies were not driven by “America’s obsession with bringing Ukraine into NATO and making it a Western bulwark on Russia’s border.” Rather—while some policymakers and experts have, indeed, proposed grander, hegemonic schemes, particularly during the run-up to and early years of the Iraq war—NATO policies since the end of the Cold War can largely be explained by the usual, mundane drivers: bureaucratic inertia and self-perpetuation; the politics of state-to-state relations; pursuit of new, profitable defense contracts; domestic politics; and the desire of U.S. and European politicians to demonstrate resolve, particularly against Iran.
The key driver of NATO expansion was one that I underestimated and that Mearsheimer specifically ignores: Eastern Europeans wanted protection from a historic foe. They pushed to join NATO; America did not pull them into an anti-Russian pact. Centuries of invasions instilled a genuine fear of Russia into their collective memories. Putin’s numerous nuclear threats since the beginning of the war remind all that however weakened Russia’s army may be by its battles in Ukraine, its nuclear weapons can destroy any nation it targets.
This is true of Sweden and Finland today. The U.S. is not manipulating them into joining a crusade to conquer Russia. These nations fear that Putin’s goals go far beyond those Mearsheimer describes. That is why they are abandoning decades (in Sweden’s case, three centuries) of neutrality. If they followed Mearsheimer’s logic, surely these countries would see that their national interests would be best served by assuaging Russia’s security concerns and continuing to remain free of military alliances. …
Mearsheimer’s assurances today that Putin has only “limited aims” and that his February blitzkrieg failed not because of fierce Ukrainian resistance but because the “Russian military did not attempt to conquer all of Ukraine” are as wrong now as they were in 2014. Then, too, he predicted that after seizing Crimea, Putin had no further territorial ambitions and even if he did he would be “unable to successfully occupy Ukraine.” He counseled that “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine” and argued that Putin’s “response to events there has been defensive, not offensive.”
But Russia itself provides the rebuttal. In late July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said outright that Moscow’s goal was to free Ukraine’s people from the “unacceptable regime” in Kyiv. He was following Putin’s lead. On June 9, Putin gave a speech on the war where he did not say one word about NATO or NATO enlargement but did wax eloquent about his similarity to Tsar Peter the Great, whose war with Sweden, he said, was justly “returning” land to Russia. “Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well,” he said. Hardly a defensive goal. Already, in occupied parts of Ukraine, Russian-backed administrators are introducing rubles as a new currency, handing out Russian passports, hoisting the Russian flag, taking over cell phone service and media and trying to re-educate teachers and children with new, pro-Russian versions of reality.
This focus on controlling the people and narratives in Ukraine hints at the second variable Mearsheimer ignores in his construct: Putin has long feared that popular resistance to his increasingly authoritarian rule at home would spread if Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics grew too close to the West. Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul pointed this out (correctly, in my view) when he faulted Mearsheimer in 2014 for not looking at the whole picture. “Russian foreign policy did not grow more aggressive in response to U.S. policies,” McFaul wrote. “It changed as a result of Russian internal political dynamics.
Mearsheimer accepts the traditional insolent Muscovite claim of a supposed “right” to dominate and reduce to puppet state status unwilling neighbors. He additionally accepts the nonsensical argument that the “security” of Muscovy necessitates a wide cordon sanitaire of satellite regimes and imperial possessions. The obvious consideration that no aggressive European rival states exist and the United States and its allies make no claims or pretensions to ownership of any square foot of Russian soil.
The rivalry between America and Russia exists only to the extent of differing regime preferences concerning, and different client relationships with, a few Third World countries.
Unless Russia proceeds to start WWIII, nobody is going to raise a Grande Armée and march East.
But Russia has already flagrantly violated the implicit convention, that you do not attack other European states and you do not revise sovereign borders by force, that underlays the entire peaceful Post-WWII Order.
Russia is behaving today in the precise same vicious, aggressive, and mendacious manner that Germany and Japan did in the 1930s. Attempting to appease German aggression back then was a mistake and inevitably failed. We must either stand up to Russia now and stop the cycle of aggression and conquest before it goes any farther, or we will surely find ourselves not far down the road, unprepared and facing inevitable War.