A Debate on West’s Role in Russia’s Ukraine War: What It Was, Is and Should Be
The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began Feb. 24 has left tens of thousands of people dead, countless others maimed and millions displaced. It’s caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage and its fallout has echoed throughout the global economy. It’s forced European nations to revamp decades-old security policies and has influential voices in foreign affairs warning about the threat of nuclear war. Little wonder that Western policy shapers are keen to better understand their nations’ role in the conflict.
Two prominent American analysts see the U.S. role very differently. On one side of the debate is international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago; on the other is national security expert Joe Cirincione, who for many years headed nuclear arms control initiatives such as the Ploughshares Fund and the Carnegie Endowment’s non-proliferation program.
Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 Mearsheimer, a leading proponent of the realist school of international relations, has argued that the principal responsibility for “the Ukraine crisis” lies with the U.S. and, to a lesser degree, with the allies that have followed its lead. He most recently made this point in a June 16 speech reprinted below. Although Mearsheimer acknowledges that Putin started the war and is responsible for Russia’s conduct of it, his “central claim is that the United States has pushed forward policies toward Ukraine that Putin and other Russian leaders see as an existential threat, a point they have made repeatedly for many years.” Key among these policies has been the U.S. push to bring Ukraine into NATO and make it “a Western bulwark on Russia’s border.” It does not matter, Mearsheimer writes, what the authors of these policies intended; what matters is how Moscow saw them. His second main point in the speech is that Washington’s reaction to the outbreak of war has focused, together with its Western allies, on “decisively defeating Russia in Ukraine.” This, he believes, has prolonged the war there, subjected Ukraine to “even greater harm” and raises the risk of escalation, all the way up to the possible use of nuclear weapons. The key to a peaceful settlement from Russia’s perspective, he argues, “is making Ukraine a neutral state, ending the prospect of integrating Kyiv into the West.”
Cirincione rejects these arguments in an article written for Russia Matters, also reprinted below. While he has long criticized certain NATO policies threatening to Russia—like the initial inclusion of Eastern European countries in the military bloc and the placement of missile systems in Romania and Poland—he argues that the drivers behind them were numerous, mundane and often influenced by the Eastern Europeans’ own security imperatives. Even if the presence of significant NATO footholds in Ukraine did constitute a red line for Moscow, Cirincione feels that the West cannot “militarily abandon Ukraine and … cede it to Russia’s sphere of influence,” as Mearsheimer implicitly suggests. Cirincione also believes that Putin’s fears about Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics growing “too close to the West” stem from his fears that such closeness would foment “popular resistance to his increasingly authoritarian rule at home.” And he presents thought-provoking evidence against Mearsheimer’s earlier claims that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have been primarily defensive, spelling out the various ways Moscow has been taking control of Ukrainian territory. Cirincione’s final objection to Mearsheimer’s arguments is on moral grounds: that now, amid the blood-curdling brutality of Russian forces’ targeting of Ukrainian civilians, is not the time to analyze which past policies led to the problem; now, he writes, the West’s singular focus should indeed be to “defeat Russia’s invasion.”
As is customary in such debates, we have invited Prof. Mearsheimer to write a rebuttal, but he declined.
The war in Ukraine is a multi-dimensional disaster, which is likely to get much worse in the foreseeable future. When a war is successful, little attention is paid to its causes, but when the outcome is disastrous, understanding how it happened becomes paramount. People want to know: how did we get into this terrible situation?
I have witnessed this phenomenon twice in my lifetime—first with the Vietnam war and second with the Iraq war. In both cases, Americans wanted to know how their country could have miscalculated so badly. Given that the United States and its NATO allies played a crucial role in the events that led to the Ukraine war—and are now playing a central role in the conduct of that war—it is appropriate to evaluate the West’s responsibility for this calamity.
I will make two main arguments today.
First, the United States is principally responsible for causing the Ukraine crisis. This is not to deny that Putin started the war and that he is responsible for Russia’s conduct of the war. Nor is it to deny that America’s allies bear some responsibility, but they largely follow Washington’s lead on Ukraine. My central claim is that the United States has pushed forward policies toward Ukraine that Putin and other Russian leaders see as an existential threat, a point they have made repeatedly for many years. Specifically, I am talking about America’s obsession with bringing Ukraine into NATO and making it a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. The Biden administration was unwilling to eliminate that threat through diplomacy and indeed in 2021 recommitted the United States to bringing Ukraine into NATO. Putin responded by invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 of this year.
Second, the Biden administration has reacted to the outbreak of war by doubling down against Russia. Washington and its Western allies are committed to decisively defeating Russia in Ukraine and employing comprehensive sanctions to greatly weaken Russian power. The United States is not seriously interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the war, which means the war is likely to drag on for months if not years. In the process, Ukraine, which has already suffered grievously, is going to experience even greater harm. In essence, the United States is helping lead Ukraine down the primrose path. Furthermore, there is a danger that the war will escalate, as NATO might get dragged into the fighting and nuclear weapons might be used. We are living in perilous times.
Let me now lay out my argument in greater detail, starting with a description of the conventional wisdom about the causes of the Ukraine conflict.
International relations scholar John Mearsheimer is brilliant, provocative and deeply insightful. I have had the pleasure to know him and to have lectured to his class at the University of Chicago. On Ukraine, however, he is dangerously wrong.
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.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors. Photo shared by NATO via Flickr. Due to technical problems, this debate was posted only on Sept. 21, 2022; the lead-in text dates from Aug. 3, as indicated above.