Russo-Ukrainian War: Where It Began And Why That Matters

24th February 2022 is a date that will forever live in infamy. Days after recognising the independence of Ukraine’s border regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, Russia authorised a full scale ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. This ‘operation’ has been widely – and rightly – condemned for violating multiple codes on which the international political and legal order is based. Indeed, the response from the global community reflected their disapproval through sanctions that will have crippling effects on the Russian economy for years to come. 

Protests against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Trafalgar Sqaure, London. Photo by Karollyne Hubert on Unsplash.

While President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia’s actions sought “the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”, many other reasons have been advanced to explain the attack on Ukraine and violation of the country’s territorial integrity.  

Denazification is a rationale disconnected from the political reality of Ukraine today. Instead, it references a time after the Second World War when Germany went through a process of separating German society from the clutches of the National Socialist Party. In Ukraine, hardly any traces of such influence are present or influential in the running of the country. Putin considers mainly the coalition between Volodymyr Zelensky and the far right. The Ukrainian president’s grandfather’s brothers were killed in the Holocaust and Zelensky has been outspoken about his Jewish identity, asking Putin, “How can I be a Nazi? Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.” Now, one may view the far-right as a problem in Ukraine, but Ukraine remains far from a Nazi state.

It is on Putin’s first point that the role of the West, and the focus of this article, is explored. In seeking “demilitarisation”, Putin draws on historical fears that have plagued modern Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. These include the fear of Western expansion toward Russian borders, the fear of NATO’s influence in former Soviet states and the threat to Russia’s national security from this expansion and support to Ukraine. All this has led to Russian calls for Ukraine’s neutrality. 

Mearsheimer’s controversy (also known as argument) 

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He has been a leading critic of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea (from Ukraine), Mearsheimer authored a seminal article, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin’. Mearsheimer unequivocally stated that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.” 

Therefore, it is no surprise that the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 sparked a fresh debate about the role of the West in the crisis. Mearsheimer’s views are central to this argument and present a pragmatic analysis of the current situation and its origins.

Mearsheimer opposes the prevailing wisdom in the West: that the Ukraine crisis can be blamed entirely on Russian aggression. This argument blames Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea on an innate desire to resurrect the Soviet empire. Moreover, the popular belief is that Putin will eventually go after other countries in eastern Europe.

John J. Mearsheimer. Credit: LSE/Nigel Stead

However, Mearsheimer argues that the root of these problems is NATO enlargement. He believes that such enlargement is the central element of a wider move to take Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and integrate it into the West. Furthermore, the EU’s eastward expansion and Western support of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine such as the Orange movement were also important in angering Putin and provoking his actions. Geographically, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of military and strategic importance to Russia. After all, it is Ukraine that Napoleon’s France, Imperial Germany, and Hitler’s Germany all crossed to invade and strike at Russia. 

In that argument, he compares the Russian ideology to the United States, “Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it.” Moreover, Putin and other Russian leaders have always strongly asserted that NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine is considered unacceptable. The 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Mearsheimer argues, made that point crystal clear. 

He squares the blame on the United States. The focus on enlargement going back to the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s was not just misguided, it was highly opposed. Indeed, the U.S. diplomat George Kennan argued, shortly after the U.S. Senate approved the first efforts of NATO expansion, “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else.”

Sir Adam Roberts’ conventional view 

Sir Adam Roberts challenges Professor Mearsheimer’s central argument that the crisis began because NATO ostensibly committed the alliance to the future membership of Ukraine and Georgia. He argues that there were always different interpretations of “will become members”. For some these words were a political opportunity for then-President Bush to show something for his trip to NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008 while other key member states remained doubtful. Only President Putin took the phrasing seriously. This argument does not necessarily attack the assertion by Mearsheimer that the West and its actions provoked Putin. It only asserts that Putin took seriously what others did not. 

Furthermore, he opposes Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism”. This school of thought, coined by Mearsheimer, argues that “systems in which there are several great powers are prone to manage their mutual relations with deep rivalry and a high risk of war.” From this school of thought flows the idea of “spheres of influence” (a more popular term during the active colonial era) which states will protect at all costs. Mearsheimer would view that Russia is seeking to affirm, protect and realise its sphere. Roberts agrees with this, but posits there are other reasons beyond offensive realism. 

Sir Roberts argues that the end of the Soviet empire, like all other empires, was bound to be messy and traumatic for the new Russian state. Questions of national identity and other political considerations also plagued the new Ukraine. This created pro-Russian sects in post-soviet countries that continued to call for the return of their countries to the ‘motherland’. He defends the West’s expansion toward Russia on the basis that the existence of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe required some level of Western involvement. While these were surrendered under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of December 5th 1994, Russia’s invasion of Crimea violated the assurances in that agreement. Ukraine was left in a position where it seemed attractive to join NATO. Finally, the colour revolutions made Putin suspicious because similar movements had led to the downfall of the former Soviet Union. Putin treated the 2003 Rose revolution and 2004 Orange revolution as international (western) conspiracies, which influenced his approach to Ukraine. These were the popular revolutions that occurred in many countries in the former Soviet Union in recent decades. The Rose revolution happened in Georgia while the Orange revolution occurred in Ukraine and threw out the corrupt Russia-friendly strongman, Viktor Yanukovych.

While Roberts makes some strong arguments, he does not directly dispute the major arguments made by Mearsheimer. At its core, Adams simply opines that there are other reasons – a constructivist approach that views Putin as provoked by other reasons beyond merely one. However, the chain of events can be seen in Mearsheimer’s argument as kicked off by the expansionist strategy of NATO, directed by the USA. While the reasons Roberts presents can coalesce around this, one may argue that with better international relationships built with respect to distinct spheres of influence, any further factors could have been met with a peaceful resolution. Some may posit that we ought to move from a world of de facto spheres of influence. Yet, the ideological differences that grew in the 20th century may take more than mere pacifism to unchain the global superpowers. First, we would have to correct what Mearsheimer views as the broken trust system between East and West since the fall of the USSR. 

Ultimately, none of these opposing theories deny the wrongful violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity or the unnecessary and grotesque loss of lives in Ukraine. However, Mearsheimer presents an argument that might be important in the formulation of an answer to the Ukraine crisis and prevent further dispute. By acknowledging the role of the West, and other viable reasons presented by Adams, a solution befitting the problems can be devised.

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