By Edward Lucas
The Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault. That has been the contention of a slew of foreign-policy experts, notably the distinguished political scientist John Mearsheimer, who wrote a much-quoted piece in Foreign Affairs in August last year called “The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.”
For those who missed it, Mearsheimer blamed the crisis in Ukraine on NATO enlargement, saying that Russia had adamantly opposed it (which is not true); that it breached undertakings given to the Soviet Union (also false); and that Putin feared that the “coup” against Yanukovych was a prelude to a NATO base in Crimea (also untrue).
Mearsheimer also argued that the EU had been “marching eastward” and therefore provoking Russia and that the West was recklessly promoting democracy with the aim of turning Ukraine into a “Western stronghold on Russia’s doorstep.”
The counter-arguments to this are well known. The biggest is that they remove from Ukrainians and others any say in their own future. They are just counters in a board game played by others. As Mearsheimer argues, might is right and countries Ukraine’s position just have to get used to it.
That is both inaccurate and morally dubious (given how much the countries of the “bloodlands” have suffered in the past century). It is right to say that Russia, not the West, gets to decide what constitutes a threat to Russia. We can’t help it if Russia’s ex-KGB regime is afflicted by paranoia. But if Russia’s threat-perception becomes the paramount and unchallenged factor in regional security, we are in effect assenting to a new Yalta.
It is more interesting to see how Mearsheimer’s predictions have fared. He believed that Vladimir Putin is a “first-class strategist” whose “hardball” approach—a mixture of military and economic pressure—would force Ukraine to yield unless the West embarked on a risky escalation.
That hasn’t happened. Putin’s “first-class” strategic thinking has not proved very successful. Russia is capable of impressive tactical gambits (such as its intervention in Syria) but at the end of it Russia is isolated, cash-strapped and languishing.
Contrary to Mearsheimer’s expectations, American and Europe imposed tough, unanimous sanctions in 2014. Far from resisting them for fear of Russian retaliation, Germany under Angela Merkel was in the forefront of imposing them. True, Ukraine is not in great shape—but nobody expected it to be. Surviving is in itself a victory. It has cut its dependence on Russian gas, taken the first steps to sort out its appalling finances, and held local and parliamentary elections in which (unlike in Russia) the outcome was not preordained. More upheavals doubtless lie ahead. But they will take place in a country which has beaten off existential threats and has a national identity consolidated as never before.
Mearsheimer warned that if the United States and its European allies continued their current policy, it would “exacerbate hostilities with Russia and devastate Ukraine in the process.” That hasn’t happened either. Faced with strength, Russia backs down. Faced with weakness, it advances. Ukraine showed strength and fought the Russian-backed rebels to a standstill, saving the vital port of Mariupol. Ukrainians are indeed fed up with their rulers—but they do not want to be ruled from Moscow, or by Kremlin stooges.
The West showed strength too. Not enough, in my view—we could still do a lot more to hunt down Russian dirty money, to boost defence cooperation, and to counter propaganda. But astonishing changes are under way – such as the European Union’s excellent new weekly monitor of Russian propaganda. That, not Mearsheimer’s phoney realpolitik, is how we should respond to Putin.