According to foreign policy “realists,” the tale we are being told about Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine is a fiction. Realists like to be known for their clear-eyed appreciation of the realities of global power, and in their telling, responsibility for the war does not lie chiefly with Putin and his longstanding determination to resuscitate the Russian empire. “The taproot of the trouble,” insists John Mearsheimer, was a Western strategy to peel Ukraine away from Russia and integrate it into the institutions and alliances of the West. This, apparently, was the fuel thrown onto “a fire waiting to ignite.”
There is something bizarre about affixing primary blame for an imperial invasion to a party that had no hand in launching it. There is also something perverse in the effort to excuse the motives of the party who did embark on this squalid enterprise. The overwhelming share of guilt for this unfolding horror rests with the Russian tyrant, tout court. It is Putin who ordered Russian forces to lay waste to an independent state. It is Putin who has issued brazen threats of nuclear warfare. It is Putin who seeks to govern at home and abroad on the basis of brute power rather than consent.
Nevertheless, the war still might not have broken out but for decades of delusional Western foreign policy. That Putin had the confidence to launch this invasion at all marks a failure of deterrence that warrants a serious accounting in every Western capital, and in Washington most of all. The necessary preconditions for this conflict were a combination of the Russian autocrat’s ambition and the West’s evasion of responsibility.
For years, it has been clear to anyone who wished to see it that the Russian regime is ardently revisionist, irredentist, and when the mood took it, ferociously bellicose. It has long had its sights on Ukraine, the dearest part of its near abroad in the national imagination. Ukraine and the West therefore faced an agonizing choice. This vast state on the eastern edge of Europe might have taken refuge in official neutrality to placate the Kremlin. Otherwise, the Russian challenge had to be met with credible deterrent power.
In 2014, arch-realist Henry Kissinger recommended that Ukraine and the West pursue the former course. With Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces agitating against the central government, Kissinger argued that Kyiv could never expect a quiet life if it entered the West’s orbit. This meant that, in effect, Ukraine would have to foreclose the possibility of joining NATO. If Ukraine refused, Kissinger implied that the Western powers needed to do so on its behalf, in violation of the alliance’s “open door” policy. Only after this act of submission would a neutral Ukraine be permitted by Moscow to choose its political and economic character as a state and a society.
Had Ukrainians heeded this austere counsel, their nation would have adopted a posture on the world stage comparable to that of Finland, which enjoys independence and cooperates with the West but carefully avoids encroaching on Russia’s strategic interests. This model would have allowed Ukraine to function as a bridge between East and West. The alternative, Kissinger intimated, was for the country to become one side’s outpost against the other to the unrelieved detriment of its citizens.
Kissinger was correct to point out that Moscow would never acquiesce to Kyiv reorienting itself toward the West, even if he exaggerated what Putin might conceivably tolerate from a free Ukraine. The aging philosopher and former practitioner of a particularly ruthless kind of Cold War realpolitik clearly perceived Russia’s hostile designs for Ukraine, which it would undoubtedly pursue by force should diplomatic cunning prove to be insufficient. But a constructive and coherent foreign policy toward Ukraine might then have been forged in one of two ways.
First, the West could have—per the realist playbook—granted Russia the untrammeled right to dominate its former satellite. Alternatively, the West could have sufficiently fortified Ukraine’s position to deter Russian aggression. As it was, the West opted for a fatal middle course. It failed to boost Ukraine’s military capabilities while expecting more forbearance from Putin for Ukraine’s westward aspirations than he could realistically have been expected to muster given what we know about him. This was a strategic dodge that left Ukraine in the unenviable position of being simultaneously vulnerable and provocative to a resentful, revanchist neighbor. A false alliance between the West and Ukraine had formed that could last only so long as Russia did not mobilize its considerable power to challenge it.
The realists have grown hoarse in recent years and days echoing Kissinger’s admonition to grant Russia an expansive “sphere of influence.” They have warned against indulging Ukraine’s own preferred political and defense arrangements. If Ukraine were not kept a safe distance from the West, it would soon find itself “wrecked,” to borrow Mearsheimer’s arresting description. This prophecy has now come to pass, and the wreckage of Ukraine is plain for all (save the Russian people, denied the blessings of a free press) to see.
It would be a mistake, however, to read this as vindication for the realists, who were by no means alone in recognizing the danger Russia presented. Anyone with the measure of Putin, including neoconservative analysts like Robert Kagan, arrived at the same conclusion, only they recommended deterrence not appeasement. More importantly, the realist description of Russian strategic conduct falls abysmally short of reality, since it ignores the ideological ballast of Putin’s project.
Far from enduring one provocation after another in the quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has in fact been shown great deference by the West. When the nations of Central Europe first petitioned to join NATO in 1991, the Bush administration scoffed at their “paranoid” security concerns after decades of brutal occupation. At the same time, the free world included Russia in its deliberations and elevated it on the world stage. Washington even drew down its forces in Europe. By 2013, the last American armored brigade based in Germany had deactivated, leaving zero US Army tanks in Europe, where a quarter of a million soldiers backed by nuclear-tipped Pershing missiles were once deployed.
What the Kremlin has long feared in a self-governing Ukraine is manifestly not a martial threat but a political one—ballots, not bullets. The Maidan revolution sparked Russia’s initial intervention in 2014, because it raised the curtain on the prospect of Ukrainian membership of the European Union, not the Western alliance. Furthermore, the Greater Russia envisioned by its rulers cannot come into being without the expansion of Russian power and prestige. “Without Ukraine,” former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski observed, “Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”
Although the war in Ukraine remains Putin’s moral responsibility, the Kremlin perceived American and European weakness and incompetence as an invitation to spread chaos at will. The West’s sudden and surprising response to Russia’s war of conquest indicates that Putin miscalculated, at least in part. But that should not blind anyone to the West’s woeful performance in recent months and years. Ukrainians today are paying the steepest of costs for the West’s failure to identify a clear and present danger early on and to furnish a coherent strategy to deter it.
The war is only three weeks old, but the juxtaposition of Russia’s military ineptitude and Ukraine’s valiant resistance provides reasons for optimism. Despite President Biden’s tardy delivery of emergency military assistance to Ukraine’s government, the administration still risks undermining progress on the battlefield by refusing a larger airlift of lethal equipment including Polish MiG aircraft and air defenses like the S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Putin’s war has begun to flounder and may yet help revive the strength and confidence of the free world. Such a salutary outcome depends on American and Western leaders recognizing their past failures and restoring the credibility of deterrence.
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