The prevailing Western perception is that the Ukrainian crisis has been purely a function of Russian aggression; the Crimean annexation was merely a prelude to greater Russian expansion, a preface to a resuscitated Soviet Empire; and the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year was simply a pretext for Putin to seize part of Ukraine. This account is fundamentally misguided; the United States and its European allies need to assume a considerable portion of responsibility for the crisis. There are three crucial points that underpin shifting the liability:

  1. NATO enlargement
  2. EU expansion
  3. The West’s backing of pro-democracy movements in Ukraine – beginning with the Orange revolution in 2004

Since the mid-1990s, NATO enlargement has been vehemently opposed by Russian leaders who clearly elucidated their unwillingness to idle while their strategically significant neighbour was remodelled into a Western bastion. The overthrow of the Yanukovych Government was the final act for Putin, responding by seizing Crimea, a peninsula he feared would eventually host NATO naval assets, and by destabilising the state until it decides to abandon its desire to amalgamate with the West.

Putin’s response should have emerged with little astonishment; the West had been encroaching on Putin’s arena and endangering Russia’s core interests for over a decade, a detail clearly communicated by Putin himself. Instead, Western incredulity, while disconcerting, is easily understood; the flawed estimation of international politics that dominates Western discourse discards a substantial quantity of realist logic, believing that the theory holds little relevance in the twenty-first century. A belief in liberal principles such as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy, constitute the perceived foundations of European harmony, the mechanisms that ensure a whole and free continent. However, the current crisis clearly demonstrates that realpolitik remains fervently pertinent, and that states ignore reality at their own peril. The United States and Europe gravely miscalculated their attempt to transform Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border, the consequences of which are now plainly visible.

The flawed estimation of international politics that dominates Western discourse discards a substantial quantity of realist logic, believing that the theory holds little relevance in the twenty-first century

The Western Affront

As the Cold War concluded, Soviet leaders, fearing a reunified German state, actually preferred U.S. forces remain in Europe, and NATO stay intact; however, Russian successors had no desire to see the organisation enlarge, and assumed their Western counterparts understood their concerns. Evidently, the Clinton administration thought otherwise, beginning a drive to grow NATO from the mid-1990s.

The initial round of enlargement occurred in 1999 when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were welcomed into the organisation. In 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were all added to NATO. Russian President Boris Yeltsin remarked during the 1995 NATO bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs that, “This is the first sign of what could happen when NATO comes right up to the Russian Federation’s borders. … The flame of war could burst out across the whole of Europe.” At the time, Russia was too weak to attempt any derailment of NATO’s eastward movement – which didn’t appear overly threatening anyway as, save for the small Baltic states, no new member state shared a border with Russia. However, NATO continued looking east, and during its April 2008 summit in Bucharest, contemplated the admission of Georgia and Ukraine. The Bush administration was supportive of adopting the two states; however France and Germany opposed the move, fearing that the admissions would antagonise Russia. NATO’s members eventually reached a compromise, deciding to stay the formal process preceding membership, instead issuing a statement underwriting the aspirations of both Georgia and Ukraine to eventually receive membership, audaciously declaring, “These countries will become members of NATO.”

Moscow failed to see the summit outcome as a compromise. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, stated, “Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.” Putin declared that the admission of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO would constitute a “direct threat” to Russia. In August of 2008, any doubts regarding Russia’s determination to obstruct Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO were surely dismissed as Russian military forces invaded Georgia. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s President, was profoundly dedicated to securing NATO membership for his state, and in the summer of 2008, decided to reincorporate the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin, in his desire to ensure Georgia remained weak and divided – and out of NATO, took control of the two separatist regions. Moscow had demonstrated its willingness to combat NATO expansion, yet despite this overt admonition, NATO failed to abandon its ambition to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine, continuing its eastward march, integrating Albania and Croatia in 2009.

In concert with NATO, the European Union had also been expanding east, unveiling in May 2008, its Eastern Partnership initiative – a program to foster prosperity in states like Ukraine, a precursor to EU integration. Russian leaders viewed this plan as hostile to their own interests, accusing the EU of attempting to implement a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe. The EU is often viewed by Russian leaders as a “stalking horse” for NATO expansion.

Finally, the West’s attempts to proliferate and advance democratic and liberal values in Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states, has ultimately been an effort to redirect Kiev away from Moscow. Pro-Western individuals and organisations are often the financiers of such attempts, spending $5 billion since 1991 to assist Ukraine achieve the “future it deserves”. As part of that effort, the United States Government has funded the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit organisation responsible for funding over 60 projects designed to promote civil society in Ukraine. Following Yanukovych’s victory in Ukraine’s Presidential elections in February 2010, it was thought that he was undermining the endowment’s goals. In response, efforts were increased to support the opposition and strengthen the country’s democratic institutions. This type of social engineering by third parties is exactly what Russian leader’s fear.  And such fears are hardly groundless. The National Endowment for Democracy’s President, Carl Gershman, stated recently that, “Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents.” He added: “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

Creating a Crisis

The West’s policy toward Eastern Europe, the foundations of which rested on a strategy of NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion, coalesced to engender a scenario highly susceptible to eruption. And in November 2013 when Yanukovych rejected a significant economic deal he had been negotiating with the European Union, instead deciding to accept a $15 billion Russian counteroffer, that eruption began, culminating in Yanukovych fleeing to Russia after being ousted by anti-government demonstrations that escalated over three months until mid-February, by which time hundreds of protesters had been killed. The result was a pro-Western, anti-Russian government in Kiev. While U.S. involvement is yet to fully come to light, it’s clear that Washington supported the coup. Republican Senator John McCain travelled to Kiev to personally support the anti-government demonstrations, stating, “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.” Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, was recorded in a leaked telephone conversation advocating regime change, and declaring her ambitions to see Ukrainian politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk become Prime Minister, which he did. It’s understandable that Russia believes the West had a role in the downfall of Yanukovych.

Putin commenced his reaction shortly after February 22, first ordering Russian forces to secure the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, soon thereafter annexing the territory. This proved relatively simple as there were thousands of Russian troops stationed at a naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, and 60% of the Crimean population is comprised of ethnic Russians, most who wanted out of Ukraine. Following the annexation, Putin has applied massive pressure on the government in Kiev in an attempt to discourage it from allying with the West against Moscow – threatening to wreak havoc on Ukraine as a functioning state before allowing the West to declare a stronghold on Russia’s border. In pursuit of this, Putin has supplied advisers, arms, and diplomatic support to Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, who are now hurtling the state toward civil war. Substantial Russian forces are massed on the Ukrainian border, prepared to directly support the separatists if necessary. Putin has also sharply increased the price of natural gas Russia sells to Ukraine.

It is important to analyse why the annexation of Crimea was ultimately, judged by the international reaction, a peripheral event. Interfering with the territorial sovereignty of another state is a grave violation of international law and norms; however the Russia incursion was allowed to proceed and continue with little punishment or condemnation. Brazil, China, India and South Africa all abstained from joining the West’s efforts in the United Nations General Assembly vote to sanction Russia, instead using the altered environment to close substantial commercial deals with Moscow. For these states, the global order has historically been a Western model; one often acquiesced to, but a system they feel no obligation to protect – particularly when they stand to gain by not supporting it. To further this, many non-Western states were deeply concerned by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s precipitous ouster by street demonstrations in Kiev. Most troubling was the support the United States and its European allies gave to the demands of the anti-government protesters, consenting to the removal of a popularly elected leader. The notion of Western governments destabilizing and overthrowing a non-cooperative government was all too evocative of the colonial past.

Meanwhile, divisions among Western nations stalled any united effort to respond to the annexation. European states claimed the United States’ insignificant ties to Russia made it too easy for Washington to rally for sanctions, while the United States feared that European nations were too dependent on Russia’s oil and gas exports to impose meaningful sanctions. Public opinion within Europe was also divided, appalled by Putin’s brazen annexation, but wary of punishing Russia too harshly. It’s without contention that Putin can claim success in his Crimean adventure. The Kremlin had lost Kiev during the anti-government protests, but strongly reasserted itself. Putin has been greatly rewarded domestically; and internationally, where his international prestige has thrived. States including Argentina, Egypt and Israel view Putin as an increasingly decisive leader, facing down weak and risk-adverse politicians.

The Diagnosis

It is neither a laborious, nor convoluted venture to comprehend the rationale spurring Putin’s actions. A huge expanse of land, crossed by Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany to strike at Russia, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of colossal strategic importance. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance, of what has historically been Russia’s mortal enemy, moving into Ukraine. Nor would it allow the West to install a government in Ukraine determined to integrate with Europe. While Washington may dislike Moscow’s position, it should hopefully be able to understand the logic behind it. Great powers are considerably sensitive to potential threats close to their territory; after all, the United States would never tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces close to their borders. If China decided to assemble an impressive military alliance including Canada and Mexico, it’s rather straightforward to envisage how the United States would respond. Leaving logic aside, Russian leaders have told their Western counterparts on numerous occasions that they consider NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine unacceptable, along with efforts to re-orientate those states away from Russia.

It is neither a laborious, nor convoluted venture to comprehend the rationale spurring Putin’s actions

U.S. and European officials have attempted to assuage Russian fears and communicate NATO’s benign intentions, continually denying its expansion is aimed at Russia; the alliance has never permanently deployed military forces in any of the new member states and even created a NATO-Russia council, established in 2002, to ameliorate fears and foster cooperation. The United States, in 2009, announced it would deploy its missile defence systems on warships in European waters, at least initially, rather than in the Czech Republic or Poland. None of these measures were successful; Russian leaders remained steadfast in their opposition to NATO enlargement – especially into Georgia and Ukraine. Ultimately it is the Russia who gets to decide what constitutes a threat to them, not the United States, nor their European allies.

To comprehend why the West, specifically the United States, failed to forecast the failure of their Ukraine policy, one must examine the environment in the mid-1990s when the Clinton administration began advocating for NATO expansion. Experts advanced competing theories for and against enlargement, but ultimately no consensus emerged. While some realists favoured expansion, on the grounds they thought Russia still required containment, most opposed the idea of NATO enlargement, believing that a declining great power with an ageing population and a one-dimensional economy needlessly demanded attention. They feared that growing NATO would only deliver incentives for Moscow to cause trouble in Eastern Europe. U.S. diplomat George Kennan in 1998 articulated this perspective in an interview following the U.S. Senate’s approval of the first round of NATO expansion. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies,” he said. “I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else.”

“I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies,” he said. “I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else.” [Speaking about NATO enlargement], George Kennan (1998)

Most liberal’s favoured enlargement, including a majority of key members in the Clinton administration, believing that the end of the Cold War had facilitated a fundamental transformation of international politics, allowing a post-national order to replace the realist logic that had previously governed Europe. The United States, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated, was not only the “indispensable nation”, but a benign hegemony, and thus unlikely to be viewed as a threat in Moscow. Their aim was to remodel the entire continent to look like Western Europe, relying on promoting democracy, increasing economic interdependence among European states, and aiming to embed the remaining European nations into international institutions. Having won the debate in the United States, liberals had no difficulty convincing their European allies to support NATO enlargement; and given the success of the EU, Europeans were even more wedded than Americans to the notion that geopolitics ceased to matter and an all-inclusive liberal order could maintain peace in Europe.

Liberals achieved such dominance in the European security discourse that even as the alliance adopted an open-door policy of growth, NATO expansion experienced little realist opposition. The liberal worldview paradigm is now accepted dogma among U.S. officials. In March, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on Ukraine where we continually referred to “the ideals” that motivate Western policy, and how those ideals “have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power.” Secretary of State John Kerry responded to the Crimean crisis with a similar perspective: “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.” Russia and the United States have been viewing the world through differing lens’s, Putin has acted in accordance with realist dictates, whereas his Western counterparts have adhered to liberal ideas about international politics. The ultimate result has been an unintentional Western provocation, resulting in a major crisis over Ukraine that the West continues to deny having been responsible for inciting.

Blame Game

In the same 1998 interview with George Kennan, he predicted that NATO expansion would provoke a crisis, after which the proponents of expansion would say “that we always told you that is how the Russians are”, and as if almost on cue, most Western officials have characterised Putin as the real culprit in the Ukraine situation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has implied that Putin is irrational, telling Obama that he was “in another world”. Other analysts have alleged that Putin laments the demise of the Soviet Union and is determined to reverse it by expanding Russia’s borders. Accepting such a premise, Putin, having secured Crimea, would now be determining whether the conquest of Ukraine, or at least eastern portions of the state, is viable. These same analysts contend that Putin will eventually behave aggressively toward other states in Russia’s vicinity; characterised as a modern-day Adolf Hitler, there are some who consider any deal with Russia to be akin to the mistake of Munich – thus NATO must admit Georgia and Ukraine to contain Russia prior to their domination.

As if almost on cue, most Western officials have characterised Putin as the real culprit in the Ukraine situation

On close inspection, these arguments collapse. If Putin were truly committed to the creation of a greater Russia, signs of these intentions would surely have arisen prior to February 2014 – they did not. And those advocating NATO expansion were rarely motivated by a fear of Russia. Putin’s actions in Crimea were a complete surprise to most, and appear to be a spontaneous reaction to Yanukovych’s ouster. Regardless of their perceived intentions, Russia has a serious deficiency in their capabilities, rendering its ability to conquer and annex eastern Ukraine, much less the entire country, very unlikely. Approximately 15 million people reside between the Dnieper River, which bisects the country, and the Russian border, most of whom possess a desire to remain part of Ukraine, and would surely not submit to Russian occupation. Furthermore, Russia’s mediocre army would have little chance of pacifying all of Ukraine, or even just significant portions, let alone being able to finance such an operation.

A Way Out

As most Western leaders have failed to acknowledge Putin’s behaviour may be driven by legitimate security concerns, it is unsurprising that there has been no modification in their existing policies, deciding instead to double down on sanctions against Russia. While Kerry has maintained that “all options are on the table,” it’s clear that neither the United States, nor its NATO allies would be prepared to defend Ukraine with military action. The West is heavily dependent on economic sanctions to coerce Russian behaviour, specifically, the cessation of support to the insurrection in eastern Ukraine. Sanctions so far have been tame, targeting high-level individuals and some high-profile banks, energy companies and defence firms; they are unlikely to have a great impact. Harsher sanctions are more than likely not up for consideration; Russian retaliation capable of inflicting serious economic damage within the EU is cautioning further action. Regardless, history shows that countries will absorb enormous levels of punishment to protect their core strategic interests – there is no reason to believe Russia is any different.

There is a solution to the crisis; although prerequisite to consideration is a fundamental shift in Western thinking. The United States and its allies should consider abandoning its attempt to Westernise Ukraine, instead aiming to create a neutral buffer zone between NATO and Russia, similar to Austria’s position during the Cold War. Western leaders must acknowledge the importance Russia places on Ukraine and realise they cannot support an anti-Russian regime. This however, does not require a pro-Russian, or anti-NATO government, instead, a sovereign Ukraine that falls in neither Russian, nor Western camps. To achieve this, the U.S. must rule out NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, and assist in fashioning an economic rescue plan for Ukraine, funded by the EU, IMF, Russia, and the United States. The West must also severely limit its social engineering inside Ukraine, ceasing support for another Orange revolution. U.S. and European leaders should encourage support for minority rights, especially the language rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine. There are undoubtedly costs associated with shifting policy so dramatically at this stage; however the costs of continuing to pursue a misguided strategy surely outweigh the toll of deviating course.

While many will retort by claiming Ukraine has a right to determine who they ally with, and Russia has no right to prevent Kiev from joining the West, Ukraine must devise its foreign policy carefully, and realistically. When great power politics are at play, might often makes right, and abstract concepts such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states are involved with far weaker ones. Did Cuba have a right to form a military alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War? The United States didn’t think so. It is in Ukraine’s interest to understand these facts, and develop a foreign policy fully cognisant of their powerful neighbour. And while Ukraine can reject this analysis, and petition to join the EU and NATO, it is ultimately not up to them, and those requests can easily be rejected. There is no reason why the United States is obliged to accommodate Ukraine if it’s determined to pursue an irresponsible foreign policy.

There will surely be those analysts who contend that while NATO handled relations with Ukraine poorly, Russia is still an enemy that will only grow more formidable over time, and as such, the West has little choice but to continue its present policy. This is an unwise view. Russia is a declining power that will only continue to wane in strength. Even if Russia were rising, it would still make little sense to incorporate Ukraine into NATO as the U.S. and its European allies do not consider Ukraine to represent a core strategic interest. Their unwillingness to militarily defend the state clearly proves just that. It would be the height of folly to incorporate a new NATO member that existing members have no intention of defending. NATO has expanded in the past as liberals assumed the alliance would never have to honour its new security guarantees. Russia’s recent power play shows that granting Ukraine NATO membership could place Russia and the West on a collision course.

Continuing the current policy also complicates Western relations with Moscow on multiple other issues. The United States currently needs Russia’s assistance withdrawing military equipment from Afghanistan through Russian territory. The U.S. also needs Russia to help in reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran, and stabilising Syria. It is also not unfathomable to consider Russian assistance vital to containing a rising China at some point in the future as well. However, the United States and its European allies currently face a choice. To continue their current policy would be to exacerbate hostilities with Russia, devastating Ukraine in the process – a scenario where no one wins. Working towards a neutral Ukraine, one that is not threatening to Russia and facilitates the improvement of Western relations with Moscow allows all sides to win.

This article was adapted from John J. Mearsheimer’s ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault’, appearing in the September/October 2014 Edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.