Why the Ukraine Crisis Is Not the West’s Fault

A Critique on John J. Mearsheimer

When Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in early 2014, the West was quick to condemn this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. American president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron threatened with sanctions, while German chancellor Angela Merkel wondered whether Vladimir Putin had become insane. This reaction was by no means surprising: Russia had just violated international law by occupying a sovereign state’s territory. Arguably, this was an act of aggression. Nevertheless, in the fall of 2014, renowned neorealist scholar John J. Mearsheimer, himself an American, put the blame for the annexation of Crimea — or rather, for the Ukraine crisis in general — on the West. In a short Foreign Affairs essay titled ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’, Mearsheimer argues that NATO and the European Union’s (intended) enlargement over the past decades is one of the main provocations that resulted in Russia’s actions in Ukraine. According to Mearsheimer, the West does not understand Putin’s “security concerns”; any sense of realism in Western foreign policy has been suppressed by a liberal internationalism. “All sides would win,” he argues, would the West “switch gears and work to create a prosperous but neutral Ukraine, one that does not threaten Russia and allows the West to repair its relations with Moscow.”

Ever since, the article has often been cited as a logical explanation for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. However, Mearsheimer’s essay contains several flaws. First of all, he refers to an estimate by the US Department of State that by December 2013 “the United States had invested more than $5 billion since 1991” in Ukraine. As political scientist Mette Skak puts it, $5 billion is “pale compared to Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs.” Russia has undoubtedly spent much more money and effort on influencing Ukraine’s political course than the US — the West’s biggest spender on Ukraine — has. Secondly, although NATO’s primary body, the North Atlantic Council, expressed in 2008 that Ukraine would become a member of NATO in the future, no actual steps were ever taken to realize this intention, not even the Membership Action Plan (MAP) was deployed. Being admitted to NATO’s MAP is only the first step in a process that takes many years, and it by no means guarantees future membership.

Accusing the EU of eastwards expansionism is no more convincing. As renowned political scientist Alexander J. Motyl argues, “the striking thing about the EU has been its reluctance for the last two decades to state that Ukraine could, even at some time in the distant future, become an EU member.” The Ukraine–EU Association Agreement, around which the crisis erupted in Kiev in 2013, has not changed this. Arguably, the agreement has not posed a serious threat to Russia’s exports to Ukraine, which consist mostly of oil, gas, and other raw materials. Furthermore, it is a bilateral agreement that makes no mention of a possible future EU membership. The EU has signed several similar association agreements with countries across Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. Mearsheimer’s argument that “the West had been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests” seems rather unconvincing.

Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ and the Black Sea Fleet

A constructivist perspective on the Ukraine crisis might provide a better insight into Russia’s motivations than a neorealist one. Putin’s “security concerns,” which Mearsheimer rightfully mentions, can indeed be regarded as the main instigator of Russian aggression towards Ukraine, but these are not the result of actual Western expansionism. First of all, there exists a crucial idea of greatness in Russia. This is largely due to the legacy of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union — Russia’s spiritual predecessor — was one of only two great powers in the world, but it can be traced back further as well. Before the Soviet Union was established, Russia used to be a Slavic empire. Following from this is a conviction that Russia has a certain responsibility in the world, or at least in the former USSR, but also that the territory of the other fourteen ex-Soviet states ‘belongs’ to Russia: the so-called ‘Near Abroad’. As political scientist Lyudmila Igumnova notes, “[i]t is difficult for Moscow to accept the sovereignty of the former Soviet republics,” which had been under the Kremlin’s authority for decades. In early 2014, the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had had a good relationship with the Kremlin, threatened to undermine Moscow’s sphere of influence. Annexing Crimea and igniting a war in the Donbass region were instrumental in preventing Ukraine from transforming into any form of a well-functioning Western state.

Secondly, besides the Kremlin’s perception of the Near Abroad as belonging to Russia as a sphere of influence, Crimea is very much perceived as belonging explicitly to the Russian state. In the Soviet era and before, Crimea used to be part of Russia. Only in 1954 was it suddenly transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkSSR) by the Supreme Soviet. This unconstitutional decision raised many questions. In his speech on March 18, 2014, Vladimir Putin employed this event as one of the justifications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, though of course one should be cautious to assign too much value to an authoritarian regime’s statements, since the closed nature of such governments prevents us from checking them. Nevertheless, Crimea is a region that carries particular historical value for Russians, especially because the Russian Black Sea Fleet was founded in Sevastopol, Crimea’s capital, a few centuries ago, and has remained there ever since.

The domino effect and KGB paranoia

The former Soviet states are not only important as a sphere of influence to facilitate Russian greatness. They also form a buffer zone for the authoritarian Russian regime. Since 1991, we have seen several so-called Color Revolutions that attempted to overthrow repressive regimes in former Soviet states. Vladimir Putin has expressed more than once his suspicions that these events were instigated from abroad. He seems to fear the domino effect that such revolutions might have and therefore the implications they might pose for his own regime. Not only the Color Revolutions of 2003 in Georgia, 2004 in Ukraine, and 2005 in Kyrgyzstan, and the mass protests in Belarus in 2006, but also the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, indicated that there is indeed a domino effect. Putin’s personal experience only helps to reinforce his fears for revolution. Only a few years ago, in the aftermath of the 2011 State Duma elections, mass protests erupted in Moscow and other major Russian cities, demanding fair elections after large-scale fraud had allegedly taken place in the lower house elections. Earlier in his career, Putin experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when he was serving for the Soviet security service KGB in Dresden. In this context, the 2013 Euromaidan uprising must have frightened Putin.

A final factor worth addressing is a seemingly historical paranoia of a Western threat to Moscow’s authoritarian regime. With a totalitarian state such as the USSR came a strong security service: initially the NKVD, later the KGB. The legacy of the Soviet police state and the image of the American enemy never seem to have disappeared after 1991. As mentioned earlier, the conviction that revolutions and popular uprisings in the former USSR were instigated by the West prevails. As Skak observes, the premise is that “if there is no vanguard party and leadership, the revolution must be manipulated from outside.” It is very likely that Putin holds this view personally; he is strongly inspired by Yuri Andropov, former leader of the Soviet Union. Andropov was the KGB’s chairman for fifteen years and he was ambassador to Hungary when the Hungarian Revolution occurred in 1956. Few people have held more suspicious views towards the West than Andropov (read more about Andropov-Putin analogies here and here).

Great Russia, unpredictable Putin

Overall, Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine seems to be more a result of historical particularities, the idea of Russian greatness, and Putin’s own security concerns, than of a Western expansionist agenda. I am not convinced that EU or NATO expansionism have played any more than a marginal role. Besides the Baltics (which are a special case), both institutions have never recruited former Soviet states. The countries in Central Europe that were part of the USSR’s sphere of influence all moved to Western Europe on their own initiative, while the KGB was still deeply infiltrated in their societies.

As befits the status of a great power, which Russia perceives itself to be, the Kremlin likes to control the Near Abroad as a sphere of influence. For Russia, Crimea is one of the most sensitive parts of this Near Abroad. Moreover, after Putin’s on-site experience in Germany in 1989, the Color Revolutions and Arab Spring, and the protests in Russia in 2011, his regime seems to be more than ever concerned with its own survival. Where a counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya or a decade of economic growth could function as heroic safeguards of the regime’s approval ratings previously, territorial conquest and hybrid warfare seem to be Putin’s latest rabbit out of the hat.

Jelle Baartmans is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by Roman Bern