Response: Why the Ukraine Crisis Is Not the West’s Fault, But a Consequence of Its Actions

Florian von Appen responds to Jelle Baartmans’ article on the Ukraine Crisis

Jelle Baartmans previously argued on these pages that the struggle over Ukraine is not the West’s fault. Russia, so his argument goes, maintains strong historical ties to Ukraine in general and Crimea in particular, and is furthermore captivated by a siloviki-induced paranoia that distorts Putin’s threat perception.

He argues that even though the US has heavily invested in Ukraine to alter the country’s course in favor of the West, these investments should not have been enough to make Russia feel threatened, as they  “pale compared to Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs”. This leaves room for the question of how much money the US needs to spend until Russia can legitimately feel threatened. The relative sum compared to Russia’s investment plays a subordinate role here; the fact that Russia disproportionately invested more demonstrates further the strategic importance Russia assigns to the region.

His following argument is that Russia had no reason to feel threatened by the expansion of the institutional embodiment of the western-led liberal world order: NATO and the EU. He argues that “NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) is only the first step” and “by no means guarantees future membership” which is true from a legal point of view, yet disregards political reality: every country accepted to the MAP so far eventually became a member of NATO. Putin, who is an ardent student of history, perceived that Ukraine was on its way to, in the near future, becoming a NATO member, though it was not legally entitled to join the alliance through the MAP alone. Putin took NATO seriously when the alliance audaciously declared that “MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. […] These countries will become members of NATO”. Whether Ukraine eventually would join NATO or not is not decisive here, but the perception of Putin and his inner circle is.

With regards to the EU, Baartmans puts forth that Mearsheimer’s argument of the West meddling in Russia’s backyard is not convincing, as “the EU has signed several similar association agreements” in remote regions that have no chance of EU accession. The logic that the EU struck similar agreements throughout the world with states that have, due to their geographic location, no chance of a full membership is not compelling. A successive approximation between the EU and states outside of it are not a sufficient condition for an eventual membership, but certainly a necessary one.

Additionally, history tells us that when a formerly communist country ties itself to the EU, the likelihood of an eventual membership is high. The Baltics and the states in Central Europe are cases in point here. These countries, formerly subjugated by the then Soviet Union, followed a formidable economic and political trajectory despite recent setbacks. Putin’s rentier state model (where the state relies on natural resource exports for a large part of its budget), on the other hand, has not much to offer in soft power terms. Consequently, EU and NATO do not pose a threat to Russia economically nor politically. The threat that emanates from these institutions is due to their success and the possible desire of the Russian people to follow a similar pathway.

Sleepwalking West, Calculating Russians

The constructivist explanation which Baartmans provides is less an actual explanation on its own but rather a complementary account to the very rational motives that prompted Putin’s belligerent reaction in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s ouster, which was at least politically backed by the West. Realists predict great powers will act paranoid when other great powers are roaming in their backyard. The Cuban Missile Crisis was essentially only a crisis because the US perceived Soviet missiles as a direct threat to their core strategic interests. The Soviets, in turn, were not aware of the immediate relevance of the deployment and thus misperceived the importance of the issue. A similar dynamic is at play in the Ukraine crisis. The West sleepwalked into this crisis irrespective of Moscow’s strategic interests in the region.

Causes and Effects

The historical narrative of the near abroad and Russia’s self-conceptualization as an equally great power to the US arguably played a central role in the ex post legitimization of the intervention and subsequent annexation of Crimea, but given that “[Putin’s] regime seems to be more than ever concerned with its own survival”, constructed narratives rather constitute a suitable pretext than a causal factor linked to intervention. Especially great powers have always used historical narratives and putative uniqueness to dig in their neighbour’s backyards – be it under the banner of liberal democracy, communism, or fascism. Baartmans’ constructivist account has therefore its merits, albeit not as a causal explanation, but as an intermediary factor. The expansion of EU and NATO exerted internal pressure on the regime, provoking the Russian leadership to grasp the opportunity and play the nationalist card to rally support and legitimize the intervention. In short, the Russian government adopted realist policies for internal reasons.

Theory and Practice

What seems like academic hairsplitting has significant real world implications. To simply embrace the realist playbook and accept a Russian sphere of influence will eventually backfire and result in greater instability and conflict. Conversely, to attempt to keep Russia at bay by further enlarging EU and NATO is likely to unleash the very same dangerous dynamics as happened in Ukraine. Policymakers are therefore required to find the golden path in the middle and IR theory can help to do exactly that.

Florian von Appen is a Master’s student in International Relations at Leiden University.

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