The West’s Fault?

My dad pointed me to John Maersheimer’s piece in the current Foreign Affairs issue. “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” is a fairly comprehensive representation of a realist IR perspective of the current conflict.


Tanks in Kiev, 2009

It does not take a revolutionary to write what Maersheimer is writing: NATO should have never expanded so far eastwards. Russia’s strategic interests were completely ignored. The West lived in some kind of liberal dreamland in which old-fashioned security played second fiddle to political and economic considerations. Alas, the “end of history” was an illusion.

The Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004 as well as events in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan changed Putin’s mind completely. The war with Georgia in 2008 was the first time this new mindset was put to work. This year’s Ukrainian War is just the logical continuation of this renewed East-West confrontation.

I agree that the West’s policy towards Russia has at times been naive and ignorant. This goes especially for NATO expansion as driven by the Clinton administration. Maersheimer writes convincingly about Russia’s relative strategic importance (or the lack thereof). In this reading, we do not need protection from an aging and economically struggling former empire.

Yet Maersheimer also demands that the West stops its meddling in Ukrainian internal affairs via its civil society programs (or those of organizations like Soros’s). I find this thinking simplistic, mainly as it denies Ukrainians their agency in dealing with these ideas and accepting such funding (or not). Furthermore, it is more likely to me that a federal Ukraine respecting the rights of its minorities comes out of a EU-inspired reform process rather than through Russian bullying.

To me, Maersheimer falls into the same trap of assuming there is some (usually American) mastermind pulling the strings in these countries and being behind all the recent unrest. Reality on the ground is usually more complex than that; like it was ten years ago in Kyrgyzstan, when I worked for a US-funded technical assistance project charged with improving the quality of elections.

Grand strategists / IR realists such as Maersheimer oversimplify the complexities of the domestic arenas. This goes for the Ukraine and also for Russia. To make all leaders rational beings and to understand the world as a giant chessboard is as unhelpful as the rosy liberalism of the Clinton-era.

And his suggestion to treat the Ukraine like Austria, i.e. to leave it politically and militarily neutral yet support it economically, while attractive, sounds easier than it may be. Investing public and private money in the Ukraine does almost automatically entail a discussion about values and forms of governance, because the Ukraine is not Austria, but an Eastern European kleptocracy with a highly questionable political class.

The Maersheimer article proved very popular in Germany. To me that can have two reasons. Perhaps Germans sharing his opinion feel marginalised. They feel vindicated now that an American is making the exact same points they have been trumpeting (although I suspect that most sources rely on a quick headline interpretation of the Foreign Affairs piece).

To me, however, the appeal of the article demonstrates how much yearning there is in Germany (and elsewhere) for the return of a simplistic rhetoric in the tradition of the Cold War.

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