Is the war in Ukraine really the fault of the West?

By Jürgen Dieringer

Yeltzin and Clinton

Between conspiracy and academic rigor

A curious amalgam of Russian trolls, conspiracy theoreticians and extremist politicians, but also some serious academic scholars and diplomats uphold the argument that the war in Ukraine is the consequence of western post-Cold War politics. Even former German Chancellor (and friend of Putin) Gerhard Schröder argues like this. Obviously, they all depart from different angles, and their “methodology” for coming to their statements differs extremely. So what is behind such arguments? While statements based on conspiracy theory have to be rejected from the outset, the argument in academia deserves a thorough check.

Mearsheimer, the oracle of offensive realism

Realists agree on some paradigmatic assumptions: anarchy in the international environment creates a security dilemma. The principal actors in international relations are states, and in the absence of a higher authority, they can rely only on self-help, because the future behavior of countries is unpredictable. In an ideal case, a balance of power establishes an equilibrium of great powers. If a country acts out of the system’s constraints, it gets punished and may be relegated to a lower position. The “system” is defined as the relationship between anarchy and capabilities.

But even realists disagree on one significant consequence of the security dilemma. Defensive realists like Kenneth Waltz argue that states react with defensive measures in case of a disturbed balance of power. Offensive realists like John Mearsheimer say that the reaction will be offensive, as he explains in his recent book “the tragedy of Great Power Politics”.

Click on cover to see content of the book

Mearsheimer, professor of the University of Chicago, builds upon an article of former US diplomat George Kennan in the New York Times in 1997, who rejected NATO enlargement outright – even by countries like Poland or Hungary. George F. Kennan was the father of the US containment policy (1947) that aimed at retarding and containing the spread of communist ideology and territorial expansion of the Soviet bloc.

“The view, bluntly stated, is that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” (George Kennan, New York Times, February 5, 1997).

As a consequence of NATO enlargement, Kennan expected nationalistic, anti-Western, and militaristic tendencies in Russia to grow, with an adverse effect on the stabilization of Russian democracy and the danger to provoke a new Cold War.

Mearsheimer himself was very explicit on Russia and Ukraine. That was long before Putin invaded Ukraine full scale but after the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Mearsheimer’s argument: the position of Russia in the balance of powers got distorted by enlarging the Western sphere of influence eastwards. Consequentially, Moscow reacted as Mearsheimer predicted: offensively. Ergo, by disturbing the balance of power, the West provoked Russia to aim at reestablishing the equilibrium.

“Imagine the American outrage if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico.” (John Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs, p. 83).

This argumentation is coherent only if you are an offensive realist arguing that ambitions of states are offensive in general. Are Mexico and Canada threatened by the US? Is Ukraine threatened by Russia? This is where Mearsheimer’s theory is too simplistic: seen one, seen ’em all. There may be both offensive and defensive ambitions, and it does matter which ambitions prevail.

Ukraine’s reaction to systemic turmoil: Balancing or bandwagoning?

If the distortion of the equilibrium challenges a minor power, the country has two strategies at hand: to balance or to bandwagon. Balancing means the establishment or joining of alliances directed against the challenger of the status quo – with the danger of getting crushed. Bandwagoning means to align with the challenger, satisfying its demands, and giving up on a certain amount of sovereignty. During the post-Cold War decades, Ukraine changed its attitude several times. The present government under Zelensky counterbalances Russian aggression and ambition by aligning with the West. President Yanukovych (in office from 2010-2014) bandwagoned with Russia until he got swept away by the protests on Euromaidan. In our case, one strategy means peace and oppression, the other freedom and war. What a choice! Now we watch the showdown.

Do the realist arguments hold?

At first sight, the reasoning of the realists makes a lot of sense. Don’t they give an appropriate description of what is happening on the ground? At second sight, I have strong reservations, especially in three respects:

  1. Realist approaches neglect domestic and cultural explanations, at least in the neorealist variation of Waltz or Mearsheimer, putting structure before agency. Can we explain the Russian-Ukrainian war independently from Putin, his personality, or the fact that the Russian political system is missing checks and balances? Was there really a security threat (I doubt that there was one in the military sense), or was it more Putin’s view on history and his phantom pain of an empire lost that caused trouble? In his Foreign Affairs article Mearsheimer rejects the idea that Putin is driven by the demise of the Soviet Union and denies that the Russian president wants to conquer Ukraine (Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs, p. 85). History has proved him wrong – another hint that structural argument and neglecting domestic politics and culture are a mistake.
  2. Neorealism is a “positive” theory, “positive” in an epistemological sense. It tries to explain only what is out there, does not establish a measure – normatively – of what should be out there, for example with respect to a “good” order. In doing so, realists put power over values and sometimes miss to produce advice beyond pure Machiavellianism.
  3. Many theories challenge the basic realist statement that the security dilemma is inescapable. Liberals transform Hobbesian enmity into a regulated competition, a Lockean positive-sum game. Constructivists bring values and culture back in and allow the moderation of the security dilemma based on Kantian friendship. The inevitability of conflict caused by an inescapable security dilemma, as portrayed by realists, gets replaced by opportunities of moderation. Politics is back in.

So, should we follow Mearsheimer’s advice and accept the Russian sphere of influence over Eastern Europe? And where does Eastern Europe end, in the city center of Berlin, the Alexanderplatz? If we subscribe to this reading of the world, we have to neglect the sovereignty of nations to design their destiny. We don’t allow them to say where they want to belong: to the West, the East, EU, NATO, or whatever is out there to moderate anarchy. That means rejecting a rule-based international order where self-determination and human rights are cornerstones of political action. It is just not acceptable that great powers define a country as a “buffer zone” ignoring what the country at stake wants, and which role perception it follows.

“The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia”.

John Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs, p. 87

This is 19th Century great power politics, and proposing it is suggesting a backflip into the pre-World War 1 setting, constituting a rupture in modern civilization.

Democracy in Russia: default setting or utopian?

Hence, there are pretty good counter-arguments to the realists’ claims of the stickiness of the security dilemma in international affairs, especially by the paradigmatic challengers of realists: the liberals. Democracies don’t fight wars against each other, at least if they are fully-fledged “quality-democracies”, guaranteeing civil rights beyond basics like free elections. Democratic Peace Theory suggests supporting democracy to sustain peace. Economic Peace Theory suggests interdependence by economic integration through trade, and new institutionalism offers socialization in institutions. Based on these three elements, it is clear what the West should do: promote democracy, foster trade, and push institutionalization. If successful in spreading Western-style governance, security will come along automatically. Wasn’t this what the West was doing so far? What went wrong?

In the year 1991, at the point of departure, when Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union, western-style democracy and market economy was the only imaginable model available as a blueprint for reform. People asked for this, and China showcased the “alternative” on Beijing’s Tiananmen square. So, democracy and market economy for everybody.

Putin’s war against Ukraine falsified Francis Fukuyama’s famous hypothesis about “the end of History” at the latest. People found “alternatives” to a Western lifestyle and political order – in classical authoritarian regimes like Turkey or Russia, in ideologies like populism (right-wing movements all over Europe), in faith-based order like political Islam (Afghanistan and others). In some countries, ideologies merged, like populism and Hinduism in India. That means that the western model has to stand competition. And how the West presented itself is not always convincing.

The problem: Western ignorance

To put it plainly: The West lost attractivity. I perceive a certain complacency and immobility in Western thinking and action. The Germans may remember best. The Western “Bonner Republic” was just extended to the East, with the argument: we have the best constitution (Grundgesetz) in the world, no need to introduce a new one. The central justification for pulling the West over the East was a reference to Russia: the window of opportunity for reunification was wide open, with no time for a lengthy discussion. Maybe that was even right, and action was tactically appropriate, but it left mixed feelings in the East. Nowadays, the model “West” does not produce enough attraction anymore. Western magnetism ran out of energy. If coercion via conditionality replaces mimicry, we have a problem. You cannot build a house on quicksand. Unleashed capitalism, fostered and nursed by Thatcherism and Reaganomics of the 1980s, and not altered under the Clinton-Blair-Schröder triumvirate, left its imprint. The neoliberal economic model (shock-therapy and Washington consensus) was the blueprint for transformation in the East, its effects producing imbalances. A more socially constrained capitalism might have produced different outcomes. This way, we lost entire generations, and today they support Putin, who wants to restore the good old days.

What the West has really done

What the West has not done, is to promise that NATO is not going to enlarge, neither during the Gorbachev-Bush nor in the Yeltsin-Clinton time. Gorbachev states clearly:

The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either.” Mikhail Gorbachev (Source: NATO).

Declassified documents from the US National Security Council show that President Clinton later did refuse to satisfy President Yeltsin’s demands in this respect.

So, what was done by the West to pull Russia in? Let’s look at the three factors that liberals promote as safeguards for peace: Institutionalisation of inter-state relations, economic interdependence, and democracy.


Russia got partly integrated into Western institutions. Until the war with Ukraine, Russia was a member of the Council of Europe. Moscow still is a member of WTO. G7 became G8, and even NATO established relations with Russia in an institutionalized setting in 1994: the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (the EAPC consists of all NATO member countries and all countries of the post-Soviet space), and, even denser, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC, established in 2002). The NRC addresses a plenitude of security issues, such as arms control,h defense transparency, or conflicts like in Afghanistan.

Beyond that, Russia is integrated into several regimes stretching from space cooperation to scientific programs and environmental policies. Still, the speed of integration slowed down. Russia got suspended from G8 long before the current war with Ukraine, and the Council of Europe suspended Russian membership in March 2022.


Economic integration with the West is based on a certain asymmetry. It is predominantly raw materials that make up Russian exports. We speak of a classical rentier economy that does not take care of the future by engaging in the diversification of production. Instead, “Dutch disease” will be a problematic feature of Russian economic development, an economy suffering from one-sidedness. The following graph shows that the Russian integration into the world market could be stronger for a country of that size, and Moscow managed only with Europe to develop a considerable trade regime, and sanctions have been retarding development for more than a decade.

Russian trade


And this is where the real threat lies. Putin is not afraid of NATO’s bombs, and they are no military threat to Russia. But he indeed is scared of the western model, especially of democracy. Democracy and an open society are not threatening Russia, but the stability of Putin’s regime, his grab on power. Other than most realists, I distinguish between Putin and Russia, not assuming that states are unitary actors. Putin’s vision of a restored empire, combined with democratic transparency as a threat to his economic status, seems to have explanatory value. Successful alternatives to Putinism threaten the Russian president. Ukraine could be perceived as the “better Russia”, and Belarussians, Kazaks, and Ukrainians have shown on the streets how vulnerable the power basis of Eastern dictators is. The real threat is Putin’s internal vulnerability, not NATO’s tanks.

Here we can come back to Kennan’s argument, that the Eastern enlargement of NATO challenges democratic development in Russia. What is verified is the decline of Russia’s democracy, as the Bertelsmann Transformation Index shows:

But be aware of the trap: avoid confusing correlation with causality. Democracy is challenged everywhere, in NATO countries as well, in Poland, in Hungary, in Turkey, not to speak of the US under Trump. The path into Putin’s autocracy was not predetermined by NATO’s enlargement, but by internal developments. And, again, this is not what structural realists like Mearsheimer really look at.

Is today’s Russia the product of Putin, or is Putin the product of Russia?

Does every country get the leaders it deserves? On the one hand, it is hardly imaginable that Russia was the same without Putin. His personality and his fallacies put a sign on Russia’s role in the international environment. On the other hand, the structural argument also seems to produce explanatory value. The development of Russia is path-dependent. The triple transformation (of the political system, the economic order, and societal changes) was chaotic, disorderly. It was based on Manchester-like capitalism where oligarchs became extremely rich and significant parts of the population stayed very poor. As a result, “order” was the day’s demand, and who else could provide order better than somebody who grew out of – and was supported by – the only structures still functioning: the KGB? Putin is the product of a strange combination of secret service and banditry that was unleashed in the anarchic situation of the transition. Chaotic situations produce a cry for strong leadership, but society then has to live with this decision and the consequences of somebody who confuses ambition with capabilities.


The Cassandras around Mearsheimer do have a point – but only if you see it from a perspective that relegates a complexly interdependent and rule-based world (in which countries do have the sovereign right to align with whomever they want) to the dustbin of history. If there was a fault by the West – or a shortcoming – then it was the failure to integrate Russia enough into Western structures, helping to establish a role model for the country that creates societal support. The West acted half-heartedly. Interdependence and institutionalization of NATO-Russia relations were short of the critical point of no return. A good lesson for post-Putin relations with Russia and for the stance towards Ukraine during the war. But buying Mearsheimer’s argument and acting according to his suggestions meant marching straight back into the 19th century.


John Mearsheimer: Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin, Foreign Affairs 93(5), 77-89.

The Author

Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.

EU membership of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia

Just a NATO surrogate?

By Jürgen Dieringer, Brussels

Ukraine applied for membership in the EU. The same did the Republic of Moldova and Georgia. The refusal of NATO to take these countries in makes the EU look like a second-choice alternative. But this is a misunderstanding. EU membership brings in NATO indirectly, without provoking the big Russian Bear to the same extent as NATO does.

Two essential conditions for EU membership

Accession to the EU is based on some objective criteria that decision-makers must consider. At the same time, membership applications have to be judged politically concerning their geostrategic implications and the implications for the EU itself.

There are two primary conditions for becoming a member of the EU: the applicant must be a European state. That means it must be located in Europe and have statehood. The EU rejected Morocco’s application in 1987 with reference to Morocco not being “European”. Whereas Ukraine and Moldova are clearly “European” in geographic terms, it can be disputed in the case of Georgia. Still, Turkey is a candidate, although just a tiny part of the Turkish surface is on European soil. Therefore, the geographic situation of Georgia should not be a problem.

The second condition is statehood. The Austrian theoretician Georg Jellinek defined statehood alongside the three parameters territory (Staatsgebiet), power (Staatsmacht) and people (Staatsvolk). The country must be a culturally compound entity that exercises power over a secured territory to classify as a state. In all three countries discussed, there are pitfalls in this respect. The most visible is that all three countries don’t have complete control over their territory. For example, Russian troops partly occupy Ukraine, the same holds for Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). In the Republic of Moldova, separatists hold the Transnistrian territory hostage with the help of so-called (Russian) peacekeepers.

Sustained statehood is a central criterion but does not entirely rule out membership, as the case of Cyprus shows. The EU took the entire island in, although a Turkey-supported puppet regime recognized only by Turkey governs the northern part of the country.

Particular conditions for EU membership: Copenhagen criteria

Beyond the formal criteria of “Europe” and “statehood”, membership in the EU is based on the so-called Copenhagen criteria, agreed upon at the European summit in Copenhagen in 1993. This set of rules was prepared to make the EU fit for the accession of new member states from Eastern Europe. The Copenhagen criteria concern – if we express them not in their wording but the sense they represent – democracy, a market economy, and the rule of law. Beyond fundamental rights, this includes the ability of an acceding country’s economy to withstand the pressures of the European Single Market and to implement the acquis communautaire (the “laws” and regulations of the EU) in the national context.

Harmonizing accessing countries with EU standards requires complex negotiations. Often derogations (exemptions) are to be negotiated. The relevant negotiation chapters have to be opened by consent of all EU members, and they have to be closed by consent again. That means that at almost any moment during negotiations, a member state can block accession by just refusing to open or close a chapter. Cases are numerous, and Turkey maybe is the best example: out of 35 chapters, 16 were opened, only one is (temporarily) closed. Negotiations started 17 years ago, in 2005, and are suspended today due to undemocratic tendencies in Turkey. The fact that there are many veto points on the way shows that the run-up to membership is not necessarily self-perpetuating. And it is time-consuming.

The core problem: unsustained conditionality

The Copenhagen criteria included a fourth point, not directed at new members, but at the EU itself. The EU has to be ready to take in new members. It will have to be able to produce legal norms even if more partners sit at the negotiation table. So it does matter whom you take in. During accession negotiations, member states have a firm position vis-à-vis acceding countries (see veto points), and conditionality makes acceding states “behave”. This conditionality gets partly lost after accession. The Article 7 procedure (TEU) currently used against Hungary and Poland lacks power, as two countries can pool up to protect each other. Today, the post-accession blues blows. In the region East-Central and Southeast Europe, overall, democracy is backsliding, as data of the Bertelsmann Foundation shows:

Source: Bertelsmann Transformation Index 2022;*2022*CV:CTC:SELAFG*CAT*AFG*REG:TAB

EU and internal frictions: Political and structural shortcomings

The problem is unanimity. Countries have refused to pool sovereignty on the European level in many essential policies, mainly the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), or the budgetary process. Providing security – protecting the people from internal and external threats – is an essential function of a state. What remains of a state, so the notion, if even such fundamental tasks get shifted to “Brussels”? Reluctance to do so is strong, and it did not end with the UK, one of the retarding forces, leaving the EU. Nation-states are the bottleneck, and if we want the EU to be more present on the international level, we have to tame Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, and Budapest and introduce majority voting in these policies as well, especially as European citizens generally do trust the EU more than their own national parliaments and governments.

Source: Standard Eurobarometer 95, Spring 2021:

Eurobarometer data shows that this is actually what the European population wants: collective security and a more vital role of the EU in the world. There is very high support for a real CSDP among citizens, and the support is exceptionally high in the Baltic states.

Source: Standard Eurobarometer 95, Spring 2021;

A tricky clause: Collective security

Until recently, the trend in the EU was more to “digest” the former enlargement rounds before going any further, especially as some countries now require referenda in the ratification process. Why bother? Still, it makes sense to push ahead for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, especially regarding security. NATO’s Article 5 provision is famous. It declares that an attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on all its members. So far, Article 5 was pulled only once: in the aftermath of 9/11. Surprisingly, and although the military dimension of the EU is underdeveloped, the Union has a comparable clause in Article 42.7 Treaty on European Union (TEU). The clause was pulled the first time by the French president Hollande when Paris fell victim to terrorist attacks in 2015. Now it is on the table again, especially as the Baltic states require support vis-à-vis an aggressive Russia.

Article 5, NATO-TreatyArticle 42.7, Treaty on European Union
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter.

The collective security clause of the EU is even “denser” than NATO’s Article 5. It reads “all means in their power” compared to “such action as it seems necessary” in the North Atlantic Treaty. That means that, at least on paper, the EU is a security provider, too, not NATO alone.

EU or NATO: Does it make any difference for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia?

What is the difference, and could the EU replace NATO as the primary security provider in Europe? When it comes to military spending, the combined military expenditure of France and Germany easily matches Russia. With nuclear capabilities, the numbers are different: the only nuclear power in the EU, France, possesses only under 5 percent of the Russian amount of warheads. Even combined with non-EU Britain, the nuclear capabilities of the two western European powers are still way less than 10 percent of the Russian. So the EU could defend against Russia conventionally, but not if nuclear options are on the table. Therefore, the US nuclear “umbrella” is a vital piece of European defense.

Lord Ismay, the first Secretary-General of NATO, described the raison d’etre of NATO to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. To keep the Americans in is not self-explanatory anymore. What if the US is unwilling to take responsibility at the level Washington kept up during the last 70 years? Trump’s description of NATO as being braindead is not only an outflow of a realist’s general skepticism about the importance of institutions. It is also putting a finger in the wound of NATO losing its direction after the Cold War. Any future change in the US government may become an existential threat to European security, especially for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Having the EU as an alternative – or an extension – makes absolute sense. Making Europe strong does not mean pushing the US out. The Berlin plus-agreement of 2002 settled the formerly jealous relationship between the two institutions. The interaction was put on a more cooperative basis. Strengthening Europe now means strengthening the entire Euroatlantic area.

Against this background, Art 42.7 TEU is a pacemaker. Invoking Art 42.7 would inevitably be followed by invoking Art 5 North Atlantic Treaty if an attack on an EU country was to take place. Through the backdoor, membership in the EU would provide comparable security guarantees like a NATO membership.

The pros & cons of taking the hitchhikers in

From a zero-sum-game realist perspective, the pros of allowing countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to accede to the EU are clear: enlarging our camp makes the enemy’s camp smaller in relative terms and therefore increases our security. Seen from Poland or Romania, enlargement adds a buffer between the respective homelands and the big Russian Bear. Strategically, Georgia may be a suitable ramp for involvement in the Gulf and the Middle East. Another pro – seen from a more liberal perspective – is that enlarging the room of democracy always makes sense. Democracies do not fight wars against each other. And the bigger the single market and the more integrated economic policymaking, the better. Complex interdependence reduces insecurity. Both Democratic Peace Theory and Economic Peace Theory hold arguments for enlargement.

The cons have more to do with the internal structure of the EU. Taking in unstable democracies means importing problems. The institutional structure is already under stress with 27 members – it will be even more so with 30. Aiming too much threatens what is already achieved, as conditionality may not work after accession. Membership of Moldova, Ukraine and/or Georgia in the EU requires institutional reform.

Chances for EU-Membership in the Post-Soviet space

The chances of the three countries at stake for EU membership are different. In a mid-term perspective, Ukraine may be an interesting country for the Union with respect to strategic and economic parameters. Still, it is hardly imaginable that an occupied country becomes a member of the EU. The question may arise seriously only after pacifying the present conflict. Georgia is geographically isolated; it may be difficult and costly to sustain Georgia’s membership in a geographically hostile environment. For some EU countries, that may be too adventurous. The best chance has Moldova, maybe not via the classical enlargement process, but via Eastern Germany’s route: unification with a current EU member (Romania). The population of Romania favors such a scenario. In Moldova itself, the supporters were in the minority before the Ukrainian conflict, but the number of supporters grew. The present situation may be a game-changer here.

There is no easy answer to further enlargement of the European Union. The EU is not and cannot be a NATO surrogate militarily. However, membership still makes a lot of sense for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, not only for economic reasons but also for securing NATO backing through the backdoor. Even the EU could benefit, given it manages to get engaged in institutional reform. The window of opportunity may be wide open.


Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.