By Jürgen Dieringer
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.