'This is what happens when you poke the bear'

As Russia ramps up its war against Ukraine, Western media and Western politicians ramp up their moral outrage and indignation.

There is, to be sure, much to be morally outraged about in Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and war against the Ukrainian people.  The scenes in cities under attack are horrific.  But the West's indignation is misplaced.  The Russia-Ukraine War has its roots in misguided U.S. and Western policies which poked the Russian bear.  And while poking the bear does not justify the bear's reaction, American and European leaders would be wise to tone down the rhetoric about "war crimes" and "assassination" and "no-fly zones" before their indignation produces policies that lead to a wider and far more destructive war.

That is the theme of University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimer's recent article in The Economist. In his Economist article, Mearsheimer [i] rightly blames Putin for the war and how the war is being waged, but he is more concerned with a deeper question: why did Putin invade Ukraine?  "The mainstream view in the West," Mearsheimer writes, "is that [Putin] is an irrational, out-of-touch aggressor bent on creating a greater Russia in the mould of the Soviet Union."  Mearsheimer disagrees.

"The West, and especially America," he writes, "is principally responsible for the crisis[.]"  He traces the West's missteps to NATO's Bucharest summit in April 2008, when the George W. Bush administration "pushed the alliance to announce that Ukraine and Georgia 'will become members.'"  Russia's leaders, he notes, reacted by characterizing such a move by NATO as a threat to Russia's security.  Putin moved against Georgia in 2008, but this did not deter NATO's and the European Union (E.U.)'s public calls for Ukraine to become part of the West.

After the United States supported an uprising in Ukraine that resulted in the installation of a pro-American regime in Kyiv, Putin in 2014 moved against Ukraine in the Crimea and supported pro-Russian elements in the Donbas region of Ukraine that sought to break away from Kyiv's rule.  Three years later, Mearsheimer notes, the Trump administration began selling military supplies to Ukraine, and other NATO countries did likewise.  Mearsheimer notes that NATO even held joint air and naval exercises with Ukraine in the Black Sea.  That was more than a "poke," and Russian warships came close to firing on a British destroyer that entered what Russia believes is its territorial waters.

Then, in November 2021, Mearsheimer notes, Ukraine and the United States signed the "U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership," which held out the possibility of Ukraine joining the E.U. and perhaps NATO.  NATO, with full U.S. support, appeared to be moving to Russia's border.  Viewed from Moscow, that was an unacceptable development — as unacceptable as a Russian or Chinese alliance with Mexico or Canada would be to the United States.

But, as I have previously noted here, the roots of the current crisis go back farther than 2008.  They go back to the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration first set in motion the expansion of NATO in the wake of the West's victory in the Cold War.  George Kennan criticized it at the time and foresaw Russia's likely reaction.  But Clinton's diplomatic hubris was followed by successive administrations in Washington so that NATO expansion pressed to the very frontiers of Russia.  Ukraine, which had been part of Russia for centuries, was a bridge too far for NATO to cross.

The great danger to world peace now is that a jingoistic Western media and reckless Western statesmen playing at being Winston Churchill will compound Putin's miscalculation and take measures that will transform a terrible regional war into an even more terrible world war.  Let's be clear about that.  The more NATO nations contribute to Ukraine's war effort — no matter how emotionally satisfying that is — the more we risk widening the war.  As Mearsheimer writes, "we are in an extremely dangerous situation, and Western policy is exacerbating these risks."

There is, Mearsheimer writes, "a serious threat of escalation beyond Ukraine, not to mention the danger of nuclear war."  He concludes with this warning: if we do not understand the "deep cause" of the current Ukraine crisis, "we will be unable to end it before Ukraine is wrecked and NATO ends up in a war with Russia."  God help us all then. 

Photo credit: President of the Russian Federation

[i] Editor's note: Mearsheimer is co-author with Stephen Walt of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, a highly controversial book that some critics accuse of shoddy scholarship.

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