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We are now in the fourth week of war in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine after months of preparations and years of warnings, yet the world still seemed surprised. Western leaders and media have declared Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin “mentally unstable” or “deranged,” perhaps suffering from “roid rage.” The reality is that he has been both calculating and opportunistic, and has played the imperfect hand dealt to him. He may come to regret it, but the die has been cast.
It is implausible to imagine that this would have happened under the Trump administration. Biden’s feckless approach to Afghanistan and China gave Putin confidence that the time to act was now. Provocations and signals from the West led him to conclude that Ukraine had to be addressed before it was too late.
The common narrative used to explain Russia’s actions is that Putin is motivated by an ultra-nationalistic vision to restore the Russian empire to its former glory and with its territory regained. Russia, like China, is deeply motivated to overcome the humiliations of the past. For Putin and many Russians, this humiliation came in the fall of the Soviet Union, and with it Russian cultural and political power over the vast region formerly under USSR control. This view asserts that what drives Putin is restoring Russian greatness, first within the country and then in the broader Euro-Asian region formerly under Soviet influence. Putin’s policy in Ukraine is simply revanchist. No other explanation required. There are elements of truth here, but they have been greatly overstated.
John Mearsheimer called out the fallacy of this oversimplistic narrative in 2014 in response to Russia’s seizing of the Crimea. Professor Mearsheimer, an international relations theorist and great power realist, argued that the US and Europe were unnecessarily provoking Russia by pushing for NATO’s eastward expansion into Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia’s strategic backyard. Mearsheimer warned nearly a decade ago that “US and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border,” and that it would be a dangerous folly for the West to continue in the effort. No one listened.
Putin took the Crimea in 2014 to preempt a NATO base being built on the peninsula, and in response to what he saw as a US-led overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Mearsheimer wrote, “for Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president – which he rightly labeled a ‘coup’ – was the final straw.” Inviting Ukraine to join NATO was analogous to inviting the Chinese Communist Party to come build airfields and missile silos in Mexico and China. Of course, the US would respond to such a provocation, up to and including military intervention, at almost any economic cost imaginable. Putin similarly sees the prospect of a large NATO member on Russia’s border as an existential threat, one that must be defended against at all costs.
Putin asserted that Ukraine was operating bioweapon labs funded and supported by the US government, and that these facilities, located close to the Russian border, posed an unacceptable risk to Russia. US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, the neocon architect of the 2014 coup and staunch supporter of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, belatedly confirmed under Senate testimony the presence of US funded “biological research labs” in Ukraine that would pose a danger in Russian hands. This shocking confirmation, when viewed alongside Ukraine’s nuclear stockpiles, means the risk of an uncontrollable escalation is very high. The world is now at risk of a European or even global war.
So how should the US respond under the circumstances? The human tragedy of the war and refugee crisis in Ukraine is pitiable, and Americans should do what they can to help. However, Ukraine is not and has never been a core strategic interest for the US. As such we have no business considering military intervention, and indeed, we should avoid it for as long as possible. This means abandoning support for the idea of Ukraine’s NATO membership. If Ukraine succeeds in joining NATO, the US would be required under Article Five to help defend it. This makes no sense for the US. On the other hand, Ukraine is a core strategic interest for Russia. Russia thinks Ukraine has about as much right to join NATO as the US thought that Cuba should become a Soviet nuclear base. Russia will not relent until Ukraine gives up its pursuit of NATO membership, and the West should accept this.
The only viable solution to the crisis in Ukraine is the one proposed by Mearsheimer nearly a decade ago. Ukraine must withdraw the application for NATO and EU membership. Ukraine’s government should reconstitute itself as an independent and neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia. Ukraine should ensure peaceful co-existence with and protection of the Russian-speaking minority in the East. Such an agreement would require the withdrawal of both Russian forces and US-backed military resources, including dangerous and provocative biolabs.
The tragedy is that we could have reached such an agreement diplomatically long before a single shot was fired. Now it is too late for diplomatic solutions, negotiations will be held at point of bayonet, and the cost to Ukraine and the West will inevitably be much higher. Yet these are the necessary conditions for a peace that includes Ukraine surviving as a nation-state.
We’ll return in the coming days to discuss why economic sanctions and blockades against Russia, both acts of war, will fail to dissuade Putin from his current path.
© 2022 Michael Wilkerson
“The Ukraine invasion was avoidable” is an extract derived from Michael Wilkerson’s upcoming book, Why America Matters: The case for a new exceptionalism. Register to pre-order at whyamericamatters.com.