Russia vs Ukraine: Liberal Hubris and Realism

(Caption for photo at top of the post: “Russian troop train transporting military vehicles arriving for drills in Belarus on January 18, 2022. Picture: Ministry of Defence Republic of Belarus/AFP”.)

Further to these posts,

Finlandization of Ukraine? (Note UPDATE)

Ukraine and NATO: If not Finlandization, then an Austrian solution?

a very realistic Harvard professor calls the Biden Administration and others to account–from an article at Foreign Policy:

Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

By Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

The great tragedy is this entire affair was avoidable. Had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred. Indeed, Russia would probably never have seized Crimea, and Ukraine would be safer today. The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics.

At the most basic level, realism begins with the recognition that wars occur because there is no agency or central authority that can protect states from one another and stop them from fighting if they choose to do so. Given that war is always a possibility, states compete for power and sometimes use force to try to make themselves more secure or gain other advantages. There is no way states can know for certain what others may do in the future, which makes them reluctant to trust one another and encourages them to hedge against the possibility that another powerful state may try to harm them at some point down the road.Liberalism sees world politics differently. Instead of seeing all great powers as facing more or less the same problem—the need to be secure in a world where war is always possible—liberalism maintains that what states do is driven mostly by their internal characteristics and the nature of the connections among them. It divides the world into “good states” (those that embody liberal values) and “bad states” (pretty much everyone else) and maintains that conflicts arise primarily from the aggressive impulses of autocrats, dictators, and other illiberal leaders. For liberals, the solution is to topple tyrants [American mainly for that] and spread democracy, markets, and institutions [emphasis added] based on the belief that democracies don’t fight one another, especially when they are bound together by trade, investment, and an agreed-on set of rules.

After the Cold War, Western elites concluded that realism was no longer relevant and liberal ideals should guide foreign-policy conduct. As the Harvard University professor Stanley Hoffmann told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in 1993, realism is “utter nonsense today.” U.S. and European officials believed that liberal democracy, open markets, the rule of law, and other liberal values were spreading like wildfire and a global liberal order lay within reach. They assumed, as then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton put it in 1992, that “the cynical calculus of pure power politics” had no place in the modern world and an emerging liberal order would yield many decades of democratic peace. Instead of competing for power and security, the world’s nations would concentrate on getting rich in an increasingly open, harmonious, rules-based liberal order, one shaped and guarded by the benevolent power of the United States [see this 2016 post, also based on a piece by Prof. Walt: ‘No “End of History”, or, Don’t Expect Any Lovely Converging International Community‘].

Had this rosy vision been accurate, spreading democracy and extending U.S. security guarantees into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence would have posed few risks. But that outcome was unlikely, as any good realist could have told you. Indeed, opponents of enlargement were quick to warn that Russia would inevitably regard NATO enlargement as a threat and going ahead with it would poison relations with Moscow [emphasis added]. That is why several prominent U.S. experts—including diplomat George Kennan, author Michael Mandelbaum, and former defense secretary William Perry—opposed enlargement from the start. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were initially opposed for the same reasons, though both later shifted their positions and joined the pro-enlargement bandwagon.

…they insisted that NATO’s benign intentions were self-evident and it would be easy to persuade Moscow not to worry as NATO crept closer to the Russian border. This view was naive in the extreme, for the key issue was not what NATO’s intentions may have been in reality. What really mattered, of course, was what Russia’s leaders thought they were or might be in the future. Even if Russian leaders could have been convinced that NATO had no malign intentions, they could never be sure this would always be the case…

Although Moscow had little choice but to acquiesce to the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO, Russian concerns grew as enlargement continued. It didn’t help that enlargement was at odds with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s verbal assurance to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 that if Germany were allowed to reunify within NATO then the alliance would not move “one inch eastward” (a pledge Gorbachev foolishly failed to codify in writing). Russia’s doubts increased when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003—a decision that showed a certain willful disregard for international law—and even more after the Obama administration exceeded the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and helped oust Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. Russia had abstained on the resolution—which authorized protecting civilians but not regime change—and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates later commented that “the Russians felt they had been played for suckers [keep in mind especially that Libya was a mission under NATO–see the Russian objections].” These and other incidents help explain why Moscow is now insisting on written guarantees [and don’t forget the NATO attack on Serbia over Kosovo in 1998–undertaken with no Security Council authorization and very worrying to Russia; how was that “self-defence?”].

Had U.S. policymakers reflected on their own country’s history and geographic sensitivities, they would have understood how enlargement appeared to their Russian counterparts. As journalist Peter Beinart recently noted, the United States has repeatedly declared the Western Hemisphere to be off-limits to other great powers…

Compounding the error is NATO’s repeated insistence that enlargement is an open-ended process and any country meeting the membership criteria is eligible to join. That’s not quite what the NATO treaty says, by the way; Article 10 merely states: “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” The key word here is “may”—no nation has the right to join NATO…openly proclaiming an active and unlimited commitment to moving eastward was bound to further heighten Russian fears.

The next misstep was the Bush administration’s decision to nominate Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership at the 2008 Bucharest Summit [emphasis added]. Former U.S. National Security Council official Fiona Hill recently revealed that the U.S. intelligence community opposed this step but then-U.S. President George W. Bush ignored its objections for reasons that have never been fully explained. The timing of the move was especially odd because neither Ukraine nor Georgia was close to meeting the criteria for membership in 2008 and other NATO members opposed including them. The result was an uneasy, British-brokered compromise where NATO declared that both states would eventually join but did not say when. As political scientist Samuel Charap correctly stated: “[T]his declaration was the worst of all worlds. It provided no increased security to Ukraine and Georgia, but reinforced Moscow’s view that NATO was set on incorporating them.” No wonder former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder described the 2008 decision as NATO’s “cardinal sin.”

The next round came in 2013 and 2014. With Ukraine’s economy staggering, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych encouraged a bidding war between the European Union and Russia for economic help. His subsequent decision to reject an accession agreement negotiated with the EU and accept a more lucrative offer from Russia triggered the Euromaidan protests that ultimately led to his ousting. U.S. officials tilted visibly in favor of the protesters and participated actively in the effort to pick Yanukovych’s successor, thereby lending credence to Russian fears that this was a Western-sponsored color revolution [emphasis added, see the latter part of this post: “The Blob is Back and You’re Going to be in Trouble“]. Remarkably, officials in Europe and the United States never seemed to have asked themselves whether Russia might object to this outcome or what it might do to derail it. As a result, they were blindsided when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the seizure of Crimea and backed Russian-speaking separatist movements in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, plunging the country into a frozen conflict that persists to this day.

…Putin is not solely responsible for the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, and moral outrage over his actions or character is not a strategy. Nor are more and tougher sanctions likely to cause him to surrender to Western demands. Unpleasant as it may be, the United States and its allies need to recognize that Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment is a vital interest for Russia—one it is willing to use force to defend—and this is not because Putin happens to be a ruthless autocrat with a nostalgic fondness for the old Soviet past. Great powers are never indifferent to the geostrategic forces arrayed on their borders, and Russia would care deeply about Ukraine’s political alignment even if someone else were in charge. U.S. and European unwillingness to accept this basic reality is a major reason the world is in this mess today [emphasis added].

…in the end, Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment is a vital interest for the Kremlin and Russia will insist on getting something tangible. U.S. President Joe Biden has already made it clear that the United States will not go to war to defend Ukraine, and those who think it can and should—in an area that lies right next door to Russia—apparently believe we are still in the unipolar world of the 1990s and have a lot of attractive military options.

Yet with a weak hand to play, the U.S. negotiating team is apparently still insisting that Ukraine retain the option of joining NATO at some point in the future, which is precisely the outcome Moscow wants to foreclose. If the United States and NATO want to solve this via diplomacy, they are going to have to make real concessions and may not get everything they might want. I don’t like this situation any more than you do, but that’s the price to be paid for unwisely expanding NATO beyond reasonable limits.

The best hope for a peaceful resolution of this unhappy mess is for the Ukrainian people and their leaders to realize that having Russia and the West fight over which side ultimately gains Kyiv’s allegiance is going to be a disaster for their country. Ukraine should take the initiative and announce it intends to operate as a neutral country that will not join any military alliance. It should formally pledge not to become a member of NATO or join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. It would still be free to trade with and welcome investment from any country, and it should be free to choose its own leaders without outside interference. If Kyiv made such a move on its own, then the United States and its NATO allies could not be accused of giving into Russian blackmail.

For Ukrainians, living as a neutral state next door to Russia is hardly an ideal situation. But given its geographic location, it is the best outcome Ukraine can realistically expect [emphasis added]. It is certainly far superior to the situation Ukrainians find themselves in now. It is worth remembering that Ukraine was effectively neutral from 1992 until 2008—the year NATO foolishly announced Ukraine would join the alliance. At no point in that period did it face a serious risk of invasion. Anti-Russian sentiment is now running high in most of Ukraine, however, which makes it less likely this possible exit ramp can be taken.

The most tragic element in this whole unhappy saga is that it was avoidable. But until U.S. policymakers temper their liberal hubris and regain a fuller appreciation of realism’s uncomfortable but vital lessons, they are likely to stumble into similar crises in the future.

Yep. You’re not in a unipolar world anymore, Toto. And it’s very scary that many in the American media, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, are urging a macho line on Biden and his administration (see here and here)–shades of the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war. Best try hard to see if some not unreasonable compromise can be had from Bad Vlad. Make him an offer that he should not refuse if he has any real willingness to deal in good faith.

Other very relevant posts:

Those Exceptional Americans just don’t get that Exceptional Russian Mentalité–plus Bad Vlad on the History of Russians and Little Russians (er, Ukrainians)

Ukraine: What Kind of Democracy for the West to Embrace when its Current President has his Pro-EU Predecessor Charged with Treason?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Theme video:

9 thoughts on “Russia vs Ukraine: Liberal Hubris and Realism”

  1. For a very different view see this by the estimable historian of eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder–the conclusion:

    “How to think about war in Ukraine
    Start with the Ukrainians

    Another line of Russian propaganda has been that Ukraine is uninhabitable for Jews. Zelens’kyi is Jewish. Incidentally, the prime minister when Zelens’kyi took office was also Jewish. For several months in 2019, Ukraine was the only country (beyond Israel) to have a Jewish head of state and a Jewish head of government [who knew?]. In Putin’s essay, and more directly in a more recent article by his onetime political partner Dmitri Medvedev, this state of affairs is presented as evidence of Ukraine’s lack of sovereignty and dependence on the West. Medvedev’s language crossed into antisemitic territory.

    So what to do? Negotiations seem both necessary and difficult. The Ukrainians should obviously be included. The practice of excluding the country concerned from discussions of its future has a poor pedigree. America is not actually responsible for everything, so it cannot deliver what Russians seem to want, which is an alternative reality where Russia had not alienated its neighbor by invading it; or perhaps an alternative reality in which the Soviet Union had never fallen apart, or one where the old Soviet empire was held together by admiration for Russia. These are dreams that no one can make true. In a clear sign of the awkwardness of the Russian position, Moscow tabled two draft treaties and asked that they be signed as they stand; in them, Americans are asked to accept provisions that the Kremlin must surely know are unacceptable and to sign away the sovereignty of other countries, especially Ukraine.

    What seems worth trying are negotiations on a broader basis, not limited to Russia’s specific claims or ambitions, but accepting the basic premise that something is wrong in the European security system. Just what that might be will of course look different in different capitals, from Kyiv for instance, but that is what negotiation is all about. One thing that America and Russia do have in common is that their diplomats have been downgraded in recent years. Perhaps they should be given something serious to work on, something that might make some real history.”

    Mark Collins


  2. And from the start of the Cold War:

    “Not one inch!
    more warnings and counter-warnings…

    During this rather odd war scare in Eastern Europe – in which one side, armed to the teeth, denies it is preparing for war and the other screams of war but does almost nothing to prepare – it is tough to keep things in historical perspective. Such moments call for a bit of gallows humour. For example, this exchange at a Cold War press conference:

    Reporter: [long harangue]

    Dean Acheson: I will respond to the question, if one may call it a question, by the representative of Tass…

    Reporter: The Secretary should know that I do not represent Tass, but the Information Service of the People’s Republic of Poland.

    Dean Acheson: I stand corrected. Demi-Tass.”

    Mark Collins


  3. The gaffe of speaking the truth? How long will he last en poste? Note where he said it; Indians have not been jumping down in support of Ukraine for obvious reasons given their extensive ties with Russia, esp. arms–tous azimuts, don’t you know?

    Mark Collins


  4. Interesting view–actually now it’s Deutsche Marine:

    Mark Collins


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s