There were several good points made by professors Bonhomme, Simonelli and Sracic in their efforts to “contextualize” the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Let me add one which I think comes closer, and is simpler, than any past or contemporary observation can be. This entire situation can be explained as an example of power politics involving both the U.S. and Russia. John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) is the foremost U.S. academic who insists that “offensive realism” is the name of the game. That is, great powers are never satisfied with “just enough” power, but rather continue to seek more, both to survive and to become a regional hegemon. Russia and the U.S. are perfect examples of this with Ukraine being the tragic victim of this game. For interested readers, there is a new book by M. E. Sarotte, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University — “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Stalemate.” The book describes NATO’s eastward expansion after 1991, which all post-Soviet Russian leaders protested every step of the way. But Russia was weak in the 1990s and couldn’t do anything about this. Putin was determined to bring Russia back to a position of strength in the 2000s and beyond. The dean of American Russian studies, George Kennan, as well as many State Department foreign service officers warned back in the 1990s that NATO expansion would eventually lead to tragedy. And it has.
Much has been made of the adept and skillful use of anti-tank weapons by Ukrainian soldiers. This did not happen overnight. The U.S. has been training Ukrainian troops in all manner of weapon use and combat since 2008 (Stephen Bryen, “Ukraine war has exploded NATO’s credibility,” “Asia Times” 17 March 2022). Remember, Russia was not regarded as “aggressive” at this time toward Ukraine. The U.S. also assisted the Ukrainians in the dredging and deepening of their Black Sea ports in preparation for joint NATO-Ukraine naval exercises. All of this could easily be understood as getting Ukraine ready for NATO membership, certainly by the Russians who didn’t like it one bit.
But Ukraine did not become a NATO member, despite having the “benefits” of U.S. training and weapons stockpiles. Several European members feared Russian reactions if Ukraine membership became a reality. In the meantime, the U.S. was constructing bases in Romania and Bulgaria, allegedly for “anti-ballistic missile” purposes. What’s curious about the base in Romania (Mihail Kogălniceanu) is that it has a full runway capable of handling all sizes of U.S./NATO aircraft. The base was also declared “permanent” in the spring of 2014 at the very moment that Putin decided to seize eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
NATO is hypocritical as well. It claims that it cannot intervene in Ukraine because the country is “not a member of NATO” covered by Article 5 (which does NOT mean that NATO automatically goes to war in the event of an attack on any one member). Bryen sees this rejection as “nonsense” since “NATO military operations have taken place elsewhere involving non-member states and actors.”
Some examples include: Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-2004), Serbia and Kosovo (1999-today), Operation Active Endeavor, Mediterranean Sea (2001-2016), and the International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan (2002-2014). Clearly, Ukraine turned out not to be a vital national security concern for the U.S. and its NATO allies. It is for Russia, given U.S. and NATO activities in and around Ukraine since 2008.
Most American elites, at least in public, prefer to use the language and conceptual framework of international “liberalism.” This rests on assumptions of the relative trustworthiness of human beings, the “reform” of states in favor of “democracy,” the workability of international law and institutions, and the slow but steady development of a “global” or cosmopolitan world. These tend to be very popular ideas in American universities, often animated by very good intentions. Who could be against “peace” and “democracy”? But turn those assumptions around and ask just how well they are working inside America today.
The fact of the matter is that the U.S. runs a kind of global empire with over 700 military bases abroad. Unfortunately, our military has demonstrated that it is incapable of winning wars. But yet we insist on “peace through strength.” “Realist” language today is most apparent in how many elites talk about China and the return of “great power conflict.” We fear losing our power position in the world to a new rising power. That’s always a dangerous situation.
No one can say how the Russian war in Ukraine will turn out. But what is clear is that Russia is a declining great power despite what it is doing at the moment. Its initial military operations on land have proven inept. Its population is absolutely declining. That is not a good recipe for the development of new national wealth relative to military power. But what should be clear is that the efforts of both NATO and the EU to take Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence has backfired terribly, with utter tragedy befalling the Ukrainian people. Mearsheimer said back in 2015 that such efforts would lead to Putin “wrecking Ukraine.” There you have it.
American elites in public do not like discussions of international politics that include references to balances of power and spheres of influence. But the U.S. has long exercised a very clear “sphere of influence” in the entire Western hemisphere, which has its origins in the Monroe Doctrine of the 19th century. We are also the clear “commanders” of NATO. We have always played power politics, and so have the Russians. In this one way, we understand each other very well.
Keith J. Lepak, Associate Professor Emeritus
Politics and International Relations