PIIE Blog | RealTime Economic Issues Watch
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to RealTime Economic Issues Watch Search
RealTime Economic Issues Watch

Is the West to Blame for Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine? Of Course Not!

by | August 20th, 2014 | 01:11 pm
|

John J. Mearsheimer is supposed to be one of the foremost American international relations theorists. But his article, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, shows his contempt for democracy, national sovereignty, and international law.

His thesis is that Russia has the right to decide the fate of the countries in its neighborhood in its own interest. “Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia,” writes Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine.” By this token, Mearsheimer would consider any Russian attack on Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and other neighboring NATO states as justified. Mearsheimer is denying countries their right to self-defense or to join NATO.

Throughout his article, Mearsheimer has nothing but good words to say about Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, which speaks volumes. When Putin was nominated president through an accident of history as Boris Yeltsin’s powers were failing, Russia was a far freer country, verging on a democracy. It was Putin, not the West, who turned Russia into a dictatorship. That is the reason why Putin is so worried about any democratic breakthrough in his neighborhood, and Mearsheimer clearly sympathizes with him. Why should a dictator have the right to impose his will on his oppressed people?

Mearsheimer invokes the role of popular will in two instances in his article. In one case, he claims that most of the people in Crimea “wanted out of Ukraine.” But the evidence is missing. Opinion polls before the “referendum” under Russian military control showed nothing of the sort, and the referendum was a blatant fake.

The other case is when Mearsheimer, again without evidence, claims that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted through a “coup.” He lost his parliamentary majority on February 20 after having ordered the killing of 100 citizens, and he was voted out with a constitutional majority of two-thirds. One may complain that a more complex impeachment procedure should have been applied, but Mearsheimer’s hero Putin is not even democratically elected.

In his defense of Putin, Mearsheimer claims that “there is virtually no evidence that he was bent on taking Crimea” before February 22. Sorry, it was all too evident that Russia had contingency plans for doing so. Otherwise the Russian takeover would not have been so successful. The Russian special forces’ film of the events on YouTube shows these plans in all their clarity. The Russian action was a carefully planned aggression. Fortunately, Putin does not appear to have had ready-made plans for occupation of the rest of Ukraine.

Mearsheimer also defends Putin’s rationality, which is a tall order. Let us just note that Putin clearly believes, as former US Ambassador Michael McFaul has so eloquently put it, that no popular uprising can happen anywhere, and that everything is instigated by security services, notably the US services. Therefore, it could not have been the Ukrainians who ousted their corrupt dictator Yanukovych—it had to be the Americans. Only a conspiratorial and paranoid mind like Putin’s can take that at face value, but Mearsheimer bolsters him.

Mearsheimer goes on to claim that Putin is no “modern-day Adolf Hitler.” But how else to explain why Putin’s speech on March 18 about his defense of the Russian-speaking people appeared to be partly copied from Hitler’s speeches in 1938 and 1939? In 1938, Nazi Germany was economically and militarily strong, accounting for 38 percent of Europe’s economic output. Apparently, Hitler was more realistic than Putin, but that is no reason to defend either of them.

Mearsheimer could not care less about international law, presumably because it runs counter to his defense of “realism.” He does not even mention that Putin in his military aggression has violated the UN Charter, the Helsinki Act of 1975, the Treaty on the Dissolution of the Soviet Union of 1991, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty of 1997, or the Russian-Ukrainian Sevastopol Base Treaty of 1997, and so on.

A final ludicrous argument advanced by Mearsheimer is that Putin’s actions are justified because Russia is a great power. “Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it,” he says. “This is Geopolitics 101: Great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.” He enumerates what the United States, also a great power, does not accept on its doorstep. Well, the United States has accepted Cuba on its very door-step for quite some time.

Moreover, the United States is a great power, while Russia is not, which Mearsheimer acknowledges: “Even if Russia did boast a powerful military machine and an impressive economy, it would still probably prove unable to successfully occupy Ukraine.” He pursues this thought further: “Russia is a declining power, and it will only get weaker with time.”

Indeed, Russia’s GDP is merely 2.9 percent of global GDP and 6 percent of the NATO countries’ GDP. Its defense budget is less than one-tenth of the defense budget of the NATO countries. So why should Russia stand above any law, if it is not a great power? This is Geopolitics 101, which Mearsheimer seems to have missed. He leaves us without an answer. Apparently, he has not thought his case through.

With Mearsheimer’s arguments, any crackpot military aggression anywhere in the world could be defended. He could use the same arguments to justify Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, or Saddam Hussein, which suggests that these arguments in defense of Putin might not be of much value.