There’s Plenty of Blame to Go Around on Ukraine

Focusing on U.S. idealism ignores Russia’s own agency.

By , an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
People with Ukrainian flags attend a rally.
People with Ukrainian flags attend a rally.
People with Ukrainian flags attend a patriotic rally at Sophia Square on Unity Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 22. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In his latest article, FP columnist Stephen Walt traces the sources of the Russia-Ukraine crisis to a single cause: American arrogance. The conflict would not have happened, he writes, “had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism.” By overplaying its hand, the United States has now put Russia in a position where it has no choice but to defend its interests.

Realists are sometimes criticized for ignoring weaker states’ agency, but Walt takes the argument to its absurd conclusion by denying the agency of everyone but U.S. policymakers. It’s U.S. officials who make the choices that matter—bad ones—while the rest of the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin included, are simply enacting the eternal laws of history.

This is not just an academic dispute about isms. It’s a question about how Russia and the United States got into this situation and what to do about it. During the Cold War, debates raged about who was to blame for starting the conflict between the superpowers. To simplify a complex set of arguments, answers fell into three categories: traditionalists, who blamed the Soviet Union; revisionists, who blamed the United States; and post-revisionists, who blamed not a particular side’s actions but the uncertainty and mutual suspicion created by the anarchy of international politics.

In his latest article, FP columnist Stephen Walt traces the sources of the Russia-Ukraine crisis to a single cause: American arrogance. The conflict would not have happened, he writes, “had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism.” By overplaying its hand, the United States has now put Russia in a position where it has no choice but to defend its interests.

Realists are sometimes criticized for ignoring weaker states’ agency, but Walt takes the argument to its absurd conclusion by denying the agency of everyone but U.S. policymakers. It’s U.S. officials who make the choices that matter—bad ones—while the rest of the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin included, are simply enacting the eternal laws of history.

This is not just an academic dispute about isms. It’s a question about how Russia and the United States got into this situation and what to do about it. During the Cold War, debates raged about who was to blame for starting the conflict between the superpowers. To simplify a complex set of arguments, answers fell into three categories: traditionalists, who blamed the Soviet Union; revisionists, who blamed the United States; and post-revisionists, who blamed not a particular side’s actions but the uncertainty and mutual suspicion created by the anarchy of international politics.

Policymakers are now rehashing these debates, but instead of asking who started the Cold War, the question has become who reignited it. Walt takes the equivalent of the revisionist side—America did it, period. Doing so makes sense as a counterargument to conventional Washington wisdom—that Putin did it, period. This view—while refusing to treat the United States as anything but a force of good—has contributed to foreign-policy blunders in Afghanistan and Iraq, so it’s understandable that Walt would push against it. It would be nice to have more voices in the foreign-policy establishment doing the same. But by placing blame on one state, Walt has robbed his argument of the strategic context that realists themselves correctly love to emphasize.

As a result, focusing on the United States doesn’t just ignore the role played by others but contradicts Walt’s own theory. Realists argue that regional powers always seek primacy in their neighborhood. According to this logic, a recovering Russia would seek to reestablish regional hegemony regardless of U.S. actions. Western accommodation would have only sped up the process. It’s incoherent for Walt to claim that liberal illusions caused the Russia crisis while also arguing that regional powers naturally seek control over their neighborhood. The rise in tensions would be expected unless Washington abandoned all interest in the region.

This incoherence extends to explaining Putin’s motivations. A key realist principle is that states should not go to war unless it serves their national interests. This is why realists have admirably opposed U.S. adventurism in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere, noting that none of these places ever posed a threat to the United States. If you want to invade, you better have a good reason.

But such high standards for starting a conflict disappear when applied to other regimes. What national interest do realists think Putin is defending by escalating this crisis? What is the existential threat he faces that justifies war and tens of thousands of casualties? Even if NATO is a worry, it’s hard to credibly portray it an as immediate danger, especially since Russia’s concerns center on an expansion that hasn’t happened and doesn’t look likely to happen. If you argue that Putin is merely reacting to Western pressures and his reaction is understandable and expected, you are also arguing that his decision to wage war is justified on realist grounds. Which is, sorry to say, a questionable way to explain a war of choice, fabricated and pursued for reasons unknown.

A better realist story might go something like this. Great powers always seek to establish regional primacy, whether it’s the United States or anyone else. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its successor state lost its regional primacy and the West was able to move in. The United States pursued a global sphere of influence and called it the liberal order. But this was unsustainable, and now, Russia is trying to get its regional primacy back. History suggests that trying to stop this process can lead to conflict, especially among great powers. Russia cares more about primacy in its immediate region than the United States does, and it will fight for it. So the West should not intervene there.

Instead, Walt blames liberal U.S. policymakers for a resurgence of Russian regional primacy, something his own theory predicts should happen. And the U.S. behavior he decries—ruthless expansion into a former rival’s sphere of influence—is actually more in line with the precepts of offensive realism than the liberal internationalism he condemns.

One parallel to Russian foreign policy that realists may find useful is the Russian, and then Soviet, foreign policy in the shaky years from 1917 to 1924. At that time, a sudden collapse and loss of regional primacy created new states along Russia’s imperial periphery. As in 1991, Western observers misinterpreted the movements that sprang from this imperial collapse as democratic revolutions rather than national liberation movements. The result in both 1917 and 1991 were high hopes placed on new democracies, followed by quick disappointment. And in both cases, as the center recovered, Russia increasingly sought to recover its regional sphere of influence by reintegrating new states into its fold—through force, if necessary.

Are the regional spheres of influence that marked Russia’s recovery after 1917 and much of Europe’s history still required to maintain great-power peace? This is the question, often unacknowledged, lurking behind many debates about U.S. foreign policy toward both Russia and China.

Note the uncomfortable trade-offs implied here. Treating spheres of influence as inevitable or conducive to peace means tolerating what the great powers do within them. This has already been true for the United States, which has had a free hand in influencing or overthrowing regimes without inviting great-power conflict. But the same is not true for Russia. So the morally honest position of Walt’s opponents, the hawkish anti-Russians who dominate Washington, is to say, “I am willing to risk great-power conflict, even a devastating war, because oppression is inexcusable and aggression should be deterred.”

Likewise, the morally honest position for a realist like Walt is to say, “I am willing to risk the conquest and oppression of smaller states because great-power war is worse and brings much more suffering.” This is not a statement everyone will agree with, but it’s one that’s more defensible than pointing fingers.

Seva Gunitsky is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Aftershocks: Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the 20th Century. Twitter: @SevaUT

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