FLASHPOINTS #5: Is this war NATO's fault?
An interview with Daniel Berman
Who is to blame for the war in Ukraine? In the immediate sense, of course it was Putin’s decision, but in an historical sense it can be argued that Putin was pushed into the decision by NATO’s expansionism. John Mearsheimer, from the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy analysis, argues that “the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible for this disaster”. Others argue that there’s nothing the West could have done to prevent this. We’re going to explore that question with Daniel Berman, an international affairs analyst and political communication specialist. I’ve followed Daniel on Twitter and elsewhere for the last few months have found him to be a very astute commentator on the war and its political context, and an all-round original thinker.
Daniel received his BA at Bates College, a Masters in Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, and a Phd in the History of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked in the US Senate and has written for a number of outlets including the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, the Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. Most recently his work has been published on AMAC, and featured on RealclearPolitics (under the pen name Daniel Roman).
Daniel: who is to blame for the war in Ukraine?
Short Answer: Putin. Now, it’s true that Russia under his leadership faced a genuine security dilemma: by 2021, it found itself trapped in a confrontation with the West over Ukraine from which it could not easily retreat. But the trap was one of Putin’s own making. While the West missed a number of opportunities to promote the success of democracy in Russia in the 1990s, or to form a genuine partnership with Putin in the 2000s, it was his decision in the 2010s to define his regime and Russia as in conflict with the West which forced Ukrainians to choose sides.
At the same time, his domestic policies ensured that when they chose, it would be against Russia. Once Putin decided he would base his own legitimacy in Russia not just on protecting Russia from physical invasion, but from cultural contamination as well - even if it meant ‘protecting Russians from themselves’ by cracking down on internal opposition - he was not able to “abandon” millions of Russians in Ukraine to Westernization. Ukraine’s decision then became not merely a strategic threat to Russian military security, which is what Mearsheimer sees, but an existential threat to Russia’s legitimacy.
In effect, the realists are correct that by 2021 a situation had arisen in which the choice facing any Russian leader, not just Putin, would be to act and “do something”, because the alternative was to effectively concede that Ukraine become a new Poland (by which I mean a separate Slavic power center whose national identity was based on not being Russia, and whose geopolitical orientation was based entirely around constructing the strongest possible anti-Russian alliance. I made a similar argument about Putin being pushed into conflict on February 16th).
But the reasons were entirely due to decisions he had made. Russia in 2004 would not have been threatened by what was happening in Ukraine, nor would it have been in 2010.
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Below the fold: why NATO isn’t really the issue here; how Ukrainians changed their view Russia; why Putin didn’t try this during the Trump years, and how this war is going to play out.