The conflict in Ukraine is rapidly heading from bad to worse. Another effort over the weekend to arrange a truce went – predictably – nowhere. With pro-Russian separatists gaining ground, reports indicate that the United States now is considering sending defensive weapons and equipment to the Ukrainian army.
There is very little prospect that the fighting will end anytime soon. Rather, the smart money says that sending arms to Ukraine will only prompt Russia to increase its own supplies to the separatists. And there is much speculation about how far this ‘new Cold War’ might go.
So, whose fault is all this?
The predominant narrative in the U.S. and Western Europe puts the blame squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to rebuild his country’s international status and keep Ukraine in its orbit.
But there is a vociferous minority – including some prominent experts – who argue that Western overreach is even more to blame. It’s a point of view with some merit. But in the end, it doesn’t really stand up.
The dispute has been raging for much of the past year. But it has kicked up with new passion since the New York Times published this deconstruction of the collapse last February of the government of Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovich.
Let’s take a closer look. First, though, some perspective. Few question that Ukraine, the heart of the first Russian state centered in Kiev, has huge historic importance for many Russians. Or that it suffered horribly in Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture. Or that some Ukrainians collaborated with Nazi invaders; others fought for independence amidst the chaos of World War II. Or that the land has long been divided between those in the west (including some far-right elements) who often are more oriented toward the rest of Europe, and many in the east and south who tend to look toward Moscow. Or that, whatever else happens, Ukraine has close economic ties with Russia and always will share a very long border.
Ukraine started down the path it is on today because of that divided character. Forced a year and a half ago to choose between a closer relationship with Moscow or the European Union, Yanukovich chose Russia. Pro-western protesters converged on Kiev and stayed there for months.
The New York Times investigation focused on two crucial days nearly a year ago that started with protesters holding just a small piece of central Kiev and ended with Yanukovich fleeing his capital. In between, dozens of protesters died in a hail of sniper fire. Yanukovich was cast adrift by allies more worried about saving themselves than the government, it said.
Prominent Russia scholar Stephen Cohen has long argued against demonizing Putin, and accused The Times of ignoring the role of the far right in the revolt, including the possibility that the opposition was responsible for the sniper fire.
In Cohen’s words, the Times piece, which dismissed Kremlin claims that the revolt was actually a Western-backed neo-fascist coup, amounted to “astonishing piece of media malpractice.”
More broadly, these experts argue that the United States and its Western European allies are largely responsible for the crisis because they insisted on expanding their reach into countries that Russian considers a “near abroad” vital to its interests – Central Europe, then the Baltic countries and finally aiming at Ukraine. Russia has long been unhappy about it. But in this view, Ukraine took it a step too far.
“The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” says University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer in this analysis. EU expansion and western support for a previous revolt in Ukraine a decade ago made matters worse, he says.
That view still appears to be a minority position among Russia analysts. But the debate has been hot enough that Foreign Affairs polled 29 experts on the statement: “The West provoked Russia President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Russia’s near abroad by expanding NATO and the EU after the Cold War.”
Those who disagreed were double the number who agreed.
It’s relatively easy to think the worst of Putin for how he has concentrated power in the Kremlin and presided over a system of crony capitalism. But there is more to it than that. To buy into the argument about NATO and EU expansion, is to accept old-style politics in which countries are acknowledged to have spheres of influence that are simply off limits to their rivals.
Several of the experts cited by Foreign Affairs pointed out that in the post-Cold War world, countries are free to choose their alliances – and that includes Ukraine, no matter how close it is to Russia.
While diplomacy with Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union might have gotten farther with a lighter touch, Putin’s response has been way out of proportion.
“Annoyed him? Sure,” Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said of Putin.
Sestanovich, who was the State Department’s ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997-2001, quickly added: “But people don’t invade other countries because they’re annoyed.”