Ever since the Ukraine crisis started, there have been several attempts to understand the reasons it escalated and what led to the Russian annexation of Crimea. An interesting debate currently in motion is between the “realist” and “liberal” points of view knocking heads about the causes of this crisis and the solutions to it.
One of the most comprehensive articles on the topic was written by John J. Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs, discussing how the West have ignored the signs of Russian disapproval of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion in Europe in the previous decades. According to Mearsheimer, the “prevailing wisdom” in the West that the crisis can be blamed solely on Russian aggression and its alleged reconstruction of the Soviet Empire is false. In fact, Mearsheimer argues, there were several signs of a worrying Moscow with NATO getting closer to its borders.
“Moscow complained bitterly from the start. During NATO’s 1995 bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, for example, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said, “This is the first sign of what could happen when NATO comes right up to the Russian Federation’s borders. … The flame of war could burst out across the whole of Europe.” But the Russians were too weak at the time to derail NATO’s eastward movement, which, at any rate, did not look so threatening, since none of the new members shared a border with Russia, save for the tiny Baltic countries.” Mearsheimer argues.
However, the West remained insensitive to Russian concerns. Mearsheimer went on to explain that after fighting broke out between the Georgian government and South Ossetian separatists, Russian forces took control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow, Mearsheimer argues, had therefore made its point. Despite this clear warning, however, NATO never publicly abandoned its goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance. And NATO expansion continued marching forward, with Albania and Croatia becoming members in 2009. It is therefore not surprising that Russia felt threatened by the NATO alliance.
The European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative and its work in Ukraine to bring the country closer to the EU also fuelled Russia’s suspicion with regards to Western policy.
There are, however, many that take a different approach to the issue and blame the “weak” fashion of Western foreign policy for the Ukraine crisis.
One such person is Anne Applebaum, an American and Polish Pulitzer-Prize winning author and wife of Poland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski.
“Our mistake was not to humiliate Russia but to underrate Russia’s revanchist, revisionist, disruptive potential. If the only real Western achievement of the past quarter-century is now under threat, that’s because we have failed to ensure that NATO continues to do in Europe what it was always meant to do: deter. Deterrence is not an aggressive policy; it is a defensive policy. But in order to work, deterrence has to be real. It requires investment, consolidation and support from all of the West, and especially the United States. I’m happy to blame American triumphalism for many things, but in Europe I wish there had been more of it.”
Applebaum, however, does not suggest any clear solutions in her article in The Washington Post, let alone the fact that she does not evaluate the risks of a more aggressive NATO expansion; Russia might become more aggravated by a Western power at its border and could possibly lead to an even more aggressive reaction.
Mearsheimer, however, does offer a solution: make Ukraine neutral and accept the fact that it was always a buffer zone between Europe and Russia. His solution, however, is based upon the assumption that the war in Ukraine is still reversible and that Russia would accept to help the Ukrainian economy with large sums of money hand in hand with Washington and Brussels to revive its economy. Mearsheimer argues that this solution means that Ukraine would be a neutral state, it does not, however, ensure that democracy and the rule of law would not be undermined by a peaceful fight for influence in Ukraine between the West and Russia.
These two very strong opinions show that the conflict and its causes are anything but one-dimensional. A democratic yet unstable Ukraine that is closer to the EU, but torn apart by war with Russia, or a seemingly stable and neutral Ukraine that can be still threatened by the powers that want to gain influence over it, are two possible yet disturbing scenarios that Mearsheimer and Applebaum offer. The Ukraine crisis is far from over and it needs to be solved quickly.