The months-long succession of rising tensions over Russia’s outsized and prolonged “military exercises” is over. The accompanying negotiations, it is now evident, were a sham. The illusion of a crisis that could be defused was shattered by an invasion that, although extremely poorly managed, has been exceptionally brutal in its contempt for the lives of the Slavic brothers and sisters Vladimir Putin claimed to be liberating from Nazism.
Just as the confusion and jangled nerves in the Western democracies between the Munich crisis in 1938 and the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 gave way to resolve when Germany invaded Poland, Russia’s attempt to erase Ukraine has galvanized Western nations. To judge from United Nations General Assembly votes, most countries also condemn Russia.
Much of the world’s opprobrium now focuses on Putin, prompting long-distance psychoanalyses suggesting that the pandemic made him paranoid and delusional rather than cunning and patient. Whatever the truth in that, it is also true that it is a Western habit to ascribe larger events to personality traits.
One is reminded of Karl Marx’s comment on Louis Napoleon’s coup in 1851:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
The over-personalization of events that Marx chided is present in the small but persistent group of those who, expressly or implicitly, justify Russian actions by complaining that American policy in the 1990s drove Russia to engage in years of cyberattacks on multiple countries, followed by a full-scale invasion of a sovereign neighbor.
These aspiring practitioners of realpolitik greatly overstate U.S. influence, whether for good or ill. Like the amateur psychoanalysts who compare Putin to Adolf Hitler in the bunker, the would-be realist school appears to regard Russian behavior as driven by whichever Western policy pleases or offends Putin. They should examine the deeper Russian historical dynamic that made a Putin-like leader inevitable.
Understanding this conflict’s origins is crucial. The first major interstate war in Europe since 1945 will remake international relationships in a manner as profound as the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989. The threat of nuclear war must force the United States and its NATO allies to avoid acting from mistaken premises. This means that the critics of the West’s policy on post-Soviet Russia must have their central question answered: Did the U.S. provoke this conflict?
Early post–Cold War revisionists like George F. Kennan and, more recently, respected analysts like John Mearsheimer (who insists that the crisis is the West’s fault) have come close to suggesting that the U.S. imposed an intolerable, almost Carthaginian, peace on the Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation. Washington imposed an intolerable security burden on the Russian Federation by enticing Russia’s cordon sanitaire of previously compliant buffer states into NATO and the European Union fold. According to the critics, America bears a significant moral burden for the carnage in Ukraine.
Such credibility as this view has is partly due to Kennan, whose reputation as the 20th century’s foremost Russia expert and as the father of the Cold War policy of containment lends an aura of expertise. But between his famous “Long Telegram” warning of the Soviet threat in 1946 and his first departure from the State Department in 1950, Kennan vacillated wildly about whether a military buildup was necessary to deter the USSR or whether Soviet power was rapidly withering. Kennan even contemplated preventive war against the Soviets. Still, by 1948, he opposed plans for a North Atlantic alliance like NATO and instead threw himself into an unrealistic plan for the early reunification and neutralization of occupied Germany. That idea met strong opposition from western European countries, who were in no mood to see a reunited Germany and would have to bear the consequences. He completely misjudged the willingness of West Germans to accept a division of their country in return for protection from potential Soviet threats.
His chronic pessimism about American foreign relations was evident in his views on Japan. He railed against the U.S. occupation policy and bemoaned our efforts to democratize and reform a nation that had gone on a murderous imperial rampage across Asia. In retrospect, U.S. postwar policy in both countries was a notable success—prosperous, democratic nations that shed the racist and imperial ambitions that plunged the world into war. Kennan even hatched a bizarre scheme to use the U.S. Armed Forces to forcibly eject 300,000 Nationalist Chinese troops in Taiwan in a quixotic bid to drive a wedge between Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin—by showing Beijing that it did not need the Soviets to counterbalance the United States. Kennan was no infallible savant. His criticism of NATO expansion in the 1990s, when he had opposed its creation in the first place, was neither correct nor surprising. As his definitive biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, emphasizes, Kennan was a cultural pessimist with withering mistrust of America’s capacity for self-government and, even more so, its ability to conduct foreign relations. (I am indebted to Gaddis’s work for much of the information about Kennan presented here.)
Later in life, Kennan became increasingly estranged from mainstream American society, saying that women and minorities should not vote and even musing on the desirability of apartheid-style Bantustans in the United States. He bitterly criticized the youth culture of the West, reflecting in his diary how a “company of robust Russian infantry” would put all the hippies to flight.
In one Kennan diary entry, he’s disdaining Western youth and idealizing Russian soldiers thereby falling prey to the occupational hazard of area specialists: falling in love with the object of their study. As for his government work, his old boss, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, summarized Kennan’s work as memos “in which were mingled flashes of prophetic insight [with] suggestions of total impracticality.”
Kennan’s opposition to NATO expansion should no longer awe us as oracular wisdom. He exhibited the same flaw as American exceptionalism: It’s all about us. But in the case of Kennan, it’s about America’s exceptional failings as a boorish and parochial society too myopic to understand Russia as he would.
For Kennan, Russia was just one more country in his foreign policy vision: an 18th-century model of a self-correcting balance of power between nations. In this scheme, a country’s domestic policy, aside from being no business of ours, has little or no bearing on the clockwork functioning of a system in balance. Far from being prophetic of the 21st century, Kennan was a throwback to the Enlightenment. He clung to this diplomatic ideal, which was long superseded by the rise of fascism, Communism, mass politics, and the nuclear age.
Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, criticized NATO expansion in Kennan’s time and reiterated his criticism both shortly before and even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this winter. He considers himself a member of the realist school of foreign policy and raises important issues. No power, even the United States in the 1990s period of euphoria over being a hyperpower, has infinite resources. At some point, it must ask itself if it is overextended, in the manner of Britain between the world wars. Ultimately, it must rely on balancing among multiple centers of power rather than merely exerting its will.
Mearsheimer is taken with the idea of multipolarity as the natural state of international relations. His repeated predictions of its emergence suggest that the wish might be father to the thought. But in Europe, at least, that has not come to pass, despite his prognostication 30 years ago. Even Donald Trump’s fulmination against NATO did not prompt Paris, Berlin, or any other capital to bring forth a new Metternich and become a new pole. Mearsheimer’s forecast that Germany would become a nuclear weapons state came a cropper. He ventured into the bizarre when he posited that Europe with nuclear proliferation would be better equipped to remain at peace and that Germany without a nuclear deterrent would be more likely to conquer the continent.
In the case of Ukraine, Mearsheimer argued that, rather than obtaining its security from diplomatic, economic, and possibly military ties with Western countries, it should develop a nuclear arsenal. As with a reunited Germany, possession of nuclear weapons would—somehow—prevent the rise of extreme nationalism. For decades, Mearsheimer has expressed a rather breathtaking nonchalance about nuclear proliferation, as well as a naive faith that the ownership of atomic weapons endows their possessors, as well as potential rivals, with rationality and wisdom that is all too rare in an international arena he describes as anarchy.
He now contends that America is to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: That is, the U.S. (along with its more or less willing helpmeets) bears the principal onus for another country’s military aggression. Moscow, by his lights, was justified in acting on what it felt was an intolerable threat. This is an extraordinary claim, on par with the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart’s assertion that Britain was morally responsible for World War II by guaranteeing Poland against Nazi German aggression, thereby provoking Hitler.
Mearsheimer has generally been scathing in his opinion of liberal internationalism, and on the whole is not impressed with the diplomatic performance of democracies. The realist, for some reason, holds that democratic leaders are more likely than dictators to lie to their own people. This dismissal of the fundamental differences between autocracies and democracies (like the free flow of information) leads to his failure to consider how fraught memories drive Russia and its neighbors, shaping their current behavior.
Critics who formed their views on NATO expansion during the 1990s functioned at a time when the U.S. was the sole remaining superpower and there were hopes that Russia might become a functioning democracy. Boris Yeltsin was a weak transitional leader who posed no threat. Even his Soviet predecessors had for almost 40 years practiced relatively cautious, collective, consensus-driven leadership. Rivals might be sidelined but not imprisoned or shot. When a leader like Nikita Khrushchev became too headstrong and mercurial, he was retired to his dacha but free to write his memoirs. Then came Vladimir Putin.
Few Russia analysts, and certainly not the NATO naysayers, foresaw a figure like Putin, who, although nostalgic for the USSR, was in the mold not of late-20th-century Soviet leaders but of an autocrat like Stalin. Dissidents, even those living abroad, have been killed—a throwback to Leon Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico. Putin’s political opponents have either been murdered or imprisoned after preposterous frame-ups reminiscent of Stalin’s show trials. Today’s war on Ukraine echoes Stalin’s murderous famine campaign of the 1930s. Putin’s death count is nowhere near Stalin’s, but it’s rising.
This raises the question: Is Putin sui generis, someone whose ascent could not be predicted? Or is he a recrudescence of Russian history, with the 1953–99 period (between Stalin’s death and the beginning of Putin’s presidency) being an anomaly of relative moderation when concepts like détente were thinkable even with near-Armageddon moments like the Cuban Missile Crisis? Was the second half of the 20th century an era of unusual moderation when Soviet citizens were protected from extreme oppression—if barely—by “Soviet legalism?”
If the answer is the latter—that someone like Putin was likely to climb into the saddle—then NATO expansion was prudent hedging, not reckless hubris. And critics like Mearsheimer, who sees international relations as a cold-blooded chess game between great powers, dismiss the desires of more than 125 million eastern Europeans as unworthy of consideration amid the more powerful nations’ balancing act.
The anti-NATO critics imply that U.S. policy under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush acted Pied Piper–like to inveigle these eastern European states into the alliance, while the traditional members of NATO, presumably wiser in the ways of continental diplomacy, acquiesced in America’s folly.
But the newly freed nations of eastern Europe had ample historical reasons, some dating back centuries, for wanting an insurance policy against Russian domination. They were hardly conned into protecting themselves from Moscow’s predatory ambitions. (Bill Clinton has a piece in The Atlantic about this.) In the case of Poland and the Baltic states, the historical record included—within living memory—forcible annexations, mass shootings, deportations into the interior of Russia, and attempts to blot out their national cultures. (We have already seen these practices in Ukraine, with credible reports of civilians being transported against their will to Russia, widespread destruction of cultural monuments, and atrocities against civilians.)
The Kennan-Mearsheimer critique of NATO expansion is America-centric in that it takes as a given that the U.S. was the prime mover of the process and the peoples of eastern Europe lack agency. It assumes that the alliance is a Delian League, with the U.S. dictating policy to satellite states. But all NATO members must agree to accession by any state wishing to join. Why did no existing member veto the expansion proposal if it was just an American conceit? Was it perhaps because they agreed with the concept?
There’s nothing in Putin’s record to suggest that he would have been content with a nonaligned, independent eastern Europe. By 2005, he described the Soviet Union’s fall as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” It is telling that he did not say it was World War II, an unsurpassed catastrophe that left up to 27 million Soviet citizens dead, including members of his own family. Human tragedy does not interest him, only loss of status in the game of power politics.
Belarus appears to be the model for what Putin has always had in mind for his immediate neighbors in a quest for “Russia’s return of its historical space and its place in the world”: a mini despotism modeled on Russia, whose citizens submit to a leader like President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who will, if required, be propped up by Russian military intervention.
What lies at the root of Putin’s declarations about “Russia’s historical space” is best described by the younger Kennan, who examined the historical basis of Russian rule in his “Long Telegram” (which is written in “telegraphese”):
At the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area … Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration.
Since Peter the Great, Russia has presented itself as a great power and as sophisticated as western Europe. Hence the eager adoption of Western fashion, European court etiquette, and speaking French under Peter, who went so far as to force the boyars to shave their beards. Just like the European aristocrats, the tiny sliver of noble or wealthy Russians took the waters at Karlsbad or summered on the Riviera—a habit that continues with the oligarchs because, quite apart from their need to launder ill-gotten riches in a safe bolt-hole, they would hardly want to vacation in Novocherkassk.
This facade has never quite concealed deep-seated cultural insecurity, the feeling that poor Russia will forever remain backward and disrespected. This dichotomy animated debate among the 19th-century intelligentsia, dividing between Westernizers embracing Europe and Slavophiles who rationalized Russia’s intractable differences with the West as the mark of spiritual superiority.
This schism carried into the Soviet era in the guise of a debate between the merits of world revolution versus socialism in one country, a difference of opinion brought violently to a halt by Stalin’s xenophobia and denunciation of “rootless cosmopolitanism” (a largely anti-Semitic euphemism).
Today, Putin still benefits from the cultural backlash against the extreme economic insecurity of the post-Soviet 1990s. His rehabilitation of Stalin is complete, and those who document Stalin’s crimes are persecuted. An inward-looking, defensive Slavophilia flourishes under the rubric of Eurasianism, a hodgepodge of geopolitical ramblings whose chief proponent is Putin’s Rasputin-like court philosopher, Alexander Dugin.
For all its vaunting, despite having a space program and wielding a veto as a member of the UN Security Council, Russia harbors a long-standing cultural inferiority complex. That Russia never reckoned with Stalin-era crimes, unlike post–World War II Germany, sharpens this inferiority complex into a persecution mania. Nostalgia for the period of gulags and mass shootings is now a semi-official ideology. The desire to forcibly re-create the traditional “Russian space” is a logical extension of this ideology.
Contrary to the Kennan-Mearsheimer school of international relations, a nation’s past—even its mythically reimagined past—and its domestic behavior do affect its conduct. Who fired the first shot is not an irrelevant detail. Amid the protestations of blamelessness by Germany at the Versailles Treaty conference, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau supposedly retorted, “History will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.”