John Mearsheimer on Ukraine: Excerpts/PART TWO

In PART ONE we selected excerpts from the first half of John Mearsheimer’s June 16 speech. (We found it difficult to cut ANY of it); same goes for PART TWO, but we stuck to our attempt to make the highlights digestible for busy readers. If you time to read the full text, it is posted at: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/causes-and-consequences-ukraine-crisis-203182 

… or, better still, watch it on the Youtube version, which includes an instructive Q and A. (And let’s hope Professor Mearsheimer will be allowed to speak on the North American continent sometime soon.)

From:

The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine War

A lecture by John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in the Political Science, University of Chicago.

Given at The Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

June 16, 2022

Selected Excerpts: (PART TWO)

… the Western response to the events of 2014 was to double down on the existing strategy and draw Ukraine even closer to NATO. The alliance began training the Ukrainian military in 2014, averaging 10,000 trained troops annually over the next eight years. In December 2017, the Trump administration decided to provide Kyiv with “defensive weapons.” Other NATO countries soon got into the act, shipping even more weapons to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military also began participating in joint military exercises with NATO forces. In July 2021, Kyiv and Washington co-hosted Operation Sea Breeze, a naval exercise in the Black Sea that included navies from 31 countries and was directly aimed at Russia. Two months later in September 2021, the Ukrainian army led Rapid Trident 21, which the U.S. Army described as an “annual exercise designed to enhance interoperability among allied and partner nations, to demonstrate units are poised and ready to respond to any crisis.” NATO’s effort to arm and train Ukraine’s military explains in good part why it has fared so well against Russian forces in the ongoing war. As a headline in The Wall Street Journal put it, “The Secret of Ukraine’s Military Success: Years of NATO Training.” …

President Biden, who moved into the White House in January 2021, had long been committed to bringing Ukraine into NATO and was also super-hawkish toward Russia. Unsurprisingly, on June 14, 2021, NATO issued the following communiqué at its annual summit in Brussels:

“We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference.”…

In short, there is little doubt that starting in early 2021 Ukraine began moving rapidly toward joining NATO. Even so, some supporters of this policy argue that Moscow should not have been concerned, because “NATO is a defensive alliance and poses no threat to Russia.” But that is not how Putin and other Russian leaders think about NATO and it is what they think that matters. There is no question that Ukraine joining NATO remained the “brightest of red lines” for Moscow. …

Putin made numerous public statements during this period that left no doubt that he viewed NATO expansion into Ukraine as an existential threat. Speaking to the Defense Ministry Board on December 21, 2021, he stated: “what they are doing, or trying or planning to do in Ukraine, is not happening thousands of kilometers away from our national border. It is on the doorstep of our house. They must understand that we simply have nowhere further to retreat to. … He then made it clear that he recognized that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO. The United States and its allies, he said, “continue to pump the current Kiev authorities full of modern types of weapons.” He went on to say that if this was not stopped, Moscow “would be left with an ‘anti-Russia’ armed to the teeth. This is totally unacceptable.”…

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the point succinctly at a press conference on January 14, 2022, when he said, “the key to everything is the guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward.”

Nevertheless, the efforts of Lavrov and Putin to get the United States and its allies to abandon their efforts to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border failed completely. Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to Russia’s mid-December demands by simply saying, “There is no change. There will be no change.” Putin then launched an invasion of Ukraine to eliminate the threat he saw from NATO.

So, what are the prospects for negotiating a peace agreement and ending the war in the next few months? I am sorry to say that I see no way this war ends anytime soon, a view shared by prominent policymakers like General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the JCS, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. The main reason for my pessimism is that both Russia and the United States are deeply committed to winning the war and it is impossible to fashion an agreement where both sides win. …

To be more specific, the key to a settlement from Russia’s perspective is making Ukraine a neutral state, ending the prospect of integrating Kyiv into the West. But that outcome is unacceptable to the Biden administration and a large portion of the American foreign policy establishment, because it would represent a victory for Russia. …

Let me now turn to the matter of escalation. It is widely accepted among international relations scholars that there is a powerful tendency for protracted wars to escalate. Over time, other countries can get dragged into the fight and the level of violence is likely to increase. The potential for this happening in the Ukraine war is real. There is a danger that the United States and its NATO allies will get dragged into the fighting, which they have been able to avoid up to this point, even though they are already waging a proxy war against Russia. There is also the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used in Ukraine and that might even lead to a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States. The underlying reason these outcomes might be realized is that the stakes are so high for both sides, and thus neither can afford to lose.

As I have emphasized, Putin and his lieutenants believe that Ukraine joining the West is an existential threat to Russia that must be eliminated. In practical terms, that means Russia must win its war in Ukraine. Defeat is unacceptable. The Biden administration, on the other hand, has stressed that its goal is not only to decisively defeat Russia in Ukraine, but also to use sanctions to inflict massive damage on the Russian economy. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has emphasized that the West’s goal is to weaken Russia to the point where it could not invade Ukraine again. In effect, the Biden administration is committed to knocking Russia out of the ranks of the great powers. At the same time, President Biden himself has called Russia’s war in Ukraine a “genocide” and charged Putin with being a “war criminal” who should face a “war crimes trial” after the war. Such rhetoric hardly lends itself to negotiating an end to the war. After all, how do you negotiate with a genocidal state? …

Obviously, both sides cannot win. Moreover, there is a serious possibility that one side will begin to lose badly. If American policy succeeds and the Russians are losing to the Ukrainians on the battlefield, Putin might turn to nuclear weapons to rescue the situation. … There is a perverse paradox at play here: the more successful the United States and its allies are at achieving their goals, the more likely it is that the war will turn nuclear. …

Some will say there is a silver lining: relations among countries in the West have markedly improved because of the Ukraine war. That is true for the moment, but there are deep fissures below the surface, and they are bound to reassert themselves over time. For example, relations between the countries of eastern and western Europe are likely to deteriorate as the war drags on, because their interests and perspectives on the conflict are not the same.

Conclusion

Simply put, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is a colossal disaster;…the United States and its allies are mainly responsible for this train wreck. The April 2008 decision to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO was destined to lead to conflict with Russia. The Bush administration was the principal architect of that fateful choice, but the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have doubled down on that policy at every turn and America’s allies have dutifully followed Washington’s lead. Even though Russian leaders made it perfectly clear that bringing Ukraine into NATO would be crossing “the brightest of red lines,” if the United States refused to accommodate Russia’s deepest security concerns and instead moved relentlessly to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border.

The tragic truth is that if the West had not pursued NATO expansion into Ukraine, it is unlikely there would be a war in Ukraine today and Crimea would still be part of Ukraine. In essence, Washington played the central role in leading Ukraine down the path to destruction. History will judge the United States and its allies harshly for their remarkably foolish policy on Ukraine.