Is the West to Blame for Russia's Invasion? (no)

if you search the word Ukraine on YouTube the second most viewed video is a speech by john mirzheimer at the university of Chicago titled why is Ukraine the west's fault at the time of writing mizheimer's speech has been viewed an astonishing 8 million times which is especially impressive given that it's 75 minutes and pretty academic and it's only second in popularity to Ukraine's 2021 Eurovision entry while mirzheimer's opinion isn't mainstream it's clearly not a fringe opinion either politicians of all stripes have recently taken to twitter to blame Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Nato expansion and given this opinion has gained some traction and is in itself pretty interesting we thought it'd be worth doing a blog on so we're gonna split this blog into two parts pre-Crimea and post-Crimea for this we're actually going to use mirzheimer's article rather than his speech focusing on a 13-page article on the topic in foreign affairs in the second part of the blog we're gonna argue that while there's space for debate about the appropriate division of blame pre-Crimea post-Crimea Putin only has himself to blame so let's get into the first part of the blog the Ukraine crisis pre-Crimea as we said most of this blog is going to deal with mis Heimer's article which was published in October 2014 and therefore mostly deals with the pre-Crimea tensions as we read him mizheimer makes three claims in his article one the west made a mistake in not heeding putin's warnings two that putin's security concerns are legitimate or at least more legitimate than the west imagines and three that the west's Ukraine policy is in no one's interest let's start with that first claim mizheimer claims that the west has made a mistake in ignoring putin's demands vis-a-vis Ukraine despite protestations from Moscow, the west went ahead with westernizing Ukraine via Nato expansion EU expansion in the form of the eastern partnership and investment in civic institutions now there is some truth to this clearly the west didn't take putin's threat sufficiently seriously and in retrospect Europe's energy dependence on Russia looks a bit naive nonetheless the west might argue that it's not so much they didn't hear putin's demands but they considered them illegitimate Putin was asking for a veto over Ukraine's foreign policy and the west just weren't willing to accept this which leads us nicely onto Merze Heimer's second argument that Russia's security concerns were legitimate Merce Heimer motivates this claim with three subclaims firstly he argues that Ukraine has historically acted as a necessary buffer between the Napoleonic France imperial Germany and Nazi Germany and so it's unsurprising that Putin wants to avoid it becoming quote western second merzheimer argues that America has similar security interests it's hard to imagine the us for example tolerating Canada or Mexico joining a China-led military alliance third merzheimer argues that this is just real politic states will just defend their security interests even if it means violating the west's so-called liberal principles and we shouldn't see that as illegitimate that's just what states do Mearsheimer's argument here isn't watertight though let's start with his first claim about Ukraine's historical military importance for starters the history is a bit questionable napoleon actually crossed today's Belarus not Ukraine but more importantly how is the history of Ukraine actually relevant to putin's security concerns south America is of great historical importance to Spain but so what lots of countries share military histories this doesn't mean that they get to have a say in one another's foreign policy Mearsheimer's second claim is more interesting though that the us behaves in a similar way this is pretty much undeniably true the us wouldn't accept Mexico joining a China-led military alliance and in 1962 Kennedy resisted the soviet deployment of icbms in Cuba mizheimer notes another instance of western hypocrisy in the west support for the 2014 maidan uprising which to be fair did essentially amount to a coup against a democratically elected president this sort of reasoning it's alright because the west did it first is very popular among Russia contrarians but it's just bad reasoning just because the west did it first doesn't mean that it's right instead it might just be that it wasn't right in either case it's not all right that Russia thinks it can veto Ukraine's foreign policy and it's not all right that America thinks it can hypothetically veto Canada's foreign policy essentially mizheimer's argument here only works if we accept the implicit premise that the west is perfect and well most people just don't believe this mis Heimer's third claim that this is just what states do and we should accept it is only plausible from a realist perspective liberals would instead argue that we should expect states to abide by rules-based order and a failure to do so incurs blame essentially the plausibility of mirzheim's appeal to realism will depend on whether you fall on the realist liberal axis but you get the point there's definitely space for debate as to whether Russia's security demands were legitimate but mizheimer ends his essay by arguing that either way the west should change its course because its policy of westernizing Ukraine is in no one's interest mizheimer argues that the policy is creating an unnecessary divide between Russia and the west it which is in neither of their interests as well as claiming that encouraging Ukraine to resist Russia is a bad idea from Ukraine's perspective because at the end of the day according to him the west won't protect Ukraine instead mizheimer recommends that Ukraine should become quote a neutral buffer akin to Austria in the cold war now in retrospect mizheimer was clearly onto something Russia and the west really weren't getting on with one another to mutual detriment and as predicted Ukraine iscurrently fighting a war against Russia without direct Nato support but putin's recent behavior makes it questionable as to whether Ukraine could really have ever existed as a neutral buffer mizheimer argues that Putin isn't motivated by soviet-inspired neo-imperialism and so will accept a neutral Ukraine putin's recent speeches and behaviour certainly suggests otherwise essentially while mirzheim's argument looks prescient it's an open question as to whether Putin would have accepted Ukraine as even a neutral buffer so that's pre-Crimea arguably there is a debate to be had about the legitimacy of putin's security concerns and the prudence of the west's Ukraine policy but post-Crimea Putin doesn't have a leg to stand on for starters even if you think that putin's security concerns were legitimate his illegal annexation of Crimea was arguably disproportionate and definitely stupid this is an important point legitimate concerns don't justify a disproportionate response if your brother kicks you in the shins you're not justified in shooting him in the face while there were mitigating circumstances polls consistently found that the majority of Crimeans wanted to return to Russia for example the annexation of Crimea was a flagrant violation of international law and arguably disproportionate but perhaps most importantly it was just stupid in annexing Crimea Putin accelerated the westernization of Ukraine the precise thing he didn't want to happen this was for two reasons firstly and most obviously their annexation made Ukrainians wary of Russia because well no one likes having their country invaded and annexed pre-Crimea polls consistently found that less than 25 percent of people wanted Ukraine to join  Nato after Crimea that jumped to 50 but secondly, Putin changed Ukraine's electoral arithmetic Crimea accounted for five percent of  Ukraine's population and reliably voted for pro-Russian candidates by annexing Crimea Putin gave the pro-western candidates a new electoral edge you get the point then we can argue over whether putin's annexation of Crimea was disproportionate but more importantly, it was just really stupid it made the further westernization of Ukraine which has been happening since 2014 utterly inevitable and given this putin's argument that the west has left him with no other choice is farcical putin's concerns post-Crimea are almost entirely self-inflicted and his subsequent war with Ukraine is terrifyingly disproportionate and morally appalling this might sound biased or anti-Russian but there's literally, no plausible moral theory that wouldn't consider putin's war utterly awful.