Anti-Mearsheimer: Putin's Unjust War and His American Apologists

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
24 April 2022 | 14:44 Code : 2011430 Latest Headlines General category
Anti-Mearsheimer: Putin's Unjust War and His American Apologists

Nearly two months after the onset of Putin's unjust war on Russia's smaller and vulnerable neighbor Ukraine, as the evidence of Russian war crimes pile up in parallel to the on-going deadly military assaults aimed at the full subjugation of Ukraine to the Kremlin's autocratic will, the war has as expected provoked a lively debate among international affairs experts and scholars on the origins, causes, and consequences of this war, which has been aptly compared to an earthquake in the current international system. 

    Indeed, at the theoretical and analytical levels, the battle lines are already drawn, with the pro-West and pro-Ukraine voices pinning the blame on Russia's predatory instincts, Putin's miscalculation of a swift victory, and the rekindling of Soviet era quest for a greater sphere of influence, as a backlash against the West in the post-cold war condominium.  On the contrary, a whole slew of analysts from various 'schools of thought' have presented an alternative narrative that focuses on NATO's unbridled expansionism triggering a growing Russian national insecurity, the West's insensitivity to Russia's security concerns, and a persistent Western effort to destabilize Russia through a proxy war in Ukraine.  Thus, what appears as a blatant offensive aggression on Russia's part is interpreted as a "defensive war" to forestall further NATO's expansion at Russia's doorstep, ultimately justifying Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Chief among the latter is the American political scientist John Mearsheimer, who has received a great deal of public attention since the war began in February by repeatedly claiming that the principal cause of the war is NATO's expansion.  Without any surprise, Mearsheimer's anti-NATO discourse has caught on with many (leftist) pundits around the world including in Latin America, who rail against the US and its European partners for their "NATO imperialism."

    But, the problem with such narratives is that they naively assume, or rather presume, that in the absence of NATO's drive to add Ukraine to its coffer there would be no hot conflict between Russia and Ukraine.  In fact, the tensions between these two countries pre-date the issue of NATO's quest to include Ukraine and pertain to various territorial and ethnic disputes, e.g., Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 contrary to UN norms and international laws, followed by Russia's deliberate provocations in eastern Ukraine to further split the country via two self-declared republics armed by Moscow.  Mearsheimer and other like-minded experts conflate the issues and their NATO-reductionism leads but to one conclusion, that is, the unlikely possibility of inter-state war between Russia and Ukraine when, in fact, the military and political impasse in eastern Ukraine had evolved to the boiling point for some time prior to the February 2022 invasion. 

    This aside, equally questionable on Mearsheimer's part is the near complete oversight of Ukraine's own role in triggering this war, by Kyiv's government's persistent effort to prevent the break-up of Ukraine and to regain sovereignty over the areas in Lubansk and Donetsk.  There are, in other words, multiple causes for the war in Ukraine, and Mearsheimer's inability to account for any save NATO is in the final analysis attributable to the narrow theoretical prism of his "offensive realism" which is obsessed with big power politics and rarely bothers with smaller powers.  As a result of Mearsheimer's mon-causal explanation, not only the non-NATO causes of the war are overlooked or relegated to inconsequential factors, worse the primary blame of Russian government for instigating this war and showing little patience with the diplomatic process, for the sake of a peaceful resolution of the conflict, is also overlooked.  Consequently, while Mearsheimer assigns some blame to Russia and condemns their "brutality," fact is that his NATO-blame theory rationalizes the invasion and is fundamentally incapable of reaching the opposite conclusion that this is an unjust war -- that could have been avoided if Putin had not missed the opportunity for a summit with the US President Biden.  Putin's misperception and arrogance of power, fueling his false expectation of a swift victory, has also played a key role in this conflict, which is ruining Russia's economy just as Putin's army making incremental gains in parts of Ukraine. 

    A word of caution, the above analysis should not be misconstrued as a justification for NATO's expansion and or American opportunism to ensnare Russia in a costly proxy war. Rather, the point is that the existence of a legitimate grievance, i.e. NATO's expansion, does not automatically warrant a writ of legitimacy for Putin's war, which is fundamentally unjust per the application of the standards of just war, e.g., just cause, proportionality, compliance with the rules of war, etc.  To borrow Kant's insight on "overstepping the legitimate," i.e., unlawful, Russia's war on Ukraine is fundamentally illegitimate irrespective of certain legitimate grievances. Indeed, as Professor Noam Chomsky has aptly stated since this war began, we need to avoid a Manichean perspective that assigns blames to one side or another, while realizing that Russia is committing serious war crimes and obliterating the sovereign rights of Ukrainians warranting worldwide condemnation. 

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