In his 2014 article ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’, John Mearsheimer said the U.S. should “publicly rule out” NATO membership for Ukraine, and aim to make the country an economically prosperous, “neutral buffer” between Russia and NATO. This, he argued, could defuse the conflict that had already sparked clashes in the Donbas.
Instead of heeding Mearsheimer’s advice, the U.S. doubled-down on its policy of ignoring Russia’s security demands. NATO troops began military exercises in Ukraine in September of 2014. By June of 2020, Ukraine was recognised by NATO as an “Enhanced Opportunities Partner”.
And in November of 2021, the U.S. and Ukraine signed a “Charter on Strategic Partnership”, which declared that the U.S. “supports Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO”.
The supposed reason the U.S. followed this policy is given in the quotation above: it cares about the principle of national sovereignty. Ukraine’s post-Maidan government aspired to join NATO, and Russia shouldn’t get a veto over this. Whether Ukraine eventually joins NATO is a matter for Ukraine and NATO.
I say “supposed” because there’s a more cynical reason why the U.S. followed the policy it did: to antagonize Russia, with the aim of “overextending and unbalancing” the Russian economy and armed forces.
In any case, America’s supposed concerns about the principle of national sovereignty were outlined even more clearly in a speech Biden gave on 15th February, shortly before Russia’s invasion. He declared:
Nations have a right to sovereignty and territorial integrity. They have the freedom to set their own course and choose with whom they will associate.
Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? The only problem is the U.S. flagrantly ignores this principle in its own foreign policy. The most recent example concerns the new security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands. Here’s what the White House had to say:
If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.
In other words, the U.S. objects to China building military bases close to its ally, Australia, and if China does so, the U.S. will “respond accordingly”. Now, the US probably wouldn’t invade the Solomon Islands to prevent China building a military base there, but it might impose crushing sanctions with the aim of destroying the Solomon Islands’ economy.
Such sanctions would obviously constitute a gross violation of the Solomon Islands’ freedom to “set their own course and choose with whom they will associate”.
Scott Morrison, the Australian PM, even announced that a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands was a “red line” for Australia and the U.S. This is interesting because it’s exactly the same phrase William Burns used in 2008 when warning of Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion. Here’s what Burns said:
Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.
So America’s foreign policy is basically: do as I say, not as I do… and if you don’t do as I say, I will “respond accordingly”. What’s the upshot of all this?
It’s not that Russia should just be able to invade its neighbours with impunity. It’s that if the US had applied the same principles to Russia that it applies to itself (and its allies), we might have been able to prevent the war in Ukraine.
The West cannot claim that Australia’s concerns about Chinese military bases are entirely legitimate but Russia’s concerns about NATO bases are entirely illegitimate. I mean, it can, but not by appealing to any general principle. “Might makes right” is fine when you’re the global hegemon, but it’s not going to fly when China’s just as powerful as the U.S.
Following the policy outlined by John Mearsheimer may not have prevented the conflict. (Perhaps Russia would have invaded anyway – we can’t be sure.) But doing the exact opposite surely made the conflict more likely.