During a panel discussion in June of 2014 – four months after the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine – Professor John Mearsheimer was asked whether Ukrainians have a right to choose to join the West. His emphatic answer, which provoked laughter from his fellow panellists, was: “No, they don’t.”
This gets to the very heart of the current crisis. Those who deny the West bears any responsibility insist that we must uphold the principle that every state is sovereign and can enter whichever alliances it chooses. Now, this sounds very appealing. But there’s one major problem with it.
The problem is that the US – by far the most important Western country – has blatantly and repeatedly violated this principle over the last five decades. Hence if the West wants to make any kind of normative argument against Russia’s aggression, it has to explain why it doesn’t hold itself to the same standards.
This point was made eloquently by Robert Wright in a recent essay titled ‘In Defense of Whataboutism’. As he notes:
Exercises in whataboutism force people to mount what Singer calls “a disinterested defense of one’s conduct.” They have to articulate a general rule—or a general exception to a general rule—that applies to everyone in comparable circumstances.
Since there’s no “general rule” under which America’s foreign policy would be justified but Russia’s foreign policy would not be, the West cannot mount a “disinterested defence” of its conduct. (I suppose certain countries like Iceland might be able to, but the US – the only one that really matters – certainly can’t.)
So the West doesn’t actually uphold the principle that every state is sovereign and can enter whichever alliances it chooses. Once this is established, the question arises, ‘Is Ukraine one of those states that can’t enter whichever alliances it chooses?’
Well, the policy it did adopt was to ignore Russia’s ultimatum, and actively support the movement that overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian government in 2014. This instantly led to Putin annexing Crimea, and the outbreak of the war in Donbass. Is there anything it could have done instead?
Yes, it could have adopted the policy John Mearsheimer put forward, which is based on accepting that Ukraine is one of those states that can’t enter whichever alliances it chooses.
His proposal comprised three main elements: ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine; funding an economic rescue plan, together with Russia and the IMF; and insisting that Ukraine respect minority rights, especially minority language rights. (Note: these were abolished by the country’s Constitutional Court in 2018.)
Now, it’s possible that Mearsheimer’s policy would simply not have worked – that even if it had been followed, we’d still be where we are today. However, the policy seems far more sensible, and far more likely to work, than the one Western leaders decided to pursue instead.
As he noted prohphetically in 2015, “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”