What Should Ukraine and the West Have Done?

There are two broad camps in the debate over why Russia invaded Ukraine. Call them the ‘Mearsheimer camp’ and the ‘non-Mearsheimer camp’.

Those in the ‘Mearsheimer camp’, notably John Mearsheimer himself, believe the primary motivation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was opposition to the actions of Ukraine’s post-Maidan Government as regards NATO membership and the treatment of ethnically Russian Ukrainians.

By contrast, those in the ‘non-Mearsheimer camp’ believe the primary motivation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was revanchism/imperialism on the part of Vladimir Putin. If I understand them correctly, they believe Putin would have invaded Ukraine sooner or later, even if we’d listened to the ‘Mearsheimer camp’.

Now, the ‘Mearsheimer camp’ has a straightforward plan for what Ukraine and the West should have done to avoid the present crisis. It goes something like this: Ukraine becomes a neutral state, recognises Crimea and the two breakaway republics in the East, and promises to respect the rights of ethnically Russian Ukrainians.

Of course, we can’t be sure that this plan would have worked. It’s entirely possible that even if Ukraine had done everything mentioned above, Russia still would have launched an invasion. (Note: I’m using “Ukraine” as a shorthand for “Ukraine and the West”.)

However, there’s one thing we can be sure of: Ukraine didn’t do those things, and Russia did launch an invasion. What we know, in other words, is that the Ukraine’s actual policy did not forestall Russian aggression.  

Which raises the question: What do people in the ‘non-Mearsheimer camp’ believe Ukraine should have done instead? Even if we blame Russia entirely, an invasion cannot be considered a good outcome for Ukraine, so it’s surely worth asking how it could have been avoided.

From what I’ve seen, those in the ‘non-Mearsheimer camp’ spend a lot of time talking about how awful Putin is, but don’t seem to spend much time talking about what Ukraine should have done, given how awful he is. (Note: I’m not saying they’re wrong about Putin. Exactly how awful Putin is isn’t my main concern.)

Perhaps they would say that Ukraine should have asked for even more military aid in the years since 2014, knowing that an invasion was coming soon. Of course, if they’re right about Putin’s intentions, this might have spurred him to invade even sooner.

Or perhaps they would say there’s nothing Ukraine could have done to avoid a Russian invasion (short of allowing Russia to annex the entire country). To be clear: this would mean that every other possible outcome would have been as bad or worse than the current one, which seems difficult to believe.

But maybe they’re right. However, to justify not at least trying the plan favoured by the ‘Mearsheimer camp’ then requires an extremely strong argument. They have to explain why implementing that plan would have had worse consequences than Russian artillery fire raining down on Ukrainian cities and refugees fleeing the country en masse.

Until someone in the ‘non-Mearsheimer camp’ explains what Ukraine and the West should have done after 2014, or why the plan favoured by the ‘Mearsheimer camp’ wasn’t even worth trying, I’ll remain sceptical of their position.

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November 2022
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