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The Causes of the War

The United States's promises led Ukraine down the primrose path; the only way to keep them would be to risk World War III.

What caused the war now ongoing in Ukraine? One supposes that the first answer just about everybody would agree on is that Putin caused the war. Clearly, that has to be the first answer. He started it. He made the decision. His reasons were the decisive ones.

We don’t know now what Putin wants from the war. He has a bundle of objectives that look incoherent and spell big trouble for his campaign. He wants to de-Nazify and demilitarize Ukraine, but not to occupy it. He wants to spare civilians, while launching a war where they live. The overall message—we’re going to win but then get out—will remind Americans of a similar promise in 2003, when George Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s enlarged conception went something like this: First, we’ll sweep them from the field, then the United Nations will come in with a lot of peacekeepers and U.S. forces will be gone by the end of the war. Putin’s war is no more hallucinatory than Bush’s war, maybe even less so, but the mishmash of incoherent objectives spells huge complications for his enterprise, whatever it ultimately turns out to be.

If Putin’s positive objectives are now obscure, that is not true of what might be termed his negative motive, that is, of what he was trying to prevent by going to war. He feared and found intolerable the constitution of Ukraine as an “anti-Russia,” that is, a state and nation whose fundamental purpose was opposition to Russia. That great purpose of the Ukrainian polity took a lot of different forms since 2014, when the seizure of power by “the people”—i.e., 500,000 demonstrators in nation of 45 million people—led to the secession of the eastern provinces and civil war. Support for this blatantly unconstitutional action was truly America’s original sin in the unfolding plot. It cleaved the nation down the middle, foreclosed the possibility of a president marginally acceptable to all sides, then made Ukraine’s grand objective the recovery of its lost territories in the east, at severe cost to its economic development.

This sham exercise in democracy building—gather a mob in the capital and get a new government—was followed by a range of measures considered greatly hostile by the Russians: repeated shelling of the Donbas; the dehydration of the people of Crimea; a language law that Russian speakers found insulting and was condemned in a Council of Europe report; the closure of Russophone and independent media, with eerie parallels to things being done at home; the arrest on charges of treason of Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend of Putin whose party led Zelensky’s in some polls in late 2020; the steady fortification of the Ukrainian army by the United States and NATO—all the things, in short, that drove Putin up the wall.  Westerners have difficulty in assessing the relative significance of these developments because basically all of them were seen in media-land as duplicitous or fraudulent. We were like a judge at a divorce court who went into every proceeding with one deep conviction: “It’s always the man’s fault.”

The negative purpose, what Putin wanted to prevent, is a lot clearer than his positive purpose, the outcome he wishes to achieve. And that is relevant to the assessment of causation. For the bottom line is that the United States, Ukraine, and the West went too far in provoking the Bear. People had warned against provoking the Bear. Indeed, the whole critical chorus against NATO expansion—ignored by blob and swamp alike but enjoying wide sway in publications like The American Conservative and antiwar.com—warned of this danger, saw peril in the plans the hawks had in mind for Ukraine. And they were right. It turned out to be extremely dangerous, not least for the people of Ukraine. The neocons pegged the restrainers as sidling up to Putin, when in fact they were plain-spoken meteorologists describing a force of nature.

This would seem to be a rather damning criticism of U.S. policy. If the rule you followed led you to this, what good was the rule? The rule the United States followed was that Russia was a fundamentally aggressive state, shown in everything it had done in Ukraine and elsewhere. In order to defend the rule that led to the bad outcome, the defenders of U.S. policy are forced to insist that the war was basically inevitable. There was literally nothing to be done. We were dealing with a monster; he did what monsters do.

But let’s rewind the tape and see if a different course of action by the United States would have altered the outcome. The people that brought you the Iraq War in 2003 also had a vision of a new order in the East, so they rejected the solution of the 1990s, which was that Ukraine should stay neutral as between Russia and the West. Obama put NATO admission on the backburner but then allowed Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to run wild on the streets of Kyiv, passing out symbolic commitments by the dozen, grossly interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, and plotting the instigation of a revolution. Again, a choice.

Thereafter, the United States adopted a deeply principled commitment to territorial integrity, forgetting to mention that it was (and is) trampling underfoot the same principle in Syria and had previously gotten practiced in that art in Kosovo and South Sudan. U.S. policy took no account of the rights of linguistic minorities, enshrined in all the relevant human rights treaties. It dismissed as pawns of Putin the Russophile population of Crimea and the Donbas, quite as if the State Department had never heard of the right of national self-determination.

There was never any pushback in Washington to these steps, or rather the pushback was that Washington was not being aggressive enough. The argument against taking a maximalist stance always landed in the same briar patch: “That’s what Putin says. If you acknowledge these grievances you are playing into the Russian narrative. Whence comes your devotion to Putin?” I should like to say, in answer to these scurrilities, that my foreign policy principles come from George Washington and the Federalist, not Vladimir Putin, but we’ll leave that argument for another day.

The defining promise of U.S. policy for over two decades was that a continually expanding NATO would bring stability to Europe and enlarge the “zone of peace.” Having not done that, one would think there would be cause for second thoughts among the advocates. But of course there is none.

The formula the U.S. adopted toward Russia during and after the Maidan Revolution played a big role in bringing on the ensuing catastrophe. The casus belli for Putin was the constitution of Ukraine as an “anti-Russia,” and this was, in fact, the overriding purpose of U.S. policy toward Ukraine in the last eight years. It greatly intensified in 2021 with the arrival of the Biden Administration.

This policy was not absent under the Trump Administration, as the United States kept up far-reaching sanctions and the national security state did its thing in revivifying Ukraine’s army. The Ukraine business, however, greatly annoyed Trump, who had an entirely different Ukraine drama going on in his head, focused on getting to the bottom of the Biden family corruption. Ukraine’s nationalists were no fans of Trump, but they were big fans of Biden. The Zelensky government closed Medvedchuk’s media empire in February as a gift to the incoming administration.

A Trump second term might have warded off the crisis, as Trump saw America as overcommitted in Europe and on that basis would probably have warmed to Putin’s demand to go back to the 1997 bargain between NATO and Russia. Trump couldn’t have embraced this directly, so powerful was Washington’s fixed consensus against his view, but one can see him saying to the Russians: “Look, we can’t go back to the 1997 promises, but we will call a halt to NATO expansion. It doesn’t amount to anything anyway, all pie in the sky. So screw it, sure, let’s call it a 15 or 20 year moratorium and be done with it.”

Instead of Trump’s jaded approach to European issues, we got an evangelical revival of “assertive internationalism” in all its glory: A determination from the incoming Biden administration to make Ukraine a foreign policy priority from day one. A big campaign by Zelensky to take back Crimea and the Donbas. A much more determined push by Ukrainian nationalists to define Ukraine in anti-Russian terms. Recommendations from the Atlantic Council in March to extend an Article 5 guarantee to the territories in Ukraine’s de facto control—in other words, to pledge to go to war if Russia did what it is now doing. The Atlantic Council’s efforts, reinforced by prodigious lobbying by Ukrainian interests, put that option on the table all year, until Biden slammed the door shut on it in December.

There is now tremendous sympathy for the Ukrainians, as justly there should be when the weak are set upon by the strong, but the bitter truth is that we done them wrong. We led them down the primrose path, as John Mearsheimer said we would. What danced in their heads in 2021, when Biden and Blinken came in? It was the glittering prospect that now at last had arrived in Washington an administration that cared about them. Trump didn’t care; Biden and Blinken cared.

The Ukrainians did a lot of things in 2021 calculated to anger Putin, and it is unlikely that they did so with the idea that they were putting themselves out on a limb, alone. The Ukrainian sense of betrayal is somewhat masked today by their need for multidimensional support, but it is real. From the first moments of the catastrophe, it has tied their stomachs into knots. We have done them wrong. We raised their expectations to the sky, then said: sorry, no dice. They walked out on that limb thinking we had their back, but we didn’t and couldn’t, because we could only do so at manifest risk of World War III.

The most accursed and bewildering step was the way that NATO expansion was handled. Was expansion intended to be an implied threat to the Russians? Of course. Would it likely raise the hopes of Ukrainians, who thought it betokened real U.S. military support? Yes, it did that too. But then it turned out to be nothing but a magic trick, of the “now-you-see-it now-you-don’t” variety. The Ukrainians saw the magic and wanted desperately for it to be real. It wasn’t. Had they known, in November 2020, that they faced four more years of Trump, they probably would have taken a less aggressive stance toward Putin.

This was one of many ways in which the march of folly might have been arrested. The war was not inevitable. It did not have to happen. It was produced by a particular ideology or worldview, which gave us the policies to match.

In our inquiry into the causes of the war, we have seen that there was another road, the one less travelled by. Blob and swamp, commentariat and complex, were horrified by the very idea of going there. They took us down the other road. Look where it got us. Look where it got Ukraine.

David Hendrickson is president of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition(Oxford, 2018). His website is davidhendrickson.org.